A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Junji Sakamoto, 2012)

chorus of angelsAs you read the words “adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato” you know that however cute and cuddly the blurb on the back may make it sound, there will be pain and suffering at its foundation. So it is with A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Kita no Kanariatachi) which sells itself as a kind of mini-take on Twenty-Four Eyes (“Twelve Eyes” – if you will) as a middle aged former school mistress meets up with her six former charges only to discover that her own actions have cast an irrevocable shadow over the very sunlight she was determined to shine on their otherwise troubled young lives.

Haru has been working as a librarian in the city for the last twenty years and has finally reached retirement age but before that she was a school teacher in Japan’s frozen north. Before she can even think about enjoying her new found freedom, a pair of policeman turn up at her door to ask her a few questions about one of her former pupils, Nobuto, who is a suspect in a murder case. It seems that they found Haru’s address amongst Nobuto’s possessions and are keen to find out what kind of relationship she had with him and anything she might know about his current whereabouts. Haru is shocked to the core but remembers that she always gets a New Year card from one of Nobuto’s classmates, Manami, and decides to return home at long last to try and put to rest some wandering ghosts.

Like much of Kanae Minato’s work, A Chorus of Angels is a perfectly constructed mystery only this time much more of the heart than of the head. Consequently, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot but suffice to say that a traumatic incident twenty years ago left a profound effect not only on each of the children but also on their teacher and others in the surrounding area. Re-encountering each of her six pupils again, Haru discovers that each of them has been harbouring a deeply buried sense of guilt and shame, believing themselves to have been responsible for what happened that day. That sense of unresolved trauma has prevented each of them from fully getting on with their lives, as if some part of each of them was frozen in time when they were just primary school children singing in a choir and feeling proud of themselves for the first time in their lives.

Their teacher, Haru, also left a part of herself behind in that snowy northern landscape. Having committed something which some would regard as a sin, she’s hounded off the island – or perhaps allows herself to be, giving in to a punishment that she sees as befitting her own sense of guilt. However, as is customary for Minato, Haru’s “crime” is not such a black and white affair. If she betrayed someone, that person understood and, ultimately, only wanted the best for her. That she sacrificed the things that might have allowed her to go on living a happy life is the kind of tragic irony Minato is known for and the lonely, cold and shut off appearance of Haru’s twenty years of librarianing exile is another perfect example. She didn’t really do anything wrong except for try to live, and yet she’s paid for that with the next twenty years of her life and not only that, in robbing the young children who’d come to see her as something of a guardian angel of her very presence, she’s left them to pay too. Guilt grows like a mountain until it eclipses even the brightest of suns.

Despite its unfeasibly starry cast which radiates around veteran actress Sayuri Yoshinga and includes such young talents as Hikari Mitsushima, Mirai Moriyama, Ryuhei Matsuda, Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki and Eiko Koike, A Chorus of Angles is actually fairly ordinary in terms of its directorial style and though it manages to stay on the right side of saccharine, never quite manages to make its tear-jerking set-up quite as moving as it seems to want to be. That said, it does boast some extraordinarily beautiful scenes of the Hokkaido snowscape which is a perfect setting for this chilling, frozen ghost story in which no actual ghosts appear. The children’s childhoods are all blissful blue skies and sunny summer days but in the future there’s only snow and cold winter sunshine. Just stay alive, it would be enough – to live is to suffer, but you have to go on. The important thing to learn is that it’s one thing to forgive everyone else, but there comes a time when you have to forgive yourself, too.


The Hong Kong release of A Chorus of Angels includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer:

Rebirth (Youkame no semi) 八日目の蝉

高解像度寒霞渓First of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme for this year up on UK-Anime.net. I’m going to do a general round-up later in the week but this was the best of the (impressive) bunch.


Kiwako has been having an affair with a married man who swears he’s going to leave his wife (just not right now) but now things have come to a head as she finds out she’s carrying his child. Despite her being desperately happy and excited about it – planning to call the child Kaoru and designing visions of the a domestic bliss, Kiwako’s married lover is decidedly less enthusiastic and persuades her to opt for a termination. However, complications from the procedure leave her unable to have any more children and she also begins being harassed by her lover’s wife who finally turns up on her doorstep one day, heavily pregnant, to taunt her – going so far as to remark that her ‘barren womb’ is a direct result of her immoral relations with her husband. One day Kiwako just snaps and in an act of madness abducts her lover’s newborn baby and raises the child as her own for four years until she is finally caught.

In the present day, Erina – who was Kaoru, raised by Kiwako for the first four years of her life, has grown up and is in college. She is deeply scarred by the traumatic events of her early childhood and seems to have difficulty with forming relationships with people, not that she seems to want to make any. After being returned to her birth parents she struggled to adapt to her new life and her birth parents struggled to come terms with everything that had happened. Now, as a young woman, Erina finds history begin to repeat itself in more ways than one and she’s forced to consider who she really is and what she wants out of life. In order to do that, she’ll finally have to confront her traumatic past and all of the complex questions and emotions that will inevitably arise.

In a Chalk Circle-esque way, Rebirth wants to ask a lot of questions about motherhood. Who is the mother of this child really? The woman who gave birth to it or the one who has cared for it all its life and who the child regards as its parent? It is obviously a terrible situation for all involved – the birth parents have lost their child, something truly awful, but the child now believes her abductor to be her mother and ‘returning’ her to a pair of ‘strangers’ she has no recollection of is beyond cruel. Being cruelly ripped away from everything she knew would be traumatic enough, let alone being dragged away from her ‘mother’ in a car park late at night and bundled into car by a harsh woman who tells her she’s being taken to her ‘mummy’ when her total understanding of that word is being handcuffed and taken away.

At only four years old you might think she’d be young enough to gradually ease back into her birth family, and you might be right had her natural parents been better equipt themselves to cope with the situation. Erina’s mother is very definitely of the ‘carry on as if nothing happened’ school so any allusion to the first four years of the girl’s life provokes a hysterical fit that only further exacerbates the confusion already ripping apart the poor child’s soul. So jealous is she that she’s effectively projecting all her resentment and bitterness towards Kiwako’s actions onto the child itself – as if she can’t forgive her for the crime of growing older or having spent so much time with the other woman. The child is a reminder of the trauma of its disappearance, of her husband’s infidelity, and subsequently of her own fear of not measuring up as a mother.

Izuru Narushima has crafted an intense and deeply layered character study that neatly sidesteps the risk of becoming as overblown or melodramatic as the plot description might sound. He approaches the subject matter with great sensitivity and with as even a hand as is humanly possible. His camera is incredibly non-judgemental and treats each of the characters with the same level of sympathy and understanding. Surprisingly, it is the birth parents that become the most difficult to sympathise with but even they are presented with a great deal of compassion.

Rebirth is certainly a very complex film that raises all sorts of uncomfortable moral questions from the nature of motherhood to the treatment of the women of society. If I had one criticism it would be that the male characters don’t come out of this well at all – which may be slightly unfair given the deliberate similarity between the two prominent male characters, but certainly the portrait it paints of masculinity is far from flattering. The performances are astounding, particularly those of Mao Inoue (probably still best known for Hana Yori Dango) as the damaged Erina and Hiromi Nagasaku as the desperately maternal Kiwako. Excellently shot and fantastically well conceived Rebirth is one of the best Japanese films of recent times.