Erica 38 (エリカ38, Yuichi Hibi, 2019)

Erica 38 poster“Everybody’s life is in someway unfulfilling”, admits the philosophical victim of a con woman in ripped from the headlines tale Erica 38 (エリカ38). “It’s like a crutch” he adds, without a little fantasy you can’t go on. Like the “Erica” of the title, her victims are also looking for escape from an unsatisfying reality, and unfortunately for them already have what she feels would make her life more bearable – vast wealth. Returning to Japan after three decades abroad, director Yuichi Hibi does his best to humanise the figure of the coldhearted grifter, painting her as just another disappointed, lonely old woman desperately trying to recapture the sense of possibility so cruelly denied her in youth.

Later rebranding herself as “Erica”, a 38-year-old woman of means, our “heroine” is Satoko Watanabe (Miyoko Asada), an ageing bar hostess supplementing her income by peddling a dodgy multi-vitamin pyramid scheme to bored housewives eager to make a few extra bucks. Her sales pitch, however, gets her noticed by a refined old woman sitting close by in an upscale hotel during in one of her sessions. The woman, Mrs. Ito (Midori Kiuchi), introduces her to a “friend”, Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), who cuts in with a sales pitch of his own in branding himself as a paid up member of the global elite who works with the Pentagon on important international matters. Hirasawa heavily implies his business is not quite on the level, but Satoko, captivated by his suave sophistication, fails to realise just how dodgy he really is. Before long, she’s joined him in his “consultation” business, selling fraudulent investment opportunities in the emerging market of Cambodia.

It is surprisingly easy to sympathise with the dejected Satoko as she falls under Hirasawa’s spell. Already well into her 50s when the film begins and clearly over 60 when she rebrands herself as the 38-year-old Erica, Satoko has led an unhappy life beginning with a traumatic childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive, adulterous father. The only memory of joy from her youth is when she and her mother (Kirin Kiki) giggled together after accidentally tipping rat poison into dad’s miso soup. Life since then, it seems, has been one disappointment after another spent in the hostess bars of Kabukicho. What all of that means, however, is that she’s become skilled in the art of selling fantasy. All that time invested in extracting cold hard cash from lonely men has set her in good stead for selling unrealistic investment opportunities to the already comfortably off.

Unrepentant, Satoko tells herself that she bears no responsibility towards those who lost money in her scams because they were chasing exactly the same thing she was – escape, and they both found it at least for a moment. Her victims made the decision themselves, she never forced anyone, and so it’s their own fault that they fell for her patter while she perhaps laments only that she’s been foolish and profligate in not planning better for the eventual implosion of all her schemes.

“There’s a thin line between real and fake”, she tells a party guest admiring one of her paintings, “if someone sees it as real then real it is”. Satoko’s cons are, in essence, an extension of the paradox of the hostess business. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen that the business isn’t legitimate, but like a salaryman in a hostess bar they invest in the semblance of connection while knowing in a sense that isn’t “real”. Ironically enough, Satoko is forced to realise that the first victim of her subterfuge is herself. Chasing a dream of love, she fell hard for Hirasawa without thinking him through. Hirasawa succeeds in his schemes because he’s scrupulously careful in maintaining his persona – he operates out of hotels, has no fixed address, and uses several cellphones. As Satoko later finds out, he is effectively running a harem, romancing several women all like herself bringing in the big bucks while he sits back relatively risk free. She has been used, once again.

The implosion of her dream of romantic escape is what sends her to Thailand where she ponders a reset, rebranding herself as the 38-year-old Erica of the title and beginning an affair with a young and handsome Thai man she rescued from gangsters with her ill-gotten gains. Porche (Woraphop Klaisang) later describes her as “My Angel”, of course realising that she was much older than she claimed but claiming not to care. It may be that he really did love her, but you can’t ignore the corruption of all that money and the power that it buys. In the end, money can’t buy you love, or a path out of loneliness, or a cure for disappointment.

