5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Moon Sung-ho, 2019)

5 Million Dollar Life posterIs it possible to live a life without “debts” of one kind or another or are we all just living on loans? The hero of Moon Sung-ho’s 5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Gooku Yen no Jinsei) wants to find out, not least because he feels himself indebted to those who have helped him in the past and struggles with the pressure of living up to their expectation. An unexpected source provides some helpful advice in pointing out that “value” in one sense at least is not something you’re free to decide for yourself but is defined by others. Then again, not being certain of your own worth makes it impossible to claim your rightful place in society as someone as worthy of love and respect as any other.

When Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki) was six, his family found out he had a congenital heart defect and would need to go abroad for a transplant. His community rallied around him and raised five million dollars so he could go to America for treatment. The heartwarming story also made him the star of an ongoing documentary in which he’s interviewed on television every year so those who contributed to saving his life can find out how he’s getting on. Becoming a local celebrity and an accidental TV star is obviously a lot of pressure for any young man, but Mirai feels acutely burdened by the responsibility of “repaying” the kindness that was offered to him. He doesn’t feel his life was worth five million dollars and knows he is unlikely to repay their “investment”. He is after all just “ordinary”. He won’t win a Nobel prize or cure cancer, all he can do is live his life in the normal way but that’s hard when it feels like everyone is secretly looking over his shoulder and waiting for him to make a mistake.

Meanwhile he’s also become a role model to the suicidal Chiharu (Hikari Kobayashi) who doesn’t “see the value in life”  and feels that “death is glorious” because people can hate you while you’re alive, but they’ll love you when you’re gone. Mirai gets where she’s coming from. He longs for an ending too, if only to reject the responsibility he feels towards those who saved his life. Attacked by a troll online, he takes up the challenge to make the five million dollars back and then kill himself to bring an end to the whole affair but quickly discovers that it’s a lot harder to make five million dollars than he thought.

Neatly taking place during the last summer of high school, Mirai’s odyssey sends him on an odd trek across working class Japan as he finds himself alone and without money or means to support himself. At only 17, he can’t even stay in a hotel on his own and so he winds up becoming homeless but is taken in by a nice old man who claims he decided to help him because he bought an umbrella with his last pennies rather than pinching someone else’s. Though he is often exploited and betrayed by those who take advantage of his goodness, that same quality finds an answer in others who, sometimes despite themselves, want to help him because he seems like the sort of person who needs help.

This idea finds encapsulation in the surprisingly astute words of wisdom Mirai receives from a petty gangster he meets after getting involved with sex work. The gangster, who starts off by telling him that he’s making a mistake selling himself short when it’s the customer who decides what his “value” is, later explains that it’s not so much that the world is divided into people who are nice and people who aren’t, but that some people are “worth” being nice to and Mirai, for one reason or another, is one such person who thrives on kindness.

Mirai’s desire to quantify his life by putting a price on it may be mistaken, as proved by the sad case of a family committing suicide because of monetary debt, but what he realises is that people help because they want to and they don’t necessarily expect anything in return other than kindness. If he wants to find a way to repay them, he’ll have to figure it out on his own terms first, but all they really wanted they wanted from him was that he live his life as happily as possible. 5 Million Dollar Life goes to some pretty dark places, but always maintains a healthy cheerfulness as Mirai goes on his strange odyssey looking for the “value” in being alive and discovering that it largely lies shared kindnesses and unselfish connection.


5 Million Dollar Life screens on 11th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Eisuke Naito, 2018)

(C)押切蓮介/双葉社 (C)2017「ミスミソウ」製作委員会

Liverleaf poster“How have things turned out this way?” Asks the heroine of Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Misumisou) after receiving a poignant (non)explanation for the cause of all her sufferings. Adolescence is cruel at the best of times, but when you’re stuck in a tiny no horse town with nothing to do, violence can become an easy pastime. The kids of Liverleaf take the art of bullying to all new heights, stopping not at humiliation, ostracisation, or conspiratorial acts of emotional ruin but allowing their petty games to run all the way to arson and murder.

Haruka (Anna Yamada), unlike most of her classmates, is a relatively new resident of a small rural town where she and her family have moved for her father’s job. Her only friend at school, and the only one to stand up for her against the gang of popular kids making her life a misery, is another transfer student, Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), living alone with his grandmother for mysterious reasons. The usual high school girl tricks of making another girl feel unwelcome – stolen shoes, name calling, silent stalking etc eventually progress into direct violence at which point her father (Masahiro Toda) tries to go to the school to complain. Unfortunately, Haruka’s teacher (Aki Morita) is an almost absent, hollow source of authority who cannot control the kids and nor does she try. She tells Haruka’s dad that as the school will be closing down at the end of the academic year it’s hardly the time to make waves and she sees no need to get involved in such trivial matters. Matters come to a head when the kids, egging each other on, set fire to Haruka’s house with her mother (Reiko Kataoka), father, and little sister Shoko (Sena Tamayori) trapped inside.

It’s true enough to say Haruka reacted to her bullying in the way that society expects – she kept her head down and tried to put up with it without making a fuss. Some may read Liverleaf as a tale of vengeance, but it isn’t. As passive as she’s always been, Haruka’s acts of violence are a matter of extreme self defence. She doesn’t go looking for the ones who’ve done her wrong, but they come looking for her and thereafter pay a heavy price for their continued campaign of subjugation.

Haruka became an easy subject for bullying because she was a literal outsider – Aiba escaped this particular fate through being male, conventionally attractive, and with a confidence and maturity which set him apart from the bratty kids trying to prove their status by belittling others. Once Haruka decides to sit out the rest of the school term rather than put up with constant torment, she activates an extreme chain of events when the next likely target, a strange girl with a stammer (Rena Ohtsuka), decides to do whatever it takes to become one of the bullies rather than their latest victim. Morality goes out the window when fear takes over and some will to whatever it takes to make sure it’s someone else in the firing line rather than themselves.

Yet for all the fear and violence, there’s another, perhaps more interesting, story buried under all the senseless bloodletting. It’s not so much that teenage emotions are running wild, but that they barely have them at all and those they do have find no available outlet. Romantic jealousy spirals out of control, turning in on itself as love denied masquerades as hate. Unable to freely voice their innermost anxieties, the kids take their resentments out on each other, getting their kicks through cruel games which bind them with complicity in the absence of real feeling.

Naito attempts to lend an air of realism to the increasingly bizarre middle school warfare but cannot escape the manga origins of his source material. The violence itself is cartoonish and absurd, but there’s also an unpleasant layer of fetishisation which takes over as the blood starts flowing, almost revelling in acts of extreme cruelty as a young man exults in beating the face of a young girl to a bloody pulp. Unremittingly bleak, Liverleaf makes a bid for pathos in its closing coda as it takes us back to a case of ruined friendships and broken dreams but it can’t overcome the uneasy stylisation of all that’s gone before in swapping emptiness for wistful melancholy.


Liverleaf screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 8th July, 7pm with director Eisuke Naito in attendance for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)