The Fish Tale (さかなのこ, Shuichi Okita, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Shuichi Okita has made a career for himself exploring the lives of eccentric people and The Fish Tale (さかなのこ, Sakana no kKo) is certainly no exception. Based on the memoirs of the real life “Sakana-kun”, the film is a testament to the ways in which true enthusiasm can become an infectious source for good while even subjects which might seem esoteric can have universal appeal when delivered in the right way. Meebo (Non) is not like everyone else but sees nothing wrong in that nor do they see anything wrong in the way others live their lives (save for thinking edamame are better than fish). 

Later a TV personality, best-selling author, and YouTuber, Meebo has been totally obsessed with fish all their life. They draw pictures of fish, edit a fish-themed newspaper in middle school, and talk about fish all day long but they still eat fish and find how good it tastes just another thing that makes fish the best thing ever. Though Meebo’s mother (Haruka Igawa) is ever supportive, their father (Hiroki Miyake) has his doubts worried that Meebo isn’t like the other children and is going to struggle later in life. When Meebo meets a strange man with a fish hat on his head (a cameo from the real life Sakana-kun) whom most of the other children avoid, their mother says it’s alright to go to his house to see his aquarium but their father disagrees for obvious reasons later calling the police when Meebo fails to return home at the agreed time. Mr. Fish Head is the only person with whom the young Meebo can truly bond in their shared love of sea life but he also bears out their father’s sense of disapproval in admitting that he came from a wealthy family but is now low on funds because like Meebo he wasn’t suited to conventional schooling and has never been able to hold down a steady job. 

Meebo’s mother meanwhile is more relaxed, calmly telling Meebo’s teacher that having good grades isn’t necessarily important for everyone and she doesn’t want to force Meebo to make themselves unhappy by giving up fish to get them. In any case employment is something Meebo struggles with, fired from the aquarium for spending too much time admiring the fish and then later let go from a sushi bar. Meebo is hired to create an aquatic display for a dentist with an extremely gaudy office but fails to correctly interpret the brief unable to understand the dentist just wanted something flashy and superficial (like himself), but is finally offered a job at a pet shop with a sympathetic boss who appreciates their deep knowledge of and love for fish. 

As Meebo says, they don’t understand what “normal” is save for a vague sense that they may not be but continues to live their life happily no matter what others might think. When they’re targeted by delinquents in high school, Meebo ends up simply inviting them to come fishing with them and is generally able to win over those who don’t understand or approve of their obsessive interest with the force of their enthusiasm. Then again, there are those who are simply too conventional such as the young woman childhood friend Hiyo (Yuya Yagira) tries to introduce her to who rudely laughs at Meebo’s “childish” determination to become a “fish expert” as if such a thing were inherently ridiculous. Time and again its these special connections often made in childhood which continue to help Meebo on their way, engineering a friendship between the leaders of two rival high school gangs who later hire them to help decorate the interior of a new sushi bar. 

That’s not to say their life is not sometimes difficult, but their love for fish always seems to carry them through while the joy and enthusiasm they bring with them makes others happy and more curious about the world in which they live. Their love of sea life eventually trickles down to the next generation with childhood friend Momo (Kaho) taking her daughter to the aquarium just like Meebo’s mother had them and buying her an encyclopaedia of fish which Meebo themselves had written. A quirky, warmhearted tale of total self-acceptance, Fish Tale is also testament to the positive influence of “obsessive” passion which far from dark or introverted can help to illuminate the lives of those who might also be afraid of their differences and love for that which others may deride as niche.


The Fish Tale screened as part of this year’s Fantasia.

International trailer (English subtitles)

OZLAND (オズランド 笑顔の魔法おしえます。, Takafumi Hatano, 2018)

A snooty elitist gains a new perspective after being unexpectedly transferred to an old school rural theme park in Takafumi Hatano’s heartwarming workplace dramedy Ozland (オズランド 笑顔の魔法おしえます。, Ozland: Egao no Mahou Oshiemasu). Echoing The Wizard of Oz’ Dorothy, Kurumi (Haru) suddenly discovers that she’s not in her familiar Tokyo anymore and is originally resentful, sullen, and aloof refusing to engage with her new coworkers while dismissive of their work but gradually comes to see that there was method in the madness realising the ways she herself has been petty and small-minded while all anyone wanted to do was make people happy. 

