Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2015)

Three Stories of Love posterRyosuke Hashiguchi began his career with a collection of sometimes melancholy but ultimately hopeful tales of gay life in contemporary Japan. In 2008 he branched out with the finely tuned emotional drama All Around Us which followed an ordinary couple’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of a child. Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Koibitotachi) finds him in much the same territory as he takes three very different yet equally burdened romantics and sets them on a path towards a kind of acceptance while suffering inside a system where everyone seems to be intent on exploiting other people’s unhappiness.

The first of our heroes, Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara), is a bridge inspector whose wife was murdered in a random street attack three years previously. Ever since then he’s suffered with depression and found it difficult to hold down a job or a life and has become obsessed with getting personal revenge on the killer who pleaded the insanity defence and was committed to psychiatric care rather than to prison. Meanwhile, across town, listless housewife Toko (Toko Narushima) is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering husband and living with her snooty mother-in-law. Toko’s only outlet is compulsively rewatching a shaky video of the time she and her friends witnessed Princess Masako briefly exit a building. The third of our heroes, Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda), is a self involved lawyer with a longstanding crush on his straight best friend from college who has since married and had a young son.

The three strands are only loosely interconnected, occurring as they do in the same city at the same time, though they do each share a sense of defeat and impossibility as each of our heroes struggles either to escape from or come to terms with their difficult circumstances. Atsushi’s case is perhaps the most extreme as he deals not only with his grief and anger but with the persistent stigma of being involved with violent crime. Visited by his bubbly sister-in-law he idly remembers to ask after the man she was about to marry last time they met only to be told that he abruptly dumped her after her sister’s death and not only that, all her friends abandoned her too. Getting revenge has become Atsushi’s only reason for living – he stopped paying his health insurance to get money together for fancy lawyers like Shinomiya who convinced him he could lodge a civil case but were only ever stringing him along to fleece him of money he never really had.

Shinomiya is, in a sense, our villain. He listens dispassionately to his wealthy clients – including one woman seeking a divorce (Chika Uchida) because her husband forgot to tell her he was burakumin until after they were married, but privately mocks them and is so unpleasant to his colleagues that someone eventually pushes him down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. Intensely self-involved, he cares little for other people’s feelings save for those of his forlorn love Satoshi (So Yamanaka). Satoshi’s wife Etsuko, originally friendly and understanding, eventually takes against Shinomiya either because she doesn’t like the way he fiddled with her son’s ears or resents the two men cooing over the child and accidentally making her feel like an unwelcome outsider. Introducing his much younger boyfriend only seems to make matters worse, though the relationship does seem to have its problematic dimensions even if not in the way Etsuko decides to interpret them as Shinomiya takes pains to run down his partner in public and berate him at home. It’s difficult to resist the interpretation that Shinomiya prefers younger lovers because he can boss them around and, in truth, he doesn’t even seem very attached to this one, but he’s about to get a very rude awakening when it comes to learning that he’s not as permanent a part of everyone else’s lives as he seems to think.

Atsushi is fleeced by the Shinomiyas of the world and his heartless health insurers, but he’s wily enough to spot the obvious scam in the lovelorn office boy’s sudden enthusiasm for magical beautifying water which turns out to be part of a bar lady’s (Tamae Ando) nefarious scheme to resell the tapped variety with some of her own glamour shots attached to the front. Toko is wily enough to see it too, though she eventually succumbs when would-be-chicken-farmer Fujita (Ken Mitsuishi), whom she met at work during a difficult moment with her boss, delivers her some on spec. Lonely and insecure, Toko appreciates the unexpected interest but Fujita is not the white knight she first assumes him to be and is eventually exposed as yet another scam artist gunning for the little money she might have been able to hide away in her rabidly penny pinching home.

Shinomiya might feel himself proud to be among the fleecers rather than the fleeced, but he soon gets a comeuppance in realising he has wilfully pulled the wool over his own eyes, blinded in a sense by love. Toko, meanwhile, has learned to accept the latent feudalism of the modern society in her obsession with royalty though a brief attempt to transcend her feelings of innate inferiority seems destined to end in failure if perhaps engineering a mild improvement in her familial circumstances. Atsushi alone, a man whose job it is to assess the foundations, begins to find a degree of equilibrium thanks largely to nothing more than a good friend willing to listen and share his own suffering. Exploitation of others’ misfortunes and a series of social prejudices conspire against our three lovers but perhaps there is something to be said for learning to find the blue sky from whichever vantage point you happen to be occupying no matter how small and distant it may be.


