The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Masakazu Kaneko, 2016)

A young man is forced to face up to the nature of existential struggle when tasked with killing a god in Masakazu Kaneko’s meditation on land, modernity, and the taking of a life, The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Albino no Ki). Filled with a sense of unease, Kaneko’s parabolic drama asks if it’s right to force others to live in the way you think is best, if it’s right to take the life of an animal simply because it’s inconvenient to you, and if it’s right to assume ownership over the natural landscape as if it’s yours to do with as you wish. To the young man at the film’s centre, these questions are ones he thinks he can’t afford to ask but is eventually confronted with in committing what to some may be an unforgivable transgression. 

Yuku (Ryohei Matsuoka) used to work in removals but times being what they are, his boss has taken a left turn accepting lucrative contracts working as animal control agents on behalf of local councils carrying out culls of wildlife deemed out of control. His colleague Imamori (Shuichiro Masuda) remains conflicted. He isn’t completely happy with this kind of work but has been persuaded that it’s necessary though it still seems cruel to him if not morally wrong to hunt and kill healthy animals solely for existing. Nemoto (Hiroyuki Matsukage), their boss, is keen for them to take on a well paid “confidential” job but with so little information the guys are reluctant, something about it seems shady. Nevertheless, with his mother seriously ill and needing money for medical treatment Yuku agrees as does Imamori only to discover that not even the local councillor who hired them wants to explain what the job is. 

The councillor does, however, begin to outline the economic history of the town once dependent on coal mining now pivoting towards innovative farming. With barely concealed disdain, he replies to Yuku’s inquiry as to whether the mountain in question is inhabited by briefly remarking on a traditional village on the other side the existence of which seems to fill him with such disgust one half wonders if Yuku’s contract job is even darker than it seems. He laments that they have “no desire to develop”, continuing to live a traditional rural existence rather than succumbing to the dubious conveniences of modernity. On meeting up with their contact (Hatsunori Hasegawa), another hunter living on the ridge, the pair discover that their assignment is to eliminate an albino deer because, according to the hunter, the council is nervous that some may assume its mutation hints at corruption in the soil endangering the stability of their eco farming project. The problem is that the villagers believe the albino deer to be an embodiment of the White Deer God that protects the mountain as part of their Shinto animist beliefs and have been protecting it by dismantling all his traps. Imamori declines to go through with the job, feeling that it’s wrong to kill the deer just because it was born different but thinking only of his mother Yuku is determined to do whatever it takes.  

His dilemma is in a sense mirrored by that of Nagi (Kanako Higashi), a young woman from the village he rescues from an animal trap who tells him that she remains torn between the allure of modernity and a traditional rural existence. Yoichi (Yusuke Fukuchi), a young man making a living carving traditional wooden bowls, is determined to preserve ancient beliefs Yuku regards as backwards and superstitious convincing himself that killing the deer is also an act of liberation that will bring enlightenment to the villagers so that they won’t “need” to live in such an archaic and primitive way. But as Yoichi tries to explain to him, you can’t force people to conform to your own way of thinking, it’s not as if anyone is a prisoner here if they didn’t like it they’d leave as all of the other young people have already done. He asks him if a world in which you simply eliminate things which are “inconvenient” to you is one you really want to live in but Yuku isn’t here for such philosophical questions only baffled by what he sees as primitive superstition that stands in the way of progress. 

Yet, the village is largely untouched by the corruptions of the modern society. The water in its rivers is clean and sweet, the wood in its trees strong and beautiful. As Nagi explains to him, the White Deer God has given them permission to drink from these springs, and permission to harvest the trees. By contrast, there’s an unpleasant look of triumph in Yuku’s eyes as he shoots deer from a distance killing for no reason at all, man overcoming nature. He thinks only of his own survival, taking the lives of other living things in order to preserve his own, determined to save his mother but indifferent to the fates of others. When it comes to killing the white deer his hands shake, struck for the first time by the enormity of what he’s doing while literally preparing to kill a god. While Yoichi venerates and protects the natural environment in a process of symbiotic living, Yuku sides with those willing to exploit it for economic gain brainwashed into believing that living with the land is “backward” and that it’s only “natural” to eliminate “inconveniences” such as “vermin” which impede “modern life” in a capitalistic society. Capturing the natural beauty of the Japanese countryside Kaneko’s existential fable is filled with a quiet unease in the ambivalent relationship between man and landscape but also in the solipsistic struggle for survival that all too often defines human relationships. 


The Albino’s Trees streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Lee Jae-eun & Lim Ji-sun, 2021)

Does surviving in the modern society necessarily mean sacrificing your essential self? The eponymous Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Seongjeongpyoui Kim Min-young) says she wants to transfer from her regional uni to one in Seoul because her classmates are “too Korean” and she finds them tedious, but is simultaneously mean to and dismissive of the film’s heroine, Junghee (Kim Ju-a), who has defiantly decided to follow her own path rather than the one society lays in front of her. 

