It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Haruhiko Arai, 2019)

“It’s kind of erotic” a young man remarks watching the local bon odori, “Like dancing on the border between this world and the next”, the woman adds, “people who have died and are stuck in limbo”, “kind of like us”. In limbo is indeed where the lovers of It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Kako No Futari) seem to be, perpetually awaiting the end of the world while wilfully retreating into the romantic past as they reheat their adolescent love affair from a perspective of experience.

Now approaching middle age, Kenji (Tasuku Emoto) is a dejected divorcee living an aimless life in Tokyo when he gets a call from his father (Akira Emoto) to let him know that his cousin, Naoko (Kumi Takiuchi), is getting married and would like to invite him to the wedding. He spins a yarn about needing to ask for time off from a job he doesn’t have, but packs up and leaves right away, staying in the old family home vacant since his mother died and his father remarried. Naoko visits him almost immediately, enlisting his help transporting a large TV set to the house she will be sharing with her fiancé, a major in the SDF currently engaged in disaster relief. Apparently still not over their aborted romance of more than a decade earlier, she determines to seduce her former lover for a one night stand, but the night of passion reawakens Kenji’s desire and eventually leads to a five-day holiday in which the couple cocoon themselves in intimacy awaiting the return of the absent major. 

Adapted from the novel by Kazufumi Shiraishi which was published in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, It Feels So Good finds itself in a moment of acute anxiety and existential threat. The lovers feel themselves in various ways already dead, in part because of the poetic affectation of a lovers’ suicide in which they imagined themselves swallowed by the crater of a dormant mount Fuji. The inactive volcano motif perhaps hints at the untapped potential of their still simmering passion, but also at their mutual emptiness as they attempt to find meaning in the aftermath of disaster. Naoko confides that she decided to get married, in part, because she wanted to become a mother after witnessing so much death, but later adds that she is also suffering from a kind of survivor’s guilt as a resident of Akita, in the disaster area but itself relatively untouched by death or destruction. Kenji, meanwhile, struggles to emerge from the ashes of his failed marriage which seems to have sent him into a self-destructive, alcoholic spiral, that cost him his career and left him living aimlessly in the city. 

Naoko spins their “temporary” affair as a return to the past, not really cheating just temporally displaced, as they hole up together in her marital home making the most of their time alternating between the bed and the dinner table engaging in two kinds of dialogue, that of the body and the other of the mind. Returning to a previous intimacy they marvel at the ease of their connection while edging their way towards a frank discussion of how and why their original affair came to an end, reflecting on shame and fear as they meditate on past choices and their future implications always aware that their present connection has an expiry date. That sense of an ending takes on existential connotations not only for the couple but for the wider world as they contemplate a coming disaster, refocussing their minds and desires on the here and now. “I should have listened to my body” Kenji laments, refusing to think of the future in favour of the present moment, “it’s now or never”.

It Feels So Good topped the Kinema Junpo Best 10 list for 2019, a feat doubly notable because it is directed by Haruhiko Arai who is, among other things, editor of rival publication Eiga Geijutsu (ethical concerns aside it took the top spot in their poll too). Arai began his career in pink film writing scripts for Koji Wakamatsu and there is something distinctly ‘70s in It Feels So Good’s nostalgic sensibility besides its plaintive retro folk score and theatrical dialogue. Nevertheless what he charts is two people learning how to live in a world of constant anxiety, sitting atop a volcano but choosing heat over ash, retreating into private passion as a protective bubble against existential uncertainty.


It Feels So Good is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Suspicion (疑惑, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1982)

Suspicion posterBy the early ‘80s, Japan had successfully shaken off post-war desperation for burgeoning consumerism, but even as the nation rocketed into a more comfortable future, social equality proved slow to arrive. Once again adapting a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s Suspicion (疑惑, Giwaku) makes allies of two very different women who are each in one way or another rejected by the conservative, infinitely rigid society in which they live.

