True Mothers (朝が来る, Naomi Kawase, 2020)

Perhaps surprisingly and in contrast with many other developed nations child adoption remains relatively rare in Japan with most children who for whatever reason cannot be raised by their birth families cared for by institutions while the adoption of adults is unusually common usually for the purposes of securing an heir for the family name or business. This might be one reason that the “secret” of adoption is touted as a subject for blackmail in Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of the mystery novel by Mizuki Tsujimura True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru), though in this case it will prove to be a fruitless one as the adoptive parents have already made an effort towards transparency having explained to their son that he has another mother while their friends, family, and the boy’s school are all fully aware that he is not their blood relation. 

The Kuriharas, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are a settled, wealthy married couple who are shocked to discover that they are unable to conceive a child naturally because Kiyokazu is suffering from infertility. After a few unsuccessful rounds of painful treatment, they decide to give up and resign themselves to growing old together just the two of them, but after accidentally stumbling over a TV spot about an adoption service which focuses on finding loving homes for children rather than finding children for couples who want to adopt they begin to consider taking in a child who is not theirs by blood. As Kiyokazu puts it, it’s not that he’s obsessed with the idea of having a child, but they have the means and the inclination to raise one and could be of help when there are so many children in need of good homes. After enrolling in the programme, they adopt a little boy, Asato (Reo Sato), and somewhat unusually are encouraged to meet the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), who they discover is a 14-year-old girl tearfully entrusting her baby to them along with a letter to give him when he’s old enough to understand. 

The central drama begins six years later as Asato prepares to leave kindergarten for primary school. A crisis occurs when Satoko is called in because a boy, Sora, has accused Asato of pushing him off the jungle gym. Thankfully, Sora is not seriously hurt though according to the school Asato admits he was there at the time but says he doesn’t remember pushing anyone. The teachers don’t seem to regard him as a violent or naughty boy and wonder if he might have accidentally knocked Sora off without realising, while Satoko for her part tries to deal with the matter rationally neither leaping to his defence without the full facts or prepared to apologise for something that might not have been his fault. The other mother, however, somewhat crassly asks for compensation, bringing up the fact that the family live in a nice apartment and can’t be short of a bob or two. Stunned, Satoko does not respond while the other mother instructs her son not to play with Asato anymore. It’s around this time that she starts receiving anonymous calls that eventually turn out to be from a young woman claiming to be Hikari who first petitions to get her son back and then like Sora’s mother asks for monetary compensation. Only on meeting her the young woman seems completely different from the heartbroken teen they met six years’ previously and Satoko can’t bring herself to belief it’s really her, but if it isn’t who is she and what does she want?

Less a tug of love drama between an adoptive and a birth mother as in the recent After the Sunset, True Mothers places its most important clue in the title in that there need not be a monopoly on motherhood. A woman brought out at the adoption agency open day reveals that she’s explained to her son that he has three mothers, herself, his birth mother, and Asami (Miyoko Asada), the woman who runs “Baby Baton”. Asami encourages her prospective parents to explain to the children the circumstances of their birth before they enter primary school, keen both that they avoid the trauma of suddenly discovering the truth and that the birth mother not be “erased” from the child’s life and history. 

Though founded in love and with the best of intentions, Baby Baton also has its regressive sides in reinforcing conservative social norms, open only to heterosexual couples who’ve been married over three years (Japan does not yet have marriage equality or permit same sex couples to adopt) and requiring one parent, though it does not specify which, to give up their career and become a full-time parent. Its residential requirement is also not a million miles away from a home for unwed mothers hidden away on a remote island near Hiroshima which seems to be the way it is used and viewed by Hikari’s parents who force her to give up the baby more out of shame than practicality, telling people that she’s in hospital recovering from pneumonia. Nevertheless it’s at Baby Baton that Hikari finally finds acceptance and a sense of family, feeling rejected by the birth parents who have sent her away rather than embracing or supporting her in the depths of her emotional difficulty. Asami was there for her when no one else was, later explaining that unable to have children herself she founded Baby Baton as means of helping other women who found themselves in difficulty in the hope of “making sure all children are happy”. 

