Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

It might be frightening, when you think of it, how much of life is dependent on coincidence. Chance encounters, some sparking lifelong connection others destined only for aching memory, are after all what life is all about. Given a little imagination, the heroes of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s triptych of accidental meetings Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Guzen to Sozo) each begin to work through their personal traumas, easing their loneliness in fleeting yet profound connections with others. “I’m glad I met you” one woman says to another, imagination and reality for a moment blurred as they role-play themselves towards a greater accommodation with the missed opportunities of the past. 

“Could you dare to believe in something less assuring than magic?” the anti-heroine of the first episode asks her former lover, undermining the central thesis in suggesting that sometimes coincidence is just that and everything else mere fantasy an attempt to convince oneself that life is grander than it is. Her friend, Tsugumi (Hyunri), excitedly tells her about the best night of her life born of a serendipitous meeting with a man who might be her soulmate but was also wounded, frightened of falling in love, still carrying the scars of betrayal after being cheated on two years previously.

What Tsugumi didn’t know is that Mieko (Kotone Furukawa) is the cheating girlfriend who broke the heart of her star-crossed lover Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), but now Mieko’s sense of betrayal is two-fold. Tellingly, Mieko refers to her friend as “Gumi”, but to Kazuaki she’s the “Tsu” to his “Ka”, literally torn in two while Mieko both fears the loss of her friend and resents the love she herself discarded being picked up by another. The thought of the two of them, a perfect whole as she later admits, together near destroys her. When Kazuaki unwittingly invades their private space she has a choice, indulging in a moment of destructive fantasy which threatens to torpedo her friendship only for Hamaguchi to pull a Hong Sang-soo, zoom in and rewind, to allow her to make a more mature decision albeit one that leaves her exiled but allows a more positive path towards a freer future having let go of this brief moment of emotional trauma. 

But what if your emotional trauma is longer lasting, leaving you feeling isolated unable to understand why it is you’re not quite like everyone else and for some reason they won’t forgive you for it. Married housewife and mother Nao (Katsuki Mori) has gone back to college and is having an illicit affair with a much younger student but is frustrated not to be included in campus life in part blaming her sense of alienation on being so much older while also internalising a sense of discomfort that tells her it’s always been this way. Her lover, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), suggests it’s all her own fault, that she doesn’t know how to “go with the flow” and “puts up walls”. He meanwhile, is shallow and entitled, resentful towards a stuffy professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who held him back a year because his grades in French, a required subject, weren’t good enough.

To get back at him, he emotionally blackmails Nao into helping him set up a scandal but Segawa has a literal open door policy and their meeting eventually turns into something deeper even if Nao is forced to admit that a part of her craved this kind of seduction fantasy. Only Segawa, a distant, pensive man, meets her as an equal, tells her that he thinks her inability to go with the flow is no bad thing but a strength in that she lives by her own desires rather than those of an overly conformist society. An ironic mistake, however, later cheapens their profound connection spelling disaster for both while Sasaki it seems, as men like him often do, unfairly prospers plunging Nao into an even deeper sense of despair and self-loathing. “My own stupidity makes me want to cry” she confesses, offered hope only by another chance encounter with the unresolved past. 

Then again, do you actually need to meet to find resolution or is fantasy enough to overcome a sense of loss or missed opportunity? In the midst of a freak technological disaster in which the internet has been temporarily disabled, IT systems engineer Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) attends her 20-year high school reunion but the person she wanted to see wasn’t there. She thinks she sees her in fleeting moment passing each other on an escalator. The other woman seems to recognise her too, the pair of them caught in an escalator loop one chasing the other and thereafter visiting the other woman’s home. But as they talk they realise their chance encounter was mutual case of mistaken identity if one that exposes the similarities between them, connected Natsuko later puts it by an unfillable hole in the heart. Aya (Aoba Kawai), a middle-aged housewife, lives comfortably in a well-appointed suburban home but confesses herself wondering why she’s alive at all, feeling as if “time is slowly killing me”.

Not wanting to waste the “dramatic meeting” they role-play the conversation they might have had, Natsuko regretting having given up too easily on her high school love not wanting to cause her further pain but now realising that her care was mistaken, the pain was necessary for them both and its absence has condemned them to kind of limbo of unresolved longing and regret. Aya meanwhile reveals something else, a “boyish” friend for whom her feelings remain unclear though the final moment of connection in which she remembers her long forgotten name which literally translates as “hope” proves profoundly moving in the momentary connection between these two women, strangers but not, meeting by chance and bound by imagination each restoring something to the other if only in fantasy. 

