Night’s Tightrope (少女, Yukiko Mishima, 2016)

night's tightrope japanese posterKanae Minato is known for her hard-hitting crime stories from Confessions to Chorus of Angels, The Snow White Murder Case, and Penance but in adapting her second novel, Shojo (少女), Yukiko Mishima has moved away from the mystery for a no less penetrating look at the death of childhood in the story of two best friends each dealing with traumatic pasts and presents. Childhood is a place of tightly controlled powerlessness, but adulthood offers little more than corruption and selfishness with its predatory teachers, abusive parents, and dirty old men so obsessed with school uniforms they barely see the girl inside them. Adolescent anxiety provokes a fascination with the idea of death which perhaps reflects this transitionary stage, but at its centre is the fracturing of a friendship which has endured all else.

The film opens with a strange avant-garde play being performed in a church by a group of girls in austere school uniforms. The monologue offered by the collective reads like an instruction booklet for the birth of fascism with its calls for genetically engineered test tube babies and universal childcare in which each child is “equal” and receives “exactly the same” education and resources. The girls are students at a strict Christian fundamentalist school where they’re also expected to participate in strange rituals including dancing round the maypole (incongruous as that may seem).

Atsuko (Mizuki Yamamoto) – a former kendo champion with a limp, and Yuki (Tsubasa Honda) who has a large scar across her hand resulting from domestic abuse, have been lifelong friends but have recently begun to drift apart. Given the overriding survival of the fittest atmosphere in the school, it’s not surprising that the other girls have turned on Atsuko and proceeded to make her life a misery by telling her to die either in person, on line, or in one particularly grim episode by shoving a sanitary towel into her locker with the message written on it in blood. Yuki is trying to help her but doesn’t know how and has taken to writing everything down in a book instead.

The world of teenage girls can often be a vicious one but there’s a strange kind of mania in the way Atsuko’s schoolmates set about pushing her towards the edge. Formerly a top kendo player, Atsuko has vivid, panic attack inducing flashbacks to her life changing accident in which she recalls her teammates prentending to comfort her but secretly hurling accusations under their breaths while Yuki looks on in horror from the stands.

Yuki has been writing their story in the form of a novel she calls Night’s Tightrope but the completed manuscript goes missing. The girls’ teacher who has longstanding dreams of literary stardom steals it, sends it to a magazine, and even wins a prestigious literary prize for brand new novelists. Yuki’s revenge is swift but has terrible, unforeseen consequences which add to her obsession with death and dying, eventually culminating in the worrying desire to see someone die in order to fully understand the nature of the “phenomenon”.

While Yuki develops a friendship with a boy she met in a library while she was destroying copies of the teacher’s stolen story, Atsuko goes in a different direction by falling under the spell of troubled transfer student Shiori (Ryo Sato). Recently witnessing a dead body herself, Shiori is just as death obsessed as the other girls but her vision is darker. Shiori introduces Atsuko to her world of blackmail and exploitation, pulling her into a high school girl scam in which they accuse a nearby salaryman of groping them and then blackmail him. Shiori may think she’s taking revenge on venal older men who lust after school uniforms – there are plenty of these on offer from skeevy old men luring school girls to abandoned houses and then trying to get them to do laundry, to teachers visiting love hotels with their students – but actions have consequences and ramifications can be severe.

The girls are caught in a kind of limbo, walking a tightrope into adulthood but doing it blind and alone. Splitting up they take similar paths with Atsuko volunteering at an old people’s home, and Yuki spending time with terminally ill children but soon enough their death obsession changes form as their twin causes eventually overlap. Stepping away from Minato’s sometimes nihilistic pessimism, Night’s Tightrope leaves a space for hope in the reconciliation of the protagonists who rediscover their shared pasts once the message buried in the novel is finally delivered. The adult world may be mired in the dark of night but the girls have recaptured the sunlight, taking solace in the depth of their friendship and stepping off the tightrope and into the world of adulthood hand in hand.


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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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