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)

Beyond the Night (夜のそと, Natsuki Nakagawa, 2019)

“I’m leaving this place” a traumatised woman declares, trying to free herself from an oppressive environment but discovering that escape is not necessarily synonymous with freedom. Completed at Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate School of Film and New Media, Department of Film Production, Natsuki Nakagawa’s Beyond the Night (夜のそと, Yoru no Soto) locates itself somewhere between Wuthering Heights and The Postman Always Rings Twice as its traumatised heroine struggles to assert herself, trapped in the black hole of incestuous small-town life while yearning for a return to a more wholesome existence.

When we first meet Sotoko (Saki Tanaka), she is trying to run away only to stumble in the forest and be dragged back by her husband, Atsuya (Yasuhiro Isobe), whom she was presumably trying to escape. At work the next day, she’s wearing a large bandage on her cheek, but her colleague, Yuki (Haruka Konishi), has little sympathy for her. It’s at that point that she encounters mysterious drifter Mikiro (Kenta Yamagishi) on a delivery job to the office. Taken by her melancholy, Mikiro begins watching over her, concerned that no one else in the town seems to care that Sotoko is a victim of domestic violence. He learns from an old man that Atsuya is from the village’s most powerful family and therefore can do whatever he likes, while Sotoko, according to Yuki, is a “worthless” woman, an orphan who lost her family in a mysterious car accident. In addition to beating her, Atsuya has been pimping Sotoko out for money and influence, forcing her to sleep with a dirty old man, Tokyo-based politician Ishikawa (Hiroaki Kono), who later turns up dead in extremely suspicious circumstances. 

Atsuya claims that he treats Sotoko the way he does because he’s responding to her desires, pointing out that she’s tried to leave many times but has never been able to move beyond the forest. She lives surrounded by memories of the family she has lost, pictures drawn by her little brother Shota tacked on the wall, hugging his fluffy teddy for emotional support. Atsuya however wants to be her only family, destroying his totemic rivals in order to dominate her more completely while also taking from her the hope of forming a more complete family of her own. We learn that Atsuya has been shielding her from the consequences of involvement with a previous crime which is one reason she can’t leave him, but another is her battered psyche as she tries and fails to convince herself that she has the right to a better life or to her freedom. 

Mikiro, meanwhile, seems like an unlikely saviour, carrying a dark secret of his own as he plays the benevolent stalker wandering around Sotoko’s home when no one’s around and leaving little calling cards to remind her of his presence. Where Sotoko wants freedom, Mikiro wants love and is willing to go to great lengths to get it. “If I kill him will you love me?” he asks, while Sotoko explains to Yuki that she cannot simply leave Atsuya because their souls are entwined and someone needs to cut her free. “You can’t go anywhere, I’m the only one who can protect you” Atsuya counters, “She’ll never love you” he adds to Mikiro, “You’ll end up like me, you’re my replacement”. 

“We can’t change anything” a friend of Mikiro’s insists deepening the sense of fatalism, “one rotten person dies and nothing changes” echoing his own assertion that “there are bad people everywhere”. Sotoko declares her love for Mikiro as a symbol of the freedom she now desires, but at the same time reveals that there is nowhere she wants to go. To her Mikiro seems like a visitor from another world come to take her away from all this, but her salvation is not another perhaps equally problematic man but an awakening to her own agency, finally choosing a clear destination in the fullness of her “freedom”.

Nakagawa shoots her noirish tale with deadpan realism and a healthy respect for the ancient borders of the natural world, amping up the Lynchian sense of dread with ominous musical cues as Sotoko attempts to navigate her life in this strange little town where misogyny rules that seems to stand in for the prison of her trauma. Literally named “child of beyond”, she looks for the new world somewhere on the outside but struggles to extricate herself from an internalised sense of shame and worthlessness in order to find it. “Wherever you go you won’t be satisfied” a threatening policeman (Tomoki Kimura) had told her, but if you never leave the village then how would you ever know?


Beyond the Night streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (恋とさよならとハワイ, Shingo Matsumura, 2017)

Love and Goodbye and Hawaii poster 1“To end something requires more courage than anything else” the conflicted heroine of Shingo Matsumura’s Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (恋とさよならとハワイ, Koi to Sayonara to Hawaii) is told by her well-meaning ex, but it’s a lesson she’s struggling to learn. Life may very well be a “road made of decisions”, but Rinko (Aya Ayano) doesn’t know how to make them and is rapidly becoming aware that if you don’t hit the relevant dialogue box fast enough they will largely be made for you. Less a tale of romantic confusion, Love and Goodbye and Hawaii is a young woman’s gradual path towards accepting that her attachment to the status quo is as much about the fear of moving forward as it is the pain of faded love.

Office worker Rinko has been living with her graduate student boyfriend Isamu (Kentaro Tamura) for the last three years. To all of their friends, they seem to have the perfect relationship but what no one knows is that, though they continue to live together, the couple broke up some months previously. Seeing as it was Isamu’s apartment in the first place, Rinko plans to move out as soon as she’s saved enough money to find somewhere new in the precarious Tokyo housing market, but then again now that they’re no longer “together” the arrangement has become so comfortable that there’s really no hurry to make a change. Matters come to a head, however, when Rinko discovers that a fellow student at Isamu’s university has taken a liking to him, and it seems he to her.

Despite having been broken up for almost six months, Rinko hasn’t quite accepted that it’s over. She demurs when her friends ask her if she’ll be getting married soon, only latterly admitting that they’ve technically broken up, and explaining that she really has it good now because it was too “heavy” before which is why they fought all the time. Now that there’s “nothing” to fight over and they’ve gone back to being platonic friends it’s all so much easier. Too easy, in fact, which why she isn’t really ready to move on.

Rinko’s unconventional living arrangements seem extremely strange to her friends. “Break up like normal people and never see him again” her friend tells her, offering her a space on the sofa if it’s money that’s the issue. Not that money’s not a problem, but even when well-meaning people offer financial help to end this “weird” situation, Rinko doesn’t really want to take it. She tells her friend that relationships are like driving and you don’t want to jump on the breaks incase they jam and you end up on the skids, but as her perceptive younger sister points out perhaps she just wants to get back together and doesn’t know how to go about it.

Analogies are something Rinko seems to have a taste for, unable to state her feelings plainly in a way others will understand she wraps them up in a more palatable narrative. So it is that she ends up telling her friend’s drunken younger sister that with Isamu she felt like she was CD no other player had worked out how to play. She figured out she liked the sound inside her when she was with him, but time moves on and it feels like she’s still a CD but Isamu is now an iPod and she doesn’t really know what to do with that. What she’s trying to say is that they’ve grown apart, but what she hasn’t quite admitted to herself is that maybe it’s not Isamu that she’s afraid of leaving but the vision of herself as reflected in him.

“Show your real self, put your real feelings out there” the younger woman tells her, but that’s something that doesn’t necessarily get easier with age. Finally gathering the courage, Rinko makes her way back to Isamu for a “serious talk”, only to run into her romantic rival but contrary to expectation the two women find that they have no interest in competition and only wish each other well. Rather than that “serious talk” however, Rinko ends up trying to sort out her romantic dilemma through the familiar medium of a walking race which does at least allow the diffident Isamu to make his feelings plain without actually having to say anything. Sometimes actions are kinder than words, and easier to understand. What Rinko needs to learn is that you can find self acceptance without needing to see it reflected in someone else, and that fear of moving forward is not a good reason for holding back. A quiet and melancholy look at life after love, Love, Goodbye and Hawaii is a gentle ode to the art of moving on with no hard feelings, looking straight ahead.


Original trailer (English subtitles)