As the film opens, Junghee is one of three members of the “acrostic poetry club” along with her high school roommate Min-young (Yoon Seo-young), and a girl from down the hall Sanna (Son Da-hyun). Sadly, they’ve decided to wind the club up because they’re only 100 days out from the college entrance exams and need the extra time to study. We never find out exactly how well Junghee fared or whether her decision to lend her watch to an anxious boy (who does not pass) affected her grade, but in any case she does not attend university deciding instead to look for work while Min-young leaves to study nursing in Daegu. 

The third girl, Sanna, as we later discover did the best of the three and went all the way to Harvard. The trio had vowed to carry on the poetry club via Skype, Sanna making time for her friends even though the time difference makes it inconvenient while Min-young seemingly can’t be bothered to turn up. Nor can she really take time out for Junghee’s calls, her friend a little put out to hear loud party music in the background while trying to share important news. Even so, she’s delighted when Min-young suddenly invites her to visit her staying at her brother’s vacant apartment in Seoul during the summer holidays especially as she’d just been let go from the random job she’d managed to get manning the desk at a moribund tennis club. 

It’s in the Seoul apartment, a messy and chaotic place, that the differences between the two formerly close friends come to the surface. Despite having expressly invited her friend to come, Min-young isn’t really interested hanging out and is in the middle of some kind of crisis obsessing over a single bad grade on her end of term report card. Together they try to formulate a letter of complaint to the professor, Junghee doing her best to be supportive while privately wondering if Min-young isn’t being a little childish and that if she wanted a better grade she should have studied harder. Meanwhile, Min-young runs down all of Junghee’s life choices, constantly telling her she needs to be “realistic” and that she probably won’t get anywhere with her artwork in terms of financial viability. 

Junghee is visibly hurt by Min-young’s superior attitude, but in the interests of having a pleasant day chooses to let it go even while Min-young continues to ignore her. Even so the difference between them is perhaps at the heart of Min-young’s ironic “too Korean” comment about her new uni friends, criticising them for the conventionality to which she too aspires, singing the praises of Seoul but most particularly for its three floor claw game emporiums. A quick look at Min-young’s diary when she abruptly takes off leaving Junghee alone in the apartment reveals that in actuality she envies Junghee for her boundless imagination and willingness to be her true self rather than blindly trying to fit in while finding herself out of place among her new friends. Her opening poem hinted at low self-esteem and an insecurity about the future that perhaps leaves her a little self-involved, projecting her anxieties onto Junghee who is eventually forced to defend herself by pointing out that she has her own reality which is important to her no matter what those like Min-young may have to say about it. 

In the kindest of ways and with true generosity of spirit, Junghee writes the report card of the title praising her friend for her better qualities while pointing out her faults as supportively as she can. Giving her an “F” for “Koreanness” she advises her that she’s the one who is suffering because she worries too much about what other people think, searching for conventional “stability” rather than embracing her true self and ought to become “less Korean” in order to ease some of her anxiety. Offering a mild critique of a socially oppressive culture, Lee & Lim’s quirky drama with its random asides and flights of fancy makes a case for the right to dream positing the quiet yet free spirited Junghee as the more mature of the two women having embraced her true self and decided to follow her own path while being kind to those still trying to find their way. 


Kim Min-young of the Report Card screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Kim Jong-kwan, 2021)

“I see hope! Let’s change direction” a distressed woman shouts in a park, “We should follow the wind, let’s hold hands that way you won’t get lost.” Her interjection is perhaps unexpected, in its own way sad, but also a sign offered to the melancholy protagonist of Kim Jong-kwan’s Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Amoodo Eobneun Got), a man who has become without quite realising it “someone who waits” yet through encounters serendipitous and otherwise begins to see new paths in front of him, turning a corner into another story.

Novelist Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-Jin) has just returned to Seoul after seven years abroad following the breakdown of his marriage in the UK. He has begun to have strange dreams, seeing an older version of himself and presumably his wife walk away from him and eventually disappear. Yet each of the people he meets is also in someway burdened by a sense of loss or despair, his first meeting with his mother who appears to have some kind of dementia and does not initially recognise him thinking once again she’s on her first date with his father. Her sadness is the loss of past and present but also of future, telling her son on finally recognising him not to smoke so much so he won’t die young like his dad. 

Chang-seok had apparently given up smoking, but is motivated to start again perhaps seeing little point in extending his life, accepting some unusual Indonesian cigarettes from a former colleague now his editor who eventually tells him of her failed love affair with a young exchange student which apparently ended partly because he could not acclimatise himself to the harsh winters of Seoul. The other reason perhaps echoes something in Chang-seok’s own life though also tinged with a different sense of sadness. A serendipitous meeting with a former acquaintance meanwhile takes a turn for the strange, photographer Sung-ha (Kim Sang-Ho) somewhat manic in his ecstasy in having run into Chang-seok explaining that his wife is terminally ill yet a Buddhist monk had told him he’d run into someone he knew who would bring him luck. On the other hand, Sung-ha also shows him a vial of cyanide he’s managed to procure apparently planning to use it to take his own life after his wife dies but now filled with an almost certainly false hope in the strange power of religious mysticism. “I don’t believe in all that, but people.. they need to hang their hope on something” he explains.

