Eating Women (食べる女, Jiro Shono, 2018)

Eating Women poster 2“Comfort cinema” may be a slightly maligned genre, disregarded for its throwaway pleasures, but it can often be much more subversive than it’s given credit for. Jiro Shono’s adaptation of Tomomi Tsutsui’s novel Eating Women (食べる女, Taberu Onna), refusing to unambiguously reinforce contemporary social norms, it actively undercuts them as it pushes its lonely heroines towards more positive paths of self-fulfilment while remaining unafraid to embrace the sometimes taboo idea of female desire as something entirely normal.

The heroine, however, is someone who’s decided to live without it. Food writer and bookstore owner Atsuko (Kyoko Koizumi) lost the love of her life at 29 and has lived alone ever since. She does, however, have a very committed group of female friends who get together once a month to enjoy a tasty dinner she and her friend Mifuyu (Kyoka Suzuki), who runs the local restaurant, cook for them. Unlike Atsuko, Mifuyu is a sexually liberated older woman, complaining once again that both of her (young, male) apprentices have quit after she seduced them. Keiko (Erika Sawajiri), Atsuko’s editor, has hatched on a different solution in affirming that she has already achieved financial independence and has no real desire for male companionship, preferring to embrace her freedom to live as she chooses while Tamiko (Atsuko Maeda), an assistant TV producer and the youngest of the group, is facing the opposite dilemma – her boyfriend has proposed to her, but she’s unconvinced because he’s just too “nice” to make her heart beat faster.

Though at different points of their lives, the women are always there to support each other while permitting themselves the indulgence of fully enjoying beautifully cooked meals taken with good company. Meanwhile, across town, an American woman, Machi (Charlotte Kate Fox), seems to be content to play the role of a 50s housewife to a grumpy salaryman husband (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who barges in through the front door and roughly forces himself on her before retreating to the bedroom. The problem in their marriage is, apparently, that Machi can’t cook, providing mostly Western-style microwavable dinners which fail to excite her husband who tells her he’s been having an affair with someone who can make good food. Heartbroken, Machi runs into Mifuyu and eventually ends up living in one of Atsuko’s spare rooms where she slots right in with the other gourmet women as she begins to learn to cook under Mifuyu’s gentle guidance.

It is not, however, a pathway towards regaining her husband or “fixing” a perceived fault so that she can be a “proper” wife, but a way for Machi to rediscover life’s small pleasures along with a sense of independence, rejoicing in her own success as she enjoys a meal she cooked herself made with ingredients that she earned the money to pay for. Tamiko’s barfly friend Akari (Alice Hirose) begins to discover something similar on her own, repeatedly dumped by snooty salarymen boyfriends who objected to her preference for minced meat over whole steak. Akari had a habit of thinking of herself in terms of the meat – quick, cheap, and simple, but finally finds love with a gentlemanly colleague after she gains the confidence to share with him her real self by embracing her love of mince without embarrassment.

The only “misstep” is perhaps in Keiko’s tale in which her bid for solo independence is eventually negated by her loneliness, implying that in the end she did need male companionship after all. Indeed, only Atsuko who rejects sex in favour of vicarious maternity is allowed to live life alone, though conversely Mifuyu’s free spirited pursuit of younger men is never judged negatively nor is she encouraged to settle down even while she ironically advises Tamiko to do just that, and pointedly tells Keiko that she’s running out time to find anyone halfway decent. Yet all of that aside, the ladies are an accepting bunch, emphasising that love is love and refusing to judge others, making sure to offer support to all who need it. We’re never the same people as yesterday, Atsuko writes in her book, we just need to be ourselves. Above all, however, she seems to say you have to be kind to yourself, embracing life’s small pleasures such as the simple joy of well cooked food made with love, and the rest you can figure out later.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2006)

mamiya-brothersEver the populist, Yoshitmitsu Morita returns to the world of quirky comedy during the genre’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century. Adapting a novel by Kaori Ekuni, The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Mamiya Kyodai) centres on the unchanging world of its arrested central duo who, whilst leading perfectly successful, independent adult lives outside the home, seem incapable of leaving their boyhood bond behind in order to create new families of their own.

