Wuhan Wuhan (武汉武汉, Chang Yung, 2021)

“Safety isn’t the issue right now. We have to keep moving forward” a harried doctor replies to a cabman’s question, like most it seems just getting on with it until it’s over. Like Wu Hao, Chen Weixi & Anonymous’ 76 Days, Chang Yung’s Wuhan Wuhan (武汉武汉, Wǔhàn Wǔhàn) documents the final stretches of the city’s intense lockdown beginning in February 2020 yet where 76 Days was largely a exploration of grief, panic, and confusion Chang’s documentary assembled remotely from 300 hours of footage shot on the ground by local camera crews perhaps reflects a new accommodation with the nature of the pandemic in its empathetic depiction of ordinary people going about their lives as normally possible. 

The first trail Chang picks up is that of factory worker Yin who has begun working as a volunteer driver ferrying medical staff between the hotel where they are being housed during the lockdown and the healthcare facilities where they are working. Yin explains he took the job more or less for something to do rather than be bored at home, but it also places a strain on his relationship with heavily pregnant wife Xu who is intensely anxious about catching the disease or that there may be other complications with the birth but no hospital space available to treat her. Through his various fares, Yin gets to see the other side of the pandemic as the medical staff honestly describe the situation on the ground which is often in contrast with the impression given by official channels. 

As for the medical staff themselves, ER Chief Zheng is quick to point out that much of the PPE they’ve received is not fit for purpose while his staff is already traumatised and close to burnout. Later a team of psychiatrists is sent in to provide support both to the frontline health workers and to the patients, most of whom are extremely grateful to the doctors and nurses if sometimes frightened and angry though one they’ve nicknamed grumpy grandpa continually refuses treatment and otherwise makes a point of pigheadedly insulting his nurse. Psychiatrist Zhang is also however under strain, learning via telephone that her father in her hometown has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Like many she is away from her family with no idea when she’ll be able to return to them. Nurse Susu, in the same position, receives a raw and difficult phone call from her small daughter who breaks down crying, unable to understand why her mother’s not coming home while all she can do is listen in heartbreak unable to explain or make a promise she knows she can keep as to when she’ll back. Zheng likewise makes calls to his wife and daughter, but also reveals that he’s asked an old friend to watch over them should the worst happen. 

Nevertheless, people try to find the small moments of joy where they can. At a temporary hospital for those whose cases are mild to moderate, a mass dance routine breaks out while patients otherwise try to keep active through group tai chi supporting each other while Zhang runs group therapy sessions on the other side of the wall. Worried part of the problem is that the patients can’t bond with them because the PPE erases their identity, some of the doctors print out photos to display on their chests while others are always quick to help, a collection of local hairdressers offering free haircuts to medical personnel to help prevent contamination and make PPE more comfortable. 

The overall impression is of a community managing, working together to get through the crisis while quietly getting on with the job. Chang apparently made his documentary partly with the rise in anti-Asian hate crime in mind, hoping to “humanise” the citizens of Wuhan by showing them as ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances though others of course may read it slightly differently in its deliberate avoidance of the horrors of the virus save a few scenes of grieving relatives or terrified patients, the only indication of anxiety caused by the system seen in those at the temporary hospital hearing it’s about to close down and fearful of what might happen to them next. Nevertheless Chang’s empathetic documentary is at its best capturing the everyday reality, be it a husband running all over town trying to find somewhere selling a crib or a woman cooking yams in her room because she can cope with the virus but another one of those box meals might push her over the edge. 


Wuhan Wuhan streams in the US Oct. 6 – 12 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. It will also screen at Chicago’s Chinese American Museum on Oct. 9.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Okinawa Santos (オキナワ サントス, Yoju Matsubayashi, 2020)

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, yet the fortunes and status of the Japanese migrants have been extremely variable since the first boat arrived in 1908. At the end of the Meiji era as the society attempted to transition from feudalism towards a modern economy, Japan was a poor country and with exclusionary acts often blocking migration to countries such as the United States many travelled to South America and in particular to Brazil, which was desperate to recruit cheap labour following the end of slavery, to seek their fortunes intending to return in a few years’ time having made enough to set themselves up at home. 

