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)

Dynamite Graffiti (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Masanori Tominaga, 2018)

Dynamite Graffiti posterThe division between “art” and “porn” is as fuzzy as the modesty fog which still occasionally finds itself masking “obscene” images in Japanese cinema, but for accidental king of the skin rag trade Akira Suei it’s question he finds himself increasingly unwilling to answer even while he employs it to his own benefit. Back in the heady pre-internet days of the 1980s, Suei was the public face behind a series of magazines along differing themes but which all included “artistic” images of underdressed women in provocative poses alongside more “serious” content provided by such esteemed figures as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki in addition to stories and essays penned by “legitimate” authors and the more scurrilous fare written by Suei himself. Inspired by one of Suei’s essays “Dynamite Graffiti” (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Sutekina Dynamite Scandal), Masanori Tominaga’s ramshackle biopic has the informal feel of a man telling his sad life story to a less than attentive bar girl as he takes us on a long, strange walk through the back alleys of ‘70s Japan.

The entirety of Suei’s (Tasuku Emoto) life is lived in the wake of a bizarre childhood incident in which his mother (Machiko Ono), suffering with TB and trapped in an unhappy marriage to a violent drunk, chose to commit double suicide with the young man from next door. Perhaps there’s nothing so strange about that in the straightened Japan of 1955, but Suei’s mother chose to end her life in the most explosive of ways – with dynamite stolen from the local mine. Carrying the legacy of abandonment as well as mild embarrassment as to the means of his mother’s dramatic exit, Suei finds himself a perpetual outsider drifting along without the need to feel bound by conventional social moralities as symbolised by the “ideal” family.

What he longs for, by contrast is freedom and independence. Bored by country life he dreamt of moving to the city to work in a factory, but the problem with factories is that they’re mechanical and turn their employees into mere tools with no possibility of personal expression or fulfilment. Spotting an advert for courses in “graphic design”, Suei’s world begins to open up as he embraces the bold new possibilities of art even as it wilfully intersects with commerce.

Taken with the new philosophy of design as the message, a means of “exposing” oneself and ultimately enabling true human connection, Suei remains frustrated by the limitations of his role as a draughtsman for local advertisers and, inspired by a friend’s beautiful poster, finds himself entering the relatively freer creative world of the “cabaret” scene as a crafter of signboards and flyers. The cabaret bars are little better than the factories, exploiting the labour of women who themselves are the product, but Suei’s distaste is soon worn down by constant exposure. From the clubs and cabarets it’s only a natural step towards erotic artwork, nudie photographs, and finally a vast magazine empire of “literary” pornography.

Suei’s accounts of his youth are filled with a lot of high talk about the possibilities of art, of his desire to remove the masks which keep us divided so that we might all know “true” human love. Whether his adventures in adult magazines can be said to do that is very much up for debate. They are, as he freely admits, expressions of male fantasy – exposing a perhaps unwelcome truth about the relationships between men and women even as they continue to exploit them. Yet Suei’s own desire to find something more than a potential for titillation in his work continues to dwindle as he finds himself engaged in increasingly complicated schemes to avoid censure from the police while simultaneously insisting that his magazines are both “artistic” and not.

His insistence that the photographs are “artistic” becomes his primary weapon in getting sometimes vulnerable young women to agree to take their clothes off. Abandoning his loftier aspirations, Suei sinks still further into the smutty morass whilst still maintaining the pretension that his magazines are not like the others. He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) to chase fleeting affections with unsuitable or unstable women, one of whom eventually descends into a mental breakdown which provokes in him only the realisation that his desire for her was a romantic fantasy which her illness has now dissipated. Art is an explosion, Suei claims, but his mother was the explosive force in his life, blowing him off course and leaving him too wounded to embrace the reality he so desperately claims to crave but continues to reject in favour of the same kind of male fantasies his magazines peddle.

Everyone around Suei seems to be damaged. Nary a face in the red light district is without a bandage or bruise of some sort. These are people who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the ladder and are desperately trying to scrap their way up. Times change and Suei’s empire implodes. Porn is swapped for pachinko as the exploitable pleasure of choice paving the way for yet another reinvention which sees him throw on a kimono to rebrand himself as his own mother and self-styled pachinko expert. You couldn’t make it up. Still, perhaps there is something more honest in Suei’s pachinko persona than it might first appear even if his present “art” is unlikely to enlighten us to the true nature of love.


Dynamite Graffiti is screening as the opening night movie of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)