Chang-seok may not have much of a sense of hope, but what little he has he’s hung on people or on art. He is forever “waiting” for someone who may or may not arrive or even exist, making notes in his notebook or wandering around the surprisingly lonely streets of Seoul after dark pausing by the now obsolete phone booths filled with the detritus of city life unsure whether or not to make a call. His final conversation is with a woman who tells him that she has no memories of her own, having been robbed of her past, and more, in an accident and now “buys” them off her customers swapping free drinks for personal stories while writing poems about their lives. “No one is coming, but he became someone who waits” she writes of Chang-seok, their meeting oddly mirroring his first in its mixture of fiction and reality along with relationships forged through the exchange of stories true or otherwise. As he’d said, sometimes a made up story can be the more truthful. 

“But they come in the depth of despair, miracles” Sung-ha had added hopefully seconds after saying he didn’t believe in them, each of Chang-seok’s encounters a tiny miracle in itself. Imbued with a deep sense of melancholy and loneliness, Kim’s delicately scripted ethereal drama is an exercise in grief and despair Chang-seok’s sense of fiction and reality beginning to blur even as he begins to find the urge to write again and with it perhaps to live again too. “I see hope!” the woman shouts once more, restored something as she takes her place in a new story, Chang-seok turning the corner and beginning once again to dream. 


Shades of the Heart screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Awoke (복지식당, Jung Jae-ik & Seo Tae-soo, 2020)

“Please let me live with dignity” the hero of Jung Jae-ik & Seo Tae-soo’s Awoke (복지식당, Bogji Sigdang) eventually pleads as a sole judge looks down on him from on high, advocating for himself but seemingly finding little support. Co-directed by Jung who is disabled himself and employing a mixed ability crew, Jung & Seo’s kafkaesque drama explores the vagaries of disabled life in the contemporary society in which there is still a degree of stigmatisation towards those with differing needs while the expanding welfare system also presents its own barriers preventing those with disabilities from leading full and fulfilling lives. 

This 34-year-old Jae-gi (Jo Min-sang) discovers when he suddenly becomes disabled after a traffic accident. As his mother died while he was in the hospital, he has only his cousin Eun-ji, who is a single mother to a teenage son, and an elderly landlord to look after him while it seems no one has fully explained the options he now has. His hospital roommate, Bong-su, seems to be an old hand, visited by a man in wheelchair, Byeong-ho whom he calls brother, who has evidently explained to him how to game the system which is why he is later rated level 2, the second most severe category of disability, despite being fully able to walk and perform everyday tasks with relative ease. Being an honest person, Jae-gi fully co-operates with the civil servant sent to assess his level of disability and as he is able to stand and make a few steps to transfer into a wheelchair independently he is put down as able to walk, and as the assessor is able to move his left arm which constantly tremors and has low functionality he is graded level 5 or “mildly disabled”. 

To anyone’s eyes, this is plainly ridiculous. Jae-gi needs an electric wheelchair in order to get around and can only manage basic every day tasks such as housework and laundry with assistance. He is also forced to move out of the flat his mother left him because it’s a walkup, meaning he has to rent an accessible room. He tries to apply for various schemes intended to help people like him so that he’d be able to use subsidised accessible taxi services and have access to a personal carer but is repeatedly told he doesn’t “qualify” because of his level five designation. Unable to claim for disability living allowance, Jae-gil wants to get a job but again on visiting a specialist service designed to help those with disabilities get into work finds himself falling between two stools. The first interviewer simply looks at him and explains he wants someone who can walk and lift heavy objects, which is incongruous with advertising jobs to people with physical disabilities. The second wanted to hire him right away only to rescind the offer on looking at his welfare card explaining her company only hires levels one to three. Byeong-ho, who happens to work there too, explains that’s because companies are given subsidies for hiring the “severely” disabled which on paper Jae-gil is not. 

Time and again, Jae-gil becomes the victim of officious bureaucracy. The services needed to help him exist, but he is prevented from using them because an over officious assessor was too literal with his form. He’s told that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to get one’s level changed, a claim which seems doubly unfair given that disability can of course change over time. Intensely vulnerable, he comes to over rely on Byeong-ho’s advice, little knowing that Byeong-ho is also exploiting him despite being aware that he has no money and is in danger of being evicted from his flat if he is not able to get his level changed to enable him to work, claim the assistance he is entitled to, and live a fulfilling independent life. 