Kurumi’s problem is that she’s a hometown girl. She loved her city, her family, her friends, and most particularly her boyfriend Toshi (Tomoya Nakamura) even going so far as to get a job at the company where he works so they can be together all the time. Tragedy strikes when she’s abruptly transferred to a theme park in provincial Kumamoto, Toshio suggesting she go and make the most of the experience of living alone for the first time while they do long distance. Coming from straight-laced Tokyo she experiences a kind of culture shock especially as her eccentric supervisor, Mr. Ozuka (Hidetoshi Nishijima), chooses to haze her with a pretend bomb scare immediately on her arrival. Aside from that, it seems the boss (Akira Emoto) misread her name on her résumé (as it turns out, the main reason he hired her) so no matter how often she corrects them everyone keeps calling her “Namihei” rather “Namihira”, suggesting that it might be easier if she changed her name because they’ve already had it printed on all her things. 

In a way, the name dilemma hints at Kurumi’s sense of superiority over her new coworkers in that she refuses to simply let it go out of politeness, as well she might in refusing to allow them to get away with calling her by a name that’s easier for them without bothering to learn her own, but equally using it as more evidence of their lack of sophistication rather than deciding to see the funny side. Though she’s been hired as part of the planning department, Ozuka assigns her mostly menial tasks further fuelling her sense of resentment. She might have a point when she says she didn’t go to uni to pick up trash for a living, but obviously looks down on her coworkers while the young man who joined at the same time as her, Yoshimura (Amane Okayama), simply gets on with the job without complaint. Kurumi went to a good university which adds to her snooty sense of elitism but later discovers that Yoshimura went to an even better one yet obviously doesn’t feel the same sense of belittlement in being asked to perform manual labour. 

What she later realises is that all of the “pointless” menial tasks had a point but she missed it because she tried to cheat, hoping to get in Ozuka’s good books in the hopes of being transferred back to Tokyo or allowed to do actual planning work. Not until she’s begun to settle in and accepted that she’s been unfair to her coworkers does Kurumi begin to look at herself realising that her snobbishness has only made her unhappy while the relaxed atmosphere and gentle camaraderie at the park is what has kept her new colleagues so cheerful. The extent of her personal growth is thrown into sharp relief when Toshio visits from Tokyo and immediately begins running the park down, describing her colleagues as “nosey”, and finally exclaiming that he preferred the old snooty Kurumi and wants her to come back to elitist Tokyo with him before she turns into a happy provincial. So changed is she that she can’t quite believe he’d be so snobbish and no longer knows what she saw in him realising that she’s much happier now she’s less judgemental and more engaged with those around her. 

In essence, she’s a Dorothy who decided to stay in Oz discovering a new home and a new family in a rundown theme park in Kumamoto that might quite literally be a dreamland making families happy all year round. Filmed at the real life Mitsui Greenland amusement park, Ozland might come from the sponsored by the tourist board school of Japanese cinema (local mascot Kumamon makes several guest appearances) but undoubtedly has a lot of heart not to mention surreal whimsy in its frequent Oz references and insistence on the importance of magic in everyday life. 


OZLAND streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“I never thought my life would come to such a lonely autumn” an old woman laments in Shuichi Okita’s touching adaptation of the novel by Chisako Wakatake Ora, Ora, Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Ora Ora de Hitori Igumo), her husband now gone, a son so estranged he may as well be too, and a daughter (Tomoko Tabata) who only stops by to ask for money. What’s it all for? In an increasingly ageing Japan, later life loneliness has become a pressing issue, but for Momoko (at 75: Yuko Tanaka, at 20 – 34: Yu Aoi) the problem may be that she’s beginning to find her own company oppressive mainly because she’s become plagued by a trio of mental sprites dressed in regular old lady clothes who speak to her in her native Tohoko dialect and force her to think about the realities of her life. 

And then there’s the other guy who looks really like the guy she was briefly engaged to before running out on an arranged marriage only dressed in her pyjamas and telling her there’s no point getting out of bed because every day is the same and she doesn’t have anything to do anyway. Meanwhile, she finds herself pulled back towards memories of happier times when her children were small. All of this has Momoko wondering if she’s sliding into dementia, or if perhaps she’s merely beginning to go out of her mind with grief, loneliness, and existential futility. 