Satoko was, like many, just another lonely, disappointed old lady trying to escape an unsatisfying present through a fantasy of returning to the past, rebooting herself as a successful business woman, loved and in love, as someone with a brighter future to look forward to. Her sales patter worked because it was “true”, the similarly dejected could sense in her the desperation for escape and as they wanted to escape too they let her take them with her. A melancholy tale of delusion and disillusionment, Erica 38 has immense sympathy for the scammer and the scammed painting them both as victims of an often unfair, conformist society in which freedom is the rarest commodity of them all.


Erica 38 screens in New York on July 25 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Kanata Wolf, 2017)

Smokin' on the Moon posterSlacker drama has become a mainstay of the Japanese indie scene as aimless young men drift freely in a society which promises them little and threatens to take much. Even so they’ve rarely been quite so genially lost as the pair at the centre of Kanata Wolf’s Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Niwatori★Star) whose relatively serene life of stoner bliss is radically derailed after a dramatic encounter with a psychotic yakuza drug dealer. Dreaming of escape, a better life somewhere else, the pair find themselves taking very different paths as they reflect on their familial pasts, broken dreams, and future promises.

34-year-old Sota (Arata Iura) and his younger unofficial roommate and official best friend Rakuto (Ryo Narita) live a “simple” life of casual work which pays for rent and getting stoned if not much else. They are broadly “happy” with their aimless drop out lives and determined not to get involved with the shadier sides of their underworld existence by avoiding the pull of hard drugs and gangster hang outs. All that ends up going by the wayside when their dealer, Jay (Peron Yasu), is offed by sadistic yakuza Hatta (Kanji Tsuda) who makes a point of dropping in on the boys to ask them if they know where Jay might be in order to make sure they don’t. Being directly confronted with gangster violence sparks Sota into a series of epiphanies as he suddenly realises that the stoner life is not a good fit for a man of 34, while Rakuto, who has few other options, considers throwing his lot in with Hatta if only to remain on the sidelines of organised crime.

Sota, son of an Osakan okonomiyaki restaurant owner (Eiji Okuda), left home in flight of family legacy, bored with boring small-town life and resentful of his “destiny” as the heir to a family business. Eight years in Tokyo, however, have been largely wasted, squandered away on constant evasion with nothing more to show for his time than a few crazy stories and a deeply held friendship. Sota does at least have a safety net, he can always go home to a family that will welcome him with open arms. Rakuto is not so lucky. Harbouring deep seated resentment towards his mother who was unable to protect him from a violent step-father, Rakuto fled Okinawa to escape the memory of a traumatic childhood which is perhaps why he finds himself becoming a surrogate father to a little boy whose mother, as it turns out an old friend of his, desperately tries to kick a crack habit given to her by an unforgiving city even as it crushed her dreams of musical success.

Discovering an old report card on which he’d written that his greatest ambition was to work hard for his family, Rakuto decides he needs to buck up and become a responsible husband and father who can provide a stable home for a woman and a child. There are, however, few opportunities for middle-school dropouts and even those there are Rakuto has already disqualified himself from thanks to his stoner looks which include fiery red hair and several prominent tattoos (prohibited in almost every conceivable “decent” job in Japan). Thus he feels his only option is to become a kind of errand boy for Hatta, naively believing he will allow him to remain in the shallower end of the gangster pool just dealing weed and making deliveries rather than pushing hard drugs or getting involved in violence. While Sota finds peace in the country, Rakuto begins to build the family life he’d always dreamed of while trying to cope with the constant anxieties of being an underling to a bunch of unhinged crooks.

Wolf shifts registers throughout – starting off in stoner comedy where our heroes inhabit a bohemian world of gay bars and randy landladies, shifting into crime thriller as the nasty gangsters rear their heads, and then finally ending up in masculine melodrama as Sota recounts the sad story of his friend who, despite his good heart, finds himself a victim of fate rather than of himself or even of his society. Mixing strange animation and surrealist diversions with an affecting tale of friendship, Smokin’ on the Moon is another sad story of those unable to find their place in the world taking refuge in each other only to find a melancholy compromise even as fate threatens to rob them of the little joys they’ve found.


Smokin’ on the Moon screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July at 9.15 pm plus Q&A with director Kanata Wolf

(Kanata Wolf (かなた狼) previously known as Yuichiro Tanaka (たなか雄一狼). Surname is Wolf as per official website).

Original trailer (no subtitles)