I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Ayako Imamura, 2020)

“I thought we could understand each other because we’re both minorities, but that was wrong”, director Ayako Imamura admits in her revealing, self-reflective documentary I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Tomodachi Yameta) in which she contemplates her sometimes awkward relationship with a friend who has Asperger’s and struggles with communication. Imamura herself was born deaf and so also faces daily communication barriers living in a hearing society but often has difficulty understanding Ma-chan’s sense of anxiety and social rejection becoming increasingly irritated by seemingly trivial examples of what she sees as rudeness or lack of consideration. 

Ayako apparently met Ma-chan a few months before the film began at a screening of her previous film, Start Line, which charted her journey across Japan by bicycle. Ma-chan had become involved with social welfare issues in university, making friends with deaf students and learning sign language. At the event, Ma-chan was supposed to be her interpreter, but as the screening began ahead of schedule she arrived after it started and simply sat in the front row of the audience not knowing what else to do. This seems to have irritated Ayako, put off by her supposed bad attitude. 

It is then a minor irony that part of Ayako’s growing resentment stems from something she did not even notice directly in that Ma-chan never says “itadakimasu” as is customary and polite before eating. Ayako’s grandmother pointed this out to her, taking against Ma-chan thinking her rude or ungrateful while Ayako herself who obviously couldn’t hear if she said it or not tried to defend her if superficially on the grounds of her disability. Later Ma-chan explains that she believes not saying itadakimasu is not (directly) related to her neurodivergence but simply because her family did not say it and so she never learned the habit, while Ayako gradually realises that she has perhaps become fixated on “Asperger’s” to the extent that she stopped seeing Ma-chan as person rather than an embodiment of her “condition”. 

She had perhaps assumed that as two people who experience similar problems with communication they would be on the same wavelength, but finds it increasingly difficult to accept Ma-chan’s atypical behaviour, perhaps irrationally upset by the itadakimasu issue while otherwise put out by her tendency to eat other people’s snacks without asking and smack her on the back of the head when she’s done something silly. For her part, Ma-chan reveals she prefers using sign language because there’s less need for superficial politeness and therefore less chance of causing offence. Ayako consciously affects tolerance, wary of turning into one of those people who ask a deaf person if they haven’t just tried listening harder in railroading Ma-chan into neurotypical behaviour patterns but eventually decides to end their friendship explaining that she’s “done with trying to act like a nice person”. 

While Ayako only obliquely addresses some of the problems she faces in the hearing world, using a relay system to book tickets over the phone for example, she is surprised to realise that Ma-chan has similar problems, too anxious to order food in a restaurant for example and reluctant to use the telephone even if not physically incapable. We’re told that Ma-chan also suffers from depression and see her expressing suicidal thoughts in despair of being constantly told that she needs to change in order to adapt to neurotypical society and knowing that she can’t. What occurs between the two women is perhaps an ironic kind of miscommunication informed by a degree of culturally specific rigidity in which rudeness deliberate or otherwise is an unforgivable sin. 

Despite having elected to end their friendship, Ayako eventually changes her mind and decides to try again, more directly, with a little mutual understanding each stating bluntly what behaviour they find puzzling or hurtful and attempting to explain why it occurs, drawing up something like a set of ground rules and boundaries for their relationship. Attending a meeting in Tokyo in which disabled activists express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community following a politician’s crass remark that “unproductive” (ie those who do not contribute to solving the declining birthrate problem) people do not deserve social support, both women are forced to reconsider their views on and as minorities addressing some uncomfortable thoughts they too may have had about their place in society and that of others. Nevertheless, in the end they each resolve to struggle against any unconscious prejudice they may have, actively striving to forge a friendship based on mutual understanding and brokered by resolute honesty rather than allow pettiness and resentment to drive them apart. 


I Quit, Being “Friends” streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

A quiet suburb of Tokyo, Kamata is in someways the birthplace of modern Japanese cinema home to Shochiku’s prewar studio where the “Kamata Style” which aimed to introduce a note of cheerful naturalism to an artform defined by shinpa gloominess was forged. Produced by actress Urara Matsubayashi who hails from the area and stars in three of the four segments, omnibus movie Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Kamata Zensokyoku) asks some tough questions about what it means to be a woman and an actress today in the contemporary capital as the heroine, “Machiko Kamata”, contends with various demands from the economic to the emotional. 

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, the first segment finds Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) introducing herself as she takes part in a strange audition dressed in an inappropriately short cosplay-style nurse’s outfit. After the audition is over, her agent tells her to say “hi” to the director, a theme which will recur in the third chapter as Machiko finds herself feeling uncomfortable, forced to ingratiate herself in order to get ahead. Annoyed after the eccentric director asks her out for dinner, she can’t help asking him why she has to wear the suspiciously skimpy nurse’s outfit provoking him into a worryingly violent outburst. At home, meanwhile, her world is rocked by her younger brother’s revelation that he’s got a girlfriend who is, ironically, a nurse at local hospital. Jealous and resentful, Machiko can’t warm to Setsuko (Kotone Furukawa) who seems improbably sweet and innocent, almost as if she came from another time (the mid-August dating and ornaments for the Bon festival might clue us in as to why). Spending a day bonding with her, however, the two women generate a kind of sisterhood which pushes Machiko into a realisation of the emptiness she feels in her life of constant struggle as an aspiring actress supporting herself mainly with her part-time job at a ramen bar. 

