The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Shiro Tokiwa, 2019)

“Family” – what does it mean? The concept itself has been under examination for some time, at least as far as the “family drama” goes, but Shiro Tokiwa’s The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Saisho no Bansan) has it more positive than most as its somewhat emotionally distant hero begins to piece his back together and rediscover his place within it. He does so largely through the Proustian power of food as his lonely step-mother does her best to unite the family by reviving warm memories of the various meals they shared together. 

Yet, as Rintaro (Junya Maki / Shota Sometani), a Tokyo-based freelance photographer grappling with the art/commerce divide, is insensitively told at his father’s funeral, his is not an “ordinary” family. That would be (partly) because it was a blended one. Rintaro and his sister Miyako (Nana Mori / Erika Toda) were being brought up by their single father, Hitoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), their mother having apparently left the family, before he brought Akiko (Yuki Saito) and her teenage son Shun (Raiku / Yosuke Kubozuka) to live with them. As a grown man, Rintaro still claims not to be able to understand what his father was thinking, why he wanted to start a “new” family by bringing Akiko and Shun into their home, especially as it led to him giving up his lifelong love of mountaineering to get a steady job in a factory. It never seems to occur to him that perhaps his father simply fell in love again and wanted to share his life with a woman who loved him, becoming a father figure to her teenage son in welcoming an expansion to their family. 

There is, perhaps, still a resistance to the entire idea of blended families or even remarriages especially in the more conservative countryside. Dealing with an offensive uncle, Rintaro fires back that this kind of thing is perfectly normal and no kind of issue at all in Tokyo, so he’s not sure what the problem is but it’s clear that there is still a degree of disapproval of Hitoshi and Akiko’s union even 20 years later. Part of that might be to do with the circumstances of their meeting which we later discover had their share of moral ambiguity. That central secret, and the ones which spur off it, is the reason that Rintaro has never quite been able to put his family together, while Miyako, married at a young age and now the mother of two daughters, is experiencing a degree of marital strife with her mild-mannered husband (Shinsuke Kato) who accuses her of cheating with an old classmate at a reunion. 

Akiko stuns them all by abruptly announcing that she’s cancelled the caterers for the wake and is planning to cook herself, serving up a selection of dishes one wouldn’t usually expect at a funeral but which she claims are taken directly from Hitoshi’s will and each reflect a particular memory of their life together as a family. There is a gaping hole, however, in that we don’t see Shun. “Why should he come?” Miyako replies to Rintaro’s questions, “He’s an outsider here”. A rather cold cut-off for a step-brother, even one you haven’t seen in a long time, and a partial negation of the idea of families not bound by blood even if it’s snapped partly out of hurt. 

While Miyako struggles to reconcile herself to her place within her new family and her decision to form it, Rintaro chats on the phone to his sympathetic girlfriend, Rie (Hyunri), who has, perhaps surprisingly, not accompanied him on this emotionally difficult occasion. The problem seems to be, however, that he’s told her not to come even though she’d have liked to be there and it doesn’t seem as if anyone would have objected. An agent ringing him at a spectacularly bad time to tell him he hasn’t won a competition is forced to reveal, in the nicest possible way, that he narrowly lost out because his pictures are “cold”, he has no affection for his subjects and it shows. He remains diffident in his relationship with Rie because he hasn’t worked out this whole family thing for himself and is worried he simply doesn’t know how to fit into one. 

Through re-experiencing his childhood through the meals shared with his father, Rintaro begins to regain a sense of belonging, discovering what it was that lay at the heart of his family drama and why it eventually led to a painful breakup. Before all that, however, they’d been happy. Trying to quell a spat between Miyako and Shun over different kinds of miso soup not long after they moved in, Akiko declares that from now on she’s only making one, “blended”, kind for everyone though the choice is theirs whether or not they choose to eat it. Truths are shared, new understandings are reached, and the family is in some sense restored. Their childhoods explained, Miyako and Rintaro begin see a path forwards towards a happy family life of their own while taking their bittersweet memories with them, no longer burdened by anxious insecurity but strengthened by a new sense of belonging that has nothing to do with blood.


