My Brother, the Android and Me (弟とアンドロイドと僕, Junji Sakamoto, 2022)

“You’re a real weirdo, aren’t you?” the lonely hero of Junji Sakamoto’s existential psychodrama My Brother, the Android and Me (弟とアンドロイドと僕, Ototo to Android to Boku) is constantly told not least by his exasperated and unsympathetic boss but on another level may be the most human of them all longing for a sense of connection in a world which seems to have rejected him to the point that he is no longer sure whether or not he actually exists. Quite clearly drawing inspiration from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus as well as its many film adaptations though most obviously the 1931 Universal Horror classic, Sakamoto’s oblique chronicle of crippling loneliness presents a man estranged from himself but looking for comfort in his reflected image. 

Sakamoto opens the film in true gothic fashion, his hero Kaoru (Etsushi Toyokawa) a dark and mysterious figure obscured by an oilskin coat amid the ever falling rain illuminated only by the light of an ominous moon. As we discover he works as a university professor but says nothing to his students other than making an apology for his poor handwriting, sometimes writing with both hands at once as he recreates complex algorithms on an old-fashioned chalkboard. The students all mock him, not least because of a curious neurological condition which prevents him from fully controlling his right leg with the consequence that he is often compelled into strange, jerking movements or else to hop on one foot from place to place. In truth, his errant right leg is a symptom of Kaoru’s sense of displacement in that he does not quite feel it to be his own and experiences only pain when his right heel is in contact with the floor. 

It’s this problem with his leg that seems to most irk his boss who later invasively barges in to the gothic western-style mansion/disused hospital where he lives in the company of his nephew, a psychiatrist, who probably means well but offers little more than platitudes in insisting that Kaoru’s leg has simply been left off his internal schematics so all they need to do is mentally reconnect it. His boss meanwhile bizarrely states that Kaoru needs to get well “so that cracked roads can be fixed”, ironically treating his body like a machine that needs to be repaired so that it is optimised for work rather than out of care for another human being who may be in pain. Having barged into Kaoru’s office, he’d discovered his secret project in a highly complex, lifelike robotic arm which was a problem for him because he was supposed to be working on a robot that fixes potholes which seems almost ironic in its banality. In any case, Kaoru also has the rather unfortunate habit of entirely ignoring the person talking to him as if they weren’t even there which is in itself an ironic inversion of the way others see, or more to the point don’t see, him. Kaoru’s boss describes him as creepy because he has no presence, you’re never sure if he’s there or not, but can immediately sense the “giant” presence of his other self, the lifelike android he’s building in his spare time. 

The android is in its way his Frankenstein’s monster, an ironic attempt to rebirth himself constructed in the ruins of his family’s abandoned obstetrics hospital. By chance, he meets a young woman (Yuki Katayama) who closely resembles himself and carries her into his laboratory like the Bride of Frankenstein but treats her only with tenderness and sympathy while attempting to fend off his estranged half-brother (Masanobu Ando) constantly hassling him for money to pay for medical care for the father who abandoned him. His mother had instructed him to find his other self which is perhaps what he’s been doing if caught between the Id and Superego of his brother and father. Constant fire imagery including the repeated motif of a burning body in a conventional fireplace keys us in to Kaoru’s positioning as a “modern Prometheus” whose duty it is to keep the fire in while giving birth to himself as manifested in a perfect manmade creation that others may find frightening or uncanny though the android itself has done nothing wrong because it is in essence the embodiment of Kaoru’s frustrated humanity. Featuring sumptuous gothic production design with sci-fi sheen, Sakamoto’s steely, fragmentary drama finds a man in search of himself while also a perpetual exile but discovering a sense of warmth in the uncanniness of a reflected image. 


My Brother, the Android and Me streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema

International trailer (English subtitles)

Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ, Daihachi Yoshida, 2007)

“We’re family, I’m sure we’ll understand each other” a conciliatory big brother tries to console, but family is it seems a much more complicated matter than one might assume it to be in Daihachi Yoshida’s debut feature, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ Funukedomo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero), adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya. Released in 2007, Yoshida’s film is one among a series of cynical reevaluations of the meaning of “family” in the contemporary society but eventually skews towards the uncomfortably conservative in its implicit suggestion that a family which is not bound by blood cannot succeed while even blood connection may prove inherently toxic. 

