It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Haruhiko Arai, 2019)

“It’s kind of erotic” a young man remarks watching the local bon odori, “Like dancing on the border between this world and the next”, the woman adds, “people who have died and are stuck in limbo”, “kind of like us”. In limbo is indeed where the lovers of It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Kako No Futari) seem to be, perpetually awaiting the end of the world while wilfully retreating into the romantic past as they reheat their adolescent love affair from a perspective of experience.

Now approaching middle age, Kenji (Tasuku Emoto) is a dejected divorcee living an aimless life in Tokyo when he gets a call from his father (Akira Emoto) to let him know that his cousin, Naoko (Kumi Takiuchi), is getting married and would like to invite him to the wedding. He spins a yarn about needing to ask for time off from a job he doesn’t have, but packs up and leaves right away, staying in the old family home vacant since his mother died and his father remarried. Naoko visits him almost immediately, enlisting his help transporting a large TV set to the house she will be sharing with her fiancé, a major in the SDF currently engaged in disaster relief. Apparently still not over their aborted romance of more than a decade earlier, she determines to seduce her former lover for a one night stand, but the night of passion reawakens Kenji’s desire and eventually leads to a five-day holiday in which the couple cocoon themselves in intimacy awaiting the return of the absent major. 

Adapted from the novel by Kazufumi Shiraishi which was published in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, It Feels So Good finds itself in a moment of acute anxiety and existential threat. The lovers feel themselves in various ways already dead, in part because of the poetic affectation of a lovers’ suicide in which they imagined themselves swallowed by the crater of a dormant mount Fuji. The inactive volcano motif perhaps hints at the untapped potential of their still simmering passion, but also at their mutual emptiness as they attempt to find meaning in the aftermath of disaster. Naoko confides that she decided to get married, in part, because she wanted to become a mother after witnessing so much death, but later adds that she is also suffering from a kind of survivor’s guilt as a resident of Akita, in the disaster area but itself relatively untouched by death or destruction. Kenji, meanwhile, struggles to emerge from the ashes of his failed marriage which seems to have sent him into a self-destructive, alcoholic spiral, that cost him his career and left him living aimlessly in the city. 

Naoko spins their “temporary” affair as a return to the past, not really cheating just temporally displaced, as they hole up together in her marital home making the most of their time alternating between the bed and the dinner table engaging in two kinds of dialogue, that of the body and the other of the mind. Returning to a previous intimacy they marvel at the ease of their connection while edging their way towards a frank discussion of how and why their original affair came to an end, reflecting on shame and fear as they meditate on past choices and their future implications always aware that their present connection has an expiry date. That sense of an ending takes on existential connotations not only for the couple but for the wider world as they contemplate a coming disaster, refocussing their minds and desires on the here and now. “I should have listened to my body” Kenji laments, refusing to think of the future in favour of the present moment, “it’s now or never”.

It Feels So Good topped the Kinema Junpo Best 10 list for 2019, a feat doubly notable because it is directed by Haruhiko Arai who is, among other things, editor of rival publication Eiga Geijutsu (ethical concerns aside it took the top spot in their poll too). Arai began his career in pink film writing scripts for Koji Wakamatsu and there is something distinctly ‘70s in It Feels So Good’s nostalgic sensibility besides its plaintive retro folk score and theatrical dialogue. Nevertheless what he charts is two people learning how to live in a world of constant anxiety, sitting atop a volcano but choosing heat over ash, retreating into private passion as a protective bubble against existential uncertainty.


It Feels So Good is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makuko (まく子, Keiko Tsuruoka, 2019)

“In this world nothing lasts forever” the conflicted hero of Keiko Tsuruoka’s Makuko (まく子) is tearfully told, though it’s a lesson he struggles to learn as he battles the anxiety of leaving the certainties of childhood behind. Adapted from Kanako Nishi’s 2016 novel, Makuko is unafraid of the fantastical but resolutely rooted in the everyday as “aliens” make their descent into regular small-town life to learn what it is to die, or so they say, while the hero discovers what it is to live through the beauty of transience. 