Encouraged by Byeong-ho, Jae-gil is certain that he’s going to get his rating overturned, assuring his cousin there’s no need to sell his mother’s flat in which she is currently living after losing her house when her husband passed away from cancer because he’ll soon have a job and can pay the rent. Perhaps to a certain extent you can’t blame Byeong-ho for being the way he is given the way he has also experienced exploitation and discrimination not to mention violence at the hands of a father who couldn’t accept having a disabled son, but his almost sadistic glee in fleecing Jae-gil of the little he has is plainly unforgivable, reaching out in solidarity as one disabled person to another only to pass on his sense of oppression to someone even more vulnerable. Forced into a kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, all Jae-gil can do is repeatedly state his case only for those in positions of power to claim they are prevented from helping him because his card says level five despite the obvious evidence of their eyes. Nevertheless, through his traumatic experiences of betrayal and exploitation, he perhaps awakens to the injustice inherent in the contemporary society and is resolved to advocate for himself though the jury is it seems out on whether anyone is finally going to listen. 


Awoke screens 9th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pistol (手枪, Lv Huizhou, 2020)

The contradictions of the modern China drive one young man clear out of his mind in Lv Huizhou’s elliptical street punk noir, Pistol (手枪, Shǒuqiāng). Shot in a washed out monochrome and seemingly set some time after the Beijing Olympics, Lv’s anarchic drama sees its hero develop unexpected superpowers as if to combat his sense of impotence and impossibility while constantly uncertain whether his newfound abilities are “real” or merely a figment of his declining mental state as he chases lost love through the rundown backstreets of a Beijing slum.  

Construction worker Mengzi (Zhang Yu) claims he likes Beijing, after all it’s an “international city” always busy with crowds. Many people long to come here, as perhaps he once did, though you can’t say the city has served him particularly well. He lives in a tiny room with a bunk bed and no functioning bathroom which is why he pees in a bottle into which he’s already discarded his cigarette and digs a hole in the woods every time he needs to do a number two. The only thing keeping him going is his doomed relationship with sex worker Yaoyao (Wang Zhener) who just wants to make as much money as she can while she’s young. Mengzi may have stolen the “international city” line from her, he often seems to repeat things said to him when he speaks at all, but Yaoyao also claims to like Beijing because of the opportunities it offers her, citing the story of a woman she knew who quit sex work after only three years with enough money to buy house in her home town, now walking around dripping with jewellery like the queen of all the land. When Yaoyao goes missing, Mengzi fetches up at the salon where she worked that’s really a front for a brothel run by a local gangster and raises hell, picking a fight with the gangster’s wife and in the first of many flashes of spontaneous violence smashing her mirror. 

The ill-advised rescue mission gets him nowhere, the gangster turning up at the restaurant where he’s once again adding to his tab to tell him she’s been sold on to a club before teaching him a lesson. This is where we came in, or it might as well be, with Mengzi chased through the narrow city alleyways until finally cornered and beaten. Mengzi is in many ways a man on the run from himself. His room is papered with posters for macho crime dramas such as Dirty Harry, The Man With No Name Trilogy, and A Better Tomorrow 2, Taxi Driver pinned incongruously between boy band Super Junior and a girl group in air hostess outfits. He is God’s lonely man, obsessing over misplacing his high school graduation certificate while failing to convince his boss to give him a better job. At his lowest point, he digs a hole and crouches down pointing his fingers at gaggle of chickens and pretending to shoot only to hear a gunshot and on closer inspection discover a very dead hen. 

In the days since losing Yaoyao, Mengzi hadn’t done much of anything save mope around, having a tourist day with streetwise kid Laizi (Hou Xiang) visiting Tiananmen Square and the Olympic stadium, both places Yaoyao lied to her mother about visiting trying to make her think her Beijing life was better than it was. His strange visions and violent meditations are often intercut with comforting memories of his time with Yaoyao alone in her bohemian flat, a poster of Chicken Run ironically hanging on her wall. Flashing into colour, the billboards around the stadium are filled with pretty pink flowers and play the Olympic song about being one big family, red solarised footage of the opening ceremony later filling Mengzi’s mind. Family seems to be something Mengzi doesn’t really have, a perpetual orphan wandering around unanchored and resentful of the society that won’t let him prosper. Losing Yaoyao he vows revenge with his new weapon, which for some reason only works with his rear end partially exposed, literally taking aim at social inequality in the midst of a trendy club from which he concludes he may never be able to retrieve his lost love. 

Shot in a washed out black and white reflecting Mengzi’s sense of despair, Lv’s frantic handheld photography mimics his paranoid psychology with its noirish canted angles and extreme sense of claustrophobia while introducing a note of psychedelic uncertainty as even Mengzi himself cannot be sure if his fingers really shoot bullets or he’s in the midst of a psychotic break possibility connected to the traumatic event that opened the film reflected in his own eventual solarisation. An elliptical, ethereal journey through the backstreets of Beijing as they exist in the mind of a crazed young man denied a future and the home he’s so desperate find, Pistol has few kind words for the modern China but perhaps sympathy for its frustrated hero. 