The themes of alienation and insecurity are only depend in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, in which Machiko reunites with a group of high school friends who are each less than honest about the state of their lives and their unfulfilled desires. Machiko gives the impression that she’s just been in a major movie with a big star, but it turns out she only played a corpse while the rest of the group are scandalised by the bombshell that their friend Marippe (Mayuko Fukuda) has got engaged to a guy from work she’s been seeing secretly for only six months. Besides being somewhat hurt not to have known she was seeing someone, the gang have different reactions to the news with hard-nosed career woman Hana (Sairi Ito) put out by Marippe’s traditional view of conventional gender roles in which she intends to let her career slide to concentrate on being a wife. A trip to a hot spring (the same hot spring seen advertised on Machiko’s T-shirt in part one) brings things to a head with a possibly cheating boyfriend eventually offering the excuse that he is merely a hot spring enthusiast sharing his hobby with a friend of the opposite sex rather than a two-bit louse indulging in the patriarchal double standard. 

Patriarchal double standards are out in force in part three, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, in which Machiko attends another odd audition where she and the other auditionees are asked to outline an episode of sexual harassment they have personally experienced. In fact, we have already seen her be inappropriately propositioned by a middle-aged producer who ran out on her in a coffee shop after she turned him down leaving her with the bill, but the episode she recounts is darker still. As she feared they might, the men in the room quickly figure out who she might have been talking about but proceed to put the blame on her implying that she sleeps around to get ahead and was only offended by the producer’s actions because he wasn’t powerful enough to be useful. It’s another woman however, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), who kicks things into gear by relating that she was assaulted by a man in a club whom she later reveals to have been the director himself only he doesn’t remember her. The director brings both women back and makes them re-enact Machiko’s tale of being inappropriately propositioned in a producer’s office, increasingly exasperated that the situation seems “too scary” as if he’s entirely missed the point of his own exercise or is actively getting off on the actress’ discomfort. The male cameraman (Ryutaro Ninomiya) is the one who eventually points out that the audition itself has descended into a protracted act of sexual harassment, seemingly conducted solely for the entertainment of the director and his assistant. 

Largely disconnected from the other three chapters, the fourth does not feature Urara Matsubayashi and is in fact set not in Kamata but in director Hirobumi Watanabe’s familiar Tochigi. The opening of his segment, characteristically filmed with static camera and in black and white, finds him once again playing a version of himself ranting about not knowing what to do with this unusual project he has taken on for the money even though he doesn’t generally make shorts, has never done an omnibus movie before, and remains suspicious of the concept. He relates all of this to his 10-year-old niece Riko (star of I’m Really Good), who says absolutely nothing while he continues to treat her as if she were the most famous actress in Japan. Somewhat poignantly, a photograph of Watanabe’s late grandmother sits on a stool off to the side, implying perhaps that little Riko has in some senses taken over her role as silent observer. The main thrust of the action follows Watanabe as he attempts to film a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion with local non-actors, but is finally linked back to the omnibus by Riko’s cheerful letter to Machiko in which she states that she wants to become an actress just like her. Ending on such an upbeat moment seems to imbue a sense of hope for the future that was perhaps previously absent, implying that the hopes and dreams of a little girl at least are worth fighting for if only to live up to her sense of expectation for the magic of the movies. 


Kamata Prelude streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nosari: Impermanent Eternity (のさりの島, Tatsuya Yamamoto, 2020)

“This is an illusion” a boatman explains to a lost young man “but sometimes people need it”. Produced by the Kyoto University of the Arts Department of Film Production, Tatsuya Yamamoto’s Nosari: Impermanent Eternity (のさりの島, Nosari no Shima) is the latest in a minor trend of indie dramas which see meandering young men find their feet while hiding out in moribund communities where the people are kind, honest, and willing to lend them space in which to figure themselves out enough to get back on the right path. 

This particular young man (Kisetsu Fujiwara) is an “ore ore” scammer, a popular form of telephone fraud in which the caller rings an elderly person and claims to be their grandson explaining in a panic that they’re in trouble and need money right away. The elderly person on the other end of the phone usually complies, either too estranged to realise that it isn’t their grandson’s voice or too anxious to give it much thought. On this particular occasion, however, the woman that the man rings after arriving on the small island of Amakusa appears not to understand, believing that he really is her grandson, Shota, suddenly arrived for a visit. The young man ends up going along with it, warming to the old woman, Tsuyako (Chisako Hara), and more or less forced to stay after she hides his phone and wallet (which contains money he’d already stolen from the honesty box in her music store). 

In some senses, “Shota’s” previous life as a cruel exploiter of the elderly is painted as a symptom of urban disconnection, that his alienated city life has robbed him both of empathy and basic morality though we know nothing of his wider circumstances save that he seems to be on the run from a series of similar crimes along the rail line out from Tokyo. It’s never exactly clear how much Tsuyako knows at any one time, though the movement of a photograph in the closing moments makes plain that she does indeed on some level realise that the man isn’t Shota no matter how much she’d like him to be. As the opening title card explained, the local people have a habit of simply accepting whatever it is that comes their way which is perhaps what Tsuyako decides to do with Shota, realising that he’s in trouble and wanting to help him by taking him into her home which does at least restore his sense of empathy for the elderly. 

