Dancing Mary (ダンシング・マリー, SABU, 2019)

“Don’t any of you have basic empathy for people?” asks a ghost of the living in SABU’s confrontation of the Showa-era legacy and contemporary ennui, Dancing Mary (ダンシング・マリー). As the hero is repeatedly told, there’s a difference between living and being alive and it just might be that the dead are the ones making the most of their time while the rest of us coast along not really paying attention to the things that really matter while life passes us by. 

Take Fujimoto (NAOTO), for instance. He became a civil servant because it’s an easy, steady job with an OK salary where you don’t actually have to do anything very taxing. He didn’t get into this because he wanted to improve the lives of citizens, he just wants to do his 9 to 5 and then go home but even then he doesn’t seem to do much other than skateboarding, literally coasting through his life. All that changes when his desk buddy has some kind of breakdown after being put in charge of the demolition of a disused dancehall which is said to be haunted and has already had a similar effect on half the town’s self-proclaimed spiritual mediums. Stories of all powerful ghost “Dancing Mary” are already plaguing the area leaving the civil servants desperate for a solution and considering turning to the most Showa-era of remedies, a yakuza-backed construction firm. 

Fujimoto, meanwhile, ends up going in another direction after overhearing a teacher complaining about a Carrie-esque student who can read minds and talk to the dead. Mie (Aina Yamada) has problems of her own, seemingly having no family and mercilessly bullied even while desperately trying to blend in and be “normal”. When Fujimoto finds her she appears to have attempted suicide, but while sitting with her at the hospital he finds himself interrogated by nosy old ladies who demand to know what it is he thinks he’s doing with his life. Where your average auntie might be satisfied to hear a young man making the sensible choice to take a steady government paycheque, these two are having none of it. They accuse him of being a hypocrite, soullessly taking money for nothing while ignoring the needs of citizens. Nothing is chance, they insist, everything is inevitable but by living resolutely in the moment the future can be changed. The old ladies each have terminal cancer and are not expecting to leave the hospital but they’re living their best lives while they can. Everyone has their purpose, what’s yours? they ask, but Fujimoto has no answer for them. 

Thanks to Mie, Fujimoto learns that Mary is rooted to the dance hall because she’s waiting for her one true love, Johnny, a missing hillbilly rocker. As the old ladies had tried to tell him, Fujimoto’s problem is that he cannot see the ghosts in the world around him which is as much about choice as it is about ability. Literally taking him by the hand, Mie guides him through a world of abandoned spirits from Edo-era samurai to melancholy post-war suicides but it’s not until he’s rescued from Showa-era thugs by the ghost of a homeless man he himself is partly responsible for that he starts to see the big picture. The dancehall, Mary’s hauntingly romantic relic of a bygone era, is to be torn down to build another soulless shopping and entertainment complex. The homeless man died alone and forgotten after he was moved on from the place he was living so that it could be “redeveloped”. Fujimoto is supposed to be a civil servant, but all he’s ever done is move things on, pass the buck, and refuse his responsibility.  

While Mie is encouraged by the two old ladies to embrace her difference, resolving not to allow herself to be bullied hiding in the shadows but to use her powers for good, Fujimoto remains unconvinced, preferring to be “laidback”. His problem is that he’s never taken anything seriously and in that sense has never really been “alive” in the way that Mary and Johnny are “alive” while dead in the enduring quality of their decades-long, unresolved romance. After a few lessons from a pre-war yakuza (Ryo Ishibashi) about the importance of giri/ninjo and a more careful observation of the world around him Fujimoto is awakened to what it is to live, discovering a new purpose and vitality but nonetheless finding it a little inconvenient. “I don’t get life”, he exclaims walking away from dull conventionality towards something more meaningful and finally perhaps alive. 


Dancing Mary was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Lowlife (最低, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

The Lowlife 2017In terms of the mainstream cinema industry, the AV (“adult video”) world is viewed with suspicion and distain. AV is where unlucky women end up after having the misfortune to encounter unscrupulous yakuza or be born to feckless parents whose debts they are forced to pay with their bodies. However, mainstream cinema perhaps has a reason to demonise its rival on top of reflecting persistent social stigmas relating to the expression of sexuality. Takahisa Zeze began his career in “pink film”, which is to say softcore pornography, and casts a non-judgemental eye over the modern hardcore porn scene in The Lowlife (最低, Saitei), adapting a novel by AV actress and gravure model Mana Sakura which explores the lives of three women who each have been impacted by the industry.

