The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)

 

It All Began When I Met You (すべては君に逢えたから, Katsuhide Motoki, 2013)

It All Began When I Met You posterChristmas, in Japan, is an occasion for romance. Strangely, the Christmas date movie has never quite taken off though there are a fair few examples of this oft maligned genre even if they don’t generally help to ameliorate the contempt in which it is held. Truth be told, It All Began When I Met You (すべては君に逢えたから, Subete wa Kimi ni Aeta kara) won’t help to do that either but then it isn’t really intended to so much as provide a little warmth combat the to Christmas cold whilst celebrating the centenary of Tokyo Station (a destination surely as romantic as meeting under the clock at Waterloo).

Spinning out from Tokyo Station, the film splits into six interconnected stories of love ranging from dealing with long distance romance to an orphaned little girl who has projected her need to believe in the existence of her parents onto a faith in Santa Claus. Counting down to Christmas Day, the protagonists each progress towards some kind of crisis point which will allow them to deal with their various problems whilst getting into the holiday spirit.

Couple one are a pair of youngsters, one a fashion designer, Setsuna (Fumino Kimura), and the other an engineer, Takumi (Masahiro Higashide), who are separated because of differing work commitments. She’s in Tokyo, he’s up North, but they chat on the phone all the time and seem close despite the distance between them. The truth is revealed when Takumi comes to Tokyo and is supposed to meet up with Setsuna but stays out all night drinking with a (female) colleague instead.

Meanwhile, a college student (Tsubasa Honda) is invited to a karaoke party but isn’t sure whether to go because her crush is going and she can’t pluck up the courage to confess to him. Her boss at the pastry shop (Chieko Baisho) where she works tells her to go get him rather than allow her true love to slip away as, we later find out, happened to her when her boyfriend failed to appear at Tokyo Station 49 years earlier when they had arranged to elope. One of their regular customers, a Shinkansen driver (Saburo Tokito), has just retired early and, it turns out, may not have long to live but wants to make the most of his last Christmas with his son (Ryutaro Yamasaki) who is preoccupied about a “half-coming of age” ceremony they’re having at school.

Across down, the train driver’s brother-in-law, an arrogant CEO (Hiroshi Tamaki), runs into an aspiring actress (Rin Takanashi) who is currently in rehearsals for a play she puts on every year at a local orphanage. This year might be her last, however, because she’s begun to accept that her acting career will never take off and it’s time to go home. One of the little girls at the orphanage, Akane (Emiri Kai), is particularly looking forward to the festivities because she’s invested in the unseen figure of Santa as a substitute for believing in the unseen figures of the parents she never knew.

Each of the stories is intended to capture something of the complicated business of modern city living – a long distance relationship is, perhaps, something that many will be familiar with, relating to the pain and confusion of being not quite sure where each party currently is in terms of commitment. The pace of contemporary life frustrates romance, but the station is there to connect people and bring them back together. The conclusion is perhaps a little optimistic in its sudden cementing of a romantic bond but broadly in keeping with the Christmas theme.

The CEO and the actress, by contrast, are a much more conventional rom-com couple. Serendipitously meeting each other at various upscale joints, the CEO immediately tags the actress as a gold digger after she (accidentally) catches him flashing his premium credit card. Offended she spins him a yarn about a dead boyfriend as payback but finds it backfiring when he is unexpectedly moved and tries to make it up to her. Warmer in tone, this strand sets the station up as a symbol of the interconnectedness of city life where such mini miracles are indeed possible even if the perfectly rational reason for all the coincidental meetings is later explained to us.

However, where there’s joy there’s also heartbreak. The train driver’s tale seems out of place here, but plays into other themes of coming to terms with reality and committing to enjoying the now rather than worrying about the past or future. Similarly, the little girl begins to work out her faith in Santa maybe misplaced because the letter he’s written her is in Japanese, which is weird because isn’t Santa Swedish? Learning to accept that not having parents is not due to a lack of faith and that she has good people looking after her helps Akane move past her loneliness while the baker gets a surprise visitor who helps fill in a few details about her failed romance which in turn helps her offer advice to her young assistant faced with her own typically adolescent love worries.