The truth is however that Tsuyako is one of many elderly people left behind in a rapidly depopulating rural Japan, her son having moved away to the city and her husband presumably already passed away. Hers is the only shop still open in an eerily empty shopping arcade where she sits on a small stool waiting for customers that presumably rarely come, leaving an honesty box on the counter should she need to nip away. A parallel plot strand finds the host of a local radio programme, Kiyora (Ami Sugihara), desperately trying to find footage from back when the area was filled with life and industry but more or less coming up short. On her travels, she interviews an old man (Akira Emoto) who was once a master craftsman of noh masks but has recently turned to making lifelike scarecrows whose eerie presence attempts to make up for the sense of absence in the moribund town where, he points out, the elderly residents once played together as children. 

Kiyora also meets with a series of businessmen who have their own ideas about how to reinvigorate the town but comes up with few solutions to Japan’s ongoing rural depopulation crisis and is perhaps herself also lonely as one of the few youngsters remaining behind. She loves Amakusa for its serenity, often playing the calming soundscape on air for harried Tokyoites trapped on their cramped commuter trains but for her friend Yukari (Manami Nakata) country life seems stifling. She realises that those from the city long for the connection and kindness of the countryside, but she can’t stand the seasonal rhythm of rural life or the feeling of being under constant watch, peer pressured into dull activities she might not have much interest in solely to keep up appearances. 

For Shota, however, country connection seems to be exactly what he needed. “I don’t know what’s real and what’s false” he later complains, perhaps too invested in his temporary existence as Shota to fully appreciate the contradictions of his life. Gently cared for by Tsuyako he begins to realise that the world can also be kind, touched by her generosity as she tells him that on occasion there is more money in her honesty box than there should be but even if there were less it would be alright it just means that someone was in need. Arguing that something has been lost in the fracturing of communities, Nosari longs for a return to a more innocent, connected time in which people knew and supported each other, something of which seems to return in the busier Amakusa streets even if Kiyora finds herself suddenly surrounded by scarecrows in the loneliness of the empty arcade, striking up a friendship with a bashful harmonica player who later finds her way to Tsuyako’s store. For Shota, however, Amakusa has perhaps given him a better sense of himself, ready to head back out into the world with kindness and empathy in place of hardened cynicism. 


Nosari: Impermanent Eternity streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Company Retreat (ある職場, Atsushi Funahashi, 2020)

“You can’t be suspicious of your team” an older woman insists, trying to defuse a rapidly devolving situation of mistrust among co-workers away on a “Company Retreat” ostensibly to cheer up a female employee who has recently become the centre of an online storm after her name and photos were leaked in relation to a report of sexual harassment at a prominent hotel chain. Inspired by true events, director Atsushi Funahashi originally planned to make a documentary exploring the fallout from an accusation of sexual harassment but discovered that few were willing to put themselves on camera opting instead to craft a docudrama in part improvised by his cast of actors. 

Shot documentary style and in black and white save one colour flashback, the action is split between two distinct company getaways four months apart taking place at a coastal town the first in the winter and the second in spring. Saki (Saki Hirai), a young female employee, made an accusation of sexual harassment against her male middle-aged boss, Kumanaka (Makoto Hada), and has been receiving constant online abuse after being outed by an unknown figure for unknown reasons. While her colleagues are largely supportive, they may also be harbouring an unspoken resentment that her decision to speak up has indirectly endangered their jobs as the company continues to suffer a loss of reputation with the public. When another of the employees reveals that he’s tracked the IP address of a persistent troll and discovered they’ve been posting from nearby it invites the suspicion that one of her friends is behind the online hate campaign possibly at the behest of the hotel chain keen to blacken her name and reputation in order to safeguard their own. 

The sexual harassment accusation exposes the gulf between what people say and what they really feel with some of the other employees eventually losing their cool and taking their frustrations out on Saki, partly for spoiling the holiday with her gloominess but also for her tendency to isolate herself from the group now viewing each of them as a potential enemy. She later accuses Noda (Yoshio Taguchi), a placid company man she feels may have chosen to sacrifice her in order to save the company’s reputation and with it his own job. Noda is upset to realise Saki sees him as a heartless corporate drone but later claims to have forgiven her. At the second retreat, however, he begins to voice quite a different opinion, exposing a deeply held set of patriarchal values in playing devil’s advocate wondering if it wasn’t all a misunderstanding and the boss, who has been demoted and transferred but not fired, has had his life “ruined” over something that wasn’t “that big of a deal”. He says this, in part, because his new girlfriend who also happens to be an employee has advised him that he is inappropriately touchy feely in the office and has little understanding of boundaries or personal space. Noda doesn’t see a distinction in the way he interacts with men and women and feels that’s just how he is, laying the blame on the other party if they ever felt uncomfortable while tacitly sympathising with another man who he believes may have had no “bad intentions” and is simply the victim of a “misunderstanding”. 

