Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Side JOb posterFukushima has become a focal point for recent Japanese cinema, not just as a literal depiction of an area in crisis but as a symbol for various social concerns chief among them being a loss of faith in governmental responsibility. Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Kanojo no Jinsei wa Machigai ja Nai) has the distinction of being helmed by a Fukushima native in Ryuichi Hiroki who also wrote the original novel from which the film is adapted. Typical of Hiroki’s work, Side Job is less an ode to the power of perseverance than a powerful meditation on grief, inertia, and helplessness. Though he offers no easy answers and refuses to judge his protagonists for the ways they attempt to deal with their situations, Hiroki does allow them to find a kind of peace, at least of the kind that allows them to begin moving forward if not quite away from the past.

Five years after The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Miyuki Kanazawa (Kumi Takiuchi) is still living in a cramped prefab house with her widowed father, Osamu (Ken Mitsuishi). Miyuki’s mother was lost in the storm and her body never found, leaving the pair bereft and with an unanswered question. Having lost his farm to the exclusion zone, Osamu is left with nothing much to do and mostly spends his time idly playing pachinko and drinking much to the consternation of Miyuki who has a regular job with the city council.

Miyuki may well be angry about the way her father fritters away their money, but that doesn’t quite explain why she boards an overnight coach every Friday and spends her weekends in Tokyo engaging in casual sex work. She appears not to like the work very much and it is occasionally dangerous, but she does seem to have built up a kind of friendship with her “manager” as he drives her around the city to her various clients. Miura (Kengo Kora) claims to enjoy his work because it gives him an opportunity to observe human nature in all of its complexity though if he harbours any conflict about his role as a dispatcher of sometimes vulnerable young women, he is slow to voice it.

The “side job” of the title provides a kind of escape from a boring, conventional life in rural Iwaki, equal parts self-harm and quest for sensation. Miyuki, like many of those around her walks around with an air of irritated blankness, angry at so many things she doesn’t quite know where to begin. Yet for all that she’s also emotionally numbed, held in a state of suspended animation, longing to feel something, anything, even if that something is only shame. Through her double life Miyuki is able to find a sense of control and equilibrium that eluded her in grief-stricken Iwaki. Her manager, Miura, promises to “protect” her, though he makes clear that there are many women he feels a duty to protect rather than just Miyuki. Just as it seems Miyuki has come to depend on him, Miura drops a bombshell of his own though it maybe one which spurs Miyuki on towards a new beginning.

Everything in Iwaki is, in a sense, temporary. Miyuki and her father still live in the tiny prefab house in the hope of one day being able to go “home” while Osamu attends occasional meetings with the farming collective to try and find out what’s going on with his fields. Held in a kind of limbo, repeating the same daily tasks with relentless monotony, Miyuki and Osamu are trapped by a sense of helpless dread, forever waiting for something to happen but having lost the faith that it ever will.

While the pair struggle on, others find themselves unable to bear the weight of their tragedies. The spectre of suicide haunts Miyuki and her father from the woman next-door (Tamae Ando) who has become depressed thanks to the stigma surrounding her husband’s job with the decontamination programme, to the window at the agency which no longer opens following the suicide of one of the employees. Pushed to the edge by financial strain, there are also those who find themselves befriending the vulnerable with an intent to defraud, but it is in the end genuine human relationships which light the way for each of our struggling protagonists. Osamu bonds with an orphaned little boy through playing catch, Miyuki finds strength in Miura’s decision to break with his old life and build a new one, and her assistant at the city council, Nitta (Tokio Emoto), grows into the responsibility of being a big brother while attempting to do the best he can for the people of Fukushima.

What each of them finds isn’t an answer or a “cure” for their trauma but a path towards accepting it in such a way as it allows them to begin moving forward. New seeds are planted in the expectation of a coming future, new lives are celebrated, and the past begins to recede. Memory becomes a still frame, bottled and in a sense commodified but held close as a kind of talisman proving nothing is really ever “lost”. Filmed with an eerie sense of listless beauty, Side Job is an unflinching yet not unforgiving exploration of life after tragedy in which the only possible chance for survival lies in empathy and simple human connection.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Yuki Tanada, 2013)

mourning-recipeWhen everything goes wrong you go home, but Yuriko, the protagonist of Yuki Tanada’s adaptation of Yuki Ibuki’s novel might feel justified in wondering if she’s made a series of huge mistakes considering the strange situation she now finds herself in. Far from the schmaltzy cooking movie the title might suggest, Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Shijuukunichi no Recipe) is a trail of breadcrumbs left by the recently deceased family matriarch, still thinking of others before herself as she tries to help everyone move on after she is no longer there to guide them. Approaching the often difficult circumstances with her characteristic warmth and compassion, Tanada takes what could have become a trite treatise on the healing power of grief into a nuanced character study as each of the left behind now has to seek their own path in deciding how to live the rest of their lives.

