Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Harmonium (淵に立つ, Koji Fukada, 2016)

harmoniumKoji Fukada first ventured into the family drama arena with the darkly comic satire Hospitalité in 2010 in which frequent collaborator Kanji Furutachi played the decidedly odd “family friend” who quickly took over the household and exposed all of its weaknesses before departing as mysteriously as he arrived. This time Furutachi plays the man of the house, though like his counterpart in Hospitalité, has not been telling the whole truth. Unlike much of Fukada’s previous work, Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) abandons the comedy overtones for a truly bleak and tragic atmosphere which seems to speak of the death of the family unit itself.

On a morning just like any other, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and their small daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), take breakfast together around the kitchen table. Akie leads grace while Toshio reads his paper before Hotaru moves on to a story about the baby spiders in the garden and how they collectively eat their mother. After his wife and daughter have left for the day, Toshio lifts the shutter on his workshop only to see a familiar, if long forgotten, face standing behind it.

The two men talk and it’s clear they’re old friends but have not seen each other in a long time. Fresh out of prison, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is dressed in an odd looking suit without a jacket, the top button of his pristine white shirt neatly buttoned up. Toshio offers Yasaka a job in his workshop and a room in his house – all without a word to Akie, but somehow there’s something other than an altruistic desire to help an old friend who’s fallen on hard times at play.

Yasaka moves in and is permanently on his best behaviour but it isn’t until it’s discovered that he has a talent for the harmonium and begins to help Hotaru improve her playing that Akie starts to warm to him. It also helps that he’s interested in her spiritual life at the local protestant church, unlike her husband, and is generally around and available to her. Learning how Yasaka ended up in prison and how he now feels about his crime, Akie comes to feel this melancholy man must be especially worthy to God, and sure enough a mutual attraction begins to arise between the pair.

There’s a kind of debt implied in the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio which has Toshio running scared, trying to keep his old friend sweet lest he call it in. Yasaka’s intentions remain unclear, has he come for revenge or for comfort, to restart his life or to rehash the past? There’s something inescapably odd about his presence with his identical black suit trousered, white shirted figure which simultaneously makes him look like someone who just came out of prison and has been given one outfit to help them get a job, and like a dodgy TV evangelist or cult leader – ever so slightly too buttoned down and contained. At one point he tells Toshio he’s starting to wonder why Toshio has all of this ordinary success and he doesn’t, he could take it if he wanted to. Toshio, it has to be said, is not trying very hard to protect his place at the head of the table.

Like Yoshimitsu Morita in that other landmark of the family drama turned inside out by an unscheduled visitor, The Family Game, Fukada also makes the dinner table the centre of the conversation. We can see right away that this is not a “harmonious” household through the unbalanced seating arrangements – Toshio on one side, barely speaking and reading his paper, while Akie and Hotaru sit together opposite him reciting grace before they eat. There’s an ugly, empty space at the expected fourth position which is soon to be filled by Yasaka, but his presence does little to alleviate the anxiety of three people sitting at a table meant for four. Notably, after an unexpected tragedy occurs in the second part of the film the table itself has been rotated ninety degrees and only half of it is ever used as the lower part is cut off with a small TV showing live footage from another room. The family no longer take meals together, the kitchen is no longer a warm and organised place but a cold and chaotic one.

The sins of the father are visited upon the child. Everyone thinks they’re guilty of something, and that someone else is paying for their wrongdoing (and by implication forcing them to suffer by proxy). The presence of the harmonium – a staple in small churches and parlours of the 19th century, has a strangely religious resonance that perfectly tallies with Akie’s adherence to her Protestant faith which infuses the house even in the absence of crosses or other forms of iconography. Yasaka carries with him a sense of malevolence, like a visiting demon tempting and provoking as he goes, though it ultimately remains unclear if he is even to blame for the tragedy which befalls the family or is simply another victim of it.

Retaining his elegantly composed, static camera, Fukada makes use of unusual and high impact cuts as well as a daring, unannounced jump forward in time. Red becomes a recurrent theme as it alarmingly cuts through the otherwise subdued colour scheme whether as a T-shirt hidden behind a calm white boiler suit, or the reflections of a car window as a particularly dark thought passes through a passenger’s mind. Filled with mismatched pairs and asymmetrical setups, the family find themselves locked into a wheel of repetitions until the final scene which sees them recreate a “happy” family photo in a kind of grim tableau as neglectful father Toshio desperately fights to revive his family. Darker in tone and filled with an almost supernatural malevolence, Harmonium is a tense and unpredictable drama probing at the status of the traditional family in an increasingly uncertain world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)