Like Hikari many of the other women at Baby Baton are there because of a corrupted connection with their own maternal figures, often rejected or abandoned many of them having participated in sex work as a means of survival. Reminiscent of her documentary capture of residents of the old persons’ home in The Mourning Forest or the former leper colony in Sweet Bean, Kawase films the scenes at Baby Baton with naturalistic realism as one young woman celebrates her 20th birthday sadly wondering if any one will ever celebrate her birthday again. A testament to female solidarity, the home presents itself as a kind of womb bathed in golden light and protected by a ring of water providing a refuge for often very young women at a time of intense vulnerability until they are eventually rebirthed by the surrogate maternal figure of Asami. 

The film’s Japanese title “Morning Will Come” as echoed in the song which plays frequently throughout hints at an eventual fated reunion while also pointing towards Asato the first character of whose name literally means “morning”, lending an ironic quality to its English counterpart which invites the conclusion that there are somehow false mothers while simultaneously evoking a sense of a great confluence of maternity in the unselfishness of maternal love. Immersed in a deep well of empathy, Kawase’s bittersweet drama is infinitely kind if not without its moments of darkness and pain resolute in its sense of fairness and the insistence there’s love enough to go around if only you’re brave enough to share it.


True Mothers streams in the UK from 16th April exclusively via Curzon Home Cinema.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2019)

Three years after Destruction Babies, Tetsuya Mariko returns with another ultra-violent though strangely humorous masculinity drama as a mild-mannered salaryman embarks on a quest to win the heart of his one true love by proving himself a man even if aware that his efforts are entirely meaningless while he strikes out where it counts. Inspired by Hideki Arai’s manga, Mariko previously adapted Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Miyamoto kara Kimi e) as a late night TV drama with the majority of the cast reprising their roles for the big screen feature.

As the film opens, the titular Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) is walking bruised and bloodied through a children’s park, staring at his unrecognisable face in the hazy mirror of a public bathroom. A regular salaryman, he’s later taken to task by his boss (Kanji Furutachi). After all, how does he expect people to do business with him when he’s lost all his front teeth and has his arm in a sling? His boss reminds him he’s about to be married and will soon be a father so perhaps a little more forward-thinking responsibility is in order. It seems that Miyamoto got into some kind of fight and improbably enough he won, the other guy apparently in hospital not to recover for months though thankfully he does not want to press charges. Nevertheless, Miyamoto seems strangely cheerful, happy in himself as he takes his bride to be, Yasuko (Yu Aoi), home to meet his parents who don’t disapprove but are extremely put out by his continued secrecy especially as Yasuko is already pregnant though something tells us there’s much more to this than your average shotgun wedding.  

Skipping back between the present day of the happily settled couple and the various stages of their courtship we begin to see a pattern developing as the hapless young salaryman falls for the pretty office lady only to discover she was technically using him to break up with an obsessive ex struggling to accept that their relationship is over. Challenged by bohemian playboy Yuji (Arata Iura), Miyamoto instinctively barks out that Yasuko is a special woman and he will protect her at all costs though the jury’s out on how exactly he plans to do that. In any case, Yuji exits and even if unconvinced, Yasuko is taken in by the idea of finding a protector. But Miyamoto is less than true to his word. When it really counts, he lets her down, passed out drunk as she’s assaulted by a friend from his rugby team (Wataru Ichinose). What ensues is partly, in his mind, a means of making amends to her by getting his revenge and a quest to reclaim his self-respect by asserting his masculinity in besting his girlfriend’s rapist in a fight. “It was me he insulted” Miyamoto somewhat problematically insists, rage shovelling rice into his mouth directly from the cooker while Yasuko can barely contain her resentment and exasperation with his continued failure to follow through while painting himself as the victim in her rape. 