Pistol screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Closet (クローゼット, Takehiro Shindo, 2020)

“Everyone has their own closet” according to a bereaved older man sympathetically reflecting on a life half lived. The wounded hero of Takehiro Shindo’s Closet (クローゼット) is about to discover he may have a point as he works through his own issues, finally coming to an understanding of the true nature of intimacy before learning to open himself up to living life true to himself realising that perhaps his very ordinary dream is not as hopeless as he thought it was if only he can bring himself to put his male pride aside. 

Returning to Tokyo following a failed engagement, Jin (Yosuke Minogawa) finds himself taking on an unusual line of work on the invitation of an old friend, embarking on a career as a sleep companion. Essentially, he’s there to lie beside a lonely person offering a safe and supportive space where they can relax and be their authentic selves free from the judgement they may otherwise receive from a friend or a lover. Ironically enough, Jin is a man of few words, his fiancée once asking him to be a little more sociable when her parents visit, which means he’s a good listener but slow to adapt to the true purpose of his work. His first client, a harried hospital worker, seemingly just wants to destress but mostly through having someone listen to her rant about workplace concerns and nod along sympathetically rather than offer earnest advice. As his boss Takagi (Shinji Ozeki) reminds him, it’s all about empathy, or at least telling them what they want to hear which may sound insincere but in another sense may not be. 

As the old man says, everyone has something they don’t really want to let out but the presence of the sleep companion is intended to ease the burden and provide temporary relief. Jo Shimoda (Ikkei Watanabe), is grieving for his late partner who remained in the closet for the entirety of their relationship leaving him now with nothing but intangible memories. He asks Jin to put on the other man’s pajamas, experiencing the warmth and comfort he misses from his absent lover and gaining through it the ability to begin moving on. Kaori (Iku Arai), meanwhile, is a harried executive, or at least she claims, apparently in love with a slightly younger colleague but unsure if her crush is appropriate while worrying that she’s in danger of missing the boat both in love and in her career. 

A young student from the country, Nanami (Aino Kuribayashi), on the other hand, is in search of the kind of comfort she does not receive from her no good boyfriend, realising only too late that his treatment of her is abusive and their relationship is built on exploitation. Jin had in a sense experienced something similar, ruining his relationship in a crisis of masculinity. It is of course he who also receives warmth and support through his role as a companion, but the job also allows him to reconfigure his idea of what it is to be a man in providing a sense of safety, protection, and comfort while engaging in a true intimacy that is not defined by sexuality.

Through their shared experiences, both Jin and the sleepless companions begin to grow in confidence, accepting themselves for who they are and preparing to move on into a more authentic future even if for some the path turns darker before it reaches the light. Stepping out of their individual closets, they no longer feel so insecure finally gaining the courage to live as their true selves no matter what anyone else might have to say about it in the knowledge that others too are also suffering and might be led out of it by their example. A gentle tale of the simple power of human intimacy to overcome a sense of existential loneliness and individual despair, Closet allows its reticent hero to find new meaning in the ability to accept from and give to others comfort while coming to terms with his own traumatic past in realising that he is not and never was defined by conventional ideas of masculinity and that he is not worthless solely because he is no longer able to fulfil them. Perhaps that small yet infinitely ordinary dream is not so out of reach after all. 


Closet screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mari and Mari (彼女来来, Tatsuya Yamanishi, 2021)

How well do you really know your significant other, and is it possible that even you can be lulled into a false sense of security by the performative qualities of your relationship? The befuddled hero of Tatsuya Yamanishi’s Mari and Mari (彼女来来, Kanojo Rairai) is forced to reckon with the superficialities of his romantic life when he arrives home one day to discover that his girlfriend is nowhere to be found and in her place is another woman with the same name who seems intent on occupying the space she has just vacated. 

Casting agent Norio (Kou Maehara) is in a longterm, actually rather nauseating in its sweetness, romantic relationship with girlfriend Mari (Nao). Despite being a well established, not yet married but might as well be cohabiting couple, they have their own little song they like to sing about how great their lives are with each other while taking romantic walking dates along the river where they look lovingly into each other’s eyes. “You’ve been together for ages, but you act like it’s a first date” one of Norio’s colleagues unironically remarks, seemingly a little envious. After moaning about a workplace setback, Norio suggests taking a trip while Mari points out that he’s always too busy for holidays but seems pleased just with the thought. 

For all these reasons, Norio is especially confused when he arrives home after a tough day and finds Mari gone, understandably mistaking the figure of a woman sleeping on their sofa for his girlfriend only to realise his error when she gets up and turns around, the low evening light finally hitting her face. The woman, who is apparently also named “Mari” (Hana Amano) claims to have no memory of her life before waking up on the sofa, and declaring herself homeless announces that she’s moving in. Extremely confused, Norio embarks on a quest to try and out what’s happened to Mari but discovers few leads. Even her sister seems relatively unconcerned, certain that she’s just blowing off steam bringing up a childhood incident in which she “ran away” to stay with a friend whose family ran a sweetshop because she had a sweet tooth and they weren’t allowed sweets at home. 

