The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bandage バンデイジ (Takeshi Kobayashi, 2010)

Japan was a strange place in the early ‘90s. The bubble burst and everything changed leaving nothing but confusion and uncertainty in its place. Tokyo, like many cities, however, also had a fairly active indie music scene in part driven by the stringency of the times and representing the last vestiges of an underground art world about to be eclipsed by the resurgence of studio driven idol pop. Bandage (Bandage バンデイジ) is the story of one ordinary girl and her journey of self discovery among the struggling artists and the corporate suits desperate to exploit them. One of the many projects scripted and produced by Shunji Iwai during his lengthy break from the director’s chair, Bandage is also the only film to date directed by well known musician and Iwai collaborator Takeshi Kobayashi who evidently draws inspiration from his mentor but adds his own particular touches to the material.

High school girl Asako (Kie Kitano) is best friends with Miharu (Anne Watanabe) who likes all the same cool indie bands she does and is therefore upset to learn that she is dropping out of school because her parents have money problems. Luckily the girls run in to each other at a record store where Miharu works and bond again over the new CD of a band Miharu had recommended and Asako had fallen in love with – LANDS. Miharu also manages to get tickets to a LANDS concert and even swipes a couple of backstage badges from some retreating suits.

The girls sneak backstage and are immediately clocked by the band’s wily manager, Yukari (Ayumi Ito), but their adventure is derailed after they literally run into a band member and Asako loses a contact lens. The band’s lead singer, Natsu (Jin Akanishi), places a bandana across Asako’s temporarily blinded eye and rechristens her “Black Jack” before inviting both the girls to the post-show drinking session. Leaving early, Asako ends up arranging to meet Natsu at another bar later, beginning her long journey with the difficult, damaged musician as they navigate the turbulent “indie” record scene with all of its various traps and temptations.

Though Natsu and Asako may not actually be so far apart in age, you have to admit there’s a something not quite right in his sudden desire to befriend a starstruck high school girl. He does indeed seem to be after the obvious but after she resolutely turns him down, he keeps chasing her right until the end of the film. Despite remaining a little distant and afraid of this somehow very intense yet completely chilled out diva of a frontman, Asako becomes something like his only friend yet her presence continues to provoke tension within the group, particularly after she leaves high school and gets a job as a manager working alongside Yukari.

What first drew Asako to the music of LANDS was an identification with their melancholy lyrics echoing the alienation and loneliness she herself felt as a diffident adolescent. Her feelings towards Natsu are also driven by this same identification with his angst ridden lyrics but the qualities which attract him to her are those which she loathes in herself. Natsu, a narcissistic would be rock god, treats the band like his personal little empire, but deep down he knows he’s not its MVP. That would be the striking long haired guitar player, Yukiya (Kengo Kora), who the suits have pegged as the most likely to succeed. Natsu can write and his songs are good, if sometimes “uncommercial”, but he doesn’t quite have “it” in the same was as Yukiya does. Yukiya, by contrast, is (mostly) content to follow Natsu’s lead yet comes to resent his close relationship with Asako, regarding her as a kind of “Yoko” disrupting the band’s carefully crafted unity.

Yukiya’s attempt to destroy Asako is a calculated and cold one, motivated by his belief that she has “destroyed LANDS”. Laying bear his own pain and loneliness, Yukiya uses his internal darkness as an odd kind of seduction technique only to leave Asako on a barren shore sure of nothing other than the fear and confusion inside her heart. A dangerously violent confrontation with a drunken Natsu is the final trigger for Asako’s own moment of self realisation as she sees herself reflected in Natsu’s self destructive meltdown. United in mutual self loathing, the pair cement a melancholy though ultimately unrealisable bond which puts an end to Asako’s musical adventures.

Asasko is given a second opportunity to pursue a musical dream but one which is more on her own terms and reminds her of the potential and possibilities of music as art rather than the market driven mindset her agency job had done its best to instil. Natsu, it seems, has also rediscovered his artistry and may be in a better place to create away from the pressures that come with fronting an up and coming indie band. Defiantly exclaiming that the pain can’t reach him, Natsu might have found the “bandage” he’d been looking for which is, in a sense, his music – the dressing which staunches the weeping wounds of his pain and suffering. Music, like a bandage, is both salve and barrier – its message indirect but none the less deeply felt even if its effects are for internal use only. Asako and Natsu seem destined to walk on parallel paths but each has, at least, begun to discover their true selves as they continue to pursue their artistic dreams if perhaps at the expense of the personal.


