Robinson’s Garden (ロビンソンの庭, Masashi Yamamoto, 1987)

By 1987 Japanese society was at the height of Bubble-era consumerism. Everything was bright and exciting, money flowed freely, and everyone worked all the time. Meanwhile, there was also a flourishing of avant-garde subcultures among young people who actively rejected the salaryman straitjacket and sought for more individualistic freedoms in their lives. Masashi Yamamoto had begun his career with explorations of counter-culture life such as his 1982 debut Carnival of Night but shifts into a more metaphysical gear with his trippy 1987 tale of nature’s revenge and the costs of life in a solo commune, Robinson’s Garden (ロビンソンの庭, Robinson no Niwa). 

Two years later, Junichi Suzuki would also draw inspiration from the tale of Robinson Crusoe in the Bubble-era farce Robinson on the Beach which is in many ways an inversion of Robinson’s Garden in which a low-level salaryman’s life is upended when he wins a brand new house in the suburbs but becomes the subject of class-based resentment from his bosses while expected to play act the “model family” as part of the developer’s ideal homes marketing campaign. Kumi (Kumiko Ohta) by contrast is a floating bohemian living at the beginning of the film in a multi-cultural commune and supporting herself by selling drugs of which she is also a user. Drunk and stumbling around in the darkness, she accidentally comes across an abandoned industrial complex and is bewitched by the garden growing inside its walls as nature begins to reclaim its own. Selling most of her possessions in a yard sale, she leaves the commune and begins squatting in the factory attempting to return to the land by growing her own produce and living entirely alone. 

The bohemian, internationalist Tokyo that Kumi inhabits stands in direct contrast to that often seen in contemporary mainstream cinema, her eventual decision to leave this globalised communal society for ultra isolationism an intense irony. Then again, there is something of a negative judgement towards the aimless way she lives her life which extends to the wider world around her. Meeting up in a cafe with a friend recently released from prison, an extremely drunk man continues to have significant difficulty understanding where he is and what’s going on eventually picking up a table but unsure what to do with it. She and her friends are often described, and sometimes describe themselves, as “wacko” in their attempts to live outside of accepted social norms and it’s when Kumi invites her friends into her new private utopia that it first begins to betray her as a prayer circle and a pointless argument somehow provoke a mass brawl while Kumi remains on her sun lounger feeling the first pangs of an illness which will continue to plague her throughout the rest of the film. 

This may in part be down to a strange painting placed on her wall by an intruder, but nature also begins to take against her best efforts as the seasons change and her large crop of cabbages, for some reason all she appears to plant, is destroyed by heavy rainfall which later leads to flooding. Best friend Maki (Cheebo) ventures into a basement and finds tree roots growing through it, listening intently to rumbling behind a wall she attributes to the presence of the subway but is later implied to echo the scrabbling of a ghostly otter looking for its family. A casual boyfriend who stays the night appears to have an episode of mental instability while exploring as if the environment has driven him mad while Kumi becomes progressively sicker with debilitating stomach pains and fever. 

Yet the only lesson that we see her learn is that we are not the masters of our environment. With her help, nature gradually reclaims this previously industrial space filling halls with flowers and covering the walls with greenery. Even her pink moped lies rusty and half-buried while she furiously digs a hole with seemingly no way of climbing out unassisted. Meanwhile, a mean little girl that for some reason always hung around the factory, even at one point eating KFC in the rain, flies a model aeroplane around a sacred tree and trashes a toy birdcage as if playing in the ruins of a post-industrial world. Called to something older and earthier, Kumi retreats fully from the highly corporatised, consumerist society of the Bubble era but the jury seems to be out on whether her experiment in isolationism is success or failure. Yamamoto’s famous distain for logical narrative progression lends an absurdist air to Kumi’s continuing desire to return to the garden but captures the mystifying allure of nature in all its ethereal, if perhaps sinister, glory. 


Robinson’s Garden streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

True Mothers (朝が来る, Naomi Kawase, 2020)

Perhaps surprisingly and in contrast with many other developed nations child adoption remains relatively rare in Japan with most children who for whatever reason cannot be raised by their birth families cared for by institutions while the adoption of adults is unusually common usually for the purposes of securing an heir for the family name or business. This might be one reason that the “secret” of adoption is touted as a subject for blackmail in Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of the mystery novel by Mizuki Tsujimura True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru), though in this case it will prove to be a fruitless one as the adoptive parents have already made an effort towards transparency having explained to their son that he has another mother while their friends, family, and the boy’s school are all fully aware that he is not their blood relation. 

