Makuko (まく子, Keiko Tsuruoka, 2019)

“In this world nothing lasts forever” the conflicted hero of Keiko Tsuruoka’s Makuko (まく子) is tearfully told, though it’s a lesson he struggles to learn as he battles the anxiety of leaving the certainties of childhood behind. Adapted from Kanako Nishi’s 2016 novel, Makuko is unafraid of the fantastical but resolutely rooted in the everyday as “aliens” make their descent into regular small-town life to learn what it is to die, or so they say, while the hero discovers what it is to live through the beauty of transience. 

11-year-old Satoshi (Hikaru Yamazaki) is coming to the realisation that he is growing up. Things around him, or more precisely his perception of them, are changing in small but obvious ways and he’s not OK with it. Like the other children he used to enjoy being read manga by Dono (Jun Murakami), a middle-aged man with learning difficulties who hangs around with the local children, but has for some reason begun to find it embarrassing. Meanwhile, he’s also battling a degree of resentment towards his distant father (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) in becoming aware of his parents’ complicated relationship after spotting him with another woman and hearing constant references to his philandering which his mother (Risa Sudou) seems to have accepted. Satoshi doesn’t know much, but he knows he doesn’t want to be like his dad or any of the other duplicitous adults he sees around the town which is one of many reasons that he fears growing up and being forced to enter the world of adult hypocrisy against his will. 

All of these fears are challenged by the unexpected appearance of intergalactic transfer student Kozue (Ninon) who tells him that she and her equally odd mother (Miho Tsumiki) are actually from a distant planet somewhere near Saturn where nothing ever changes and no one gets old. This is, she explains, because their bodies are made of particles which are eternal and unchanging, unlike those of Satoshi’s body which are constantly in flux which is why humans grown old and die. When a meteorite carrying different particles hit the planet’s surface, it caused a population explosion leaving her people with the unprecedented choice to die only no one really knows what “death” means which is why she’s come to Earth. Satoshi is envious of an unchanging world, seeing only futility in his equation of change with death which is what it is that he’s really afraid of. Why grow up only to die? he asks, only for Kozue to point out that like the leaves she’s fond of throwing in the air, if they didn’t fall they wouldn’t be so pretty. 

Satoshi isn’t really sure he believes Kozue’s strange story, only that he’s certain he doesn’t want her to die. It seems he fell out with a friend who stopped coming to school because of stories the other kids thought he was making up about UFOs and ladders in the sky, but if what Kozue says is true then perhaps he owes him an apology. Dono, whom he’d previously looked down on as “the town’s second biggest loser” offers him some valuable advice that perhaps it’s better to believe the things that people tell you and if you find out later that they lied, well you can deal with that then. 

Whether Kozue’s an alien or not, Satoshi is fairly certain he’s falling in love with her which is a whole other set of problems which brings him back to his problematic dad and the awkwardness of puberty. He doesn’t want to be an adult, but his body is changing all on its own and there’s nothing he can do about it. The local festival is all about “rebirth” through creation and destruction, but Satoshi still struggles to accept the necessity of change in order to grow, wishing things could simply remain as they are. What he learns is that we’re all “aliens” in one sense or another, everyone is lost and afraid and different but also the same, keepers of a hundred “tiny eternities” equating to one vast whole.  

“Everything disappears in the end” Satoshi is told during an intense encounter with his father’s mistress, but then again perhaps it doesn’t only remaining in a different form. A cosmic event brings the townspeople together in banal awe that quickly passes into a collective memory, and while some depart others arrive in their place bringing with them their own near identical anxieties and, like meteorites striking home, new opportunities for growth. 


Makuko is available to stream in Germany until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bu Su (BU・SU, Jun Ichikawa, 1987)

Busu poster 2Already a well respected and much in demand director of television commercials Jun Ichikawa released his debut feature, Bu Su (BU・SU), in 1987. “Bu Su” is, loosely translated, pejorative slang for a woman who is not considered to be attractive. The closest equivalent, in British English at least, would be something like “a dog”. It’s especially ironic then that the movie was conceived as a vehicle for a popular idol whose success was perhaps dependent on a perception of attractiveness, or at least of “kawaii” innocence. Yasuko Tomita was at that time at the height of her fame having shot to stardom through open audition leading to an award winning role in Aiko 16 Sai. Two years later she starred for Nobuhiko Obayashi, who was originally slated to direct Bu Su, in Miss Lonely, but even in comparison to Obayashi’s melancholy heroines, Bu Su’s Mugiko (Yasuko Tomita) is a particularly moody teen, the “ugliness” here apparently relating to her emotional isolation.

For reasons we never quite understand, Mugiko leaves her island home after a traumatic incident and moves in with her aunt in Tokyo with the intention of becoming a geisha. It seem’s Mugiko’s mother was once a famous geisha herself until she met Mugiko’s late father and left for a more conventional life in the peaceful countryside. Mugiko’s flight then has a peculiarly perverse quality in being both to and from her mother with whom she seems to be on bad terms despite her mother’s obvious affection for her. Unfortunately Mugiko is not a fantastic fit for the world of the geisha, being somewhat innocent and childishly clumsy, not to mention her ongoing grumpiness. Nevertheless, everyone at the geisha house is keen to help her if only out of loyalty to her mother.

At school, meanwhile, Mugiko is nervous and withdrawn, barely audible during her introduction to her new classmates and with her eyes permanently on the floor. Her teacher, taking her aside, adds to the mystery in remarking that she’s certainly been through a lot back in Izu and that she should leave all that behind and try to make a new start. Nevertheless, she remains sullen and isolated, barely speaking to anyone yet perhaps examining the dynamics of the people around her. Maybe that’s why she alone finds the strength to stand up to a popular kid bullying another girl (Yuriko Hirooka) considered to be “plain” with a mean trick teasing a nasty surprise lurking in a box which turns out to be nothing more than a hand mirror.

Mugiko might not be quite sure what it is that’s worrying her, or at least we can’t be sure because we don’t know exactly what happened in Izu, but the rest of her classmates have their own insecurities to deal with from Sakurako’s preoccupation with her perceived lack of looks to boxing enthusiast Tsuda (Masahiro Takashima) who knows he’s not much for studying but is less than convinced of the possibility of living off his fists. What they’re going through is the normal teenage process of figuring themselves out, which they begin to do through the time-honoured fashion of the school cultural festival which is an extra special event this year because it’s the school’s centenary. Goaded into it by the mean popular girl who meant to embarrass her by outing her as a geisha, Mugiko agrees to dance the dance of Yaoya Oshichi who was prepared to burn the world in the hope of meeting her love.

Yaoya Oshichi was burned at the stake for arson, and though Mugiko’s path eventually ends in flames they’re of a much less threatening variety. When she first arrives in Tokyo we see her taking in some of the iconic sights of the city, crossing at Shibuya Scramble and taking a stroll through upscale Ginza before taking a bite out of a fast food hamburger as if she were about to taste some famous local delicacy. When not training with the other geisha we see her wander through the city alone, sullen but also taking pleasure in exploring her new environment. It’s here that we hear the film’s title uttered, crudely, by a sleazy middle-aged man who picks Mugiko up and takes her to a coffeeshop where he embarks on weird chat up lines about the beauty of the local railway before trying to drag her into a love hotel. Luckily, Mugiko manages to get away from him only for the man to shout “busu” after her, implying that he didn’t want her anyway but also that her refusal is in someway arrogant.

By Ichikawa’s logic, Mugiko’s “busu”ness is not because she’s “ugly” but that she’s so sour faced, permanently sulky and angrily keeping a deliberate distance from everyone around her. We see her spikily refuse her mother’s tearful attempt to see her off to the train, and then speak rudely to her on the phone, while remaining aloof from most of the other geishas save her aunt’s daughter, primed to take over the business but unbeknownst to most longing for a more conventional life with a boring salaryman husband. Yet through all of these encounters, some friendlier than others, her heart finally begins to open and she’s no longer so closed off or aloof, eventually able to laugh along with her mother and pithily dismiss her questions with the generic answers that Tokyo is “fun” and yes she’s going to school. Mugiko’s path is certainly a meandering one, taking the scenic route through the charms of bubble era Tokyo, but it has its charms and even if she takes her time she gets there in the end, smiling at last having rediscovered the joys of being alive.


Short clip (Japanese subtitles only)

Goodbye for Tomorrow (あした, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995)

goodbye for tomorrowAfter completing his first “Onomichi Trilogy” in the 1980s, Obayashi returned a decade later for round two with another three films using his picturesque home town as a backdrop. Goodbye For Tomorrow (あした, Ashita) is the second of these, but unlike Chizuko’s Younger Sister or One Summer’s Day which both return to Obayashi’s concern with youth, Goodbye For Tomorrow casts its net a little wider as it explores the grief stricken inertia of a group of people from all ages and backgrounds left behind when a routine ferry journey turns into an unexpected tragedy.

Three months after nine people were drowned when a local ferry sank in the harbour, friends and relatives of the dead begin to receive messages signed by their loved ones instructing them to be at a small island at midnight. Cruel joke or not, each of the still grieving recipients makes their way to the boathouse, clutching the desperate hope that the dead will really return to them. Sure enough, on the stroke of midnight the ghostly boat rises from the ocean floor bringing a collection of lost souls with it, but its stay is a temporary one – just long enough to say goodbye.

Obayashi once again begins the film with an intertile-style message to the effect that sometimes meetings are arranged just to say goodbye. He then includes two brief “prequel” sequences to the contemporary set main narrative. The first of these takes place ten years previously in which a boy called Mitsugu throws a message wrapped around a rock into a school room where his friend Noriko is studying. We then flash forward to three months before the main action, around the time of the boat accident, where an assassination attempt is made on the life of a local gangster in a barber shop. At first the connection between these events is unclear as messages begin to arrive in innovative ways in the film’s “present”. After a while we begin to realise that the recipients of the messages are so shocked to receive them because they believe the senders to be dead.

At three months since the sinking, the grief is still raw and each of our protagonists has found themselves trapped in a kind of inertia, left alone so suddenly without the chance to say goodbye. The left behind range from a teenager whose young love story has been severed by tragedy, a middle aged man who lost a wife and daughter and now regrets spending so much time on something as trivial as work, a middle aged trophy wife and the colleague who both loved a successful businessman, two swimmers with unresolved romances, and the yakuza boss who lost his wife and grandson. For some the desire is to join their loved ones wherever it is that they’re going, others feel they need to live on with double the passion in the name of the dead but they are all brought together by a need to meet the past head on and come to terms with it so that they can emerge from a living limbo and decide which side of the divide they need to be on.

Aside from the temporary transparency of the border between the mortal world and that of the dead, the living make an intrusion in the form of the ongoing yakuza gang war. The Noriko (Kaori Takahashi) from the film’s prequel sequence also ends up at the meeting point through sheer chance, as does the Mitsugu (Yasufumi Hayashi), now a gangster and charged with the unpleasant task of offing the old man despite his longstanding debt of loyalty to him. These are the only two still living souls brought together by an unresolved message bringing the events full circle as they achieve a kind of closure (with the hope of a new beginning) on their frustrated childhood romance.

The other two hangers on, an ambitious yakuza with a toothache played by frequent Obayashi collaborator Ittoku Kishibe, and a lunatic wildcat sociopath played by the ubiquitous Tomorowo Taguchi, are more or less comic relief as they hide out in the forrest confused by the massing group of unexpected visitors who’ve completely ruined their plot to assassinate the old yakuza boss and assume control of the clan. However, they too are also forced to face the relationship problems which bought them to this point and receive unexpected support from the boss’ retuned spouse who points out that this situation is partly his own fault for failing to appreciate the skills of each of his men individually. The boss decides to make a sacrifice in favour of the younger generation but his final acts are those of forgiveness and a plea for those staying behind to forget their differences and work together.

Revisiting Obayashi’s frequent themes of loss and the need to keep living after tragedy strikes, Goodbye For Tomorrow is a melancholy character study of the effects of grief when loved ones are taken without the chance for goodbyes. Aside from the earliest sepia tinged sequence, Obayashi plays with colour less than in his other films but manages to make the improbable sight of the sunken boat rising from the bottom of the sea genuinely unsettling. The supernatural mixes with the natural in unexplained ways and Obayashi even makes room for The Little Girl Who Conquered Time’s Tomoyo Harada as a mysterious spirit of loneliness, as well as a cameo for ‘80s leading man Toshinori Omi. The Japanese title of the film simply means “tomorrow” which gives a hint as to the broadly positive sense of forward motion in the film though the importance “goodbye” is also paramount. The slight awkwardness of the English title is therefore explained – saying goodbye to yesterday is a painful act but necessary for tomorrow’s sake.