Short scene from the film (no subtitles)

Midsummer’s Equation (真夏の方程式, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2013)

midsummer's equationSometimes it’s handy to know an omniscient genius detective, but then again sometimes it’s not. You have to wonder why people keep inviting famous detectives to their parties given what’s obviously going to unfold – they do rather seem to be a magnet for murders. Anyhow, the famous physicist and sometime consultant to Japan’s police force, “Galileo”, is about to have another busman’s holiday as he travels to a small coastal town which is currently holding a mediation between an offshore mining company and the local residents who are worried about the development’s effects on the area’s sea life.

As fans of the series will know, Manabu Yukawa is a fastidious and difficult man who likes things just so. On the train he ends up encountering a small boy who annoys the other passengers by answering his phone. Apparently he can’t turn it off because all sorts of notifications will be sent to his parents and they’ll go into panic overdrive. The old man across from him doesn’t believe this and grabs the phone away from the small boy after an undignified tussle. In an uncharacteristic move, Yukawa comes to the boy’s rescue by taking back the phone and wrapping it in foil so it won’t go off again – problem solved.

The boy, Kyohei, turns out to be the nephew of the inn owners at the place where Yukawa is staying. After another guest is found dead in mysterious and suspicious circumstances, little Kyohei immediately raises several doubts of his own which endears him to Yukawa who is sad to hear that the boy hates science classes at school. Still, Yukawa concedes there are some odd details in this case especially as the dead man is an ex-Tokyo policeman. Before long Detective Kishitani has been dispatched to assist in  the investigation of another strange mystery.

Again based on a novel by Keigo Higashino, the fourth in his Galileo series, Midsummer’s Equation (真夏の方程式, Manatsu no Houteishiki) is something of a departure as it takes place in an idyllic summer seaside town and is more like some of Higashino’s other mysteries as it places secrets of the heart at its core. Yukawa is generally a difficult man who can’t stand children, in fact they bring him out in a rash. However, for some reason Kyohei doesn’t seem to have this effect on him and he becomes determined to teach the boy the joy of science through a series of experiments while also investigating the central mystery. The incurably curious little tike becomes almost like a mini deputy to Yukawa as he begins to piece together what exactly has happened but it turns out Kyohei may have a different part to play than had originally been suspected.

In the usual mode, it’s not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit and a how will they catch them. The mystery’s solution is heavily signposted from the beginning and there aren’t a lot in the way of twists. In contrast with some of the other Yukawa mysteries, particularly those from the TV drama, there aren’t a lot of clever scientific shenanigans either and though the central murder is plotted in quite an elaborate way, it’s also a panicked adaptation to circumstances which could be enacted by anyone, anywhere.

Long term series director Hiroshi Nishitani pulls out all the stops here and leaves the small screen far behind as he creates a surprisingly artistic take on a fairly run of the mill murder mystery. Beginning with the repeated motif of the falling red umbrella, he takes care to create a nuanced visual poetry which is quite different in approach both to the construction of the TV series and the other big screen outing which adapted Higashino’s most famous novel, The Devotion of Suspect X. Suspect X never quite managed to marry its roots as the theatrical adaptation of a TV drama and as an adaptation of a hugely popular and award winning book into something which was convincing on both levels. Midsummer’s Equation has an easier time with this as it’s slightly separated from the TV drama series and largely succeeds in becoming a standalone adventure for its famous detective.

Masaharu Fukuyama returns to the role with which he’s become most closely associated and once again captures Yukawa’s detached, though not necessarily uncaring, exterior with ease. He’s ably assisted by a fairly starry supporting cast which includes veteran actress Jun Fubuki, Tora-san’s Gin Maeda and the relatively young actress Anne (Watanabe) as well as the returning Yuriko Yoshitaka as the reluctant Detective Kishitani and cameo appearances from Kazuki Kitamura and Tetsushi Tanaka as Kyohei’s father.

Midsummer’s Equation is Higashino in a more forgiving mood as his hardline moralism never really kicks in and he’s content to merely be sorry for this rather complicated mess of affairs. Here, there’s hope for the future and the possibility of a path forward now that long buried secrets have been uncovered and the truth set out to bloom in the sunlight. He makes it plain that secrets are the root of all evil and that only by embracing the truth, and all of the truth, can you ever be able to make informed choices about your future. This is a lesson that Yukawa wants to pass on to little Kyohei who might be too young to understand the exact implications of his role in the affair (though he seems to have figured some of it out), but will undoubtedly have a few questions as he grows up. A well crafted addition to the series, Midsummer’s Equation proves another enjoyable excursion for Yukawa which succeeds not only in terms of its intricately plotted mystery but also as an intriguing and emotionally satisfying character drama.


The Hong Kong release of Midsummer’s Equation includes English subtitles.