The First Supper screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Organ (あの日のオルガン, Emiko Hiramatsu, 2019)

Emiko Hiramatsu is best known as a regular collaborator to the endlessly prolific Yoji Yamada. Though his repertoire is more varied than some give him credit for, Yamada is one of several veteran directors to have begun looking backwards with a sometimes uncomfortable nostalgia for the wartime era in tales of maternal suffering such as Kabei and Nagasaki: Memories of my Son, or its legacy of unfulfilled desire in the more complex The Little House, all of which were co-written by Hiramatsu. It’s to the war she returns in her second directorial feature Organ (あの日のオルガン, Ano Hi no Organ), once again chronicling female fortitude as an idealistic nursery school teacher defies governmental advice to evacuate the children in her care to the relative safety of a disused temple outside of the city. 

“Angry girl” Kaede Itakura (Erika Toda) is outraged by the news that the schools will soon be closed, not least because of it’s impracticality seeing as the parents of the children in her care have all been mobilised for the war effort and will not be able to look after them. Worried about the intensification of aerial bombardment, she’s considering taking the children somewhere safer but is struggling to convince others that she is right to reject the governmental line. Her greatest challenge is not, however, the authorities, but the children’s parents, many of whom have been quite thoroughly brainwashed and have no idea how badly the war is going. They find Kaede’s suggestion defeatist and are certain that they are in no real danger. Of course, no one wants to be separated from their children, but some begin to wonder if they aren’t being selfish in wanting to keep them close if they’ll be safer elsewhere. Experiencing a serious air raid, most parents ultimately decide that perhaps evacuation is for the best. 

The kids, though obviously distressed to be taken away from their parents, perhaps think of it as an extended school trip. The locals, however, are not universally pleased to see them. A farmer beefed up by militarist credentials, loudly complains about being forced to feed and shelter “unproductive” refugees. He’s only talked round when the sole male teacher explains to him that the children are important because they too are children of the emperor who will someday grow up to become fine soldiers fighting for imperial glory. 

Kaede bristles, but finally cannot argue. A neat mirror of macho male militarist ideology, her philosophy also has its patriotic quality in her constant insistence that they must save their “cultural identity” by teaching the children traditional arts such as flower arranging and folk songs which, while admired by the militarists for their essential Japaneseness, are also regarded as frivolous. She tries to maintain distance between herself and the children, clear that this a school and not a home, but is forced to accept a degree of maternity when it becomes clear that lack of human warmth is causing them to suffer. 

The teachers at the school, all of whom are necessarily unmarried and most of them young, are doubted by others precisely because they have no children of their own even if they are ultimately respected as educators. Caring for the children is also their way of serving, allowing their parents to devote themselves entirely to the war effort in the knowledge that their kids are safe. The country is, however, much more conservative than the city. Also viewed with suspicion is a man who’s come home from the war injured and now finds himself out of place, “unproductive”, and to a degree feminised. When he dares to talk cheerfully to one of the teachers after helping her fix her bicycle, the ultra militarist doesn’t like it, accusing the teachers of being a bunch of loose women in the habit of taking advantage of “vulnerable” men who are apparently both emasculated and infantilised by their inability to serve. The militarist’s complaint gets the teacher sent home, back to the city, and straight into the heart of danger where she may die simply for smiling at a lonely young man. 

Kaede once again doesn’t approve, but is powerless to resist. She is forced to compromise her principles for the greater good to keep the children safe. Her “angry girl” fortitude is directly contrasted with the ethereality of the bumbling Mitsue (Sakurako Ohara) who has a knack with the children but is not exactly a responsible adult. Yet Mitsue too is “serving”, if only as a morale booster, her cheerful attitude helping to carry others through tough times. It’s her organ from which the film takes its title, gathering the children to sing wholesome folk songs including the classic “furusato” with all its evocations of nostalgia for an idyllic pastoral innocence.

Meanwhile, Kaede wonders if she’s done the right thing in separating families, darkly worried that the parents might have preferred to die with their children rather than be glad they sent them away to safety. Many of the children in her care are orphaned, losing homes and family members in the fire bombing, and finally not even rural Saitama is safe, but she has at least saved something in her determination to carve out a space for peaceful innocence far away from the unfeeling chaos of militarist folly.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Code Blue: The Movie (劇場版コード・ブルー –ドクターヘリ緊急救命–, Masaki Nishiura, 2018)

Code Blue posterThe common complaint plaguing popular Japanese cinema is that it’s increasingly dependent on existing source material, not in only the prevalence of manga adaptations, but the continuing influence of TV drama. Ever since the massive success of the Bayside Shakedown franchise, big screen outings for popular series have been a mainstay of the Japanese film industry, the problem of course being, from a certain point of view, that their nature as an extension of an already existing narrative universe makes them not only impossible for export but also a potential audience turn off to those not already invested.