Former bar hostess Kumako (Kaori Momoi) falls under suspicion when she alone survives the car accident that takes her husband’s life. A brassy, aloof woman, Kumako does not behave in the way the police might expect a recently bereaved spouse to behave which instantly turns them against her. This becomes a real problem once they discover that her husband, Shirakawa (Noboru Nakaya), was an extraordinarily wealthy man on whom she had recently taken out a number of life insurance polices. Shirakawa’s public profile ensures that the potentially salacious case is taken up by the newspapers who waste no time proclaiming Kumako a gold digging murderess while openly baying for her blood. Intimidated by the public outcry, the police are determined to charge Kumako with her husband’s murder despite the only existing evidence being extremely circumstantial.

After a prominent lawyer declines to take her case, her legal council stands down citing his poor health leaving Kumako entirely undefended. The court eventually appoints her a new lawyer, a woman – Ritsuko Sahara (Shima Iwashita), more practiced in civil than criminal law and just as much of an outcast as Kumako though in very different ways. Ritsuko has divorced her husband and he has custody of their young daughter whom Ritsuko makes a point of seeing once a month. Though the arrangement seems to suit her well enough, her status as a career woman who has “rejected” the roles of wife and mother also makes her one viewed with “suspicion” by those around her.

The central issue is indeed Kumako’s character. A former bar hostess with a traumatic childhood, Kamako has four previous convictions including assault and blackmail as well as an abrasive personality and a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. She doesn’t do herself any favours, but no kind of justice would be served if she were sentenced to death not for her husband’s murder but for the crime of being an “unpleasant” woman in a society which expects women to be docile and polite.

The papers, however, are very invested in the story of the coldblooded, gold digging murderess. Akitani (Akira Emoto), a local reporter, cosies up to the police for insider information, and does his best to root out Kumako’s sordid past including a sometime boyfriend who might have been her “pimp”. Ritsuko makes “trial by media” a key part of her defence strategy, arguing that her client’s case has been unfairly prejudiced by the image the press has sought to construct of her, but is unaware of the extent to which the police investigation has been distorted by the desire to appease the media or the various ways in which a venal press has gently perverted the course of justice in search of a better story.

Cool and efficient, Ritsuko isn’t really sure whether Kumako did it or not but is determined to ensure she is tried by the codes of law and not of conventional morality. A disgraced Akitani later barks at her that he sees no need to defend “a woman like that” in the papers, but Ritsuko’s having none of it – the purpose of the law is precisely to ensure guilt or innocence is assessed rationally on the basis of the evidence presented, as free of personal prejudice as it’s possible to be. An idealistic claim, given Japan’s famously implacable legal system, but one that sits well with a functioning democracy.

Ritsuko’s defence of Kumako is not particularly a feminist exercise, though a grudging kind of mutual respect eventually arises between the two women who have each in one sense or another rejected socially defined gender roles. While Ritsuko proclaims herself happy enough to be a mother once a month on Sundays, her husband’s new wife is a more territorial sort, eventually asking her to stop seeing her own daughter because she would rather raise her believing that she is hers alone. Kumako, however, is entirely unrepentant, even emboldened, vowing that she will continue using men until the day she dies. The two women remain mirror images of each other, both rejected, viewed with “suspicion” for the choices they have made, and forever at odds with a society which has already found them each “guilty” in the court of public opinion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド, Teruyuki Yoshida , 2016)

Shippu Rondo posterIn this new age of anxiety, can we find the time to laugh about the possible release of a deadly bioweapon illegally developed and then stolen by a disgruntled employee who then finally gets hit by a truck before he can reveal what he did with it? On watching Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド), your answer may be a predictable no. Adapted from a novel by Keigo Higashino, who is not particularly known for his sense of humour, Shippu Rondo fails to capitalise on the inherent absurdity of its premise, lurching between broad comedy and existential dread before making a late in the game shift towards sentimental family melodrama.

The trouble begins when a disgruntled employee (Shigeyuki Totsugi) fired for his zeal in creating a virulent bioweapon returns and steals its only sample, skiing out into the woods and burying it in a canister which will open automatically should the temperature rise above 10ºC. Hoping for a hefty ransom, he nails a teddybear containing a radio signal to the nearest tree and sends an email asking for cash in return for the location. Unfortunately, he gets hit by a truck before he can give more detailed information but does at least leave a radio transmitter and a photo as a clue.

Hapless widowed researcher Kuribayashi (Hiroshi Abe) is the one charged with bringing the extremely dangerous K-55 back under control, taking his 14-year-old son Shuto (Tatsuomi Hamada) along as a kind of guide/cover in the exciting world of Japanese ski resorts. The problem is, Shippu Rondo can’t decide if it wants to be an absurd black comedy about the potential death of thousands because of self-centred, selectively stupid scientists, a serious crime thriller, or a tearjerking melodrama of emotional repression and filial misconnection.

Thus, after arriving at the ski resort, we largely forget about the urgency surrounding the missing canister of deadly toxins while becoming involved in the various dramas of the otherwise peaceful town. The younger sister of one of the local teens apparently died of flu, leaving a nasty rumour behind that her depressed mother, who runs the local cafe, secretly plots revenge against the youngsters who “spread” the disease. Meanwhile, a man in a funny hat (Tsuyoshi Muro) keeps following Kuribayashi around while he looks for the canister, and the ski patrol guy (Tadayoshi Okura) tries to encourage his friend (Yuko Oshima) and probable love interest that she should fight for her sporting dreams while she wonders if to do so is irresponsible in the wake of mass tragedy like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The irony of the flu proving deadly while the threat of mass death from incurable anthrax looms over the heads of everyone is never lost, though its eventual resolution is underbaked in the extreme. Despite the fact we’re repeatedly told that the lid on the canister is designed to dissolve if the temperature exceeds 10ºC, someone carries it in their pocket for an undetermined amount of time while considering whether to use it to poison all their friends in the hope of cheering someone up and rising in their estimation. It’s a peculiarly Higashino-esque touch in its bizarre mean-spiritedness, but then gives way to broad sentimentality as the beneficiary of the action reminds the would-be mass killer that they shouldn’t wish misfortune on others but rather should double up on happiness for all. Meanwhile, Kuribayashi’s jaded middle-aged cynicism rubs up against his son’s adolescent idealism as he tries to process the fact that his dad works in illegal weapons, has lied to everyone around him by telling them they were looking for an experimental vaccine needed to save a terminally patient, and is planning to brush the whole thing under the carpet to save his own skin.

More gentle comedy than disaster thriller, the crisis eventually works itself out if in continually farcical episodes of swapped vials and villains falling off cliffs, while Kuribayashi’s self-interested boss Togo (Akira Emoto) dances maniacally around his office. Low budget in the extreme, Teruyuki Yoshida’s direction is of the TV special variety, veering between broad comedy and a cynical drama in which the day is saved largely because a teenage boy has entirely lost faith in his feckless father to do the right thing. Still, it all ends in a positive message as the champion snowboarder resolves that the best way to help people might lie in embracing your unique skillset while her bashful friend supports from the sidelines, the older generation remember their responsibility to lead by example, and evil corporate mad scientists are forced to own their casual disregard for public safety.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tonight, at the Movies (今夜、ロマンス劇場で, Hideki Takeuchi, 2018)

Tonight, at the Movies posterThe romance of the silver screen is one that never fades. Cinema has long been in love with itself, wilfully trapped inside the nostalgia of its own origins and youthful glory days. Nevertheless, we love it too and it’s a rare film fan who can resist the allure of the golden age backlot. With Tonight, at the Movies (今夜、ロマンス劇場で, Konya, Romansu Gekijo de, AKA Color Me True) Hideki Takeuchi becomes the latest in a long line of directors including Koki Mitani and Yoji Yamada to pay homage to world of classic Japanese cinema only this time he opts for a double rainbow as his eternal dreamer hero laments the loss of ‘30s glamour in the declining movie world of 1960 while his older self looks back on the bygone pleasures of his youth.

In 1960, Kenji (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is an assistant director at Kyoei film studios. Well, AD is what it says on his payslip, but Kenji is a mild mannered sort who mostly ends up doing odd jobs like ferrying props around and painting backdrops, mostly because he’s too much of a soft touch to push for anything else. The shy and beautiful daughter of the studio chief, Toko Naruse (Tsubasa Honda) – note the name, has fallen for him, but Kenji only has eyes for the silver screen. He spends his evenings at the local rep cinema “Romance Theatre” where he watches the daily programme and then bribes the owner (Akira Emoto) to make use of the projection booth after hours to watch his favourite forgotten classic, “The Tomboy Princess and the Jolly Beasts”. After a freak lightning strike and power outage, Kenji is shocked to discover that Miyuki (Haruka Ayase), the Tomboy Princess herself, has escaped from the silver screen and ventured into the Technicolor world.

After opening within the world of the film within the film, Takeuchi hops us forward to the contemporary era of cellphones and an ageing society as a kindly nurse laments that no one ever seems to come and see her favourite patient, Mr. Makino (Go Kato), except his granddaughter who everyone agrees is unnecessarily cold towards him. Makino is something of a key name in Japanese movie history having belonged to Shozo Makino who is often regarded as the father of Japanese cinema, and to his son Masahiro who was best known for his jidaigeki but also for his love of song and dance as seen in such cheerful hits as Singing Lovebirds which seems to have in part inspired the brief musical number in The Tomboy Princess sung by her Jolly Beasts in true ‘30s style. As we assume, Mr. Makino is Kenji 50 years later though we quickly realise that he was not able to live up to the promise of his name and never became the top film director of his dreams.

This is (partly) because we meet Kenji at what is really the beginning of an end. By 1960, the golden age was drawing to a close and studios were beginning to feel the heat from the growing popularity of television. In 10 years time, Kenji’s studio will no longer exist and the industry will have undergone a series of seismic shifts that will forever change the cinematic landscape. Yet even now Kenji is looking back rather than forwards – he worships the world of twenty years previously with its cheerful if nonsensical musical adventures and most particularly that of the Tomboy Princess who dares to rebel against her destiny by leaving her life of comfort behind to seek adventure in a foreign land, ours.

As the voice over from the melancholy rep cinema manager reminds us, film is fleeting but even forgotten films have the magical power to bring colour to someone’s heart. Both Kenji and the cinema manager have a deep seated reverence for movie making and feel almost sorry for the myriad films lying dormant in rusty cans waiting for someone to find them. The heroine of just such a film, Miyuki in turn is a lonely cinema ghost whose era has long since passed.

In Kenji she has finally found an adoring audience though the pair remain separated by an invisible screen even as their fated romance proceeds along the expected lines. Taken as metaphor, Kenji’s all encompassing obsession with a character from an old movie is not especially healthy and later leads him to reject the possibility of a full and conventional romance with a woman who loves him as well as give up on his dreams of movie making. He has, in a sense, decided to marry “cinema” with all the questionable aspects of that decision. In this case, however, “cinema” has taken real physical form even if that form is not available to him physically. Kenji and Miyuki remain on two sides of an invisible screen, but it is clear that the love flows both ways and, perhaps crucially, causes them both pain in their inability to exist fully within the same physical space. 

Filled with a wealth of references to cinema classics from Japan and beyond, Tonight, at the Movies is a beautiful fairytale romance well worthy of its cinematic pedigree. Cinema is a theoretical paradox where permanence and impermanence meet thanks to the magic of the movies. Nostalgia may be a trap, but it’s a beautiful one to fall into.


Tonight, at the Movies was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2005)

It's Only Talk poster“I’m scared of wanting to die” the heroine of Ryuichi Hiroki’s It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Yawarakai Seikatsu) confesses during an awkward car ride with a childhood friend, perhaps one of the only absolute truths she offers in her infinite quest to escape existential loneliness through the false connection of mass tragedy. Yuko (Shinobu Terajima) tells people that her parents died in the Kobe Earthquake, but they actually died in a house fire a few years later. She tells people that her best friend died in 9/11 (she died in New York in the early 2000s but in a car accident), and that her former lover died during the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway (this one might even be true, but who really can say). She lies, not about facts only details, in the belief that her private pain is somehow not relatable enough and if she ties herself into a wider sense of national or global tragedies then others can share in her grief and she won’t be so alone in her sadness.

Following the deaths of her parents when she was 29, Yuko was diagnosed with bipolar and has been in and out of hospitals for the past six years. Now 35, single, and unemployed, Yuko has found herself cast out from mainstream society and fulfils her (minimal) needs for human connection through meeting “perverts” on specialist message-boards. Through one of these illicit connections she meets K. (Tomorowo Taguchi) – a 50-year-old husband and father who drives her all the way out to provincial suburb Kamata to ensure the liaison (which extends only to watching a porn film together in a public cinema and a cup of tea afterwards) remains secret. Taken with the suburb’s retro charm and unassuming air of faded grandeur, she decides to move and starts life over again in the somewhat nostalgic past which brings her into contact with two men from her youth and another still battling his own.

A portrait of inescapable loneliness, Yuko’s life is both as frozen as the photographs she takes of local landmarks to post on her fledgling blog and permanently in flux as she tries to navigate the constantly shifting tides of her condition. After moving to Kamata she unexpectedly reencounters an old university friend who recalls their spirited discussions of world politics from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square when they were both bright and engaged students. Like Yuko, Honma (Shunsuke Matsuoka) has wound up in Kamata as a kind of retreat from the harshness of life in Tokyo. Unwilling to embrace life in the public eye, he’s decided to concentrate on a career in local politics instead hoping to work his way into the ministry of education as a civil servant. He is also unmarried – partly as a result of debts accrued during unsuccessful electoral campaigns, and, as we later find out, erectile dysfunction. Honma reintroduces Yuko to another old friend, “Bach” (Nao Omori) who has gone the opposite way and become a venture capitalist but apparently still holds a torch for the young Yuko all these years later. Meanwhile, she’s been meeting up with a lonely yakuza, Noboru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who also has bipolar and longs for the world of childhood safety and innocence he associates with the strange Godzilla tyre park Yuko photographed and put on her blog.

The most significant relationship in her short-lived period of connection is in fact with her childhood friend and cousin, Shoichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), who abruptly turns up at her flat unannounced. Shoichi, also depressed but perhaps in a less extreme way and hiding it much better, left his marriage because he felt pushed out when the baby was born and then ran after a younger woman who went to Tokyo but ultimately did not want him. The two share a strange sort of intimacy born of their long history which is almost fraternal but laced with minor awkwardness and ancient resentments. Though his wife berated him for his refusal to help out at home, Shoichi tenderly cares for Yuko just as she is at her most vulnerable having entered an extreme depressive episode – washing her hair, doing her laundry, and picking up her medication while trying to remain patient even when Yuko rejects his gestures of help. The giving and receiving of care provides each with a new sense of purpose and connection but their paths are perhaps set on different courses in the immediacy of the need to deal with the unresolved past.

Waking up from her depression, Yuko discovers life has delivered her yet another cruel blow, witnessing others moving on in one way or another and leaving her once again all alone marooned on the sidelines. Yet she lives on, “scared of wanting to die” but daring to remove the towel which hides an ugly scar from a previous suicide attempt to revisit a public bath which holds a memory perhaps both happy and sad. Melancholy in the extreme, It’s Only Talk is not a tragedy but an aching portrait of spiritual loneliness in a society only too happy to exclude.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shoplifters (万引き家族, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)

Shoplifters poster 2Tolstoy once said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The family drama is the mainstay of Japanese cinema, though to be fair it rarely features families which are noticeably “unhappy” so much as struggling under the weight of social expectations. Nevertheless, since consumerism arrived in force, the concept of “the family” has come in for regular interrogation. That at the centre of Shoplifters (万引き家族, Manbiki Kazoku), Hirokazu Koreeda’s return to the genre with which he is most closely associated, are on one level among the happiest of families ever captured on film, but then again they are not quite like all the others.

The Shibatas live in a small Japanese-style house owned by “grandma” Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) whose pension (or, to be more precise, that of her late husband) makes up a significant portion of the family income. Patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) has a casual job as a day labourer while his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works in a laundry. Her “sister” Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) tells people she works as a kind of hostess but actually dresses up as a schoolgirl and performs sex services behind a two-way mirror in a sleazy club. Meanwhile, Osamu and Nobuyo’s “son”, Shota (Jyo Kairi), alternates his time between homeschooling himself and helping out with the family’s only other source of income – thievery. It’s after one partially successful foray to the local supermarket that Osamu and Shota come across a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), stuck out on a balcony alone in the freezing cold and decide to take her home for something warm to eat.

Of course, this family itself is the very definition of makeshift. Osamu and Nobuyo may be a “real” couple, but no one else is actually related. The Family Game may have attempted to take the family apart and expose it as an artificial mechanism devoid of real feeling in which each is simply playing the role expected of them, but Shoplifters asks the opposite – if a found family can actually be more “real” that the real thing because it has been chosen, is wanted, and continues to function because of an organic bond between individuals which exists in the absence of blood.

In a sense, the family itself has been “shoplifted”. Later, under questioning, Nobuyo is accused of “throwing away” Hatsue but she corrects them – she didn’t and she wouldn’t. Someone else “threw away” Hatsue and she found her. Hatsue was abandoned by her husband who fathered a family with another woman, but seemingly not with her. Alone she longed for a family of her own and most of all to avoid the looming threat of a “lonely death”. Whatever else they might have gained from the “arrangement”, Osamu and Nobuyo are at least able to offer her the thing that would make her life complete as she prepares to meet its end. By the logic of the family drama, one family must be broken in order to forge another and it’s true enough to say that each member of the Shibata clan has been pilfered from somewhere else but in the end perhaps it’s better this way, free of the cold obligation of a blood or legal tie.

Then again, there are cracks in the foundation. Little Shota, growing fast into a young man, is increasingly conflicted about the way the family makes ends meet. Trapped in low paid, casual employment, Osamu and Nobuyo are working but poor, unable to support their family on their wages alone. Injured at work, Osamu is left without compensation because he’s only a day labourer and therefore not entitled to workplace protections while Nobuyo is eventually forced into a “workshare” arrangement and then to resign when her boss cruelly tells her and a friend that they can decide between themselves which of them gets to keep their job. They steal because they’re hungry, but also perhaps because they enjoy this small way of rebelling against the system. Osamu tells Shota that stealing from stores is OK because no one really “owns” anything while it’s still on the shelf, but Shota begins to doubt his logic. It’s not just “taking”, it’s taking “from” and Shota is increasingly worried about who it is their way of life may be harming. He worries that in taking in Yuri the family is corrupting her, indoctrinating her into their morally dubious universe.

Morally dubious it may be, but life with the Shibatas is warm and safe which is a lot more than can be said for Yuri’s life with her birth parents who don’t even bother to report her missing – social services eventually figure out she isn’t around two months later and come to the conclusion that the parents may have got rid of her in some unspecified way. Which sort of “corruption” is worse – an upbringing filled with abuse and neglect, or one filled with love and habitual criminality? Yet it’s an act of love that finally breaks the family apart and leaves them at the mercy of cold and official forces too obsessed with their own sense of narrative to bother listening to the “truth”. Shoplifters wants to ask if the “natural” laws of society still serve us when little girls fall through the cracks and our definition of “family” is so narrow and rigid that it denies us a way of saving them. Sometimes the found family is stronger than the inherited one, but society is primed to crush it all the same in its relentless and indifferent quest to preserve the social order.


Shoplifters opens in UK cinemas on 23rd November courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Lu Over the Wall (夜明け告げるルーのうた, Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Lu over the wall posterComing of age dramas are the mainstay of anime, but if anyone was going to take one in a pleasingly new direction it would be Masaaki Yuasa. His second release of 2017 following the comparatively more abstract The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, Lu Over the Wall (夜明け告げるルーのうた, Yoake Tsugeru Lu no Uta) is the tale of a boy learning to break of out his emotional repression in order to step into a healthier adulthood but it’s also one of learning to live with loss and grief. From the Irish selkie to the conventional mermaid, people of the sea have more often than not stood in for people from a land of lost things where souls are carried away and lonely sailors lured to their doom, but perhaps we’ve simply misunderstood them and the song they sing isn’t intended to make us sad but only to make us remember the joy of living.

Sullen teenager Kai (Shota Shimoda) is in his last year of middle school with a lot of decisions awaiting him as to the further direction of his life. For the moment, Kai lives in the small fishing village of “Hinashi” somewhere in Southern Japan. “Hinashi” literally means “sunless” and the town is indeed overshadowed by a large cliff which blocks the town from the sun but there’s a more metaphorical kind of gloominess lurking here too. Kai is not the only miserable one, pretty much all of the townspeople once dreamt of escape but have either proved unable to get away from their small town roots, or have tried and failed to make it somewhere else before reluctantly returning, salmon-like, to the place of their births. The only one, it seems, to successfully make it out is Kai’s mum who left the family when Kai was small.

Much to his father’s (Shinichi Shinohara) irritation, Kai’s big dream is music though he’s less than thrilled when bamboozled into joining two other aspiring rockstar teens, Kunio (Soma Saito) and Yuho (Minako Kotobuki), as the third member of “Seirèn” even if it does give him an excuse to explore the generally forbidden territory of Mermaid Island. Whilst there, the trio’s song calls out to a music loving Merfolk girl, Lu (Kanon Tani), who can’t resist joining in and, awkwardly, is a much better lead vocalist than the divaish Yuho.

Lu, a charmingly vibrant toddler-type, is perfectly primed to bring this moribund town back to its sunny old self. Able to conjure her own portable corridors of water to travel over land, Lu tracks down Kai hoping to hear more wonderful music and making childish attempts to communicate through broken Japanese so that she can learn to understand the human world. Lu is not, however, the image most of the townspeople have when they think about Merfolk considering most of the local legends paint them as voraciously carnivorous predators existing only to steal landlubbing souls.

The Merfolk are a perfect metaphor for most of the ills consuming the town – a never seen manifestation of unknown fears. Everyone here has lost someone or something at sea (this is, after all a fishing village) or to the city, or just in themselves in learning to accept reality over the lure of unattainable dreams. Kai’s young and caring if distant father tries to push his son towards the “correct” path of non-stop studying and moral uprightness, but his son is just like teenage him, dreaming musical dreams of escape. It might have all gone wrong for Kai’s dad, but as he’s finally able to admit thanks to the guidance of Lu, he doesn’t regret a minute of it.

Ironically enough, Kai’s name is also the word for shellfish in Japanese, making his grandfather’s (Akira Emoto) frequent lament that the muscles in his dinner won’t open more than a little pointed. Kai is definitively closed off, refusing to even open the letters from his mother and keeping himself aloof at school and at home. Yet he’s not the only one who needs to open up – forced to dance to Lu’s tune (literally) each of the townspeople comes to make peace with those things that are so very hard to say, either letting past traumas float away or deciding to swim away with them.

It is, however, a little uncomfortable when the final resolution takes on a romantic dimension seeing as Lu has been painted as an adorable child with her giant bubbly head, cute high pitched voice, and childishly broken Japanese, not to mention that a secondary plot strand revolves around her father (an anthropomorphised shark/killer whale) who has attempted to shed some prejudices of his own to help his daughter in her desire to make friends with humans. Nevertheless, Yuasa and his scriptwriter Reiko do their best to do justice to all the ills of the town from the corporate greed of the mermaid loving old timer who wants to open a theme park exploiting their image, to the creepy behaviour of Yuho’s governor father, and the ever present themes of loss, guilt, and disappointment. The trio of teens at the centre may have felt themselves trapped in a dead end town, but thanks to Lu they come to realise that they too can jump over the wall and go wherever they want so long as they take the music with them.


Lu Over the Wall is in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th December 2017 courtesy of Anime Ltd.. Find out where it’s screening near you via the official Lu Over the Wall microsite.

Anime Ltd. trailer (Dialogue free)

Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2017)

survival family posterModern life is full of conveniences, but perhaps they come at a price. Shinobu Yaguchi has made something of a career out of showing the various ways nice people can come together to overcome their problems, but as the problem in Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー) is post-apocalyptic dystopia, being nice might not be the best way to solve it. Nevertheless, the Suzukis can’t help trying as they deal with the cracks already present in their relationships whilst trying to figure out a way to survive in the new, post-electric world.

Receiving a package from grandpa fills the Suzukis with horror more than gratitude. Mum Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu) can’t bring herself to cut the head off a fish and the sight of the giant bug that crawls out of the lettuce is just too much to bear. Her teenage daughter, Yui (Wakana Aoi), is not very excited either, tapping her smartphone with her fake nails, while her son Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) spends all his time alone in his room with headphones permanently attached. Mr. Suzuki, Yoshiyuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) – the family patriarch, is a typical salaryman, obsessed with work and often in bed early.

All that changes one day when Yoshiyuki’s alarm clock does not go off. There’s been a power outage – nothing works, not the TV, not the phone, not even the tower block’s elevator. Being the salaryman champ he is, Yoshiyuki tries to make it into to work in other ways but the power’s out across the city and there’s nothing to be done. Everyone is sure the power will come back on soon, but days pass with the consequences only increasing as supermarket shelves become bare and water frighteningly scarce. After his boss decides to take his chances in the mountains and a neighbour dies as a direct result of the ongoing power shortage, Yoshihyuki decides to take the family on the road to find Mitsue’s country bumpkin father in the hope that he will have a better idea of how to survive this brave new world.

Yaguchi is quick to remind us all of the ways electricity defines our lives, even if we’ve begun to forget them. Not only is it a question of mobile phones being out and lifts being out of order, but gas appliances are also electric ignition as are the pumps which drive the water system. So used to the constant stream of electricity, no one quite realises what its absence means hence Yoshiyuki’s big idea is to get a plane from Haneda airport. Ridiculous as it may seem, he’s not the only one to have underestimated the part electricity plays in flight and the aviation industry as the airport is swamped by people trying to escape the rapidly disintegrating city. Credit cards no longer work leading to long checkout lines as the old ladies with their abacuses make a startling return to checkouts while bemused shoppers attempt to use the ATM machine to get more cash.

Cash itself still has worth, at least for a time. Eventually the barter system takes over as food and water become top price commodities. A very flash looking man tries to trade genuine Rolex gold watch and later the keys to his Maserati for food but is roundly informed that none of his hard won prizes is worth anything in this new back to basics era. Thanks to Mitsue’s housewife skills of frugality and haggling, the family are able to get themselves a small stockplie of resources but find themselves tested when the less fortunate ask them for help.

The crisis brings out both the best and the worst in humanity. As the family make their escape from the city on a series of bicycles, they pass a succession of salesmen all upping the price of bottled water by 100% each time. Profiteering is rife as the unscrupulous procure ordinary foodstuffs to be sold for vast amounts of money. Yet the Suzukis rarely find themselves on the wrong side of trickery and even encounter a few kindly souls willing to help them on their journey such as a gang of cycle wear clad survival experts and a very forgiving farmer who takes the family in when they help themselves to one of his escaped pigs (a sequence which allows Yaguchi to go on another Swing Girls-style pig chase only without the slo-mo and classical music).

Forced to reconnect, the family become closer, gradually coming to know and accept each other whilst finding new and unknown talents. Living simply and harmoniously has its charms, ones that don’t necessarily need to disappear if the power ever comes back on. The only certainty is that you can’t survive alone, and who can you count on if you can’t count on family?


Screened as the opening night movie of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)