Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?, Masayuki Suo, 1996)

If your life has gone pretty well and you’ve more or less achieved conventional success but you’re still somehow unhappy then what is it that you’re supposed to do? Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), the hero of Masayuki Suo’s charming ballroom dancing dramedy Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?) is beginning to wonder, after all he’s a “serious” man as his wife repeatedly describes him but is it really acceptable for a middle-aged husband and father to chase emotional fulfilment or would he be cheating on the salaryman dream in daring to nourish his soul?

As he later says, Sugiyama has followed a conventional path in life. He has a respectable job as an accountant, married at 28 and had a child at 30. By 40 he was able to buy a family home, but also acknowledges that he sold his soul to the company to do so seeing as with the mortgage hanging over his head he is now fully locked in to the corporate system and couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. Yet he’s not quite like his co-workers, an early scene sees the roles somewhat reversed as he, the boss, declines the invitations of a drunken subordinate to stay out longer after an effectively compulsory after work drinking session to return to his family home at only 9pm but going straight to bed when he gets there. He and his wife Masako (Hideko Hara) share a room but sleep in separate beds presumably so he doesn’t wake her when he gets up early to go to the office making his own breakfast before he leaves. 

“It’s not a matter of like or dislike, it’s work” Sugiyama tells his co-worker as she complains that the more glamorous sales department gets all the best perks and she’s sick of working in accounts, hinting at his inner malaise in his relentlessly corporate life. That’s one reason he’s captivated by the sight of a beautiful yet sad woman gazing out of a window from a building above on his train journey home. When he gets off the train to look for her, he in one sense leaves the salaryman rails breaking with the conventions that he is expected to fulfil in search of something more. Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a former ballroom dancer taking a temporary sabbatical from competitive sport teaching at her father’s studio, is just as unhappy as he is but for contrary reasons. She has lost the joy of dance, for her it has become as soulless a job as Sugiyama’s accountancy and she too struggles with the image she has of a dancer and what that means for her in terms of personal fulfilment. 

Yet as Sugiyama explains in his opening voiceover, ballroom dancing is viewed as something of a naff hobby mostly associated with sleazy old men only there for the opportunity of physical contact with women of varying ages. When he spots his co-worker Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) at the dance class it’s embarrassing for both of them, each promising not to say anything to anyone at work, the floor later erupting in laughter when someone finds a picture of Aoki taken at a competition in the newspaper. Developing an interest in the sport, Sugiyama buys a ballroom dancing magazine but interrupted by his daughter quickly hides it as if he had been looking at pornography or some other material he feels to be shameful. 

The irony is that Masako had wished Sugiyama would go out more, realising that he’s selflessly dedicated himself to the salaryman dream in order to provide for their family, but then becomes suspicious and resentful as he leaves her alone to pursue his new hobby which he cannot disclose to her out of embarrassment. She in turn sniffing perfume on his shirts fears he’s having an affair, but is unable to ask him about it directly preferring to hire a private detective (Akira Emoto) instead. Leaving aside that each of them ends up secretly spending money when they’re supposed to be saving for the mortgage, the oppressive social conformity of the salaryman existence is beginning to erode their relationship. Forced into the role of the conventional housewife, Masako too is lonely expected to find fulfilment only in home and family while preparing to re-enter the world of work now her daughter is old enough to care for herself because of the financial burden of the mortgage rather than her own desire to fulfil herself. Sugiyama isn’t having an affair, but still she feels betrayed because he left her behind to chase emotional liberation on his own rather than taking her with him never really noticing her loneliness. 

