The Other Home (向こうの家, Tatsuro Nishikawa, 2018)

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they start to realise that things are not always as they appear and no matter how happy and settled your family life might seem, your parents aren’t perfect though they are probably doing their best. For Hagi (Ayumu Mochizuki), that moment comes at 16 when he gets fed up with school and takes some time off believing he might be able to learn more outside of the classroom than in. An unconventional coming-of-age tale, Tatsuro Nishikawa’s graduation project The Other Home (向こうの家, Mukou no Ie) is also a meditation on the modern family and the patriarchal order. 

Getting back to school after the summer break gets off to a rocky start when Hagi and his friend are told that the fishing club of which they are members is being shut down as the teacher who was in charge of it is scaling back her workload because she’s just got engaged and will eventually be leaving to get married. Hagi takes this in his stride, mostly at a loss over where to eat his lunch because his girlfriend, Naruse (Mahiru Ueta), for some reason thinks it’s embarrassing to eat alone in the classroom. In any case, Hagi reacts by deciding not to go to school at all. His parents don’t approve, but decide to give him some space to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, he’s beginning to wonder if it’s odd that his family never fight, his parents committed to talking things through peacefully rather than resentfully hiding their true feelings. 

Or, so he thought. There is something childishly naive in his conviction that because his parents never fight in front of him they never fight at all, though it’s true enough that he comes from a talking about things family in which his mother Naoko (Mana Minamihisamatsu), in particular, is keen that they share their thoughts and feelings honestly, looking forward to her husband Yoshiro (Toru Kizu) returning home each day after which they share a drink and make time to talk. It comes to something of a surprise to him then when his dad asks him to pick up a set of keys he’s forgotten and bring them to a cafe near where he works without letting his mother know. Hagi does as he’s told only to learn the keys are for a cheerful cottage by the sea which he’s been renting for his mistress, Toko (Mai Ohtani), with whom he now wants to break up preferably before the lease is due for renewal. Too cowardly to do it himself, Yoshiro enlists his teenage son’s help to break up with the woman he’s been cheating on his family with. 

Strangely, this revelation does not seem to sour him on his dad even if he realises the threat it poses to their happy family life. “Protecting the family peace. Men must uphold that promise” Yoshiro unironically tells his son, problematically implying that the way to do that is by covering up affairs rather than simply not having them. Dutifully Hagi heads over to “the other home”, only to be thrown out by Mr. Chiba (Denden), a friend of Toko’s who not unreasonably tells him that this is something his father should be dealing with himself rather than sending his teenage son to guilt his mistress into moving out of her house. Failing to engage with his father’s betrayal, Hagi nevertheless comes to sympathise with Toko who is about to be rendered homeless thanks to his father’s moral cowardice, staying with her in the cottage while lying to his mother that he’s doing an internship at his father’s company. 

Nevertheless, each of his parents is eventually found wanting as Toko teaches him the things they perhaps should have including how to ride a bike, an embarrassing oversight which had seen him deemed “uncool” by his exasperated girlfriend. The film has little time for Naoko’s talking about things philosophy, her husband merely lying to her while engaging in the same patriarchal double standards simultaneously insisting it’s a man’s duty to “protect family peace” while deliberately endangering it through an extramarital affair. Hagi too perhaps picks up these uncomfortably old fashioned ideas partly from his teacher who proudly shows off her engagement ring boasting that it cost her fiancé three months’ salary, the expense apparently proof that he intends to look after her well for the rest of her life as if she couldn’t do that herself. He begins to feel sorry for Toko as she outlines her life as a kept woman, a backroom full of unwanted presents from various men who too looked after her for a time, but in the end merely offers to look after her himself by quitting school to get a job so he can renew the lease to make up for his father’s moral cowardice.

The reason they were so happy, it seems, is that Yoshiro gave himself an escape valve. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to be dad” he admits, apologising for his inability to share his burdens honestly, his male failure neatly undercutting the tacit acceptance of the patriarchal authority which stands in contrast to Naoko’s ideal of a healthy relationship founded on emotional authenticity. Finally learning to ride a bike, Hagi finds himself entering a less innocent world as a young man now fully aware of the universe’s moral greyness if perhaps not quite so enlightened as he might feel himself to be.


