Alivehoon (アライブフーン, Ten Shimoyama, 2022)

How far can skills learned in simulation be transferred to the “real” world? Ten Shimoyama’s Alivehoon (アライブフーン) sees a top gamer take to the track for real to compete for drift racing glory while battling both his own lack of confidence and that of those around him. What he discovers is that there may not be so much difference as might be assumed, but offline racing is not a solo sport and succeeding means learning to trust in others as well as oneself. 

Koichi’s (Shuhei Nomura) immediate problem is that he doesn’t fit in at his job as a mechanic and is resented by the other employees for failing to pull his weight. All he wants to do is play games and after a lifetime of practice he’s become a champion in the world of e-sports drift racing but secretly harbours the desire to become a “real” race driver. He finally gets the chance to prove himself when his exasperated boss gets him an opportunity to try out for a real team in need of a rookie driver to ensure its survival. Diffident as he is, Koichi agrees and after brief moment of confusion on the track, proves he has what it takes to take his virtual skills to the real world as an aspiring drift racer. 

The main opposition Koichi faces is from those who dismiss him on the grounds that in-game experience is useless in the real world, which in some cases it may be but luckily Koichi does at least know how to drive and after a moment to play things through knows how to translate his skills from the online world to a real life track which of course has much more proximity to mortal danger than he has ever experienced before. That might be one reason that veteran driver Muto (Takanori Jinnai) who retired after a catastrophic crash in the opening sequence does not take him very seriously on witnessing him being physically sick after being driven round the course by a champion racer while his daughter Natsumi (Ai Yoshikawa) is very invested in the idea that it might be possible to turn an e-sports champ into a top rank driver and save the team in the process. 

Team Alive is positioned as the nice guy underdog, trying to win through hard work and fairness in contrast to arrogant hotshot Shibasaki (Shodai Fukuyama) who turns down the chance to join Alive to go with a more lucrative offer from a haughty middle-aged woman (Anna Tsuchiya) who plays only to win. Shibasaki drives dirty with the racing equivalent of kicking dust in Koichi’s eyes but eventually pays a heavy price for his lack of sportsmanship only to be humbled and come to see the merit in the honest and down to earth approach of team Alive. Koichi meanwhile fights an internal battle trying to rediscover a sense of confidence while beginning to find it in the mutual support of his teammates acknowledging that he may be in the driving seat but he’s not alone and the victory does not belong entirely to him. 

The film’s race scenes are supervised by “drift king” Keiichi Tsuchiya and feature real life drivers such as Naoki Nakamura, Daigo Saito and Masato Kawabata driving real courses for added authenticity all shot in camera without the use of CGI or special effects. The neon blue/red lighting and synth score contribute to the retro aesthetic but it has to be said that Koichi seems to take to real life drift racing a little too easily and experiences surprisingly few setbacks before making a fairly perplexing decision in the film’s final moments despite having discovered the value of teamwork along with a new family in team Alive who each value him for who he is as he brings the best in virtual racing to the real world game. Natsumi too earns the respect of her father as he comes to trust and believe in Koichi but is never quite given the chance to prove herself in her own right. In any case there is something heartwarming in the film’s conviction that there are no pointless skills and that working hard to become good at something is its own reward whether you become a champion or not.


Alivehoon screens in Chicago on Sept. 17 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)