Miracles really do take place at Tokyo Station, which, it has to be said, is quite picturesque. Saccharin and superficial, It All Began When I Met You is nevertheless a heartwarming tribute to the strange serendipity of city life, throwing in a good amount of Christmas cheer with hope for the future and presumably a happy new year.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Tale of Nishino (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nami Iguchi, 2014)

tale of nishinoEvery love story is a ghost story, as the aphorism made popular (though not perhaps coined) by David Foster Wallace goes. For The Tale of Nishio (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nishino Yukihiko no Koi to Boken), adapted from the novel by Hiromi Kawakami, this is a literal truth as the hero dies not long after the film begins and then returns to visit an old lover, only to find her gone, having ghosted her own family including a now teenage daughter. The Japanese title, which is identical to Kawakami’s novel, means something more like Yukihiko Nishino’s Adventures in Love which might give more of an indication into his repeated failures to find the “normal” family life he apparently sought, but then his life is a kind of cautionary tale offered up as a fable. What looks like kindness sometimes isn’t, and things done for others can in fact be for the most selfish of reasons.

Ten years prior to his death in a traffic accident, Yukihiko Nishino (Yutaka Takenouchi) has taken a (former?) lover and her little girl out for drinks and parfait at a lovely seaside cafe. The woman, Natsumi (Kumiko Aso), declines the offer of dessert but Nishino orders two anyway – one for himself and one for the little girl, Minami, though it seems neither of them really wanted one anyway. An odd flirtation exists between the adults but Nishino laments his ability to gain exactly what this situation might look like from the outside – a “normal” family. He wants to get married, have a daughter of his own, but his relationships always end in failure. Natsumi tells him why – he always gives women exactly what they want, which sounds good, but really isn’t.

Nishino’s problem is that he’s almost irresistible to women, but sooner or later they all leave him. He believes he has an almost telepathic ability to figure out what it is women want from him coupled with an intense need to satisfy their innermost desires. Ironically enough, it’s this strange kindness that eventually leads to his death when he runs into an old friend at a crowded marketplace. Excited to see him she calls and waves, dropping her shopping and losing one of her crutches in the process. Rushing to help, Nishino does not see an oncoming van and is run over. Quite literally the story of his life.

Reappearing as a ghost he attempts to pay a visit to Natsumi, having jokingly promised to do so while they were dating. Natsumi, however, is nowhere to be found and so Nishino is left to exorcise his demons with the now teenage Minami (Yurika Nakamura) who decides to attend his funeral in case her long absent mother decides to pay her respects. It’s here that she begins to learn a little of Nishino’s sad romantic history courtesy of an older woman who became a friend and confident rather than a lover (and consequently remained in his life a little longer).

The problem is, Nishino’s desire to be eternally helpful means that he’s always pulled in more than one direction. A slow burn affair with shy and retiring superior Manami (Machiko Ono) looks as if it could be the one, but she eventually points out to him that he’s not the sort of man who can have the life he craves because he never fully commits to any one person and never truly loves anyone. His irresistibility apparently even extends to one half of the lesbian couple from next door though, notably, not the half you’d expect.

Nishino first gets to know Tama (Fumino Kimura) and Subaru (Riko Narumi) when their cat, Nau, invites himself over, after which the feline Subaru decides to do the same, flirting away with her uptight girlfriend presumably going crazy in an adjacent room. Subaru is Nishino’s opposing number, the kind of girl that gets everything done for her, but there are obvious cracks in the strained relationship between the two women and it’s the neurotic Tama he finally bonds with after an unusually perceptive conversation over convenience store ice cream. Nishino, as he later puts it, is faithful in mind if not in body but satisfying immediate desires is not always the best idea. Trying to provide comfort, Nishino adds even more confusion to a messy situation and, even if it perhaps works out for the best, Nishino is left alone once again.

