Romance Doll (ロマンスドール, Yuki Tanada, 2020)

According to an assistant at the factory where the hero of Yuki Tanada’s Romance Doll (ロマンスドール) is eventually employed, what were once called “sex dolls” or the euphemistic “Dutch Wives” (apparently named for a kind of bolster used by sailors) are now marketed as “love dolls”. The difference may be largely semantic, subsuming the physical within the emotional, but speaks to a discomforting dehumanisation of the female form something which barely occurs to the sculptor even as he slowly chips away at his patient wife, gradually erasing her as he dedicates himself to crafting the perfect love doll which is, it has to be said, a woman devoid of agency who can never talk back, challenge male authority, or wound the male ego. 

It’s this insecure fear of intimacy which eventually creates distance and loneliness in the marriage of the sculptor Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi) who hides the fact that he sculpts sex dolls for a living from his wife Sonoko (Yu Aoi) for fear that she will reject him. Tetsuo was himself “tricked” into taking the job as an unemployed graduate in need of work. He does so because he needs the money but also feels guilty, not because he finds the work morally objectionable, but because he has no investment in sex dolls as a craft while the man who’s just employed him, Kinji (Kitaro), has made the creation of the perfect model his life’s dream. 

One the one hand, Tetsuo and Kinji are craftsmen and so the fact of what they’re crafting is largely irrelevant, the important thing being the earnest pursuit of artistry in building beautiful devices whether they be sex aids or sewing machines. But others might not see it that way and in fact the dolls can only be sold as novelties with strict regulations in place to prevent “obscenity”. Concerned that the models lack realism, Kinji comes up with the idea of taking a mould of a real woman’s breasts but given all of the above they can hardly advertise what it’s for. Sonoko answers the ad because she thinks it’s for medical prosthetics, that she’ll be helping other women not providing masturbatory aids for lonely men. The moment Tetsuo touches her breasts he’s hit with a kind of epiphany and is moved to confess his real feelings as he says possibly for the first and last time in his life, while Sonoko too recounts that in his touch she could innately feel that he was an awkward but kind person which is why she fell in love with him. They marry and are happy, but he keeps the nature of his work a secret and becomes so consumed with the idea of capturing the perfection of the female form that he never looks beyond the surface of his wife and, ironically, begins to neglect her physically. 

It’s the secret keeping, the miscommunication and the fear of intimacy that eventually begin to drive them apart. She wants to tell him something important, but he doesn’t listen to her, never notices that she is unhappy or suffering and becomes petulant and resentful on realising that she has lied to him about where she was while she was away from home not realising that she felt unable to tell him because he is not and never has been emotionally available to her. He pours his “love” into the doll, and by doing so he depletes her. Sonoko becomes merely fuel for her husband’s artistic fulfilment until her metamorphosis into a doll is finally complete.

Told entirely from Tetsuo’s perspective, Tanada’s screenplay leans unexpectedly hard into a series of outdated patriarchal social codes which it ultimately reinforces rather than critiques. Tetsuo’s marital dilemma is reframed as a workplace conundrum over whether to pursue the new frontiers of elastomer or stick with the tried and tested silicone which is apparently fragile yet beautiful much like life as Tetsuo is forced to reflect on the transience of all things including love and romance. Something can be beautiful even as it rots, cherry trees still blossom even while they’re dying and there’s nothing that lasts “forever” except perhaps loss. Tetsuo tells himself that others saw Sonoko as the “ideal wife” in that she was “beautiful, a good cook, pristine, modest, and respects her husband” but apparently only he knew that she was also “nice and horny” which even if charitably taken as reclaiming her right to sexual agency is still a crass statement in the circumstances given that he has just reduced her to a literal receptacle for male desire. 

Tetsuo may feel a smattering of conflict when an early model proves successful enough to hit the mainstream media, a happy customer declaring that he’s giving up on real women, but continues to pursue his craft even while reflecting on the poetic symmetry that his wife is disappearing as his creation grows. It’s impossible to avoid the implication that what men want is a sex doll who can cook and clean, a vacant automaton who caters entirely to their desires with no interior life of her own because they are too insecure to want to deal with a real woman who is capable of hurting them emotionally. Straying uncomfortably towards a kind of sublimated necrophilia, Tetsuo only belatedly realises that his wife was more than mere object in the uncomfortable vacancy of the unresponsive silicone. Kinji had wanted to create a doll which looked as if it may come to life, as if it almost had a soul, but the key is in the almost. Rather than a meditation on the destructive effects of miscommunication and emotional insecurity, we’re left with a contemplation of art and the artist in which a man’s artistic fulfilment is valued above a woman’s life, his destruction of her permissible in the perfection of his art. Some things it seems don’t change, women are mere “romance dolls” valued only for their response to male desire be it in art or in “love”.