11-year-old Satoshi (Hikaru Yamazaki) is coming to the realisation that he is growing up. Things around him, or more precisely his perception of them, are changing in small but obvious ways and he’s not OK with it. Like the other children he used to enjoy being read manga by Dono (Jun Murakami), a middle-aged man with learning difficulties who hangs around with the local children, but has for some reason begun to find it embarrassing. Meanwhile, he’s also battling a degree of resentment towards his distant father (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) in becoming aware of his parents’ complicated relationship after spotting him with another woman and hearing constant references to his philandering which his mother (Risa Sudou) seems to have accepted. Satoshi doesn’t know much, but he knows he doesn’t want to be like his dad or any of the other duplicitous adults he sees around the town which is one of many reasons that he fears growing up and being forced to enter the world of adult hypocrisy against his will. 

All of these fears are challenged by the unexpected appearance of intergalactic transfer student Kozue (Ninon) who tells him that she and her equally odd mother (Miho Tsumiki) are actually from a distant planet somewhere near Saturn where nothing ever changes and no one gets old. This is, she explains, because their bodies are made of particles which are eternal and unchanging, unlike those of Satoshi’s body which are constantly in flux which is why humans grown old and die. When a meteorite carrying different particles hit the planet’s surface, it caused a population explosion leaving her people with the unprecedented choice to die only no one really knows what “death” means which is why she’s come to Earth. Satoshi is envious of an unchanging world, seeing only futility in his equation of change with death which is what it is that he’s really afraid of. Why grow up only to die? he asks, only for Kozue to point out that like the leaves she’s fond of throwing in the air, if they didn’t fall they wouldn’t be so pretty. 

Satoshi isn’t really sure he believes Kozue’s strange story, only that he’s certain he doesn’t want her to die. It seems he fell out with a friend who stopped coming to school because of stories the other kids thought he was making up about UFOs and ladders in the sky, but if what Kozue says is true then perhaps he owes him an apology. Dono, whom he’d previously looked down on as “the town’s second biggest loser” offers him some valuable advice that perhaps it’s better to believe the things that people tell you and if you find out later that they lied, well you can deal with that then. 

Whether Kozue’s an alien or not, Satoshi is fairly certain he’s falling in love with her which is a whole other set of problems which brings him back to his problematic dad and the awkwardness of puberty. He doesn’t want to be an adult, but his body is changing all on its own and there’s nothing he can do about it. The local festival is all about “rebirth” through creation and destruction, but Satoshi still struggles to accept the necessity of change in order to grow, wishing things could simply remain as they are. What he learns is that we’re all “aliens” in one sense or another, everyone is lost and afraid and different but also the same, keepers of a hundred “tiny eternities” equating to one vast whole.  

“Everything disappears in the end” Satoshi is told during an intense encounter with his father’s mistress, but then again perhaps it doesn’t only remaining in a different form. A cosmic event brings the townspeople together in banal awe that quickly passes into a collective memory, and while some depart others arrive in their place bringing with them their own near identical anxieties and, like meteorites striking home, new opportunities for growth. 


Makuko is available to stream in Germany until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

The Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1959)

“When all human beings acknowledge each other as human let the precious joy that results be universal. When this joy lives forever in the hearts of women and is handed down to daughters who become mothers then tomorrow will not just repeat today but be a new beginning” reads the opening title card/mission statement of Satsuo Yamamoto’s chronicle of early 20th century Japan. Told though the eyes of one very good woman wrestling against her baser instincts, Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Niguruma no Uta) is a gentle plea for a little more empathy and understanding in which the heroine suffers greatly but is finally rewarded in managing to keep the darkness at bay. 