A botched proposal leads Nishino to let slip the real reason for his boundless desire to please – it’s because he’s lonely. Desiring to keep these women around him, he gives them whatever it is they want to stay. Just like Tama has effectively relegated Subaru to the same level as their cat – giving in to her every demand in the terror that she will leave, Nishino loses the women he loves by embracing his selfish desire to keep them rather than acting in their best interests and recognising the true depth of love which may not always work out in his favour. The interfering spectre of old girlfriend Kanoko (Tsubasa Honda) who can’t let go even though the relationship is over is a lingering hangover of this tendency as she too cannot seem to commit and wants to keep Nishino as a backup plan, resenting his interest in other women yet not willing to make a permanent decision to stay with him.

A whimsical fable of a man looking for love in all the wrong places, The Tale of Nishino is a long, melancholy journey through modern relationships in which not just romantic but platonic and familial love find themselves under the microscope. As Manami points out, you can’t share loneliness – Nishino’s need to be needed eventually drives a wedge between himself and everything he wanted. Natsumi’s words of wisdom for her injured daughter offer only that romantic love necessarily ends, whereas a mother’s love for her child is ever lasting even if it does not necessarily look that way. Iguchi’s style is typical of the “quirkier” end of Japanese indie, shooting with a deadpan abstraction, but the slight feeling of alienation works well with Nishino’s ultimate refusal to bare his heart in a more “straightforward” manner. A bittersweet story of love lost and found, Nishino may have given up the ghost but perhaps he did find that family after all, in a way, even if it was not his own.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Little House (小さいおうち, Yoji Yamada, 2014)

the-little-houseIf there is a frequent criticism directed at the always bankable director Yoji Yamada, it’s that his approach is one which continues to value the past over the future. Recent years have seen him looking back, literally, in terms of both themes and style with remakes of films by two Japanese masters – Ozu in his Tokyo Story homage Tokyo Family, and Kon Ichikawa in Her Brother. While he chose to update both of those pieces for the modern day, 2008’s Kabei sent him back to the traumatic years of militarism and warfare for a story of maternal sacrifice and national tragedy. The Little House (小さいおうち, Chiisai Ouchi) brings this recent meandering around the past full circle with its deliberately Ozu-esque aesthetic and flashback tale of atonement as one woman leaves the truth she could never bear to speak on paper as a last dying confession.

After the death of his great-aunt Taki (Chieko Baisho), who never married and has no other family besides himself, his sister, and father, Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) discovers a biscuit box with his name on it filled with keepsakes and the conclusion of a kind of autobiography he’d been encouraging Taki to write in the last few months of her life. Cutting back and forth between the contemporary interactions of the older Taki and her great-nephew, and the younger Taki’s (Haru Kuroki) life as a Tokyo maid from the mid-1930s to the end of the war, The Little House takes its cues from The Go Between as an innocent bystander becomes the unwilling guardian of a secret the holding of which will prove to be a lifelong burden.

An 18 year old girl in 1935 from a poor family in Japan’s frozen North, Taki’s options are few – early marriage, geisha house, or maid. All things considered, maid is the best option and Taki is thrilled to be travelling to the big city with all of its untold excitements. After a spell working for a famous novelist, Taki becomes the housekeeper of the “Little House” – a curiously cute Western style cottage with a bright red roof out in the suburbs. Her mistress, Tokiko (Takako Matsu), is an oddly flighty woman, fiercely independent of spirit but living within the confines of her time. Crisis approaches the family not with the onset of war but with the arrival of Mr. Hirai’s sensitive, artistic, colleague, Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), whose softly spoken ways quickly find their way into Tokiko’s heart.