This relatively innocent story perhaps highlights the possibility of cracks in Norio’s “perfect” relationship, that “Mari 1” might have been feeling the lack of something and has gone off to find it. Though we’re told that Norio and Mari had been happily coupled for some years, a surprise visit from Norio’s parents reveals they’d never met his longterm girlfriend which does indeed seem odd if the relationship is as serious and loved up as it seemed to be. The plot thickens further when he visits the bookstore where Mari was working and is told she quit her job a few days previously having said nothing to him. You have to wonder if Mari 2 is actually real or a merely a manifestation of his inability to accept the fact that his relationship has failed and his girlfriend has moved on. 

Could Norio be guilty of treating his romantic life like one of his auditions, simply slotting in a woman who looks the part to play the role of “girlfriend”? Maybe Mari 1 was so wrapped up in her relationship that she didn’t have any friends, but Norio doesn’t contact any outside of her sister and appears not to know very much about her interior life. He also appears oblivious to a sweet intern at the office, his work life beginning to suffer while he remains preoccupied with Mari 1’s disappearance, who seems to have a crush on him until becoming unexpectedly jealous on spotting her in a clinch with another coworker in the darkened break room. Missing Mari 1 he repeatedly rebuffs Mari 2, attempting to throw her out of his apartment and rejecting each of her attempts to get close to him but eventually warms to her presence and finally allows her to take Mari 1’s place as his live-in girlfriend. 

Are Mari 1 and Mari 2 interchangeable to him? His brief comment that Mari 1 looked like another person under different light hints at a slight fluidity in the nature of her identity, as does the repeated motif of the sunlight climbing towards her face in their darkened bedroom. Then again, could the memory of Mari 1 merely be the intrusive ghost of failed love that disrupts his subsequent relationships, suggesting that his relationship with Mari 2 is doomed to failure because of his obsession with the one who literally got away. Or are Mari 1 & Mari 2 actually the same and a reflection of the way people can sometimes change or you learn something new about them and they seem like a completely different person? Perhaps “Mari” is just a signifier for romantic partner, otherwise devoid of an individual identity. What seems clear at least is that Norio does not “see” the woman in his life because he only sees “Mari”, as the slightly melancholy, intensely lonely look on the face of the woman next to him at the film’s conclusion may seem to suggest. 


Mari and Mari streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea (海辺の金魚, Sara Ogawa, 2021)

A young woman begins to come to terms with a painful maternal legacy while bonding with a neglected little girl in Sara Ogawa’s gentle coming-of-age drama, The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea (海辺の金魚, Umibe no Kingyo). As the title suggests, the heroine struggles with ambivalent feelings towards her future partly in the unresolved relationship with her mother but also in an unwillingness to move on without the firm anchoring of family, anxious about leaving the safety of her current life behind for the uncertainties of adulthood. 

About to turn 18, Hana (Miyu Ozawa) has been living in a children’s home for the past 10 years while her mother, Kyoko (Kinuo Yamada), has been in prison convicted of mass poisoning at a summer festival though she continues to protest her innocence. Part of Hana’s anxiety about the future stems from the fact that in order to apply for a scholarship to university she would need her mother’s signature, but she is reluctant to get back in contact with her and is even considering not going despite having studied hard with just that goal in mind. Perhaps surprisingly, Hana has kept her original surname and though seemingly living in a different area is largely shunned by her classmates, either because they know of her mother’s conviction or simply because she lives in a children’s home. 

Meanwhile, Hana finds herself bonding with a withdrawn little girl, Harumi (Runa Hanada), brought into the home for unclear reasons while remaining largely silent and keeping herself separate from the other children. Perhaps recognising something of herself in her, Hana takes the young girl under her wing and attempts help her adjust to life in care but is alarmed to notice scars on the back of her neck which may suggest she has been the victim of physical abuse. Of course, Hana has no way of knowing her family circumstances or if her mother was the one was harming her but is confused by Harumi’s obvious longing to return to a place in which she has been subjected to violence. As the sympathetic man running the home, Taka (Tateto Serizawa), reminds her, however, Harumi’s mother is the only one she’s ever known so of course like all children she wants to return to a familiar environment and continues to long for maternal love even if that love is also abusive. 

In her desire to protect Harumi Hana avoids reflecting on the similarities with her own life or relationship with her mother. Though many things remain unclear about her early years, Hana perhaps resents Kyoko for burdening her with a criminal legacy and essentially abandoning her into the foster system though it has to be said the children’s home is a warm and welcoming place where the children are each loved and well cared for. Nevertheless she fixates on her mother’s parting words to “be a good girl”, in a way like Harumi thinking that her separation from her mother is somehow her fault for being “bad” and if only she were good enough her mother would come back. Looking after Harumi she finds herself saying the same thing, fearful that she’s turning into her mother and that her maternity is necessarily corrupted beyond repair.  

Like the goldfish in her fishbowl, she longs for freedom and independence but is also afraid of it. Through the gentle bond they begin to build the two young women save each other and themselves, Hana giving herself permission to fail, to not always be “good” and to live her life in the way she wants unburdened by the stigma of her mother’s crime while Harumi discovers a kind of maternal love that is positive and supportive without the threat of violence. Nevertheless, the release she chooses despite its metaphorical qualities is also potentially destructive in that goldfish are freshwater creatures unlikely to survive in the highly salinated environment of the ocean. Even so in letting go of her trauma she begins to move forward into a more certain adult world, determined to take Harumi with her in providing the care and protection her mother was unable to give her. A gentle coming-of-tale, Ogawa’s subtle, empathetic direction lends a touch of melancholy but also a lyrical, hopeful sensibility as the young women discover in each other the means to overcome their trauma. 


The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Extraneous Matter – Complete Edition (異物-完全版-, Kenichi Ugana, 2021)

If you suddenly encountered a weird, decidedly alien, octopus-like creature living in your wardrobe what would you do? Would it frighten or intrigue you, would you want to get rid of it as quickly as possible or look after it for the rest of your life? The presence of these strange creatures provokes different responses from each of the heroes of Kenichi Ugana’s Extraneous Matter – Complete Edition (異物-完全版-, Ibutsu – Kanzenban-), an expansion of his earlier short of the same title. Drawing inspiration from the early work of Shinya Tsukamoto, Ugana’s crisp, academy ratio black and white photography makes use of an ironic score mimicking classic Hollywood melodrama lending a mythic quality to this lowkey tale of alien sex fiend invasion and human loneliness. 

For Kaoru (Kaoru Koide), heroine of the first segment, the creature seems to signify her sexual frustration and sense of existential inertia. For her, every day is the same. She wakes up alone, makes herself a cup of coffee and eats a pastry in front of the television which always seems to be carrying news of a celebrity sex scandal, and then starts work with her friends (for some reason working at her apartment) who gossip about their various sugar daddies. Her boyfriend (Shunsuke Tanaka) apparently lives with her, but immediately disappears right after dinner and actively avoids intimacy. Were it not for later events, we might wonder if the creature is somehow a transformation of the boyfriend, Kaoru herself unsure whether it was a dream, first violated but then apparently satisfied by the alien tentacles which later begin satisfying all of her friends. 

If the “extraneous matter” of Kaoru’s life was indeed her unfulfilled desire and internalised shame, then for the barmaid (Momoka Ishida) of the second sequence it’s perhaps a lack of excitement while for the young man (Kaito Yoshimura) who brings a creature zipped into a holdall to a pub to meet his ex-girlfriend (Makoto Tanaka) it’s more a desire for familial intimacy or a sense of commitment that may previously have frightened him. He appears to want to get back together with the young woman, apologising for his past behaviour while explaining that he found the creature in his wardrobe scary to begin with but later became fond of it and is convinced he could raise it with her help, ordering a parfait to feed it because he’s discovered it has a sweet tooth and particularly likes strawberries. He swats the errant tentacles away as if shushing a naughty baby as the woman too begins to coo over it, shovelling cream from the parfait into its mouth with a spoon. 

But then, the extraneous matter of the lives of others can also present a challenge to the social order. Some wish to eliminate the alien threat, a young man working at a factory (Shuto Miyazak) charged with disposing of alien bodies eventually conflicted on discovering one alive sure that he can hear the creature begging him for help. Together with a like-minded colleague (Duncan) he determines to save it and help it return to its people, culminating in an unexpected ET moment which perhaps realigns the “alien” threat with a social other as the two compassionate employees evade the authorities to get the creature to safety despite having been betrayed by their female colleague (Mizuki Takanashi). 

So, what is the “extraneous matter” of our lives, a kind of loneliness, a sense of “alienation”, or of emptiness in an “absurd” world of infinite mundanity? Perhaps all of the above, Kaoru returning to her lonely life apparently missing the strange and unidentified creature only to re-encounter it in an unexpected place and discover it has not forgotten her. Gently ironic, Ugana’s sci-fi-inflected aesthetic begins with grim body horror before progressing into something warmer, for good or ill becoming fond of its alien invaders as compassionate humans refuse to reject them embracing in a sense these “extraneous” sides of themselves they may have previously found disturbing in search of more fulfilling lives. Elegantly composed in its classic academy ratio frame with its ironic bonsai pillow shots and continuing sense of unease, Extraneous Matter nevertheless ends on a note of hope rather than threat even as the invaders apparently lurk among us but bringing with them comfort even in the reflection of our unmet desires. 