In late Meiji, Seki (Yuko Mochizuki) develops a fondness for the most eligible young man in town – the postman, Moichi (Rentaro Mikuni), who can read and write and isn’t bad looking either. To her surprise, Moichi admires her too and eventually proposes marriage, intending to give up his job as a postman which doesn’t pay as much as it used to now costs are rising because of the recently concluded Sino-Japanese war to buy a handcart with the longterm goal of building a small handcart empire with a warehouse of his own that will allow him to build a fancy house to live in. Seki hesitates, she’s an illiterate maid perhaps she isn’t good enough for the great Moichi but he replies that he couldn’t care less about that and only wants to know if she wants him. She does, but has to check with her parents first. They object to the marriage on the grounds that Moichi is penniless and disown her when she tells them she’s marrying him anyway. Disowned by her parents, she also loses her job as a maid and is forced to head to Moichi’s ahead of schedule where his extremely cold mother (Teruko Kishi) makes no secret of her resentment of her new daughter-in-law but is eventually forced to relent. 

Unlike Moichi and his mother, the other residents of the village and particularly its women are bright and cheerful despite the harshness of their lives. Swept off her feet by Moichi’s seeming sophistication, Seki is in for a rude awakening in realising that his work ethic is extreme and in many ways he’s just as cruel as his heartless mother. On her arrival, Seki’s mother-in-law complains that she brings “only a small bundle” while simultaneously suggesting that she somehow looks down on them because they are only poor people, insisting that she work alongside Moichi pulling carts to make their dreams of riches come true. Seki jumps at the chance to prove her love, but finds her mother-in-law unchanged. 

Pulling the cart through the village, Moichi and Seki pass another woman who seems put out by Seki’s presence, complaining that Moichi never bothered to reply to her own proposal. Moichi dismisses her complaints, avowing that he didn’t marry her because she wasn’t a worker, implying that he was only interested in someone who would work alongside him in pursuit of his goal of becoming a homeowner. Seki is indeed a worker, and a strong woman who bears her hardships with grace, but finds it increasingly difficult to put up with her mother-in-law’s heartlessness and adherence to old-fashioned feudal customs by which she claims her authority over the household while Moichi, as the dutiful son, always defers to his mother. When the first child arrives, Moichi declares that a daughter brings him no joy, while the mother-in-law who is supposed to be watching her, just lets her cry all day long and doesn’t even change her nappies. Out on the road, Seki comes across another couple in a similar situation who’ve brought their little one with them, riding in a bucket on the back of the cart. Seki wonders why they can’t do the same, then she’d at least know her daughter was alright and not crying her heart out in a dirty nappy, but Moichi won’t hear of it lest his mother be offended that Seki is suggesting she’s not looking after her granddaughter properly. 

Moichi works every hour god sends, but not so much to provide for his family as to improve his own status in the hope of owning a sizeable home, perhaps to “regain” the kind of position his mother thinks is theirs as descendents of the Heike. He exists on a kind of political fault line in his rigid austerity, believing that you really can make it just by working hard while also becoming the de facto spokesman for the other cartmen because he is the only one able to read and write. Yet faced with constant and obvious oppression of the eerily feudal kind in persistent rice profiteering he does nothing much to resist it and gives only grudging approval to his son’s intention of forming a train driver’s union. 

While Moichi has pinned all his hopes on handcarts, the future is fast approaching. A funeral procession of cartmen is greeted by the horse-drawn variety coming the other way as if to signal their imminent obsolescence. But the horsemen aren’t much better off. If Moichi couldn’t afford a horse, he’ll never afford a motor car and the mechanised age is on the horizon. The only work he manages to find ironically involves transporting lumber for the new railway line, but it’s a gamble that pays off and makes Moichi a wealthy man once again. 

Material comforts aren’t everything, however, and Seki struggles to reconcile herself to life with her increasing cruel mother-in-law and emotionally distant husband. She worries that she’s becoming what she hates, finding it difficult to find sympathy for Moichi’s mother now she’s ill in feeling that perhaps she’s getting what she deserves. Her friend advises her that that’s just “bugs” eating away at her heart and what she really needs to do is fly in the opposite direction, finally make a friend of her mother-in-law in trying to understand her. She has, after all, had a very hard life, starved of affection all these years as a young widow raising a son alone on little more than charcoal money. 

