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)