It’s also clear that like everyone else her age despite having led a happy life, Momoko has doubts and regrets. When she ran out on her arranged marriage inspired by the Olympic buzz of Tokyo in 1964, she thought she was striking out for freedom and independence, that she was a “new woman” of the post-war era and she was going to live her own life the way she wanted it. Yet in Tokyo the first friend she makes is someone from the same area who’s managed to completely shed their regional accent, and then she met a man who refused to lose his (Masahiro Higashide) and fell in love with him. She doesn’t regret her life, but feels in a sense disappointed that she ended up falling into the same patriarchal patterns she tried so hard to escape as a conventional housewife and mother dedicating herself to supporting the man she loved. Her friend, Toko (Toko Miura), points out that she always hesitates when she refers to herself as “watashi” rather than the familiar “ora” in the Tohoku dialect as if shamed by the inauthenticity and resentful that her accent, her essential identity, is something she has to lose in order to blend in to Tokyo society. 

Heartbreakingly, we witness her bamboozled into leasing a new car, a symbol of freedom and independence, from a young man who seems nice but is obviously intent on leveraging her loneliness, addressing her as “mother” (not an unusual way to refer to the woman of a house but definitely a deliberate avoidance of “granny”) and encouraging her to think of him as a son. Ironically, while he’s there the phone rings but it’s an “ore ore” scam claiming that her son’s in trouble and needs money. She laughs it off and tells the salesman she’s not silly enough to fall for something like that just as she signs on the dotted line, but later we discover that she did indeed fall prey to it sometime earlier in desperation for the son who, as she had, left home young and never looked back. Her daughter meanwhile, stops by after hearing about the car but mostly so she can ask for money to pay for art lessons for her son. 

Thinking back on their days as a family, Momoko can’t reconcile herself to this sense of parental rejection but meditates on her relationship with her own grandmother realising she too must have been desperately lonely but she was “young and stupid” and didn’t understand. Her interior monologue with her trio of sprites is recited entirely in the voice of her younger self, and at one point she even tries throwing beans at them like demons during Setsubun, but eventually accepts them enough to talk out loud which is either a sign that she’s really losing it or a kind of liberation. “How will I carry on by myself?” she asks, meditating on this new kind of “independence” which might itself soon be taken from her whether she wants it or not. Nevertheless, what she discovers is that she might not be as alone as she thought she was and more has been passed on than she assumed but if you have to go alone then that’s alright too.


Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 series alongside Shuichi Okita’s debut Chef of South Polar as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2020)

“If I became the person I wanted to be, would the world have changed?” the conflicted hero of Shunsuke Kariyama’s Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Aokute Itakute Moroi) eventually asks having undergone a kind of awakening but still perhaps struggling with himself caught between the desire to be better and the fear of the vulnerability that may entail. As the title implies, this is a tale of painful youth and bitter revelations but also of the fragile male ego, the damage that can be done by a young man who feels himself scorned, and the various ways an embittered, self-absorbed mind can reorder the world to accommodate its sense of righteousness. 

The hero, Kaede (Ryo Yoshizawa), opens with a voiceover revealing his life philosophy of social isolation afraid both of upsetting others and of getting hurt. Despite himself, however, he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the bright and friendly idealist, Hisano (Hana Sugisaki), whom he first noticed in one of his political science classes when she challenged the teacher advancing her life philosophy that peace is born only of mutual surrender and allows no role for violence. A true cynic, Kaede mocks her internally for her “naivety” but is moved on leaving the room to notice that she looks hurt not to have been taken seriously. Noticing him too, she tracks him down and makes a point of sitting next to him in the cafeteria, badgering him into a friendship he doesn’t resist because of his tenet of not challenging the views of others. Together they found the “Moai’ club which is dedicated to building a better world by helping people to become the people they want to be. 

Or at least, that’s what he tells us. As we slowly discover, Kaede is not a completely reliable narrator. Three years later he recruits a friend, Tosuke (Amane Okayama), to help him take down Moai, which has since become some kind of creepy cult corrupted by corporate interests that many seem to be using as a path towards employment, so that he can rebuild it to reflect the values he and Hisano intended when they founded the organisation she apparently having passed on. Yet the more he tells us, the more we start to wonder if there isn’t something else to it, especially when social welfare grad student Wakisaka (Tasuku Emoto) enters the scene. Is this really about the better world, or petty male romantic jealousy? Shy and introverted, it seems that Kaede never had the courage to tell Hisano how he felt and perhaps took it for granted that she understood, unfairly feeling betrayed when she showed interest in someone else despite her near constant prompts for him to speak up whether it be about her or their movement. Kaede says nothing, then blames Hisano for “rejecting” him as if the only reason she could have had for befriending him in the first place was the eventual breaking of his heart. 

