Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Yukiko Mishima, 2017)

Dear Etranger posterThe family drama has long been considered the representative genre of Japanese cinema, but with the days of Ozu long gone the family itself has become a subject for reappraisal. Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Osanago Warera ni Umare) is the latest to take a scalpel to the nation’s basic social unit and ask what the word “family” means in an ever changing social landscape. In an Ozu picture, one family must be broken for another to be formed – this is the way of things and in the end must be accepted if with sadness, but does it really need to be this way or is there room for more as connections become less easy to define?

Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) separated from his first wife some time ago and still spends time with his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), though only a few times a year. Four years ago he married another woman, Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who had also been married before and has two children – Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eri (Miu Arai). Nanae has recently discovered she is pregnant and is thrilled to bits to add to their family, but Makoto is conflicted. He liked the family as it was and worries that the new baby will place a wedge between himself and his step-daughters, that they may suddenly feel themselves pushed out and not really part of the new family that is being forged by a child who has a blood relation to both their parents rather than just one.

In truth, family dynamics aren’t all Makoto currently has to worry about. A 40-year-old man, he’s also hitting the scrap heap at work – rather than laying people off, they’re transferring them to unpleasant jobs in the hope they’ll resign. A lifelong salaryman, Makoto has been sent to the packing warehouse where his every move is logged on computer and he’s rated for speed. This is partly his own “fault”. Rather than play the salaryman game, Makoto wanted to be a family man. He doesn’t work weekends or overtime, he takes public holidays off, and never stays out late drinking with colleagues – all things which mark your card as an antisocial shirker in workaholic Japan.

Makoto’s superior, warning him about the imminent transfers, criticises his attitude. He tells him that he doesn’t think spending time with his children is his “job” as a father. He sees his responsibility as one of providing a role model and he thinks the best way to do that is to be seen working hard as a “respectable” member of society. Makoto couldn’t disagree more. He works to rule, but wants to be the sort of father that’s there for his kids, not just an authoritarian figure who comes home late smelling of booze and throws his weight around. He knows that as the children grow up they’ll grow away from him and won’t want to hang out with dad anymore, so he wants to spend time with them now while he still can.

Makoto’s intense desire to be a family man is perhaps unusual in Japan where men channel their ambition into work and women are (still) expected to channel theirs into the home. It is therefore doubly painful for Makoto when his elder step-daughter, Kaoru, heading into a difficult age, suddenly rejects him on hearing about the new baby. Despite the fact that Kaoru’s biological father (Kankuro Kudo) was violent towards both her and her mother, Kaoru begins to insist on seeing him, complaining that it’s unfair to be forced to live with “a stranger”. On one level, Kaoru is at the age at which most young women begin to find their father annoying and embarrassing, but her resentment is also informed by a fear of abandonment and cultural doubt about her place in a still atypical family, unconvinced that it’s possible for a man to become a father to a child that’s not his own by blood.

Blood ties still seem to trump all in most people’s minds, but bureaucracy plays its part too. Makoto still insists on making time to see Saori – something which is sadly unusual in Japan where divorce usually results not only in the children losing contact with the absent parent but also the entirety of an extended family. Kaoru doesn’t quite like it that Makoto does this, she feels almost betrayed as if he’s choosing his biological child over her and that continuing to associate with Saori means he hasn’t fully committed to her family. There seems to be an idea that the family unit is a distinct bubble and one can’t be inside more than one at a time, just as one can’t be listed on more than one “family register”. When an emergency occurs and Saori needs to get a lift from Nanae who has Eri in the back of the car, she isn’t sure if it’s OK for her to get in even with her father with her. She suddenly feels awkward, as if her presence in his car with his new family is inappropriate. None of these people know each other – the existence of a parallel family is so embarrassing as to be “unseen”, buried like a scandalous secret and kept entirely separate to avoid any cross-contamination. When Eri asks who Saori is, awkward silence prevails until she is forced to introduce herself as a “friend” of her father’s – something he doesn’t bother to correct until the drive home when another encounter has pushed him into reconsidering what it means to be a “father”. 