In fact, The Little House, is not a million miles away from an expansion of a similar narrative device previously employed in Kabei but this time Tokiko is no pillar of strength, singlehandedly upholding the traditionally saintly virtues of the Japanese mother but a flesh and blood woman caught in the storm of a turbulent era. Taki becomes our passive observer as she sits, almost invisibly, in the corner of every scene, unwilling chaperone or accidental accomplice. As she witnesses the growing attraction between Tokiko and Shoji begin to spark into something more dangerous she finds herself conflicted, not knowing the best way to help her mistress. Should Tokiko be discovered, it wouldn’t just be a scandal leading to the end of a marriage, but considering the stringency of the times the outcome could be far more serious for all concerned.

When Takeshi eventually meets Tokiko’s son Kyoichi (Masakane Yonekura), he echoes many of the older Taki’s sentiments but adds that it was an era in which everyone was “forced to make an unwilling choice”. Taki finds herself forced to choose between action and inaction and does something she thinks is for the best, but is then forced to live with the suffering of wondering if she did the right thing.

The film does not seem entirely clear on her motives for her choice – it half commits to a possible love triangle between Taki, Tokiko, and Shoji by emphasising Taki and Shoji’s shared Northern roots and by Shoji’s subsequent inclusion of both women in his artwork. Taki, however, seems to be looking more to her mistress than her suitor, wanting nothing other than to stay in the Little House with Tokiko and Kyoichi for evermore. A later scene featuring a “mannish” university friend of Tokiko seems to reinforce the directions of Taki’s unspoken desire, though if her declaration of loyalty to the Little House following a disastrous marriage proposal was intended to voice it, it falls on deaf ears.

This being the case, Taki and Shoji become almost mirrors of each other – each somehow on pause, still living inside the Little House long after it ceased to exist. The loss of the Little House is not just the destruction of a building but the obliteration of everything it stood for, not only in terms of Taki’s investment in the family who live there, but in its evocation of early Showa dreams, individuality and innocence.

As the well educated Takeshi points out, Taki’s memories are often too rosy to tally with the history books, but even given the grimness of the times as they seem in hindsight, she has a right to the romanticism of her youth. The increasingly difficult political circumstances rarely impinge on the female centred domestic environment, but are made felt firstly through the husband’s toy business which begins by chasing the Chinese market and then is reduced to making wooden toys only and trying to marry off its eligible employees to woo more investment, and through the family’s excitement about the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games which are subsequently canceled. Tokiko’s later exclamation of “Isn’t it awful everything’s disappearing” does not just refer to the sudden absence of luxury from soaps to previously ordinary foodstuffs, but to her whole bourgeois way of life suddenly brought crashing down by a series of events she has no control over.

Yamada channels Ozu with initially distracting obviousness both in the contemporary and period sequences, matching his famous compositions from the straight to camera dialogue to the mid level tatami mat view and propensity for shooting through corridors and doorways. The world of the Little House is a curiously artificial one as Yamada shoots on an obvious stage set complete with tiny twinkling lights for stars which both looks forward to the artwork at the film’s conclusion and signals its nature as an unreal, constructed, environment existing only within Taki’s memory. Were it not that the Ozu compositions creep into the contemporary sequences, it could almost be read as a representation of Takeshi’s internal dramatisation of Taki’s memoirs as mediated through classic cinema.

The Little House is, indeed, resolutely old fashioned. Far too subtle for its own good (an extremely rare quality in a Yamada film), The Little House is an exercise in restraint in which the central love triangle never even hits the simmer, let alone the boil. Given the well trodden nature of the narrative, even the most inattentive viewer will have correctly guessed the big reveal well before Takeshi puts two and two together, rendering the final explanatory segment entirely redundant. Never quite as affecting as it would like to be, The Little House is a muted experience, perpetually pulling back each time it approaches doing something more interesting with its material. Nevertheless, it does provide an interesting perspective on its period setting as its collection of tragically romantic heroes march forward blindly into a maelstrom of oncoming destruction.


HK trailer (English/traditional Chinese subs)