Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種, Kentaro Hagiwara, 2017)

Tokyo Ghoul posterThough the idea has never been far away, Japanese cinema has largely steered clear of the enemy within. Recently however the “they walk among us” phenomenon seems to have gained traction from the horror-leaning Parasyte to the contemplative Before We Vanish. Parasyte would seem to be an appropriate point of departure for Kentaro Hagiwara’s debut feature, an adaptation of Sui Ishida’s hugely popular manga Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種). Like Hitoshi Iwaaki’s ‘80s take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Tokyo Ghoul creates for itself a subsection of “humanity” which is not quite human yet apparently lives alongside “us” keeping its true nature and identity a secret in order to avoid detection. Unlike Parasyte, however, the intentions of the Ghouls are not so much destruction or colonisation as simple survival.

Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), a shy bookworm with only one real friend, is trying to pluck up the courage to talk to another shy bookworm he often notices reading the kind of books he likes in a cafe they both seem to enjoy going to. It would seem that they have quite a lot in common already, but when Ken ends up on a successful date with Rize (Yu Aoi) he gets a little more than he bargained for. Far from the shy and mousy creature of his dreams, Rize is a raging Ghoul hungry for flesh rather than love. Luckily, Rize is killed in a freak accident just as she’s about devour poor Ken. Ken, however, survives but only thanks to a transplant of Rize’s organs meaning he is now part-Ghoul and can only live on human meat.

Neither one thing nor another, Ken struggles to accept his new nature as he craves flesh and has strange visions in which he imagines himself as Rize the crazed and ravenous Ghoul. Starving and alone he finally finds his way to the Anteiku cafe where he first met Rize and now finds a support network led by ethical Ghouls who sustain themselves on ethically sourced meat and high end coffee. These Ghouls do not want to kill, they simply want to survive which also means keeping one step ahead of the CCG which exists specifically in order to hunt down Ghouls with extreme prejudice.

In many a sci-fi tome, the CCG would be the good guys – protecting regular humans from a monstrous threat lurking in the shadows. After all, who would defend a substratum of cannibal serial killers who think nothing of devouring human flesh in front of its horrified offspring, but the CCG have perhaps begun to take too much pleasure in their work. Cold and calculating detective Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) has an idea that the world is “wrong” and it’s his job to put it right by exterminating the Ghouls, whereas creepy silver-haired detective Mado (Yo Oizumi) enjoys toying with his prey as much as Rize did and has even begun to harvest the various “Kagune” protuberances with which the Ghouls are endowed to use in his quest to defeat them.

The CCG may be justified in their fear in but in their methods they are little different than their quarry. The Ghouls too have a right to survive and are, after all, only being what they are. CCG might be better off working with Anteiku to minimise the Ghoul threat rather than engaging in a pointless and internecine war that guarantees only a continuation of violence and fear on both sides.

Having posited such interesting ideas it’s a shame that Tokyo Ghoul reverts to the classic super hero formula of resolving everything through a climactic battle in which Ken is forced to confront himself whilst battling CCG. Neither Ghoul nor human, Ken sees faults on both sides but perhaps learns to come into himself, no longer a diffident young man but one committed to protecting his friends even if it’s themselves they need protecting from.

Hagiwara opts for an artier approach than might expected though his noble intentions are often undercut by poor quality CGI and the inescapably outrageous quality of the source material. Nevertheless he gets impressive performances from his young cast even if some fan favourite characters are relegated to little more than background decoration and others scarcely written at all. Perhaps biting off more than it can chew, Tokyo Ghoul is an uneven experience but one that does its best to find heroism in villainy and villainy in heroism, negating the good/evil dichotomy of superhero morality for something altogether more complex.


Tokyo Ghoul was screened for one night only across the UK and will be released by Anime Limited later in the year.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)