The Other Home screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド, Teruyuki Yoshida , 2016)

Shippu Rondo posterIn this new age of anxiety, can we find the time to laugh about the possible release of a deadly bioweapon illegally developed and then stolen by a disgruntled employee who then finally gets hit by a truck before he can reveal what he did with it? On watching Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド), your answer may be a predictable no. Adapted from a novel by Keigo Higashino, who is not particularly known for his sense of humour, Shippu Rondo fails to capitalise on the inherent absurdity of its premise, lurching between broad comedy and existential dread before making a late in the game shift towards sentimental family melodrama.

The trouble begins when a disgruntled employee (Shigeyuki Totsugi) fired for his zeal in creating a virulent bioweapon returns and steals its only sample, skiing out into the woods and burying it in a canister which will open automatically should the temperature rise above 10ºC. Hoping for a hefty ransom, he nails a teddybear containing a radio signal to the nearest tree and sends an email asking for cash in return for the location. Unfortunately, he gets hit by a truck before he can give more detailed information but does at least leave a radio transmitter and a photo as a clue.

Hapless widowed researcher Kuribayashi (Hiroshi Abe) is the one charged with bringing the extremely dangerous K-55 back under control, taking his 14-year-old son Shuto (Tatsuomi Hamada) along as a kind of guide/cover in the exciting world of Japanese ski resorts. The problem is, Shippu Rondo can’t decide if it wants to be an absurd black comedy about the potential death of thousands because of self-centred, selectively stupid scientists, a serious crime thriller, or a tearjerking melodrama of emotional repression and filial misconnection.

Thus, after arriving at the ski resort, we largely forget about the urgency surrounding the missing canister of deadly toxins while becoming involved in the various dramas of the otherwise peaceful town. The younger sister of one of the local teens apparently died of flu, leaving a nasty rumour behind that her depressed mother, who runs the local cafe, secretly plots revenge against the youngsters who “spread” the disease. Meanwhile, a man in a funny hat (Tsuyoshi Muro) keeps following Kuribayashi around while he looks for the canister, and the ski patrol guy (Tadayoshi Okura) tries to encourage his friend (Yuko Oshima) and probable love interest that she should fight for her sporting dreams while she wonders if to do so is irresponsible in the wake of mass tragedy like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The irony of the flu proving deadly while the threat of mass death from incurable anthrax looms over the heads of everyone is never lost, though its eventual resolution is underbaked in the extreme. Despite the fact we’re repeatedly told that the lid on the canister is designed to dissolve if the temperature exceeds 10ºC, someone carries it in their pocket for an undetermined amount of time while considering whether to use it to poison all their friends in the hope of cheering someone up and rising in their estimation. It’s a peculiarly Higashino-esque touch in its bizarre mean-spiritedness, but then gives way to broad sentimentality as the beneficiary of the action reminds the would-be mass killer that they shouldn’t wish misfortune on others but rather should double up on happiness for all. Meanwhile, Kuribayashi’s jaded middle-aged cynicism rubs up against his son’s adolescent idealism as he tries to process the fact that his dad works in illegal weapons, has lied to everyone around him by telling them they were looking for an experimental vaccine needed to save a terminally patient, and is planning to brush the whole thing under the carpet to save his own skin.

More gentle comedy than disaster thriller, the crisis eventually works itself out if in continually farcical episodes of swapped vials and villains falling off cliffs, while Kuribayashi’s self-interested boss Togo (Akira Emoto) dances maniacally around his office. Low budget in the extreme, Teruyuki Yoshida’s direction is of the TV special variety, veering between broad comedy and a cynical drama in which the day is saved largely because a teenage boy has entirely lost faith in his feckless father to do the right thing. Still, it all ends in a positive message as the champion snowboarder resolves that the best way to help people might lie in embracing your unique skillset while her bashful friend supports from the sidelines, the older generation remember their responsibility to lead by example, and evil corporate mad scientists are forced to own their casual disregard for public safety.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)