Code Blue is itself comparatively unusual in being one of the few Japanese TV dramas to head into multiple series. That being so, a movie was something of an inevitability, but like many medical shows which generally adopt a case of the week formula, Code Blue thrives on finely crafted characterisation. Rather than jump this obvious hurdle, director Masaki Nishiura opts for the time-honoured solution of a brief flashback highlighting the key events of the previous three seasons and otherwise tries to avoid too many references to past events. It remains true however that viewers already acquainted with the Doctor Heli team will be best placed to navigate the complex interpersonal relationships informing the rest of the action.

Those would be, chiefly, the unexpected return of aloof doctor Aizawa (Tomohisa Yamashita) who is about to take up a research position in Toronto, while Dr. Hiyama (Erika Toda) is also preparing to follow her dream by moving on to head up the perinatal department at a nearby hospital. As is stressed in the opening sequence for those who might not be aware, the Doctor Heli program does not airlift passengers by helicopter but drops doctors into emergency situations where they are most urgently needed. Aizawa’s arrival coincides with the forced return of a flight originally heading to Vietnam which experienced heavy turbulence with multiple casualties needing evacuation from the plane or treatment on the ground. One such patient turns out to be an especially difficult case seeing as she has not only sustained serious injuries, but is also suffering from stage 4 stomach cancer and was trying to take a last vacation in her final days.

The Doctor Heli team are deeply touched by Tomizawa’s (Kasumi Yamaya) plight, knowing that though her injuries would otherwise not be regarded as serious, she may well end up spending her remaining time in their ICU rather than doing the things she wanted while she could. A talk with her parents reveals a painful breakup and canceled wedding, neatly echoing a conflicted nurse desperately trying to get out of the, in her view unnecessary, wedding ceremony her fiancé has organised. Tomizawa’s former boyfriend (Mackenyu) eventually returns and apologises, hoping to make up for lost time, but she isn’t sure she should let him, not only because he let her down by running away, but because she fears that if she does she might prevent him moving on with his life after the inevitable occurs.

Despite being skilled at fixing the human body, the doctors confess they are often at a loss when it comes to the human heart. They struggle to communicate their true feelings to each other, keeping their minds on the job with well practiced practicality, but are all too aware of the precariousness of being alive. What they all advise is that it’s best to let the people you love know your true feelings because you never really know if there will be another opportunity. Dependable leader Shiraishi (Yui Aragaki) can’t quite find the words to express her feelings for her soon to be departed best friend Hiyama, while she struggles with her essential “awkwardness” yet has a knack for the good kind of “direct”, always knowing the right words to help people feel better.

Aizawa, who had no family of his own, is stoical and patient with those of others, comforting a young man who’s gotten into a car accident with the abusive father he’d tried to reconnect with, letting him know that there was nothing wrong in his rage or resentment but also nothing wrong in his desire to tell him that he has become a fine man on his own and that his father’s violence has not destroyed him. Likewise, a young nurse, Futaba (Fumika Baba), gets an unexpected shock when her older sister brings their alcoholic mother (Rino Katase), from whom she’d become wilfully estranged, into the hospital after she fell and got a kitchen knife stuck in her head. Aizawa tells her that she did what she needed to do and shouldn’t feel guilty about “abandoning” her mother, but also gives her the space to reconnect with her as she begins to understand a little of her mother’s suffering.

You can’t deny that Code Blue: The Movie (劇場版コード・ブルー –ドクターヘリ緊急救命–, Gekijoban Code Blue Doctor Heli Kinkyu Kyumei) is basically a two hour TV special, shot exactly like the TV series with seemingly no increase in budget or production values, but it topped the Japanese box office and obviously provided fans with exactly what they were looking for. A little less melodramatic than might be feared, the series’ big screen finale (?) is unabashedly emotional but celebrates as much the close bonds between the Doctor Heli team as those with their patients as they face the unthinkable time and again but get through it together.