Seki meanwhile suffers numerous humiliations and heartbreaks, notably Moichi’s extremely unreasonable decision to bring his 50-year-old sex worker mistress to live with them in their home, but does her best to be generous and forgiving. As she points out, this house is half hers, she built it alongside Moichi and she won’t just vacate it so Moichi can do what he always does which is as he pleases (once his mother’s not around to tell him not to). Moichi perhaps pays for his feudalist follies and selfish authoritarianism in a fairly direct way which aligns him with his chastened nation waking up to the emotional costs of his mistakes, while Seki is finally rewarded. Unlike her mother-in-law she becomes a beloved neighbourhood granny giving rides to all the local kids while pulling her cart onwards towards the future like a reverse Mother Courage embracing her long absent son finally returned to her in recognition of her goodness. 


Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Till We Meet Again (あした来る人, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

(C) Nikkatsu 1955

“Men only want to treat women as pets” according to a disaffected housewife in Yuzo Kawashima’s Till We Meet Again (あした来る人, Ashita Kuru Hito). Given the well-meaning paternalism of her melancholy father, she may indeed be right. Her struggle, along with that of her husband, and of the lonely manageress of a dress shop, is in part to break free of paternalism, rejecting the “traditional” and breaking with the natural order of things to claim her own happiness. That, however, requires not only courage and conviction, but time and a willingness to endure hurtful failures. 

The hero, patriarch Kaji (So Yamamura), is a successful businessman. He’s married off his daughter, Yachiyo (Yumeji Tsukioka), to a promising young man, Kappei (Tatsuya Mihashi), but the marriage is unhappy. Kappei, a mountaineering enthusiast, rarely goes home – either out drinking with buddies in a bar with an Alpine theme, or away rock climbing in the mountains. Feeling neglected, Yachiyo resents her husband’s lack of interest and finds it increasingly difficult to get on with him, but her father proves unsympathetic, simply telling her she must put up with it and work harder at her marriage. A chance encounter on a train, however, kickstarts a change in Yachiyo’s outlook, while Kappei also finds himself drawn to a melancholy young woman who actively takes an interest in his mountain climbing career. 

Unfortunately, the young woman, Kyoko (Michiyo Aratama), is also in a strange “relationship” with Kaji who met her while she was a bar hostess in Ginza. Bonding with her for one reason or another, he funded her dress shop which has allowed her to escape the red light district, despite his oft repeated claim not to make frivolous investments. There is however, on his side at least, no “romantic” interest, his intentions are purely paternal. As Yachiyo said to her mother about Kappei, he is in a sense treating her as a kind of “pet”, to be loved and fussed over as an exercise in itself. He claims what he wants from her is his “lost youth”, presumably sacrificed for his business success, but she begins to believe herself painfully in love with him because, paradoxically, of his beneficence. Meanwhile, she meets Kappei by chance, never knowing his connection to Kaji, but bonding with him after taking in the little dog he brought home but was forced to give up by Yachiyo who claims to hate them (or, more accurately, living things). 

That ought to be as good a clue as any that Yachiyo and Kappei simply aren’t suited. Their marriage is already a failure which is making them both miserable, but they’re obliged to put on a show of being a happy couple for appearance’s sake. Yachiyo turns to her mother, Shigeno (Fukuko Sayo), for guidance, suddenly noticing that she looks much older than she’d remembered. Shigeno tells her that you age faster when you’ve nothing to do, busying herself by fussing over the cat (another living thing Yachiyo can’t abide). Yachiyo asks if she was ever happy with Kaji, but gets only the reply that she was “happy” to the extent that she knew she’d never have to worry about being hungry. Looking at her mother’s life, Yachiyo knows that she doesn’t want to end up in the same position, bored and aimless with no “dreams” to speak of. She doesn’t see why she has to stay in a loveless marriage and is convinced that only with another man could she ever truly be “herself”. 