Fittingly the film opens with a freak yet largely offscreen accident as Mrs & Mrs Wago are killed by a runaway bus while attempting to save a stray cat, an event witnessed by their 18-year-old daughter Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa). The Wagos were a blended household, Kazuko and Shutaro having married later in life and bringing with them their children from previous marriages in Kazuko’s daughters Sumika (Eriko Sato) and Kiyomi, and Shutaro’s son Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase). Four years previously, Sumika left home after a traumatic family incident with the aim of becoming an actress in Tokyo, while her place has perhaps been taken by Shinji’s new wife Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku) whom he has only recently married. Yet Kiyomi seems more perturbed by the possibility of her sister’s return than she is grief-stricken by her parents’ death, while Sumika barely glances at the altar on her arrival immediately treating Machiko as a servant sent out to pay the taxi and collect her bags. 

As we quickly gather, Sumika is an intensely narcissistic, self-absorbed sociopath intent on manipulating everyone around her in order to assume a position of dominance yet her resentment is perhaps the only thing glueing the family together. Her grudge against Kiyomi apparently stems back to her having used her for inspiration for a manga about a young woman driven to psychotic violence in her ambition to become an actress which later won a prize and was printed under her real name with the consequence that everyone in town quickly realised it was about her. Sumika repeatedly uses this excuse as to why she hasn’t been successful, that the manga forced her into a moment of introspection that destroyed her self-confidence, later saying something similar to an unresponsive audition panel bearing out her tendency to blame her failures on others. Yet Kiyomi apparently feels intensely guilty. “I never thought of myself as the kind of person who’d turn her family into manga for money” she laments shortly after Sumika attempted to boil her to death in the bath, “I want to transform into the kind of person who can sympathise with family members’ pain”. 

“Family means supporting each other at times like this” the relentlessly cheerful Machiko had tried to comfort Kiyomi at the funeral, yet she is constantly reminded that she is not quite included as a family member. Shinji tells her to keep out of family business and later to avoid getting between the sisters, denying her an equal status within the home despite the reality of their marriage. Ironically enough, Machiko was abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage apparently so desperate to belong to a family that she willingly puts up with Shinji’s abusive treatment while making creepy dolls as a hobby. Yet at the end of the film it’s she who is left on her own, inheriting the family home, while the two blood sisters are eventually forced out but bound to each other if only in unresolved and continual resentment. 

Nevertheless there is also a degree of pathos in the series of frustrated dreams which prevent each of the siblings from escaping the otherwise perfectly nice if dull rural hometown where they were born. Sumika’s tragedy is her refusal to accept she has no talent and is unlikely to find career success because she is an unpleasant person, a meta plot strand seeing her writing letters to a director whose new movie is apparently about whether you can love someone you’ve only communicated with remotely and never met. Sumika seeks only dominance, manipulating her siblings through guilt and shame in order to encourage a sense of dependence while also dependent on them for financial support. Her need prevents either Kiyomi or Shinji finding happiness, their attempts to escape her control eventually leading in very different directions. 

Unlike similarly themed familial dramas, Funuke situates the fault line in its dysfunctional family not in the changing society but in its lack of blood relation while eventually suggesting that even the blood bond between the two sisters is more grimly toxic than it is supportive. In an odd way, it leaves Machiko as the winner while uncomfortably implying that her orphanhood prevents her from becoming part of a conventional family, literally left home alone. A more literal translation of the title might be “show some miserable love, you cowards”, suggesting that these anxious siblings are too afraid of themselves and each other to embrace familial affection Kiyomi eventually affirming “In the end I couldn’t change either, sorry”. While the limitations of early digital photography may not stand up a decade and change later, Yoshida’s occasionally experimental flair including an entire sequence playing out as manga panels helps to overcome the unfortunate lifelessness of a typically 2000s low budget aesthetic while the universally strong performances do their best to gain our sympathy in an otherwise cruelly cynical, if darkly humorous, take on post-millennial family dynamics. 


Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! is available on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Soirée (ソワレ, Bunji Sotoyama, 2020)

“You can run but not from yourself” a gruff but sympathetic farmer explains to a fugitive young couple, astutely perhaps understanding the quality of their flight. Less a lovers on the run romantic fantasy than a gentle character study in trauma and insecurity, Bunji Sotoyama’s Soirée (ソワレ) finds its two wounded youngsters struggling to find safety and security in an increasingly indifferent society in which they are perhaps expected to care for an older generation they may feel has long since abandoned them. 

