Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Naruhito Suetsugu, 2019)

(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners
(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners

“Growth comes only through connecting with others” according to a master craftsman in Naruhito Suetsugu’s manga adaptation Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Haruka no Sue). Japanese cinema has a long history of showcasing traditional crafts but this may be the first dedicated to Bizen ware, artisanal pottery which allows one lost young woman to find purpose in her life after being deeply moved by an oversize platter displayed in a department store exhibition. What she discovers, however, is that pottery is not an isolationist art and lives only in practical application which is in its own way impossible without interpersonal connection. 

A 20-something office worker, Haruka (Nao) laments that nothing exciting is ever going to happen to her. She has no dream or particular passion and sees nothing in her future other than an ordinary job and conventional marriage. Dragged into a department store exhibition by her boss who reminds her that she never has plans so she can’t refuse, Haruka is captivated by a large Bizen ware platter and finds herself heading to the library to find out all about this ancient craft. It’s not long before she’s made the decision to quit her job and try to become a potter herself, determined to train with the artist who made the platter, but when she arrives in the Bizen ware capital of Imbe, Okayama, she finds him cold and unresponsive. Only after bonding with an old man, Toujin (Takashi Sasano), who turns out to be a “national treasure” of traditional pottery does she manage to persuade Osamu (Hiroyuki Hirayama), the aloof and grumpy potter, to allow her to stay. 

Talking to Toujin later Haruka reveals that one of the reasons she was so struck by the platter was because her family is small and she’d always dreamed of a big gathering where everyone could eat off the same large plate. Toujin fires the same logic back at Osamu, that subconsciously he made the plate because he’s lonely. It’s not something he would ever use, in fact it’s too big to have much of a practical use at all, it was basically just a kind of beacon to summon someone to him, to express the depths of his solitude. Osamu lost both his parents as a child, his mother to illness and his father (Jun Murakami) to overwork brought on by grief, and has kept himself to himself ever since. He may have become a master potter, but according to Toujin at least he is somewhat lacking as a human which means, in essence, that his art will never progress not to mention that he’ll go on being lonely and resentful all his life if he fails to seize this opportunity to pass on his Bizen ware skills to a willing pupil.

For her part, Haruka is determined to learn and only from Osamu, the man who made the plate. While others in the town which is largely populated by other Bizen ware potters are supportive if somewhat surprised that Osamu has taken on an apprentice, Haruka finds herself at odds with Toujin’s daughter Yoko (Maki Murakami) who, according to her husband, has not exactly had it easy as a female potter. Yoko resents Haruka as an arriviste, unconvinced she’s really serious and assuming she’s another refugee from the city fed up with urban life and looking for something simpler which is to say she’s probably underestimated the commitment required to become a Bizen ware craftsman. Haruka is fond of cheerfully stating that she’ll persevere, but that’s rarely enough for Osamu or for Yoko who’d prefer to see some concrete results. Yet as Toujin had said, it’s as well to connect with as many people as you can and learning something from each of them she begins to grow in confidence, becoming a full part of the Bizen ware community and earning the respect of the other potters. 

As an old lady puts it, Bizen ware is designed to be used. Its harsh corners become soft and round through contact, and the same is true for people too. Having pushed himself too far trying to connect with his late father through their shared art, Osamu too softens assuring Haruka that pottery is not an exact science and it’s OK to fail every now and then as long as you learn something when you do. “The potter must have a strong will and be as unbreakable as the pottery itself” in order to “melt people’s hearts on the spot” Toujin had somewhat paradoxically told her, but Haruka perhaps learns that there’s truth in what he says, falling in love not only with traditional craft but with the small community of craftsmen accepted as one of their own in her unbreakable love for Bizen ware. 


Haruka’s Pottery screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Honnouji Hotel (本能寺ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2017)

According to the opening quote from Otto von Bismark, fools learn from experience and the wise man from history, but in truth you’ll need a little of the former to correctly interpret the latter. The heroine of Honnoji Hotel (本能寺ホテル) is not exactly lacking in life experience, but hers has been of the passive variety. She’s blithely gone along with the path her society laid out for her, but now she’s hit an unexpected bump in the road it’s prompted her into a reconsideration of where it was she was going. Most people wouldn’t meet such a crisis by asking “what would Nobunaga do?”, but that’s where our heroine finds herself after accidentally exiting a hotel lift right into the middle of the Sengoku era. 

