Under the Stars (星の子, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“The time of realisation comes and then that person changes” according to the words of a new religion guru. The sentiment is true enough, even if the meaning is slightly different from that which she’d intended. Young Chihiro, however, the heroine of Tatsushi Omori’s adaptation of the novel by Natsuko Imamura Under the Stars (星の子, Hoshi no Ko), is indeed approaching a moment of realisation as she begins to question everything about the world around her as it had been presented throughout the course of her life. 

As a baby, Chichiro (Mana Ashida) had suffered from severe eczema which had left her in terrible pain and her parents suffering with her in witnessing her distress. On the advice of a colleague, Chichiro’s father (Masatoshi Nagase) decides to try using “Venus Blessed Water” which is apparently full of cosmic energy that can cure all ills. Chihiro begins to recover and her parents become devotees of the cult which produces it eventually alienating her older sister, Ma (Aju Makita), who is unable to reconcile herself with the outlandish beliefs they advance and rituals they conduct. 

For Chihiro, however, the cult is all she’s ever known so it is in that way “normal” and it’s never really occurred to her to question it even after her sister’s mysterious “disappearance”. But as she approaches the end of middle-school, a few well placed questions from her classmates give her pause for thought wondering if her parents’ claims about the miracle water could possibly be true or if, as her best friend Watanabe (Ninon) wonders, they are simply being scammed. After all, if water could solve all the world’s problems it would either be ridiculously expensive or completely free and if you could stay healthy by placing a damp towel on your head then everyone would be doing it. Her parents claim they don’t get colds because the water boosts their immune system, but perhaps they’re just lucky enough to be the kind of people who don’t often get that kind of sick or the fact that they obviously spend almost all their time in the bubble of the cult reduces their exposure. 

Her crunch point comes when her handsome maths teacher (Masaki Okada) on whom she has a crush spots her parents doing the ritual in a park and exasperatedly points them out as complete nutcases. When she eventually tells him who they are, he inappropriately calls her out in front of the entire class by telling her to get rid of her “weird” water while subtly undermining her religious beliefs with advice about how to avoid getting colds or other potentially dangerous seasonal viruses. Omori presents the cult neutrally, hinting that the discrimination Chihiro is facing as a member of a “new religion” may be unfair while the beliefs of traditional religions may seem no stranger to the unfamiliar and to criticise them so directly would be deemed unacceptable in any liberal society. In a sense perhaps we all grow up in a kind of cult only latterly questioning the things our parents taught us to be true. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo meanwhile had once tried to use science and experience to undermine her parents’ beliefs, he and Ma swapping out their holy water for the tap variety to prove to them that they are being duped only for them to double down and refuse to accept the “truth”. 

Uncle Yuzo and his family eventually offer Chihiro a place to stay in the hope of getting her out of the cult but are also of course asking her to betray her parents by leaving them. She remains preoccupied by the fate of her sister, particularly hearing rumours about the cult supposedly disappearing those who turn against them, but is torn between her growing doubts and love for her parents while privately suspicious about the fate of a child much like herself kept locked up by his mum and dad who say he’s terribly ill and unable to speak (which doesn’t exactly support the cult’s claims of universal healing), but who knows what might actually be true.

Shoko (Haru Kuroki), the wife of the guru Kairo (Kengo Kora), is fond of reminding the younger members that they are not there of their own free will which is of course true whatever the implications for fate and determinism because they are children whose parents have forced them to attend which might explain their sense of resentment or what she implies is “resistance” to their spiritual messaging in urging them to make an active choice to accept the cult’s teachings. Chihiro is coming to a realisation that she may be on a different path than her parents but delaying her exit while they too are possibly preparing her for more independent life. Lighter than much of Omori’s previous work despite its weighty themes, Under the Stars is also in its way about the end of childhood and the bittersweet compromises that accompany it. 


Under The Stars streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (c) 2020 “Under the Stars” Production Committee

The Mole Song: Final (土竜の唄 FINAL, Takashi Miike, 2021)

“He’s horny and looks like a fool but you can count on him” according to top mob boss Todoroki and it’s as good a description as any of the hero of Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga by Noboru Takahashi, The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji. Billed as the conclusion of the trilogy each of which is scripted by Kankuro Kudo, The Mole Song: FINAL (土竜の唄 FINAL, Mogura no uta Final) arrives almost 10 years since the series’ first instalment and five years after the second as Reiji (Toma Ikuta) proceeds towards his ultimate target and staves off the next evolution of organised crime.