In true “nice guy” fashion, Kaede can’t help but see himself as the wounded party. In the flip book he’s been idly drawing which opens the film, a man runs smack into a rock and bangs his head much in the way he seems to feel he has done in his abortive attempts to enter society. Yet later he begins to gain another understanding, his stick figure getting back up and climbing on top of the head of Moai to behold a new world below him. He starts to realise that to change the world you really do need to start with yourself and that in this he has resolutely failed. His petty act of revenge may in a sense be morally justifiable, exposing Moai for the questionable force it has become, but it’s also sordid and unpleasant intended solely to wound in order to avenge his sense of male pride. Only too late does he realise the consequences of his actions and what they say about the kind of person he is and wanted to be. Consumed by a sense of inadequacy, he is defeated by life, too afraid to become the person he should be lest the world reject him but his brief moment of fantasy of what could have been if only he’d been less cynical and cold is bathed in a kind of golden light he perhaps realises he could feel again if only he change himself in order to change the world in which he lives. A masterclass in male gaslighting, Kariyama’s duplicitous drama refuses to let its hero off the hook but reserves for him the right to start again, become the person he wants to be and lay down his arms in willing vulnerability in the hope that others may do the same. 


Blue, Painful, Fragile is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our Meal For Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Masahide Ichii, 2017)

Eat, drink, and be merry, as they say, for tomorrow we may be gone. The hero of Masahide Ichii’s Our Meal for Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Bokura no Gohan wa Ashita de Matteru) has committed himself to the first of those, is still too young to be much interested in the second, and is resolutely failing at the third. Somewhat gloomy and introverted, he has decided on a course of self-isolation, convinced that it’s better not to get attached because all attachment ends in heartbreak, but a life without sensation is barely a life at all and in the end all you can do is live while you’re alive taking your pleasure where you can. 

Young Ryota (Yuto Nakajima) is a dreamy high school boy with his head in the clouds. Bamboozled into participation in a sack race relay with pretty classmate Koharu (Yuko Araki) he approaches the matter in characteristically analytical fashion, eventually realising that he, taller and stronger (physically at least), will have to take the lead if they are to move forward. Off the track, however, that’s a lesson he finds difficult to learn. After their victory, Koharu stuns Ryota by confessing that she asked him to join her in the sack race precisely because she has a crush on him. He panics and apparently turns her down, but eventually reconsiders.

Their romance continues in typical high school fashion, only strengthening as they prepare to move on to new stages in their lives in heading off to uni while idly dreaming of an imagined future with the family they will forge together as adults. There is however a shadow hanging over their love. The reason Ryota is so brooding and contemplative is because he’s reeling over the death of his older brother from an illness, something he tries to “discuss” (or more accurately monologue) with Koharu but she abruptly cuts him off because she has more important things to do than listen to a long sad story she feels she already understands. He, meanwhile, never quite thinks to ask her very much about her life outside of him and is both hurt and slightly resentful when she casually mentions that she’s had her share of loss too which is why she’s so keen to start a family of her own. 

Ryota may be the contemplative sort, but he’s also the type that likes to talk out loud about his feelings without feeling the need to hold anything back. Koharu meanwhile is precisely the opposite. She might be upfront about what she wants and direct in stating her desires, but she’s also resolutely uncurious, dislikes talking about “unpleasant” things, and is content to let the mystery linger where Ryota wants to know absolutely everything (but without actually asking any questions). Taking a (solo) holiday, he finds himself alone among a gaggle of middle-aged women taking a break from their husbands who explain to him that small secrecies are an entirely normal and in fact essential element of a healthy relationship. Without them, their lives would not be possible.

It was a quest for self knowledge, however, which took him to Thailand. Ironically, he went “alone” but as part of a tour group, whereas Koharu took the opportunity to go to Australia and hunt gemstones entirely by herself only to be confronted by a sense of loneliness in wanting to turn to someone with whom to share the moment but finding no one there. In sync to a point, they are still not quite ready to act as one, Koharu confessing that it’s undoubtedly easier to do things on your own, laying bare the shyness that unpins her deceptively outgoing personality in her fear of the awkwardness that comes with shared intimacy. 

