#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

VIDEOPHOBIA (Daisuke Miyazaki, 2019)

(C)VIDEOPHOBIA PARTNERS

How can you really be sure who you are when your image of self is entirely dependent on external validation? In this brave new age of video technology, none of us are any longer custodians of our own image, we leave impressions of ourselves everywhere we go and most particularly online where anyone and everyone is free to do with them as they please. Intellectually, we all know this already. We use the internet ourselves, not always responsibly, and have become so used to seeing CCTV cameras on every street corner that we no longer register their presence. We live our lives under observation, but even so the realisation that our image has been captured without our knowledge can be a profound violation. 

So it is for Ai (Tomona Hirota), a permanently exhausted young woman who has returned to her Osaka home after failing to make it in Tokyo (or rather, as she points out, Kanagawa). Ai is currently taking acting classes while making ends meet with a side gig as a shopping mall mascot (another masked role). She spends her nights smoking while wearing a face mask and making anonymous connections with strangers via cybersex websites. That is until she goes on a rare night out with some people from acting class and meets a handsome man in a bar (Shugo Oshinari) who tells her that it’s too early for names before taking her back to his improbably swanky apartment for a one night stand. Ai notices that there’s a strange looking camera pointed at them from a nearby shelf but thinks nothing of it, and after rather mechanistic sex clasps hands with her new lover as if an intimate connection has finally been forged. 

It’s therefore a double shock for her when she spots a mysterious video on porn website which appears to have been shot in the apartment where she spent the previous night. Pressing play her worst fears are confirmed, a sex tape featuring Ai and the guy from the club seems to have been uploaded online. She tries to confront him and is told that the camera is a vintage 8mm model for display purposes only which contains no film and admittedly would be very difficult to process. Confused, she leaves, but is even more disturbed when more videos start appearing online which could not have been taken by the static camera on the shelf. She then discovers that the guy has vanished, the apartment wasn’t even his but is being illegally sublet on Airbnb by a company registered in Indonesia. 

That last piece of info Ai gets after going to the police to whom she gives her name as “Park”. Though the policewoman is sympathetic enough and never directly judges Ai, she’s embarrassed to have to explain that she went home with a guy whose name she still doesn’t know and has no other evidence except the video site. Trying to be reassuring, the policewoman reminds her that there are billions of hours of video already online so the chances of someone seeing hers are extremely small and, in any case, they don’t even think it looks like her in the video anyway. 

Rather than reassured, Ai becomes even less certain. If that isn’t her in the video, then who is she? She takes the police up on their recommendation of a support group but finds it a bizarrely uncanny experience in which each of the other participants tells a near identical story about an ex posting an old photo on social media which contributed to the failure of their present relationship. The support group mirrors her acting class in which an abrasive director instructed them all to take on personas which were the opposite of their own, literally swapping identities. Pushed into a corner, one of the students eventually snapped and attacked the teacher whose intense approach was, according to some, also an act designed to elicit the best performance. 

If we’re all “acting”, and our image is susceptible to theft, then what really can we say constitutes our “identity” in the digital age? The support group is fond of chanting that “You haven’t changed” hinting at an essential presence that exists outside of immediate perception, but everyone in the support group is verging towards some kind of creepy group think defined by “shared” trauma. In the end, Ai resorts to desperate measures, literally taking control of her image by changing it, but can she really be said to have escaped herself and should she even want to? Wearing the face mask eerily reminiscent of Eyes Without a Face, she gazes out of her balcony window and thinks she sees “herself” walk past on the street below. Thanks to the powers of technology we have made division of ourselves, no longer the primary hosts of our own image. 


VIDEOPHOBIA was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tourism (Daisuke Miyazaki, 2018)

Tourism posterTravel, as they say, broadens the mind but in this rapidly globalising society what is there to be gained in going to a place for “real” rather watching someone else go there online? Following his edgy feature Yamato (California), Daisuke Miyazaki takes a detour from the problems of modern Japan with a piece commissioned by ArtScience Museum and the Singapore International Film Festival. Tourism takes two regular small town girls and sends them to the gleaming metropolis of the famously upscale city state only to upend our expectations by following one of them through the otherwise hidden backstreets familiar only to the regular locals.

Nina (Nina Endo) shares a small apartment with friends Su (Sumire) and Kenji (Takayuki Yanagi) who are also living a precarious hand to mouth existence in small town Japan. Worrying about being able to make this month’s rent, none of the three is in regular full-time employment and all of them are working one or more part-time jobs split with studying and hanging out doing nothing much of anything seeing as there’s no money to spare for entertainment. Asked about their dreams for the future, Kenji replies that he wants to make the world a more caring place while Su just wants a car and Nina isn’t at all sure but knows she doesn’t want to just grow old and die in her hometown.

Unexpected opportunity arrives when Nina discovers she’s won a competition for a pair of tickets to anywhere in the world. Not very worldly, she can’t decide where to go and tries sticking a pin in the map only to land on a series of “unsafe” places before hitting on the idea of Singapore which, as Kenji explains, is “just like Disneyland”. Given the rarity of the prize, you might wonder if Nina and Su wouldn’t have been better to be a bit more adventurous and venture further afield but as Kenji says Singapore is a fairly safe, if perhaps dull, choice for two directionless young women taking their first steps in international travel.

The Singapore that they originally discover is the one that Kenji described and the image of itself that the city wilfully projects all around the world. The girls wander around generic shopping malls near identical to those in Japan filled with high end fashion stores well out of their reach and bizarre centrepieces including gondola rides right next to the food court. After taking in the Merlion and other nearby tourist spots recommended by Siri, Nina and Su begin to venture a little further into the local culture with trips to markets and hawker spots but become separated when Nina leaves her phone behind after using it to live stream their dinner. Extremely lost and very alone, Nina, who can’t speak English and seems to have forgotten the name of her hotel, becomes dependent on the kindness of ordinary Singaporeans as she tries to find her way back to her friend.

Mistakenly guided to a random part of town by a well meaning woman who decided not to take offence to Nina’s potentially dangerous “please come to a hotel with me” pleas, Nina finds herself exploring the “real” Singapore – the one that doesn’t exist in the tourist guidebooks and largely belongs to the often underrepresented Indian community. Thanks to a kind man who invites her into his home to share dinner with his family and then takes her out to show her the places the locals go, Nina discovers not only a more authentic side to the city but that there are kind people everywhere and the world isn’t such a bad place after all.

Commissioned to push the charms of the city, Tourism certainly works as an extended PSA from the tourist board in its presentation of Singaporeans as universally kind and generous while demonstrating that there’s more to the island than expensive shopping malls and “disappointing” local landmarks. Despite its ironic name, however, the film is also at pains to emphasise that tourism and travel are not necessarily the same thing and that there’s much to be gained by going off map and interacting with ordinary people rather than just checking things off on a list so you can tell people about them later. Shot on low-grade, “tourist”-style cameras and largely on the move, Tourism is an unexpectedly uplifting ode to the re-energising qualities of travel which illuminate new paths towards the future while brightening the present.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア), Daisuke Miyazaki, 2016)

yamato (california) posterWhen you think of the American military presence in Japan, your mind naturally turns to Okinawa but the largest mainland US base is actually located not so far from Tokyo in a small Japanese town called Yamato which is also the ancient name for the modern-day country. The US has been a constant presence since the end of the second world war prompting resistance of varying degrees from both left and right either in resentment at perceived complicity in American foreign policy, or the desire to reform the pacifist constitution and rebuild an independent army capable of defending Japan alone. Daisuke Miyazaki’s second feature, Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア) dramatises this long-standing issue through exploring the life of hip-hop enthusiast and Yamato resident Sakura (Hanae Kan) who idolises an art form born of political oppression in a country which she also feels oppresses her as a Japanese citizen living on the other side of the fence from land which technically still belongs to the US government.

As the camera pans around a ruined landscape which turns out to be a junkyard, it eventually finds Sakura as she sits alone atop a pile of rubbish rapping about her existential misery, the hopelessness of her life, and her constant anxiety. Sakura has left high school but has no hopes, aspirations or plan. She works part-time at the eel restaurant owned by a family friend but he rarely has enough custom to need her help. Still living at home with her single mother (Reiko Kataoka) and older brother Kenzo in a cramped apartment where space is divided by a series of hanging sheets, Sakura is put out to learn that the half-Japanese daughter of her mother’s American G.I. boyfriend will be coming to stay. When Rei (Nina Endo) finally arrives, Sakura makes a point of ignoring her but the two eventually bond over a shared love of hip-hop and an awkward sense of recognition.

Tellingly, Rei’s (late) mother was from Okinawa – another reminder of the wider American presence, but her long absent father, Abby Goldman, is as distant a protector as America itself. Communicating only through handwritten letters, Abby is neither seen or heard but somehow believed in like an invisible god. Strangely, Rei asks Sakura what her father was like as if she’d never met him only for Sakura to awkwardly answer that he was somewhere between a bother, a friend, and a father but that she’s also grateful to him for introducing her to her beloved hip hop. Later she takes her mother to task on this same issue, Abby hasn’t visited in years and doesn’t even provide for them anymore yet he dispatches the daughter he rarely sees himself for them to care for instead. Abby, like America, offers little and takes much, at least in Sakura’s increasingly hotheaded assessment.

Sakura is quite clearly in a state of depression. Sullen and angry, she lashes out at all around her but is mostly at war with herself and understandably anxious about her future. Her mother and brother both understand this about her and are patient and understanding, naturally cheerful people faced with adversity. With no work to go to and the prospect of finding any slim, Sakura spends her time perfecting her rap technique and hanging out alone in an abandoned trailer in the woods. Despite dressing in the accepted rapper style of loose grey tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie Sakura is a poor fit for the world she’s chosen. Lyrical writing more suited to performance poetry or, as she later puts it, the avant-garde, doesn’t gel with the aggressive, mostly male posturing she sees from her peers yet Sakura is determined to make her way into this arena as a means of self-expression rather than any deluded idea of fame and fortune.

Rei, her American friend, eventually sparks an epiphany following a fiery argument during which she accuses Sakura of being nothing more than an American copycat, adopting a foreign art form to mask an insecurity in her own fragile identity. Rei, trying to get through to her knew friend, has pushed too deep and hit all the wrong nerves leading to a surreal sequence which finally sets Sakura off on a voyage of self discovery and results in a concerted vow of “independence” but also of rejoining the world, accepting others rather than refusing to engage, and stepping forward together but on an equal footing with no leaders and no followers.

Miyazaki’s balanced view does not shy away from the less pleasant aspects of his own society from the protest group which wanders through the frame carrying banners calling for the immediate expulsion of migrants from Asia, to a group of yankees throwing rocks at the homeless, and Kenzo’s straightforward remark that he’s only interested in meeting Rei if she’s pretty – according to him mixed-race Japanese girls often aren’t. Grey mixes with green as brutalist shopping malls break through the vegetation leaving even an errant pagoda entirely intact in the central square. Like Sakura’s own soul this is a land of contradictions and uneasy cross-pollinations but it doesn’t need to be as defeatist and unimaginative as a dated shopping mall, wasei hip-hop just might be the next big thing.


Yamato (California) was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)