Beginning in pitch darkness, housewife Yuriko (Hiromi Nagasaku) answers the phone to the voice of another woman requesting that she separate from her husband who is apparently the father of her unborn child. This double sting hits Yuriko hardest as the couple had been trying for a baby for quite sometime with little success. Thinking a divorce is for the best, Yuriko packs her bags, leaves the papers and her ring on the table, and heads for her father’s house. When she gets there she finds an oddly bubbly young girl, Imoto (Fumi Nikaido), washing her father’s back. Apparently, Imoto has been charged with looking after the house during the 49 day mourning period for Yuriko’s step-mother, Otomi – the upcoming memorial service something Yuriko had forgotten all about in the midst of her personal crisis. When Imoto presents the pair with a book that Otomi illustrated before she died listing everything they should do to prepare for the big party she wants everyone to enjoy rather than solemnly chanting sutras for her 49th day memorial, it prompts Yuriko and her father into a reconsideration of themselves, their pasts and futures, and who exactly should be making those decisions for them.

Yuriko’s position may seem like a straightforward one, betrayed by her husband her decision to leave seems inevitable but it’s complicated by the intricate web of duties and obligations Yuriko feels herself to be a part of. Reconsidering various turning points of her life, Yuriko makes plain that her marriage to the mild mannered salaryman Hiroyuki (Taizo Harada) had been under considerable strain due to the couple’s difficulty conceiving a child. Owing to the intense pressure placed on women to bear children, Yuriko internalises a sense of shame at having failed in this most basic of wifely tasks, leading her husband (she believes) to replace her with a model more fit for purpose. This point of view is rammed home by Yuriko’s insensitive aunt who continues to interrogate her about her lack of children and encourage her to return home to her husband and fix the problem rather than “giving up” and settling for the “shameful” option of divorce as young people are want to do. Aunt Tamako (Keiko Awaji) also points out that neither of her daughters bothered with university or work or any of that nonsense and now have fulfilled their duties by bearing bright and bonny grandchildren with no trouble at all. Heartbroken and blaming herself, Yuriko has to listen to the ongoing lecture whilst keeping her composure right until its gloomy conclusion.

Motherhood becomes the film’s biggest theme as mothers, non-mothers, and bad mothers swirl around the childless Yuriko, still trying to find her place in the world if the path society seems determined to set her on has been well and truly blocked off. Yuriko’s biological mother died when she was only little but happily her father fell in love with and married Otomi – a truly good woman who, like Yuriko, had no children of her own, but lived her life trying to make a difference and help other people to be happy. Little Yuriko didn’t always see it that way and found it difficult to bond with her new mother, settling for the nickname “Okka” – a combination of Otomi’s name and the word for mother, rather than straightforward “mum”.

Reinvestigating Otomi’s life in order to plan for her 49th day memorial, Yuriko truly gets to know her step-mother for the first time, discovering just how big of a difference she made in the lives of those around her. Imoto is just one of the young people Otomi went out on a limb for volunteering at a local rehabilitation centre for young people experiencing problems with addition. She then introduces them to a young Brazilian/Japanese migrant (Masaki Okada) who found himself feeling all alone in a foreign land until Otomi handed him the keys to her car and insisted he get out and about and meet new people. Otomi might not have had children of her own, but she became a mother to the world, reaching out and helping those who most needed it, becoming the springboard so that they could fly far away from her happier and healthier than before.

In learning from Otomi’s book, Yuriko regains her sense of self and a desire to find her purpose, knowing that the ability to bear children is not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. Indeed even if a woman can give birth to a child, that’s not to say she’ll be a good mother as Imoto points out in reference to the toxic relationship she has with hers which feeds back into the insensitive way Hiroyuki’s mistress talks about her plans in front of her young son.

Given all of these epiphanies and mini realisations, Yuriko’s final decision may seem like an odd one, sending her back into a conservative world bound by all of the same duties and obligations the film spent so long undermining. Nevertheless, Yuriko emerges from her 49 days of mourning with a better understanding of herself and the way she should be living her life. Filled with wit and warm humour, Mourning Recipe neatly skirts its melodramatic nature to present a genuinely moving examination of the true nature of family, motherhood, and the necessity of individual freedom. Otomi’s final springboard action was for the ones she left behind, even if, once again, she won’t be able to see them fly.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Yuki Tanada, 2012)

Cowards who looked to the sky posterThe work of director Yuki Tanada has had a predominant focus on the stories of independent young women but The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky sees her shift focus slightly as the troubled relationship between a middle aged housewife who escapes her humdrum life through cosplay and an ordinary high school boy takes centre stage. Based on the novel of the same name by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita) also tackles the difficult themes of social stigma, the power of rumour, teenage poverty, elder care, childbirth and even pedophilia which is, to be frank, a little too much to be going on with.