Aspiring actor Shota (Nijiro Murakami) for instance has been participating in a spate of “It’s Me!” scams targeting the older generation in which they are convinced that their grandson has been involved in some sort of trouble and is in desperate need of money. We can see by the ambivalent look on his face that he hates himself for his “role” in this sordid piece of modern day drama but also that it plays into his self-destructive conviction that he is no good and cannot achieve conventional success. His need for slapdash, quick fix solutions is further driven home by the coach at his acting class who gives him a very public dressing down for coming in unprepared, insisting that he’ll never move anyone until he gets some real life experience and engages with the text. 

While Shota takes an envelope from an anxious grey-haired old lady, Takara (Haruka Imou), a withdrawn young woman working at a nursing home, gently brushes another’s hair only for her to suddenly disappear while Takara hums a comforting lullaby. We witness her nervousness at the unexpected ring of the doorbell and the panic attacks when some of the older gentlemen mistakenly grab at her, later realising they are each responses to a deep-seated trauma as revealed by a letter telling her that her estranged father who had been in prison for long term abuse is about to be released. 

The pair eventually meet when Shota returns to his hometown with an acting troupe hired to put on a play at the home though things get off to an ominous start when one of the old ladies suddenly collapses while working with the actors, the head of the troupe rather cynically musing on DNR orders and the desires of some absentee children to keep their parents alive in order to continue receiving their pension. These contradictory impulses, Takara’s warmth and compassion towards the elderly people in her care and Shota’s wilful exploitation of their weakness, is brought home when Takara’s father suddenly returns, barges his way into her home asking for a fresh start claiming to have paid his debt, and then proceeds to rape her all over again. Discovered mid-act by Shota who had come to collect her for the local festival, Takara eventually stabs her father with a pair of dressmaking scissors in order to protect him, the pair thereafter finding themselves on the run. 

Coming to her senses, Takara intends to hand herself in but is convinced by Shota to make a run for it. “Why do the ones who struggle most get hit worst, why do the weakest always lose?” he ironically asks her, “We weren’t born to be hurt”. Yet their contradictory qualities are only further highlighted as they try to chart a new course for themselves. The pair find temporary refuge with a pair of plum farmers who take pity on them thinking they are a young couple eloping as apparently they once were, only Shota later makes a half-hearted attempt to rob them which he quickly gives up on being challenged by the sympathetic husband. In the next town, Takara determines to look for work while Shota tries to make money through bicycle races and pachinko, chastened by her admonishment on finding employment that it’s possible to support oneself without cheating others. 

Somewhat tritely, Shota tries to tell her that God never burdens you with more than you can bear, while the older woman at the plum farm also offers that plums are all the sweeter for their suffering during a harsh winter dangerously playing into a notion of internalised shame that told Takara she would blossom into the kindest soul who ever lived once her suffering was over only to leave her feeling empty and despoiled as if she somehow deserved everything that happened to her. Shota’s troubles are by comparison small, his conservative brother irritatedly telling him he should accept he has no talent and get a real job, while he too perhaps thinks he is empty inside and therefore incapable of moving anyone just as his director told him. Finding salvation in mutual acceptance they begin to see the “way out” only for their essential connection to be threatened by its very existence. 

A melancholy character study through the legacy of trauma and toxicity of internalised shame, Sotoyama’s occasionally ethereal drama takes on the qualities of a fable through the repeated allusions to princess Kiyohime and her doomed love for the wandering monk Anchin yet he is careful enough to hold out a ray of hope for each of the wounded lovers in their apparently fated connection even as they struggle to find refuge in an often hostile society.


Soirée streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Isshin Inudo, 2008)

Gu Gu the cat posterJapanese cinema has long been in love with the local flavour movie. It may be true that many otherwise fantastic examples of the small subgenre have a “sponsored by the tourist board” aesthetic, but then the pure “furusato” love is usually genuine enough and often proves infectious. Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Gu Gu Datte Neko de Aru) is a case in point in its fierce determination to sell the benefits of trendy Tokyo suburb Kichijoji – an upscale bohemian neighbourhood well known for being home to artists and dreamers who take care to foster the kind of hometown spirit you wouldn’t normally associate with city living. The film is also, however, the story of a struggling middle-aged mangaka who is forced to deal with a long delayed existential crisis after her elderly cat passes away.

Ça Va had been living with Asako (Kyoko Koizumi) for the last 15 years but passed away while she and her team were working flat out on a special Christmas issue. Asako is of course devastated and not least because she feels guilty that perhaps she was too busy to notice that Ça Va was ill until it was too late. According to her assistant Naomi (Juri Ueno), Asako’s career had been faltering even before Ça Va passed away – the Christmas issue had been the only thing she’d produced all year leaving her team of assistants out of pocket and worried for the future. Grief-stricken as she is, Asako eventually decides to get a new cat, Gu Gu, enabling a rebirth in her professional as well as personal lives.