To rewind a little, as film frequently does in flashbacks to the earlier movies, Reiji was a useless street cop facing a host of complaints not least for being a bit of a creep upskirting the local ladies until offered the opportunity to go undercover in the yakuza in order to break a drug smuggling ring run by ageing boss Todoroki (Koichi Iwaki). No longer technically a law enforcement officer because undercover operations are apparently illegal in Japan, Reiji has begun to find himself torn between his ultimate mission and the codes of gangsterdom not least in his relationship with sympathetic, old school yakuza Papillon (Shinichi Tsutsumi) so named for his love of butterflies many of which adorn his brightly coloured suits. 

Reiji’s inner conflict may ironically mirror the giri/ninjo push and pull central to the yakuza drama as he begins to realise that in completing his mission of taking down Todoroki he will end up betraying Papillon who once saved his life at the cost of his legs. Papillon meanwhile is presented as the idealised figure of the traditional yakuza in his fierce opposition to the drugs trade in the conviction that all they do is make people’s lives miserable and destroy families. He alone maintains the traditional ideas of brotherhood that underpin the underworld society in which a boss is also a father and betrayal is a spiritual if also in a sense literal act of suicide. His opposite number, meanwhile, Todoroki’s son Leo (Ryohei Suzuki), is the evolution of the post-Bubble yakuza, highly corporatised and essentially amoral. Papillon compares him to a mutant butterfly fed on coca lives that will eventually kill all of those with which it is confined while Leo himself claims that he intends to redefine the concept of the yakuza for the new generation. 

Caught between policeman and gangster, Reiji’s identity confusion is mediated through his relationships with Papillon on the one hand and pure-hearted love interest Junna (Riisa Naka) on the other. Each of them at one point tells Reiji that he is dead to them, thereby exiling him to the other side temporarily or otherwise. His yakuza traits which include the perversity which plagued him before endanger his otherwise innocent love for Junna in his inability to control his impulses, upsetting her by revealing a possible fling with a local woman while working on the drug deal in Italy, while his inclination towards police work that informs his sense of “justice” places him at odds with Papillon even though they are in many ways pursuing the same goal in keeping Japan free of dangerous drugs and the crime at surrounds them while purifying the contemporary yakuza of the pollution they have caused and restoring it to the pure ideal of another kind of “justice” advocated by Papillon which Todoroki has in a sense betrayed. 

As the film makes clear, the traditional yakuza is in any case on its way out with successive law enforcement initiatives that perhaps unfairly in some senses prevent them from living their lives. Todoroki’s guys defend their choices to the more idealistic Papillon under the rationale that they can’t open bank accounts, rent apartments, or even make sure their kids have lunch to take to school, so they have to dirty their hands with these less honourable kinds of work. Leo is simply a turbo charged version of their determination to survive. As eccentric cat-like gangster Nekozawa (Takashi Okamura), making a shock reappearance, explains it isn’t as if they can go straight either because who’s going to hire a former yakuza for a regular job? 

There may be in a sense a sympathy for those caught out by their choices with no real way back, a more liberal view of “justice” leaning either towards that by their own code or a simple rejection of the amoral selfishness of those who think nothing of ruining the lives of others for their own gain. With plenty of call backs to earlier instalments, Reiji once again opening the film buck naked with in this case a vase for modesty, Miike maintains the same slapstick sense of humour frequently employing zany animation and even a puppet show to express Reiji’s sometimes simplistic way of thinking. The film even unexpectedly shifts into tokusatsu in its closing sequence, bearing out the similarity in the titular “mole song” to the classic Mothra refrain, while placing Reiji and Papillon back into their respective roles having perhaps exchanged something between them in continuing to pursue their shared goal of a drug-free society. 


The Mole Song: Final streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Ⓒ2021 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/SHOGAKUKAN/JSTORM/TOHO/OLM ⒸNOBORU TAKAHASHI/SHOGAKUKAN

The End of the Pale Hour (明け方の若者たち, Hana Matsumoto, 2021)

A series of youngsters contend with disillusionment amidst the failure of the salaryman dream in Hana Matsumoto’s adaptation of the “I Novel” by Masahiko Katsuse, The End of the Pale Hour (明け方の若者たち, Akegata no Wakamonotachi). United by a chorus of “it wasn’t supposed to be this way”, the choice left to them is to resign themselves to life’s disappointment or to take a gamble on a happier future which though it might not work out might grant them a greater feeling of control over an existence which often seems pointless and unfulfilling. 

The unnamed protagonist (Takumi Kitamura) is already feeling a degree of trepidation even at a gathering that has been organised by a brash fellow student who crassly brands it the “winners’ party” to celebrate that they’ve all been able to line up jobs for after graduation in a competitive employment market. He ends up leaving with an equally bored woman (Yuina Kuroshima), a graduate student a little older than him, and drifts into a relationship with her that seems doomed to failure not least in her constant reminders that “everything ends sometime” and “our youth will be over soon, we need to enjoy it now”. The man insists that their youth won’t end just because they’ve entered the working world but in a sense it of course does, his sparkler fizzling out portentously as he’s forced to think of the future. 

A recent trend has seen large numbers of graduate recruits quit their company jobs within the first three years for reasons the man and his new workplace friend Naoto (Yuki Inoue) quickly discover. Japanese companies generally hire en masse in the spring and then shuffle employees into various departments after a probationary period sometimes letting the ones who don’t make the grade go entirely. Though he had done well in the preliminary tasks and hoped to be assigned to the prestigious planning department where the real work gets done, the man is assigned to the “General Affairs” section of office dogsbodies marked out from the regular salaryman workers by their uniform jackets which make it clear that their work is considered menial mainly concerned with setting up furniture for meetings, taking care of maintenance tasks such as replacing light bulbs, and dealing with interoffice complaints. He is constantly told off for not stamping his documents properly only for someone to explain to him that he needs to make sure his name appears at the correct angle to symbolise his bowing to the boss on paper in an example of the rigid office culture for which the young have increasingly little patience.  

Part of the man’s problem is his passivity. He’s dissatisfied with the system but is at heart conventional and lacks the courage to break with it. The woman is seemingly less so, a free spirit who’s chosen a path she believes to be more creatively fulfilling excited that she might make something that will one day be in someone’s hands. But then as we discover she is more conventional than she first appears, her openness and enthusiasm perhaps partly fantasy to mask the disappointment that she too feels that her life has not turned out as she thought it would. The man remarks that he likes walking around at twilight because it’s the only moment in which he can feel free, a moment of infinite possibility in the liminal space between one day and the next in which today is already over but tomorrow has not started. Later Naoto will say something similar of their youthful days as fresh hires filled with resentment but also determination, railing against the system until the early hours of the morning, describing it as the “magic hour” of their lives though they never knew the light was dimming. 

Such dejection may be slightly unwarranted given that none of them are even 30 by time of the film’s conclusion despite the minor greying of their hair. In any case, the man seems to have come to an acceptance of youth’s end, taking the spirit of the twilight with him as he charts a new, if still conventional course, choosing not to jump ship like his friend but tentatively make an application to get out of General Affairs into a better salaryman job. “It’s been a magic time, hasn’t it?” the woman had said of their brief holiday, “like a dream” but one from which she knows, and perhaps he does too, they’ll soon have to awake. Expressing the anxieties of contemporary generation dissatisfied with their overly corporatised lives in a rigid and conservative society, The End of the Pale Hour nevertheless ends with a sense of the dawn and the promise of new beginnings if tinged with the glow of youthful nostalgia. 


The End of the Pale Hour streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Ark (方舟, Wei Dan, 2020)

Something that often gets forgotten in the midst of the pandemic is that people continued to suffer from other illnesses and ailments some they may have been ultimately unable to receive treatment for. Wei Dan’s sometimes harrowing documentary The Ark (方舟, fāngzhōu) revolves around an elderly woman, Xihua, who is hospitalised with a wasting disease in spring 2020 just as the pandemic takes hold and is cared for largely by her children and grandchildren as they try to figure out what’s best for her while coming to terms with the idea that their mother and grandmother may not be able to overcome this final illness. 

Shot in a dispassionate black and white and a claustrophobic 1:1 frame, Wei captures Xihua’s obvious sense of confusion and distress. A brain haemorrhage some years previously apparently left her unable to speak meaning that she is unable to communicate her pain to her caregivers while her family try to explain to the medical staff what her condition is showing them her legs almost entirely wasted away. While the family do their best to care for her themselves, patiently emptying her bedpan and analysing its contents, they also express suspicion and frustration with the medical establishment repeatedly stating that they worry their mother is not getting proper care because the doctors are after bribes all the time with other patients bringing in expensive gifts to curry favour. 

Meanwhile, money in particular begins to press on the mind of Xihua’s oldest son who is obviously in a degree of mental distress unable to bear the thought that his mother might die because he cannot get the money together to pay for her treatment while simultaneously worrying that maybe all he’s doing is selfishly prolonging her suffering. When it’s suggested that an operation may alleviate Xihua’s symptoms, he finds himself ringing people he hasn’t spoken to in years most of them perhaps understandably sympathetic but unwilling or unable to help. The directness of this approach places an additional strain on his marriage as his wife feels embarrassed to see him begging around for money and thereby exposing the fact they don’t have any. Meanwhile she also worries about the financial stability of their own family, at one point snapping at him that they should pull the kids out of school and tell them their futures are ruined. In a heated moment, she even mentions leaving him reopening old wounds in complaining that she feels as if nothing she does is ever good enough and her husband is no good to her. 

