Company Retreat (ある職場, Atsushi Funahashi, 2020)

“You can’t be suspicious of your team” an older woman insists, trying to defuse a rapidly devolving situation of mistrust among co-workers away on a “Company Retreat” ostensibly to cheer up a female employee who has recently become the centre of an online storm after her name and photos were leaked in relation to a report of sexual harassment at a prominent hotel chain. Inspired by true events, director Atsushi Funahashi originally planned to make a documentary exploring the fallout from an accusation of sexual harassment but discovered that few were willing to put themselves on camera opting instead to craft a docudrama in part improvised by his cast of actors. 

Shot documentary style and in black and white save one colour flashback, the action is split between two distinct company getaways four months apart taking place at a coastal town the first in the winter and the second in spring. Saki (Saki Hirai), a young female employee, made an accusation of sexual harassment against her male middle-aged boss, Kumanaka (Makoto Hada), and has been receiving constant online abuse after being outed by an unknown figure for unknown reasons. While her colleagues are largely supportive, they may also be harbouring an unspoken resentment that her decision to speak up has indirectly endangered their jobs as the company continues to suffer a loss of reputation with the public. When another of the employees reveals that he’s tracked the IP address of a persistent troll and discovered they’ve been posting from nearby it invites the suspicion that one of her friends is behind the online hate campaign possibly at the behest of the hotel chain keen to blacken her name and reputation in order to safeguard their own. 

The sexual harassment accusation exposes the gulf between what people say and what they really feel with some of the other employees eventually losing their cool and taking their frustrations out on Saki, partly for spoiling the holiday with her gloominess but also for her tendency to isolate herself from the group now viewing each of them as a potential enemy. She later accuses Noda (Yoshio Taguchi), a placid company man she feels may have chosen to sacrifice her in order to save the company’s reputation and with it his own job. Noda is upset to realise Saki sees him as a heartless corporate drone but later claims to have forgiven her. At the second retreat, however, he begins to voice quite a different opinion, exposing a deeply held set of patriarchal values in playing devil’s advocate wondering if it wasn’t all a misunderstanding and the boss, who has been demoted and transferred but not fired, has had his life “ruined” over something that wasn’t “that big of a deal”. He says this, in part, because his new girlfriend who also happens to be an employee has advised him that he is inappropriately touchy feely in the office and has little understanding of boundaries or personal space. Noda doesn’t see a distinction in the way he interacts with men and women and feels that’s just how he is, laying the blame on the other party if they ever felt uncomfortable while tacitly sympathising with another man who he believes may have had no “bad intentions” and is simply the victim of a “misunderstanding”. 

Perhaps paradoxically, he also blames Saki for her complicity that she may have smiled or laughed and said it was fine on previous occasions giving the boss the green light to think there was nothing inappropriate in his behaviour. In this she finds herself agreeing, that is perhaps the way it works in the workplace. Another older woman in a senior position advises her to transfer to another department, eventually explaining she thinks that might be easier seeing as the bosses are all men unlikely to be sympathetic. Ushihara (Mikoto Yoshikawa) is not unsympathetic herself, but is also willingly complicit, among the contingent of older career women who feel that sexual harassment is something you just have to put up with while simultaneously claiming that nothing will change until there are more women in a position of power. Attempting to take her side, Kinoshita (Megumi Ito), a divorced senior employee, tells Saki to do the “right thing” and refuse the transfer but is shot down by Noda who exposes even more misogyny when he tells her that her “emotional” and “righteous” tone is “unattractive”, insisting that she needs to “win the respect of men” in order for her arguments have weight. 

For some, however, and particularly the younger men this sort of hypocrisy becomes too much to bear. A company is supposed to be a family, but no one trusts anyone. Several employees from the original retreat resign after a decision is taken to try ringing the troll to prove they aren’t among the group unable to bear the sense of mistrust and suspicion from their close friends and teammates. Another employee, Taku (Taku Tsujii), brings his boyfriend to the first retreat though closeted at work losing confidence to come out to his colleagues in case they reject him and worst case scenario it costs him his job. Eventually he makes the decision to explain, realising he’s placed his boyfriend in a difficult position, and is relieved to discover he is immediately accepted by all, but continues to sympathise with Saki knowing how devastating it can be to be outed while also irritated by her tendency to reject them while they are only trying to help her. Meanwhile, another awkward young man struggles to confess his crush on the increasingly paranoid young woman, overly invested in a patriarchal ideal of masculinity that women are in need of male protectors mistakenly believing that Saki will be impressed by his attempt to safeguard her which ironically becomes a secondary act of harassment even as he, like Kinoshita, attempts to convince her to rebel against her complicity with a relentlessly rigged, conformist and conservative social order. 

The conclusion that she comes to, however, is that she has to “survive in this world” rather than striving for a better one. She has been unfairly demonised as if the real problem is her speaking up rather than her boss’ inappropriate behaviour and is understandably weary with fighting a battle she doesn’t understand, willing to accept a level of complicity in order to end the hate and suspicion. Kinoshita fears she will never see a “safe workplace” while others relentlessly “try to make society work for them” rather than for everyone. A bleak picture of contemporary society ruled by oppressive social pressure and aggressively patriarchal norms, Funahashi’s empathetic drama offers no real answers but advocates for the right to say no in a society where dissent is an untouchable taboo. 