Consumed by toxic masculinity, Miyamoto does indeed frame everything through the prism of his fracturing manhood, never jealous or abusive but comparing himself unfavourably to the other men in Yasuko’s life and convincing himself the way to beat them all is by proving himself the most manly through the medium of pugilism. Meanwhile, he emotionally neglects the woman he claims to love and promised to protect, temporarily distancing himself from her while he embarks on his quest, leaving her entirely alone to deal with her trauma. Yasuko makes it clear that she doesn’t care about his pointless and idiotic need to validate himself through male violence, but he does it anyway and then expects her to be impressed (which she isn’t, really). In any case he freely admits he did it all for himself, literally shredding his rival’s manhood in order to retake his own in addition to gaining an extremely ironic form of revenge.  

Absurd and ridiculous as it is, Miyamoto’s quest does at least allow him to gain the self-confidence which will eventually allow him to patch things up with Yasuko, ironically by affirming that he no longer sees the need to look for approval and will protect her and their new family forevermore. A dark satire of fragile masculinity filled with cartoonish yet surprisingly graphic violence, Mariko’s third feature nevertheless retreats from the pure nihilism of Destruction Babies towards a more positive if perhaps equally uncomfortable resolution as the no longer quite so insecure Miyamoto prepares to enter a new phase of his life as a paternal figure and protector of a family.


Miyamoto streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Takuji Suzuki, 2019)

Randen posterStill running over a century later, the Randen tram line is the only one in Kyoto and connects a series of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations in the famously “historical” city. It is also, of course, a key method of public transportation much loved by locals. Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Randen) fits neatly into that subgenere of Japanese films which might as well have been funded by the tourist board, but even so has real affection for its anachronistic street cars as they traffic a series of romantically troubled souls towards the places they need to be with a little help from the supernatural.

Chief among them, Eisuke (Arata Iura) is a blocked writer specialising in real life strange tales. He’s come to Kyoto, rich with culture and history, in search of local mystery but finds himself preoccupied with thoughts of home and the Kyoto-born wife from whom he fears he may have grown apart. Meanwhile, Kako (Ayaka Onishi), a painfully shy woman working in a bento shop finds herself unexpectedly sucked into the world of showbiz when she is persuaded to help a Tokyo actor, Fu (Hiroto Kanai), run lines in a Kyoto accent. Back on the platform, high school girl Nanten (Tamaki Kobuse), on a school trip from Aomori, falls for aloof high school boy Shigosen (much to the consternation of her friends) but unfortunately for her trains are “everything” for him.

Mimicking the linearity of the tramline, Randen takes us through three ages of love with three variously troubled lovers each trying to find the right stop. Teenagers Nanten and Shigosen struggle with their feelings in the normal way. She is certain, he (more romantic than he seems) is not – denying his feelings in the anxiety that requited love evaporates where the suffering of unreciprocated attraction does not. Kako, meanwhile, is struggling with quite different issues in that she lacks self confidence and has decided she’s no good with people. She rebuffs Fu’s straightforward attempts at romance out of shyness and confusion, unable to parse his non-committal replies and wondering if he finds her line of questioning irritating, in which case why is hanging around with her. Eisuke, meanwhile, does something much the same as he recalls a “failed” trip he took with his wife to Kyoto sometime ago and ponders the various ways each of them will change in the time they are apart.

Through it all, the rail station cafe owner (Ryushi Mizugami) is there to dispense his wisdom and knowledge of the city. Picturesque as it is, the tramline is also pregnant with local superstition – the teenagers believe catching sight of the “Yuko” train and its distinctive retro livery means a couple will stay together, while accidentally catching sight of a train staffed by kitsune and tanuki will lead a couple to part. Superstition is as superstition does, but there may indeed be some truth in it if only as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The presence of the contrary trains does, however, prompt true emotions to the surface if only to avoid a negative outcome born of getting on the wrong train at the wrong time and ending up in an unwelcome romantic destination.