That intimacy is something Ryota craves but also fears. He’s afraid of getting attached, she’s afraid of getting bored. Ryota compares his fear of falling in love to the sense of emptiness one feels when a movie ends, or perhaps the act of enjoying a beautifully cooked steak but knowing that the meal will all too soon be over. Koharu points out that a never ending steak would be a hellish nightmare, implying that it’s better to just enjoy the steak until you’re full and then be thankful for a delicious meal. That’s something she too finds hard to accept, however, when she discovers that her dreams of a picture perfect family may be impossible to achieve. She pulls away, isolating herself, nobly trying to spare Ryota the pain of witnessing her suffering. An old lady (Hairi Katagiri) advises him to be foolish in love, make an uncharacteristically grand gesture. The future may not be quite the way you pictured it, but that’s no reason you can’t be happy with what you have while you have it. No one knows what may come. Savour the moment while the moment lasts, everything else is for another day.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Journalist (新聞記者, Michihito Fujii, 2019)

The Journalist poster 2In these days of “fake news” and misinformation, a robust press is more important than ever. In Japan, however, the news media institution has long been decried as toothless, if not actually in league with the ruling regime. A timely and appropriately exasperated conspiracy thriller, Michihito Fujii’s The Journalist (新聞記者, Shinbun kisha) is inspired by the non-fiction book by newspaper reporter Isoko Mochizuki who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film and has herself been singled out as “problematic” by politicians unused to being held to account and objecting to her intensive interview technique.

Mochizuki’s fictionalised stand in, Erika Yoshioka (Shim Eun-kyung), is a rookie reporter who grew up in America with her Japanese journalist father and Korean mother. Following her father’s “suicide” she returned to Japan and is currently working for Toto News where she receives a mysterious fax containing information about a suspicious government plan to found a new medical university.

Meanwhile, idealistic former international diplomat Sugihara is on temporary secondment to CIRO (Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office) – a secretive organisation set up under the occupation to mirror the US’ CIA but often criticised for acting like a secret police force and expending too much effort on spying on ordinary Japanese citizens on Japanese soil rather than gathering useful international intelligence. Sugihara (Tori Matsuzaka) finds himself conflicted in his new work, the first assignment of which is handling a smear campaign against a young woman (clearly inspired by the Shiori Ito case) who has accused a high ranking journalist close to the government of rape. A married man with a baby on the way, he fears rocking the boat but resents his complicity with such obvious government finagling and failure to counter the misogynistic narrative that passes for office banter.

When his former mentor, Kanzaki (Kazuya Takahashi), commits suicide, no longer able to live with his compromises, Sugihara begins to reconsider his decision not to go against his superiors but finds it difficult to countenance “betraying” his organisation even in the knowledge that they are no longer working in the best interests of the people. Yoshioka, with whom he eventually bonds after witnessing her sympathetic treatment of Kanzaki’s bereaved daughter, may in some senses be better placed to resist given her overseas upbringing. Where Sugihara and the news media at large struggle with the idea of standing up to authority, Yoshioka is keen to sell the ideals of journalistic integrity, insisting that a robust press is essential in holding power to account.

Meanwhile, she finds herself a lone voice adrift in the largely patriarchal world of Japanese news media. Leaving the press conference called by the woman accusing the government crony of rape, she stops to tell off a pair of journalists making sexist comments but receives only a brief eye roll before they walk away laughing. She also finds herself resented by her colleagues for pointing out that their hounding of Kanzaki’s bereaved wife and daughter at his funeral is insensitive and inappropriate, but refuses to back down in fierce determination to do what is right even if it is not popular.

Meanwhile, Sugihara’s odious boss Tada (Tetsushi Tanaka) is desperately trying to keep a grip on power from the shadows. He uses Sugihara’s conflicted loyalties against him, subtlety reminding him that he has a wife and newborn daughter to whom he has a greater responsibility, and insisting that there is no “shame” in complicity when it comes to maintaining “the illusion of democracy”. CIRO, it has to be said, does not come out of this well as it wilfully does the government’s dirty work – covering up the indiscretions of “valuable” politicians and their relatives in order to avoid the unpleasant chaos of unwelcome political scandals. Kanzaki’s compromises left him a broken and defeated man, Sugihara wonders what kind of man his daughter would think him to be if he too just went along with the government line and enabled their subversion of democracy solely for personal and economic security.

