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)

Goto-san (ゴトーさん, Hiroshi Gokan, 2020)

It doesn’t take much to remind you that even the most stable of lives can be upended in an instant, often not even by disaster or tragedy just the vagaries of life, but for those living on the margins certainty is an unattainable luxury. The eponymous hero of Hiroshi Gokan’s Goto-san (ゴトーさん) seems happy enough living his day-to-day life, not really worrying too much about the future but perhaps mourning a hidden past or in flight from something or other no one else knows, never suspecting that the rug may suddenly be pulled from under him. 

Goto (Hirofumi Suzuki) has been living and working at 24-hour mangacafe Sunflower for at least two years, no one knows exactly how long because he’s “always” been there. The first sign of trouble arrives when an old man who often frequented the cafe and was thought to be homeless is found dead in his room. The panicked manager asks “clean-freak” Goto to sort it all out for him, surprised that he seems to have taken a death on the premises in his stride. Meanwhile, a young woman, Riko, is renting room 208 on a daily basis eschewing the weekly rate presumably because she’s hoping to move on either today or tomorrow or someday at least and a longterm agreement seems like admitting defeat. 

Gokan opens the film with scenes of a Tokyo under construction, busy in the run up to the 2020 Olympics while Goto’s boss and an official-looking man in a suit make ominous comments about “that virus” and its capacity to mess up their business. A small group of men are currently holding a protest, flying a banner reading “never forgive corporate exploitation of dead end job labour” while announcing statistics over a megaphone to the effect that one in seven children lives in poverty, one in five elderly people is struggling, and one in three single women face hardship as do a majority of young people. Can you really say that holding the Olympics in these circumstances is a good idea? The protest group at least seems to think it’s a bit of a slap in the face to low income workers who might be experiencing a temporary bounce but are also facing potential exploitation and will likely be forgotten once the construction frenzy’s over. 

Taking their battle off the streets, the protest group decide to take the message into the manga cafe which is perhaps insensitive, preaching to the converted, or a potential annoyance to this drop out community who may be well aware of the oppressive nature of modern day capitalism and have decided not to participate. For his part, Goto’s motives remain ambiguous though he seems happy enough with his quality of life until he gets a coupon for sex services and ends up accidentally meeting Riko. Perhaps recalling an old dream, owning a boating license and fascinated by a wind-up toy of an ocean liner left behind by the dead man, he tells her he’s a first mate on a cruise ship, pretending to live in another part of town little knowing that they live in the same building. Wanting to get to know her socially, he ends up looking for extra work, but his job-hunting experience later comes to nothing when he has to leave the cafe abruptly discovering that it’s almost impossible to find work without access to online resources and a permanent address. Some might think a change in his circumstances is an opportunity to reset, but Goto seems not to take it ironically ending up in much the same position he was before.

Riko, meanwhile, seems to think differently eventually spring-boarded into the determination to change her life escaping the world of sex work and manga cafes she finds disappointing to chase something better though we might wonder what exactly it is she finds as she crosses Shibuya scramble inches from an oblivious Goto who might dream of sailing overseas but remains ironically landlocked to the local area. Opening with a jaunty detachment, the whimsical score perfectly matching the surreality of life at the manga cafe, Gokan’s screenplay becomes progressively darker as Goto finds himself at the mercy of his times trapped by economic malaise, running aground while the river flows on all around him.  


Goto-san screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Yutaro Nakamura, 2021)

Seemingly brought together by fate, a collection of lovelorn Tokyoites have a very weird New Year in Yutaro Nakamura’s absurdist farce, A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Atarashii Kaze). A collection of interesting, sometimes contradictory vignettes, Nakamura’s various tales of frustrated love and interpersonal tension are perhaps variations on a theme illustrated, sometimes literally, with an ethereal logic in which events repeat themselves from differing angles or familiar faces recur in slightly different roles. “What kind of future, if any at all, can we picture?” the opening title asks us, suggesting that this strange night might be imagined but in the end at least filled with a kind of possibility.