20-something Mayuko (Haruka Ayase) is in Kyoto for a short holiday and to meet up with her fiancé to be formally introduced to his family. The problem begins when it transpires that owing to an administrative error, her hotel reservation has been made for the following month and everything is currently fully booked seeing as the city is such a tourist hotspot. After wandering around a while, she stumbles across a dated, slightly musty establishment named the “Honnouji Hotel” which, she realises even given her shaky grasp of history, is a fairly inauspicious name. Everyone knows that 16th century general and noted tyrant Oda Nobunaga committed seppuku at the Honno temple after he was betrayed by one of his retainers who rose against him. Nobunaga had been primed to bring peace to Japan after more than a century of destructive warfare, paving the way for unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate, but is a somewhat ambiguous figure known for his extreme volatility and tendency towards cruel authoritarianism. 

That vision of Nobunaga is indeed the one Mayuko first encounters when she finds herself accidentally thrown back into the Sengoku era after exiting the lift in her hotel. The first person that she meets turns out to be Mori Ranmaru (Gaku Hamada) with whom she bonds over a shared sense of anxiety, she over meeting her boyfriend’s family, and he over an important tea ceremony with life or death consequences. She gives him some modern-day stomach medicine while he warns her that his lord is “cruel and demonic”. Still not quite grasping that things work differently (to a point at least) in the feudal world, she advises him to quit rather than allow himself to be exploited to the point that it’s ruining his health but he exasperatedly reminds her that you can’t simply drop out of samurai society. Mayuko gets another cruel awakening when observing the tea ceremony and witnessing a man, whom she later realises to be Nobunaga (Shinichi Tsutsumi), extorting a tea caddy from a distressed master who tries to protest that he’d only been informed that the caddy would be displayed and is unwilling to give it away. Nobunaga reminds him that the nation will soon be unified under his banner, at which point he will be in control of business affairs, threatening him with economic consequences backed up with the possibility of immediate violence. 

Despite her essential passivity, Mayuko cannot bear injustice and immediately springs into action, handing the caddy back to its original owner and instructing him that he shouldn’t allow himself to be intimidated into giving up his prized possessions. In her own life, however, she’s nowhere near as certain. We find out that she’s only known her fiancé for six months, and is still ambivalent about the idea of marriage. When the company she’d been working for suddenly went bust, she found herself at a loss, told that the teacher’s certificate she’d taken as a backup is largely useless because even teaching is oversaturated in today’s difficult job market. Now, it’s not feudal times anymore, but many people in Japan still expect a woman to give up her career to get married, which is what most of her friends advise her to do especially seeing as she had no particular ambitions or goals in life. Kyoichi’s (Hiroyuki Hirayama) proposal comes at an opportune moment, but she finds herself asking opportune for whom and if this is really what she wants or if she’s just allowing herself to be railroaded into conventional “success” without really thinking it through. 

It might be going too far to read too much in to a similarity between Nobunaga’s dictatorial dynamism and Kyoichi’s domineering manliness, but that’s largely where Mayuko seems to be. Beginning to realise his mistakes, Kyoichi confesses that he cynically took advantage of the situation to manipulate Mayuko into marrying him, believing that she was “insecure and unreliable”, “unable to do anything alone” and in need of his protection. Talking with Kyoichi’s father and beginning to assert herself in opposition to Nobunaga’s injustices, she begins to realise that she can take charge of her own destiny and has a duty to find what it is she wants to do, and do that as best she can.

The lesson is, however, somewhat problematically learned in her realisation both that she can’t change “history” and that she can because history is a consequence of our collective choices. This Nobunaga, apparently wanted a peaceful society for all, one in which class divisions had been eradicated and equality ruled. He sees our world and deems it good enough to sacrifice his life for, but Mayuko by turns becomes enamoured of the past, finding her vocation as a teacher of history in a move which is both progressive in seeing her reject a marriage of “convenience” to strike out under her own steam, but also backward looking in its reevaluation of Nobunaga and his unfinished revolution as if there is no real need for change “now”. Granted, Honnouji Hotel is partly concerned with selling the charms of Kyoto as an unchanging historical centre, but it’s difficult to escape the slightly sour note of conservatism as Mayuko finds her forward path only by embracing the samurai past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hirugao – Love Affairs In The Afternoon – (昼顔, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2017)

hirugao posterHiroshi Nishitani has spent the bulk of his career working in television. Best known for the phenomenally popular Galileo starring Masaharu Fukuyama which spawned a number of big screen spin-offs including an adaptation of the series’ inspiration The Devotion of Suspect X and Midsummer’s Equation, Nishitani has also brought his admittedly cinematic eye to other big screen transfers of small screen hits from Beautiful World to the European set Amalfi: Rewards of the Goddess and Andalucia: Revenge of the Goddess. Hirugao – Love Affairs in the Afternoon – (昼顔, Hirugao), is no exception to this trend and acts as a kind of sequel to a TV drama in which an unhappy housewife indulged in an intense yet doomed affair with a married schoolteacher. An old-fashioned romantic melodrama, Hirugao knows where it stands when it comes to conventional morality but is content to put its unhappy lovers through the ringer before meting out its judgement.

Three years after a passionate affair with her beloved professor Kitano (Takumi Saito), Sawa (Aya Ueto) has lost everything. She got a divorce, but Kitano went back to his wife and the terms of the settlement state that she is never to see, talk to, or in any way communicate with him ever again. Hoping to move on with her life, Sawa has done what many in her situation do and moved to a remote seaside town where no one knows her name, her history, or just why it is she looks so sad.

Eventually getting a job in a small cafe despite the obvious hostility of the long-standing staff, Sawa is making a go of things but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t get Kitano out of her mind. Only half alive Sawa lives out her days until one fateful afternoon she spots an advert for a lecture on fireflies – Kitano is coming to town. Sitting in the back, hunched down trying not to be seen Sawa listens to her lost love speak but accidentally catches his eye, once again sparking their long paused romance. Chasing, missing each other, retreating and advancing the pair eventually meet and go about the business of observing the local fireflies independently yet in the same space – obeying the terms of the settlement, at least in spirit. Gradually their old feelings resurface but Kitano stills goes home to his wife every day and a second chance for love after such a final judgement may require more than a simple act of faith.

Told more or less from the point of view of the unhappy Sawa, Hirugao’s main purpose is an exploration of her ongoing pain and inability to put the past behind her despite having moved to an unfamiliar place filled with unfamiliar faces. Not universally well liked by all on arrival, the cafe staff including a grumpy older woman and a cheerful if gossipy younger one eventually get used to Sawa though they both seem to resent the cafe owner’s affection for her. Later on, Sawa makes a critical mistake. She tells someone she thinks she can trust about her past – the affair, the divorce, her broken heart, and the frustrating possibility of starting a new life with a man who only ever half leaves his wife. Soon, the rumour gets out and Sawa might as well have painted a large red A on her forehead. Now she’s a hussy and a home wrecker, the women in the cafe want her out, the people in the market won’t serve her, and the cafe owner who was chasing her before suddenly turns cold.

This may not be the era of crucified lovers in which adultery is punishable by death, but it might as well be for all the unpleasantness Sawa must endure after being unmasked as someone who’s broken all the rules of social convention. Against the odds, the fuss dies down, her friends start to get over it and perhaps even like her a bit more now they know what it was that made her so closed off and mysterious – one even admits her anger was largely driven by personal regret over not pursuing the man she loved in her youth because he was already married and so she resented Sawa for having the courage to do what she never could. Sawa only wants one thing – to be with Kitano, and she’s willing to endure anything to stay by his side.

Kitano, however, is the nice kind of coward. Not wanting to hurt anyone he hurts everyone by keeping one foot with his wife and the other with Sawa. Though Sawa’s husband is well out of the picture, Kitano’s wife Noriko (Ayumi Ito) is descending into madness through jealousy and paranoia, unwilling to let her husband go. Having been one half of an adulterous couple, Sawa knows she can’t trust Kitano even if she loves him and soon enough jealousy, fear, and doubt begin to pollute their otherwise happy romance.

Illicit love cannot be allowed to succeed, there is always a price. Like the cruel flip side of jun-ai where fate cuts true love short before it’s allowed to turn sour, the furies are en route to deliver retribution to those who try to steal happiness by pursuing personal desires rather than adhering to social convention. Nishitani films with picturesque grandeur, capturing the sun-baked seaside town of Mihama in all its summery warmth and frosty hostility. An old-fashioned melodrama filled with grand emotions and overwrought symbolism, Hirugao is guilty of nothing so much as taking itself too seriously but nevertheless there is poetry in its pain even if the bitterly ironic closing coda seems to imply that love is a never-ending cycle of inescapable suffering.


Hirugao – Love Affairs in the Afternoon – was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)