The press may be waking up, but The Journalist’s chief takeaway is that change comes when enough people find the courage to keep saying no. As the ending implies, the battle is far from over but it has perhaps begun thanks to the efforts of those like Mochizuki and her filmic counterpart Yoshioka as well as the courage of whistleblowers like Sugihara who risk personal ruin merely for speaking out. A timely, urgent defence of press freedom in the face of tightening authoritarianism, The Journalist is an all too plausible conspiracy thriller in which the last guardians of liberal democracy are the nails which refuse to be hammered down.


The Journalist screens in New York on July 27 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Isshin Inudo, 2019)

Samurai Shifters poster 1Forced transfers have been in the news of late. Japanese companies, keen to attract and keep younger workers in the midst of a growing labour shortage, have been offering more modern working rights such as paid parental leave but also using them as increased leverage to force employees to take jobs in far flung places after returning to work – after all, you aren’t going to up and quit with a new baby to support.

As Isshin Inudo’s Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Hikkoshi Daimyo!) proves, contemporary corporate culture is not so different from the samurai ways of old. Back in the 17th century, the Shogun kept a tight grip on his power by shifting his lords round every so often in order to keep them on their toes. Seeing as they had to pay all the expenses and handle logistics themselves, relocating left a clan weakened and dangerously exposed which of course means they were unlikely to challenge the Shogun’s power and would be keen to keep his favour in order to avoid being asked to make regular moves to unprofitable places.

When the Echizen Matsudaira clan is ordered to move a considerable distance, crossing the sea to a new residence in Kyushu which isn’t even really a “castle”, they have a big problem because their previous relocation officer has passed away since their last move. Predictably, no one wants this totally thankless job which warrants seppuku if you mess it up so it falls to introverted librarian Harunosuke (Gen Hoshino) who is too shy refuse (even if he had much of a choice, which he doesn’t). Unfortunately for some, however, Harunosuke is both smart and kind which means he’s good at figuring out solutions to complicated problems and reluctant to exercise his samurai privilege to do so.

In fact Harunosuke is something of an odd samurai. As others later put it, he doesn’t care about status or seniority and has a natural tendency to treat everybody equally. When the head of accounts advises him to take loans from merchants with no intention to pay them back, he objects not only to the dishonesty but to the unfairness of stealing hard-earned money from ordinary people solely under the rationale that they are entitled to do so because they are samurai and therefore superior. Likewise, when he finds out that his predecessor was of a lower rank and that all his achievements were credited to his superiors he makes a point of going to his grave to apologise which earns him some brownie points with the man’s pretty daughter, Oran (Mitsuki Takahata), who was not previously minded to help him because of the way her father had been treated.

Harunosuke’s natural goodness begins to endear him to the jaded samurai now in his care. Though they might be suspicious of some of his methods including his “decluttering” program, they quickly come on board when they realise he is not intending to exclude himself from his ordinances and even consents to burn his own books in order to make it plain that everyone is in the same boat. He hesitates in his growing attraction to Oran (who in turn is also taken with him because of his atypical tendency to compassion) not only because of his natural diffidence but because he feels it might be selfish to pursue a romance while urging everyone else towards austerity.

Meanwhile, “romance” is why all this started in the first place. The lord, Naonori Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), is in a relationship with his steward (something which seems to be known to most and not particularly an issue). While he was in Edo, he rudely rebuffed the attentions of another lord, Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa (Osamu Mukai), who seems to have taken rejection badly and has it in for the clan as a whole. In an interesting role reversal, his advisor laments that perhaps it would have been better for everyone if he’d just submitted himself, but nevertheless a few thousand people are now affected by the petty romantic squabbles of elite samurai in far off Edo.

Bookish and reticent as he is, Harunosuke sees his chance to “go to war against the unjust Shogunate” by engineering a plan which allows them to reduce the burden of moving, reluctantly having to demote some samurai and leave them behind as ordinary farmers with the promise that they will be reinstated as soon as the clan resumes its former status. Asking the samurai to drop their superiority and carry their own bags for a change has profound implications for their society, but Harunosuke’s practical goodness eventually wins out as the clan comes together as one rather than obsessing over their petty internal divisions. A cheerful tale of homecoming, friendship, and warmhearted egalitarianism, Samurai Shifters is an oddly topical period comedy which satirises the vagaries of modern corporate culture through the prism of samurai-era mores but does so with a wry smile as Harunosuke finds a way to live within the system without compromising his principles and eventually wins all with little more than a compassionate heart and a finely tuned mind.