Based on an autobiographical story by mangaka Yumiko Oshima, Gu Gu the Cat wastes no time in reminding us that being a mangaka is a precarious business. Asako is well acclaimed as an artist and has inspired countless young women with her shojo manga (Naomi not least among them) but is still pressed into working insane hours to meet publication deadlines and is constantly badgered by her publishing company to provide new material. Her mother (Chieko Matsubara), meanwhile, just wants her to settle down and get married before it’s “too late”.

Asako’s mother’s nagging may seem like the usual kind of conservatism that is a little embarrassed by an unmarried middle-aged woman, as well as with the idea of a woman having a career and especially in manga which is a “popular” art and therefore less respectable than literature or painting. It is also, however, born of knowing her daughter and seeing that there is a part of her that hasn’t quite matured thanks to working on manga all her adult life which has left her feeling isolated and lonely in a way a cat might not be able to satisfy. This is perhaps why potential love interest Seiji (Ryo Kase) describes all her manga as “sad”, and why Asako is somewhat uncomfortable with being treated as a “famous author” rather than as a person.

Gu Gu the cat takes a back seat to most of the action (as cats are want to do) but does help engineer a meeting with Seiji who, despite being much younger than Asako, begins to reawaken in her a sense of desire if not exactly for romance then perhaps for life. Following a familiar pattern, however, Asako re-channels that desire into her manga – coming up with an idea in which a teenager suddenly grows old, neatly mirroring her sudden sense of having become “a woman of a certain age” overnight without really noticing. Having lost Ça Va, Asako attempts to come to terms with lost time in accepting that many choices have already been made and opportunities lost. In that sense there is something sad in Asako’s decision to remain alone in knowing that in the end she lost love because she was too timid to claim it, but then, the answer isn’t new romance but an acceptance of being happy in the present in the knowledge that things change and people leave but it will all be OK in the end.

Based on Oshima’s real experiences, Inudo’s film takes a turn for the melodramatic towards its conclusion which feeds back into his “live every day” message but is perhaps a little heavy for the cheerful slice of life drama surrounding it. Likewise, his strange decision to sell the joys of Kichijoji (which appear to be many) through an American Eikaiwa teacher narrating a journey through the area in the manner of a TV programme aimed at tourists is a particularly strange one which in no way benefits from its surreal plot revelation. Nevertheless, Gu Gu the Cat is a warm and affectionate tribute to this seemingly warm and quirky area which acts as a kind of coming of age story for its middle-aged heroine who, in a sense, births herself in coming to an acceptance that life goes on and the best you can do go along with it for as long as you can.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Yuki Tanada, 2012)

Cowards who looked to the sky posterThe work of director Yuki Tanada has had a predominant focus on the stories of independent young women but The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky sees her shift focus slightly as the troubled relationship between a middle aged housewife who escapes her humdrum life through cosplay and an ordinary high school boy takes centre stage. Based on the novel of the same name by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita) also tackles the difficult themes of social stigma, the power of rumour, teenage poverty, elder care, childbirth and even pedophilia which is, to be frank, a little too much to be going on with.

Told in a non-linear, overlapping structure the central spine of the film follows unfulfilled housewife Satomi who likes to dress up as her favourite character from the retro anime Magic Girl. Whilst dressed as its heroine, Anzu, she spots a high school boy at a convention who looks eerily like the anime’s hero, Muramasa. Takumi is only at the convention with a friend and has no particular interest in anime but as the two live in the same area “Anzu” convinces Takumi to come and try on a Muramasa outfit at her place. One thing leads to another and the pair embark on a proxy affair which takes the form of role-play between the two anime characters carefully scripted by Satomi. However, Satomi’s hitherto disinterested husband begins to notice a change in her behaviour and has spy cameras installed catching the hot cosplay action for all to see. When he uploads the video to the internet it causes a serious problem for the young and impressionable Takumi.

Actually, there’s a third person in Satomi’s marriage to her feckless husband Keiichiro in the form of his overbearing mother. So far, the couple have no children despite having been married for some time and this has distressed Michiko to the point that she’s the one dragging the couple in for IVF treatment and getting upset when it doesn’t work. Her son, Keiichiro, has weak swimmers and actively doesn’t want children but this doesn’t stop Michiko taking all her frustrations out on Satomi whom she brands as “defective” and gives the impression that she’d like to “fire” her if she could. A shy woman and probably quite bored as a stay at home housewife, Satomi retreats into fantasy by cosplaying as the familiar character from her favourite childhood anime Magic Girl. Becoming Anzu and having an affair with Muramasa isn’t quite cheating, after all, and perhaps she even hopes to have the child that her mother-in-law so desperately wants her to have even if her husband and medical science won’t help her.

