A Dobugawa Dream (ドブ川番外地, Asato Watanabe, 2018)

Dobugawa Dream Raindance posterCan you outrun sorrow or should you just accept defeat and remain within a bubble of despair? Forced out of his self-isolation, the hero of Asato Watanabe’s debut feature A Dobugawa Dream (ドブ川番外地, Dobugawa Bangaichi) tries to find out, looking for a home among those who’ve fallen through the cracks. This down and out ditch town maybe where you end up when you don’t know where else to go, but there’s comfort in knowing others got there before you, if not so much in realising that they have all failed to leave, either accepting the imperfect present in rejection of a possible future, or wilfully residing in the past.

Highschooler Tatsumi (Yuwa Kitagaki) is a lost young man filled with pent-up rage and frustration. He hasn’t filled in his career survey because he has no idea what to put in it and no amount of irritated cajoling from a less than well-meaning teacher is likely to change that. His only outlet is the dream of sailing away with his best friend on the makeshift raft they’ve crafted from refuse at a disused boatyard, but that dream dies when he discovers him hanging, barefoot his body swaying in the breeze. Unable to process his loss and the guilt that accompanies it, Tatsumi imprisons himself in his room watching VHS tapes of old TV shows until a series of angry voices from the other side of the door eventually forces him out of his place of safety and into a strange new world.

Running blindly, Tatsumi wanders through a dream until he is eventually engulfed by a cheerful street funeral which turns out to be in honour of a man still alive – Tsuchiro, a middle-aged former shogi champ now a drunken rogue and what passes around here for a guardian spirit. Questioned by the local bobby, Tsuchiro passes Tatsumi off as his own son, a ruse no one believes but one with a grain of truth. In Tsuchiro, an infinitely cool presence all sunshades, yukata, and shit-eating grin, Tatsumi finds both a father figure and a double. Just as he is chasing the ghost of a friend he couldn’t save, Tsuchiro is in flight from himself, uncertain of his own identity now he no longer sees it reflected in the eyes of an opponent.

Trapped in this strange netherland, Tsuchiro has chosen oblivion. He drowns his sorrows but secretly plays shogi alone by nights while Tatsumi listens in silent consternation from the next room as his tiles click down on the bloodied board. Originally reluctant, Tatsumi finds himself becoming the older man, dressing in the cast-off clothes of the street and drinking himself out his sorrow but quickly becomes disillusioned with what he sees as Tsuchiro’s hypocrisy. The older man offers him a home among those who have nowhere else to go, but the wily bar hostess, though trapped herself, cautions him that he might not want to stay here, among the perpetually lost, for evermore.

A climactic argument sees Tsuchiro offer some tough love, telling Tatsumi that if he wants to stay he needs to leave his darkness at the door, but Tatsumi doesn’t want the superficial solution the older man has found. He’s angry, and he’s powerless, and not yet ready to face his pain but there are other people he will fail to save precisely because of his solipsistic rage – a lesson age tried to teach him but he was too impatient to see. Further loss and an altruistic act of sacrifice push him towards a reckoning in a deeper dream which allows him to interrogate the ghosts of the traumatic past and, perhaps, make his peace with them.

Alternating between bleak despair and absurd humour, A Dobugawa Dream takes its broken hero on an oneiric odyssey through grief, despair, and eventual rebirth as he learns to reconnect with the world around him and prepares to sail away from the traumatic past into the dreamed of future. Escaping the Dobugawa dreamscape, he takes its wisdom with him, no longer running but moving forward all the same. A beautifully composed and remarkably assured debut from Asato Watanabe, A Dobugawa Dream is both a tale of marginalised lives and the corrosive effects of unresolved trauma, and a gentle hymn to the sadness of letting go.


A Dobugawa Dream made its international premiere at Raindance 2019 courtesy of Third Window Films.

Teaser trailer

What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mitsuhito Shiraha, 2016)

What's for Dinner Mom posterJapanese cinema has a preoccupation with mothers and the nature of motherhood, but the mothers of the typical “hahamono” tend to be either saintly, self sacrificing figures whose selfless love often goes unrecognised, or problematic matriarchs whose fierce love and desire to protect their children has caused them to transgress and perhaps lose their children’s love. The mother at the centre of What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mama, Gohan Mada?) falls into a more realistic category – loving, self sacrificing, imperfect and perhaps sometimes misunderstood but always doing the best for her two daughters even in difficult circumstances. Where What’s For Dinner, Mom? differs from the accepted pattern is in its use of the domestic world to ask questions about culture and identity, and about all the various ways one never quite knows one’s family.

Tae (Haruka Kinami) and Yo (Izumi Fujimoto), sisters and now middle-aged women, are preparing to clear their family home 20 years after the death of their mother (Michiko Kawai). What’s taken them so long to make the decision is never revealed but both are as happy as possible about the idea and it seems Tae and her husband plan to knock the house down and build their own on the same plot – not quite so radical a thing as it might sound, Japan has no real housing market and “modern” houses are often knocked down and rebuilt every 20 to 30 years. Whilst packing things away, Tae finds a small box full of her mother’s keepsakes – chiefly letters and photographs along with a handwritten recipe book she began keeping in 1972.

Though Tae has lived in Japan for all her adult life, she was born in Taiwan and is half Taiwanese. Tae’s father passed away from lung cancer when she was small, but was a depressed, sometimes difficult man with ambivalent feelings towards his home nation. His own family had come from the mainland, but he’d lived in Taiwan under Japanese rule and attended university in Japan. He felt himself to be Japanese and was constantly upset and angry about the turbulent political situation of the post-war nation, facing its own series of identity crises and a protracted period of oppressive martial law.

Nevertheless, after their unpredictable whirlwind romance, Tae’s mother Kazue moved to Taiwan to live with her husband’s family and became determined to adapt to the local culture – chiefly through food. After her husband died in Japan, Kazue kept Taiwan alive for her daughters through continuing to cook the dishes she’d learned from her friends and family in Taiwan (even though her intensely “Japanese” husband only ever wanted to eat yudofu). Though Tae at one point urged to her mother to stop cooking Taiwanese and give her stereotypically cute high school bento, she quickly realised her mistake and Kazue’s unusual Taiwanese cooking became a local hit (even boosting the availability of the previously unobtainable pig’s trotters).

Despite her love of the food, Tae has all but forgotten her Taiwanese roots since her mother’s death and doesn’t know how to cook any of the dishes herself. Tae’s mild identity crisis comes to the fore in the second half of the film, though it’s an oddly under developed plot strand given the centrality of the cuisine. When she eventually makes the decision to visit her father’s remaining family, Tae seems to understand Taiwanese Mandarin but usually replies in Japanese (her uncle, accompanying her, is fluent). Like Kazue’s diary, Tae’s reminiscences are accompanied by on screen intertitles written in Chinese characters drawn childishly (even the characters which are identical to those used in Japanese are somewhat awkwardly rendered), which points to a kind of duality but is never really resolved even if Tae is able to explain a strange childhood memory and bring a piece of her past home with her.

Through her food odyssey and return to source, Tae is able to appreciate her mother’s love and sacrifice from an adult perspective, no longer left with teenage resentment and unfair anger over her early death but reclaiming her happy memories and appreciating the hardship her mother must have faced as a single mother in pre-bubble Japan. Despite its warm and fuzzy tone, What’s For Dinner, Mom? occasionally seems as if it wants to do something bigger by briefly introducing larger themes – Tae’s father’s depression, illness, the difficult political situation of post-war Taiwan, and the complex interplay between the two nations, but is content to settle back into a comforting “hahamono” tale of selfless motherhood finally appreciated only when it’s too late. Nevertheless it does what it set out to do in telling the story of a warm and loving family anchored by a kind yet determined woman and tables full of wholesome home cooking offered with an open, internationalist, heart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2016)

Good Morning Show posterThirty years before Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー), No More Comics showed us that the news is serious business and it seems the intervening three decades have not done much to change that. Good Morning Show is the kind of vacuous TV magazine programme that seems to have become popular the world over but Japan has mastered in its entirety. This is a news programme for people trying to avoid the news – there’s just enough of the essentials to keep the average viewer up to date with the big ticket item of the day, but the rest is horoscopes, cakes, and celebrity gossip. The morning news sets the mood for the rest of the day, and isn’t it in everyone’s interest if it’s blue skies all the way ahead? Perhaps so, but whatever happened to serious journalism?

Good Morning Show’s veteran anchor, Sumida (Kiichi Nakai), used to be a top talent on the evening news but a spot of “inappropriate” reporting from the scene of a disaster has had him relegated to the nonsensical early morning magazine show which involves getting up at 3am everyday and becoming something of an expert on pastries. Sumida’s day starts badly when he gets up to find his wife (Yo Yoshida) and son (Mihiro) still awake. As it turns out, there’s a family crisis. Sumida’s student son has got his girlfriend pregnant and has decided to do the right thing and get married, no matter what his dad might have to say about it. Sumida is definitely not happy but he’s also late for work. On the way, he finds out that his co-anchor, Keiko (Masami Nagasawa), with whom he apparently had some kind of drunken indiscretion, has decided that they’re now a couple and is about to announce as much live on air. Luckily for Sumida, a third crisis enters his life when a gunman (Gaku Hamada) takes a cafe hostage and asks directly for the Good Morning Show host to visit him at the scene.

The Good Morning Show exists entirely to cater to its audience’s baser instincts, but its simple charms are apparently going out of style and the show will be cancelled if they don’t get their numbers up soon. The hostage crisis is a godsend in this regard as is Sumida’s unexpected importance to the case which gets the show on the ground reporting live from the scene with exclusive access. Given this shift in broadcast tastes, it’s strange there’s no reference to social media though Good Morning Show is apparently viewable via the internet with a large portion of the audience tuning in on their smartphones during their morning commute. This sense of “community” seems to be key to the show’s appeal as the interactive poling which usually asks silly questions intended to spark debate such as whether or not to throw out gifts from old lovers, becomes central to the hostage case in deciding whether Sumida and the gunman should live or die live on air.

The gunman, like many, turns out to be just another angry young man frustrated that no one will listen to his complaints. At first it looks like Sumida may be in some way responsible, either because of his botched reporting on an earlier disaster or a connection to an incident in the cafe some years previously, but it turns out the major factor is a kind of hypocritical smugness that’s become the Good Morning Show’s trademark. For all of his frustrations with the format, Sumida is depressingly good at mindless twaddle and his fake “worry” about the future of the nation has got the gunman’s back up. The key issue is still more personal as the gunman feels himself excluded from the community feeling fostered by the show when he tries to make himself heard via its channels and is ignored.

A definite irony when Good Morning Show’s major selling point is “ignoring” the real news. Yes, they run a small item on the important headline of the day which provides Sumida a chance to “worry” about corrupt politicians misappropriating public funds etc, but then the show moves on to more cheerful areas like celebrity affairs and delicious cakes. Sumida ends up committing the newsman’s mortal sin – he becomes the news, much as the reporter at the centre of No More Comics did before him, though like the show itself it’s the personal which wins the day. Saying the things he couldn’t say to directly to his own son, Sumida tries to forge a connection with the gunman who is not a bad person, just another youngster at the end of his tether with an uncaring world. The connections are made through glass, but they are made all the same (even if imperfectly and with less than total honesty). Good Morning Show is, like its namesake, a fairly disposable effort but fun while it lasts. Then again sometimes the most harmless things do the most harm.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Their Distance (知らない、ふたり, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2015)

Their DistanceAh young love! So beautiful, so complicated, so retrospectively trivial. Intrigue engulfs a group of young Koreans living in Japan, their co-workers, and even their English teacher and her fiancee in Rikiya Imaizumi’s indie youth meets boyband quirky romance movie, Their Distance (知らない、ふたり, Shiranai Futari). The aptly named picture paints a vista of misdirected love, miscommunication and misjudged honesty to show how messy romance can be even when it’s intent on being cute.

The hub of the story is a small shoe repair store where Korean migrant Leon (Ren) is an apprentice. Having been involved in a traumatic incident two years previously which has left him with a huge amount of personal guilt, he’s entirely cut himself off from human interaction of any kind, leaving the store each lunchtime to eat alone and miserably on a solitary bench surrounded by concrete. Despite this, one of his Japanese colleagues, Kokaze (Fumiko Aoyagi) has developed a crush on him and is patiently waiting for him to decide it’s OK to be happy again.

Events are set in motion when he finds fellow Korean Suna (Hanae Kan) asleep on his favourite bench after a night of binge drinking to forget her troubles with boyfriend Ji-woo (JR) who’s developed a thing for his English teacher, Kanako (Haruka Kinami). Kanako, as well as being a little older, has a fiancee already, Awakawa (Tateto Serizawa), who happens to be in a wheelchair following an accident, before which he had also been cheating on her. The two Koreans are also joined by a third who works with Suna at her part-time job at a convenience store, Sangsoo (Min-hyun). Sangsoo ends up in the shoe repair store where he falls for Kokaze, completing our love…heptagon?

This is all very complicated already. Ji-woo decides to unburden himself by revealing his feelings for his teacher to Suna even though he doesn’t actually want to break up with her and the teacher turns him down for a number of very sensible reasons. His case of (probably selfish) extreme honesty sends Suna into a bout of drunken confusion during which she meets Leon and becomes semi-attached to him despite not being able to remember much about him because she was pretty much out of it the whole time.

Flitting between the innocence of a hand written love letter to quasi-stalking, and even a third layer of stalking the stalker, Their Distance has an oddly schizophrenic tone which darts between quirky comedy and serious drama without much consistency. The most interesting plot thread concerns Kanako and her fiancee who are both a little older and ought to know what they’re doing but only seem to confuse and mislead each other even when they’re making a point of mutual honesty. Neither can be sure of why the other is still in the relationship and if the true love partner is the wheelchair itself – did she stay because she didn’t want to leave a disabled man (even though he’d been cheating on her before the accident), or did he stay with her because now he’s in the wheelchair he thinks he won’t find anyone else? Arawaka gives Kanako an out by offering to separate so she can pursue her dreams of living abroad and travelling the world but refuses to say one way or the other what his true feelings about the marriage are causing more than a little emotional confusion for the put-upon Kanako who is also getting drawn into the maelstrom of her students’ romantic problems too.

Ji-woo treats Suna in a similar way by revealing his growing feelings for Kanako yet leaving all the decisions entirely in her hands. He claims he’s doing the right thing by being “honest” but actually he’s being a coward by refusing to choose (and anyway, seeing as the teacher turned him down there’s no real reason to tell her). This kind of childishness is almost forgivable in the younger guys who, after all, are still inexperienced, but in a man of Arakawa’s age, diffidence is far from an attractive quality.

Imaizumi has three members of top Korean boy band NU’EST as his gang of Korean émigrés and has half an eye on cute idol drama with the other half pointed firmly at the indie/arthouse scene. Though the performances are strong across the board, Imaizumi never quite manages to reconcile these two distinct forms and his detached, almost ironic tone may not hit home with an audience primed for pop star drama. Ultimately, Their Distance has relatively little to say, its message is very slight indeed, and it takes an awful long time to deliver. However, Imaizumi’s observations about romance through the ages have a universal and timeless quality which along with the mild humour and generosity of spirit on show make Their Distance worth the journey, though not perhaps the fare.


Their Distance is actually available now in the UK and other regions from Nikkatsu via iTunes either as an enhanced iOS app or as a regular video from the store (where it has subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese).  You can apparently rent it on Nikkatsu’s YouTube channel too as well as Google Play and Vimeo (click the link to the YouTube page in the video below for a full collection of subtitle/territory specific links for each of the platforms).