Extraneous Matter – Complete Edition streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

A quiet suburb of Tokyo, Kamata is in someways the birthplace of modern Japanese cinema home to Shochiku’s prewar studio where the “Kamata Style” which aimed to introduce a note of cheerful naturalism to an artform defined by shinpa gloominess was forged. Produced by actress Urara Matsubayashi who hails from the area and stars in three of the four segments, omnibus movie Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Kamata Zensokyoku) asks some tough questions about what it means to be a woman and an actress today in the contemporary capital as the heroine, “Machiko Kamata”, contends with various demands from the economic to the emotional. 

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, the first segment finds Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) introducing herself as she takes part in a strange audition dressed in an inappropriately short cosplay-style nurse’s outfit. After the audition is over, her agent tells her to say “hi” to the director, a theme which will recur in the third chapter as Machiko finds herself feeling uncomfortable, forced to ingratiate herself in order to get ahead. Annoyed after the eccentric director asks her out for dinner, she can’t help asking him why she has to wear the suspiciously skimpy nurse’s outfit provoking him into a worryingly violent outburst. At home, meanwhile, her world is rocked by her younger brother’s revelation that he’s got a girlfriend who is, ironically, a nurse at local hospital. Jealous and resentful, Machiko can’t warm to Setsuko (Kotone Furukawa) who seems improbably sweet and innocent, almost as if she came from another time (the mid-August dating and ornaments for the Bon festival might clue us in as to why). Spending a day bonding with her, however, the two women generate a kind of sisterhood which pushes Machiko into a realisation of the emptiness she feels in her life of constant struggle as an aspiring actress supporting herself mainly with her part-time job at a ramen bar. 

The themes of alienation and insecurity are only depend in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, in which Machiko reunites with a group of high school friends who are each less than honest about the state of their lives and their unfulfilled desires. Machiko gives the impression that she’s just been in a major movie with a big star, but it turns out she only played a corpse while the rest of the group are scandalised by the bombshell that their friend Marippe (Mayuko Fukuda) has got engaged to a guy from work she’s been seeing secretly for only six months. Besides being somewhat hurt not to have known she was seeing someone, the gang have different reactions to the news with hard-nosed career woman Hana (Sairi Ito) put out by Marippe’s traditional view of conventional gender roles in which she intends to let her career slide to concentrate on being a wife. A trip to a hot spring (the same hot spring seen advertised on Machiko’s T-shirt in part one) brings things to a head with a possibly cheating boyfriend eventually offering the excuse that he is merely a hot spring enthusiast sharing his hobby with a friend of the opposite sex rather than a two-bit louse indulging in the patriarchal double standard. 

Patriarchal double standards are out in force in part three, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, in which Machiko attends another odd audition where she and the other auditionees are asked to outline an episode of sexual harassment they have personally experienced. In fact, we have already seen her be inappropriately propositioned by a middle-aged producer who ran out on her in a coffee shop after she turned him down leaving her with the bill, but the episode she recounts is darker still. As she feared they might, the men in the room quickly figure out who she might have been talking about but proceed to put the blame on her implying that she sleeps around to get ahead and was only offended by the producer’s actions because he wasn’t powerful enough to be useful. It’s another woman however, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), who kicks things into gear by relating that she was assaulted by a man in a club whom she later reveals to have been the director himself only he doesn’t remember her. The director brings both women back and makes them re-enact Machiko’s tale of being inappropriately propositioned in a producer’s office, increasingly exasperated that the situation seems “too scary” as if he’s entirely missed the point of his own exercise or is actively getting off on the actress’ discomfort. The male cameraman (Ryutaro Ninomiya) is the one who eventually points out that the audition itself has descended into a protracted act of sexual harassment, seemingly conducted solely for the entertainment of the director and his assistant. 

Largely disconnected from the other three chapters, the fourth does not feature Urara Matsubayashi and is in fact set not in Kamata but in director Hirobumi Watanabe’s familiar Tochigi. The opening of his segment, characteristically filmed with static camera and in black and white, finds him once again playing a version of himself ranting about not knowing what to do with this unusual project he has taken on for the money even though he doesn’t generally make shorts, has never done an omnibus movie before, and remains suspicious of the concept. He relates all of this to his 10-year-old niece Riko (star of I’m Really Good), who says absolutely nothing while he continues to treat her as if she were the most famous actress in Japan. Somewhat poignantly, a photograph of Watanabe’s late grandmother sits on a stool off to the side, implying perhaps that little Riko has in some senses taken over her role as silent observer. The main thrust of the action follows Watanabe as he attempts to film a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion with local non-actors, but is finally linked back to the omnibus by Riko’s cheerful letter to Machiko in which she states that she wants to become an actress just like her. Ending on such an upbeat moment seems to imbue a sense of hope for the future that was perhaps previously absent, implying that the hopes and dreams of a little girl at least are worth fighting for if only to live up to her sense of expectation for the magic of the movies. 


Kamata Prelude streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)