Perhaps paradoxically, he also blames Saki for her complicity that she may have smiled or laughed and said it was fine on previous occasions giving the boss the green light to think there was nothing inappropriate in his behaviour. In this she finds herself agreeing, that is perhaps the way it works in the workplace. Another older woman in a senior position advises her to transfer to another department, eventually explaining she thinks that might be easier seeing as the bosses are all men unlikely to be sympathetic. Ushihara (Mikoto Yoshikawa) is not unsympathetic herself, but is also willingly complicit, among the contingent of older career women who feel that sexual harassment is something you just have to put up with while simultaneously claiming that nothing will change until there are more women in a position of power. Attempting to take her side, Kinoshita (Megumi Ito), a divorced senior employee, tells Saki to do the “right thing” and refuse the transfer but is shot down by Noda who exposes even more misogyny when he tells her that her “emotional” and “righteous” tone is “unattractive”, insisting that she needs to “win the respect of men” in order for her arguments have weight. 

For some, however, and particularly the younger men this sort of hypocrisy becomes too much to bear. A company is supposed to be a family, but no one trusts anyone. Several employees from the original retreat resign after a decision is taken to try ringing the troll to prove they aren’t among the group unable to bear the sense of mistrust and suspicion from their close friends and teammates. Another employee, Taku (Taku Tsujii), brings his boyfriend to the first retreat though closeted at work losing confidence to come out to his colleagues in case they reject him and worst case scenario it costs him his job. Eventually he makes the decision to explain, realising he’s placed his boyfriend in a difficult position, and is relieved to discover he is immediately accepted by all, but continues to sympathise with Saki knowing how devastating it can be to be outed while also irritated by her tendency to reject them while they are only trying to help her. Meanwhile, another awkward young man struggles to confess his crush on the increasingly paranoid young woman, overly invested in a patriarchal ideal of masculinity that women are in need of male protectors mistakenly believing that Saki will be impressed by his attempt to safeguard her which ironically becomes a secondary act of harassment even as he, like Kinoshita, attempts to convince her to rebel against her complicity with a relentlessly rigged, conformist and conservative social order. 

The conclusion that she comes to, however, is that she has to “survive in this world” rather than striving for a better one. She has been unfairly demonised as if the real problem is her speaking up rather than her boss’ inappropriate behaviour and is understandably weary with fighting a battle she doesn’t understand, willing to accept a level of complicity in order to end the hate and suspicion. Kinoshita fears she will never see a “safe workplace” while others relentlessly “try to make society work for them” rather than for everyone. A bleak picture of contemporary society ruled by oppressive social pressure and aggressively patriarchal norms, Funahashi’s empathetic drama offers no real answers but advocates for the right to say no in a society where dissent is an untouchable taboo. 


Company Retreat (ある職場, Aru Shokuba) streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら, Junta Yamaguchi, 2020)

If you had the opportunity to talk to your future or past self, what would you want to say to them? There are many advantages to having some knowledge of things still to come, finding out next week’s winning lottery numbers for example or who’s going to win the Grand National, but on the other hand mightn’t you start to feel as if your life has no freedom or purpose if you find yourself compelled to do exactly as your future self advised? That’s something the future-hating hero of Junta Yamaguchi’s farcical time travel comedy Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら, Droste no Hate de Bokura) can’t help feeling as he finds himself trapped in an infinite loop of communication with the him from two minutes previously. 

Granted, getting knowledge of what’s going to happen in two minutes is not actually that useful. Cafe assistant Aya (Riko Fujitani) makes a point of asking her future self what the next era is going to be after Reiwa ends forgetting that it is almost certainly still Reiwa in two minutes’ time. Then again, it could help with very short term decisions such as whether or not to confess your feelings to a crush or which spots to scratch on your scratch card to win the best prizes, but maybe knowing only the immediate consequences of your actions isn’t very helpful either. Let’s say your future self finds a bunch of money and tells you to go get it, only the money belonged to gangsters and now you have a big problem with a two-minute head start. And then, can you really trust your future self? Maybe they aren’t being completely honest with you for reasons you may well understand in two minutes’ time. In any case, maybe you have better things to do than be struck in an infinite dialogue loop parroting back what you’ve just been told by your future self to your past self. Maybe you should learn to live in the moment. 

That’s something cafe owner Kato (Kazunari Tosa) has had trouble doing, later confessing that he hates the idea of knowing what lies ahead largely because he over invested in conspiracy theories and prophesies about the end of the world and therefore failed to plan very much for his future. His friends, however, are childishly excited by the discovery that his upstairs TV is linked to the downstairs with a two-minute delay, realising they can extend its range through the “Droste” effect to send themselves messages from further into the future, but then again how long do they really want to keep all this up slavishly reenacting the same conversations afraid of deviating from the original path lest they create a time paradox or provoke some other kind of disaster. They find themselves trapped in the middle as if the present no longer existed and had become merely a conduit between an extremely near future and very recent past. 