Samurai Shifters screens in New York on July 21 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

The Gun (銃, Masaharu Take, 2018)

The Gun poster 1Much as Haruhiko Oyabu had in the post-war era, Fuminori Nakamura is fast becoming the go to voice for nihilistic noir in Japanese cinema. Several of his famously dark novels have already been adapted for the screen, most recently the grisly mystery Last Winter We Parted, but it’s only now that his lowkey debut The Gun (銃, Ju) is getting a suitably detached adaptation from 100 Yen Love’s Masaharu Take.

Like many of Nakamura’s “heroes”, Toru Nishikawa (Nijiro Murakami) is a disaffected youngster who thinks “it’s completely worthless to live”. His life changes one day when he comes across the body of a middle-aged man with a pistol lying next to it. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Toru picks the gun up and takes it home with him. Gradually its presence begins to obsess him as if he were literally being seduced by it. Believing he can communicate with the gun through touch, he lovingly caresses it, buys it trinkets, and lingers over thoughts of all they could do together.

Even when he takes a casual hookup (Kyoko Hinami) to bed, all Toru can think about is the gun. In the morning he tries to make her hate him by coming on strong, but it backfires because it appears to be what she likes, at least she suggests they hook up again, possibly on a regular but casual basis because she already has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, another prospect walks onto the scene – Yuko (Alice Hirose), a young woman Toru may or may not have forgotten meeting in the past. With Yuko Toru decides to do everything “properly” in a quest to win her heart rather than just her bodily submission.

Detached and very possibly a sociopath, Toru does indeed begin to show something of a more sensitive side in dealing with the similarly depressed Yuko. His gentlemanly act may be just that (and as one might expect, it largely works) but does at least display an acute emotional intelligence even if it’s being wilfully misused. Similarly, his first reaction to hearing alarming sounds suggesting the woman next door is mistreating her child is to turn his stereo up and ignore them, but he later finds himself trying to talk to the little boy in the street and eventually even calling the police only to have his mistrust of authority confirmed when they admit they’re aware of the situation and will send someone but probably not until the next day.

The woman next door, a bar hostess who rolls in late and kicks her kid out of bed to sleep on the porch so she can entertain her gentlemen callers, drags up unwelcome memories of the woman who abandoned him to an orphanage. To be fair, Toru does not seem any more misogynistic than his sleazy friends but has a fairly utilitarian idea of “romance”, viewing it as a game of conquest either fast and loose like with the casual hookup or slow and deep as in his careful pursuit of Yuko. Gradually his separate pursuits of the two women become confused, leading Yuko to confront him over whatever it is that’s so obviously “wrong” with him. Upset as she is, Yuko sees the darkness in Toru but must also see the light, affirming that she has her darkness too but is willing to help him with his if only he gives her a little time and waits for her forgiveness.

Toru, meanwhile, is still fixated on his beloved gun which he has begun to carry about with him in a little bag for added frisson. Living largely without feeling, the thrill of carrying such an illicit object becomes a peculiar kind of drug, as does the intoxicating thought of the act of actually firing it and finally of taking a life. A wily police detective (Lily Franky) cuts straight through Toru’s smug facade to the gaping void beneath, trying to prevent him from jumping straight into the abyss but confident he will fail. As the detective predicted, Toru’s sense of reason continues to fragment leaving him unsure of what is real and what isn’t while he obsesses over the gun and what he might do with it but in a purely intellectual sense without considering the real world consequences of his actions. An exercise in style, The Gun is a noirish tale of existential ennui and dark obsession filled with nihilistic dread as its soulless hero commits to living his “worthless” life only to wilfully rob himself of the possibility of salvation.


The Gun screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Perfect Revolution (パーフェクト・レボリューション, Junpei Matsumoto, 2017)

Perfect Revolution posterIf there is one group consistently underrepresented in cinema, it surely those living with disability. Even the few films which feature disabled protagonists often focus solely on the nature of their conditions, emphasising their suffering or medical treatment at the expense of telling the story of their lives. Junpei Matsumoto’s Perfect Revolution (パーフェクト・レボリューション) which draws inspiration from the real life experiences of Yoshihiko Kumashino – a Japanese man born with cerebral palsy who operates a not for profit organisation promoting awareness of sexual needs among the disabled community, makes a criticism of the aforementioned approach a central pillar of its narrative. Unlike many on-screen depictions of disabled people, Perfect Revolution attempts to reflect the normality of life with a disability whilst never shying away from some of the difficulties and the often hostile attitude from an undereducated society.