The first two of our heroines – college dropout Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), and melancholy housewife Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), have made a free choice to enter the AV industry mostly out of loneliness and insecurity. Ayano, who claims to be the only “ugly” one among her many sisters, is convinced to take part in a porn shoot by an unscrupulous boyfriend but finds herself reassured in being adored by the camera and appreciated on set, if only briefly. Miho, meanwhile, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a man who has begun sleeping in his study and continually puts off the discussion of starting a family despite Miho’s intense desire to become a mother. Checking on her husband one morning she is dismayed to find a porn DVD in the open tray of his laptop which feels like a double betrayal in that he has obviously not been “working” all night and has avoided intimacy with her while finding release somewhere else. Irritated, Miho takes the extreme decision of becoming a porn star herself as a strange kind of revenge and motion towards personal fulfilment.

Our third heroine, Ayako (Aina Yamada), however, is looking at the same problem from a different angle in that she is daughter of a single-mother who had previously worked in the porn industry before returning home to her own single-mother to start again and raise her daughter. Takako (Saki Takaoka) is a difficult, flighty woman who still likes to live the high life drinking with random guys and rolling in late or sometimes not at all to the constant worry of her anxious daughter. A gifted artist, Ayako is a shy, gloomy girl who finds it hard to connect with her peers and resents her mother for her unconventional lifestyle. Her problems intensify when she wins a prominent art prize and irritates a classmate who seems to be stalking her causing him to spread the rumour of Takako’s past all over the school.

Social stigma is indeed one of the main problems each of the women face. Ayano, who seems to be otherwise happy enough with her life AV, gets an unexpected visit from her concerned mother and scornful sister when someone presumably spots her in a video and decides to have a word. As Ayano points out to her annoyingly judgemental sister, that means whoever told them just outed themselves as an AV-watcher so perhaps she should ask her boyfriend about that before making sarky comments. Nevertheless, nobody really says anything about the men who consume pornography, only about the “immoral” women who star in them. Ayano’s mother Izumi (Makiko Watanabe) blames herself, complaining that Ayano was the only one of her daughters she never quite bonded with, by turns angry with her for “shaming” the family and concerned that she has “thrown her life away” by becoming forever tainted with the stigma of having been involved in the sex industry.

Corrupted maternity becomes a somewhat uncomfortable theme as each of the women assesses their relationships with other women in the context of the traditional family. Having given up work and become a housewife as society expects, Miho has done everything right but is intensely unhappy because her husband will not move to the next step by starting a family. At 35, she feels her life stagnating, that everything is already settled and nothing will change from now until the time she dies. Neglected by a husband who seems to have lost interest in her as a woman as well as in their shared endeavour of building a home, she finds herself drawn to AV as a path to sexual fulfilment which isn’t really infidelity while also subverting her image of superficial perfection and embracing another identity outside of the home. She remains, however, conflicted as she gazes jealously at a happy family out on holiday at the pleasant mountain lodge where they’ll shoot the movie away from prying eyes. Her involvement in AV is, in a way, also an act of self harm as she punishes herself for her inability to become a mother, while also getting back at her disinterested husband.

Even so, Zeze is careful to frame the AV industry in a positive light. On arrival at the agency, Miho is greeted by an extremely sensitive and sympathetic manager who does his best to ease her concerns while making her feel safe at her most vulnerable. Having felt so neglected and lonely at home, the AV world provides her with a place that she is appreciated, desired as a woman and treated like a star. Similarly, Ayano who had believed herself “ugly” and unlovable begins to gain confidence in herself thanks to being appreciated by the camera, eventually striking up a relationship with a nice guy journalist in a bar which seems like it might develop into something more. While some might argue that the industry is merely exploiting feminine insecurities, it cannot be denied that both women find in it a path towards self acceptance and actualisation.

Despite the fiercely non-judgemental tone, a late plot twist further casts Miho’s transgression as a fall rather than a rise while an eventual connection with Ayako further deepens the maternal subtext as she completes the circle by mothering the lost young woman trying to come to terms with her atypical family situation. Ayako’s grandmother too seems to prescribe motherhood as the answer to all life’s mysteries even if the answer is often that they can’t be solved and all that remains is the urgency of living. Zeze’s depiction of the porn industry might be a rosy one glossing over the seamier side in favour of presenting a world built on empowerment rather than exploitation, but its infinitely sympathetic eye makes plain that porn is just a job like any other and the women who work in it do not deserve the scorn that society often chooses to heap on them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)