The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Shinji Araki, 2020)

“You’re free now, so the world is more beautiful” the hero of Shinji Araki’s dystopian thriller The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Ninzu no Machi) is unironically told by a mysterious saviour even as a watchtower lingers on the horizon behind him. Modern Japan, it seems to say, is no paradise but is it worth trading your identity and existence for the guaranteed satisfaction of your basic needs? Freedom, happiness, and love may be nebulous concepts which mean different things to different people, but in the end leading a satisfactory life might just come down to what it is you decide you can live without. 

The nameless protagonist later credited as Aoyama (Tomoya Nakamura) describes himself as an “average joe” who has “a weak will” and doesn’t “belong anywhere in society”. While being beaten up by a loanshark, he’s unexpectedly rescued by the miraculous appearance of the mysterious “Paul” (So Yamanaka), a middle-aged man dressed in an orange jump suit who tells him there’s a place he can go where’d he fit right in. After a lengthy bus ride, he finds himself a new resident of “The Town” where those like him who for one reason or another felt themselves rejected by mainstream society can live in ease and comfort, only as he later discovers he is unable to leave. Should he walk too far beyond the fence, the microchip in his head activates a sonic wave of painful and disabling distortion. 

Somewhere between a utopian cult commune and a penal colony occupying a disused conference centre, The Town is a free love society which insists that equality is possible and that freedom and peace are more than mere dreams. Family creates inequality, so The Town’s Bible says, so residents must live alone. Pregnancy is prohibited, while children brought into the compound are separated from their parents and raised in a communal nursery. All basic needs, food, warmth, shelter and even sex, are otherwise guaranteed though the residents are expected to “work” to earn them, performing often pointless tasks parasitically underpinning modern capitalism such as writing meaningless product reviews in return for treats, or performing as stooges to create hype around new store openings. Aoyama’s sense of morality is however shaken when he’s asked to commit electoral fraud by repeatedly voting for a chosen candidate with stolen ballots, later recruited as a crisis actor in a fake terrorist incident intended to further influence an election in the wake of a corruption scandal. 

In The Town, he’s told his existence is meaningful and given a place to belong. Yet he has to surrender his name, known as “Dudes” residents must greet each other ritualistically only by the word “fellow” followed by some kind of compliment. All his needs may be met, but he’s forbidden to fall in love, can never marry or have a family, and it does seem troubling that there are no elderly people around even if some suggest there are other “Towns” just for them. Some might say, The Town is way is a way for mainstream society to get rid of all the people it doesn’t want or feels have no value. Araki throws up frequent title cards featuring various statistics such as the numbers of homeless people, bankruptcies, unemployment etc along with brief flashbacks to whatever it was that brought residents to The Town from being thrown thrown out of a manga cafe after attempting to live there to being almost choked to death by debt-collecting yakuza suggesting there’s little “freedom” in the rigid contemporary society and most particularly for those unable or unwilling to live by its rules.  

In The Town rules are few, and you’re well looked after, but you can’t leave and though it seems like an individualist paradise where you’re free to satisfy each of your physical desires you have no further control over your existence. As one resident puts it, “life here is kind of weightless”, perhaps a relief for some but a crushing existential crisis for others. Aoyama realises that in The Town he rarely feels angry, but perhaps he feels nothing much of anything else, either. Just as he’s starting to adjust, his feelings of unease are strengthened by the arrival of a young woman who apparently had no previous societal issues but has come to The Town in search of her younger sister whom she failed to help despite knowing she was trapped in an abusive relationship. Unlike Aoyama, Beniko (Shizuka Ishibashi) claims not to have felt much of anything in the regular world, unsure even what love is and unimpressed by the beautiful vistas of freedom that are supposed to define The Town, but doesn’t want to stay and be rendered a mindless drone exploited by mysterious forces for whatever purpose they may choose.

What Aoyama realises he craves is the love and companionship of a conventional family life. “We want to support each other and work hard. Love each other and live together” he explains to a non-plussed Paul who seems to pity him, his simple desire at once at odds with the values of The Town and perhaps equally unobtainable in contemporary Japan. In the end, the only “freedom” he may find lies in complicity with one system or another, becoming an oppressor as one of the oppressed. The question is what sort of life is most satisfying, freedom from the anxiety of hunger and cold, or the freedom to love and live fully in manner of your choosing. The modern society may not grant you either, and both perhaps have their costs. A bleak dystopian thriller, Araki’s steely drama features innovative production design and slick direction mimicking the hero’s sense of disaffection with detachment and a total lack of resistance to the otherwise bewildering world of The Town but saves its real sense of confusion for the state of the modern society and the fate of those who survive on its margins. 


The Town of Headcounts streams in the US March 15 – 19 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Isshin Inudo, 2008)

Gu Gu the cat posterJapanese cinema has long been in love with the local flavour movie. It may be true that many otherwise fantastic examples of the small subgenre have a “sponsored by the tourist board” aesthetic, but then the pure “furusato” love is usually genuine enough and often proves infectious. Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Gu Gu Datte Neko de Aru) is a case in point in its fierce determination to sell the benefits of trendy Tokyo suburb Kichijoji – an upscale bohemian neighbourhood well known for being home to artists and dreamers who take care to foster the kind of hometown spirit you wouldn’t normally associate with city living. The film is also, however, the story of a struggling middle-aged mangaka who is forced to deal with a long delayed existential crisis after her elderly cat passes away.

Ça Va had been living with Asako (Kyoko Koizumi) for the last 15 years but passed away while she and her team were working flat out on a special Christmas issue. Asako is of course devastated and not least because she feels guilty that perhaps she was too busy to notice that Ça Va was ill until it was too late. According to her assistant Naomi (Juri Ueno), Asako’s career had been faltering even before Ça Va passed away – the Christmas issue had been the only thing she’d produced all year leaving her team of assistants out of pocket and worried for the future. Grief-stricken as she is, Asako eventually decides to get a new cat, Gu Gu, enabling a rebirth in her professional as well as personal lives.

Based on an autobiographical story by mangaka Yumiko Oshima, Gu Gu the Cat wastes no time in reminding us that being a mangaka is a precarious business. Asako is well acclaimed as an artist and has inspired countless young women with her shojo manga (Naomi not least among them) but is still pressed into working insane hours to meet publication deadlines and is constantly badgered by her publishing company to provide new material. Her mother (Chieko Matsubara), meanwhile, just wants her to settle down and get married before it’s “too late”.

Asako’s mother’s nagging may seem like the usual kind of conservatism that is a little embarrassed by an unmarried middle-aged woman, as well as with the idea of a woman having a career and especially in manga which is a “popular” art and therefore less respectable than literature or painting. It is also, however, born of knowing her daughter and seeing that there is a part of her that hasn’t quite matured thanks to working on manga all her adult life which has left her feeling isolated and lonely in a way a cat might not be able to satisfy. This is perhaps why potential love interest Seiji (Ryo Kase) describes all her manga as “sad”, and why Asako is somewhat uncomfortable with being treated as a “famous author” rather than as a person.

Gu Gu the cat takes a back seat to most of the action (as cats are want to do) but does help engineer a meeting with Seiji who, despite being much younger than Asako, begins to reawaken in her a sense of desire if not exactly for romance then perhaps for life. Following a familiar pattern, however, Asako re-channels that desire into her manga – coming up with an idea in which a teenager suddenly grows old, neatly mirroring her sudden sense of having become “a woman of a certain age” overnight without really noticing. Having lost Ça Va, Asako attempts to come to terms with lost time in accepting that many choices have already been made and opportunities lost. In that sense there is something sad in Asako’s decision to remain alone in knowing that in the end she lost love because she was too timid to claim it, but then, the answer isn’t new romance but an acceptance of being happy in the present in the knowledge that things change and people leave but it will all be OK in the end.

Based on Oshima’s real experiences, Inudo’s film takes a turn for the melodramatic towards its conclusion which feeds back into his “live every day” message but is perhaps a little heavy for the cheerful slice of life drama surrounding it. Likewise, his strange decision to sell the joys of Kichijoji (which appear to be many) through an American Eikaiwa teacher narrating a journey through the area in the manner of a TV programme aimed at tourists is a particularly strange one which in no way benefits from its surreal plot revelation. Nevertheless, Gu Gu the Cat is a warm and affectionate tribute to this seemingly warm and quirky area which acts as a kind of coming of age story for its middle-aged heroine who, in a sense, births herself in coming to an acceptance that life goes on and the best you can do go along with it for as long as you can.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

YEAH (Yohei Suzuki, 2018)

Yeah still 2Following a series of high profile shorts in international festivals, Yohei Suzuki’s debut feature Ow became something of a cult hit in its surreal, sci-fi leaning tale of an unemployed young man who becomes transfixed by a mysterious round object that suddenly appears in his room, entering a kind of suspended animation which later claims several of his friends and family. Four years on Suzuki’s back with a second feature, but one which runs a scant 45 minutes. The enthusiastically titled “YEAH” takes a similarly surreal approach in dissecting the effects on ongoing national decline on the nation’s youth through the actions of a strange young woman who floats like a ghost through her rapidly disintegrating world.

There’s something a bit different about Ako. When we meet her, she appears to be in the middle of a difficult breakup with a scarecrow. Holding on to the bottom of a sleeve attached to a jacket which is being worn by a dressmaker’s mannequin, Ako laments that she likes how he doesn’t talk but hates not seeing him. Eventually she switches her attentions to a nearby tree which she praises for its constant services on behalf of “Man-kind”. Looking for her mother and sister, Ako wanders into other people’s apartments and confuses local shop keepers, carrying around a pot of coriander she’s collected for its cuteness and cradling it as if it were a baby. She hallucinates strange visions of a scary man and is taken to a mental hospital by another who seems to be her brother but is released back into his care only to wander off and meet another girl just like her who later confesses that she is, in fact, a bean and though she was at first frightened by her realisation, is OK with it now.

Set in Mito in rural Ibaraki, YEAH takes place entirely within a rundown housing estate. Ako, wandering around in wellies, is a lone figure in this oddly quiet settlement. Local teens hang out in the central courtyard where the grass is dying and the swings and climbing frames long rusty from underuse. A classic danchi with dingy open staircases, no lifts, and long corridors the atmosphere is one of decline and defeat. A symbol of an economic leap forward, farmlands giving way to a displaced urban populace, the estate could not be more out of step with modern times as the young make their way towards cities or back towards the land, forever abandoning this awkward liminal space which seems to have been eclipsed by a change in the economic weather.

Women like Ako are, perhaps, a kind of ghost – floating about unseen and unheeded, left with nothing other to do than go slowly mad in a world which is dying all around them. Rejected by the other young people on the estate who use her as a kind of entertainment, Ako literally slips in and out of the conscious world, disappearing from one place only to appear in another still carrying her beloved plant around with her. Lamenting that her home is gone and everything she loved has been taken away, Ako is left only with her worshipful devotion to “Atchy-ma” who “shines the light” on her, and a fierce love of the industry of plant life which works so tirelessly to maintain the environment human beings are so keen to destroy. 

Suzuki’s approach is surreal and obscure, making frequent use of dissolves and superimpositions to capture the various ways Ako is literally lost to or eliminated by her environment. Ako exclaims that she still doesn’t get “YEAH”, because she is “Japanese after all”, but keeps trying anyway, screaming into a void in search of some kind of light while those around her continue in similarly idle pursuits which, while less unusual, lack her otherwise idealistic sense of purpose.


Available to stream on Festival Scope until 20th February as part of their International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Rolling (ローリング, Masanori Tominaga, 2015)

384f90_4054bb8ba5554cc186f2bce4c6beb853“Weird teacher” is almost becoming a genre now. Even so, the teacher at the center of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling may give them all a run for their money (well, for about five yards before having somekind of bizarre accident, anyway). Gondo is a feckless middle aged man who was fired from his teaching position ten years previously after having been caught secretly filming the girls’ changing rooms. Now he’s back in his old stalking ground after having pulled off an improbable white knight routine by rescuing the young and pretty Mihara from a bad boyfriend in Tokyo. However, his former students have not forgotten him or his pervy ways! It’s not long before the entire town of twenty somethings are on Gondo’s case hoping for a little vengeance for their teenage betrayal.

However, Gondo’s fortunes improve slightly when it’s discovered that some of his secret recordings feature some rather salacious goings on starring a former classmate whose TV career is just about to kick off. Smelling money in the air, Gondo is suddenly everyone’s best friend again. Gondo is…still Gondo though so as you may expect this state of affairs will not last. He’s even lost Mihara to a former student of his, one he even quite likes too…

Despite his failings and protestations to the contrary, what Gondo ultimately remains is a teacher. Yes he’s made some mistakes (understatement of the century), and he’s actually quite unpleasant in a lot of ways but somehow he still wants to protect this ragtag bag of not quite young people that he previously harmed. Coming to the realisation that his actions not only resulted in revulsion and violation of trust but also had a disruptive effect on the educational progress of his students simply resulting from his abrupt dismissal, Gondo does at least want to make amends (in his own way).

However, Gondo’s just the kind of guy things never work out for. “All my students are idiots” he proclaims at one point and he’s not altogether wrong. Attempting to hatch a blackmail plot with a very strange group of a idol managers-cum-gangsters and an ex-policeman, the gang get themselves into a whole world of trouble which is only exacerbated when the almost famous subject of the video comes forward and makes a very surprising request of her old flame and Gondo’s kindly love rival Kanichi.

Darkly comic, Rolling has the air of a film noir B movie with its ever present voice over and thriller trappings including secret video taping, a blackmail plot and trio of business-like gangsters. It is though, also firmly grounded in the now despite its often surreal humour. Also branded an “erotic comedy” Rolling is fairly high on sexual content adding to its generally sleazy feeling. It may well go down as a cult hit simply for the phrase “I’m going to make a milkshake out of your filthy boob juice” which gives you some indication as to the tone.

Far from perfect but oddly touching if sometimes baffling too, Rolling is another strange and surreal adventure from Tominaga. Its slightly vulgar tone may put off some but by and large it gets away with it through sheer cheekiness and absurd humour. Gondo is a dreadful person almost all of the time, selfish and needy yet he also seems to have this yearning for redemption which makes him seem not so bad really, as does the fact that most of his former students have not turned out all that well – even the “hero” Kanichi has his problems. For those that can accept its oddly surreal tone and decidedly old fashioned gender politics, Rolling is a rewarding and delightfully absurd film that does also manage to pack in a decent (if subtle) amount of social commentary.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.

Review of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling (ローリング) – first published by UK Anime Network.