Makoto’s strong desire for acceptance and for forging a “family” that is “his” may perhaps seem selfish and possessive, yet he also tries to react with patience and empathy towards others in his position. He tries to be patient with Kaoru, advising her that he doesn’t think meeting her “real” dad is a good idea but if it’s what she wants he’ll try to make it happen. Likewise, he is grateful to Saori’s stepfather for raising his daughter when he wasn’t able to. Finally the walls begin to dissolve and it stops being about who belongs on which bit of paper and starts being about connections forged through love and understanding. The new baby, rather than forcing everyone apart, begins to bring them together, each joined by a feeling of joy and responsibility towards the new life to which they are all connected. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Distant Thunder (遠雷, Kichitaro Negishi, 1981)

distant thunder dvd coverBy 1981 Japan’s economic recovery was more or less complete and the consumerist future had all but arrived. Based on the novel by Wahei Tatematsu, Distant Thunder (遠雷, Enrai) is the story of impending doom staved off by those clinging fast to the their ancestral traditions even whilst the modern world threatens to engulf them. Kichitaro Negishi already had a long career directing Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno, but made his mainstream debut with this quietly affecting social drama for Art Theatre Guild which relies on the strong performances of its cast to convey the subtitles of youth caught between past and future.

In the contemporary world of 1981, 23-year-old Mitsuo (Toshiyuki Nagashima) is a tomato farmer stubbornly hanging on to his family’s ancestral land which happens to be inconveniently placed in the middle of a modern housing complex. Women from the estate sometimes pop round to ogle Mitsuo under the pretext of buying super fresh tomatoes. Mitsuo is happy for them to enjoy the fruits of his labour, but refuses to accept them as “neighbours” lamenting the death of the village in which he grew up.

It transpires that Mitsuo’s father (Casey Takamine) sold off most of the farmland without consulting the rest of the family and used the proceeds to open a bar with the hostess he ran off with. Mitsuo hasn’t forgiven him for this and continues to work the tomatoes alone while his older brother is married and living a modern salaryman life in the city. At 23 it’s high time Mituso got himself a wife, but a flirtation with a barmaid, Kaede (Rie Yokoyama), who claims to be a divorced single parent proves diverting enough for the time being. Mitsuo knows being a farmer’s wife is no prize, so when his mother comes up with a possible match Mitsuo thinks it’s worth a try even if she’s probably none too pretty.

An old soul in many ways, Mitsuo wants to hang on to his family’s farm despite the constant offers he gets from salesmen at the door who want him to sell. Where once there was a village, now there are high rise apartment blocks. Mitsuo misses the world he grew up in where farmers helped each other out in difficult times and wandered in and out of each other’s houses like one big happy family. Not content with ruining his own, it’s also this wider concept of community as family that Mitsuo’s father has ruined for him in rejecting his traditional responsibilities for the irresponsible pleasures of taking up with a fancy woman and starting again as a bar owner.

Sadly, the bar hostess really does seem to love Mitsuo’s feckless father, perhaps seeing him as her last chance for happiness. Kaede, by contrast, is looking for something far less permanent. She claims to be divorced but is married to a mild-mannered man (Keizo Kanie) with a tattoo poking out of his collar who accepts her need for new conquests but would rather they not become regular arrangements. Kaede whips up more potential destruction when she comes between Mitsuo and his childhood best friend, Koji (Johnny Okura), who also likes her and has been led to believe Kaede’s relationship with Mitsuo was not altogether consensual. Meanwhile, Mitsuo’s blind date went far better than expected and it looks like he’s on course to find a wife in petrol station assistant Ayako (Eri Ishida).

Ayako, like Mitsuo, is a more old fashioned sort though she’s no prude and is of an earthier yet somehow “purer” nature than the comparatively urban Kaede. Mitsuo finds himself pulled in different directions – Ayako and the tomato farm, or the freely given pleasures of Kaede who threatens to burn everything to the ground with her mysterious, self destructive lifestyle. Mitsuo doesn’t want to be like his dad – a philanderer who runs out on his responsibilities and makes a fool of himself in the process, cosying up to local politicians and playing fast and loose with the law, but he’s late to see the danger a woman like Kaede might cause him. His friend, Koji, is not quite so perceptive and naively falls for her charms. Mitsuo knows deep down that his friend has in a sense saved him from making a ruinous life decision and helped him rediscover the happiness of his traditional, simple way of life.