This is one reason given for why many settled in the harbour town of Santos, thinking it not worth their while to move further inland when they’d be going home soon enough. Yoju Matsubayashi’s documentary Okinawa Santos (オキナワ サントス), however, centres itself on a little known and traumatic episode of Brazilian-Japanese history, the forced relocation of the city’s Japanese community on July 8, 1943. Interviewing several of those who experienced the relocation first-hand many of whom were children at the time, Matsubayashi explores the position and legacy of the diaspora community the majority of whom hailed from the Okinawan islands rather the mainland. 

One of those interviewed explains that the rationale for the relocation was that Allied boats were sinking off the coast of Santos with alarming frequency and the authorities began to view the Japanese community, against whom there had already been a degree of prejudice, as potential spies. One now elderly gentleman recalls with sadness that his Brazilian friends abruptly stopped playing with him, calling him a “fifth columnist” in the streets. Japanese-language newspapers had already been shut down which is one reason few primary documents relating to the relocation exist, while speaking Japanese in public had also been banned. This might have seemed ironic to those who’d travelled from Okinawa where they also found themselves oppressed by the majority Japanese culture whose attempts at forced assimilation ran to banning the native Okinawan language, something they were comparatively free to preserve after relocating to Brazil

Midway through his documentary, Matsubayashi encounters this same divide even within the Japanese community receiving a phone call from a Brazilian-Japanese woman he’d interviewed who asks to be removed from the project apparently because of his interviewing so many from the Okinawan diaspora. An older man who later went into politics recalls the community having been largely segregated with the mainland Japanese often looking down on the Okinawans while each operated separate communal halls and intermarriage was frowned upon. Some hid their Okinawan heritage out of shame as Okinawans were regarded as not really “Japanese” but somehow other. This rift was apparently unhealed until the contemporary era though as the phone call implies may still to some extent survive. 

All were however subject to the relocation order as the now elderly children explain their fear and confusion in being cast out of their homes with little warning, having their farms looted while forced to leave most of their property and possessions behind. Crowded onto a train they were taken to an immigration centre in São Paulo before being moved on further into the interior but with little assistance or support dependent entirely on friends and relatives, other members of the diaspora, already living and farming inland. Many of the now elderly members of the community tearfully recount crushing poverty and discrimination, never having talked about their experiences even with their own children and describing them as unreal, like a sad dream from which they have never quite woken up. Meanwhile they continued to face prejudice after the war due to the presence of a minority group who couldn’t accept the Japanese defeat and apparently committed acts of terrorism against those who could, further harming the reputation of the Japanese community in mainstream Brazilian society to the extent that legislation was proposed to halt immigration from Japan which was finally defeated only on the grounds of democratic principle. Nevertheless, though many of those interviewed have been able to build happy, successful lives they are each affected by the traumatic legacy of forced displacement unable even to speak of their childhood suffering. 


Okinawa Santos screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン, Graham Kolbeins, 2019)

Japan has in recent years become a much more progressive place in which LGBTQ+ rights continue to advance though hopes that hosting the Olympics would finally provoke a shift in the political reality ultimately came to nothing with anti-discrimination and national equal marriage legislation still pending. Released in 2019, Graham Kolbeins’ comprehensive documentary Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン) as its name suggests explores the lives of ordinary people across the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community yet cannot perhaps avoid falling victim to, as one interviewee points out, a certain degree of exoticisation even while demonstrating the diversity present with the community itself.

Nevertheless, Kolbeins is keen to stress the warmth and solidarity found with the various subcultures he explores such as that surrounding Department H, a costume fetish ball at which all are welcome from gay furries and puppy play enthusiasts to avantgarde artists such as a young woman whose multi-person rubber pig giving birth is notable inclusion. As the club’s hostess, drag queen Margarette, points out the fetish scene often transcends ideas of gender, the club providing a totally safe, inclusive, and relaxed place where anyone can come to be themselves and find acceptance. 

That has not always been true when it comes to other aspects of the community as evidenced by the controversy surrounding lesbian bar Gold Finger which came under fire some years ago for refusing admittance to transwomen under its longstanding women only policy. Interviewed here Chika Ogawa outlines her original reluctance to admit transmen who had previously been frequent customers prior to transition but eventually reconsidered to team up with another group to host an evening geared towards transmen and masculine women as a place where the community can come together. 