Yamaguchi captures their farcical dilemma with an ironic immediacy, filming with an elaborate one shot conceit that adds to the sense of wonder as the gang find themselves continually running upstairs and down to talk to themselves from either side of the time divide. The uncanny absurdity is the film’s greatest asset, placing this extremely bizarre scientific anomaly in the centre of an ordinary hipster cafe run by a guy who really wants to be a musician and is too shy to ask out the girl who works in the hairdresser’s next-door (Aki Asakura). By the time a pair of strange-looking gentlemen turn up claiming to be from the time travel police insisting that the guys stop all this nonsense before they cause a serious problem in the space time continuum you might come to sympathise with Kato’s resentment in feeling as if the future is controlling him but then there are always unexpected ways to rebel against fate and who knows, maybe your romantic destiny will work out after all with a little old-fashioned conversation only tangentially assisted by sci-fi hijinks. A charmingly whimsical take on time travel shenanigans and their existential dilemmas, Yamaguchi’s meticulously plotted farce is an indie gem.  


Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ainu Mosir (アイヌモシㇼ, Takeshi Fukunaga, 2020)

Despite its continuing preoccupation with the conflict between tradition and modernity, Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to address the nation’s relationship with marginalised communities such as the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido which was in essence the site of Japan’s first colonial expansion at the beginning of the Meiji era. Set very much in the present day, Takeshi Fukunaga’s Ainu Mosir (アイヌモシㇼ) takes its title from the indigenous name for the island and is both coming-of-age tale and exploration of the position of the Ainu people within the context of modern Japan. 

14-year-old Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) lives in the quaint Ainu tourist village of Akan and has not long lost his father. Questioned about his plans for the next stage of his education, Kanto replies that he’s fine with anything as long as it involves leaving Akan, later explaining to his understandably upset mother Emi (Emi Shimokura) that his desire to leave is because the town is “tiny” and “they make you do Ainu stuff”. Emi points out that neither she nor anyone else has ever forced him to participate in Ainu culture, but still the boy insists that he’d prefer to go somewhere more “normal” spending his time playing classic American rock on an electric guitar rather than engaging with his cultural roots. His attitude begins to change, however, when Debo (Debo Akibe), an elder acting as an uncle, begins introducing him to various aspects of Ainu culture such as the remote cave in the Forest of Light which leads to the land of the dead, teaching him how to catch and gut fish, and finally enlisting him in a project to look after a captive bear, Chibi, hidden in a cage in the woods. 

Bears are sacred in Ainu culture, but what Debo has not explained to the boy is that he’s raising Chibi as part of an ancient ritual last performed over forty years previously which involves sacrificing the bear in the belief that his spirit will then return to the land of the gods filled with tales of how wonderful humans are after being so lovingly looked after during his time in the mortal world. In a series of documentary-style sequences, Fukunaga captures the ambivalence present within the community on learning of Debo’s plan to carry out an Iomante ritual, pointing out that they live in different times and bear sacrifice is unlikely to be accepted by the outside world which will undoubtedly view it as primitive and cruel. Aside from a concern as to how the indigenous community is viewed by mainstream society, some of the council are acutely worried because they are economically dependent on the tourist trade. Young Kanto is frustrated by the idea of growing up in a museum, the town of Akan something like a theme park repackaging Ainu culture for curious Japanese tourists. His own mother works in a shop selling traditional crafts as souvenirs while appearing in a stage show adapting ancient ritual as entertainment for visiting audiences. 

A man in Emi’s shop stops to ask her if she herself is Ainu, but seems ambivalent on being told that yes she is while a female customer somewhat crassly compliments her on the quality of her Japanese which is particularly ironic as we’ve just seen her attending evening classes to relearn the Ainu language which is in constant danger of dying out. Warming to Ainu culture, Kanto is more receptive towards the idea of adding traditional instrumentation but his bandmate is, as he was, embarrassed by “Ainu stuff” and wants nothing to do with it. Debo’s betrayal sets Kanto on a collision course with his newly found appreciation for his indigenous roots in presenting him first hand with something dark and cruel that proves difficult for him to understand but perhaps finally allows him to come to terms both with his father’s death and with his own identity as a member of an indigenous community. 

Using a cast of mainly non-professional actors from the local area, Fukunaga switches between documentary-style capture of Ainu life and the cinematic naturalism of Kanto’s path towards self-acceptance filled as it is with the wonder of the natural world. Juxtaposing the reality of the Iomante ritual with the repackaged stage show, he shows us what it costs to preserve traditional culture within a surrounding modernity even as scholars descend to record the songs of the Ainu for prosperity badgering old women to offer up long forgotten lullabies for a lonely tape recorder. Kanto has however perhaps found his path in knowing he is not alone as he steps into a less innocent adulthood having integrated both sides of himself into a more complete whole. 


Ainu Mosir streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. It is also available to stream in the UK (and possibly elsewhere) via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2020)

“If I became the person I wanted to be, would the world have changed?” the conflicted hero of Shunsuke Kariyama’s Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Aokute Itakute Moroi) eventually asks having undergone a kind of awakening but still perhaps struggling with himself caught between the desire to be better and the fear of the vulnerability that may entail. As the title implies, this is a tale of painful youth and bitter revelations but also of the fragile male ego, the damage that can be done by a young man who feels himself scorned, and the various ways an embittered, self-absorbed mind can reorder the world to accommodate its sense of righteousness. 