Filming in 4:3, Negishi’s camera is soft and unobtrusive yet pointed, capturing the minor details of the everyday with a poetic beauty. Filled with realistic detail and anchored by strong performances, Distant Thunder is both a picture of innocents battling the inevitable death of their way of life with determination and purity, and a document of changing times in which the confusions of the modern world threaten to destroy those who cannot reconcile themselves to their fated paths.


Short clip from the ending (English subtitles)

A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Junichi Inoue, 2013)

a-woman-and-warJunichi Inoue is better known as a screenwriter and frequent collaborator of avant-garde/pink film provocateur Koji Wakamatsu. A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Senso to Hitori no Onna) marks his first time in the director’s chair and finds him working with someone else’s script but staying firmly within the pink genre. Adapted from a contemporary novel by Ango Sakaguchi published in 1946, A Woman and a War is an intense look at domestic female suffering during a time generalised chaos.

The unnamed “Woman” (Noriko Eguchi) is a former prostitute, sold to a brothel by her father as a child, now working as a bar hostess. Times being what they are, she decides there’s no future in bar work and wants to get married. Accordingly, she finds herself moving in with a moody novelist who frequents the bar, Nomura (Masatoshi Nagase). The woman becomes Nomura’s “wife”, but the relationship is strained as she finds it difficult to derive pleasure from sex and he is of a nihilistic mindset, convinced that Japan is about to lose the war. Nomura promises to live with her until the war’s end, at which time he assumes the country will cease to exist taking him with it.

Running parallel to this is the story of recently demobbed soldier and drinker at Woman’s bar, Ohira (Jun Murakami). Having lost an arm in the war, Ohira has been “lucky”, in a sense, and been sent home early. However, he has a wife and young son he’s been away from so long that they’re virtual strangers from each other. Ohira is not the man who went away to fight, he’s embittered and angry. Unable to enjoy normal relations with his wife, he finds himself aroused after failing to rescue a woman being gang raped by thugs which he then watches after being tied up while the men finish their business. After this, he despatches his family to the comparative safety of his wife’s parents and embarks on a career of violence, rape and murder.

Despite nominally being the story of the Woman, A Woman and a War has an unbalanced tripartite structure split between the three central characters. Of the three, Nomura’s story is the least explored but then is also the most clichéd in its familiar over sensitive novelist takes hack jobs and abuses all available substances to block out his crushing depression trope. Though the story ought to belong to Woman, she is often eclipsed by Ohira’s extreme descent into violent misogyny though in actuality these two strands dovetail into each other as Woman’s story is also one of continued exploitation.

This stems back well before the war as she was, in a sense, betrayed by her father when he sold her supposedly in desperation but apparently drank the money he got for her rather than using it to feed the rest of the family. Having spent so long in the brothel her body has become nothing more than a tool to her – something to be well maintained and then traded as a commodity. After her relationship with Nomura ends, Woman finds herself once again working as a prostitute – first at a facility set up for the American military, and then as a streetwalker targeting foreign servicemen. Eventually her path crosses with that of Ohira which results in the uncomfortable realisation that she too can only reach climax through violence.

Ohira is so deeply scarred by his wartime experiences that he has a compulsion to reenact them through random acts of sexual violence on unsuspecting women. The events he recounts from Manchuria are truly horrifying but he has an uncomfortable point when he repeats that the difference between what he did in the war and what he’s doing now is that between a medal and a death sentence. The people he killed in China weren’t soldiers or those who threatened his life, they were innocent civilians no different from the women he lured into the forests of Japan, so how was it right then and wrong now? The other uncomfortable fact is that Ohira is both perpetrator and victim of the wider war, a symbol of its cannibalistic whirlwind of destruction, the effects of which continue in perpetuity.

Coming as he does from the pink film world, Inoue adopts a detached frankness when it comes to sex. However, in keeping with the film’s themes there is an abundance of sexualised violence against women which, though every bit as unpleasant as it’s intended to be, does at times feel gratuitous. It’s also an unfortunate fact that there is a lot of gratuitous female nudity in the film but absolutely no male – at one point Woman bares her genitals to the open air and urges Nomura to do the same but the camera cuts to a rear shot as though embarrassed. In an interview with Diva Review Inoue admits he regrets the way this was handled and states it’s largely down to having bigger name actors in the two central roles, but in addition to deviating from the otherwise naturalistic intentions of the film, it also presents him with a set of thematic problems which undercut his central intentions.

However, A Woman and a War is one of the few (recent) films to seriously look at the traumatic afterlife of the war both on those who served and those who stayed at home using sexuality as a curiously reflective prism. A Woman and a War is a super low budget film and, in truth, looks it, though does make an attempt to do the best it can with what it has. The performances of the three leads are also each strong though something of the film’s tone never quite coalesces beyond the persistent unpleasantness into something more deeply probing. Troubling, concerning, and disturbing, A Woman and a War is a much needed look at this murky and often avoided area but one that finds it impossible to escape its own exploitative nature.


Original trailer (English subtitles):

Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Hiroshi Ando, 2014)

Undulant FeverOne of the most surprising things about the 1978 novel When I Sense the Sea is that its author was only 18 years old when the book was published. Though the protagonist begins as a 16 year old high school girl, author Kei Nakazawa follows her on into adulthood as the damage done to her teenage psyche radiates like a series of tiny, branching chasms stretching far back into a difficult childhood. This 2015 adaptation from Hiroshi Ando, Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Umi wo Kanjiru Toki), maintains a distant and detached tone which, while not shying away from the erotic nature of the discussion, is quick to underline the unfulfilling and often utilitarian nature of the central couple’s relationship.

Beginning in the “contemporary” 1970s era of the film, Emiko (Yui Ichikawa) and Hiroshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) enjoy a strangely lonely trip to the zoo and later an intimate, if odd, love making session at home. They seem a fairly settled couple but there’s something not quite right between them. On flashing back to their teenage years we learn how they met – as members of the high school newspaper club when Hiroshi was a year above Emiko. The pair quickly embark on a messy sexual relationship but when Emiko declares her love for him, Hiroshi coldly tells her that he was never interested in her as a person but merely as an anonymous body which could easily be replaced by any other female form. Despite his harsh treatment of her and her mother’s eventual discovery of the affair, Emiko continues to pursue Hiroshi until finally he does come to feel something for her which might be described as love. However, at this late stage of the game Emiko’s notions of love, sex, and desire have become so hopelessly confused that she is unable to comprehend the emotional landscape of her life.

It would be easy to read the case of Emiko as one of the “God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later” blues (to borrow a phrase from Sondheim), but it’s a little more complicated than that. After her father died at a young age Emiko was raised alone by her widowed mother who seems to cut an austere and somewhat distant figure. Her reaction to finding out about Emiko’s relationship with Hiroshi, which only occurs in the first place due to an extreme betrayal of trust, is veering into Carrie territory and only further emphasises how little emotional support Emiko has received from her central parental figure.

After having battled so hard to win some kind of attention from her cold and distant mother, Emiko learns to allow herself to be used and abused by uncaring men in the hope of one day winning their love. Hiroshi is not the focus of the narrative and his problems are less well addressed but no less interesting. His constant pleas with Emiko to simply leave him alone because he because he doesn’t care about her take on a passive aggressive quality in which one starts to wonder if it’s an oddly sado-masochistic way of ensuring she does exactly the opposite. The more he ignores her, the more she is committed to staying by his side. Though Emiko seems to be aware of how cruelly he treats her, she is unable to stop needing him even if she ruins her own life for nothing more than the simple reward of remaining in his general vicinity.

Undulant Fever is a deeply probing exploration of sex and desire and particularly how early relationships can forge the course of a person’s life. An earnest character drama, the film moves at a considered pace which leaves ample room for its protagonists’ complicated emotions. The cold and dispassionate approach is a perfect match for the heroine’s depressed and confused emotional state which leaves her doubting her entire concept of self as she travels from unloved teenage girl to a confused adult woman approaching an unsettled middle age. The surprisingly astute observations of the novel also ring true in the film which captures the book’s late ‘70s feminist leanings whilst at the same time painting a fairly bleak picture of the troubled emotional life of a flawed and damaged modern woman caught in a confusing maelstrom of love and desire.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD of Undulant Fever includes English subtitles.

Kabukicho Love Hotel (さよなら歌舞伎町, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2014)

165709_02Kabukicho Love Hotel (さよなら歌舞伎町, Sayonara Kabukicho), to go by its more prosaic English title, is a Runyonesque portrait of Tokyo’s red light district centered around the comings and goings of the Hotel Atlas – an establishment which rents by the hour and takes care not to ask too many questions of its clientele. The real aim of the collection of intersecting stories is more easily seen in the original Japanese title, Sayonara Kabukicho, as the vast majority of our protagonists decide to use today’s chaotic events to finally get out of this dead end town once and for all.

The first couple we meet, Toru and Saya are young and apparently in love though the relationship may have all but run its course. She’s a singer-songwriter chasing her artistic dreams while he longs for a successful career in the hotel industry. He hasn’t told her that far from working at a top hotel in the city, he’s currently slumming it at the Atlas. Our next two hopefuls are a couple of (illegal) Korean migrants – she wants to open a boutique, he a restaurant. She told him she works as a hostess (which he’s not so keen on but it pays well), but she’s a high class call girl well known to the staff at the Atlas. Our third couple are a little older – Satomi works at the Atlas as a cleaner but she has a secret at home in the form of her man, Yasuo, who can’t go outside because the couple is wanted for a violent crime nearly 15 years previously. In fact, in 48hrs the statute of limitations will pass and they can finally get on with their lives but until then Satomi will continue to check the wanted posters on the way to work. That’s not to mention the tale of the teenage runaway and the hard nosed yakuza who wanted to recruit her as a call girl but had a change of heart or the porn shoot on the second floor which stars a lady with an unexpected relationship to one of the hotel’s employees…

It’s all go in Kabukicho. The punters come (ahem), go and leave barely a mark save for the odd tragedy to remind you that this is the place nobody wanted to end up. In fact, the picture Hiroki paints of Kabukicho is the oddly realistic one of someone hovering on its fringes, acknowledging the darkness of the place but refusing to meet its eyes. Everybody is, or was, dreaming of something better – Toru with his job at a five star hotel and a sparkling career in hospitality, Satomi and her romance or the Korean couple who want to make enough money to go home and start again. In short, this isn’t the place you make your life – it’s the one you fall into after you’ve hit rock bottom and promptly want to forget all about after you’ve clawed your way out.

However, while you’re there, you’re invested in the idea of it not being all that bad, really. There’s warmth and humour among the staff at the hotel who treat this pretty much the same as any other job despite its occasional messiness. In fact, the agency for the which the Korean hopeful works is run by an oddly paternalistic “pimp” (this seems far to strong a word somehow) who sits around in an apron and chats, offering comfort and fatherly advice in between dispatching various pretty young girls off to any skeevy guy who wants to rent them for an hour or two.

That’s not to say anyone is happy here though, all anyone’s focussed on is getting out and by the end the majority of them decide it’s just not worth it and the time to leave is now. Kabukicho Love Hotel may be one of Hiroki’s most mainstream efforts (despite its far less frequent than you might expect though frank sexual content) but its overlong running time and its failure to fully unify its disperate ensemble stories make it a slightly flawed one. An interestingly whimsical black comedy that takes a humorous view of Kabukicho’s darkside, Kabukicho Love Hotel is perhaps one it’s fairly easy to check out of well before the end of your stay but does offer a few of its own particular charms over the duration of your visit.


Or perhaps, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave? We are all just prisoners here, of our own device….