The idea of divorce is still taboo, which is perhaps why her father insists she reconsider, aside of course from his business entanglements with Kappei. Talking it over the couple come to a mutual conclusion, that they only make each other unhappy and separating is the best decision for them both. Pretty much everyone, however, tries to talk them out of it – Kaji still wedded to the idea of marriage as an unbreakable sacrament, while new friend Sone (Rentaro Mikuni) is convinced he’s contributed to their marital discord.

Sone, a bumbling professor obsessed with his research into a rare type of fish and its possible ability to adapt to its environment, becomes friends with Yachiyo after a mix up with dinner bills on a train. She offers to introduce him to her father to see if he can help find financing, and thereafter generates a friendship which, in her mind at least, turns romantic. Sone, however, is a widower now only interested in his fish. Yachiyo falls for him because he’s a much softer, kinder presence than her husband and despite his dedication to his work, is keenly aware of the feelings of others even if he’s awkward in a charming sort of way when it comes to dealing with them. There is something, however, a little perverse in her immediate attraction to another emotionally distant man. She couldn’t stand Kappei’s obsession with the mountains, but could potentially become interested in Sone’s fish. Then again, that’s just as likely to be because Sone made a point of including her in his passion, where Kappei keeps his to himself, eventually sharing it with the more receptive Kyoko. 

Kaji, returning to the paternal, advises Kyoko that “romance is mutual deception”, or at least a kind of transaction and if she really wants to do this, she’d best be sure she’d be OK with regretting it at some point in the future. Previously, he’d told her that “marriage is pointless”, and she’d decided never to do it partly because she thought she was in love with him and he was married already. Her realisation that she’s just a kind of pet to him, a plaything he uses to feel useful while reclaiming his youth, pushes her towards an acceptance of her growing love for Kappei, an irony Kaji struggles with but eventually comes to understand. He really does want the best for her and will support her love story even though it’s also extremely inconvenient in providing an unwelcome link between the different branches of his life. Once Kyoko discovers the truth, however, her determination to fight for love begins to weaken as she reflects on an image of herself as a wicked and selfish woman betraying a man who’d been good to her, when in reality quite the reverse is true. 

Yachiyo, meanwhile, begins to understand that Sone does not necessarily return her feelings, perhaps still attached to the memory of his late wife, too preoccupied with his research, feeling awkward about her position as a married woman, or just not interested. So alarmed is he that he temporarily rushes off from his research to have a word with Kappei and is once again upset by his calm explanations that this is a decision they’ve come to mutually. It’s not because of his love for Kyoko, that only provided an excuse, but because they simply weren’t suited and made each other unhappy. Sone declares himself “sick of seeing beautiful things getting hurt”, but prepares to absent himself from the entire situation by returning to his research. Faced with the potential failure of their new romances, neither Yachiyo or Kappei reconsider their decision to divorce. Kappei retreats to his beloved mountains, while Yachiyo refuses an offer from her father to return home with him, electing to remain in Tokyo and live her own life.  

Now an old man, Kaji struggles to understand the young but somehow admires them for being what he couldn’t be. He describes them as having something pure that he did not have in his youth, but wonders if that purity hasn’t in a sense allowed them to be “damaged” in a way he never has been. Still, he thinks that’s probably a good a thing, because it allows them to become more themselves. Things might not work out right now, and it might hurt, but there’s always tomorrow. He admires the young people because they’re in the process of becoming whole and will be able to continue on their own journeys as complete people while he can only proceed down this corridor, unable to access the post-war future by actively rejecting the rigidity of the traditionalist past.


Currently available to stream on Mubi in the US.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2018)

In most countries, the legal and medical definitions of death centre on activity in the brain. In Japan, however, death is only said to have occurred once the heart stops beating. The bereaved parents at the centre of The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Ningyo no Nemuru Ie), adapted from the novel by Keigo Higashino, are presented with the most terrible of choices. They must accept that their daughter, Mizuho, will not recover, but are asked to decide whether she is declared brain dead now so that her organs can be used for transplantation, or wait for her heart to stop beating in a few months’ time at most. As their daughter was only six years old, they’d never discussed anything like this with her but come to the conclusion that she’d want to help other children if she could. Only when they come to say goodbye, Mizuho grasps her mother’s hand giving her possibly false hope that the doctor’s assurances that she is brain dead and will never wake up are mistaken. 