Sometimes the train takes you where you want to go, and other times you need to get off and rethink. Shigesen bought his camera to film the things he likes, but worries now it’s more that he likes the stuff he films. There might be room in his heart for something other than trains, but he’ll have to put the camera down for a minute to find out. Nanten’s friends busy themselves the touristy stuff – the Jidaigeki movie theme park and putative trips to feed monkeys, but for her Kyoto is the city of love and she doesn’t want to leave it without fulfilling her romantic destiny. A loving tribute to the iconic, appropriately historical, method of mass transit and to the charmingly, picturesque town itself, Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram exists at the intersection of past and present as its conflicted lovers make ghosts of themselves riding the tram into eternity and fading into the city as just another part of local history, running the lines forevermore.


Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Red Snow (赤い雪, Sayaka Kai, 2019)

Red Snow poster 2“We’re just pieces of a puzzle” a temporarily deranged woman exclaims to a gloomy seeker after truth in Sayaka Kai’s eerie debut Red Snow (赤い雪, Akai Yuki). Truth, as it turns out is an elusive concept for these variously troubled souls trapped in a purgatorial tailspin on their gloomy island home. When a stranger comes to town intent on unearthing the long buried past, he stirs up deeply repressed emotion and barely concealed anger but finds himself floundering in the maddening snows of a possibly imaginary coastal village. 

30 years previously, a young boy, Takumi, went missing on the way to a friend’s house accompanied by his brother Kazuki who claims he simply disappeared from view in the heavy snow. Sometime later, a child’s remains were found in a burned out building. The prime suspect was a strange woman with a young daughter who escaped the fire in the middle of the night in a suspiciously elegant outfit. Nevertheless, the woman was later exonerated and the truth behind Takumi’s disappearance remained shrouded in mystery.

In the present day, a reporter, Kodachi (Arata Iura), arrives in town with the intention of writing some kind of exposé on the case. He interviews the detective involved and makes contact with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), now a broken middle-aged man who has dedicated his life to perfecting the art of lacquerware. A secondary lead takes him to Sayuri (Nahana) – the daughter of the prime suspect now, in a tragic piece of circularity, an outcast herself and possibly a sex worker in a violent relationship with an older man (Koichi Sato) who may or may not be her pimp.

Each of them has tried to move on from the unresolved tragedy of Takumi’s disappearance, but all appear to have failed. Kazuki dreams of the day his brother vanished right in front of his eyes, seeing a little red jumper lost in the snow but unable to remember anything more. He fears he will never know what happened unless his memory somehow returns, though as his mentor tells him what actually happened and the way you remember it are often different. Waxing philosophical, Kodachi muses that memory is what links the past and future but memory, and therefore life itself, is ambiguous. The “truth” may be unknowable and known at the same time to those who refuse to confront its various contradictions. 

Like the young Sayuri watching through a tiny crack in the wardrobe door where her abusive mother has placed her out of the way of all her “fun”, nobody sees the whole of anything. The young Sayuri morphs into the adult Sayuri and into her mother whom she fears she has become. The only witness to the incident, Sayuri refuses to speak of it though perhaps there’s more kindness in her silence than it first seems even if her unwillingness to remember may also be a kind of self preservation. She too is a victim, but is blamed all the same despite being only a small child powerless to intervene or be held complicit in whatever it is her mother might have done or not done in her quest for survival.

Sayuri remains trapped within the orbit of her now absent mother, herself an outcast in another abusive relationship this time with a sociopathic old man, while Kazuki struggles to accommodate his sense of guilt for something he can’t quite remember. Emotions briefly bubble to the surface, petty resentments and jealousies that pass between all small children but might perhaps have had terrible consequences one snowy night. Sayuri may be right when she insists that they are pieces of a puzzle, each holding tiny fragments of truth that might be assembled into a coherent whole, but also aware that if they did so they may not like the picture that they see.

Eerie and ethereal, the snowy coastal town almost may not exist at all haunted as it is by traumatised souls trapped in a purgatorial cycle of guilt and confusion as they try to piece together the past. Sayaka Kai’s dreamlike, poetic debut is a visually impressive existential mystery in which past and present intertwine leaving our troubled heroes lost in a fog of falling snow unable to access the future through the corrupted pathways of memory.


Red Snow was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine poster 1“I see it now, we can’t change anything” a despondent would-be-revolutionary decries in a moment of despair. Almost 100 years later, you might have to concede they have a point when the world finds itself on a tipping point once again and the same old prejudices refuse to disappear. Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Kiku to Guillotine Onna Zumo to Anarchism) casts an unflinching eye back towards the Japan of 1923 caught in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster which followed on from a chaotic era of rapid social change and bewildering modernisation during which a series of battles were being fought for the future direction of a nation still trying to define itself in world dominated by empires.

When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck claiming mass loss of life and extreme damage to infrastructure, the ensuing chaos gave rise to a vicious rumour that Koreans were taking advantage of the situation to foment the independence movement by poisoning wells and committing arson leading to a pogrom against anyone who failed to prove themselves Japanese enough to satisfy the mob. Meanwhile, the same forces also turned on political opponents whose influence they perceived as destructive to their own aims culminating in the murder of prominent anarchist Sanae Osugi along with his feminist wife Noe Ito and their six-year-old nephew.

We begin, however, with a different band of outsiders in the Tamaiwa itinerant female sumo wrestler troupe many of whom have taken refuge in an isolated world of female solidarity in order to escape abusive relationships. Kiku (Mai Kiryu) is one such woman who found the courage to run away from a violent husband on catching sight of the powerful female wrestlers who made her realise that she too could become strong like them. Having accepted that “weak people can’t change anything”, Kiku has vowed to become “strong” in order to claim her own agency and ensure that she can’t be pushed around ever again.

Meanwhile, an anarchist sect known as the Guillotines are fomenting a more general kind of revolution but have not been very successful and are now on the run from the authorities which is how they end up running into the female wrestlers and more or less bringing them into the struggle. Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries. They rob the rich to fund their “activism” but spend most of the money on sex and drink while plotting revenge for the murder of Osugi with various schemes which imply that at heart they aren’t so different from that which they hate.

Nevertheless, the forces of darkness are rising and history tells us that, temporally at least, they will win. The vigilante militias which carried out the massacres were largely made-up of farmer soldiers who’d served in Russia and experienced terrible hardship. Unable to bear the idea that their traumatic wartime experiences had been a senseless waste, they doubled down on militarist ideology and insisted on their nationalistic superiority. This led them to hate, to regard anything that lay outside of their code as inferior and dangerous. Though the massacres were condemned by the government and the perpetrators prosecuted for their crimes, the convictions were largely quashed a short time later which is why we see our major villains rewarded by the state and our revolutionary “heroes” imprisoned for their resistance towards state oppression and desire to create a fairer, more equal society.

Ironically enough, Nakahama’s big utopian idea is an overly idealistic vision for a future Manchuria which in hindsight proves extremely uncomfortable but is perhaps an indication of the naivety of the times. Even so, the Guillotines for all their romanticism are essentially progressive in their thinking and in full support of sexual equality, insisting on the necessity of the wrestlers to embrace their physical capabilities in order to defend themselves against an oppressive and patriarchal society fuelled by male violence. Though this in itself might be mildly problematic in implying that in order to become “equal” women must learn to be more like men, it also plays into the film’s subtle sense of irony in which the tools of militarism are being subverted in order to oppose it. The “intellectual” Guillotines find their revolutions failing, while fighting fire with fire may be the only surefire way to win even if it legitimises the problematic act of violence in the process. Then again, as another of the Guillotines puts it, the truly strong are those who have no need of killing. 

In any case, the Tamaiwa stable becomes a tiny enclave of progressive values built on female solidarity though they ultimately discover that solidarity is not quite enough and they cannot protect each other from the ravages of the times without external assistance. Even so, they attempt to hold the line, literally pushing back against the fascist incursion while insisting on their right to resist as human beings with will and agency. The prognosis seems bleak. 100 years later the same battles are still being fought and the same tensions rising in the wake of new disasters yet there are also those who will continue to resist and like the Tamaiwa wrestlers refuse to give in to those who threaten to restrict their freedom.


The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


Distance screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Kanata Wolf, 2017)

Smokin' on the Moon posterSlacker drama has become a mainstay of the Japanese indie scene as aimless young men drift freely in a society which promises them little and threatens to take much. Even so they’ve rarely been quite so genially lost as the pair at the centre of Kanata Wolf’s Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Niwatori★Star) whose relatively serene life of stoner bliss is radically derailed after a dramatic encounter with a psychotic yakuza drug dealer. Dreaming of escape, a better life somewhere else, the pair find themselves taking very different paths as they reflect on their familial pasts, broken dreams, and future promises.

34-year-old Sota (Arata Iura) and his younger unofficial roommate and official best friend Rakuto (Ryo Narita) live a “simple” life of casual work which pays for rent and getting stoned if not much else. They are broadly “happy” with their aimless drop out lives and determined not to get involved with the shadier sides of their underworld existence by avoiding the pull of hard drugs and gangster hang outs. All that ends up going by the wayside when their dealer, Jay (Peron Yasu), is offed by sadistic yakuza Hatta (Kanji Tsuda) who makes a point of dropping in on the boys to ask them if they know where Jay might be in order to make sure they don’t. Being directly confronted with gangster violence sparks Sota into a series of epiphanies as he suddenly realises that the stoner life is not a good fit for a man of 34, while Rakuto, who has few other options, considers throwing his lot in with Hatta if only to remain on the sidelines of organised crime.

Sota, son of an Osakan okonomiyaki restaurant owner (Eiji Okuda), left home in flight of family legacy, bored with boring small-town life and resentful of his “destiny” as the heir to a family business. Eight years in Tokyo, however, have been largely wasted, squandered away on constant evasion with nothing more to show for his time than a few crazy stories and a deeply held friendship. Sota does at least have a safety net, he can always go home to a family that will welcome him with open arms. Rakuto is not so lucky. Harbouring deep seated resentment towards his mother who was unable to protect him from a violent step-father, Rakuto fled Okinawa to escape the memory of a traumatic childhood which is perhaps why he finds himself becoming a surrogate father to a little boy whose mother, as it turns out an old friend of his, desperately tries to kick a crack habit given to her by an unforgiving city even as it crushed her dreams of musical success.

Discovering an old report card on which he’d written that his greatest ambition was to work hard for his family, Rakuto decides he needs to buck up and become a responsible husband and father who can provide a stable home for a woman and a child. There are, however, few opportunities for middle-school dropouts and even those there are Rakuto has already disqualified himself from thanks to his stoner looks which include fiery red hair and several prominent tattoos (prohibited in almost every conceivable “decent” job in Japan). Thus he feels his only option is to become a kind of errand boy for Hatta, naively believing he will allow him to remain in the shallower end of the gangster pool just dealing weed and making deliveries rather than pushing hard drugs or getting involved in violence. While Sota finds peace in the country, Rakuto begins to build the family life he’d always dreamed of while trying to cope with the constant anxieties of being an underling to a bunch of unhinged crooks.

Wolf shifts registers throughout – starting off in stoner comedy where our heroes inhabit a bohemian world of gay bars and randy landladies, shifting into crime thriller as the nasty gangsters rear their heads, and then finally ending up in masculine melodrama as Sota recounts the sad story of his friend who, despite his good heart, finds himself a victim of fate rather than of himself or even of his society. Mixing strange animation and surrealist diversions with an affecting tale of friendship, Smokin’ on the Moon is another sad story of those unable to find their place in the world taking refuge in each other only to find a melancholy compromise even as fate threatens to rob them of the little joys they’ve found.


Smokin’ on the Moon screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July at 9.15 pm plus Q&A with director Kanata Wolf

(Kanata Wolf (かなた狼) previously known as Yuichiro Tanaka (たなか雄一狼). Surname is Wolf as per official website).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)