Three Stories of Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ten Years Japan (十年 Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa, Yusuke Kinoshita, Megumi Tsuno, Akiyo Fujimura, Kei Ishikawa, 2018)

Ten Years Japan posterBack in 2015, five aspiring Hong Kong filmmakers came together to present a collection of shorts speculating on the fate of their nation in 10 years’ time. Coinciding with if not directly inspired by the Umbrella Movement, Ten Years was a deliberately political project which tapped into the nation’s unique preoccupations almost 20 years on from the end of British rule and a little more than 30 before One Country, Two Systems expires. The film proved an unexpected box office hit and has gone on to become an unconventional franchise with a host of other Asian nations creating their own omnibus movies musing on what may or may not have occurred in a decade’s time.

Unlike the original Hong Kong edition, Japan’s vision (十年 Ten Years Japan) is decidedly less political, perhaps reflecting a greater level of stability. Nevertheless, taken as a whole there are a number of recurrent themes running through each of the segments from the ageing population to the increasing power of the state and the dark possibilities of technology.

In Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, the first and darkest of the shorts, a conflicted salaryman (Satoru Kawaguchi) makes his living selling the titular “retirement” plans to those who have reached the age of 75 and decided enough is enough. Japan’s population is ageing faster than any other and caring for the elderly has placed a significant strain on the young. The old and infirm are therefore encouraged to think of themselves as burdensome, that they should do the decent thing and relieve the pressure on their loved ones by going gracefully at the right time. So far so Ballad of Narayama, but age isn’t quite the issue – the rich are excluded because they’re still spending their money and therefore economically useful. The government would rather roll out the invitations to the “unproductive”.

Ironically enough, a little girl who wants to be a vet in Yusuke Kinoshita’s Mischievous Alliance is advised to become a doctor instead and specialise in elder care which is in fact a growth industry. Unlike the elderly in Plan 75, the kids of Mischievous Alliance are not quite so willing to sit back and conform despite being fitted with invasive headsets connected to a monitoring program which “corrects” their bad behaviour whenever they try to break the rules. The hero rejects his oppressive schooling by self identifying with a stabled horse previously used for medical experimentation, longing to run free if only for a few moments.

If the “promise” system at the centre of Mischievous Alliance presented a vision of a future in which privacy and individual agency have all but disappeared, Data asks us if we have the right to reconstruct someone’s identity after they’ve gone by examining their digital footprint. A high school girl (Hana Sugisaki) tries to adjust to the idea of her widowed father’s (Tetsushi Tanaka) new girlfriend by opening up her mother’s “digital inheritance” but learns more than her mother might have wanted her to know. High school videos and pictures of old boyfriends jostle with beautiful flowers and private anxieties, but when it comes right down to it the organic memories are the only ones that count and the only things to make sense of the cluttered imagery in an uncurated personal museum of random digital moments.

Youth’s desire for knowledge and freedom is also at the heart of Akiyo Fujimura’s The Air We Can’t See which is the only one of the shorts to address nuclear anxiety in the post-Fukushima world. After some kind of event has made the surface uninhabitable, humanity has survived underground. A curious little girl, however, is fascinated by the idea of the outside. Longing to hear the birds and feel the rain, she imagines herself an exterior world but also comes to wonder if her home is a kind of prison born of fear and maybe it’s all alright up top if only you have the courage to look.

Meanwhile the apocalypse is still a little way off in Kei Ishikawa’s For Our Beautiful Country which hints obliquely at the growing threat of North Korea as missiles fly overhead with increasing frequency. The references, however, are older. A cynical ad man (Taiga) oversees a campaign promoting Japan’s remilitarisation but is later charged with letting the elderly, eccentric graphic designer (Hana Kino) know her poster is being “substituted” with something more “powerful”. After spending the day with her and coming to understand the subtle act of rebellion which has made her poster unusable for its propaganda purposes, the ad man gets a new a mission. It’s all up to the young now who have both an opportunity and a duty to ensure their country does not fall into the same kind of ugliness that sent young men off to die in the name of beauty.