Teaser trailer (no subtitles)

Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Yuya Ishii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

MNS_MAIN_B1_0311_ol“Being nice to everyone means hurting someone” the wounded heroine tries to explain to the perpetually confused hero of Yuya Ishii’s Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Machida-kun no Sekai). After adapting a book of poetry and topping the Kinema Junpo list with the melancholy romance of urban ennui The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Ishii returns to the lighter fare which inspired his earliest work with a whimsical adaptation of the manga by Yuki Ando in which a goodly young man begins to realise that sometimes being nice to everyone can create additional complications.

The titular Machida (Kanata Hosoda) is one of those people who seem to be exclusively composed of goodness. He truly believes that each and every person in the world is precious and loves them equally, so when he sees someone, anyone, who seems unhappy or in need of help he comes running (literally). Everything begins to change for him, however, when he injures himself during an art lesson and is sent to the infirmary where he meets sullen delinquent Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu) who bandages his hand in the absence of the nurse. Entirely unused to people doing nice things for him, Machida is struck by this unexpected act of kindness and resolves to make a friend of Inohara who seems lonely and claims to hate people – something Machida is incapable of understanding.

Indeed, nicknamed “Christ” by some of his more cynical classmates, Machida sees only the world’s beauty and just wants people to be happy. He assumes that’s the way everyone else feels too and so it doesn’t really occur to him that some people are just mean. Even when he meets someone acting badly he has a knack for spotting the unhappiness that lies behind it and the desire to help them heal. Thus he alone sees the accidental self-loathing and pathological need for acceptance that have led pretty boy model and popular kid Himuro (Takanori Iwata) to become a self-centred jerk who thinks sincerity is for babies and that “taking things seriously only makes everything harder”. He may have a sort of point in that it’s much easier to keep pretending nothing, especially other people’s feelings, is very important but it’s Machida alone who is perspicacious enough to remark on how sad it is that all of his “friends” have forgotten something he told them just a few minutes ago and instructs him that he needs to be kinder to himself rather than hanging out with vacuous people who don’t care about him at all just for the kudos of superficial acceptance. 

In fact, much of Machida’s laidback superpower is geared towards getting people to be more comfortable in themselves so that they can in turn accept others. Ironically, that’s mostly because he hasn’t yet quite accepted himself and thinks he’s the worst human of them all which is part of the reason he’s so nice to everyone as a means of repaying the kindnesses he’s been shown in the past.

Where Machida sees only the world’s beauty, cynical failed writer Yoshitaka (Sosuke Ikematsu) sees only its ugliness. His lofty literary ambitions having fallen by the wayside, Yoshitaka has become a tabloid hack and occasional paparazzo whose wife is beginning to lose faith in him as he sinks deeper into the morass of scandal rag “journalism”. Yoshitaka justifies his actions with the rationale that the world is rotten, filled with “evil” and home to only self-interested people who revel in the suffering of others. Several random encounters with Machida, however, force him to revise his opinion – if someone that good and that pure really exists then what does it say about the rest of us?

Then again, Machida’s guileless goodness can often make him accidentally insensitive as he tries to balance one person’s expectation of happiness against another’s. Thus he gets himself mixed up in an odd kind of love triangle with Himuro’s old girlfriend Sakura (Mitsuki Takahata) and the lovelorn Inohara who is becoming increasingly exasperated by Machida’s mixed signals, unable to figure out if he’s just being “kind” or actually might like her. Unfortunately, Machida doesn’t quite know himself as, ironically seeing as he’s so keen on emotional honesty in others, he is remarkably out of touch with his own feelings. In any case, his desire for “sincerity” in all things sees him steer clear of saying something which isn’t true to make someone happy even if he finds himself unable to express the truth plainly when it really counts.

Machida’s superpower, however, blows through the world like a gentle breeze spreading goodness wherever it goes. Proving it really does come back around, all the people that he’s helped eventually come running to help him so he can achieve his romantic destiny on the most romantic of days. A whimsical celebration of the infectious power of unguarded goodness, Almost a Miracle is a beautifully pitched counter to nihilistic cynicism in which kindness becomes a kind of superpower, saving the world one lost balloon at a time.