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Harimas were in the middle of a messy divorce when they got the news that Mizuho had been involved in an accident at a swimming pool. Kazumasa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Mizuho’s father, is the CEO of a tech firm specialising in cutting edge medical technology mostly geared towards making the lives of people with disabilities easier. He does therefore have a special interest in his daughter’s condition and is willing to explore scientific solutions where most might simply accept the doctor’s first opinion. His wife, Kaoruko, meanwhile has a deep-seated faith that her daughter is still present if asleep and will one day wake up. 

It so happens that one of Kazuma’s researchers (Kentaro Sakaguchi) specialises in a new kind of technology which hopes to restore motor function through artificial nerve signals controlled by computers and electromagnetic pulses. He hatches on the idea of using the technology to improve his daughter’s quality of life by letting her “exercise” to maintain muscle strength, but despite the excellent results it achieves in terms of her health, it takes them to a dark place. Muscle training might be one thing, but having Mizuho make meaningful gestures is another. They don’t mean to, but they’re manipulating her body as if she were a puppet, even forcing her to smile without her consent. 

Kazumasa starts to wonder if he’s gone too far. Seeing his daughter’s face move with no emotion behind it only proves to him that she is no longer alive. Meanwhile, he comes across another parent raising money to send his daughter to America for a life saving heart transplant and begins to feel guilty that perhaps his decision was selfish. The father of the other girl sympathises with him and confides that they can’t bring themselves to pray for a donor because they know it’s the same as praying for another child’s death, but Kazumasa can’t help feeling he’s partly responsible because he made the choice to artificially prolong his daughter’s life but now realises that she is little more than a living a doll. 

This is something brought home to him by Kaoruko’s increasing desire to show their daughter off. Her decision to take her to their son Ikuo’s elementary school entrance ceremony instantly causes trouble with the other parents who feign politeness but are obviously uncomfortable while the children waste no time in ostracising Ikuo because of his “creepy” sister. Kazumasa privately wonders if Kaoruko’s devotion has turned dark, if she’s somehow begun to enjoy this new closeness with her daughter to the exclusion of all else and has lost the power of rational thought. He can’t know however that perhaps she’s coming to the same conclusion as him, but it finding it much harder to accept that they might have made a mistake and all their interventions are only causing Mizuho additional suffering.

What’s best for Mizuho, however, is something that sometimes gets forgotten in the ongoing debate about the moral choices of her parents and relatives. Kazumasa’s colleagues accuse of him of misappropriation in monopolising a key researcher, hinting again at the “selfishness” of his decision to expend so much energy on treating someone whom many believe to be without hope when there are many more in need. The researcher in turn accuses Kazumasa of “jealousy” believing that he has displaced him as an “artificial” father working closely with Kaoruko in caring for their daughter. The “life” in the balance is not so much Mizuho’s but that of the traditional family which is perhaps in a sense reborn in rediscovering the blinding love that they shared for each other which will of course never fade. What they learn is to love unselfishly, that love is sometimes letting go, but also that even in endings there is a kind of continuity in the shared gift of life and the goodness left behind even after the most unbearable of losses.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Meal For Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Masahide Ichii, 2017)

Eat, drink, and be merry, as they say, for tomorrow we may be gone. The hero of Masahide Ichii’s Our Meal for Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Bokura no Gohan wa Ashita de Matteru) has committed himself to the first of those, is still too young to be much interested in the second, and is resolutely failing at the third. Somewhat gloomy and introverted, he has decided on a course of self-isolation, convinced that it’s better not to get attached because all attachment ends in heartbreak, but a life without sensation is barely a life at all and in the end all you can do is live while you’re alive taking your pleasure where you can. 