Told in a non-linear, overlapping structure the central spine of the film follows unfulfilled housewife Satomi who likes to dress up as her favourite character from the retro anime Magic Girl. Whilst dressed as its heroine, Anzu, she spots a high school boy at a convention who looks eerily like the anime’s hero, Muramasa. Takumi is only at the convention with a friend and has no particular interest in anime but as the two live in the same area “Anzu” convinces Takumi to come and try on a Muramasa outfit at her place. One thing leads to another and the pair embark on a proxy affair which takes the form of role-play between the two anime characters carefully scripted by Satomi. However, Satomi’s hitherto disinterested husband begins to notice a change in her behaviour and has spy cameras installed catching the hot cosplay action for all to see. When he uploads the video to the internet it causes a serious problem for the young and impressionable Takumi.

Actually, there’s a third person in Satomi’s marriage to her feckless husband Keiichiro in the form of his overbearing mother. So far, the couple have no children despite having been married for some time and this has distressed Michiko to the point that she’s the one dragging the couple in for IVF treatment and getting upset when it doesn’t work. Her son, Keiichiro, has weak swimmers and actively doesn’t want children but this doesn’t stop Michiko taking all her frustrations out on Satomi whom she brands as “defective” and gives the impression that she’d like to “fire” her if she could. A shy woman and probably quite bored as a stay at home housewife, Satomi retreats into fantasy by cosplaying as the familiar character from her favourite childhood anime Magic Girl. Becoming Anzu and having an affair with Muramasa isn’t quite cheating, after all, and perhaps she even hopes to have the child that her mother-in-law so desperately wants her to have even if her husband and medical science won’t help her.

Among the younger generation, Takumi lives with his mother, Sumiko, in a residential maternity clinic that she runs where pregnant women can come and be looked after in a more natural and homely environment than the comparatively cold and sterile hospital. Takumi is best friends with a boy who lives near by who, like him, has no father but unlike Takumi his mother is also an absent figure too so Ryota must work part-time at the combini whilst also looking after his grandmother who is suffering with dementia.

Sumiko tries to support Ryota by giving him occasional food parcels but as a young man Ryota sometimes finds this a little embarrassing and is offended by the idea of receiving charity. When it comes right down to it, he resents Takumi’s happy relationship with his mother and their relative financial security. The manager at the store brands Ryota a “ghetto kid” and even blames him for the increase in shoplifting by kids from the estate. He has little time to study even if he wanted to, but all he sees for his future is a great big dead end. Another worker at the store who previously worked as a teacher offers to help Ryota improve his grades and maybe even try for a university scholarship but turns out to have a dark side of his own.

Simply put, there are far too many plot strands in rotation here and the screenplay never manages to corral them into any kind of satisfying arrangement. There is a moment of unity where Ryota’s story meets Takumi’s but it’s a fairly brief point of intersection (though a hugely important one both in terms of themes and storyline) leaving Ryota’s entire subplot feeling like a distraction to the main high school boy meets damaged older woman narrative. That’s without all of the goings on at the clinic, the brief appearance of Takumi’s father and the disappearing act of Ryota’s deadbeat mother who makes off with all his savings. The film’s scope and ambition is admirable but it ultimately fails to unify its disparate plot strands into a convincingly focused form.

That said, other than running too long the The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky does have a lot of interesting elements and is always beautifully shot showing off a rarely seen side of suburban Tokyo. The performances are also of a high quality particularly given the film’s frank erotic content which is played with refreshing realism by the veteran former child actress Tomoko Tabata and the comparatively less experienced Kento Nagayama as the confused high school boy caught in the fire of his first affair. At once too superficial and too deep, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky spreads itself too thin to make a lasting impact though does offer enough rewards to justify its lengthy running time.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Au revoir l’été ほとりの朔子 (ほとりの朔子 Koji Fukada, 2013)

sakuko_mainReview of this kind of cute French new wave influenced Japanese indie up at UK Anime Network. I kind of liked this one – it’s getting another screening at The Proud Archivist on Tuesday if you couldn’t make it today. Alternatively you can watch it online via FilmDoo!


It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of  “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French – a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances – well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.

Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.

If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely just you started to feel it was getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy – it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.

Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing but – there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said – not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.

Nothing really happens, no grand life changing events but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t  shy away from showing us what might become of them with the unhappy grown ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and is willing to see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.

Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. Which is just as well because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.