Older bother Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and younger brother Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji) live together in a small apartment in Tokyo where they enjoy hanging out keeping track of baseball games and watching movies rented from the local store where Akinobu has a crush on the cashier, Naomi (Erika Sawajiri). They are perfectly happy but sometimes frustrated that they don’t have girlfriends so they decide to host a curry party and invite Naomi over in the hopes that she might develop an affection for Akinobu. So that she won’t feel weird about going to the house of two middle-aged guys she doesn’t really know, Tetsunobu invites a reserved teacher, Yoriko (Takako Tokiwa), from the primary school he works at as a caretaker though he “never dates coworkers” and is only really asking her as a backup for Akinobu.

Against expectation the both ladies agree to attend the curry party which actually goes pretty well though neither man is fully capable of following up on the opportunities presented to him. Outside events provide a distraction as Akinobu is swept into his adulterous boss’ divorce crisis and Tetsunobu becomes fixated on a damsel in distress who has no desire to be rescued by him. As much as the boys might want to form independent relationships for female companionship, their brotherly bond is more akin to a marriage in itself leaving both of them unwilling to abandon the status quo for a new kind of happiness.

These kinds of closely interdependent sibling relationships are more often seen between sisters, often as one or both of them has rejected offers of marriage for fear of leaving the other on the shelf. Elderly spinsters and their histories of unhappy romance are almost a genre in themselves though they often present the peaceful co-existence of the two women as a double failure and ongoing tragedy rather than a perfectly legitimate choice each may have made to reject the normal social path and rely solely on each other. The Mamiya Brothers neatly subverts this stereotype, presenting the relationship of the two men as a broadly happy one though perhaps tinged with sadness as it becomes clear that the intense bond they share is holding each of them back in a kind of never ending childhood.

Indeed, though they live alone together and have steady jobs, whilst in each other’s company the brothers regress back to childhood by spending their spare time riding bikes around the neighbourhood and playing on the beach. They are each keenly aware of how they must appear to members of the opposite sex and are always mindful not to appear “creepy”. Accordingly, they’re careful about which DVDs they check out so that Naomi doesn’t get a bad impression of them, and they’re sure to make it clear that both girls can bring other people to their parties so they won’t think there’s anything untoward going on. Throwing quick fire questions back for and constantly making references to private jokes the boys are effectively a manzai duo performing for an audience of two, perpetually suffocating inside their self made bubble.

Though they might not find love, the boys do at least make some new friends. Naomi’s sister, Yumi (Keiko Kitagawa), is exactly the kind of girl they’d usually steer clear of lest she begins to make fun of their old fashioned ways yet she actually becomes an ally and even a friend after spending time hanging out in the brothers’ odd little world. Yumi and Naomi are, in many ways, almost as closely connected as Akinobu and Tetsunobu though they both currently have boyfriends even if they find them equally disappointing.

The teacher, Yoriko, also finds herself unlucky in love as she pursues a relationship with a colleague who doesn’t seem particularly invested in her and is lackadaisical about even the smallest forms of commitment. Tetsunobu seems to have discounted her as a romantic partner under his “no coworkers” rule and is either unaware or deliberately ignoring her growing feelings for him. It may be that he invited Yoriko as a love interest for his brother precisely because he was interested himself and wanted to eliminate the problem, but he may come to regret outwardly rejecting this chance of mutual affection turning into something more solid.

When push comes to shove it might just be that the Mamiya Brothers are happiest in their own company and have no desire to move on and leave their arrested development behind. Though tinged with a degree of lingering sadness as it appears the boys do have a desire to form bonds outside of their mutually dependent bubble, they are after all quite happy and mostly fulfilled in their life together. Cute and quirky, if at times melancholic, The Mamiya Brothers is a strange tale of modern romance in a world where no one really grows up anymore. The brothers are clearly not afraid of broadening their horizons, but might prefer to continue doing so together rather than finding their own, independent, paths.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン, Sion Sono, 2015)

Shinjuku SwanEnfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Sion Sono has always been prolific but recent times have seen him pushing the limits of the possible and giving even Takashi Miike a run for his money in the release stakes. Indeed, Takashi Miike is a handy reference point for Sono’s take on Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) – an adaptation of a manga which has previously been brought to the small screen and is also scripted by an independent screenwriter rather than self penned in keeping with the majority of Sono’s directing credits. Oddly, the film shares several cast members with Miike’s Crows Zero movies and even lifts a key aesthetic directly from them. In fact, there are times when Shinjuku Swan feels like an unofficial spin-off to the Crows Zero world with its macho high school era tussling relocated to the seedy underbelly of Kabukicho. Unfortunately, this is somewhat  symptomatic of Sono’s failure, or lack of will, to add anything particularly original to this, it has to be said, unpleasant tale.

