Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Takuya Kato, 2022)

“You’re a grown-up. If something’s wrong you gotta handle it” the passive aggressively condescending hero of Takuya Kato’s Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Watashitachi wa Otona) chastises, but what even really is being “grown-up” when you find yourself in a situation which is emotionally difficult and will define the future course of your life. Shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 and told in a non-linear fashion, Kato’s intense drama lays bare the inequalities of a patriarchal society in which in a sense there are no real grown-ups because no one is ever comfortable enough with anyone else to be able to speak their real feelings honestly. 

This becomes a particular problem for college student Yumi (Mai Kiryu) who discovers that she is pregnant but is uncertain as to who the father might be having had a one night stand during the time her live-in boyfriend Naoya (Kisetsu Fujiwara) had broken up with her. Yumi immediately tells Naoya that there’s a chance the baby isn’t his, but remains otherwise reticent unwilling to talk about what might have happened while filled with an internal panic. Naoya thinks he’s being grown-up about the situation by deciding to accept responsibility given the probability that he is the father but despite pledging that he would accept the baby even if it turned out he wasn’t can’t stop trying to pressure Yumi into a DNA test for peace of mind. 

The irony is that even Naoya, who was Yumi’s first sexual partner, refused to wear a condom and joked about contraception before making her go on the pill when he moved in with her. Later we learn that the one night stand violated her consent by again refusing to wear a condom and ignoring her objections, later joking about it that the chances of conception are incredibly small while making it clear that men in general don’t consider pregnancy as something that happens to them and because, as one of Yumi’s friends puts it, they only chase “innocent” girls they don’t seem to worry about the possibility of contracting an STI. Meanwhile, Yumi is constantly stalked by a fellow student she briefly dated who presents her with a memory book of their relationship and is always creepily hanging around waiting to give her gifts, but all her friends can seem to talk about is boyfriends implying that a bad boyfriend might be better than none. 

Yet Yumi seems to have intimacy issues that run even deeper, for some reason not even telling Naoya that her mother has passed away leaving him to think she has run away from their problems by returning home just when he’s ready to tell her his decision about their future. When her father asks about boyfriends she brushes the question off though perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her relationship status with Naoya or what she’s going to do about the baby. She calls her friend to hear a friendly voice after hearing her mother has died but gets little sympathy, the same friend later abruptly hanging up on her after getting a boyfriend of her own while knowing of Yumi’s romantic troubles. 

Then again, it’s hard to know whether Naoya was really interested in her or in her lovely duplex apartment. When they started dating he was still living with his ex and it’s obvious that Yumi fully conforms to the feminine ideal taking care of all the domestic tasks while it isn’t even clear if Naoya is contributing in any way to the household. The film both begins and ends with Yumi making breakfast, firstly toasting the last slice of bread for Naoya while suffering with what turns out to be morning sickness, and finally making herself something to eat in the early light of dawn. Naoya says he’s give up on his dreams of working in theatre to get a regular job, again conforming to an outdated patriarchal ideal, but of course resents it particularly because he doubts the child is his while Yumi isn’t really sure she wants to go through with it either for some of the same reasons but is swayed by Naoya’s determination to make all their decisions for them unable to say out loud that she might not be ready to become a mother. 

Naoya is always trying to be grown-up about everything, but more often than not his understanding approach is partway towards passive aggressive control in insisting that Yumi is being childish in her anxiety and confusion while simultaneously avoiding having to admit that he isn’t really ready either. Early in their relationship he breaks up with her by simply returning her apartment key and refusing to elaborate, failing to treat her with respect or maturity and once again leaving her to deal with the fallout of their relationship all alone. Then again, Yumi’s determination to convince him that green peas are good may signal that the relationship was always doomed when they couldn’t even reach a grown-up understanding over something as trivial as taste in veg. A raw examination of what it is to be young and faced with a decision that will define the rest of your life, Kato’s naturalistic drama perhaps suggests that it never really gets any easier to say how you really feel when you feel that someone is judging you all the way. 


