Born Bone Born (洗骨, Toshiyuki Teruya, 2018)

Bone Born Bone poster“Is this really Japan?!” asks the bemused boyfriend of the protagonist of Born Bone Born (洗骨, Senkotsu), only to be met with the reply “on paper, at least”. Comedian Toshiyuki Teruya, better known as Gori, returns to his native Okinawa for his second feature but to an island culture of which he was completely unaware. Aguni is one of the last on which the ancient ritual of “Senkotsu” or “bone washing” still takes place.

Beloved matriarch Emiko (Mariko Tsutsui) died four years ago. Now the time for her “senkotsu” is approaching. Daughter Yuko (Ayame Misaki) has come home, but with a secret. She is heavily pregnant and as yet unmarried, a fact she knows will scandalise the still conservative island community. Meanwhile, her her father Nobutsuna (Eiji Okuda) has retreated into drunken reverie, unable to accept his wife’s death or the many disappointments of his life. Yuko is waiting for her brother, Tsuyoshi (Michitaka Tsutsui), to arrive before explaining any further about the baby, but he even he is much less supportive than she hoped he might be and seems to be dealing with some troubles of his own which might explain why his wife and daughter have not accompanied him on this very difficult family occasion.

The island of Aguni practices open air burial, which is to say the bodies are enclosed in a wooden coffin and entombed in cave. Four years later the relatives return, retrieve the body and wash the bones before re-enclosing them in a smaller casket which will then be interred on the island’s “other world”. It is, of course, a difficult and frightening prospect to consider seeing one’s loved ones in such an altered state – so much so that many cannot bear to do it without getting roaring drunk which at least ameliorates the solemnity of the occasion. The human terror is in a sense the point as an exercise not only in memento mori but in acceptance of total loss and the finality of the physical.

Before all that, however, you still have to live and the Shinjos are having a fairly hard time of it. A small island somewhat trapped in the past, Aguni is intensely conservative and so the local old ladies can’t get their heads around Yuko’s unwed pregnancy. Yuko of course knew this would be the case but could hardly refuse to come and has braced herself for the worst of it. However, after the initial shock has worn off, she finds an unexpected ally in her stern aunt Nobuko (Yoko Ohshima) who assures her that if she finds it hard to raise the child on her own she can always come back to the island where she and Nobuko’s daughter will help if needed. Her father Nobutsuna, in boozy fog as he is, is also broadly supportive even if her brother shows little sign of coming round, engaging in unexpected small town conservatism as he accuses his little sister not only of shaming the family but of becoming a burden on it too.

In a motif that will be repeated, it’s the men who struggle to cope with loss while the women get on with life with stoicism and fortitude. Nobutsuna has remained unable to come to terms with Emiko’s death, drinking himself into oblivion while blaming himself for placing undue strain on her after their family business went bust. Nevertheless he is a good hearted man who wants the best for everyone even if his mild-mannered deference has Tsuyoshi sniping at the sidelines for his supposed fecklessness. He too blames his father for his mother’s death, but is also struggling with the elders’ expectation that he will return home to the island to take over as head of the family while there is evidently something else going on in his life which has left him irritable and judgemental.

If nothing else the Senkotsu ritual forces each of them to accept the fact of Emiko’s death, but also of her life and their own place within a great chain of humanity stretching both forward and back. In a sense, as Tsuyoshi puts it, it’s their own bones they’re washing in honour of the undying part of Emiko that exists in all of them and something of her kindly spirit certainly seems to be present on the beach that day as the family slowly repairs itself, emerging from their deep seated grief back to the friendly island solidarity as they resolve to treasure what they have in acknowledgement of what is to come.


Born Bone Born was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cheers from Heaven (天国からのエール, Chikato Kumazawa, 2011)

tengoku_teaser_“üeolOkinawa might be a popular tourist destination but behind the beachside bars and fun loving nightlife there’s a thriving community of local people making their everyday lives here. Just like everywhere else, life can be tough when you’re young and the town’s teenagers lament that there’s just not much for them to do. A small group of high schoolers have formed a rock band but they’re quickly kicked out of their practice spot at school after a series of noise complaints from neighbours.

The school kids all buy their lunches from the bento shop down the street run by Hikaru “Nini” Oshiro, his wife and his mother. Whilst there, Aya – the rock band’s female singer, starts eying up a covered courtyard area and remarks that it’s a shame they can’t practice there. Nini overhears and gives them the space but once again the neighbours complain ,so the kids reluctantly decide to give up on the band for now because there aren’t any studio spaces on the island and they wouldn’t have the money to hire somewhere anyway. At this point, Nini makes a surprising decision – digging deep into his family resources, he buys the materials and commits to building a studio space on a patch of disused land next to the bento shop with his own hands.

Based on a true life story, Cheers From Heaven (天国からのエール, Tengoku kara no Yell) is a tribute to Hikaru Nakasone who really did build a studio space for the local kids that turned into something more like a youth centre offering support to all kinds of youngsters so long as they obey the rules. In the film, Nini is a fairly gruff but big hearted man who’s big on discipline and doing the right thing. His rules include being courteous to the other kids, sticking to your allotted time and crucially that your grades don’t suddenly start dropping because you’re hanging out in the studio all the time.

Nini’s wife is, perhaps unsurprisingly, originally horrified by the idea of the studio especially as it will require an additional financial burden for the family, not to mention that Nini failed to run the idea by her before launching headlong into it. However, eventually the entire family comes around and they even start catering for the kids too. When his wife asks him why he’s doing this Nini remarks that in his day people were poor, yes, but they helped and supported each other. Older people taught younger ones how to do things and how to behave but that doesn’t seem to happen now and he doesn’t want his daughter to grow up in a world like that.

The building of the studio becomes a real community project as half the kids from the local area suddenly turn up to help. The project that Nini assumed he’d be finishing with his two hands alone becomes a symbol of pride for the various teenagers who commit their time and hard work into making it happen. They’ve built something together that’s now their collective responsibility and a place where they can go to practice their music or just express themselves creatively.

Nini doesn’t stop there, he wants to help the kids in the band make it big. Convincing a fourth member to join them, taking demos around radio stations, organising live gigs – he’s their unofficial manager. The band’s young struggles hit a chord with Nini because he also had a friend with dreams of becoming a musician that were tragically cut short just as he was finally getting somewhere. It also transpires that Nini came home to Okinawa with his family following an illness which has now returned and this headstrong determination to make a difference is, in part, because he feels as if he’s running out of time.

Despite his failing health, Nini continues to do everything possible to look after the kids from the band even going so far as to discharge himself from hospital to go check on the leaking roof of the studio during a storm only to discover the kids already have it covered. A warm tribute to its real life inspiration, Cheers from Heaven proves far less sentimental than its rather melodramatic title suggests preferring to emphasise its themes of togetherness and legacy which bear out the way in which one committed soul can leave an indelible mark on its community.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 at the ICA London on 6th February 2016.