The hero, Kaede (Ryo Yoshizawa), opens with a voiceover revealing his life philosophy of social isolation afraid both of upsetting others and of getting hurt. Despite himself, however, he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the bright and friendly idealist, Hisano (Hana Sugisaki), whom he first noticed in one of his political science classes when she challenged the teacher advancing her life philosophy that peace is born only of mutual surrender and allows no role for violence. A true cynic, Kaede mocks her internally for her “naivety” but is moved on leaving the room to notice that she looks hurt not to have been taken seriously. Noticing him too, she tracks him down and makes a point of sitting next to him in the cafeteria, badgering him into a friendship he doesn’t resist because of his tenet of not challenging the views of others. Together they found the “Moai’ club which is dedicated to building a better world by helping people to become the people they want to be. 

Or at least, that’s what he tells us. As we slowly discover, Kaede is not a completely reliable narrator. Three years later he recruits a friend, Tosuke (Amane Okayama), to help him take down Moai, which has since become some kind of creepy cult corrupted by corporate interests that many seem to be using as a path towards employment, so that he can rebuild it to reflect the values he and Hisano intended when they founded the organisation she apparently having passed on. Yet the more he tells us, the more we start to wonder if there isn’t something else to it, especially when social welfare grad student Wakisaka (Tasuku Emoto) enters the scene. Is this really about the better world, or petty male romantic jealousy? Shy and introverted, it seems that Kaede never had the courage to tell Hisano how he felt and perhaps took it for granted that she understood, unfairly feeling betrayed when she showed interest in someone else despite her near constant prompts for him to speak up whether it be about her or their movement. Kaede says nothing, then blames Hisano for “rejecting” him as if the only reason she could have had for befriending him in the first place was the eventual breaking of his heart. 

In true “nice guy” fashion, Kaede can’t help but see himself as the wounded party. In the flip book he’s been idly drawing which opens the film, a man runs smack into a rock and bangs his head much in the way he seems to feel he has done in his abortive attempts to enter society. Yet later he begins to gain another understanding, his stick figure getting back up and climbing on top of the head of Moai to behold a new world below him. He starts to realise that to change the world you really do need to start with yourself and that in this he has resolutely failed. His petty act of revenge may in a sense be morally justifiable, exposing Moai for the questionable force it has become, but it’s also sordid and unpleasant intended solely to wound in order to avenge his sense of male pride. Only too late does he realise the consequences of his actions and what they say about the kind of person he is and wanted to be. Consumed by a sense of inadequacy, he is defeated by life, too afraid to become the person he should be lest the world reject him but his brief moment of fantasy of what could have been if only he’d been less cynical and cold is bathed in a kind of golden light he perhaps realises he could feel again if only he change himself in order to change the world in which he lives. A masterclass in male gaslighting, Kariyama’s duplicitous drama refuses to let its hero off the hook but reserves for him the right to start again, become the person he wants to be and lay down his arms in willing vulnerability in the hope that others may do the same. 


Blue, Painful, Fragile is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2, Herman Yau, 2020)

“Anger can destroy everything” according to the voiceover opening Herman Yau’s Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2), a thematic sequel to the original Shock Wave once again starring Andy Lau as a Hong Kong police bomb disposal officer battling serious threat to the island’s transport infrastructure but also picking up themes from the pair’s subsequent collaboration White Storm 2 in which the veteran actor had starred against type as a Batman-esque billionaire vigilante fighting a one man war on drugs. The villains here claim they want “change”, but in reality want little more than to burn the world, enraged by its refusal to recognise or remember them consumed as they are by wounded male pride. 

The hero, Fung (Andy Lau Tak-wah), finds himself suffering from amnesia after encountering the second serious accident of his professional life. When we first meet him, he’s essentially playing the same role as the first film, a cheerful, slightly cocky bomb disposal expert with a potentially reckless streak born of his willingness to risk his own life to save those of others. When he’s injured on a job, tricked by a random booby trap while trying to free a trapped cat, and loses his leg he reacts with characteristically upbeat stoicism quickly adjusting to his new prosthesis and determined to get back to work, training intensely with the help of his friend Tung (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who was also injured in the same blast only not so seriously. Despite passing all the fitness criteria Fung is fobbed off with an offer of a desk job in police PR, refused a return to the bomb squad as the panel quite openly admit not so much because they feel his disability impairs his ability to do the job as they fear public blowback should something go wrong and they be blamed for having hired a disabled person in the first place. 

It’s less a sense of discrimination than unfairness that fuels Fung’s growing sense of anger and resentment not only towards the police force but towards society in general which he now feels regards human beings as little more than disposable tools. He rejects the sense of himself as “disabled”, internalising a sense of societal shame keen to remind everyone that he is not impaired proving himself capable above and beyond the force’s criteria but is still rejected while Tung, who suffered only minor burns, is permitted to return to duty and even gets a promotion. His friends later recount that he became a different person after the accident, angry and embittered as if at war with the world. 