Grown-ups screens at Lincoln Center 23d July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022“Grown-ups” Production Committee

Orange (orange-オレンジ, Kojiro Hashimoto, 2015)

Orange posterPerhaps it isn’t possible (or even desirable) to live a life without regrets, but given the opportunity who wouldn’t want a second chance to tackle some of those thorny adolescent moments where you said something you shouldn’t have or didn’t say something that perhaps should have been said. The heroine of Kojiro Hashimoto’s Orange (orange-オレンジ) gets exactly this opportunity when she receives a letter from her future self asking for her help in “erasing” some of her teenage regrets by using the information in the letter to save a friend she hasn’t yet met. Though the letter contains little information about the life she is leading ten years from now, it is clear that something happened all those years ago which has profoundly affected the lives of a tight group of high school friends.

16-year-old Naho (Tao Tsuchiya) receives the letter at the beginning of her second year of high school, reading it under the vibrant pink cherry blossoms. A little creeped out, she doesn’t read it fully but is surprised when, just as the letter said, a new student, Kakeru (Kento Yamazaki), transfers into her class and occupies the previously empty desk next to hers. A shy and quiet girl Naho is nevertheless part of a group of five friends which includes sportsman Suwa (Ryo Ryusei), geek Hagita (Dori Sakurada), and two other girls Takako (Hirona Yamazaki) and Azusa (Kurumi Shimizu). For reasons unexplained, the group quickly takes Kakeru into their fold only for him to suddenly disappear for a couple of weeks. On closer inspection of the letter, Naho is disturbed by the news that Kakeru is “no longer around” at the time of her future self’s writing.

Orange fits neatly into the popular tragic high school romance genre in which an older version of the protagonist looks back on a traumatic event and tries to come to terms with their own action or inaction in order to move forward with their adult lives. 26-year-old Naho, as we quickly find out, has moved on – she is married to Suwa and has a young son she has named Kakeru but she and the others are still finding it difficult to come to terms with what happened to their friend and the possibility that they could have done something more to help him if they’d only known then what they know now.

So far so “junai”, but Orange tries to have things both ways by introducing a slightly clumsy time travel/parallel universe theory in which the protagonists realise that they won’t be able to change the past but are hoping that their friend is happy in an alternate timeline created by their efforts to influence their younger selves with more mature thinking coupled with the benefit of hindsight. Unlike other examples of the genre, Orange undercuts the usual need to deal with the past and find closure through a mild fantasy of denial in which the older protagonists can believe in an alternate future in which they were able to do things differently and save their friend from his unhappy destiny.

Saving their friend is, however, only a secondary goal – the first being to ease their own sense of guilt in not having seen that Kakeru was in trouble and needed their help. All this emphasis on personal “regret” cannot help but seem somewhat solipsistic – everyone is very sorry about what happened in the past and wishes that they could have acted differently but is also somewhat preoccupied with their own role in events rather than a true desire to have in someway eased their friend’s suffering. Though there is the true selflessness of real, grown up love such as that displayed by Suwa who has always loved Naho but supports her love of Kakeru despite his own feelings, the actions of the group remain childishly goal orientated as Kakeru’s survival becomes an end mission flag rather than an expression of love and care for a friend in trouble.

The teenagers are, despite advice from their older selves, still teenagers and so it is only to be expected that they respond to a very grown up problem with a degree of immaturity, but it is also true that Kakeru’s ongoing, mostly well hidden, depression plays second fiddle to the various romantic subplots currently in action. Though the friends rally round with fairly trite phrases about helping to carry Kakeru’s burden and always being there him, Orange almost tries to argue that kind words are enough to pull a strained mind back from the brink – not that kind words ever hurt, but some problems are bigger than superficial pledges of friendship can handle especially when you’ve half a mind on who loves who and who is trying to get in the way of someone else’s romantic destiny. In spending so much time worrying about their friend, they have, in a sense, left him to deal with all his problems on his own while revelling in their own “concern”.

Superficial and melodramatic, Orange’s insistence on the power of teenage friendship can’t help but ring a little false and the parallel universe solution an overly convenient narrative device which allows for two differing resolutions both of which essentially frustrate the attempts of the older protagonists to accept their own sense of guilt and responsibility for their friend’s death in order to move on with their lives. Kakeru, in a sense, gets forgotten in his friends’ need to absolve themselves of his fate – a particularly ironic development in a cautionary tale about the enduring legacy of regret and the necessity of communicating one’s true feelings fully in the knowledge that there may not always be another opportunity to do so.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Sho Tsukikawa, 2017)

Let me eat your pancreas posterBack around the turn of the century, a new kind of melodrama was taking the Japanese box office by storm. “junai” or “pure love” was not exactly new in terms of genre but began to grow in popularity in the early 2000s thanks to growing interest in Korean television drama, finally hitting its zenith in 2004 with Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World. The junai boom lasted only a couple of years, but Japanese cinema has never been able to get enough of tragic stories of first love destroyed by cruel fate and, ironically enough, returns with the improbably titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Kimi no Suizo wo Tabetai) which sets its fictional past in 2003 – exactly the same time as the contemporary presents of the junai classics.

In 2012, Haruki Shiga (Shun Oguri) is a melancholy high school teacher who can’t decide if teaching is really his vocation and has a resignation letter sitting in his desk. Meanwhile, he is handed a slightly upsetting task by his boss – the school library has become too rundown to consider renovating and so it’s going to have to close. When Shiga was a high school student at this very school, he also ran the library club (he now has a qualification in librarianship) and so he seems to be the perfect person to ensure everything gets packed up and dealt with in the proper fashion. The library, however, holds some painful memories for him – of a girl he grew close to for only a few months while she battled a terminal illness and changed his life forever.

12 years previously, Sakura (Minami Hamabe), a popular young woman, drops her sickness diary on leaving the hospital, whereupon Shiga picks it up and unwittingly becomes the only person outside of Sakura’s family to know that she is suffering from a degenerative pancreatic illness and has only a couple of years at most to live. She knows her case her is hopeless and the treatment she receives will only prolong her life temporarily while easing her symptoms, but is determined to live out the rest of her days to the fullest.

Unlike Sakura, Shiga (Takumi Kitamura) describes himself as a loner who isn’t good with people. He spends his days with a book in his hand and is thought of by most of his classmates (if they think of him at all) as the creepy silent boy. Thus his unexpected friendship with Sakura raises more than a few eyebrows with the other kids, especially Sakura’s best friend Kyoko (Karen Otomo) who is both jealous and confused as to why her friend has suddenly started hanging out with the loser boy. Then again it’s precisely because of this aloofness that Sakura first believes she can entrust her final days to Shiga – as virtual strangers it’s much easier to process the idea of an ending, if Sakura had tried to confide in Kyoko about her illness it would only have marred the end of their friendship. Shiga is detached, he doesn’t get emotionally involved, but despite himself still cares which makes him the ideal point of support for a girl longing to escape a carefully ordered life to get a taste of everything she knows she will miss.

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas may situate itself in the junai era of the early 2000s, but owes an undeniable debt to Shunji Iwai’s seminal 1995 romantic melodrama Love Letter and even borrows its central library conceit with a hidden message which eventually reaches its destination much later than intended. Like Love Letter, in which one of the heroines is perpetually worried about the possible repercussions of minor illnesses, Pancreas is keen to remind us that the truth is we are all dying and illness or not today might be our last day – it’s best to make the most of it without sitting around worrying about what the future might hold.

Sakura, dying yet so full of life and energy, is keen to impart her life philosophy to the introverted Shiga. For Sakura life is about connection, sharing experiences with others be they joy or pain. Shiga, though loathed to admit it, is in his own way desperately lonely but has resolved himself to surviving alone, believing that he lacks the ability connect meaningfully with other people. His nascent connection with Sakura is destined to end in tragedy but does at least begin to release something in him which had long been suppressed. Even so, as an adult he’s just as withdrawn and isolated as he’d been as a teen and it’s not until he’s forced to revisit this traumatic incident in his early life that he learns the full value of its lessons. Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, though wilfully embracing some of the genre’s more problematic elements, is a beautifully affecting return to the world of junai which manages to turn a story of death and tragedy into a celebration of life and love as its isolationist hero begins to find the strength to embrace the art of being alive no matter how painful it may turn out to be.


Original trailer (no subtitles)