The Kuriharas, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are a settled, wealthy married couple who are shocked to discover that they are unable to conceive a child naturally because Kiyokazu is suffering from infertility. After a few unsuccessful rounds of painful treatment, they decide to give up and resign themselves to growing old together just the two of them, but after accidentally stumbling over a TV spot about an adoption service which focuses on finding loving homes for children rather than finding children for couples who want to adopt they begin to consider taking in a child who is not theirs by blood. As Kiyokazu puts it, it’s not that he’s obsessed with the idea of having a child, but they have the means and the inclination to raise one and could be of help when there are so many children in need of good homes. After enrolling in the programme, they adopt a little boy, Asato (Reo Sato), and somewhat unusually are encouraged to meet the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), who they discover is a 14-year-old girl tearfully entrusting her baby to them along with a letter to give him when he’s old enough to understand. 

The central drama begins six years later as Asato prepares to leave kindergarten for primary school. A crisis occurs when Satoko is called in because a boy, Sora, has accused Asato of pushing him off the jungle gym. Thankfully, Sora is not seriously hurt though according to the school Asato admits he was there at the time but says he doesn’t remember pushing anyone. The teachers don’t seem to regard him as a violent or naughty boy and wonder if he might have accidentally knocked Sora off without realising, while Satoko for her part tries to deal with the matter rationally neither leaping to his defence without the full facts or prepared to apologise for something that might not have been his fault. The other mother, however, somewhat crassly asks for compensation, bringing up the fact that the family live in a nice apartment and can’t be short of a bob or two. Stunned, Satoko does not respond while the other mother instructs her son not to play with Asato anymore. It’s around this time that she starts receiving anonymous calls that eventually turn out to be from a young woman claiming to be Hikari who first petitions to get her son back and then like Sora’s mother asks for monetary compensation. Only on meeting her the young woman seems completely different from the heartbroken teen they met six years’ previously and Satoko can’t bring herself to belief it’s really her, but if it isn’t who is she and what does she want?

Less a tug of love drama between an adoptive and a birth mother as in the recent After the Sunset, True Mothers places its most important clue in the title in that there need not be a monopoly on motherhood. A woman brought out at the adoption agency open day reveals that she’s explained to her son that he has three mothers, herself, his birth mother, and Asami (Miyoko Asada), the woman who runs “Baby Baton”. Asami encourages her prospective parents to explain to the children the circumstances of their birth before they enter primary school, keen both that they avoid the trauma of suddenly discovering the truth and that the birth mother not be “erased” from the child’s life and history. 

Though founded in love and with the best of intentions, Baby Baton also has its regressive sides in reinforcing conservative social norms, open only to heterosexual couples who’ve been married over three years (Japan does not yet have marriage equality or permit same sex couples to adopt) and requiring one parent, though it does not specify which, to give up their career and become a full-time parent. Its residential requirement is also not a million miles away from a home for unwed mothers hidden away on a remote island near Hiroshima which seems to be the way it is used and viewed by Hikari’s parents who force her to give up the baby more out of shame than practicality, telling people that she’s in hospital recovering from pneumonia. Nevertheless it’s at Baby Baton that Hikari finally finds acceptance and a sense of family, feeling rejected by the birth parents who have sent her away rather than embracing or supporting her in the depths of her emotional difficulty. Asami was there for her when no one else was, later explaining that unable to have children herself she founded Baby Baton as means of helping other women who found themselves in difficulty in the hope of “making sure all children are happy”. 

Like Hikari many of the other women at Baby Baton are there because of a corrupted connection with their own maternal figures, often rejected or abandoned many of them having participated in sex work as a means of survival. Reminiscent of her documentary capture of residents of the old persons’ home in The Mourning Forest or the former leper colony in Sweet Bean, Kawase films the scenes at Baby Baton with naturalistic realism as one young woman celebrates her 20th birthday sadly wondering if any one will ever celebrate her birthday again. A testament to female solidarity, the home presents itself as a kind of womb bathed in golden light and protected by a ring of water providing a refuge for often very young women at a time of intense vulnerability until they are eventually rebirthed by the surrogate maternal figure of Asami. 