Our “hero” is down on his luck loser Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) who’s come to Shinjuku to make it big. He’s here because it’s the sort of place you can make it happen with no plan and no resources. “Luckily” for him, he runs into low-level gangster Mako (Yusuke Iseya) who spots some kind of potential in him and recruits him as a “scout” for his organisation, Burst. Now dressed in a fancy suit, Tatsuhiko’s new job is stopping pretty girls in the street and trying to talk them into working in the sex industry….

Tatsuhiko is not the brightest and doesn’t quite understand what the implications of his work are. When he finally gets it, he feels conflicted but Mako convinces him that’s it’s OK really with a set of flimsy moral justifications. Before long, Tatsuhiko comes into conflict with a lieutenant, Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), from the rival gang in town, Harlem, and a yakuza style territorial dispute begins to unfold destabilising the entire area.

Sono has often been criticised for latent misogyny and an exploitative approach to his material and Shinjuku Swan is yet more evidence for those who find his output “problematic”. Though based on a manga and scripted by a third party, Shinjuku Swan has an extremely ill-defined take on the sex industry and the people involved with it. After figuring out what happens to the girls he takes to Mako, Tatsuhiko has second thoughts but Mako tells him that the girls are happy and are in this line of work because they enjoy it (leaving out all the stuff about debts, drugs, and violence). So Tatsuhiko vows to make even more girls live happy lives inside the “massage parlours” of Kabukicho.

Noble heart or not, Tatsuhiko is a pimp. Not even that, he’s a middle man pimp. He’s earning his money from the suffering of the women that’s he conned, coerced, and finally exploited. Leaving aside the idea that, yes, some of these women may be perfectly happy with the arrangement, at least one of Tatsuhiko’s recruits displays evidence of previous self harm and is unable to cope with the demands of her new way of life. Another woman, Ageha (Erika Sawajiri), who becomes Tatsuhiko’s primary damsel in distress, escapes into a children’s fairytale picture book in which a prince with crazy hair just like Tatsuhiko’s comes to rescue the heroine from her life of slavery and takes her to a place of love and safety. Tatsuhiko “rescues” her by taking her to a “nicer” brothel…

Tatsuhiko may have convinced himself that he’s somehow a force for good, “helping” these women into employment and providing “protection” for them unlike the other guys from rival gangs who use drugs and violence to keep their girls in line, but his continued belief in his own goodness becomes increasingly hard to swallow as he learns more about how this industry really works. It’s difficult to believe in a “hero” who is so deluded about his own place in the grand scheme of things – he’s not stupid enough to be this oblivious, but not clever enough to be continually unseeing all of the darkness that surrounds the way he makes his living.

All of this is merely background to the central yakuza gang war which later ensues. Tatsuhiko ends up as a pawn in the tussle for territory between Burst and Harlem as double crosses become triple crosses and no one is to be trusted. Predictably, Tatsuhiko and Hideyoshi turn out to have a long standing connection though this revelation never achieves the dramatic weight it’s looking for and the gang war itself is, at best, underwhelming. Notable scenes including a classic battle in the rain could have been spliced in from Crows Zero and no one would have noticed. The main dramatic thread remains Tatsuhiko’s journey as he travels from clueless loser to, admittedly still clueless, assured petty gangster and smooth talking lady killer.

If there’s an overall feeling which imbues Shinjuku Swan, it’s lack of commitment. Though often beautifully photographed and featuring some interestingly composed sequences (including a few Carax-esque musical set pieces) the final effect is one of workman-like competence. Not bad by any means, but this feels like the work of a director for hire and lacks the sense of the personal that a would-be-auteur would usually seek to provide. Moral ambiguity can often be a film’s strong point, inviting comment and debate rather than pushing a pre-defined agenda but Shinjuku Swan takes too many incompatible approaches to the already unpalatable series of questions that it stops short of asking. Distinctly uneven, Shinjuku Swan ends on a note of anti-climax and though a perfectly serviceable, mainstream, commercial effort proves something of a disappointment from a director who has often managed to bring out a sense of mischievous irony in similarly themed work to date.


Unsubtitled trailer:

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


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