Young Ryota (Yuto Nakajima) is a dreamy high school boy with his head in the clouds. Bamboozled into participation in a sack race relay with pretty classmate Koharu (Yuko Araki) he approaches the matter in characteristically analytical fashion, eventually realising that he, taller and stronger (physically at least), will have to take the lead if they are to move forward. Off the track, however, that’s a lesson he finds difficult to learn. After their victory, Koharu stuns Ryota by confessing that she asked him to join her in the sack race precisely because she has a crush on him. He panics and apparently turns her down, but eventually reconsiders.

Their romance continues in typical high school fashion, only strengthening as they prepare to move on to new stages in their lives in heading off to uni while idly dreaming of an imagined future with the family they will forge together as adults. There is however a shadow hanging over their love. The reason Ryota is so brooding and contemplative is because he’s reeling over the death of his older brother from an illness, something he tries to “discuss” (or more accurately monologue) with Koharu but she abruptly cuts him off because she has more important things to do than listen to a long sad story she feels she already understands. He, meanwhile, never quite thinks to ask her very much about her life outside of him and is both hurt and slightly resentful when she casually mentions that she’s had her share of loss too which is why she’s so keen to start a family of her own. 

Ryota may be the contemplative sort, but he’s also the type that likes to talk out loud about his feelings without feeling the need to hold anything back. Koharu meanwhile is precisely the opposite. She might be upfront about what she wants and direct in stating her desires, but she’s also resolutely uncurious, dislikes talking about “unpleasant” things, and is content to let the mystery linger where Ryota wants to know absolutely everything (but without actually asking any questions). Taking a (solo) holiday, he finds himself alone among a gaggle of middle-aged women taking a break from their husbands who explain to him that small secrecies are an entirely normal and in fact essential element of a healthy relationship. Without them, their lives would not be possible.

It was a quest for self knowledge, however, which took him to Thailand. Ironically, he went “alone” but as part of a tour group, whereas Koharu took the opportunity to go to Australia and hunt gemstones entirely by herself only to be confronted by a sense of loneliness in wanting to turn to someone with whom to share the moment but finding no one there. In sync to a point, they are still not quite ready to act as one, Koharu confessing that it’s undoubtedly easier to do things on your own, laying bare the shyness that unpins her deceptively outgoing personality in her fear of the awkwardness that comes with shared intimacy. 

That intimacy is something Ryota craves but also fears. He’s afraid of getting attached, she’s afraid of getting bored. Ryota compares his fear of falling in love to the sense of emptiness one feels when a movie ends, or perhaps the act of enjoying a beautifully cooked steak but knowing that the meal will all too soon be over. Koharu points out that a never ending steak would be a hellish nightmare, implying that it’s better to just enjoy the steak until you’re full and then be thankful for a delicious meal. That’s something she too finds hard to accept, however, when she discovers that her dreams of a picture perfect family may be impossible to achieve. She pulls away, isolating herself, nobly trying to spare Ryota the pain of witnessing her suffering. An old lady (Hairi Katagiri) advises him to be foolish in love, make an uncharacteristically grand gesture. The future may not be quite the way you pictured it, but that’s no reason you can’t be happy with what you have while you have it. No one knows what may come. Savour the moment while the moment lasts, everything else is for another day.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

A Beautiful Star poster 1Given life’s anxieties, it can sometimes be hard to remember that the world is a beautiful place. If only we humans could learn to stop and smell the flowers every so often, we wouldn’t be so eager to destroy the place that gave us life. Loosely adapting a novel by Yukio Mishima, Daihachi Yoshida’s A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Utsukushii Hoshi) swaps Cold War nuclear paranoia for climate change anxiety as a collection of extra-terrestrials consider differing strategies to save the Earth, the most radical of them being the eradication of the human race.