The film’s Japanese title “Morning Will Come” as echoed in the song which plays frequently throughout hints at an eventual fated reunion while also pointing towards Asato the first character of whose name literally means “morning”, lending an ironic quality to its English counterpart which invites the conclusion that there are somehow false mothers while simultaneously evoking a sense of a great confluence of maternity in the unselfishness of maternal love. Immersed in a deep well of empathy, Kawase’s bittersweet drama is infinitely kind if not without its moments of darkness and pain resolute in its sense of fairness and the insistence there’s love enough to go around if only you’re brave enough to share it.


True Mothers streams in the UK from 16th April exclusively via Curzon Home Cinema.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

At This Late Date, the Charleston (近頃なぜかチャールストン, Kihachi Okamoto, 1981)

At this late date, the charlestonKihachi Okamoto first made his name with his samurai movies but his output was in fact far more varied in tone than the work most often screened outside of Japan might suggest. Marked by heavy irony and close to the bone social commentary, Okamoto’s movies are nothing if not playful even in the bleakest of circumstances. He first teamed up with Japan’s indie power the Art Theatre Guild for The Human Bullet in 1968 which recounted the absurd final days of the war in true Okamoto fashion and then bounced back to the Edo era for Battle Cry before deciding on the very contemporary satire At This Late Date, the Charleston (近頃なぜかチャールストン, Chikagoro Nazeka Charleston) in 1981.

Shot in 4:3 and a stately looking black and white, At This Late Date, the Charleston begins when Jiro – a slightly strange younger son of a wealthy family, punches out a girl’s boyfriend whilst the pair are sitting on a bench and subsequently chases her through the park util he eventually gets himself arrested on a charge of “attempted rape”. He then gets thrown into a cell with a gang of crazy old guys who took the decision sometime ago to secede from the state of Japan and create their own independent nation known as the land of Yamatai. Consequently, they all refer to each other by their “cabinet titles” such as Foreign Minister and Army Minister etc each inspired by their former lives which is why they have a minister for mail (he used to be a postman). They’re in jail because they tried to make a “state visit” to the Diet building and whilst there enjoyed some of the canteen food but as this was an official event they didn’t see why they should pay for any of it (and their Finance Minister was busy at the races).

Soon enough everyone gets released – the old guys when the Finance Minister turns up to pay their bill and Jiro when he’s bailed out by his older brother and the family housemaid (who quickly realises the “victims” aren’t quite what they seem). However, in a fantastically weird coincidence it turns out that the government of Yamatai have commandeered a house on the estate of Jiro’s father for their sovereign territory. Jiro’s brother is desperate to evict them but there’s also the problem that their multimillionaire dad has been missing for months and no one’s quite sure what might have happened to him…

Crazy old guys (and gal) who’ve become so disillusioned with their nation that they’ve started a new one on their own, missing industrialists, a Lupin III-like policeman who’s so obsessed with looking cool that the suspects always run away while he’s left striking a pose – Okamoto really knows how to pile on the strangeness, but somehow it all seems to make perfect sense. Madcap doesn’t even begin to do justice to crazy cartoon world Okamoto has created but it’s all so effortlessly funny that it hardly matters what you’d call it.

After initially being captured and branded a spy when he marches on over to Yamatai to ask them about his father, Jiro finds himself defecting to become “Minister of Labour” (this seems to involve doing all of the old guys’ menial tasks). As the youngest member of the group, he becomes the repository for their stories which mostly date back to the days of their youth from the fun loving Charleston era to the rise of militarism and eventually the war itself. This comes to the fore even more as the events take place in August, meaning that there’s both the anniversary of the atomic bomb and of the end of the war raising painful memories for this group of older folks, even if not quite so relevant to the younger contingent. The gang are planning a special trip to a hot spring on the 15th, but first they have to defend their micro-country against the onslaught of gangsters and bailiffs who are trying to “invade” their sovereign territory.

The old folks are pacifists, more or less (they didn’t really want an “Army Minister” but it was argued that no one would take them seriously without means of defence) but are still determined to protect their ideal state of Yamatai all the while clamouring for a silent kind of diplomatic immunity. They have some very unusual ideas but they know what’s what and having made an unlikely ally in the form of an unhappily married and soon to be retired policeman, have even managed to expose a little corruption and evil corporate shenanigans in the process of defending their own freedom. A vote for dancing cheerfully over a military march, At This Late Date, The Charleston is a warm and funny tale of eccentric oldsters who’ve seen it all before and finally decided it’s all kind of ridiculous anyway which can’t help but get your own toes tapping, whatever age you are.


Several unsubtitled trailers for the price of one:

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoichi Higashi, 2010)

wandering homeAlcoholism is not a theme which has exactly been absent from the history of cinema. From the booze drenched regret of Days of Wine and Roses to the melancholic inevitability of Leaving Las Vegas and the disdaining irony of Barfly, there has been no shortage of unsympathetic portrayals of drunkenness when it comes to the silver screen. Yoichi Higashi’s Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoi Ga Sametara, Uchi Ni Kaerou) walks something of a middle road here as it embraces the classic “issue drama” mould but also aims for a naturalistic character study in adapting the true life memoirs of photojournalist Yutaka Kamoshida (husband of well known mangaka Reiko Saibara).

The film begins with a touch of magical realism as Tsukahara (Tadanobu Asano) literally falls off his barstool and has a vision of his wife and two children urging him to get up. Of course, they aren’t “real”. Tsukara lives with his mother after his marriage to a successful mangaka broke down due to his alcoholism. Returning home and ignoring his mother’s advice to get something to eat, Tsukarahara has another drink whilst swearing that this time he’ll be sober when he sees his kids but shortly after retreats to the bathroom to vomit where he experiences a massive haemorrhage and is taken to hospital. Things have already gone too far, he’s told he’s lucky to be alive and the next time this happens he will die.

Swearing to finally come off the booze, Tsukahara goes home but is immediately tempted by a side dish in a restaurant which contains alcohol. He makes the wise choice not to buy the vodka in the off-licence but eventually talks himself into buying beer which he drinks right away and then falls over and hits his head on the way home. His ex-wife, Yuki (Hiromi Nagasaku), and his long suffering mother have gone through this too many times before to even be disappointed. Eventually, they ship Tsukahara off to a residential facility in the hope that they can finally help him beat the booze for good.

Wandering Home is inspired by the real life story of a photojournalist which has also inspired a few other films including the following year’s Kaasan which told the same story from the point of view of Kamoshida’s mangaka wife. Therefore, the ending of this story might perhaps be known to you already but needless to say it isn’t an altogether happy one. The film doesn’t go into the reasons Tsukahara started drinking save for emphasising that it’s rarely one root cause that starts someone on the road to alcohol addiction. Tsukahara’s father had been an alcoholic and had also behaved violently in the home – something which Tsukahara despised and yet he ultimately became exactly like his dad. Having started to drink as a young teenager he drifted into an aimless life and then witnessed a number of traumatic events in his career as a photojournalist which also left their mark on him.

Though the film is never shy about the disruption Tsukahara’s drunkeness causes to his family, it mitigates the effects by casting them as surreal episodes such as the only scene in the film where Tsukahara is shown to be violent towards his wife in which another soot covered version of himself emerges from a zipper in his back to shout abuse and trash the place as his children retreat in horror to their bedroom. It’s not Tsukahara, it’s the alcohol, the film tries to say but actually lays the message on a little thick and often neglects the trauma that his behaviour is, in turn, causing to his own son and daughter.

That said, there is remarkably little animosity between Yuki and her ex-husband despite the way that he has behaved. Yes, the pair are divorced but Yuki is called right away when Tsukahara is taken to hospital and when she brings the children to visit him the couple talk warmly with no bitterness or recrimination. The children too are happy to see their father and do not seem afraid of him in any way at all.

Higashi does, however, fall into standard “issue drama” tropes and perhaps spends too much time exploring the rehab facility where Tsukahara is sent for treatment. Though hearing something of the other characters’ paths to alcohol dependency is enlightening, it can’t help but feel more like a public information film at times than the affecting character drama it should be. Small touches like Tsukahara’s longing for something a simple as being able to enjoy curry again like everyone else on the ward or his more frequent difficulties of being able to distinguish a hallucination from something he’s doing for real lend weight to the central story but they can’t quite save it.

Higashi’s tone is generally straightforward and mostly avoids melodrama or sentimentality except during the film’s ending. This sounds like a strength but turns out to be a weakness as something about Tsukahara’s plight never quite grabs the heartstrings in the way it seems to want to. The film’s unsentimental depiction of alcohol dependency and one man’s struggle to try and regain his place within his own family is an admirable one, but Wandering Home ultimately falls far short of its intended destination.


The Japanese dvd/blu-ray release of Wandering Home includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: