Marriage Hunting Beauty (美人が婚活してみたら, Akiko Ohku, 2018)

out_bijyo_poster_B2Is life really easier for “beautiful” people or do they simply experience a different series of problems? Some might say beauty is a nice problem to have, but however much people may scoff there is perhaps a price to be paid for physical attractiveness as the heroine of Akiko Ohku’s Marriage Hunting Beauty (美人が婚活してみたら, Bijin ga Konkatsu Shite Mitara) is at pains to point out though few are willing to sympathise. What she discovers, however, is that her beauty has perhaps been her blindspot in that it has made her self-centred and entitled while preventing her from realising what is it that has really been bothering her.

At 32, Takako (Mei Kurokawa) remains romantically naive and has wound up in a series of dead end relationships with terrible men who happened to be married (though she didn’t find out until it was too late). Her best friend, married housewife Keiko (Asami Usuda), tells her that her problem is that she’s too beautiful – single guys are too intimidated to make the first move while the married ones are emboldened by their desire to play with fire and the knowledge that the relationship is essentially meaningless because they already have “commitment” elsewhere. Hitting rock bottom, Takako suddenly has an epiphany that she wants to get married if only to prove that she is worthy of becoming someone’s wife rather just their mistress.

Takako is, it has to be said, perfectly aware that she is an attractive woman and sees little point in deflecting praise that comes her way because her appearance – something that begins to grate on Keiko as Takako fails submit herself to the level of socially accepted modesty which would require her to protest when called “beautiful”. Keiko’s categorising her as a sad princess is perhaps accurate in that she certainly likes to paint herself as hard done by while refusing to engage with the aspects of her life which cause her to feel miserable and empty. Entering the world of “konkatsu” – accelerated dating with a view to marriage, is then a humbling experience in which she must simultaneously raise and lower her expectations in order to work towards an “ordinary”, conventional kind of settled domesticity.

Of course, “beautiful” people aren’t supposed to need such services, and so Takako’s first few matches on a dedicated marriage orientated website are predictably depressing – a parade of strange older gentlemen hoping to bag a beauty and usually selling their social capital (houses, steady jobs etc) to do so. The one guy she does kind of hit it off with, Sonogi (Tomoya Nakamura), is a shy salaryman who seems nice but lacks confidence and remains creepily in awe of her beauty. Meanwhile, a singles mixer at an “elite” bar introduces her to cynical dentist Yatabe (Kei Tanaka) who seems to have confidence in abundance but very little kindness.

Takako is back to the familiar problem of trying to choose between two men, one nice but servile and the other selfish and indifferent but admittedly exciting. Yatabe is a walking collection of red flags, which is to say that he’s just Takako’s type, but fortunately she’s beginning to figure out that what she likes is not always what’s good for her. Then again, she’s also trying to move past her conception of herself as a “beautiful” woman so Sonogi’s constant deference and gratitude for being allowed in the presence of someone so out of his league is exactly the opposite of what she’s looking for even if she’s beginning to warm to his nice guy charms.

Meanwhile, she remains uncomfortable with her own sense of desire and struggles to reconcile it with society’s preconceived notions of what “beautiful people” should be. Despite their otherwise close friendship, Takako is unable to talk honestly even with Keiko and largely fails to take much of an interest in her friend’s life. Keiko, meanwhile, seems to be trapped in an unfulfilling marriage and secretly may not want Takako to change because she is vicariously enjoying her messy bachelorette lifestyle. Nevertheless, it’s friendship which eventually wins out as the two women agree to meet on more equal terms, sharing their essential selves honestly and without fear as they commit to supporting each other with mutual understanding.

“There are no shortcuts to love”, Takako finally acknowledges as she realises what wanted all along wasn’t superficial acceptance but recognition. What looked like haughtiness was really low self esteem. A quirky tale of a middle-aged woman finding the courage to step into herself, Marriage Hunting Beauty might be telling a familiar story but does so with genuine sympathy for its beautiful heroine as she finally finds the strength to reject the social straightjacket and reclaim her sense of self as a person worthy of respect rather than reverence or ridicule.


