For Rei (レイのために, Yukari Sakamoto, 2019)

(C)Yukari Sakamoto

Going to university is a prime opportunity to start figuring yourself out, but if you feel a little hollow inside it can often be an uphill battle. The heroine of Yukari Sakamoto’s For Rei (レイのために, Rei no Tame ni) is intensely anxious, somewhat distanced from herself in the unresolved trauma of her parents’ divorce and subsequent loss of contact with her father. University can also be a prime opportunity to reach towards independence, but that necessarily means learning to “let go of the things you don’t like” to chase the things you do while figuring out what the difference between those two things might be. 

Philosophy student Rei finds herself at odds with her classmates, some of whom actively belittle her off the wall contributions for being off the point while the TA offers only the reassurance that she found her words “poetic”, which given the environment she finds herself in might not exactly be high praise. Meanwhile, she’s in a loose relationship with fellow student Nakamura who has a part-time job as a driver he doesn’t much like. As she reveals to her mother, however what’s really bothering her is that she’d like to reconnect with her estranged birth father whom she hasn’t seen since her parents divorced when she was small. Despite her mother’s warnings that her father may only cause her pain, Rei presses ahead and writes a letter, eventually meeting up with him for dinner in a swanky Western restaurant where he orders wine and she coke. 

That comment that so riled her classmate was to do with the nature of perception and its mutual effect on the perceiver. Rei offers that she thinks being looked at is something inherently uncomfortable, that when someone looks at her she wants to look away while looking at someone else can be a cold, abstracted experience. Later, after meeting her father, she returns to the same topic with additional insight, admitting that she was always afraid of being perceived, feeling as if someone was continually watching and waiting for her to mess something up. As much as she feared the gaze, she also felt its pity and wanted to be embraced by it but as she grew she could no longer fit inside as it seemed to grow smaller and recede from her. The sense of loss and distance made her sad, but she is perhaps coming to the realisation that that feeling of disconnection is also a part of growing up as she outsteps the parental gaze to claim her own independent space. That process may necessarily be painful, but it’s her father’s hand on her shoulder that keeps her from moving fully forward as she struggles to separate herself from a half-felt presence. 

Rei’s father, apparently remarried, tries his best to reconnect with his now grown-up daughter but the encounter is unavoidably awkward, belonging both to the past and future as she realises she’s no longer a woman who needs a paternal presence just as she’s made the decision to find one. They chat awkwardly about the intervening years – her feelings of disconnection from her mother’s second family with a step-father and half-sister, and his remarriage, while eventually returning to the past. He never explains why he didn’t keep in contact (though this is sadly normal for divorced fathers in Japan) but is keen to explain that he didn’t leave because of her, only that he and her mother were very young and eventually discovered that they were incompatible, their views on money and family matters apparently entirely different. He didn’t understand her and the distance between them bothered him. 

Like Rei, he couldn’t feel himself inside the gaze and eventually absented himself from it. The reunion seems to have gone well, her father offering to take her mountain climbing, but we somehow feel that they might not meet again. What Rei learns is the power to perceive herself with pity and perhaps let go of the image of her father, a little disappointed in herself to have taken a throwaway comment to heart and remembered it all these years only to garner no reaction on recalling it. Freed from the overbearing gaze, Rei learns to centre her own perception, forgiving both herself and the past, as she steps boldly into a new adult space and sets off into a future of her own choosing.


 For Rei was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English 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)