Romance Doll is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Yuki Tanada, 2016)

Family. It can be surprisingly hard work. The rootless patriarch at the centre of Yuki Tanada’s exploration of the dissolution of the family in contemporary society My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Otosan to Ito-san) is a case in point, “stubborn and difficult” as his daughter describes him to the man she lives with but had never seen the need to introduce to her relatives. He might be impossible, a “ticking time bomb”, but he’s still your dad even if he doesn’t approve of any of your life choices and insists on presiding over your home as if it were a schoolroom and he the headmaster. 

34-year-old Aya (Juri Ueno) is currently living with but not legally married to Mr. Ito (Lily Franky), a 54-year-old school cafeteria assistant she met while they were both working part-time at the same convenience store. Despite the age difference, the couple are very well suited and though they are not exactly wealthy, Aya now working part-time in a bookshop, they have enough for what they need and enjoy a quiet life growing their own produce in the small patch of garden behind their apartment. She is evidently not particularly close with her brother Kiyoshi (Tomoharu Hasegawa) who had no idea she is no longer living alone, otherwise he might not have asked her to take in their widowed 74-year old father for the next six months while his twins cram for exams to get them into an elite middle school. He quickly apologises, but as soon as Aya gets home she realises they have an unexpected visitor. Dad (Tatsuya Fuji) has already arrived carrying a mysterious box and is non-plussed to say the least on having encountered Mr. Ito. Nevertheless, he abruptly declares that he’ll be moving in, announcing that he prefers Japanese-style food, lightly seasoned. 

Dad, as he points out, was a schoolteacher for 40 years and has a distinctly conservative, authoritarian outlook. He’s not been in Aya’s apartment more than a few minutes before he starts criticising her lifestyle choices, though evidently like Kiyoshi he knew almost nothing about her and had no idea that she is not a regular company employee but a laidback part-timer. Obviously, he has issues with Mr. Ito, not least the age gap, but also with his equally laidback approach to life, poking Aya for information by idly remarking on the private lives of baseball players in the paper while she reveals that she knows almost nothing of him save that as far as she can remember he’s from Yokohama and has been married once before. She has no desire to know who he was before he met her and is happy enough to know the man he is now and draw her conclusions from that. 

Mr. Ito does indeed seem to be a very nice man, played by Franky with a characteristically laidback charm. Detecting a degree of hostility between father and daughter he tries to diffuse the situation with patience and kindness, immediately making space for Dad in their lives and trying to accommodate him as best as possible despite his unpleasantness and tendency to correct their “bad habits” such as serving teriyaki sauce with tonkatsu like common people while the civilised settle only for “Wooster”. After an initial period of hostility, Dad eventually warms to Mr. Ito, describing him as “my son-in-law” and bonding with him over manly things like power drills and oversize screws to the extent that he eventually considers moving back to his childhood country home and randomly asks Mr. Ito, but not his daughter, to come too. 

Mr. Ito, however is no Noriko, the child-by-marriage who alone is willing to shoulder the burden of filial responsibility, only someone attempting to mediate a difficult family situation. We realise that the reason Dad has been kicked out of Kiyoshi’s house is because he’s driven his wife Ririko (Sei Ando) into a near nervous breakdown with his tyrannous tendency for “correcting” what he sees as poor behaviour, apparently even criticising the way his late wife held her chopsticks right up until the day she died. His behaviour borders on the abusive and though we have no idea how his wife coped with it, it’s clearly too much for Ririko who is consumed with guilt in having “failed” in her filial responsibilities as daughter-in-law by no longer being able to bear his constant microaggressions, the final straw of which is apparently his attempt to interfere in the kids’ education by demanding they put a stop to the intensive cram schooling and give-up on elitist private tuition.

Aya and Kiyoshi could not be more different, he a wealthy and conservative middle-class salaryman obsessed with money and status, and she a laidback, hippieish part-timer happy to live the simple life. Dad disapproves of them both. After all things were different in his day, but perhaps he’s not quite as rigid as you’d think, quickly getting over his qualms about his daughter living over the brush with a man 20 years her senior while sick of his children’s “pity” and realising that he’s not wanted in either home even if superficially tolerated. Mr. Ito advises him to take some responsibility for himself, but is also keen to help Aya do the same by supporting her desire to take care of her difficult dad even if traditionally speaking the “obligation” is Kiyoshi’s by reassuring her she won’t have to make a choice even if Dad is a definite loose cannon. Capricious to the last, he may surprise them yet again with another unilateral decision but perhaps it’s never really too late to make up for lost time.


My Dad and Mr. Ito streams for free in the US on June 20 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Father’s Day Cheer mini series. Sign up to receive the viewing link (limited to 300 views) and activate it between 2pm and 10pm CDT after which you’ll have 24 hours to complete watching the movie.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Tatsushi Omori, 2018)

Everyday a good day posterTatsushi Omori burst onto the scene in 2005 with the extremely hard-hitting and infinitely controversial The Whispering of the Gods before going on to build a career on chronicling the unpalatable facets of human nature. He does have his lighter sides as the delightfully whimsical Seto and Utsumi proves, but even so he might be thought an odd fit for directing an adaptation of a series of autobiographical essays detailing one woman’s personal growth over a 20 year period spent perfecting the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu) is, however, like much of his previous work, a story of youthful ennui and existential despair only one in which it turns out that the world is basically good once you agree to embrace it for what it is.

The film opens in 1993 with the heroine, Noriko (Haru Kuroki), a confused college student unsure of the forward direction of her life. Often ridiculed by her family for being clumsy and neurotic, Noriko compares herself unfavourably with her glamorous cousin Michiko (Mikako Tabe) who has come to the city from the country to study and appears to have her whole life already mapped out with a confidence Noriko could only dream of. A turning point arrives when she’s talked into accompanying Michiko to learn tea ceremony from a kindly old lady, Mrs. Takeda (Kirin Kiki), who lives nearby. Despite regarding tea ceremony as something fussy and old fashioned that only conservative housewives aspire to learn, Noriko begins to develop a fondness for its formalist rigour and continues dutifully attending classes for the next 24 years.

“Carry light things as if they were heavy, and heavy things as if they were light” Noriko is told as she clumsily tries to carry an urn from one room to another, though like much of Takeda-sensei’s advice it serves as a general lesson on life itself. Mystified by the entire process, Noriko and Michiko make the mistake of trying to ask practical questions about why something must be done in a particular way only for Takeda-sensei to admit she doesn’t know, it simply is and must be so. To look for that kind of literal meaning would be a waste of time.

Of course, she doesn’t quite put it that way. As Noriko later realises, some things are easy to understand and need only be done once. Other things take longer and can only be understood through a weight of experience. Just as she was bored out her mind by La Strada at 10 but moved to tears at 20, the discrete pleasures of the tea ceremony are something only fully comprehended when the right moment arrives. What was once empty formalism becomes a framework for appreciating the world in all its complexity, embracing each of the seasons as they pass and learning to live exactly in the moment in the knowledge that a moment is both eternal and transient.

Noriko continues to feel herself out of place as she witnesses those around her progress in their careers, get married, or go abroad while she remains stuck, unable to find a direction in which to move. Even tea ceremony occasionally betrays her as new pupils arrive, depart, and sometimes wound her newfound sense of confidence by quickly eclipsing her. Nevertheless, the calm and serenity of ritualised motion become a place of refuge from the confusing outside world while also offering a warmth and friendship perhaps unexpected in such an otherwise ordered existence.

Over almost a quarter of a century, Noriko’s life goes through a series of changes from career worries to romantic heartbreak, learning to love again, and bereavement, while tea ceremony remains her only constant. She may not yet have discovered the path to happiness, but perhaps has begun to reach an understanding of it and believe that it might exist in some future moment – as Takeda-sensei says, there are flowers which bloom only in winter. In any case, what she’s learned is that sometimes it’s better not to overthink things and simply experience them to the best of your ability while you’re both still around. Every day really is a good day when you learn to slow down and truly appreciate it, living in the moment while the moment lasts in acknowledgement that it will never come again.


Every Day a Good Day was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ, Isao Yukisada, 2018)

River's Edge poster 2The ‘90s were a strange time to be a teenager, but then what age isn’t? Isao Yukisada, surprisingly making his first manga adaptation, brings Kyoko Okazaki’s cult hit River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ) to the big screen, recreating those days of nihilistic despair in which ordinary teens spiralled out of control in the wake the bubble bursting, watching all their possibilities disappear in a cloud of smoke. Set in 1994, River’s Edge is a post-bubble story but it also takes place in the period immediately before everything started to go wrong. In 1995 there was a devastating earthquake followed by terror in Tokyo and somehow it all seemed so dark – something the kids at the centre of River’s Edge already seem to see as they watch time flow, knowing all that awaits them is yet more emptiness.

Haruna (Fumi Nikaido), a spirited tomboy and latchkey kid living with her busy single-mother, is in a lazy relationship with violent popular boy Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi) though in truth she doesn’t seem to like him very much. One of her major problems with Kannonzaki is that he keeps picking on one particular guy, Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is rumoured to be gay. Warned by one of Kannonzaki’s minions, Haruna races off to an abandoned storeroom where she finds Yamada trussed up and naked hidden inside a locker. The pair become friends and he offers to show her his “special treasure” which turns out to be a dead body hidden among the reeds near the edge of the river. Yamada, with another friend, Kozue (Sumire) – a model with an eating disorder, likes to come to the river to gaze at the body in an effort to feel alive.

The ‘90s were full of tales of cruel, emotionless youth torturing itself without mercy and there is something of the era’s insensitivity in the detachment of the central trio. Unable to feel alive, the teens of River’s Edge chase sensation and oblivion through indiscriminate sex, drugs, violence, and self harm but rarely find the kind of fulfilment they so desperately crave. Kannonzaki, the rowdy delinquent, blames his broken home for his lack of connection, making a fierce resentment of a perceived rejection his excuse for his dangerously violent proclivities which run not only to venting his rage on the figure of the gay outsider Yamada but also to drug fuelled rough sex with one of Haruna’s classmates, Rumi (Shiori Doi), who is also chasing agency through sexuality but eventually finds herself cornered in the most terrible of ways.

Yamada is indeed gay, but can hardly say so in the environment in which he lives and so has turned in on himself with a near sociopathic detachment. Having given up on the idea of romantic fulfilment he has resigned himself to loving the object of his affection from afar, happy enough that he exists in the world even if he can never declare himself let alone dare to hope his feelings may be returned. Yamada works as a rent boy in the evenings, going to hotels with middle-aged men for money, but has a fake girlfriend at school, Kanna (Aoi Morikawa), whom he uses as a beard. Kanna, seemingly sweet and oblivious, soon becomes jealous of her boyfriend’s friendship with Haruna and is driven into her own kind of despair by Yamada’s continued coldness.

There’s an especial irony in Yamada’s use of Kanna which is almost certainly not lost on him. These kids, like many before them, abhor the fakery of the adult world but are also unable to embrace their own painful truths. Yamada covers up his sexuality through misleading Kanna, while Kannonzaki is resentful towards his parents who put on a front of marital harmony even after his father ran off with his mistress only to come back a week later with his tail between his legs, and Kozue laments the superficiality of her industry in which everyone falls over themselves to declare something ugly beautiful in order to make themselves feel better. There are no responsible adults here, having ruined the future for their kids they no longer have any kind of moral authority that can offer guidance or support to a jaded generation.

Shooting in the classic 4:3 of a ‘90s TV, Yukisada recreates the narrowness of an era in which the kids struggle to see past themselves, blinkered by their own solipsistic perspective and trapped by the shallowness of their perceptions. Permanently dark, gloomy, and lonely their world is one nihilistic despair in which they feel themselves already dead, living in the half-dug grave of a moribund city giving off its last few puffs of toxic industrial smoke before the whole thing collapses in on itself. In one sense nothing changes, there are no answers or cures for adolescent malaise, but something does eventually seem to shift in the genuine connection formed between two detached outsiders standing on the brink, watching the decay of their era flow past them with melancholy resignation.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)