Miss Hokusai (百日紅, Keiichi Hara, 2015)

MISS_HOKUSAI_teaser_A4_oldpaper_1600When it comes to the great Japanese artworks that everybody knows, the figure of Hokusai looms large. From the ubiquitous The Great Wave off Kanagawa to the infamous Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, the work of Hokusai has come to represent the art of Edo woodblocks almost single handedly in the popular imagination yet there has long been scholarly debate about the true artist behind some of the pieces which are attributed to his name. Hokusai had a daughter – uniquely gifted, perhaps even surpassing the skills of her father, O-Ei was a talented artist in her own right as well as her father’s assistant and caregiver in his old age.

Miss Hokusai, based on the popular 1980s manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, takes up O-Ei’s story towards the beginning of her career before her marriage and subsequent divorce, after which she returned to her father’s side to nurse him as his health declined. Like the manga, the film is a collection of scenes from Edo life loosely tied together by its overarching theme, but broadly follows O-Ei as she lives her life as a young woman with a level of forthrightness and determination which sets her apart from the women of the time. Determined to become an artist, she lives with her father in their studio where neither of them cooks or cleans but each devotes themselves solely to art. Also living with them at the time is an ex-samurai and aspiring artist, Zenjiro, who specialises in erotica which has its own particular qualities even if his skills aren’t on a par with Hokusai or O-Ei.

When not in her father’s studio, O-Ei likes to visit her younger sister who, ironically, was born blind and is being cared for by the local nuns. O-Nao’s blindness is a sore spot for her father who hardly ever visits her, feeling as if her lack of sight is some sort of cosmic slight against him – the master painter with the daughter unable to appreciate his art and therefore his entire life philosophy. O-Ei is not so rigid and delights taking the girl out on trips where she can experience the world through her richly developed other senses. O-Nao particularly likes visiting the bridge with its complicated soundscape from the river below to the vendors above and all the passersby. There’s also a lovely set piece in which a young boy who quickly figures out that O-Nao can’t see tries to entertain her by knocking snow off a tree. Miss Hokusai, though a story of visual art, has an especially intricate sound design which proves that you can paint with materials other than ink and makes a point of calling out the stubbornness inherent in the world view of someone like Hokusai whose singleminded vision has become his entire universe.

O-Ei has her fair share of troubles as a young woman, though living with her father as his assistant she is a relatively free and unsheltered one. Her father doesn’t hide any aspect of his work from her – she even assists him with his erotic pieces and is said to be a particularly fine painter of women though her male figures lack conviction. “Sensation” itself becomes a theme, art is something which must be felt and therefore must have feeling imbued within it. As an unmarried woman O-Ei is ill equipt to complete these kinds of assignments and some say perhaps she should not be given them though her determination would never permit her to turn them down leading to rather a strange interlude in which she tries to gain some “experience” in a presumably “safe” way which won’t have much effect on her later life.

Less successfully, the film also attempts to enter the realm of the supernatural as we learn a painting can have other effects on the viewer particularly if it isn’t completed in the proper fashion. From a possessed geisha to a woman driven mad by O-Ei’s suitably creepy painting which features terrifying scenes from hell, Miss Hokusai most definitely occupies a world where ghosts, spirits and demons are real things which co-exist with real people. Luckily, Hokusai is able to fix the problem with the disturbing painting by closing its symbolic imagery with a suitable addition whilst berating O-Ei for having cut corners and not properly complete her vision so as to leave the onlooker “haunted” in an unintended way. Again, the painter is parent to the painting which attains the kind of immortality impossible for its creator in this transient world.

Clearly bound-up with the notion of transience, Miss Hokusai makes a valiant attempt to bring ordinary Edo living with its geisha houses, dusty rooms and drinking songs to life in vivid detail. However, its message becomes slightly confused with the superimposition of the modern Tokyo in the final frame of the film. At this point, the rather bizarre choice of a modern, electric guitar based soundtrack, begins to make a degree of sense at least on a thematic level but nowhere near enough to mitigate its jarring presence throughout the film.

Animated by animation powerhouse Production I.G who have been responsible for some of the most beautifully made animated movies of recent times, Miss Hokusai is a giant step up from Hara’s previous film, Colorful, in terms of its execution and boasts a number of scenes which are remarkable in their technical proficiency. The sky in particular as well as the background in general takes on a dreamy, woodblock style which is perfectly fitting for the film’s themes. An interesting look at the young O-Ei, an inexperienced female artist still looking for her voice in a world where the only thing that counts is the signature, Miss Hokusai doesn’t quite succeed in breathing life into its disparate collection of tales but makes a valiant attempt all the same.


Miss Hokusai is currently touring the UK with the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 and will be released by All the Anime later in the year.