Yet after encountering a second accident, Fung loses his declarative memory which is to say he still has his everyday skills such as walking around (including using a prosthesis), getting dressed, brushing his teeth, using a computer and presumably the mechanics of bomb disposal but no longer remembers his own name or how he ended up in hospital now at least implicated in an act of major terrorism. Without his memories, Fung is a blank slate, freed from all the trauma and resentment that may have pushed him towards the dark side and returned to the innate goodness of a soul untouched by the world’s cruelty. The question is, which way will he turn, back towards the darkness or further into the light as the Fung they once new who willingly risked his life for others? In any case, he finds himself potentially misused by his well meaning ex Pong Ling (Ni Ni) who engages in some dubious psychology involving false memory implantation to convince him that he’s been working for the Hong Kong police undercover, hoping to engineer a softer landing for him than the realisation that he may be responsible for the deaths of at least 18 people as a member of an anarchist sect going under the apt name of “Vendetta”. 

Like Fung, the leader of Vendetta is an angry man resentful of having been forgotten by someone he cared about who had simply grown away from him. He rages against the world partly as a consequence of his aimless privilege having discovered his wealthy family made their money peddling opium with the assistance of the colonial authorities, but also as a direct result of childhood bullying and frustrated male friendship. Vendetta claims it wants to stop the world from getting “worse”, but all it really has is anger and the intense hurt of wounded pride. These men refuse to be “KO’d by this sick society” but in the end all they want is to be seen, to be recognised and remembered. To ease their sense of belittlement and impotence, they plan to burn the world by literally severing connections with it. 

Yau takes aim at the various systems which generate this kind of anger, hinting at the shockwaves of ingrained societal discrimination even if Fung internalises a sense of stigmatisation in his intense need to prove himself free of “disability”. Robbed of his memories, Fung’s anger dissipates allowing his natural capacity for selfless heroism to resurface along with a healthy desire to reflect on his own behaviour, at least as much as can he rely on the sometimes duplicitous vagaries of memory both his own and that of others as he searches for the truth of himself and his “vendetta” with the world. Torn between risking his life to save others and blowing it all to hell, Fung ends up doing both, sending shockwaves throughout his society in a deeply ambivalent act of personal and societal redemption. 


Shock Wave 2 is available to stream in the UK until 12th May as part of the Chinese Cinema Season. It will also be released on DVD/blu-ray on 7th June and digitally on 14th June courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

The Reunions (吉祥如意, Da Peng, 2020)

Comedian, actor, and general multi-hyphenate Da Peng (AKA Dong Chengpeng) scored box office hits with his first two features, superhero parody Jian Bing Man and musical dramedy City of Rock, but The Reunions (吉祥如意, Jíxiáng Rúyì), a reworking an earlier short, marks a definite shift in his personal style if not exactly devoid of laughs or warmth. Partly a muted personal meditation on the price of success and the compromises of the modern China, Da Peng’s Spring Festival movie in contrast to the sentimental norm finds a family on the brink of disintegration but discovers within that a sense of sad resignation rather than failure or disappointment. 

Comprising of Da Peng’s earlier short given the English title of “A Reunion”, the first 40 minutes or so act as a kind of verbatim docudrama starring a professional actress, Liu Lu, as Da Peng’s cousin Lili (who later features in the part two “A Final Reunion” making of redux) alongside members of his family including his mother and father playing themselves. Da Peng had apparently intended to film a kind of personal history/tribute to his grandmother exploring the various ways she lived her day to day life preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations, but during his stay which was his first in many years his grandmother sadly passed away. During the making of sequence, he begins to wonder if his visit home to make the movie may have caused his grandmother’s health to decline or if he was simply unaware that she had already become ill because he failed in his duty as a grandson staying away so long. 

As he puts it, in the city he is a different person with a different life largely forgetting about his family back in rural China. The main crisis of the New Year period is not however his grandmother’s death but the pending decision of what to do with uncle Ji Xiang who suffered brain damage after an illness a few decades previously and is unable to take care of himself. Filial wisdom says the burden falls on Lili, but she too lives in the city and has her own life with a small child to take care of meaning that it would be difficult for her to take her father home to live with her, not to mention the potential difficulties of uprooting him from everything he’s known. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lili and her father had long been estranged as her mother divorced him after the illness and moved to the city when Lili was a teenager. During the making of sequence, the actress playing Lili asks for clarification in her motivation stating that the one thing she doesn’t understand is why she hasn’t visited her family in over 10 years, but the only answer she receives is an awkward silence. 

Meanwhile, in the absence of the grandmother relations between the siblings begin to fray as old conflicts bubble to the surface, Da Peng’s uncle and aunt complaining that they cared for Ji Xiang and his mother all this time on their own and would appreciate some help but fail to see how any of the secondary suggestions of the other siblings pitching in as grandma had wished are realistic. Others insist that prior to his illness Ji Xiang was the most filial of the siblings, frequently helping out his brothers and sisters with jobs at the oil field where he worked and generally making sure to take care of everyone only to be semi-abandoned by them now he is no longer to look after himself. The presumably engineered argument from the movie later spirals out of control, the actress playing Lili pleading with the siblings to stop, while her real life counterpart looks on impassively from behind the camera, the fate of Ji Xiang still seemingly undecided. 

