My Identity (神様のいるところ, Sae Suzuki, 2019)

“You’re not the only one suffering because of language barriers” the heroine of Sae Suzuki’s My Identity calmly explains to her mother after spending a few days away perfecting her language skills. My Identity (神様のいるところ, Kamisama no Iru Tokoro) is perhaps less about identity in itself than the difficulty of communication but nevertheless finds a young woman displaced, quite literally pushed out both by her frustrated mother and by a society which continues to be fiercely intolerant of difference. What she realises however, is that she’s not the only one feeling lost, discovering an alternate maternal figure in an orphaned adult herself at the mercy of an unforgiving and judgemental patriarchal society. 

As we first meet her, high schooler Rei (Hinata Arakawa) is physically pushed out of her family home, the door closed behind her as her mother lays in to her father with accusations of fiscally irresponsible infidelity in her native language. As we later discover Rei is half-Taiwanese and in fact lived on the island until she was five but now feels under-confident in both a perhaps more familiar Mandarin and the Hokkien between which her mother switches freely. At school meanwhile she is taunted by two horrible boys who bully her for being “Chinese”, calling her “creepy” and “ugly” while questioning her ability to speak Japanese. When they tear up a thank you card she’d written in Chinese claiming not to understand it she finally loses her temper and fights back, hitting one of the boys on the head with her backpack. Ironically, she is the one that gets into trouble. Her mother takes a cane to her legs, angry most of all it seems that people will think that foreign mothers raise badly behaved children and will continue to look down on her. Rei just wants to connect with her mother, but her mother isn’t listening. 

That might be why she makes unwise decision to look into dodgy compensated dating after hearing about a forum where “gods” congregate looking to pick up teenage girls. She thinks better of it at the last minute only to be chased by a weird old man claiming to be worried about her which is how she bumps into Aoi (Kaho Seto) who cooperates by pretending to be her responsible adult. A youngish office worker, Aoi has problems of her own and has apparently been out on a night of heavy drinking with a colleague, something which becomes a source of gossip among the other women at work who seem to universally dislike her. She’s coming up for a transfer, but is aggressively harassed by her boss who tells her that he’s going to wait for her when she gets off, causing her to alter her schedule in order to avoid him. 

After a traumatic incident, the two women find themselves on the run, breaking into a disused inn which they end up operating in a temporary illusion of domesticity. Rei practices her Mandarin, looking to Aoi for guidance, but discovering that her worries are fairly universal. What if you can’t communicate your feelings she asks, but Aoi has no answer for her, and Rei can only lament that people start hurting each other when communication fails. Her Taiwanese heritage, however, becomes an unexpected, two-fold threat to her new familial connection when the pair visit a local Taiwanese temple which is also home to a Japanese researcher who speaks perfect Mandarin and has identified the two women as the fugitives from the news, but has also developed a quite obvious attraction to Aoi. 

Rei came here to face herself, but is consciously working towards a resolution, determined to make a connection while asserting her own agency. Aoi meanwhile worries she’s doing the opposite, “playing house”, “running away”, “refusing to face reality”. The researcher tells her, perhaps not altogether altruistically, that she’s being irresponsible, and that her indulgence of Rei may in the long run be harmful. She too feels lost and alone, confessing that she found herself subject to unwanted male attention she couldn’t directly deflect and feigned an ignorance that put her at odds with other women who came to resent her for it. Preoccupied, she too fails to understand Rei’s feelings, trying to be kind but nevertheless causing pain along the way. 

Through visiting the temple and reconnecting with her Taiwanese heritage, Rei finds the words she needs in order to communicate what it is she really feels and hopes that, finally, someone is going to listen. Contending with miscommunication, prejudice, ignorance, and a fundamental “language barrier” in the difficulty of translating feelings accurately and being fully understood, Rei does her best to become her most authentic self, integrating her identity and defiantly embracing it but doing so with openness as she strives for communication as a weapon against hate and violence.


My Identity streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Another World (半世界, Junji Sakamoto, 2018)

Another World poster 2Director Junji Sakamoto’s career has been more meandering than most. Shuttling between hyper masculine fighting dramas, issue movies, and broad comedies, Sakamoto has always displayed an intense interest in the depth of male friendship which where his latest feature, rural drama Another World (半世界, Hansekai), takes him. A deceptively gentle story of small-town homecoming eventually broadens into a meditation on fathers and sons, frustrated dreams, and middle-aged malaise as its three dejected heroes attempt to bridge the gulf of years between them in order to rekindle the simple, innocent friendship they forged as naive teenagers more than 20 years previously.

The drama begins when Koh (Goro Inagaki) spots childhood friend Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa) unexpectedly hanging around his old home, now sadly abandoned following the death of his mother. Eisuke, unlike his friends, left his hometown to join the self defence forces and see the world. He has not returned home in some years and his sudden appearance is a pleasant, if perhaps concerning, surprise. Koh calls the other leg of the triangle, Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), and the trio of teenage buddies reunite, but Eisuke still seems distant and remains holed up in his family home rarely venturing outside, reluctant to confide in his old friends about whatever it is that he’s going through.

Meanwhile, the small town guys have problems of their own. Koh made the stubborn decision to take over his father’s charcoal business mostly to spite him, but times have changed and not only is demand dwindling but his product is unfavourably compared to his dad’s. Despite a seemingly happy marriage to the supportive Hatsuno (Chizuru Ikewaki), his home environment is also tense with resentment high between father and son as Koh struggles to relate to sullen teen Akira (Rairu Sugita) who is, unbeknownst to him, being bullied by the local delinquents. Unique among the three, Mitsuhiko has never married and still lives at home where he helps out with the family’s struggling car dealership, but remains cheerful in himself and is the most invested in maintaining the relationship between his two best friends in place of forging new relationships of his own.

Eisuke brings a new dynamic back with him as he struggles to readapt to small town life. As Koh suggests, he likely came back because he didn’t know where else to go but to his old friends even if he doesn’t quite want to let them help him. Now divorced and struggling with PTSD from his time in service as well as guilt over the death of a colleague, Eisuke provides an unexpected source of support for the conflicted Akira as he teaches him how to fight in order to defend himself while imparting what he knows of Koh in order to smooth the path between father and son. Koh, he tells him, had a bad relationship with his own violent dad who forbad him from the charcoal business which is exactly why he rebelled and did it anyway. Still fighting the ghost of his father, Koh has not found a way to connect with his son other than to let him be.

In a sense, each of these now middle-aged men is living in their own individual worlds as they push back against the forces of desperation but as Koh tells Eisuke, this small town existence is the “real world” too. Eisuke longs for escape, eventually retreating to a life on the sea after exposing his barely suppressed rage through an ill-advised show of violence which was itself in service of friendship. He superficially rejects the attempts of his friends to bring him back into the intimacy of their younger days as if fearing he no longer belongs in this ordinary world of wholesome small-town pleasures, but continues to search for the time capsule they buried all those years ago as if longing to recover their buried innocence.

Yet there is hope for the younger generation at least. Akira, coming to understand his father, accepts that he has a choice and eventually decides to honour both his father’s legacy and his own desires as he ponders the lonely life of a charcoal maker while putting on the boxing gloves that will allow him to fight for a freer future. Tragedies strike, life doesn’t turn out liked you hoped, but it goes on all the same with or without you. A warm if melancholy tribute to the healing power of friendship and its capacity to endure despite the weight of ages, Another World puts middle-aged malaise in perspective as its three disappointed heroes begin to find accommodation with where their choices, informed by those who came before, have led them, finding both peace and resignation in their in their ordinary small-town existence.


Another World was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Tatsushi Omori, 2018)

Everyday a good day posterTatsushi Omori burst onto the scene in 2005 with the extremely hard-hitting and infinitely controversial The Whispering of the Gods before going on to build a career on chronicling the unpalatable facets of human nature. He does have his lighter sides as the delightfully whimsical Seto and Utsumi proves, but even so he might be thought an odd fit for directing an adaptation of a series of autobiographical essays detailing one woman’s personal growth over a 20 year period spent perfecting the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu) is, however, like much of his previous work, a story of youthful ennui and existential despair only one in which it turns out that the world is basically good once you agree to embrace it for what it is.

The film opens in 1993 with the heroine, Noriko (Haru Kuroki), a confused college student unsure of the forward direction of her life. Often ridiculed by her family for being clumsy and neurotic, Noriko compares herself unfavourably with her glamorous cousin Michiko (Mikako Tabe) who has come to the city from the country to study and appears to have her whole life already mapped out with a confidence Noriko could only dream of. A turning point arrives when she’s talked into accompanying Michiko to learn tea ceremony from a kindly old lady, Mrs. Takeda (Kirin Kiki), who lives nearby. Despite regarding tea ceremony as something fussy and old fashioned that only conservative housewives aspire to learn, Noriko begins to develop a fondness for its formalist rigour and continues dutifully attending classes for the next 24 years.

“Carry light things as if they were heavy, and heavy things as if they were light” Noriko is told as she clumsily tries to carry an urn from one room to another, though like much of Takeda-sensei’s advice it serves as a general lesson on life itself. Mystified by the entire process, Noriko and Michiko make the mistake of trying to ask practical questions about why something must be done in a particular way only for Takeda-sensei to admit she doesn’t know, it simply is and must be so. To look for that kind of literal meaning would be a waste of time.

Of course, she doesn’t quite put it that way. As Noriko later realises, some things are easy to understand and need only be done once. Other things take longer and can only be understood through a weight of experience. Just as she was bored out her mind by La Strada at 10 but moved to tears at 20, the discrete pleasures of the tea ceremony are something only fully comprehended when the right moment arrives. What was once empty formalism becomes a framework for appreciating the world in all its complexity, embracing each of the seasons as they pass and learning to live exactly in the moment in the knowledge that a moment is both eternal and transient.

Noriko continues to feel herself out of place as she witnesses those around her progress in their careers, get married, or go abroad while she remains stuck, unable to find a direction in which to move. Even tea ceremony occasionally betrays her as new pupils arrive, depart, and sometimes wound her newfound sense of confidence by quickly eclipsing her. Nevertheless, the calm and serenity of ritualised motion become a place of refuge from the confusing outside world while also offering a warmth and friendship perhaps unexpected in such an otherwise ordered existence.

Over almost a quarter of a century, Noriko’s life goes through a series of changes from career worries to romantic heartbreak, learning to love again, and bereavement, while tea ceremony remains her only constant. She may not yet have discovered the path to happiness, but perhaps has begun to reach an understanding of it and believe that it might exist in some future moment – as Takeda-sensei says, there are flowers which bloom only in winter. In any case, what she’s learned is that sometimes it’s better not to overthink things and simply experience them to the best of your ability while you’re both still around. Every day really is a good day when you learn to slow down and truly appreciate it, living in the moment while the moment lasts in acknowledgement that it will never come again.


Every Day a Good Day was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)