Company Retreat (ある職場, Aru Shokuba) streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Minori, On The Brink (お嬢ちゃん, Ryutaro Ninomiya, 2019)

“Days like this make me feel I’m wasting my life” sighs just another dejected youngster in Ryutaro Ninomiya’s quietly enraged takedown of millennial malaise in a fiercely patriarchal society, Minori, On The Brink (お嬢ちゃん, Ojochan). In a culture which often favours politeness and avoids confrontation, Minori is a rare young woman determined to speak her mind though always with patience and grace and in turn a willingness to apologise if she feels that she has acted less than ideally, but her words often fall on deaf ears while those around her stumble through their lives chasing conventional illusions of happiness to mask a creeping despair. 

We first meet 20-something Minori (Minori Hagiwara) as she challenges a man who tried to force himself on her friend, Rieko, cowering quietly behind her. Minori wants an apology, but predictably he denies everything and quickly becomes angry, held back by his equally skeevy friend who advises him to apologise if only to defuse the situation. In the end Minori doesn’t get her apology and has to settle for having made a stand, retreating to avoid causing her friend more harm, but on exit the third man chases after her to ask for her contact information. Really, you couldn’t make it up. 

Part of Minori’s anger is bound up with being a so-called “cute girl” and everything that comes with it in a society still defined by male desire. Parades of idiotic young men, for some reason always in threes, come through the cafe where she works part-time expressly because a “cute girl” works there, while she’s forever being invited out by female friends who want to bring a “cute girl” to the party. Somewhat insecure, Minori worries that people are only interested in her cuteness and might otherwise reject her if, say, she were badly disfigured in some kind of accident. But what she resents most is that it’s other women who enable this primacy of the cute, the way her bashful, “homely” friend Rieko is always apologising for herself, while the other women who self-identify as “ugly” willingly cede their space to the conventionally attractive. 

In short, they submit themselves totally to pandering to male desire while men feel themselves entitled to female attention whether they want to give it or not. Dining in a local restaurant, Minori and Rieko are invited to a party by the proprietress which neither of them seem keen to go to but Rieko is too shy to refuse even when Minori reminds her of the traumatic incident at the last party with the guy who forced himself into the ladies bathroom and tried to kiss her against her will. The older woman laughs it off, affirming that he “meant no harm”, he was just drunk. This is exactly what Minori can’t stand. She keeps telling people she isn’t angry, but is she is irritated by Rieko’s need to apologise for something that isn’t her fault, seeing it as enabling the culture that allows men to do as they please while women have to obey a set of arbitrary rules of which remaining quiet is only one. 

In her own quiet way, Minori refuses to toe the line but is constantly plagued by unwanted male attention. Getting into an altercation with a creepy guy who waited outside her place of work to find out why she didn’t reply to his texts, she explains that he was just a casual hookup and that she finds his overly possessive behaviour frightening even as he continues not to take no for an answer, eventually branding her a “slut” for daring to embrace her sexuality. She demands an apology, not for what he called her but for the use of such misogynistic language. Earlier, in the trio of friends which contained Rieko’s attacker, another man had claimed he remembered Minori from a previous gathering, branding her as a “pigheaded mood wrecker” for daring to take them to task for their bad behaviour. The men talk about women only in terms of their desirability, the same man insisting that he has no interest in “strong willed women”, probably for obvious reasons. Another recounts having bullied a girl he fancied in middle-school, unable to understand why she avoided him despite bragging about having terrorised her and organising her ostracisation by the other girls (supposedly, he could do this because he was “popular”) until she finally transferred out (whether or not this actually had anything to with him remains uncertain). 

Perhaps to their credit, the other two guys immediately declare him uncool and are mildly horrified that he sold this to them as a funny story from his youth with absolutely no sense of repentance or self awareness. But their response is also problematic and born more of their boredom than their outrage, engaging in a bet over who can make him cry first as they “bully” him so that he’ll develop empathy for people who are “bullied”, never actually explaining to him why he’s being “punished”. Minori questions the problematic attitudes around her with straightforward candour, taking her cafe friend to task for her hypocrisy in taking against older men while expressing an uncomfortable preference for the very young.  

Nevertheless, Minori remains exhausted by the hypocrisies of the world around her. She declares herself “happy” with her ordinary life, a 4-day part-time job, low rent thanks to living with grandma, and spare time spent playing games. To that extent she has no desire to change her life, but the very fact of her “happiness” also depresses her in its banal ordinariness. “It’s all worthless” she suddenly cries, stunned by the inescapability of her ennui. On the brink of despair, Minori finds herself sustained only by rage not only towards an oppressive society but her own inability to resist it.


Minori, On The Brink was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. It will also be available to stream worldwide (excl. Japan) as part of this year’s Udine Far East 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)