As explained by activist Fumino Sugiyama, it is legally possible to change one’s gender in Japan though the conditions are somewhat draconian and require the surgical removal of reproductive organs which some have viewed as a breach of fundamental human rights. The change in the law was largely due to Japan’s first transgender lawmaker Aya Kamikawa who outlines how difficult her life had been unable to change her gender on her family register creating problems when trying to rent an apartment, access healthcare, or gain employment. She admits that the law passed was very strict, but laments the limits of what is possible under the current LDP administration and its ultraconservative outlook as evidenced by gaffe-prone politician Mio Sugita’s characterisation of the LGBTQ+ community as “unproductive” and therefore not deserving of social benefits. 

Pioneer of gay manga and G-Men co-creator Hiroshi Hasegawa remarks that the oppression faced by the community in Japan is often less direct than it might be elsewhere operating largely through societal shaming and a conformist social culture. Kolbeins discovers this to be true on visiting other cities such as Naha, Okinawa, where a cheerful dentist reveals that he only embraced his love of dancing at the age of 33 and spoke to no one for two years after receiving a bad reaction to coming out during university. Nevertheless, in the face of this indirect oppression the community has developed a sense of comprehensive, intersectional solidarity often coming out to counterprotest racist prejudice against ethnically Korean citizens and discovering that the anti-racist straight community often comes to Pride to support them in return. Bearing out this spirit of intersectionality, Queer Japan is fully subtitled in Japanese throughout while a deaf LGBTQ+ activist highlights the importance of proper sign language interpretation which is familiar with the community.

Even so, Japan’s LGBTQ+ community is subject to the same concerns as many others from around the world one Pride goer criticising the increasing commercialisation of the event, sympathetic that some degree of sponsorship is necessary to hold a celebration on this scale but also that you need to be accountable. Meanwhile a young trans person objects to the celebratory atmosphere insisting that all they want is to feel safe using the bathroom, love can wait. There is clearly work to do, but also much already accomplished one vox popper enthusiastically listing all of his various fetishes with thinly concealed glee while making a serious point about normalising condom usage. Featuring internationally well-known figures such as gay erotic manga pioneer Gengoroh Tagame alongside activists and ordinary members of the LGBTQ+ community, Kolbeins’ handsomely lensed doc showcases the diversity of queer life in Japan while never losing sight of the battles still to be won. 


Queer Japan screened as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No Smoking (Taketoshi Sado, 2019)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of his musical debut in 2019, Haruomi Hosono has undoubtedly had a long and varied career shifting from countercultural folk rock to avant-garde electronica and bubble-era pop music. In later years, he’s become known internationally primarily for his film scores and particularly that of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters. Capturing footage from Hosono’s 2019 anniversary world tour, Taketoshi Sado’s documentary is equally meandering struggling perhaps to find a clear through line in regards to Hosono’s works. 

As such, it rockets through his early days with interesting family trivia such as his grandfather having been the sole Japanese Titanic survivor, his father’s secret dancing dreams, and his mother’s love of music. Picking up with his time at university, Sado more or less charts Hosono’s musical evolutions in chronological order though with little cultural context outside of a brief evocation of post-war devastation at the time of the musician’s birth. Accordingly he begins with Hosono’s uni folk rock band Apryl Fool which broke up after one album onto the hugely influential Happy End, various side projects, the avant-garde Yellow Magic Orchestra days, writing bubble era pop songs for idol stars such as Seiko Matsuda’s Tengoku no Kiss, and finally music for film composing the title track “Kaze no Tani no Naushika” for Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä. 

Meanwhile, Sado shuttles between direct to camera monologues from Hosoda himself intercut with concert footage from the 2019 tour, legendary gigs, and rather a lot of Hosoda doing his famous silly walks. Sado does not include direct interviews with Hosoda’s collaborators or fellow artists, mainly allowing him to speak for himself, but does include footage of him with some who have been influenced by his music such as singer-song writer and actor Gen Hoshino who is apparently such a fan that he first met the artist while cosplaying his Harry Hosoda outfit from his famous Yokohama China gig, and LA musician Mac DeMarco who also appears onstage singing in Japanese at Hosoda’s LA concert. Actress Kiko Mizuhara and sister Yuka meanwhile also spend some time travelling with Hosoda in the UK appearing on stage in Brighton, while London’s Barbican Hall concert was also notable for the unexpected onstage appearance of Ryuichi Sakamoto briefly reuniting the Yellow Music Orchestra. 