Kumashiro (Lily Franky), a man in his mid-40s, was born with cerebral palsy and has been using a wheelchair for most of his life. An activist for disabled rights, he’s written a book about his experiences and is keen to address the often taboo subject of sexuality among disabled people. Kumashiro has long since given up on the idea of romance or of forming a “normal” relationship leading to marriage and children but his life changes when a strange pink-haired woman barges into his book signing and demands to know why he’s always talking about sex but never about love. Kumashiro thinks about her question and answers fairly (if not quite honestly as he later reveals) that he doesn’t yet know what love is but is just one of many hoping to find out. This impresses the woman who approaches him afterwards and then refuses to leave him alone. Ryoko (Nana Seino), asking to be known as “Mitsu” (which means “honey” in Japanese – a nice paring with “Kuma” which means “bear”), suddenly declares she’s fallen in love with Kumashiro, whom she nicknames Kumapi.

The elephant in the room is that there is clearly something a little different about Mitsu whose brash, loud manner runs from childishly endearing to worryingly reckless. Mitsu is a sex worker at a “soapland” (a brothel disguised as a bathhouse in which the customer is “washed” by an employee) and sees nothing particularly wrong in her choice of occupation though recognises that other people look down on her because of it – something which she doesn’t quite understand and is constantly exasperated by. Perhaps offensively, she sees her own position as a woman (and a sex worker) as akin to being “disabled” in the kind of social stigma she faces but does not identify as being disabled in terms of her undefined mental health problems beyond accepting that she is “different” and has not been able to integrate into “regular” society. Nevertheless, she believes herself to be at one with Kumashiro in his struggle and is determined to foster the “perfect revolution” with him to bring about true happiness for everyone everywhere.

Thankfully Kumashiro is surrounded by supportive friends and family who are keen to help him manage on his own rather than trying to run his life for him but he does regularly encounter less sympathetic people from a drunken couple who decide to lay into him in a restaurant to a well meaning religious woman who runs after Kumashiro to tell him how “inspired” she feels just looking at him before trying to thrust money into his purse. Mitsu’s problems are less immediately obvious but her loud, volatile behaviour is also a problem for many in conformist Japan as is her straightforwardness and inability to understand the rules of her society. Mitsu has no one to look after her save a fortune teller (Kimiko Yo) who has become a surrogate mother figure, but it is a problem that no one has thought to talk to her about seeing a doctor even when her behaviour turns violent or veers towards self-harm.

Despite their struggles to be seen as distinct individuals, both Kumashiro and Mitsu are often reduced simply to their respective “differences”. Kumashiro does a lot of publicity for his book but is exasperated by well-meaning photographers who ask, tentatively, if they can photograph just his hands – literally reducing him to his disability. An “inspirational” TV documentary strand is also interested in interviewing Kumashiro and Mitsu, but only because of the “unusual” quality of their relationship. It quickly becomes apparent to Kumashiro that the documentarians aren’t interested in documenting his life so much as constructing a narrative around “damaged” outsiders that viewers can feel sorry for. Fearing that Kumashiro looks too cheerful, the producers ask him to remove his makeup and colourful clothing whilst explaining to Mitsu that they don’t want her to talk about sex work in a positive manner and would prefer it if she used a more acceptable euphemism rather than calling it what it is. Mitsu doesn’t realise she’s been had, but Kumashiro leaves the shoot feeling humiliated and annoyed.

Matsumoto does his best to present the issues sensitively, never patronising either Kumashiro or Mitsu but depicting them as real people with real faults just living their lives like everybody else. Neatly avoiding the classic Hollywood, happy ever after ending he emphases that there is still a long way to go but it is unfortunate that Mitsu’s situation is treated more lightly than it deserves and that her eventual desire to get treatment is undermined by the film’s liberated ending which is, nevertheless, inspirational as Kumashiro and Mitsu both commit themselves to the “perfect revolution” of a better, happier future both for themselves and for all mankind.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)