A meditation on distance and intimacy, Hamaguchi’s series of empathetic character studies owes an obvious debt to Rohmer with a dash of Hong Sang-soo but is perhaps kinder allowing the randomness of life to provoke a gradual liberation in each of these wounded souls if only temporarily. The question might less be if you can believe in something less assuring than magic, than if you can learn to trust the strange mysticism of serendipity. 


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ito (いとみち, Satoko Yokohama, 2021)

“Ye can’t hear my silence!” the timid young heroine of Satoko Yokohama’s Ito (いとみち, Itomichi), an adaptation of the Osamu Koshigaya novel, finally fires back, reminding us that silence too is means of communication. The film’s Japanese title, Itomichi, refers to the groove in shamisen player’s nail caused by the friction of the strings, but also perhaps to the path of the heroine of the same name as she makes her way towards self actualisation, figuring out the various ways there are of connecting with people as she begins to step into herself while coming to terms with the past. 

As we first meet Ito (Ren Komai) she’s trapped in a boring history lesson about local famines, reminded by the teacher to raise her voice while reading from the textbook but reluctant to do so firstly because she has an unusually strong local accent and often speaks in dialect and secondly because she is intensely shy. When she’s finished, the teacher even jokes that listening to her read is a little like classical music though it doesn’t seem much like a compliment. Even so, it’s particularly apt as Ito, like her late mother, has a talent for playing the Tsugaru shamisen and has even won numerous competitions yet she’s barely touched her instrument recently, perhaps developing a slight complex about the bumpkinishness of her intensely local way of life, especially as her father Koichi (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a university professor researching the traditional culture of the local area. 

Pointing out that talking is Ito’s weak spot, Koichi reminds her that she can communicate with others through her music even if he later admonishes her to use her words if she has something to say. Her refusal to pick up her shamisen is then a kind of withdrawal if of a particularly teenage kind. Hoping to get over her shyness, she finds herself quite accidentally applying for a part-time job at a maid cafe in the city, an incongruity in itself but one that helps her begin to open up to others. Then again, a maid cafe might not be the best environment selling as it does an outdated conception of sexual politics. Koichi later makes this argument pointing out that a maid cafe is not so different from a hostess bar while another maid, Tomomi (Mayuu Yokota), takes issue with the false chivalry of some of the middle-aged men who frequent the establishment who set up a club to “protect” Ito after she is inappropriately touched by a belligerent customer. To Tomomi the very idea that women need “protection” from men against men is inherently sexist and wrongheaded while the fact that they all rally round to protect the shy and vulnerable Ito also speaks volumes about their ideals of womanhood explaining why it is they’re in a maid cafe where the waitresses call their customers “master” and indulge their every whim in the first place. Even so, Ito’s colleagues are also quick to reassure her that she is in no way at fault, the customer’s behaviour was unacceptable and against the spirit of their establishment.

Yet as the manager points out “moe moe” is also a “means of communication” not perhaps intended to be taken literally. Ito does not exactly discover how to use her words, but through interacting with her colleagues at the cafe begins to come into an acceptance of herself no longer seeing her accent and dialect as uncool or old fashioned giving herself space to breathe as she makes new friends guided by her cafe mentor Sachiko (Mei Kurokawa) and finally getting up the courage to speak to another lonely young woman whom she’d been on awkward nodding terms with seeing as they catch the same train home from school. As Ito’s grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) reveals, she learned how to play the shamisen with her eyes and ears proving that communication comes in many forms. Ito’s name which she had previously found old-fashioned and embarrassing appropriately enough means threads or here strings of a shamisen which become in their own ways channels to connect with other people which as the slightly dubious owner of the cafe (Daimaou Kosaka) points out is the most important thing of all. 

As Ito rehearses her maid routine with a video of her mentor, grandma outlines her thoughts about shamisen on camera for Koichi’s eager students, handing her knowledge down for the next generation. Literally finding her groove again, carving a niche in her fingernail, Ito rediscovers her love for music while gaining the confidence to stand on stage and be herself encouraged by all her friends and family. A beautifully pitched coming-of-age tale celebrating the local culture of Yokohama’s hometown Aomori, from which leading actress Ren Komai also hails, Ito is a warm and loving tribute not only to Tsugaru shamisen but to friendship and community brokered by a wealth of communication and a willingness to listen even to silence. 


Ito screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (C)2021『いとみち』製作委員会

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)