Marriage Hunting Beauty was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Good Stripes (グッド・ストライプス, Yukiko Sode, 2015)

Good stripes posterThe international media has become somewhat obsessed with the idea of Japan as a land of wilfully lonely singletons who’ve rejected the idea of home and family either in favour of the easier pleasures of one way virtual romance, or simply because a series of economic and social problems have made married life an unaffordable luxury. This is of course an exaggeration, but it is true enough that younger people have more choices which can, in some cases, lead to more worries and confusion. The young couple at the centre of Yukiko Sode’s Good Stripes (グッド・ストライプス) are in this sense a perfect encapsulation of their generation as they find themselves vacillating in the face of an unexpected crisis.

Midori (Akiko Kikuchi) and Masao (Ayumu Nakajima) have been together four years and truth be told the relationship seems to have run its course. Masao is about to jet off to India for three whole months yet Midori hardly seems bothered. While he’s away she stops responding to his messages, leaving him feeling even more isolated and alone so far away from home. Just when it seems the time has come to part, Midori realises she is pregnant, and as she’s already five months gone the most important decision has already been made for them. Wanting to do the “right” thing, Midori and Masao decide to marry and raise their baby in the conventional fashion yet they do so rather reluctantly and with a degree of mutual resentment.

The more we see of Midori and Masao, the more difficult it becomes to figure out how they got together in the first place. He is a typical middle class boy from a professional home (albeit a somewhat atypical one) and she a free spirit who grew up in the countryside. Midori doesn’t fit with Masao’s supercilious friends, one of whom is extremely rude and often makes a point of making fun of her while Masao eventually joins in rather than defend his girlfriend from what is really a little bit more than good natured banter. Reaching their late twenties they’re at the age where most of their friends are settling down, but they remain somewhat diffident, apparently not planning to stay together forever but not quite getting round to breaking up.

Things being the way they are, it’s all a little unplanned which is perhaps why Masao bristles when Midori finally moves into his well appointed apartment. He doesn’t have anywhere to put her things and is unwilling to shift any of his own, claiming putting up additional shelving would disrupt the balance of the room. Inviting someone else into your life must necessarily unbalance it, requiring at least a period of recalibration until a new equilibrium is reached, but Masao’s brief moment of resentment is perhaps understandable as he wrestles with being railroaded into a decision he isn’t sure he wanted to make.

Nevertheless, he tries to make the best of things by keeping quiet to keep the peace. Later when we meet Masao’s strangely “cute” doctor mother, she wonders if she made a mistake in the way that she chose to raise him. Having left Masao’s father when he was only five, she vowed to raise her son to be chivalrous – always carry the bags, be the first to apologise after a fight etc, but now wonders if she taught him to be superficially polite while inwardly seething with repressed anger and terrified of confrontation. Supportive to a point, Masao’s mother is also perhaps a little exasperated by the youngsters’ halfhearted attempt to embrace responsibility while quietly doubtful if they can really stay the course.

A meeting with Midori’s rowdy country family including her “difficult” spinster older sister and the equally free spirited younger one who makes fireworks for a living, proves eye opening for Masao as the only child of a sophisticated home but it’s an unexpected reunion with his own long absent father which eventually sets him on a course towards addressing his feelings of rootlessness and issues with intimacy. Resentful of his circumstances he begins having an affair with a pretty college friend only to come to hate himself during a torrid night in a hotel in which he suddenly realises what he’s getting up to is “all a bit animalistic”. Reconnecting with his father and realising that while they share certain similarities with each other they are all but strangers perhaps allows him to let go of his longstanding issues of abandonment and pursue his own desires which he’s fond of claiming to have abandoned altogether after discovering in childhood that nothing turned out the way he expected.

Midori and Masao may be two people railroaded into a future neither of them is quite sure they wanted, but in the end being forced to deal with a shared crisis does eventually bring them closer together if only in being forced to address their very separate issues both independently and as a couple. “Why take it out on me?” Midori snaps by accident, sensing Masao’s discomfort in dealing with some surprising revelations from his father, before thinking better of it and reverting to a more supportive position but her words do perhaps get through to her conflicted boyfriend even if he only really comes to accept his responsibility when forced to fish her out of a drainage ditch, reassured by her claims that there’s no need to worry because she’s the 100% boring sort of person that nothing ever really happens to. Giggling at the strangeness of it all, the pair vow their commitment to each other in the presence of the god of overcoming obstacles, together at last just as they prepare for their lives to be “unbalanced” all over again.


Good Stripes was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (南瓜とマヨネーズ, Masanori Tominaga, 2017)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise posterIt’s important to be supportive towards your partner’s dreams, but what if your support is actually getting in the way of their development? The question itself never seems to occur to the heroine of Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (南瓜とマヨネーズ, Kabocha to Mayonnaise) as she descends deeper and deeper into a dark web of wilful self sacrifice hoping that her singer songwriter boyfriend will finally get his act together and come up with some new material. Adapted from the manga by Kiriko Nananan, Masanori Tominaga’s charting of a modern relationship is perhaps slightly more hopeful than those which have previously featured in his movies but nevertheless takes his heroine to some pretty dark places all in the name of love.

Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) is a 20-something woman living with her aspiring rock star boyfriend, Seiichi (Taiga). In order to facilitate his art, she has convinced him to give up work while she supports the couple financially through her job at live music venue. Seiichi, however, remains conflicted about the arrangement and hasn’t written anything of note in months. In fact, as Tsuchida tells a colleague, he barely leaves the house which means he’s not likely to be suddenly inspired either. What Seiichi doesn’t know is that the money from Tsuchida’s regular job isn’t quite enough and she’s started supplementing her income through working in a hostess bar. Though not naturally suited to the work, she soon picks up a “particular” client (Ken Mitsuishi) who offers her some “overtime” at a hotel. Tsuchida isn’t quite sure but having come so far she can hardly turn back now, even if the guy is a pervert with a school girl fetish. Hiding the money in a cigarette box in shame, Tsuchida is eventually caught out and forced to confess to Seiichi who is horrified, placing a serious strain on their relationship.

Just as her relationship with Seiichi starts to go south, Tsuchida runs into an old flame, Hagio, who is everything Seiichi isn’t – brash, arrogant, confident, and very much not the sort of man to make a life with. Nevertheless, Tsuchida can’t help looking back and remembering how madly in love she was with Hagio (Joe Odagiri), forgetting that she was just as madly in love with Seiichi or she wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble for his benefit. Hagio himself cites Tsuchida’s all or nothing intensity as one reason he ended the relationship the first time round, she was just too into him and he found it annoying.

Seiichi, a quieter, introspective sort, never found Tsuchida’s devotion irritating but the pressure of her expectation was perhaps a barrier to his artistic success. Staying home all day, bored and depressed, Seiichi rarely found the inspiration to write between brooding about his lack of progress and feeling guilty that he couldn’t pull his economic weight. To his credit, Seiichi harbours no particularly sexist notions towards Tsuchida’s being the family earner, but he does mildly resent a barbed comment from a friend who criticises him for his “purist” stance in accusing his former band members of selling out when he is being kept by his girlfriend. Likewise, he doesn’t reject Tsuchida for engaging in prostitution or for “cheating” on him, but turns his anger inward in resenting that she felt forced to go such great lengths for the music that he isn’t quite so confident about anyway.

The problem is that Tsuchida gets far too into her idealised notions of romance rather than directly engaging with the person in front of her. She pushed Seiichi towards music and encouraged him to fulfil his dreams but in the end stifled them with her unforgiving intensity. Likewise, she ends up over engaging in Hagio’s hedonistic, devil may care lifestyle and never really stops to think where it’s going to take her. Only near the end does she begin to approach a level of self realisation which allows her to see that her relationship with Hagio will never work out because she remains afraid to enter a true level of intimacy with him in fear that he won’t like what he sees and will leave her.

Told from Tsuchida’s perspective with frequent voice overs to let us in on her interior monologue, Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is a messy “grownup” love story between three people who are still in the process of growing up. Artistic integrity rubs up against relationship dynamics as Tsuchida is forced to examine her own behaviour and realise she often, intentionally or otherwise, sabotages her dreams by attempting to impose her own singular vision upon them rather than simply let them be. As in real life, there may not be a “happy” ending, in one sense at least, but there is still the possibility of one further down the line for a woman who’s finally accepted herself and is willing to let others do the same.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録, Kei Ishikawa, 2017)

gukoroku posterGenerally speaking, murder mysteries progress along a clearly defined path at the end of which stands the killer. The path to reach him is his motive, a rational explanation for an irrational act. Yet, looking deeper there’s usually something else going on. It’s easy to blame society, or politics, or the economy but all of these things can be mitigating factors when it comes to considering the motives for a crime. Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録), the debut feature from Kei Ishikawa and an adaptation of a novel by Tokuro Nukui, shows us a world defined by unfairness and injustice, in which there are no good people, only the embittered, the jealous, and the hopelessly broken. Less about the murder of a family than the murder of the family, Gukoroku’s social prognosis is a bleak one which leaves little room for hope in an increasingly unfair society.

When we first meet Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) he’s riding a bus. Ominous music plays as a happy family gets off but the real drama starts when another passenger irritatedly instructs Tanaka to give up his seat so an elderly lady can sit down. He snorts a little but gets up only to fall down next to the steps to the doors and subsequently walk off with a heavy limp. The man who told him to move looks sheepish and embarrassed, but as soon as the bus passes from view Tanaka starts walking normally, an odd kind of smirk on his face in thought of his petty revenge.

In one sense the fact that Tanaka faked a disability is irrelevant, the man did not consider that Tanaka may himself have needed a seat despite looking like a healthy man approaching early middle age. Perhaps, he’ll think twice about making such assumptions next time – then again appearances and assumptions are the lifeblood of this mysteriously complicated case.

Tanaka has a lot on his plate – his younger sister, Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima), has been arrested for neglecting her daughter who remains in intensive care dangerously underweight from starvation. In between meeting with her lawyer and checking on his niece, he’s also working on an in-depth piece of investigative reporting centring on a year old still unsolved case of a brutal family murder. Tanaka begins by interviewing friends of the husband before moving onto the wife who proves much more interesting. Made for each other in many ways, this husband and wife duo had made their share of enemies any of whom might have had good reason for taking bloody vengeance.

The killer’s identity, however, is less important than the light the crime shines on pervasive social inequality. As one character points out, Japan is a hierarchical society, not necessarily a class based one, meaning it is possible to climb the ladder. This proves true in some senses as each of our protagonists manipulates the others, trying to get the best possible outcome for themselves. These are cold and calculating people, always keeping one eye on the way they present themselves and the other on their next move – genuine emotion is a weakness or worse still, a tool to be exploited.

The key lies all the way back in university where rich kids rule the roost and poor ones work themselves to the bone just trying to keep up. There are “insiders” and “outsiders” and whatever anyone might say about it, they all secretly want in to the elite group. Here is where class comes in, no matter how hard you try for acceptance, the snobby rich kids will always look down on those they feel justified in regarding as inferior. They may let you come to their parties, take you out for fancy meals, or invite you to stay over but you’ll never be friends. The irony is that the system only endures because everyone permits it, the elites keep themselves on top by dangling the empty promise that someday you could be an elite too safe in the knowledge that they only hire in-house candidates.

Gradually Tanaka’s twin concerns begin to overlap. The traces of sin extend to his own door as he’s forced to examine the legacy of his own traumatic childhood and fractured family background. The reason the killer targeted the “happy” family is partly vengeance for a series of life ruining wrongs, but also a symbolic gesture stabbing right at the heart of society itself which repeatedly failed to protect them from harm. Betrayed at every turn, there’s only so much someone can take before their rage, pain, and disillusionment send them over the edge.

Despite the predictability of the film’s final twist, Ishikawa maintains tension and intrigue, drip feeding information as Tanaka obtains it though that early bus incident reminds us that even he is not a particularly reliable narrator. Ishikawa breaks with his grim naturalism for a series of expressionistic dream sequences in which hands paw over a woman’s body until they entirely eclipse her, a manifestation of her lifelong misuse which has all but erased her sense of self-worth. There are no good people here, only users and manipulators – even the abused eventually pass their torment on to the next victim whether they mean to or not. Later, Tanaka gets on another bus and gives up his seat willingly in what seems to be the film’s first and only instance of altruism but even this small gesture of resistance can’t shake the all-pervading sense of hopeless loneliness.


Gukoroku – Traces of Sin was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)