When Xihua passes away after having had an operation to remove a sizeable gallstone that had been causing an obstruction in her bowel, the sense of discord only increases as it becomes apparent that some members of the family, which is largely Christian, are extremely religious and offended by the idea of any kind of traditional rites being performed believing it would upset God. Briefly expanding to 16:9, Wei cuts away from the heated arguments to find Xihua’s grieving son weeping over the body feeling as if all his efforts were in vain while trying to comfort himself that at least she is no longer suffering. 

The family’s distress runs parallel with the expansion of the pandemic though the hospital itself seems to be running more or less as normal save for the odd man in a hazmat suit disinfecting the waiting room even as the family describe a quarantine centre on the television in Xihua’s room as an “ark”. Compounding the worries of Xihua’s son, he’s about to lose his job while one of the grandchildren also complains that his clothing business is struggling and he’s thinking about opening a dry cleaner’s instead. Someone unironically advises him to think about investing in elder care which he suggests is about to become a growth industry thanks to China’s ageing population and the adverse effects of the One Child Policy which has left a generation unable to care for all their elderly relatives, not to mention their own children, at once. Though quietly harrowing, Wei’s film nevertheless finds a degree of serenity in its final stretches as the children return to their family home and its myriad memories throwing this private tragedy in stark relief amid so many other losses in age of fear and suffering. 


The Ark streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Yuichiro Sakashita, 2021)

“I keep choosing a perilous path” the heroine of Yuichiro Sakashita’s political satire The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Kessen wa Nichiyobi) explains, “But that’s where change happens”. Change, famously, is not a common occurrence in Japanese politics where the same party has remained in power for all but a handful of years since its foundation in 1955. Part of the reason for that at least according to the reluctant candidate is the nation’s rigid social attitudes in the unwillingness to question the status quo, just going along with however things have always been done, while the main cause is perhaps corruption at the local level in the interplay between supporters groups staffed by influential local businessmen and their representatives along with the collusion of civil staff who have become too blasé about the murky nature of politics. 

That’s especially true for political secretary Tanimura (Masataka Kubota) who had developed a paternal relationship with former defence minster Kawashima who unfortunately is forced to retire from office due to ill health after suffering a stroke. Unable to agree on a suitable candidate to replace him, the supporters groups throw their weight behind Yumi (Rie Miyazawa), Kawashima’s middle-aged, unmarried daughter. The above lines are spoken during her introduction to her staff who find her strange and unconvincing, mocking her Western-style business speak along with her decision to refer to them as her “crew”. 

If “change” was what Yumi wanted, she’s almost certainly standing for the wrong party. Though not explicitly stated, she’s obviously intended to be standing for an LDP stand in and in the opinion of her staff at least her seat is so safe you could paint a face on a rock and get it elected. Their problem is that they assumed Yumi would be easy to manage, though it quickly becomes clear that despite having grown up in politics she is incredibly naive and something of a loose cannon. As she admits, she tells it like it is and doesn’t consider the consequences. She is not media trained and the secretaries, Tanimura included, do not really bother to brief her in part because they assume the election’s a sure thing so they don’t need to. As we can see from her introductory speech, she is essentially playing the part of a politician as she imagines it to be, saying things she perhaps does mean because she thinks it’s what a politician would say such as her offensive reply to a question about the declining birthrate to the effect that childless couples were “slacking off” and “not functioning as humans” leading to a protest outside her office in large part by those who had found her comments hurtful because they had wanted to have children but for various reasons had not been able to. 

It’s Yumi’s political naivety that makes her the ultimate foil for the secretaries and supporters groups as she gradually comes to realise she was never meant to be anything other than a puppet. After a particularly disastrous conference, one of her older male sponsors exasperatedly asks why they couldn’t have picked a better candidate. “At least choose a man”, he adds while one of the secretaries later snaps at Yumi that she’s way out of her league, should “know her position”, and that the only reason an “amateur woman” like her was approved as a candidate was because of the supporters committee so she’s there to do exactly what they say. Forced to apologise to them, Yumi’s face is framed in the lattice work at a restaurant as if she were in prison, a sentiment echoed by Tanimura when he tells her that she has “no choice” but to continue threatening to plant smear stories in the press if she tries to walk away or blow the whistle on all the corruption she has unwittingly uncovered in the local political office. 