Yet quizzed by a fan at a Q&A after the screening of A Reunion, Da Peng doesn’t have an answer for why he decided to make the film, any messages he might have hoped to convey beyond a sense of loss and regret lost amid his desire to capture a moment of family life, his mother appearing on camera in a brief interview sequence avowing that she believes that with grandma gone this will probably be the last New Year, the siblings no longer having a common reason to come together. Someone even mentions that the family is only here this time because of Da Peng’s film, calling into question the ethical dimensions of his decision to put his relatives on camera. He closes on a poignant note with some home video from New Year 2008, presumably the last time he was home, featuring his grandmother and Uncle Ji Xiang in happier times harking back to an essential sense of loss in the all the missed opportunities of absent years now that there will be no more next times or home to go back to. 


The Reunions is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Koji Fukada, 2020)

“It’s hard to see weakness, especially your own” the oblivious hero of Koji Fukada’s perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic romantic melodrama The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Honki no Shirushi) is told, though it’ll be a while before he realises how annoyingly right his rival has read him. Adapted from the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato and first aired as a 10-part TV drama, Fukada’s tale of mutual salvations finds its dissatisfied heroes struggling to define themselves in a conformist culture but finding perhaps the “signpost” towards the real through a process of romantic misadventure in realising that the emotional crash of a failed connection can perhaps bounce you into a moment of self-realisation and the courage to carry it through. 

Last to experience such a moment, the hero 30-year old Tsuji (Win Morisaki) is a thoroughly bored salaryman working at a company which sells fireworks along with cheap plastic toys for children. Entirely passive, he is in two contradictory romances with a pair of diametrically opposed office ladies at his company (which has a strict rule against inter-office dating) but is emotionally invested in neither of them. His life changes one day while he’s idly buying a bottle of water at a convenience store and notices a confused woman has picked up a damaged children’s toy he was trying to get taken off the shelf by the disinterested cashier but she hardly pays attention to him changing it over for her because she’s intensely confused by a map of the local area. After his attempt to help her fails, Tsuji leaves the store but later comes across the woman again when she somehow stalls in the middle of a level crossing and is about to be hit by a train, heroically leaning through an open window to put the car in neutral and push it out of the way with mere seconds to spare. He stays with the woman, Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), until the police arrive but she panics and tries to make out he was driving before thinking better of it and coming clean. 

It’s a pattern than will often be repeated in the earlier parts of their relationship. Having tried to do something good, he finds himself incurring only infinite trouble. Bugged by the rental company who find his business card in the abandoned car, Tsuji is bamboozled into Ukiyo’s very complicated world of lies and broken promises but nevertheless feels oddly compelled to help her. “You’re too kind to everyone”, the first of his office romances Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) tells him with mild contempt, though he offers her a wry smile that suggests he doesn’t quite think of it as kindness implying his capacity for altruism may be masking a deep-seated sense of emptiness and inadequacy. When his affair with Hosokawa is exposed, he expresses consternation that she shouldn’t have to be the one to transfer simply because she’s a woman, describing himself as an average employee going through the motions while she is clearly keeping the place together, though she again accuses him of selling himself short unable to see how many people in the office look up to and depend on him precisely because of his rather dull efficiency and air of confident reliability born of having no real personality. 

In fact he seems to be in flight from the “real”, consciously or otherwise afraid of facing his authentic self and wilfully masking it by putting on the suit of the conventional salaryman. Ms. Hosokawa is much the same, having initiated the relationship on a no strings basis but secretly wanting more. Approaching middle age she finds herself suffocating under her various demands, playing the part of the dependable senior office lady but dreaming of escape through romantic salvation. Only once her relationship with Tsuji begins to implode does she rediscover a new sense of self. The other girlfriend, meanwhile, Minako (Akari Fukunaga) plays the contrasting role of the office cutie irritatingly sweet and simpleminded but after being cruelly dumped suddenly dyes her hair pink and becomes feisty and uncompromising no longer unable to stand up for herself while refusing to conform to idealised visions of youthful femininity. 

Tsuji meanwhile fixates on the idea of “saving” Ukiyo while she battles an internalised victim complex which encourages her to think that all the bad things happening to her are entirely her own fault because she is a bad person, constantly apologising for her own existence. Yet the situation is later reversed, Ukiyo repeating word for word the speech Tsuji had given to Hosokawa as she explains there’s another man she must save because he is incapable of saving himself. Investing their entire worth in the act of saving someone else, the pair attempt to paper over their lack of selfhood, but in essence find their positions reversing in pattern which seems to suggest you have to save yourself before you can find the path towards your romantic destiny. As Tsuji turns fugitive, imploding in a perceived defeat in having failed to take control over the forces of change in his life, Ukiyo finally develops the strength to take care of herself bolstered by the certainty of her love for him. 

Painted alternately as a damsel in distress and a femme fatale who ruins men and drags them to hell, Ukiyo is of course neither just, as an old friend explains, an unlucky woman subject to a series of societal prejudices. There is however something in the pair’s mutual claims that there was someone trapped who couldn’t climb out without their help even if that help is slightly less literal than they’d assumed. Even when relationships fail, or crash and burn as another puts it, they invite the possibility for growth and become perhaps signposts on the way to the “real thing”. Shot with a whimsical realism and filled with a series of twists and reversals, Fukada’s elliptical tale is less one of romantic fulfilment than a search for the true self but finally allows its heroes to find mutual salvation in staking all on love. 


The 10-episode TV drama edit of The Real Thing streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Feature edit trailer (no subtitles)