Bookending the piece, Hayakawa and Ishikawa present the bleakest visions in which the descent into cruel authoritarianism may have already passed the point of no return. The children, however, seem to disagree and universally turn away from oppressive social codes, preferring to find their own truths and committed to exploring their own freedoms. Ten Years Japan may shed the overtly political overtones of its Hong Kong inspiration but finds brief rays of hope in the midst of despair in a child’s ability to break the programming and strive for a better, fairer world free of adult duplicity.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU, Jun Ichikawa, 1988)

Kaisha monogatari dvd coverJapanese corporate life is a strange thing – sometimes more cult than job, the company demands absolute dedication from its devotees though it promises them little more than a guaranteed life of toil. Being cast out from one’s company is akin to being robbed of one’s identity. Retirement is therefore not quite so much of a reward as an excommunication – especially to those who have given so much of themselves to an employer that they don’t quite know who they are when the suit comes off. This is especially true of the hero of Jun Ichikawa’s 1988 existential drama, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU). The title is deceptively romantic – in fact there was an identically titled idol starring melodrama released the same year, but it is in a way a love story of an old man who finally gets a chance to reunite with the dreams he abandoned in youth while coming to terms with his old age and the various ways the world has moved past him.

Very early one morning, veteran salary man Hanaoka (Hajime Hana) stares into the empty screen of his television set from the comfort of his kotatsu, examining his own tearful face before his wife gets up to prepare breakfast. Hanaoka is set to retire soon, after 34 years of corporate life. His career has been unremarkable and he has few friends at the office – he feels he most likely will not be missed when he goes. Home life is not too successful either. Hanaoka’s grown-up daughter has come home with a daughter of her own after a divorce, and Hanaoka’s son is currently a NEET would-be-student supposedly studying to retake entrance exams though his mother is convinced he’s just messing around and avoiding getting a job.

Though Hanaoka is a section head, it’s clear he’s not rated by his colleagues who gossip about him behind his back while his mild and timid nature sees him sitting quietly forgotten in the back of meetings. He does however have admirers including one of the older ladies in the admin staff who has always been comforted by Hanaoka’s gleeful laughter, suddenly feeling the world expand as she watched him beavering away earnestly. Despite this, nobody is very excited about his leaving party. Discussing things among themselves, the office ladies lament that planning farewell parties is either too depressing to just too much hassle, while gossiping guys in the men’s room complain that Hanaoka was never very good at his job anyway and his leaving do will be a “pitiful” affair. All of this proves too much for the kind hearted, shy, Hanaoka who eventually decides to have a goodbye note distributed around the office in which he tells everyone that there’s no need to bother with yet another office party in the overly festive December to the relief (and consternation) of all.

Hanaoka does, however, have to write his official goodbye for the company newsletter (1000 characters due by Dec. 15). Struggling to find the words, he writes a first draft in which he declares the deep sorrow he feels on having to leave his corporate family behind – after all these are people he’s dined and gone drinking with for 34 years, through good times and bad, company picnics, and away days. He’s spent longer with the office ladies than his wife, had more conversations with his subordinates than with his son. The company has been his life, and leaving it is a kind of death. Embarrassed he screws up the draft and throws it away, only to encounter another salaryman returning late (and more than a little the worse for wear) who lets him have a go on the very high tech laser guns he’s just won at bingo.

Yet Hanaoka does manage to find a solution in reconnecting with his younger self and makes a few new friends in the process. In his youth, Hanaoka was a jazz drummer – sophisticated as it is, jazz was the music of his glory days and so he finds many of the other men in his position share his love of music and were also forced to abandon their musical dreams for corporate careers. Now freed of the burdens of the salaryman, they decide to form a band of their own and even to give a special concert in place of Hanaoka’s leaving do.

Meanwhile, Yumi (Yumi Nishiyama), the office lady who reminds Hanaoka of his younger self, is undergoing something of a crisis when she realises that her boyfriend is not as serious about the relationship as she is and has been seeing someone else behind her back – the CEO’s daughter whom he intends to marry to further his career. Kaisha Monogatari is, in many ways, the passing of a baton from the post-war generation to the bubble era though getting ahead through advantageous arranged marriage is apparently still a viable option. Those of Hanaoka’s age had to work hard, rebuilding the nation after crushing wartime defeat from bombed out ruins to the economic miracle of the East. Their children, by contrast had things easy – they hardly have to worry at all. Hanaoka’s son, apparently a delinquent lost and confused by the comparative freedom of economic stability, has no need to submit himself to the insane demands of life as a company man but millions like him will, because that’s just what you do.