Yet as Sugiyama is repeatedly told, dancing, unlike the salaryman game, is about more than learning the steps, it’s about feeling the music and finding joy in movement. That’s something Mai has also lost sight of, finally realising that she too was a selfish dancer who’d been dancing alone all along unable to fully trust her partner rediscovering her joy in dance as she coaches not only Sugiyama but his classmates towards their own liberation. Sugiyama remains conflicted because the excessively corporatised society leads him to believe that it’s taboo to devote oneself to anything other than work or in essence to experience joy that is not directly related to productivity, that he should be wholly “salaryman” and nothing else, just his wife should be nothing more than that. It’s this oppressive conformity that undermines their conventional marriage rather than Sugiyama’s transgressive decision to get off the salaryman train, put down his briefcase, and embrace his desire for personal fulfilment. Only through this act of mutual emotional authenticity can they restore familial harmony. A minor meditation on the emptiness of the increasingly elusive salaryman dream in the economically stagnant ’90s, Suo’s charming drama insists on joy as a basic human need in a society which often trivialises personal happiness.


Shall We Dance? screens at the BFI on 21/30 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fancy Dance (ファンシイダンス, Masayuki Suo, 1989)

Thematically speaking, the films of Masayuki Suo have two main focuses either dealing with esoteric ways of life in contemporary Japan such as sumo wrestling in Sumo Do Sumo Don’t, ballroom dancing in Shall We Dance?, and geisha in Lady Maiko, or pressing social issues such the operation of the justice system in I Just Didn’t Do It or euthanasia in A Terminal Trust. After making his debut with pink film Abnormal Family: Older Brother’s Bride, Suo’s first mainstream feature Fancy Dance (ファンシイダンス) belongs to the former category as a Bubble-era punk rocker finds himself entering a temple to honour a familial legacy. 

As the film opens, Yohei (Masahiro Motoki) is onstage singing a very polite and respectable version of a classic song, Wakamonotachi (lit. the young), made popular as the theme to a television drama in the mid-1960s, before suddenly turning around, the other half of his head already shaved continuing with the same song but now in an anarchic punk rock arrangement. The son of Buddhist temple, he is expected to become a monk and take over the family business but he’s also a young man coming of age in the ultra-materialist Bubble era raised in the city and with little inclination towards the ideals of Zen. In fact, we learn he’d long resisted the idea of entering a monastery and has only recently given in intending to stick it out for a year in order to please his parents and then return to to his Tokyo life. 

His hair reflects an inner duality, torn between his duty to take up Zen and his desire for personal freedom. Yet as he’s repeatedly told by his razor-wielding office lady girlfriend Masoho (Honami Suzuki), in the end he’s going to have to choose which from her point of view means choosing between her and the temple. Though there is obviously no prohibition on monks getting married, Yohei is the son of a monk after all, girlfriends are one of many things not really allowed during his initiatory period though as we’ll see the monastic life is often more about knowing how to game the system than it is about actually sticking to the rules. It’s a minor irony that temples, Buddhist or Shinto, are actually one of the most lucrative businesses in Japanese society and despite apparently rejecting material desire many monks are fantastically wealthy. Yohei’s fellow noviciate Eishun (Hikomaro) is dropped off by a young woman in a bright red sports car who turns out to be the daughter of a monk, Eishun only entering the temple to please her family so that he can marry her, committing himself out of love but also admitting it’s nice work if you can get it. 

Yohei’s brother Ikuo (Ken Ohsawa) is also fine with the idea of becoming a monk, describing it perhaps surprisingly as an “easy life”. Ikuo’s presence is initially a little irritating to Yohei, he only agreed because he was under the impression Ikuo had also declined to enter the temple and feels that he’s been tricked when he could have just let him train to take over the family “business”. The treatment they receive is often surprisingly harsh with a high level of physical violence administered by their superiors, in particular the more experienced Koki (Naoto Takenaka) who has it seems figured out how to break the rules in an acceptable fashion carrying on a secret romance with a young woman who often attends the temple while visiting hostess bars in the town in disguise, wearing a wig to cover his distinctive monastic hairstyle. Meanwhile, even the supposedly austere master of asceticism Shoei (Miyako Koda) has a secret stash of sweets in their room. The message seems to be that once you “graduate” from the junior ranks you too are free to interpret the tenets of a Zen life however you see fit. 

Yet despite himself, Yohei comes to appreciate the trappings of monasticism most particularly in its graceful movements and the aesthetic quality of the outfits. The temple may not be free of the consumerist corruptions of the Bubble era, but perhaps there is something it for a man like Yohei, a different kind of “freedom” than he’d envisioned but freedom all the same even within the constraints of a superficial asceticism. Masoho meanwhile rejects her own fancy dance in refusing to play the part of the conventional office lady no longer smiling sweetly cute and invisible but dressing in her own individual style and defiantly taking command of the room. The strains of Wakamonotachi recur throughout hinting at Yohei’s youthful confusion as he tries to decide on his path in or out of the temple while finding himself “swimming in a sea of desire between Masoho and Zen”, perhaps concluding that his own endless journey has only just begun.


Fancy Dance streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 alongside Suo’s 2019 Taisho-era drama Talking the Pictures as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Wakamonotachi TV drama theme by The Broadside Four (1966)

Music video for the updated theme from the 2014 TV drama remake (known as All About My Siblings) performed by Naotaro Moriyama

I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Junji Sakamoto, 2020)

“You don’t know the pain of being forgotten” laments an ageing actress attempting to move the heart of a heartless conman in Junji Sakamoto’s comedy noir I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Ichido mo Uttemasen), more as it turns out a melancholy meditation on age and disappointment than hardboiled farce. Sakamoto’s elderly heroes live in a world of night in which their dreams of youth never died, but are confronted with the realities of their lonely existences when the sun rises and exposes the shallowness of their escapist fantasy.

74-year-old Susumu Ichikawa (Renji Ishibashi) was once a promising novelist but veered away from the realms of literary fiction towards the allure of hardboiled noir, no longer permitting his wife Yayoi (Michiyo Okusu) to read his drafts claiming that she would find them too distressing. His publisher (Koichi Sato) meanwhile is more distressed by the quality of the prose than the content, partly because his novels are simply dull but also because they are far too detailed to be mere imagination and as each one seems to be based on a recent ripped from the headlines case he’s staring to worry that Susumu is the real life legendary hitman said to be responsible for a series of unsolved suspicious deaths. 

On the surface, it might be hard to believe. At home, Susumu is a regular old gent who reads the paper after breakfast and locks himself away in his study to write for the rest of the day but his wife complains that he stays out too late at night little knowing that he leads something like a double life, dressing like a shady character from a post-war noir and even at one point likening himself to Yves Montand in Police Python 357. He speaks with an affected huskiness and is fond of offering pithy epithets such as “women come alive at night” while reuniting with two similarly aged friends in a bar run by a former hitman nicknamed “Popeye” (pro wrestler Jinsei Shinzaki) who seems to have some kind of nerve damage in his hands he’s trying to stave off through obsessive knitting. 

What Susumu seems to be afraid of, however, is the sense of eclipse in his impending obsolescence. The guy who ran the local gun shop whom he’d known for 30 years recently passed away, while the guy from the Chinese herbalist apparently went home to die. His publisher’s retiring, and Popeye’s going to close the bar because his mother’s ill so he’s going back to his hometown. Susumu and his wife didn’t have any children and he perhaps feels a little untethered in his soon-to-be legally “elderly” existence while the now retired Yayoi is also lonely with her husband always off in another world he won’t let her share. His friend Ishida (Ittoku Kishibe) once a prosecutor and now a disgraced former mob lawyer working as a security consultant/fixer is estranged from his only daughter, while former cabaret star Hikaru (Kaori Momoi) never married and spends her days working in a noodle bar. They are all scared of being forgotten and fear their world is shrinking, living by night in order to forget the day. 

Perhaps you can’t get much more noir than that, but there’s a definite hollowness in Susumu’s constructed hardboiled persona that leaves him looking less like Alain Delon than a sad man in an ally with only a cigarette for a friend. Even his new editor is quick to tell him that no reads noir anymore, Susumu is quite literally living in the past battling a “hopeless struggle” as someone puts it against the futility of life by living in a hardboiled fantasy. We see him looking at target profiles for an investigative reporter proving a thorn in the side of yakuza and big business, and threaten a heartless conman (Yosuke Eguchi) whose investment frauds have caused untold misery, yet he’s not really a part of the story and his life is smaller than it seems or than he would like it to be. Perhaps in the end everyone’s is even if Susumu is as his new editor describes him “one step away from being insane”. Never quite igniting, Sakamoto’s lowkey tale of elderly ennui is less rage against the dying of the light than a tiny elegy for lives unlived as its dejected hero steps back into the shadows unwilling to welcome an unforgiving dawn.


I Never Shot Anyone screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Great Yokai War: Guardians (妖怪大戦争 ガーディアンズ, Takashi Miike, 2021)

An anxious little boy struggling with his growing responsibility finds himself charged with saving the world in Takashi Miike’s return to the realms of folklore, Great Yokai War: Guardians (妖怪大戦争 ガーディアンズ, Yokai Daisenso Guardians). Not quite a sequel to the 2005 supernatural drama, Guardians once stars a child hero trying to come to terms with his place in the world, but this time takes on another dimension as the pint-sized hero determines to embrace his “humanity” through the very qualities the yokai fear are largely absent among those who “kill and cheat their own kind”. 

Young Kei (Kokoro Terada) has recently lost his father and as the oldest child has gained an additional responsibility especially towards his younger brother, Dai (Rei Inomata). The other children meanwhile think of him as a scaredy-cat, a small gang of them exploring a disused shrine from which they each pick a fortune from a small box, Kei’s being an ominous red sheet otherwise blank. While Kei had hesitated to enter, Dai did as he was told and waited outside but longed to be included, excited rather than frightened by the creepy old buildings. Later that night, Kei is woken up by a scary yokai leaning over him in bed, covering up one eye so he can see him. Running away in fright the boy finds himself in another world, surrounded by dozens more scary yokai who tell him he’s the descendent of a legendary Edo-era yokai hunter and it’s time for him to accept his destiny by helping the yokai avoid disaster. It just so happens that a bunch of sea creatures trapped underneath a fault line have banded together in a huge ball of resentment that is currently barreling towards Tokyo. The yokai are particularly worried that the monster which they’ve named “Yokaiju” (see what they did there?) will break the seal over the city and release a nameless evil. 

The yokai first tried asking for help among themselves at the “Yammit” or Yokai Summit recently held in Beijing at which supernatural monsters from across the world including vampires, mermaids, and even Bigfoot meet, but were roundly rebuffed. Japanese yokai rarely carry weapons, and they’ve already tried asking Yokaiju nicely not to destroy Tokyo, so they need some help. The yokai that that Kei encounters are mostly of the harmless kind like the guy who just stands around holding tofu or the one who creepily washes azuki beans at inappropriate moments, what they want Kei to do is help them wake up General Bujin, the god war, though others fear the cure may be worse than the disease. Some yokai are even of the opinion that letting Yokaiju run riot is no big deal because humans are generally awful anyway and so deserve little sympathy. 

Little Kei, however, is a counter to their argument. They constantly ask him if he really has the courage to carry his mission through, even at one point taking his brother Dai instead, while Kei struggles with himself understandably afraid of his new destiny. Back in the “real” world, he is of course entirely anxious about his responsibilities as a “big brother” now that his father’s no longer around and especially as his mother is a nurse meaning she often has to work late helping other people. He is however determined to keep his promise to look after Dai, mustering all his courage to push through the scary world of monsters to save him from being sacrificed to General Bujin. He also acts with kindness and generosity of spirit, even on being betrayed by a yokai expressing only sympathy that he’s glad the lonely monster turned out to have more friends than he thought, while also making a point of stopping to save even the bad demons who were trying to kill him after they’re trapped by rockfall because “you can’t just leave a suffering person”. 

Kei’s solution is, ultimately, love not war. Faced with the giant resentment monster he chooses to soothe its pain, teaching the yokai a thing or two about themselves as they rediscover their ancient capacity for compassion and forgiveness. It’s the brothers’ love for each other which eventually saves the world, leading even the most cynical of yokai to hope that the spirit of kindness in this generation might be enough to bring about a human revolution. A good old-fashioned family adventure, Guardians’ charmingly grotesque production design and childlike view of the twilight world of spirits and demons carries genuine magic while its wholesome messages of kindness, acceptance, and personal responsibility can’t help but warm the hardest of hearts. 


The Great Yokai War: Guardians screens on Aug. 28 and Sept. 1 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

Casting Blossoms to the Sky (この空の花 長岡花火物語, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2012)

“There’s still time until a war” runs the title of a play for voices at the centre of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s oscillating docudrama, Casting Blossoms to the Sky (この空の花 長岡花火物語, Kono Sora no Hana: Nagaoka Hanabi Monogatari). Asking why when presented with the opportunity to create something beautiful that gives joy and hope to all who witness it mankind chooses death and destruction, Obayashi considers responses to disasters manmade and natural and finds largely kindness and resilience among those determined to avoid the mistakes of the past while building a better tomorrow. 

Set in the immediate wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and inspired by verbatim interviews with local people, Obayashi’s elliptical drama sends an emotionally arrested newspaper reporter to Nagoka having received a letter from an old lover that calls her back into the past. Reiko (Yasuko Matsuyuki) broke up with Katayama (Masahiro Takashima) 18 years previously uttering only the cryptic phrase “we have nothing to do with war”, but travelling through her “wonderland” begins to realise that she and everyone else is in that sense wrong. No one is really entirely unconnected or untouched by the destructive effects of conflict and pretending that it’s nothing to do with you will not in the end protect against it. 

“To the children of the future, from the adults who lived the past” runs the opening title card, making plain a fervent hope to connect the often unknowing younger generations who assume war is nothing to do with them with the traumatic past through the voices of those who directly experienced it. The play to which Reiko is invited is in itself a play for voices, an avant-garde theatre piece inspired by the verbatim speeches of residents of Nagaoka recounting their often harrowing experiences of the war apparently penned by a strange high school girl (Minami Inomata) who rides everywhere on a unicycle. The performance is set to take place in conjunction with the local summer festivals which include a series of fireworks displays commemorating lives lost in the bombing raids and symbolising a spirit of recovery following a destructive local earthquake some years earlier. 

Obayashi draws direct comparison between the natural disasters of earthquake and tsunami, and the manmade disaster of war but discovers that ordinary people often react to them in the same way with a furusato spirit of mutual solidarity and kindness. One of Katayama’s students is a displaced young man from Fukushima who remarks on the kindness he experienced having been taken in by the town of Nagaoka, a kindness he hopes to repay someday when he is finally allowed to return to his own hometown just as the people of Nagaoka have done following kindness shown to them after the earthquake. The discrimination he faces as someone from a town affected by radiation calls back to that experienced by Reiko’s parents who were survivors of the atomic bomb that fell on Nagasaki, a location chosen by pure chance on a whim when poor weather made the primary target unavailable. Among all the horror of the wartime stories Reiko uncovers, there is also selfless heroism such as that of the young man bravely throwing water over those trapped in a burning air raid shelter. 

“If only people made pretty fireworks instead of bombs, there wouldn’t have been any wars” a poet laments drawing a direct line between these two very different uses of the same material, a connection further rammed home by twin visits to a fireworks factory and atomic bomb museum. The “phoenix fireworks” become a fervent prayer, blossoms cast to the sky, in hope of a better, kinder future without the folly of war. “There are adults who think war is necessary” Katayama explains, “but not the children, of course. That’s why it’s up to the children to make peace”. Some may complain that in the rapid economic development of the post-war society something has been lost, but in times of need people are still there for each other forging the furusato spirit in contemporary Japan. Opening with a series of silent-style title cards, Obayashi’s overtly theatrical aesthetics may be comparatively retrained even while incorporating frequent use of animation and surrealist backdrops, but lend an ever poignant quality to this humanist plea for a more compassionate world in which the only explosions in the sky are made of flowers and hope not hate or destruction. 


Casting Blossoms to the Sky streams in the US July 9 – Aug. 6 as part of Japan Society New York’s Tragedies of Youth: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s War Trilogy season in collaboration with KimStim.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Masashi Yamamoto, 2020)

A moribund Tokyo mansion becomes the scene for an orgy of life, death, love, and rebirth in Masashi Yamamoto’s surrealist party movie Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Noten Paradise). Sometimes you have to learn to say goodbye and move on, other times you have to learn to forgive and let go of past resentment. Of course, sometimes you have to do both of those things at the same time, which is perhaps appropriate for the former home of the Sasayas which seems to exist between the realms of life and death, a perpetual Bon festival where departed spirits and lost souls congregate for one almighty party. 

Dad Shuji (Seiko Ito) has had a run of bad luck and unfortunately lost the family home he inherited from his parents meaning he and his two adult children, son Yuta (Soran Tamoto) and daughter Akane (Mayu Ozawa), are having to move on though who knows where to. Resentful that she’s having her life uprooted by her father’s fecklessness, Akane takes to social media and Tweets that there’s a party at hers and everyone’s invited as kind of goodbye to the house. Meanwhile, a series of strange events occur from a weird old monk (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to pray to the various neoclassical statues on the property going nuts at a belligerent removal man and then apparently dropping dead, to the resurfacing of mother Akiko (Kaho Minami) who apparently left the family some years previously for a man who ran a coffee shop but has since passed away. 

The first people to arrive for the party are a gay couple looking for somewhere to celebrate their marriage, a minor irony in that the event will later descend into an elaborate funeral for two people who may or may not be dead. As more and more guests arrive, along with a series of opportunistic commercial food stands and other businesses, the party begins to get out of hand becoming ever stranger as the night wears on. 

At the heart of it all are the tensions in the family, an unresolved resentment directed at son Yuta who is, according to his brash aunt Yuka (Sonomi Hoshino), overly preoccupied with his family circumstances to the extent that it prevents him from getting a regular job and moving on with his life. Shuji has quite clearly failed both as a son and as a father, eventually betting one of his dad’s precious antiques in a card game run by yakuza loansharks setting up shop in the house. Akane appears exasperated, but is also harbouring an intense resentment towards Akiko for her abandonment that prevents her being able to “move on” from her former family home. 

Moving on is also a problem for a few of the ghosts, the line between the living and the dead becoming increasingly blurred. One random surreal moment to the next, Yamamoto careers between absurdist episodes culminating in a fight between a murderous sentient coffee bean and a statue come to life. What began as a lowkey wedding eventually becomes a bizarre funeral enacted through the medium of Bollywood song and dance transitioning into a traditional enka festival number all of which happens before a couple of hapless crooks who’ve been operating a drug factory on the family’s property for the last two years without them ever knowing turn up with their “super mandala drug of paradise” to send the evening in a psychedelic direction. 

Yet for all the surreality of death, violence, sex, and rebirth when dawn arrives it brings with it a kind of calm brokering a new peace between friends and family members as they learn to accept each other and the past in an unburdened sense of openness. Possibly deceased monks, talking cats, kids who can’t figure out how to stop swinging and mysteriously turn themselves into sticks or dissolve in bath water, scorned lovers, unrepentant thieves, ghosts and family secrets descend on this weird gothic mansion in the middle of a city, creating a “wonderful paradise” for one night only filled with surrealist magic and unforgettable strangeness that nevertheless pushes the family back together through dream logic and a taste of the absurd. A weird, sometimes incomprehensible, journey into an etherial, psychedelic twilight psychodrama rave, Yamamoto’s charmingly bizarre nighttime odyssey is a law unto itself but one filled with wonder for the uncanniness of the everyday. 


Wonderful Paradise 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)

The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)