Among the younger generation, Takumi lives with his mother, Sumiko, in a residential maternity clinic that she runs where pregnant women can come and be looked after in a more natural and homely environment than the comparatively cold and sterile hospital. Takumi is best friends with a boy who lives near by who, like him, has no father but unlike Takumi his mother is also an absent figure too so Ryota must work part-time at the combini whilst also looking after his grandmother who is suffering with dementia.

Sumiko tries to support Ryota by giving him occasional food parcels but as a young man Ryota sometimes finds this a little embarrassing and is offended by the idea of receiving charity. When it comes right down to it, he resents Takumi’s happy relationship with his mother and their relative financial security. The manager at the store brands Ryota a “ghetto kid” and even blames him for the increase in shoplifting by kids from the estate. He has little time to study even if he wanted to, but all he sees for his future is a great big dead end. Another worker at the store who previously worked as a teacher offers to help Ryota improve his grades and maybe even try for a university scholarship but turns out to have a dark side of his own.

Simply put, there are far too many plot strands in rotation here and the screenplay never manages to corral them into any kind of satisfying arrangement. There is a moment of unity where Ryota’s story meets Takumi’s but it’s a fairly brief point of intersection (though a hugely important one both in terms of themes and storyline) leaving Ryota’s entire subplot feeling like a distraction to the main high school boy meets damaged older woman narrative. That’s without all of the goings on at the clinic, the brief appearance of Takumi’s father and the disappearing act of Ryota’s deadbeat mother who makes off with all his savings. The film’s scope and ambition is admirable but it ultimately fails to unify its disparate plot strands into a convincingly focused form.

That said, other than running too long the The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky does have a lot of interesting elements and is always beautifully shot showing off a rarely seen side of suburban Tokyo. The performances are also of a high quality particularly given the film’s frank erotic content which is played with refreshing realism by the veteran former child actress Tomoko Tabata and the comparatively less experienced Kento Nagayama as the confused high school boy caught in the fire of his first affair. At once too superficial and too deep, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky spreads itself too thin to make a lasting impact though does offer enough rewards to justify its lengthy running time.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Hazy Life (どんてん生活, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 1999)

51GlvZf-iiLStarting as he meant to go on, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s debut feature film is the story of two slackers, each aimlessly drifting through life without a sense of purpose or trajectory in sight. His humour here is even drier than in his later films and though the tone is predominantly sardonic, one can’t help feeling a little sorry for his hapless, lonely “heroes” trapped in their vacuous, empty lives.

Kee (Hiroshi Yamamoto), a rocker with a giant quiff, meets Tsutomu (Teppei Uda) outside a pachinko parlour and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Tsumtomu, a little gormless looking and near silent, ends up moving into Kee’s apartment where his main “job” appears to be copying videotapes of the amateur porn (sorry, “erotic cinema” movies) made by his friend Todokoro and his girlfriend(?) Akiko. In fact, Kee sometimes “stars” in the films too, which is something he might have wanted to tell Tsutomu before showing him the video. Kee also has a four year old child he doesn’t really get to see who lives with his ex-partner and only knows him as “uncle”.

As in many of Yamashita’s other films, nothing much happens as Kee and Tsutomu kill time whilst worrying and not worrying about the future. Neither of the guys has a proper job or any concrete ambitions, they mostly just eat time playing pachinko, drinking and hanging out with Tadokoro and Akiko. Kee is still mooning over his ex-girlfriend and, though it’s not clear why they split up, his own fecklessness may be the reason he’s not more involved in his child’s life even if he clearly would like to be. Tsutomu has developed a bit of a crush on Akiko but he never really tries to do very much about it (though he does have the good grace to turn down Kee’s invitation to become a star in one of the videos).

In constrast to his later work, Yamashita injects a number of fantasy sequences which seem to take place entirely within Tsutomu’s mind. Mostly they’re quite gentle – making a bunch of money at Pachinko and taking Akiko out for a slap-up meal or the poignant final scene of all the characters together as they enjoy a picnic under the cherry blossoms like one big happy family. However, there is one very unexpected scene which occurs after Tsutomu is caught shoplifting (which he does very badly) offering only the excuse that he’s forgotten his wallet and was too lazy to go back and get it. This fairly shocking scene of violence is one that does not typically re-occur in Yamashita’s later work and is notable for its extreme bloodiness and direct contrast to the overall tone. Perhaps intended to show Tsutomu’s inner frustrations (he spends much of the rest of the film asleep), this scene becomes one of the most intriguing in the film.

Hazy Life is a “zero budget” affair and makes no attempt to hide that. Shot on low quality equipment and committed to a “natural” look, it makes no claim to aesthetic prettiness though it does display Yamashita’s gift for interesting compositions this time working within a 4:3 frame. The fantasy sequences themselves are presented as reality bar one use of double exposure which is in general out of keeping with Yamashita’s naturalistic style as is the brief use of time-lapse photography.

Not uninteresting, but perhaps more interesting as a taste of things to come rather than as a feature in its own right. Hazy Life is just that, hazy and somewhat meandering as Kee and Tsutomu muddle through life with an air of mild depression and no particular hope in sight. “what day is it?”, “I don’t know”, “Well never mind – at least we’re alive”. This late conversation more or less sums the entire film and it’s poignantly sweet, fantasy sequence ending adds another layer of pathos to this subtly humorous look at laid-back modern life at the bottom of the heap.


 

Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2004)

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Nobuhiro Yamashita is well known for his low-key, naturalistic style often focusing on the everyday musings of youthful slackers. Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Realism no Yado), his third feature film takes this idea and pushes it to the max as it follows two filmmakers wasting time in the mountains after their ultimate slacker actor friend lets them down at the last minute.

The two guys are Tsuboi, a screenwriter and the younger of the two, and Kinoshita – a director and a little bit older in his late twenties. The trip has been organised by a mutual acquaintance, Funaki, who’s an actor and the other two have met once or twice before but don’t exactly know each other. Funaki has overslept and will be late, or he might just come tomorrow or something. He tells the other two to go ahead without him. With nothing else to do the two guys wander off into the mountains to kill time while they wait for their Godot-like friend where they have various encounters with the strange mountain-folk all while a gentle friendship builds up in the background.

By far the most important episode occurs whilst the pair are sitting on the beach “rambling” on about nothing in particular when a scantily clad young woman, Atsuko, comes running towards them out of the sea. Hilariously, the pair try to run away as if she were some kind of terrifying sea monster but eventually decide to help her after she tells them that all of her belongings, including her wallet with her ID and money, have been washed away to sea. They end up adopting her for two or three days, paying for her new clothes, meals and board each a little taken with her but nothing untoward in mind. Suddenly this episode ends, leaving a curious hole in the young guys’ relationship.

Other than getting to know Atsuko, the guys waste time fishing, chatting with the interesting staff at the various inns they end up staying at and just generally hanging around wondering where the hell Funaki has got to. Having failed to arrange accommodation (slackers!) the pair decide to inn hop a little whilst roaming around the area though it’s definitely the off season. After their adventure with Atsuko the boys’ funds start to run down and they’re reduced to sharing meals which gets them noticed by a shady guy in cafe who insists they stay over with his friend – though it turns out to be not really his friend’s place at all and, feeling awkward, the pair attempt to find somewhere else last minute ending up at every traveller’s worst nightmare. The final “inn” is not even really a B&B, just a freezing room in someone’s house which is filled with children, a father who’s dying in the corner and a bathroom which would definitely not pass any kind of health and safety regulation. Getting a little fed up, the boys spend their final night laughing off the strange and sometimes rotten adventure they’ve been having – wondering first about Atsuko and then feeling annoyed about their “friend” who doesn’t seem to have been very invested in this particular enterprise.

As usual for a Yamashita movie, nothing really happens while quite a lot is happening. We get invested in Tsuboi and Kinoshita’s vacation as their friend pulls a Godot style stunt on them by repeatedly failing to appear but always promising to be there soon. Whilst travelling and killing time the two guys talk about various things and get to know one another better. Their time with Atsuko actually seems to bring them closer together rather forcing them into the roles of rivals, though a late stage revelation about Atsuko’s sudden disappearing act may also give them a collective sense of befuddlement mixed with mild guilt. The Ramblers ramble on for 83 minutes, though it never feels like an over extended stay. Once again Yamashita crafts a low-key, nuanced character piece that allows his naturalistic, humorous eye to shine through.


Suprisingly, you can actually buy this on UK iTunes with English subtitles!