Hanaoka finds a way to break out of the corporate straightjacket through re-embracing his love of jazz, proving there is something left inside him when you strip the company man away but there is nevertheless something sad in having wasted so much time slaving away for a organisation that is ultimately so ungrateful for the sacrifice. A gloomy picture of bubble era Japan in which families are fragmenting, young men choose career over love, and old men are made to feel worthless once their economic function is spent, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You does offer the faintest glimmer of hope in the goodness of men like Hanaoka, no matter how they may have failed those around them, whose lives may be brighter when finally allowed to be themselves again.


Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2015)

Her GranddaughterRyuichi Hiroki has one of the most varied back catalogues of any Japanese director currently working. After getting his start in pink films and then moving into V-Cinema, Hiroki came to prominence with 2003’s Vibrator – an erotically charged exploration of modern alienation, but recent years have also proved him adept at gentle character drama. Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Otoko no Isshou), though coming with its own degree of strangeness, is another venture into the world of peaceful, if complicated, adult romance.

Tsugumi, a still youngish woman with a good job in IT in Tokyo returns to her rural hometown to look after her ailing grandmother. When her grandmother unfortunately passes on, Tsugumi inherits her house and begins to consider not going back to her old life but staying and taking over her grandmother’s hand dyed fabric business.

Feeling a little alone after the funeral, she’s shocked to encounter a slightly abrasive older man who apparently has a key to the annex given to him by the grandmother. Confused, Tsugumi can’t exactly throw him out (much as she’d like to), but gradually the two start to form a tentative relationship.

Her Granddaughter is indeed based on a best selling manga by Keiko Nishi, which might go some distance to explaining some of its more unusual plot elements. Though in essence it’s a fairly innocent tale of May to September love between a lonely, unfulfilled young woman looking for a simpler way of life, and a sensitive if difficult older man with a complicated past, there’s more to it than that. Specifically, the grandma problem. The question whether or not to pursue a man who may have previously dated your grandmother, is not one that many young women will be faced with.

Tsugumi herself is obviously grief stricken after her grandmother’s death and has also left a messy situation behind her in Tokyo. The lack of desire to return may be partly to do with this same unresolved question, though the idea of a slower, more traditional way of life obviously appeals to her. Even when the possibly ex-boyfriend of her grandmother, Kaieda, abruptly moves in, she reverts to classic gender roles by doing his washing and cooking for him, expecting him to perform the more “manly” tasks like chopping wood and making sure the fire is in for the bath. According to her friend visiting from Tokyo, this is something Tsugumi tends to do which marks her as a little out of step with her more progressive city friends.

Kaieda is an outwardly abrasive, chain smoking philosophy professor who appears to be nursing a life long broken heart. He aims for a classically cool persona with his affected ennui yet, despite his gruffness, he is a pretty good judge of character able to nudge people in the direction they should be heading but might be about to miss such as when a gauche local politician with a longstanding crush on Tsugumi might be about to accidentally rebuff the attentions of a shy but pretty girl from the municipal office who is clearly interested in him.

A later scene sees Kaieda and Tsugumi becoming a temporary family with a little boy mysteriously dropped on their doorstep. Kaieda often harshly indicates to the boy that his mother has abandoned him and won’t be coming back. Lonely childhoods of rejected children become something of a running theme as the resultant certainly of abandonment leaves each of our now adult protagonists looking for a premature exit from any potentially serious relationship. For all his aloof exterior, Kaieda is sensitive soul, though one easily read after discovering the key to all his insecurities.

One of Hiroki’s softer efforts, Her Granddaughter is nevertheless a warm and gentle character driven romantic tale. Full of beautiful country landscapes and refreshing summer breezes, the circularity of all things comes to the fore as Tsugumi in some senses becomes her grandmother and sees herself in the sad little boy as he climbs on a stool to wind a clock just as she had done in her own childhood. An interesting, resolutely old fashioned tale of modern romance which, though shrouded in several taboos neatly side steps them and encourages us to do the same, Her Granddaughter is a gentle gem from Hiroki which proves rich both in terms of theme and of emotion.


English subtitled trailer: