Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2020)

“If I became the person I wanted to be, would the world have changed?” the conflicted hero of Shunsuke Kariyama’s Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Aokute Itakute Moroi) eventually asks having undergone a kind of awakening but still perhaps struggling with himself caught between the desire to be better and the fear of the vulnerability that may entail. As the title implies, this is a tale of painful youth and bitter revelations but also of the fragile male ego, the damage that can be done by a young man who feels himself scorned, and the various ways an embittered, self-absorbed mind can reorder the world to accommodate its sense of righteousness. 

The hero, Kaede (Ryo Yoshizawa), opens with a voiceover revealing his life philosophy of social isolation afraid both of upsetting others and of getting hurt. Despite himself, however, he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the bright and friendly idealist, Hisano (Hana Sugisaki), whom he first noticed in one of his political science classes when she challenged the teacher advancing her life philosophy that peace is born only of mutual surrender and allows no role for violence. A true cynic, Kaede mocks her internally for her “naivety” but is moved on leaving the room to notice that she looks hurt not to have been taken seriously. Noticing him too, she tracks him down and makes a point of sitting next to him in the cafeteria, badgering him into a friendship he doesn’t resist because of his tenet of not challenging the views of others. Together they found the “Moai’ club which is dedicated to building a better world by helping people to become the people they want to be. 

Or at least, that’s what he tells us. As we slowly discover, Kaede is not a completely reliable narrator. Three years later he recruits a friend, Tosuke (Amane Okayama), to help him take down Moai, which has since become some kind of creepy cult corrupted by corporate interests that many seem to be using as a path towards employment, so that he can rebuild it to reflect the values he and Hisano intended when they founded the organisation she apparently having passed on. Yet the more he tells us, the more we start to wonder if there isn’t something else to it, especially when social welfare grad student Wakisaka (Tasuku Emoto) enters the scene. Is this really about the better world, or petty male romantic jealousy? Shy and introverted, it seems that Kaede never had the courage to tell Hisano how he felt and perhaps took it for granted that she understood, unfairly feeling betrayed when she showed interest in someone else despite her near constant prompts for him to speak up whether it be about her or their movement. Kaede says nothing, then blames Hisano for “rejecting” him as if the only reason she could have had for befriending him in the first place was the eventual breaking of his heart. 

In true “nice guy” fashion, Kaede can’t help but see himself as the wounded party. In the flip book he’s been idly drawing which opens the film, a man runs smack into a rock and bangs his head much in the way he seems to feel he has done in his abortive attempts to enter society. Yet later he begins to gain another understanding, his stick figure getting back up and climbing on top of the head of Moai to behold a new world below him. He starts to realise that to change the world you really do need to start with yourself and that in this he has resolutely failed. His petty act of revenge may in a sense be morally justifiable, exposing Moai for the questionable force it has become, but it’s also sordid and unpleasant intended solely to wound in order to avenge his sense of male pride. Only too late does he realise the consequences of his actions and what they say about the kind of person he is and wanted to be. Consumed by a sense of inadequacy, he is defeated by life, too afraid to become the person he should be lest the world reject him but his brief moment of fantasy of what could have been if only he’d been less cynical and cold is bathed in a kind of golden light he perhaps realises he could feel again if only he change himself in order to change the world in which he lives. A masterclass in male gaslighting, Kariyama’s duplicitous drama refuses to let its hero off the hook but reserves for him the right to start again, become the person he wants to be and lay down his arms in willing vulnerability in the hope that others may do the same. 


Blue, Painful, Fragile is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

his (Rikiya Imaizumi, 2020)

Though Japanese society is often regarded as comparatively liberal, that liberality can sometimes reflect a superficial politeness and respect of discretion more than true acceptance. Though several prefectures have now made local provision for same sex unions, Japan lacks a basic anti-discrimination law at the national level protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people and has often been slow to accommodate social change especially when it comes to the organisation of the family unit. The journey of the two men at the centre of Rikiya Imaizumi’s his, a sequel to the TV drama of the same name set some years earlier, perhaps travels at a rapid pace from internalised homophobia to the acceptance of identity and foundation of a home but mirrors the path of society at large as it edges its way towards the truly liberal in which all are free to live in the way they choose. 

Beginning with an ending, Imaizumi opens in the “past” as Shun (Hio Miyazawa), now an isolated young man living alone in the country, dwells on ancient heartbreak as his first love Nagisa (Kisetsu Fujiwara) abruptly breaks up with him as they prepare to graduate from university. We subsequently discover that Shun got a regular salaryman job but remained in the closet only for rumours to circulate around him at work forcing him to endure the casual homophobia of his co-workers at the compulsory nomikai all the while denying his true identity. This seems to be the reason that he’s taken up the offer of cheap rural housing designed to bring the young back to the depopulated countryside and has been largely keeping himself to himself, growing his own produce and deliberately keeping the locals at arms’ length. All that starts to change, however, when Nagisa suddenly turns up on his doorstep with his six-year-old daughter Sora (Sakura Sotomura) in tow. 

Though not exactly overjoyed, Shun allows the pair to stay but remains conflicted unsure what it is Nagisa wants from him and also fearful of his new life being derailed should the local community discover what it is that he’s so obviously in hiding from. Nagisa, meanwhile, apparently broke up with him for the same reasons, afraid to continue into his adult life as an openly gay man eventually travelling to Australia where he drifted into a relationship with a Japanese woman, Rena (Wakana Matsumoto), working as an interpreter with whom he later conceived a child and formed a conventional family. Struggling with himself he tried to maintain the facade through casual relationships with men, but discovered that he couldn’t make it work and unlike Shun decided the only way out of his predicament was to embrace his sexuality and attempt to live a more authentic life with the man he never stopped loving. 

Having pursued contradictory solutions to the same problem, the two men find themselves still in some senses at odds even as they reunite in their obvious love for each other. Nagisa envisages for them a family life raising Sora together and with the help of his sympathetic, supportive lawyer intends to have his conviction vindicated by a verdict in law but his former wife, while not openly hostile if obviously hurt and feeling humiliated in having been deceived, wishes to retain custody of her daughter even though she was not the primary caregiver. The court battle opens a veritable can of worms in a fiercely patriarchal, conformist society, Nagisa’s lawyer reminding him that he has an uphill battle because society inherently believes that women are better suited to childrearing. Rena’s lawyer throws the homophobic book at them, describing the relationship between the two men as “eccentric”, implying it cannot be other than harmful to Sora not least because of the bullying and social stigma she may face as a daughter raised by two fathers. Even the judge agrees that the situation is “not exactly normal”, though in this he may have a point in the fact that Nagisa had been a househusband and his wife the breadwinner, still an extraordinarily unusual family setup in a society in which women are expected to shoulder the domestic burden sacrificing their careers in the process. 

Indeed, it’s this same paradox that Nagisa’s female lawyer eventually throws back at Rena, that she cannot claim to adequately care for her daughter while working especially as she is a freelancer whose hours are often unpredictable. Rena had been reluctant to involve her family because of the shame of admitting her marriage has failed and for the reason it has but is later forced to ask her mother for childcare assistance only to receive a curt “I told you so” which speaks volumes as to the quality of their relationship. Meeting in a coffeeshop Rena looks at her mother looking askance with mild though unvoiced disgust at two men holding hands, reflecting both on her unforgiving austerity and her relationship with her granddaughter. The two women obviously differ when it comes to childrearing philosophy, Rena not wanting her daughter to suffer in the same way she has suffered because of her mother’s unforgiving conservatism and is extremely worried on being called to the school and told that Sora, who had previously been so cheerful and outgoing, has become sullen and withdrawn. 

Yet Sora is perhaps the force which allows each of her parents to accept themselves for who they are and embrace their true identities. Worried that she might be a burden to her mother who often drinks and appears to resent her for interfering with her work, Sora wonders why everyone can’t just get along and live together happily. She sees nothing “weird” in her father’s new relationship, though perhaps fails to understand why the four of them might not be able to live together as a family. Supported by Sora, Shun begins accept himself for himself, eventually coming out to the community and finding them entirely unbothered by his revelation bearing out the commonly held belief that small rural communities are often far more liberal than the famously conservative capital. Filled with a sense of love and mutual support, his presents a perhaps idealistic view of the modern society but an infinitely hopeful one as the three adults resolve to be kinder to themselves and others as they move forward together into a happier, more authentic existence. 


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, Kenji Katagiri, 2019)

A dejected young woman finds herself conflicted in her memories of the father who failed her in Kenji Katagiri’s A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai). Drawing inspiration from the webcomic by Mariko Kikuchi, Katagiri’s whimsical drama does its best to put a comical spin on the extended trauma of living with an alcoholic dad while laying the blame squarely at the the feet of a society with an entrenched drinking culture in which refusing to imbibe is all but unthinkable. 

The heroine, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto), begins her tale in the late ‘90s when she is only eight years old and unaware that her family circumstances are not exactly normal. Tadokoro (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her salaryman dad, usually rolls in late and collapses in the hall after staying out all night drinking. This is such a common occurrence that Saki and her younger sister Fumi are completely unfazed by it, marking off dad’s drunken days with a big red X on the calendar and cheerfully helping their mum drag him back into the house. Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), their mother, tries to put a brave face on it, and to the girls it probably still seems a little bit funny, but as she gets older Saki begins to see the toll her father’s drinking has taken on her mother not only in practical terms but emotional in realising that he drinks largely as a means of escaping his responsibility which includes that towards his family. 

Saki asks her mum why dad’s three friends keep coming round to drink while playing mahjong but the only explanation she can offer is that adults need to socialise. Socialisation does it seems revolve around alcohol, and to that extent perpetuates deeply entrenched patriarchal social codes in largely remaining a homosocial activity with the only women present those that run the bar (the wives of Tadokoro’s friends make a point of thanking Saeko for allowing their husbands to drink at her house, they it seems are not invited). Tadokoro’s excuse for his drinking is that it’s a necessary business activity, that you can’t get by as a salaryman without figuring out how to have fun at a nomikai and bond with your clients over sake. His office best friend later discovers this to be true as a teetotaller given the banishment room treatment he attributes to the fact he doesn’t drink which is why his bosses don’t trust him as member of the team. 

Tadokoro might think he’s serving his family through his career, but it’s clear that he neglects them physically and emotionally by refusing to moderate his drinking. He breaks promises to his kids to take them to the pool because he’s still hung over from the night before while his wife finds herself at the end of her tether with his continued indifference later telling the little Saki that she wanted to divorce him even before the kids were born but it’s too late for that now. Saeko escapes from the burden of her life through religion, adhering to a shady Christian-leaning cult which preaches that endurance builds character and character leads to hope, all of which presumably convinces her that she is supposed to just put up with Tadokoro’s problematic behaviour rather than reassuring her that there is no sin in leaving him. 

Saki fears making her mother’s mistake, traumatised by her childhood experiences and drawn into an abusive relationship of her own out of loneliness and low self esteem. She resents her father but also feels bad about it, simultaneously thankful when he takes a temporary break from drinking and mahjong but also aware of how sad it is that she is grateful for things that other families would consider normal. Tadokoro proves unable to quit drinking, and Saki wonders if she’s right to even ask him if, as others say, drinking is his mechanism for escaping loneliness, but also reflects on the sadness she now understands in her mother as stemming from her father’s abnegation of his responsibilities and the loneliness it must have provoked in her. Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), trying to explain why Saki should break up with her abusive boyfriend (Shogo Hama), tells her of an experiment she read about in which a rat was trapped in a box and randomly given electric shocks. At first, it tried to escape, but eventually became resigned to its fate and settled for learning to endure the pain. Saki is perhaps much the same, trapped by filiality in finding herself unable to either forgive or reject the memory of the father who so resolutely failed to live up to the name.


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ride Your Wave (きみと、波にのれたら, Masaaki Yuasa, 2019)

“The next wave is already on the horizon waiting for you to catch it” according to the heroine of Masaaki Yuasa’s uncharacteristically uncomplicated Ride Your Wave (きみと、波にのれたら, Kimi to, Nami ni Noretara) offering words of comfort to her dejected soon-to-be boyfriend over his continuing failure to master the surfboard. It’s advice she struggles to follow herself, however, after she’s blown off course by unexpected tragedy. Yet, nothing’s ever really as off course as you think it is and the waves she must learn to ride are her own and hers alone. 

Oceanography student Hinako (Rina Kawaei) is something of a mess. She’s moved out on her own to study at university in Chiba, but is struggling with the transition to adult life, unable to unpack her things or cook herself a decent dinner. Nevertheless, she’s become a “hero” to dashing fireman Minato (Ryota Katayose) who watches her bravely ride the waves from the roof of the fire station. The pair finally meet when some irresponsible students have an impromptu fireworks party that ends up setting fire to Hinako’s building, leaving her marooned on the roof cradling her surfboard at which point she’s rescued by Minato heroically appearing in a cherrypicker. She offers to teach him to surf, they go for coffee, and eventually fall hopelessly in love. Their romance, however, is cut short when Minato heads to the beach alone in stormy seas and drowns trying to save a jet skier who’s got into trouble. Unable to deal with the grief, Hinako avoids the sea altogether but begins to believe she is seeing Minato in every watery surface and can in fact summon him by singing their favourite song. 

Fellow firefighter Wasabi (Kentaro Ito), himself a little in love with the formerly fearless Hinako, tries to jolt her out of her “delusion” by asking how this could have happened to her, once so brave and independent now filled with grief and anxiety. Minato, whose name literally means “harbour”, had promised to protect her, staying by her side forever. Faced with her first serious relationship going far too well, Hinako identified a potential problem in her possible over reliance on her extremely capable boyfriend, preferring to wait until she was able to ride the waves alone before taking the next step. Minato wanted the same thing, encouraging her growth while providing a “safe harbour”, but his sudden absence has left her afraid to move forward and unwilling to leave the land. 

Delusion or not, Hinako clings to her lost love, carrying around “Minato” in a tiny flask of water or filling up an inflatable porpoise and walking it all around town to the constant consternation of the locals. What she learns, on one level, is that she has to learn to save herself, but also that in doing so she can help to save others. Learning something about Minato’s past and the reasons which eventually led to him becoming a fireman persuade her that she ought to use whatever skills she has for the common good. Meanwhile, the lovelorn Wasabi learns something similar after reconnecting with Minato’s spiky sister Youko (Honoka Matsumoto) who was once a shut-in refusing to go to school where her rather abrasive manner made her an outcast but found a new strength in self-acceptance on hearing Wasabi declare that just being herself was good enough for him. 

Youko decides to pick up her brother’s dream of opening an artisanal coffeeshop, which is nice but also a little shortsighted in that it does not allow her to pursue a dream that’s entirely her own other than through finding the courage to embrace the risk of romance. Likewise, Hinako and Wasabi are largely carried along in Minato’s wake, but nevertheless make unambiguously good decisions in choosing to dedicate their lives to helping others, accepting that that’s often less about grand heroic gestures than it is about small moments of connection. Hinako realises that she has to let go of the past, however painful, for Minato’s good as well as her own, while finding her sea legs to take her into a more promising future. After all, the waves keep coming. Minato recedes into the great confluence of life, while Hinako gains the courage to ride the waves alone, no longer afraid to leave the shore but in search of new horizons. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

UK Trailer (English subtitles)

Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Ken Ninomiya, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Chiwawa posterFollowing indie drama The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, Ken Ninomiya takes a further step towards the mainstream with Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Chiwawa-chan), inspired by Kyoko Okazaki’s 1996 manga. Updated for the Instagram generation, Ninomiya’s adaptation leans heavily on his trademark clubland style and sheds the sense of nihilism which defined mid-90s pop culture in favour of a world weary exploration of identity in the internet age in which connections are wilfully fleeting and personas easily interchangeable. The party is, however, about to come to an end for the latest generation of bright young things seeking hedonistic release but finding only emptiness in the superficial pleasures of meaningless excess.

The titular “Chiwawa” (Shiori Yoshida) is found dead, floating in pieces in Tokyo Bay. The notice of her demise is, in fact, the first time many of her friends discover her real name, Yoshiko Chiwaki, apparently 20 years old and according to the news a nursing student. She was for a time a big star on Instagram and a popular internet model whose face could be seen all over the city on mile high billboards, but before that she was just a girl looking for fun and friends in the Tokyo club scene which is how she met our heroine, Miki (Mugi Kadowaki). Like Miki herself, Chiwawa was added to the small group of clubland friends as the current squeeze of playboy student Yoshida (Ryo Narita), introducing herself with her enigmatic nickname supposedly a reference to her petite stature. Branding herself as an ultra cute airhead, she quickly worked her way into the disparate group of Bohemians but eventually outgrew them and moved on to more dubious pleasures including an ill-fated love affair with a famous photographer (Tadanobu Asano).

The only one of her friends seemingly preoccupied about what happened to Chiwawa, Miki begins an investigation but her research is less geared towards finding out who killed her – something the police don’t seem to be very invested in, but discovering who she “really” was. Mimicking the structure of Okazaki’s episodic manga, Miki begins interviewing her friends to build up a kaleidoscopic composite of the woman she thought she knew while perhaps discovering something about herself as she reconsiders her own life trajectory and the coming end of her youthful days in the clubland scene while pondering where it is she’s supposed to go next.

Like much of Okazaki’s work, the manga’s mid-90’s setting is soaked post-bubble malaise as her dejected youngsters escape from the sense of crushing disappointment in the wake of the abrupt end of the heady ‘80s heyday of Japan as leading global economy, but for Miki and her friends twenty years later perhaps things aren’t all that different as they fight the onset of adulthood and the relative lack of freedom and possibility they will encounter when their student lives end and the workaday world finally arrives. Aspiring filmmaker Nagai (Nijiro Murakami) captures everything with his video camera while working as a photographer’s assistant by day, allowing Miki and her friends to use the studio at night for their Instagram side gigs which is how Chiwawa winds up in the fashion biz.

Some starving artists, others merely nervous hedonists, the gang have no money but when Chiwawa runs off with the gigantic bribe a group of slimy businessmen were boasting about carrying, the gang manage to blow it in just three days of upscale partying. Miki alone, and perhaps more in hindsight, feels the emptiness of all this senseless excess but it’s Chiwawa herself who seems to fear the party’s end most of all. When you start to think it’ll go on like this forever, that’s when you know it’s about to end she laments, apparently missing her old gang like crazy but knowing you can’t put something back together after it falls apart.

Miki fails to solve the mystery of Chiwawa, perhaps sorry that she didn’t try harder to know her while she was alive but also knowing that’s partly because “Chiwawa” might not have wanted to be known for all that she was chasing love and acceptance in all the wrong places. In the end, she retreats into a past that no one quite remembers, another melancholy ghost of Tokyo’s neon-tinged nightlife. Youth moves on, clubs close down, the world keeps turning. That may be the saddest thing of all, Chiwawa remains unknown, unloved, and finally unremembered. A melancholy exploration of fractured identities, the ethereality of youth, and the impossibility of true connection, Chiwawa is another zeitgeisty piece from Ninomiya which takes the manga’s post-bubble anxiety and reboots for an age of alienation in which the end of the party is always lingering painfully on the horizon.


Chiwawa was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)

After the Rain (恋は雨上がりのように, Akira Nagai, 2018)

KoiAme_teaser_B5_F_outAdolescence is a difficult time for all, a period of waiting, in a sense, for the rain to end and everything to make the kind of sense you’ve been led to believe life is supposed to make only to finally see that the thing about life is there is no sense to be made of it. After the Rain (恋は雨上がりのように, Koi wa Ameagari no yo ni), adapted from the popular manga by Jun Mayuzuki, is touted as an admittedly creepy age gap romance between a confused teen and a melancholy middle-aged man but thankfully arrives at something more thoughtful and less problematic in its philosophical look at self-imposed inertia seen through the lenses of age and youth.

High school girl Akira (Nana Komatsu) loves nothing more than running but her record-breaking track career was brought to an abrupt halt by a ruptured achilles tendon. Having given up on her athletic dreams, she now spends her “free” time on a part-time job in a diner-style “family restaurant”. Unbeknownst to all, the reason Akira took the job was that the restaurant’s manager, 45-year-old divorced father Kondo (Yo Oizumi), was once nice to her after her accident and now she’s developed an almighty crush on his mild-mannered charms.

While Akira is processing the loss of her future as a top runner, Kondo is trying to get over not only the failure of his marriage but of his own dreams of literary success. Jealous of a college friend with a bestseller, Kondo has barely written anything in years and has all but resigned himself to a lifetime of managing a low-level chain restaurant in suburbia.

Kondo, for all his faults, is essentially a good guy whose major problem in life is being too nice. Needless to say, he’s not enthused by Akira’s surprise declaration of love and understands that it could cause him a lot of trouble but even so he wants to help her get over whatever it is that makes her think an affair with an older guy might be a good idea. Realising that her misplaced crush is most likely a displacement activity born of her grief for her racing career, Kondo sets about trying to coax Akira back towards something more positive than unwise romance through genial paternal attention even if she finds his attempts to make clear that he is only prepared to offer friendly support somewhat frustrating.

Akira’s problems are perhaps greater than they first seem. A strange girl with underdeveloped social skills and a relatively low need for interpersonal interaction, Akira has few friends and a habit of accidentally glaring at everyone she meets (which is not an ideal quality for a diner waitress). She is however very beautiful which also earns her a heap of unwanted attention precisely because of her angry aloofness. Neither of the boys her own age who declare an interest are very promising – both of them are unwilling to take a flat no for an answer and continue to chase Akira even though she consistently ignores them, though sous-chef Kase (Hayato Isomura) is at least a little more perceptive than he originally seems and finally able to offer some impartial advice to the confused young woman once he’s realised that his attentions really are unwanted.

Unwilling to engage with anything that reminds her of what she’s lost, Akira has been avoiding all her old friends. Haruka (Nana Seino), who has been chasing along behind desperate to catch up ever since they were kids, is as broken-hearted about their ruptured friendship as Akira is about running and longs to repair what was broken if only to prove that there’s more between them than just sports. Originally worried about Akira’s interest in Kondo she relaxes when she realises that he, like her, just wants to help Akira escape her moment of wounded inertia.

As Kondo puts, it’s boring waiting for the rain to stop. Like the heroes of Rashomon which becomes a repeated motif, Akira and Kondo are essentially just marking time waiting to be released from a self-imposed sense of frustrated impossibility. Kondo needed a dose of self-confidence which the decision to help a depressed high school girl who seems to be the only person who doesn’t find him pathetic just might offer, while Akira needs to realise that her life isn’t over and that she may have been too hasty in abandoning her dreams over what could be nothing more than a minor setback. Through their awkward non-romance the pair each rediscover something about themselves that they’d forgotten along with the courage to face their painful failures head on rather than attempting hide and living on in melancholy resentment.

Thankfully not the creepy age gap romance the synopsis teases, Nagai’s adaptation perhaps fails to mine the unexpectedly rich philosophical seam of Mayuzuki’s manga to its fullest extent in its powerful confrontation of age and youth sheltering from the storm of disappointment, but nevertheless presents an oddly warm tale of serendipitous friendships and mutual support as two frustrated people at different points of life each find the courage to move forward through helping someone else do the same.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Name (名前, Akihiro Toda, 2018)

b5_olNames are a complicated business. Most people do not choose them for themselves, yet they come to define an identity or at least provide a substantial peg on which to hang one. If you give someone a fake name you are by definition shielding your essential self from view, refusing connection either in fear of discovery or intention to harm. The protagonist of Akihiro Toda’s The Name (名前, Namae) adopts several different titles as a part of his increasingly disordered everyday life in which he takes a hammer to his original identity in an ongoing act of guilt-ridden self harm. Meanwhile, his teenage would-be saviour, engages in a little role play of her own hoping to discover an essential truth about herself only to be disappointed, in one sense, and then perhaps find something better.

Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), if that is his real name, is not just leading a double life but is currently engaged in a number of iffy scams each compartmentalised under a different title and in which he plays an entirely different version of himself. Once a successful businessman, personal tragedy, marital breakdown, and bankruptcy have left him a floundering, cynical mess living in a rundown rural hovel with a pernickety neighbour and a decidedly lax approach to housekeeping. Masao’s main “job” appears to be working in a recycling plant where he’s managed to wangle a preferential contract by telling the higher-ups that his (non-existent) wife is seriously ill in hospital. Just as Masao’s scheme is about to be discovered, a mysterious teenage girl suddenly appears out of nowhere and plays along with Masao’s sob story, claiming to be his daughter come to remind him that he needs to leave earlier today because mum has been moved to a different hospital (which is why his boss’ contact had never heard of her).

Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), as we later find out, is a more authentic soul but has decided on a brief flirtation with duplicity in observing the strange and cynical life of the morally bankrupt Masao. Facing similar issues but coming from the opposite direction, the pair meet in the middle – regretful middle-age and anxious youth each doing battle with themselves to define their own identities. Like Masao, Emiko is also living in less than ideal circumstances with her bar hostess single-mother, forced into adulthood ahead of schedule through the need to take care of herself, purchasing groceries, cooking, and keeping the place tidy. Thus her approach to Masao has, ironically enough, a slightly maternal component as she tries to get him back on his feet again – cleaning the place up and giving him something more productive to do than wasting his idle moments in bars and other unsavoury environments.

Masao’s current problems are perhaps more down to a feeling of failure rather than the failure itself. Once successful, happily married and excited about the future, he felt it all crash down around his ears through no real fault of his own. Nevertheless he blamed himself – his intensive work ethic placed a strain on his relationship with his wife and his all encompassing need for success blinded him to what it was that really mattered. By the time he realised it was already too late, and so it’s no surprise that he longs to escape himself through a series of cardboard cutout personalities, enacting a bizarre kind of wish fulfilment coupled with masochistic desire for atonement.

Now cynical and morally apathetic, Masao lets Emiko in on a secret about the grown-up world – it’s all lies. You have to put on disguise or two to get by; the world will not accept you for who you really are. Teenage girls might know this better than most, though Emiko is a slow learner. She might tell Masao that pretending to be other people is fun, but the one role she hasn’t yet conquered is that of Emiko Hayama – something which particularly irritates the demanding director of the theatre club she’s been cajoled into joining. Like Masao, Emiko’s life begins to fall apart through no fault of her own as she finds herself swallowed up by a typically teenage piece of friendship drama when her best friend’s boyfriend dumps her in order to pursue Emiko. Branded a scheming harlot and ejected from her group of friends, berated by the director of the theatre troupe, and having no-one to turn to at home, Emiko finds herself increasingly dependent on the surrogate father figure of Masao who is happy enough to play along with the ruse so long as it is just that.

Through their strange paternal bond, Emiko and Masao each reach a point of self identification, figuring out who it is they really are whilst facing the various things they had been afraid to face alone. Lamenting missed opportunities while celebrating second chances, The Name makes the case for authenticity as a path to happiness in a world which often demands its opposite. Melancholy but gently optimistic, Akihiro Toda’s peaceful drama is a heartwarming tale of the power of unexpected connection and the importance of accepting oneself in order to move into a more positive future.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

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)