Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Rin Shuto, 2021)

A straight-A student and popular girl enters a self-destructive tailspin on discovering her longterm crush has a secret girlfriend in Rin Shuto’s adaptation of the novel by Risa Wataya, Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Hirate). Wataya also penned the source material for Akiko Ohku’s Tremble All You Want and Hold Me Back, and while Shuto may shift away from Ohku’s quirky style she maintains and intensifies an underlying sense of unease in what has the potential to develop into an incredibly messy situation. 

As the film opens, popular girl Ai (Anna Yamada) walks away from a dance rehearsal and discovers fellow student Miyuki (Haruka Imo) collapsed by a tree next to a pouch containing her insulin. Barely conscious, Miyuki asks her for something sweet and Ai soon returns with some sugary juice. Unable to find to an efficient way of getting her to drink it, Ai passes the liquid from her own mouth in a literal kiss of life that seems have an unexpected effect on her. Meanwhile, after sneaking into the school late at night with some friends halfheartedly joking about stealing the exam papers, Ai raids the locker of her crush, Tatoe (Ryuto Sakuma), and discovers a series of love letters which turn out to be from Miyuki. 

For some reason this revelation turns Ai’s life upside-down even though she later reveals that she had been enduring the silent crush on Tatoe for some years without ever acting on it. It may partly be that Ai is popular and attractive and so the idea that someone may not find her desirable is destabilising, cutting to the quick of her teenage insecurity while pulling the rug out from under her if she had indeed thought of Tatoe as a kind of comfortable backstop or easy plan B. Enraged, she befriends Miyuki yet for unclear reasons, perhaps hoping to get some insider info on Tatoe, find out what it is Miyuki has and she doesn’t, or somehow break them up, but finally settles on seduction unexpectedly kissing her again in an echo of their awkward meet cute.  

At heart, Ai does not understand herself and is operating with no real plan. Each escalation seems to come as a surprise even to herself leaving her with moments of internal conflict gazing into a mirror wondering what it is she’s doing. On separate occasions, both Miyuki and Tatoe accuse her of lying and indeed she is, most particularly to herself in a wholesale denial of her own desires which fuels her impulsive and self-destructive behaviour. Others accuse her of being selfish and self-absorbed, unable to look beyond herself and indifferent to the feelings of others which is also in its way a reflection of the degree to which she is consumed by internal confusion, driven slowly out of her mind while taking out her frustration on those around her not least in her increasingly dark manipulation of Miyuki and Tatoe. In the end, as Tatoe points out, she’s little different from his abusive father in her need to possess and control but it’s the extreme control that she’s trying to exercise over herself and the desires she can not accept that is causing her self-destructive behaviour. 

Only Miyuki seems to be able to see through her, at least to an extent, yet it’s not entirely clear at first if she responds to Ai’s advances willingly or simply goes along with them because she has no other friends and is afraid Ai will reject her if she refuses. Ostracised by the students because of her diabetes which is of course a very visible condition in that it requires her to inject herself while at school, Miyuki is shy and lonely while required to keep her relationship with Tatoe a secret because of his abusive father. But as Miyuki later puts it in her letter, Ai isn’t quite as aloof as she’d like to pretend and acts with an unexpected tenderness and consideration, even a kind of vulnerability, in moments of intimacy that betray the true self otherwise stifled by anxiety and internalised shame. With a persistent air of danger and unease spurred by Ai’s impulsive and chaotic nature, Shuto’s intense drama reaches its climax in its deliberately abrupt conclusion perfectly capturing the heroine’s moment of realisation imbued with all of her idiosyncratic messiness. 


Unlock Your Heart screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

International trailer (English subtitles)

What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Shogo Kusano, 2021)

“Distance keeps us safe” according to the hero of Shogo Kusano’s LGBTQ+ teen drama What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Kanojo no Sukina Mono wa) ironically commenting on the nature of “social distancing” in the age of corona along with his own sense of alienation. Though in comparison to other recent similarly themed features Kusano’s film may in some senses seem behind the times in its BL filter, it has its heart firmly in the right place as the hero and several of his friends attempt to find a place for themselves within the contemporary society which for various reasons they fear will not accept them. 

In high schooler Jun’s (Fuju Kamio) case, his sense of alienation is born of his internalised homophobia in which all he wants is to have a conventional heteronormative life within the confines of the traditional family with a wife, children, and grandchildren. Part of this may stem from a secondary source of marginalisation in that he comes from a single parent family which is itself still frowned upon by some as evidenced by the mild discomfort experienced by his new friend Sae (Anna Yamada) when he explains to her why he always eats cafeteria food rather than bringing a homemade bento. Sae’s source of internalised shame, meanwhile, is that she is a fujoshi or obsessive fan of boys love manga which revolve around romances between men but are aimed at an audience of young straight women rather than the LGBTQ+ community. 

Based on the novel by Naoto Asahara, what the film attempts to do is examine the gap between the BL fantasy and the reality of being gay in contemporary Japan. Sae is ashamed of her love of BL and ironically paranoid that Jun will expose her secret after running into him at a bookshop, explaining that she was shunned in middle school when her friends found out she enjoyed reading gay love stories which they viewed as “creepy”. Meanwhile, she has a complicated view of homosexuality off the page which is not always completely supportive. Both she and Jun continue to use a world that many would consider to be a homophobic slur to describe men who love men, Jun at times using the word against himself while simultaneously denying the identity. The first conclusion that he comes to is that Sae does not really like him but only the romanticised gay ideals from the fantasy world of BL which as is later pointed out are often set among a largely gay milieu or even in a world where everyone is gay. 

Sae refers to this space as the BL Planet, but Jun’s desire to go there is also a reflection of his internalised homophobia in that on the BL Planet he’d obviously be just like everyone else. He’s fond of repeating a sentence they learned in science class about a simplified world with zero friction which he later claims to reject unwilling to erase complication for superficial harmony but this is exactly what he’s doing in attempting to erase a part of himself in order to better conform to a heteronormative society. He beats himself up for not being able to have “normal” sex after half-heartedly agreeing to date Sae while engaging in physical intimacy with a much older man who is married with a child. Jun’s lover Makoto (Tsubasa Imai) later explains that his marriage is one of convenience born of the same kind of internalised homophobia experienced by Jun though he obviously loves his wife and child if in a different way while the inappropriateness of his relationship with a teenage boy is never raised by anyone.

Jun is taken to task by a brash classmate, Ono (Ryota Miura), for his irresponsibility in dating Sae knowing that he has no romantic interest in her hinting that perhaps not that much has changed in the last 10 or 15 years both men convincing themselves that heteronormative relationships are the only valid markers of success. Then again when Jun is accidentally outed his classmates are given a crash course in LGBTQ+ relations most of them expressing support and the conviction that society needs to become more accepting of diversity though it has to be said they were less than understanding before, particularly the boys who found Jun’s presence a challenge to their masculinity. 

Teenage boys they all are, but even infinitely sympathetic straight best friend Ryohei (Oshiro Maeda) engages in crude, misogynistic banter with their classmates forcing Jun to play along pretending to be a connoisseur of heterosexual pornography. Probably some or even most of the other boys are also lying in an act of performative masculinity but the pretence only adds to Jun’s internalised sense of otherness and belief that he is in some way broken continually asking not only why he was born like this but why anyone is. After receiving an alarming message from an online mentor, he is pushed towards a dark place in becoming convinced that the world has no place for him only to belatedly come to an acceptance of his identity as mediated through Sae’s concurrent epiphanies realising that without friction there is no progress and discovering liberation in authenticity. Despite a few mixed messages and a bizarre subplot about a hairdresser who is not himself gay but nevertheless obsessed with gay people to the extent that he thinks he can spot them in public places through codified signs and the look in their eyes, Kusano’s teen coming-of-age drama has its heart in the right place in its gentle plea for a more inclusive, joyfully diverse society. 


What She Likes screens at Genesis Cinema on 28th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Georama Boy, Panorama Girl (ジオラマボーイ・パノラマガール, Natsuki Seta, 2020) [Fantasia 2021]

“As long as you have a girl you can cope with anything. Who cares what’s happening in the world?” the lovestruck hero of Natsuki Seta’s Georama Boy, Panorama Girl (ジオラマボーイ・パノラマガール) blusters floating around on a cloud of adolescent intensity. “Man, you’re crazy” his more mature workmate replies with unconcealed exasperation. Adapted from a manga by Kyoko Okazaki, Seta’s post-modern drama like her previous film Parks recalls the lighthearted teen movies of the Bubble era even as it gleefully subverts rom-com norms as the mismatched youngsters repeatedly glide past each other experiencing parallel though connected episodes of romantic disillusionment in a rapidly deconstructing city. 

The heroine, Haruko Shibuya (Anna Yamada), is a dreamy, romantic sort of girl who’s read too many shojo manga and wishes the summer could go on indefinitely because she wants “to dream longer”. Kenichi Kanagawa (Jin Suzuki), by contrast, is a slightly nerdy young man who upends expectation by suddenly standing up mid-class after being forced to take a test on the first day back after the summer holidays to announce he’s quitting school because he’s realised it’s just not necessary for him. As if trying to get his mid-life crisis over as early as possible, Kenichi picks up a skateboard and starts hanging round in Shibuya unsuccessfully trying to pick up girls until he catches the attention of a free spirited older woman, Mayumi (Misato Morita), only to be unceremoniously beaten up by her maybe boyfriend after being spotted together in a cafe. Bloodied, bruised, and collapsed in the street is how he eventually meets Haruko who stops to see he’s OK and then randomly gifts him her combini purchases, keeping hold of his school ID card which is how she figures out who he is. 

Being a teenage girl, Haruko, like her friends Kaede (Erika Takizawa) and Maru (Kogarashi Wakasugi), longs to fall in love and thinks meeting Kenichi is her romantic destiny even over investing in its potency in believing their love is probably necessary in order to save the Earth from calamity like the star-crossed lovers from a shojo manga. As their names suggest, Haruko is the city centre whereas Kenichi is the provincial suburbs, but they spend their time dancing around each other living out parallel love stories as Kenichi continues to obsess over Mayumi whose free-spirited frankness is tinged with sadness while her toying with a lovestruck teen has an almost self-destructive quality. Each of them experience a moment of romantic disillusionment realising that their adolescent visions of pure love are essentially unrealistic and that chance meetings are sometimes just that intended to go no further because life thinks nothing of the rules of narrative causality. 

The failure of Haruko’s romantic dreams prompts her into a further moment of introspection as she continues to wonder if everything around her is merely an illusion. Meanwhile, the TV news is a catalogue of contemporary anxieties from an early report on a young woman who took her own life rather than return to school because of rampant bullying not to mention exam stress, to a protest over nuclear weapons and conscription, and even one about a potential response to meteors and aliens. The Tokyo the teens inhabit is one of constant uncertainty, a city half-built and in a state of limbo remaking itself for the upcoming Olympics (which ironically we now know will only half arrive). Yet as Kenichi had suggested, the teens barely notice what’s going on in the world around them so caught up are they in their adolescent dramas finding themselves less star-crossed than at cross purposes in their mutual romantic dilemmas. 

Just like the teen movies of old, Seta draws inspiration from the French New Wave as the youngsters frequently monologue across each other sometimes in sync and others not their dialogue in a sense pretentious but also filled with the naive intensity of youth as they each attempt to navigate their way towards a more mature adulthood. With a charmingly timeless retro quality, Georama Boy, Panorama Girl embraces the absurdity of teenage love but finally opens the door to something more “real” brokered in a way by twin heartbreak followed by a mutual resetting as the pair walk out into a new dawn now more ready to meet whatever it has waiting for them. 


Georama Boy, Panorama Girl streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)