Almost a Miracle was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

My-Uncle-p1Crazy uncles – the gift that keeps on giving. Following the darker edged Over the Fence as the second of two films released in 2016, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Boku no Ojisan) pushes his subtle humour in a much more overt direction with a comic tale of a self obsessed (not quite) professor as seen seen through the eyes of his exasperated nephew. “Travels with my uncle” of a kind, Yamashita’s latest is a pleasantly old fashioned comedy spiced with oddly poignant moments as a wiser than his years nephew attempts to help his continually befuddled uncle navigate the difficulties of unexpected romance.

Yukio (Riku Ohnishi) has been given one of the most dreaded homework assignments ever – he’s supposed to write an essay about an “interesting” family member. This is a problem because Yukio thinks his family is very boring – dad is a civil servant, mum is a housewife, and his little sister is very frank but fails to generate sufficient interest for a whole essay. At this point, Yukio’s eccentric Uncle (Ryuhei Matsuda) enters the scene to enquire if the next edition of a children’s manga magazine has been released yet. Yukio says it has but he doesn’t buy it anymore because he’s grown out of it. Uncle hasn’t and wants him to buy one as soon as possible, convincing Yukio to pay 30% of the sticker price in the process. Annoyed, Yukio starts chronicling his Uncle’s strange adventures in school essay which proves a hit with his teacher (Erika Toda) who has accidentally become Uncle’s biggest fan.

Uncle lives with the family because he’s “a philosopher” which involves a lot of rejecting capitalist ideals and lying on his futon “thinking” or reading manga to give his brain a rest. Though Uncle’s brother and the father of the family (Kankuro Kudo) is content not to rock the boat, his wife (Shinobu Terajima) is often fed up with Uncle’s behaviour and is trying to set him up with proposals for an arranged marriage to get rid of him. Uncle is having none of it but is instantly smitten after being introduced to Japanese-Hawaiian photographer Eri (Yoko Maki). Eventually chasing her all the way to Hawaii with Yukio in tow, Uncle tries his luck with romance but only seems to get himself mixed up in even more unpredictable mischief.

There’s something so pleasantly innocent about My Uncle with its almost nostalgic tone and embrace of the surreality of everyday life. As seen through the eyes of Yukio, Uncle is not an entirely sympathetic figure at the beginning of the film. A part-time professor, Uncle talks big but spends his life rooting through ashtrays looking for smokable cigarette butts and collecting coupons to use for cheap dinners. Attempts to entertain the children backfire when he gifts them a very realistic plastic toy of a giant millipede though he does sometimes take Yukio out on “thinking expeditions” – usually on weekends and holidays to not be in the house to be shouted at by Yukio’s parents who are rapidly loosing patience with Uncle’s inability to progress in life.

If this were a series (and one could only hope) you could easily call the first instalment “Uncle Falls in Love” as Uncle finds himself finally thinking about settling down with the beautiful and outgoing Eri. Eri does seem to be among the few people who finds Uncle’s unusual qualities charming though he might need to rethink his plan of action if he’s finally to win her heart. Unfortunately, Eri is about to move back to Hawaii but invites Yukio and Uncle to visit. Uncle is desperate to go but as he can’t even afford to buy cigarettes, international travel is out. Undeterred, Uncle comes up with a number of labour intensive schemes to get there rather than actually working for the money but eventually makes it with Yukio’s help. There is, however, a rival on hand in Eri’s former boyfriend Shinsuke (Shigeyuki Totsugi) who is equally determined to win her back.

Life with Uncle may be one of constant exasperation but as Eri points out it’s never boring. Whether he’s getting himself arrested for accidentally buying weed or making up wild stories about himself in a misguided attempt to impress people, Uncle lives on a different plane of existence. Yukio reflects on all of this with a world weariness worthy of a 70 year old man but eventually comes to a kind of grudging affection for his silly old Uncle who is quite clearly setting himself up for a fall even if he has his heart in the right place. Yamashita mixes in poignant moments such as a reflective look over Pearl Harbour which gives rise to a discussion of life as a Hawaiian citizen of Japanese descent during the war, but broadly the tone is a bright one of zany humour and ironic one liners. Hilariously funny in a gentle, old fashioned way, My Uncle is Yamashita in full on comedy mode but all the better for it even as he leaves us desperate to find out what other strange adventures befall Uncle in the continuing saga of his existence.


My Uncle was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)