The brief backstage footage from the event is among the more interesting in the slightly awkward interactions of the three band members despite Hosono’s claim that musicians can pick up where they left off with each other even after many years through the universal language of music. The 2019 tour however leaned heavily into Hosono’s boogie boogie covers rather than original tracks, while Sado seems content to mix and match between various concerts and adding vox pop comments from excited fans waiting to get in long after the first footage of the evening appears. Despite building towards the brief YMO reunion, he offers little commentary on relations between the former band members or why such an event is so viewed as so momentous. Rather he suggests that Hosono’s various musical projects existed more or less concurrently serving particular purposes in reflecting his specific creative desires. 

“The keyword is free, when when I touch what’s free my heart dances” Hosoda explains in one of his monologues, hinting at this process of continual meandering between musical genres that culminates perhaps paradoxically with revisiting the music of his childhood in American boogiewoogie. The film’s ironic title is apparently inspired by Hosono’s love of smoking, as he explains he needs cigarettes to create and there is music in a puff of smoke. Hosoda does indeed nip off for a puff rather a lot, often seen with a tobacco or electronic cigarette in his hand or else doing some of his silly walks. Footage from Hosoda’s diaries and early illustrations fill in the blanks of Sado’s rough chronology, though he does begin to rely on footage from other interviews particularly towards the documentary’s end. Despite offering a comprehensive if whistle-stop tour of Hosono’s varied discography, there’s no denying that No Smoking remains somewhat superficial offering, only an unannotated overview, but does undoubtedly offer insight in following the man himself as he celebrates such a significant career milestone. 


No Smoking streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Seiko Matsuda – Tengoku no Kiss

Ascension (登楼叹, Jessica Kingdon, 2021)

Factory worker inspecting the head of a sex doll during assembly in Zhonghan City, Guangdong Province, China, as seen in Ascension, directed by Jessica Kingdon. Image courtesy of MTV Documentary Films.

“Work hard and all wishes come true” according to a propaganda slogan pasted on a wall in Jessica Kingdon’s interrogation of the Chinese Dream, Ascension (登楼叹, dēng lóu tàn). Working her way through its various layers, Kingdon’s observational doc addresses the ironies of the contemporary society defined by its intense and ever growing wealth inequalities. According to a speech made by a dubious CEO approaching the film’s conclusion, China is a “fair society” his logic being that only the morally responsible are entitled to profit and society will find ways to rob those who’ve acquired their riches though illicit means of their ill-gotten gains while the trickle down economy otherwise ensures “wealth redistribution”. 

His justifications are, it has to be said, hard to accept. Kingdon opens the film with an aerial shot of a rooftop swimming pool in which the trio of women cleaning it appear tiny next to its comparativeness vastness as they care for a facility they may not be entitled to use. Descending to street level, we’re assaulted by PA speakers advertising for labour with promises of comfortable work, some which can be done sitting down, with accommodation in spacious dorms with aircon thrown in. Anyone would think there must be some kind of tremendous labour shortage, but the wages are lower than low, and employers apparently still picky over what kind of people they employ, stating an age cap of only 38 while banning those with criminal records or tattoos along with dyed hair and piercings. The excessively tall are also not welcome hinting at conditions more cramped than the announcements imply. 

Taking her camera inside the factories, Kingdon discovers people reduced to the level of automata, machines among machines mechanically sorting cooked poultry or stamping packaging while watching TV drama on smartphones. Workers complain that their bosses cheat of them of their pay and feel the need to bribe them by buying lunch to curry favour. Yet Kingdon also uncovers the absurdity of the everyday, shifting from a production line producing plastic bottles to an artisan workshop staffed almost entirely by women in cheerful yellow outfits with red gingham aprons crafting uncannily realistic sex dolls presumably for extremely wealthy, sometimes demanding clients. A worker stops to snap a picture of the doll’s nipples with a tape measure next to them to send for approval, while others obsess over the proper colouring for the areola or complain that the chemicals irritate their skin.

Shifting up a gear, she visits a school for bodyguards where the instructor randomly plays with a little goat for some reason hanging around outside and is then stung by a bee. The need for bodyguards is perhaps another symptom of increasing inequality as the super rich discover their “success” has only made them anxious for their safety. On the flip side, another school is busy training butlers for those enamoured of the trappings of feudalism. The instructor explains that one of her clients got a job as a PA right away and his sole responsibility was squeezing his boss’ toothpaste for him, preparing it in a little cup. Meanwhile across town, others teach proper business etiquette most particularly to female employees. A pretty woman is China’s business card, one enthusiastically points out selling the importance of cosmetics, while another even more dubious course in entrepreneurship has its participants “deciding” to earn millions within the year and then triple the amount in the next five. 