Yoshida opens with the Osugi family, minus son Kazuo (Kazuya Kamenashi), “enjoying” a birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant. The tension between them is obvious as patriarch Juichiro (Lily Franky) bad mouths his absent son, daughter Akiko (Ai Hashimoto) sits sullenly not touching her food, and mum Iyoko (Tomoko Nakajima) tries to keep the peace. Juichiro, as we later realise, is a minor celebrity – a much loved TV weatherman whose predictions are not terribly good but he does have a very personable manner. Unfortunately, he’s not so nice offscreen and has been cheating on his wife with a much younger woman who is after his job. After a tryst at a love hotel, the pair get into some kind of bizarre car accident and Juichiro wakes up on his own in a field feeling not quite right. After a colleague suggests he might have been abducted by aliens, he develops an interest in UFOs and, after being moved to tears on air, comes to the conclusion that he is a Martian emissary from the League of Solar Planets come to enlighten the Earth to the dangers of global warming before it’s too late.

In fact, Juichiro is not the only member of the Osugis to believe he is not of this Earth. Except for mum Iyoko, everyone eventually realises they are actually from another planet but their feelings of “alienation” are perfectly Earthbound and born of extremely normal anxieties the like of which can cause discord in any family. Complaining about his son’s lateness to the birthday dinner, Juichiro runs down Kazuo’s lack of full-time employment and writes him off as “just an errand boy”. Kazuo, resentful of his father, feels an intense insecurity about his failure to forge a successful life for himself – something that is thrown into stark relief when he meets an old college buddy now a salaryman who seems to take pleasure in the fact that the captain of the basketball team has made a mess of things where he is now on the road to career success. So when Kazuo meets shady fixer Kuroki (Kuranosuke Sasaki), currently running the campaign for conservative politician and climate change denier Takamori (Jyunichi Haruta), and finds out he is actually from Mercury, it restores his sense of purpose even if it pushes him towards becoming a slightly dangerous right-wing manipulator.

His sister, meanwhile, is a lonely, depressed university student with a complex about her appearance. Approached by a creepy guy running some kind of campus beauty pageant, she can’t get away fast enough but is captivated by the song of a street busker who eventually tells her she likes his music because it’s inspired by their shared roots as Venusians and that the reason she “despises” her own beauty is that Venusians used to set the beauty standards on Earth but now they’ve been usurped. Feeling not quite so alone and more confident in her skin, Akiko decides to enter the pageant to “correct” the perception of beauty in human society.

“Beauty” seems to be the key. Iyoko finds herself sucked into a pyramid scheme selling “beautiful” water mostly out of a sense of lonely purposelessness. Apparently from power spot deep within the Earth, the water is supposed to be its rejuvenating life blood but like so much else, humanity has misused and commodified it. Juichiro’s Martians have a conventional solution to the present problem in that they want humanity to wake up and slow down. The Mercurians, however, have more radical ideas. Seeing as humanity is toxic to this planet that we all love, the obvious answer is simply to eliminate it, engineer a reset in which the Earth could heal itself after which point a new, more responsible humanity could be permitted to return. The problem, they say, is that humans do not think of themselves as a part of nature or realise that extinction is a perfectly natural part of the ecological life cycle. If they did, they might not be in this mess, but now they need to accept their responsibility and agree to a mass cull to save the planet.

Each of the Osugis has their insecurities wielded against them, and in the end each of them is in some way deceived. Kazuo’s resentful ambition is exposed by Kuroki, but he eventually realises he’s not much more than a patsy, while Akiko has to face up to the possibility that she’s been spun a yarn by an unscrupulous man who was only after the usual thing from a naive and vulnerable young woman. Iyoko’s deception is of the more usual kind as she figures out that “beautiful water” is an obvious scam she only bought into because of the false sense of belonging and achievement it afforded her, and Juichiro has to wonder if his Martian “delusion” has a medical explanation, but through their various deceptions the family is eventually forced back together again springing into action as a unit. The Mercurians dismissed humanity as unable to see the world’s beauty, remaining wilfully ignorant of the gift they had been given. The Osugis have at least been awakened to a kind of beauty in the world and in themselves as they face their alien qualities and integrate them with those of others. Yoshida may not have a clear answer for the problems of climate change (who does?), but he is at least clear on one thing – you lose that which you take for granted. Smell the flowers while the flowers last.


International trailer (English subtitles)