That would include the giving and receiving of bribes in an all too cosy relationship with local business and particularly the construction industry. Part of the problem is that the civil staff will all lose their jobs if Yumi is not elected which makes it in their interest not to act with total transparency. Tanimura hadn’t really cared about that before, each time when questioned replying only “that’s just how it is” but slowing beginning to realise that it doesn’t need to be and really it isn’t OK. Despite her eccentricity and impulsiveness Yumi would as Tanimura can see make a good politician if not one ideally suited to a conservative party. Threatening suicide from the roof of a three storey building she decries political apathy in Japan, explaining that they need to remind the people that this is really about them and that politics is not pointless because change can happen while the jaded secretaries roll their eyes and giggle setting up a crash mat in the event that she is not actually bluffing. 

What she decides to do is try to loose deliberately, but everything she tries just backfires. A series of offensive racist rants far from ruining her reputation pick her up new votes from members of the far right who previously felt unrepresented while even planting false stories in the press that she is a drug user with a criminal record doesn’t seem to dent her approval rating. Just as Yumi’s comments about the birthrate echoed those of other gaffe-prone LDP politicians such as Mio Sugita, Yumi and a reformed Tanimura even film a fake video of her pretending to abuse one of her staff directly echoing that of Mayuko Toyota who was forced to stand down after an embarrassing video of her calling her aide “baldly” while beating him went viral, but her popularity only increases. As a last resort they release video footage of her father accepting bribes and have her deny it so it becomes obvious that she lied, but her dishonesty makes no difference to the average voter. 

The cynical secretaries had indicated that ordinarily speaking they’d ride a scandal out because another one will be along before too long to knock it off the front page. Yumi’s whistle blowing plan fails again because of collusion with the local media who despite sniffing around for a story won’t run anything too negative lest they lose their access to the halls of government. The secretaries then get lucky when a possible North Korean missile strike bumps the bribery affair onto the back pages, a video of the staff laughing and cheering their near escape even becoming a meme on social media. Yumi’s resentment is in rooted in her powerless, refusing to be a puppet for local bigwigs, but it may also be true that once she’s elected they have no real power over her and changing the system from the inside may ironically become a real possibility if only she herself can overcome her conviction that nothing is ever going to change. “This is not the world you expected.” Tanimura admits, “accept it and fight”. A throwback to the films of Juzo Itami, Yumi is very much the kind of character Nobuko Miyamoto might have played in one of her “woman” films if perhaps a little more cynical. The Sunday Runoff is decidedly more barbed if at least as pointed in its criticism of incestous local politics, but in the end does believe that real change may indeed be possible if only you’re willing to fight for it. 


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Popran (ポプラン, Shinichiro Ueda, 2022)

“Wieners are stuck to the body, they can’t go flying!” a confused father attempts to convince his toddler son, but as the young boy had said that isn’t quite the case. The hero of Shinichiro Ueda’s Popran (ポプラン) has been, well, to put it bluntly, a bit of a dick to just about everyone in his life but when even his bits seem to have become tired of his schtick it can’t help but provide something of a wakeup call. More surrealist morality drama than scatological comedy, Popran’s heart at least is in the right place as its hero attempts to, literally, piece himself back together to repair his fractured integrity. 

As we first meet 30-ish entrepreneur Tagami (Yoji Minagawa ), he’s being interviewed for a documentary that wants to explore the real lives of well-known people. As might be expected, the opening questions are fawning, pointing out his vast success at such a young age as the developer of app and manga publishing platform but the atmosphere soon changes when they stray into less positive territory. It seems Tagami’s success might have come as a result of betraying his old friend and business partner, while he also abandoned his wife and child to chase success in Tokyo and apparently has become estranged from his parents. His well-meaning PR shuts down the interviewer’s attempts to ask anything remotely challenging, yet it’s obvious that something inside Tagami is dying even as he reads out a cheesy speech he’d written about the importance of following the compass of your heart from a cue card held up by his assistant. 

We can see what kind of man he is or has been when an excited employee approaches him in the corridor about an exciting project but, feigning politeness, he has to ask his assistant who the guy was once he’s gone. At a birthday party for one of their writers, he leers over a woman sitting behind him and offers to introduce her to their editing department when she tells him she’s interested in writing something herself despite his clearly stated policy of not running original material only buying rights to distribute perennially popular series. It’s after taking her to bed with false promises that he discovers his penis is missing. 

More than a symbol of his masculinity, the errant penis is an indictor of his misplaced desires and lack of both moral fibre and impulse control. To achieve success he’s screwed over countless people besides the young woman who seems to have been the last straw for his literally alienated genitalia leaving a trail emotional chaos in his wake. After discovering that he is not the only one to fall victim to the “Popran” phenomenon he is forced to face himself, his moral cowardice, anxieties, and fears, and reckon with his sense of inadequacy and disappointment. Just as in the message he’d delivered to the youngsters watching the documentary, he too needs to take a look at the compass of his heart and realise he’s been reading it wrong chasing down his penis with a butterfly net before realising he knew where it was all along he just needed to go back to where it all started and remember who he really is. 

Then again, there is perhaps something of frustrated masculinity in Tagami’s quest. As his friend point out, he makes all his money exploiting other people’s labour while offering nothing new of his own. In the interview, he’d said he wanted to be a mangaka but felt he wasn’t good enough so decided to become a distributor instead setting up the company with a colleague from the manga cafe where he was working. But they parted ways because his friend wanted to publish original material and with his eye on the bottom line Tagami forced him out. Where his friend is now running a small studio from his apartment and even while not wealthy creatively fulfilled, Tagami has become rich but empty. Obviously that’s not to say there’s no value in the kind of work he does, but he’s begun to appropriate others’ success as his own with no real thought for their well-being. Chasing his dick around is also in its way a desire to regain his creative mojo as symbolised in his re-energised commitment to publishing original material rather than simply raking in royalties from safe and stable classics.  

As is often pointed out to him, his fantastical tale sounds like something out of a manga though Popran is certainly less reflexive than Ueda’s previous efforts telling a story which is much smaller in scale though also in its way heartwarming as the hero is pulled around by the penises of past and present if not future before reaching a moment of emotional maturity that allows him to exercise a more healthy control over his desires knocking his dickish behaviour on the head to wise up and realise being a man’s about treating others with respect and dignity. Some things you can’t just stick back on if they fall off, but you can at least acknowledge that you should have treated them better and resolve to be happy that they have at least found better futures as you might yourself if only you can figure out which compass to follow. 


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Ⓒ ”Popran” Film Partners

Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Takuma Sato, 2020)

“Get your act together” an exasperated new mother exclaims, but it seems even new fatherhood isn’t quite enough to jolt the aimless hero of Takuma Sato’s paternity drama Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Nakuko wa Inega) into accepting his responsibility. Fatherhood is indeed a daunting prospect, however Sato isn’t interested solely in Tasuku’s (Taiga Nakano) attempts to “grow up” and embody the ideals of masculinity in a patriarchal society but also in the nature of fatherhood itself along with its legacies and the effects of male failure on those caught in its wake. 

Everyone in the small town of Oga seems to be aware that Tasuku has undergone a shotgun marriage though it’s more the subject of gentle ribbing than scorn or disdain. Many remark on his relative youth, though he’s perhaps not so much younger than his parents might have been when he was born it’s just that times have changed. In any case, his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka), is beginning to get fed up with him worried that he isn’t ready to be a father and isn’t taking the responsibility seriously enough. As young men do he still drinks like a single man and is vulnerable to peer pressure. Kotone begs him not to participate in the local Namahage festival but he insists they have to keep the tradition alive while apparently feeling an obligation to Mr. Natsui (Toshiro Yanagiba) who ensures it continues. She makes him promise not to drink, and he does his best in the beginning but, paradoxically, the Namahage is a drinking festival. Soon enough, Tasuku has had a little too much and beginning to feel hot takes off all his clothes, running around in the nude save for the large oni mask on his face while local reporters there to cover the traditional festival decide to make him a viral sensation. Unable to bear the shame, Tasuku abandons his wife and child and runs away to anonymity in Tokyo. 

The irony is that introducing the festival to the reporters, Mr. Natsui had flagged it up as a bastion of family values, that it’s not about “scaring” children but teaching them “good ethics” while reassuring them that their fathers will always protect them. According to Mr. Natsui, those children then grow up to become fathers who protect their offspring, Tasuku’s unfortunate streaking somewhat undermining his argument. It’s interesting in a sense that Tasuku is himself fatherless, his father having passed away some years earlier leaving not much of himself behind other than the oni masks he carved for the Namahage. Tasuku’s brother (Takashi Yamanaka), who was supposed to be getting married but apparently did not perhaps because of Tasuku’s scandal, later becomes upset on deciding to sell the family business lamenting that he was able to save “nothing” of his father, rejecting the Namahage mask that Tasuku offers him as “trash” while acknowledging perhaps that the Namahage is all is he left them along with the transitory lessons it imparts. 

Tasuku was clearly not quite ready to be a dad, but having spent some time growing up and hearing that his father-in-law has passed away leaving his ex with little choice than to work as a bar hostess on the fringes of the sex trade, he decides to go home and try to make amends. He swears repeatedly that he won’t run away again and will do whatever it takes until he’s forgiven, but still he flounders failing to find secure employment while periodically visiting his grandmother in a nursing home and helping his mother (Kimiko Yo) out selling traditional ice creams at local tourist attractions. “You’re not the only one who can be Nagi’s father” she reminds him as he perhaps begins to realise that there are some bonds you can’t repair even if you’re eventually forgiven for having broken them. 

Performing the Namahage forces Tasuku uncomfortably into the role of the authoritarian father safe scaring the child in order to instil in them a sense of confidence that encourages them not to be afraid of life, in the way that he may ironically be, because there will always be someone there waiting to catch them. The ability to protect a family is a defining feature of the masculine ideal, and the Namahage in its way perpetuates outdated ideas of gendered social roles while Tasuku’s mother and even grandmother are always there for him with unconditional acceptance, supporting him even in the depths of his “disgrace” and encouraging him to move forward even if that means accepting defeat. Keeping the Namahage alive is also in a sense to preserve the paternal legacy, just as Tasuku’s father may have passed nothing else down to his sons so Tasuku may find he has nothing more to offer, perhaps no longer a “crybaby” but still struggling to shift into the role of the father even while belatedly coming of age in the knowledge that he may have left it too late. 


Any Crybabies Around? streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. For viewers outside of Germany it is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Shogo Kusano, 2021)

“Distance keeps us safe” according to the hero of Shogo Kusano’s LGBTQ+ teen drama What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Kanojo no Sukina Mono wa) ironically commenting on the nature of “social distancing” in the age of corona along with his own sense of alienation. Though in comparison to other recent similarly themed features Kusano’s film may in some senses seem behind the times in its BL filter, it has its heart firmly in the right place as the hero and several of his friends attempt to find a place for themselves within the contemporary society which for various reasons they fear will not accept them. 

In high schooler Jun’s (Fuju Kamio) case, his sense of alienation is born of his internalised homophobia in which all he wants is to have a conventional heteronormative life within the confines of the traditional family with a wife, children, and grandchildren. Part of this may stem from a secondary source of marginalisation in that he comes from a single parent family which is itself still frowned upon by some as evidenced by the mild discomfort experienced by his new friend Sae (Anna Yamada) when he explains to her why he always eats cafeteria food rather than bringing a homemade bento. Sae’s source of internalised shame, meanwhile, is that she is a fujoshi or obsessive fan of boys love manga which revolve around romances between men but are aimed at an audience of young straight women rather than the LGBTQ+ community. 

Based on the novel by Naoto Asahara, what the film attempts to do is examine the gap between the BL fantasy and the reality of being gay in contemporary Japan. Sae is ashamed of her love of BL and ironically paranoid that Jun will expose her secret after running into him at a bookshop, explaining that she was shunned in middle school when her friends found out she enjoyed reading gay love stories which they viewed as “creepy”. Meanwhile, she has a complicated view of homosexuality off the page which is not always completely supportive. Both she and Jun continue to use a world that many would consider to be a homophobic slur to describe men who love men, Jun at times using the word against himself while simultaneously denying the identity. The first conclusion that he comes to is that Sae does not really like him but only the romanticised gay ideals from the fantasy world of BL which as is later pointed out are often set among a largely gay milieu or even in a world where everyone is gay. 

Sae refers to this space as the BL Planet, but Jun’s desire to go there is also a reflection of his internalised homophobia in that on the BL Planet he’d obviously be just like everyone else. He’s fond of repeating a sentence they learned in science class about a simplified world with zero friction which he later claims to reject unwilling to erase complication for superficial harmony but this is exactly what he’s doing in attempting to erase a part of himself in order to better conform to a heteronormative society. He beats himself up for not being able to have “normal” sex after half-heartedly agreeing to date Sae while engaging in physical intimacy with a much older man who is married with a child. Jun’s lover Makoto (Tsubasa Imai) later explains that his marriage is one of convenience born of the same kind of internalised homophobia experienced by Jun though he obviously loves his wife and child if in a different way while the inappropriateness of his relationship with a teenage boy is never raised by anyone.

Jun is taken to task by a brash classmate, Ono (Ryota Miura), for his irresponsibility in dating Sae knowing that he has no romantic interest in her hinting that perhaps not that much has changed in the last 10 or 15 years both men convincing themselves that heteronormative relationships are the only valid markers of success. Then again when Jun is accidentally outed his classmates are given a crash course in LGBTQ+ relations most of them expressing support and the conviction that society needs to become more accepting of diversity though it has to be said they were less than understanding before, particularly the boys who found Jun’s presence a challenge to their masculinity. 

Teenage boys they all are, but even infinitely sympathetic straight best friend Ryohei (Oshiro Maeda) engages in crude, misogynistic banter with their classmates forcing Jun to play along pretending to be a connoisseur of heterosexual pornography. Probably some or even most of the other boys are also lying in an act of performative masculinity but the pretence only adds to Jun’s internalised sense of otherness and belief that he is in some way broken continually asking not only why he was born like this but why anyone is. After receiving an alarming message from an online mentor, he is pushed towards a dark place in becoming convinced that the world has no place for him only to belatedly come to an acceptance of his identity as mediated through Sae’s concurrent epiphanies realising that without friction there is no progress and discovering liberation in authenticity. Despite a few mixed messages and a bizarre subplot about a hairdresser who is not himself gay but nevertheless obsessed with gay people to the extent that he thinks he can spot them in public places through codified signs and the look in their eyes, Kusano’s teen coming-of-age drama has its heart in the right place in its gentle plea for a more inclusive, joyfully diverse society. 


What She Likes screens at Genesis Cinema on 28th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, Lin Huida, 2022)

One of the biggest animation franchises in Mainland China, Boonie Bears began airing as a children’s cartoon show back in 2012 and has produced over 600 episodes across 10 seasons. The latest movie, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, xióng chūmò: chóngfǎn dìqiú), is the franchise’s eighth theatrical movie and again proved popular at the box office on its Lunar New Year release. As might be expected for a series revolving around woodland creatures, the first antagonist was a logger who later came round and teamed up with the animals to protect the forest, the franchise has a strong if potentially subversive ecological theme which reverberates throughout Back to Earth. 

In fact, the chief job of unreliable younger brother bear Bramble (Zhang Bingjun) is sorting rubbish into the appropriate bins to keep the forest tidy. Daydreaming he casts himself as superhero battling a giant trash monster symbolising the destructive effects of the buy now pay later philosophy of the modern consumerist society. In any case Bramble’s cheerful days of chasing ice cream and just generally enjoying life in the forest are disrupted when he’s almost wiped out by bits of a falling spaceship and becomes the repository for all of its knowledge. This brings him to the attention of alien space cat Avi who needs his brain to locate his ship but is also being chased by a gang of nefarious criminals led by an amoral entrepreneur who wouldn’t let a little thing like the survival of the Earth interfere with her desires for untold wealth and power. 

As it turns out Avi also has a few lessons to offer as to the costs of irresponsible industrialisation having been born in an ultra-advanced cat society buried deep in the Earth’s core. The over mining of a valuable mineral soon destroyed the environment forcing the cats to flee into space looking for a new home. Avi hopes to return to his home city which lies abandoned as a kind of cat Atlantis accessible only with a valuable necklace which he needs Bramble’s help to retrieve. To begin with, the relationship between the pair is less than harmonious, though they soon bond in their shared quest to stop the evil corporate entities taking over the ancient technology and causing the death of the forest through their insatiable greed. 

Then again as one of the other creatures had put it, “you can’t rely on Bramble”, cross that he never pulls his weight and is always off in a daydream or chasing the next tasty treat. While Avi poses as an adorable kitten trying to convince Bramble to use his brain to help get the spaceship back, the others become even more disappointed in him believing that he’s taken against the cat out of jealously and resentment. Yet the lesson that everyone finally has to learn is that it doesn’t matter if Bramble isn’t the smartest or most hard working because he is strong and kind and has plenty to offer of his own. His gentle bear hug eventually saves the world in healing the villainess’ emotional pain so she no longer has any need to fill the void with cruel and ceaseless acquisition. 

Aside from the gentle messages of the importance of protecting the forest from the ravages of untapped capitalism, after all “this is our only homeland”, the film packs in a series of family-friendly gags including a surprising set piece in which Bramble dresses up as Marilyn Monroe to recreate the famous subway vent moment from The Seven Year Itch, while a pair of eccentric scrap merchants with a taste for rhyme provide additional comic relief. Even in the villains get a lengthy cabaret floorshow to mis-sell their evil mission to the guys from the forest belatedly coming to Bramble’s rescue. In any case, thanks to everyone’s support and encouragement Bramble finally gets to become the hero he always wanted to be proving that he’s not unreliable and even if he doesn’t always succeed is doing his best. Boasting high quality animation, genuinely funny gags, some incredibly catchy tunes and well choreographed musical sequences along with a warmhearted sense of sincerity, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is another charming adventure for the much loved woodland gang.


Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is in UK cinemas from 27th May courtesy of The Media Pioneers (screening in a family-friendly English dub).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)