While a woman plumps pillows in a fancy hotel suite, painstakingly stripping a rose of its petals to place on a pair of towels folded into the shape of a swan, the wealthy enjoy leisure time at a huge water park which boasts a tunnel ride through the aquarium where “mermaids” swim alongside sharks and stingrays. Others ride a literal “lazy river” sitting in rubber rings styled like frosted donuts. Guests at a fancy French dinner praise American freedom, while others complain that Westerners criticise China’s human rights record but how can you think about human rights when you’re so poor your entire existence is occupied with survival? Billboards at street crossings bear footage of other people crossing, while a picture of Xi Jinping sits in the corner of a garment factory where they sew clothes embroidered with the logo “Keep America Great” and another worker rolls her eyes at claims the place is haunted. China’s greatest export, it seems, is irony. Kingdon’s beautifully composed shots add to the sense of absurdity as does the score veering from eerie synths to jaunty theme park music implying that the entire nation has in a sense become a playground for the rich and powerful built on wilful exploitation and the thoughtless cruelties of intense consumerism. 


Ascension opens the 13th Season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on Sept. 15 before opening at New York’s IFC Center on Oct. 8 courtesy of MTV Documentary Films.

Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister (なぜ君は総理大臣になれないのか, Arata Oshima, 2020)

When Shinzo Abe stepped down in September 2020 citing a recurrence of the chronic illness which had caused him to resign from the same position in 2007 he did so as Japan’s longest serving prime minster having held the post since 2012. The centre-right Liberal Democratic Party has rarely been out of power since its foundation in 1955 though the opposition Democratic Party of Japan did achieve a minor breakthrough in the 2009 election only to lose out again in 2012, its reputation tarnished by a perception that it had not done enough during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami crisis. 

This is the background which informs Arata Oshima’s probing documentary Why You Can’t Be Prime Minster (なぜ君は総理大臣になれないのか, Naze Kimi wa Soridaijin ni Narenai no ka) which follows idealistic politician Junya Ogawa over 17 years from his beginnings as a 32-year-old former bureaucrat standing on a platform of integrity in politics, to a no less idealistic yet perhaps weary middle-aged man now sitting as an “independent” representative. Oshima perhaps partly answers the central question in a lengthy series of opening titles attempting to explain Japan’s rather complicated electoral system which operates both first past the post and proportional representation components. Although mitigated by the additional proportional representation list seats, just as in the UK Japan’s political system remains biased towards the centre-right by virtue of the fact that the leftwing vote is split between a number of different parties. As Oshima also points out, Ogawa’s rival for a first past the post seat is a dynastic candidate whose family is prominent in the local area. 

The other problem, if you want to call it that, is Ogawa’s essential personality and (near) unshakeable idealism. He stands on a platform of integrity in politics in which politicians should be accountable to the people they serve believing that the government has become overly complacent and forgotten about the lives of everyday citizens, the Abe regime famously focussing on their key concerns such as constitutional reform and the military. As such he watches as his more ruthless colleagues surge ahead of him, local rival Tamaki always managing to secure a first past the post seat by playing the political game while he scrapes through on the reserve list. Yet later he makes a fatal mistake, allowing himself to be persuaded to join Yuriko Koike’s Party of Hope after the proposed merger with the DP during the 2017 election. Current governor of Tokyo, Koike is a prominent figure on the conservative scene and member of the ultra-nationalist Nippon Kaigi. It’s not surprising that many of Ogawa’s supporters felt disappointed and betrayed on his decision to follow his mentor Maehara, on the right of the DP, and join the new party which could not credibly claim to reflect the values he’d hitherto espoused while even those accepting his logic that he was simply lending his voice to a unified anti-Abe coalition were put off by Koike’s duplicity in immediately walking back on earlier promises by announcing she would not accept all DP members into the Party of Hope.

“Your face is pretty but your heart is black” is just one of the many comments he receives from disappointed voters while out canvassing, another actively distancing herself from him before angrily remarking that he should have joined the CDP, a rival leftwing party set up by a former DP member Edano which promised to accept anyone who wanted to join. Yet the problem might not be so much the party as Ogawa’s inner conflict, wrestling with himself that he should have stood as an independent even if acknowledging he would have had a much harder time campaigning with no party backing him. His decision obviously conflicts with his pledge of integrity, a broken promise it will prove extremely hard to overcome while his secondary battle is and always will be legacy of the DP’s failure in government leaving many to assume only the LDP is qualified to govern. Following the party’s electoral defeat he does indeed sit as an independent but obviously acknowledges that he has far less influence even than he had as a less powerful list seat representative. 

Ogawa himself attributes his inability to become prime minster by an arbitrary date he’d thrown out after the 2009 opposition win engendered a false sense of hope for long lasting political change to his lack of personal ambition unwilling to do whatever it takes to climb the ladder, preferring to pursue his political goals ahead of his own position. He describes himself as an “otaku of making Japan a better place” and brands himself a centrist while advocating for socialist policies such as a welfare state modelled on that seen in Scandinavia. His parents who along with his wife and children are very much involved in his campaigning wonder if he’s too “pure” for politics, that his inability to compromise is the reason he can’t gain a foothold in the political establishment yet he refuses to give up, later telling Oshima in an otherwise unnecessary Covid-themed coda that if he didn’t think he could be PM he’d stand down right away. Politics needs men like Ogawa, Oshima seems to say, but the electorate isn’t so sure.


Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist (Satoshi Kon, l’illusionniste, Pascal-Alex Vincent, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“A genius but a nasty guy” is the way a former collaborator describes the late director Satoshi Kon, a sentiment echoed by others who’d worked alongside him though many also describe him as gentle if reserved remarking on his seeming impenetrability. Pascal-Alex Vincent’s documentary Satoshi Kon: The illusionist (Satoshi Kon, l’illusionniste) is less interested in illuminating the man than briefly sketching an overview of his career yet nevertheless seems to content to present him as an enigmatic figure filled with contradictions which his work, in some way, was intended to resolve. 

Skipping over Kon’s early life and beginnings as a manga artist, Vincent begins with Perfect Blue before proceeding through each of his features chronologically finishing with the incomplete Dreaming Machine. In essence a talking heads doc, he interviews a series of well-known figures in the anime world such as fellow directors Mamoru Oshii, Mamoru Hosoda, and Jin-Roh’s Hiroyuki Okiura, as well as those who had worked with Kon directly, the international filmmakers who’d found inspiration in his work such as Darren Aronofsky, Jeremy Clapin, Marc Caro, and Rodney Rothman, and experts in anime and manga history. 

In a sense, Vincent is less interested in Kon as a man than in the lasting impact of his oeuvre, which does in a sense lend an uncomfortable imbalance in implying Kon’s work is of greater importance because of the influence it went on to have on Western, particularly Hollywood, cinema. Kon’s impact on contemporary anime for example is not addressed in any real depth save for implying that it gave the art form permission to deal with more mature concepts and ideas which in itself implies that it up to that point had not done so. 

Yet even if Kon is described as “prickly”, an intense perfectionist unable to tolerate failure or resistance, he is also regarded as another kind of innovator in his determination to change the notoriously difficult, often exploitative working culture of the contemporary anime industry. Despite facing financial hardship, he ensured his crew members and animators were paid fairly while also determined to support the next generation of anime creatives. His goodbye letter published the day after he passed away similarly expresses concern for his animators now left adrift with Dreaming Machine destined to remain incomplete. A former colleague remembers Kon as a patient mentor and teacher, gaining a new appreciation for him when she dared to challenge some of the attitudes she found unpalatable in his work including his depiction of women only for Kon to reveal that the women in his films are often reflections of himself. Thus Mima’s torment is an expression of his own in dealing with the fractious politics of the anime and manga industry. 

According to others, the desire to address these issues was born of that to resolve the things he did not understand, Kon again describing the heroine of Millennium Actress’ quest to retrieve a lost key as like that of a director pursuing the idealised vision in his mind, finally arriving at the conclusion that what he loved was the chase itself. His work was frequently concerned with the interplay between dream and reality, yet his vision could sometimes be at odds with others’ describing Paprika as his “Sailor Moon” movie intended as a piece of commercial cinema about a dream hopping “magical girl”. Despite his perfectionism, his universe was anything but black and white, a space which held no place for those who embody evil and sought only to understand. According to an archive interview, Dreaming Machine would have marked a break with his persistent themes, aimed at children as well as adults though apparently also dealing with some darker ideas as mankind’s children attempt to survive their orphanhood. It’s this sense of contradiction which gives Kon’s work its power, at once a man who “radiated gentleness” but was unafraid to speak his mind, bluntly berating a colleague for not pulling his weight but hurt and confused when the colleague declined the opportunity to continue working together because of his intense management style. “He had two sides to him. He could be a nasty guy. A really nasty guy, OK? But I loved him” according to Madhouse’s Masao Maruyama, “He’ll always be in our hearts” a contradiction to the last.


Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Jia Zhangke, 2020)

Returning to his rural hometown, Jia Zhangke embarks on an alternate history of China in the 20th century through the prism of literature in the poetically titled documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Yīzhí Yóu Dào Hǎishuǐ Biàn Lán). Taking its title from an off the cuff though strangely profound comment from the witty and loquacious Yu Hua, Swimming is the third in a loose series of documentaries focussing on artists following Dong and Useless each of which were completed over a decade ago. 

Signalling his intentions early on, Jia opens with a lengthy sequence of elderly people in a canteen. The first of his 18 chapters is titled simply “eating”, and as we quickly infer hunger will be a constant background presence for each of our writers who recount their sometimes difficult rural childhoods and the paths which eventually led to them becoming chroniclers of provincial life. The earliest stretches are dedicated to legendary author Ma Feng who passed away in 2004 but it’s some time before we even get to his literary work, struck as we are by his role as an agrarian moderniser who ingeniously saved his village through collective action, bringing the villagers together in a plan to purify the water before irrigation to reduce the alkaline quality of the soil which had made it impossible to farm. Eventually we’re introduced to Ma’s daughter who begins to fill in his biography from a personal perspective while explaining how it was that he came to be known for his naturalistic depictions of the lives of ordinary rural folk in the early days of Communism. 

That idealism soon takes on a darker hue, however, in the story of Jia Pingwa who recounts his childhood during the Cultural Revolution in which his father was sent sent away for “re-education” after being falsely accused of receiving training as a KMT spy in the ‘40s. In Jia Pingwa’s early childhood eating was indeed a concern, something which he later says caused tension in the family that was only eased by the presence of his grandmother but even she couldn’t keep them all together after the institution of the communal kitchen. Perhaps more austere than you’d expect, Jia Pingwa admonishes his daughter, also a published poet, that she should fulfil her role as a wife and mother before that as artist, and that being a poet doesn’t always mean one lives poetically. Nevertheless he recounts the widening of horizons which occurred as China began to open up in 1980s, an influx of foreign art that introduced him to “the West” but also left him in an artistic quandary in the search for new yet authentic directions. 

A little younger than Jia Pinghua, the 1980s is when the extremely animated Yu Hua came of age, revealing an unexpected effect of the Cultural Revolution that led to his artistic destiny as he found himself re-imagining the endings of books which had long since fallen apart and existed for him only in fragments. Training first as a dentist but finding it not to his liking, Yu Hua longed to broaden his horizons and began writing seriously with the hope of getting a better job, eventually enrolling in university in Beijing in 1989 which he recounts somewhat incongruously as cheerfully uneventful. 

There is indeed a kind of micro framing in Jia’s concentration on rural China as a place to one side of wider society or politics. Just as Yu Hua casually ignores the reasons why others might find it interesting to have been a student in Beijing in 1989, Liang Hong opens by recounting that the year was 1997 which was the year Hong Kong returned to China but she was so busy that as an event it hardly registered for her. Like Yu and Jia Pingwa she recounts a difficult rural childhood in which her mother was rendered ill and later died due to the demands of country living while her kindhearted though feckless father struggled to manage his small family. While the men concentrate on their own paths, Liang mostly talks of her family, the sister who sacrificed her future for her siblings, and later her own son who talks of learning about his history through mother’s books though he no longer remembers the rural dialect and his associations with the area are mainly to do with playing with his cousins on visits to his mother’s family home. 

Liang’s son is the last and least deliberately staged of Jia’s frequent cutaways to local people reciting brief snippets of literature by the four authors and others often in praise of the land. Between lengthy talking head sequences, he switches from present day to historical stock footage showcasing the lives of ordinary people as they play cards, eat, or hurry on their way from one place to another. Spiralling out and away from Fenyang and back around again what Jia presents is less a literary survey than a rural history which is in its own way also mythologised as the wounded soul of the modern China. 


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue screens at the BFI Southbank on 24th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

A Dedicated Life (全身小説家, Kazuo Hara, 1994)

“Human beings have things they don’t want to share with others. This is the truth, but what we choose to tell from the truth is fiction” according to the elusive subject of Kazuo Hara’s probing personality doc, A Dedicated Life (全身小説家, Zenshin Shosetsuka). “Full of lies and contradictions” as a friend later describes him, Hara had apparently planned to follow controversial author Mitsuharu Inoue for a number of years only for his subject to be diagnosed with terminal liver cancer shortly after filming began. 

Even as the film opens, however, we can intuit that much of the life of Mitsuharu Inoue is performance, an adoring audience of his students and followers screaming in pleasure as he performs a striptease while dressed as a geisha to the classic enka hit Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki. Seconds earlier he’d told them that he longed to belong to a theatre troupe and that his grandfather had been a famous kabuki actor, a claim that later seems to be entirely untrue. Nevertheless, Inoue commands almost cult-like adoration from the mainly middle-aged women who surround him, one after another confessing their undying love for the genius author in successive to camera interviews and only occasionally hurt or frustrated in the often callous way he seems to have treated each of them. As we later realise, somewhat casually, Inoue is also married to patient and presumably very understanding wife who tenderly cares for him throughout his illness. 

To begin with, Hara presents us with a vision of Inoue at face value as a fun loving libertine living it up with his students/disciples who can also be cuttingly cruel in his criticism, humiliating one of his female followers at the podium by tearing apart her assignment in front of the class, later doing the same thing to a male author at a dinner party. After making a good recovery from his first battle with cancer he vows to go in harder with his students, reminding them that he can be friendly and charming one minute and unceremoniously cut them off the next should they disappoint him. Nevertheless, they apparently remain devoted to their mentor or at least the image of himself he seeks to project. 

Those who’ve known him many years appear to know that Inoue is a habitual liar and that even his much praised autobiography is largely an act of autofiction. An author friend and Buddhist nun later suggests that Inoue perhaps had something deep inside him he didn’t want to share and lying was his way of taking control over his life, his cultivated persona an avant-garde literary act. Having presented him as he is or claims to be, Hara eventually begins to undercut Inoue’s image by interviewing friends, relatives, and acquaintances who frequently debunk his sometimes outlandish claims while also hinting at the half-truths and mysteries at the centre of his family history. Following Inoue’s sister Tazuko who remains as clueless as her brother realising they’ve either misremembered her grandmother’s name or it was wrong on the family register, Hara uncovers a melancholy tale of marital failure and maternal abandonment once again embellished by Inoue who alternately gives differing accounts of his youthful attempt to reconnect with the mother who left him behind which are themselves disputed by the recollections of others. 

His grandiose claims go seemingly unexamined by his followers, eating up his tales of how he founded the first Communist Party in Japan only to become disillusioned by the movement and be kicked out after writing a story criticising the Party (a friend from the time describes him as more of an errand boy who was never really “serious” in his politics), or the tragedy of his first love which ended with a Korean classmate sold to a brothel where he later lost his virginity in a not quite consensual chain of events he claims left him feeling violated while she laughed from an upper window witnessing his defeated retreat. In a break from his usual observational shooting style, Hara adds a series of dramatic reconstructions tinted in a pre-war blue the unreality of which stands in stark contrast to the almost too intimate scenes of Inoue’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent operation as his liver is lifted from his belly and taken away as if presented for the camera. In a revealing moment, Inoue remarks that an alternative medical practitioner he’s just consulted going by the name “Redbeard” just like the movie is not convincing, lacking credibility because he failed to fill the gap between his words perhaps hinting at the techniques he himself uses to convince himself and others of his self-created image. Hara does not so much try to dissect it as to look quizzically at its contradictions, admiring the beauty of the enigma if in reflection of its intrinsic sadness. 


A Dedicated Life streams in the US & Canada until July 2 as part of Japan Society New York’s Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara & Sachiko Kobayashi

DVD rerelease trailer (no subtitles)

Sayuri Ishikawa’s Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki