Small, Slow But Steady (ケイコ 目を澄ませて, Sho Miyake, 2022)

Part way through Sho Miyake’s empathetic character study Small, Slow But Steady (ケイコ 目を澄ませて, Keiko, Me wo Sumasete), an older man visits a doctor and is told that though he may think there is nothing really to worry about at the moment, a tiny drop of water falling steadily can soon make its mark in stone. It’s in one sense the small, slow, but steady stresses of everyday life that have eaten away at the soul of Keiko (Yukino Kishii), an aspiring boxer who is fast losing the will the fight. Yet it is also a small, slow, but steady process that allows her to begin moving again, climbing a new hill towards the next bout no longer so afraid of leaving the safety of the familiar. 

Deaf since birth, Keiko became a professional boxer two years previously and makes ends meet with a part-time job in housekeeping at an upscale hotel. Miyake often positions her as in a way free of the frenetic nature of the noisy city, unaffected by the shouts of rude passersby and unlike the men at her boxing gym never subjected to angry rants from her coaches. Yet it’s also at times as if she feels a kind of loneliness in the minor rejections of an indifferent society which often fails to cater to her difference. Few people are able to sign, even those at her gym haven’t learned, while others are sometimes impatient in her attempts to communicate. The restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic meanwhile only make things worse for her given that constant masking means she can no longer rely on lipreading nor can she hear the public health messages being blasted out in public spaces reminding citizens that there is a state of emergency in place and they should restrict their journeys to the barest of essentials. 

Then again, in the gym, she obviously cannot sign because the gloves her impede her ability to communicate. Nor can she hear the session bell or words of encouragement and advice from her coaches and the crowd. The chairman of the boxing club (Tomokazu Miura) admits in an interview that deafness is potentially fatal for a boxer, but that what Keiko may crave is a kind of internal peace in the surrender to the purely physical which allows her to empty her mind of everyday troubles. She may have taken up boxing as some say after being bullied as a child because of her disability, quite literally fighting back against a conformist society she refuses to beaten by, but has also found something reassuring in its slow and steady rhythms that allows her to reorient herself blow after blow. 

The chairman also says, however, that it’s not a matter of having a preternatural talent so much as a steady work ethic and above all a big a heart, describing her finally as simply “a really nice person”. “Why don’t you have your guard up properly?” another of her coaches asks her, while her brother having noticed there is obviously something bothering her tries to get her to talk, only for her to point out that “talking doesn’t doesn’t make a person any less alone”. With rumours the pandemic, along with the boss’ failing health, will finally take the boxing gym too, Keiko fears losing this final safe space but finds herself unable to stand up and fight for it. Though she had struggled to find a gym who would accommodate her disability, she is ambivalent when a new solution is found in an empathetic female coach (Makiko Watanabe) running a modern training facility who is learning sign language and keen to empower her in her own decision making rather than patronise or railroad her. Afraid of getting hurt, she takes a step back unwilling leave the security of the past for the possibility of the future. 

As Keiko reminds herself in her diary, self-control is the most important thing and the force she struggles with, suddenly losing her concentration in the middle of a match because the thoughtless referee keeps telling her to listen to him when he calls stop. In the end, it’s something quite trivial that sets her back on the path, a kind yet seemingly meaningless moment of acknowledgement from an unexpected source. Shot in a richly textured 16mm, Miyake captures Keiko’s isolated everyday with stunning clarity finding her alone amid the noisy city staring into space and looking for direction. Using intertitles to translate sign language his composition mimics that of a silent movie and lends an almost elegiac quality to the moribund boxing gym as it becomes an accidental victim of its times but ends on a note of quite resilience in the small, slow, but steady rhythms of gentle forward motion. 


Small, Slow But Steady screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International 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