Opening in long shot, the first scene follows a pair of teenage friends who forcibly begin trying to play football with a boy who quite clearly wants to play on his own. Eventually, they give him his ball back, and he cries. In an apparent flash forward we find ourselves in contemporary Tokyo as Hikari (Hikaru Saiki), the young woman, goes on a non-date with a friend, Kotaro (Yutaro Nakamura), who confesses his feelings to her at the end of the evening and immediately apologises but gets no real reply. In any case, the moment is later interrupted as Hikari runs into an old friend, Yujiro (Yujiro Hara), the young man, who now works as an Uber Eats driver. Realising they’ve missed the last train, Hikari decides to hit up an old friend, Anzu (An Ogawa), to see if they can stay with her. Anzu is not very welcoming, it is New Year’s Eve after all, but eventually lets them in which is when we realise there is tension in the house. It turns out that Hikari used to live with Anzu until a couple of weeks previously when she kicked her out, presumably to move in the boyfriend, Takaya (Takaya Shibata), who wastes no time at all behaving like a complete tool firstly irritated to have guests at all and then apparently challenged by the double masculine presence of the extremely tall Yujiro and the smaller Kotaro who, equally, is somewhat inappropriately fussed over and infantilised by Anzu who asks him a series of insensitive questions and later brands him a “fairy”. 

Before the evening’s out, Takaya, the lonely solo footballer, has burst into tears once again after trying to start several fights, threatening to kill people, demanding that someone kill him and then making an unexpected declaration of love to a surprise third party. Taking to the streets in a random angel costume he ups the hyper-masculine act, turning up shortly after another street harasser to harass Hikari as a song plays describing her, presumably, as a “princess running away from desire and dominance”. Kotaro and Hikari had been continuing their non-date with typical New Year activities such as visiting a shrine, yet he is the only one willing to sit with the obviously distressed Takaya and attempt to talk him down with the aid of some instant udon and gentle wisdom. “The sky is blue today. The sun is warm. But we shouldn’t take it for granted. Such quiet days can often bring happiness.”

That is perhaps in a sense the lesson. The weird New Year crisis eventually begins to fade, a kind of calm finally returning and then giving way to a second possible flashback or merely a waking up returning to the opening scenes as the teens, slightly changed, attempt to heal the gaping wound while Takaya cries into his sleeve. Is this present a dream of the past or vice versa? In any case, romantic crises apparently pass and some find their feelings are returned after all, assuming it is not also a dream. Making frequent use of music accompanied by fun karaoke-style onscreen lyrics as well as stylish graphics and illustrations, Nakamura’s quiet indie dramedy revels in everyday strangeness and the pathos of frustrated dreams be they going to London to play guitar, making a friend, or having your feelings returned. Quiet days can indeed bring happiness if of a quiet kind despite the madness of everyday life allowing a new wind to blow carrying new possibility for a hopefully happier future. 


A New Wind Blows screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

POP! (Masashi Komura, 2021)

You’ve heard “turn that frown upside down”, but are you ready for turn that heart into a…well, perhaps that’s a sentence not worth finishing. The heroine of Masashi Komura’s MOOSIC LAB venture Pop! finds herself in a world of existential confusion on realising that what she assumed to be a heart symbolising love was in fact a giant bum intended to moon an indifferent society. Suddenly she doesn’t know up from down, her entire existence rocked as she contemplates life, love, and the pursuit of happiness on the eve of her 20th birthday. 

19-year-old Rin (Rina Ono) is currently the presenter/mascot character of local TV charity program “Tomorrow’s Earth Donation” which aims to collect money for the world’s disadvantaged children. Meanwhile, she also has a part-time job as a car park attendant which she takes incredibly seriously even though almost no one ever turns up (including her mysterious co-worker Mr. Numata). In fact, its Rin’s earnestness and youthful naivety which seem to set her apart from her colleagues, makeup artist Maiko later complaining that she makes others uncomfortable with her goody two-shoes act while her bashful present to puppeteer Shoji on his birthday of a framed portrait she’d drawn of him seems to elicit only confusion and mild embarrassment from her bantering co-workers. 

Nevertheless, she’s beginning to wonder about love, in her own way lonely and unfulfilled simultaneously confused and disappointed by the direction of her life. She dreamed of becoming an actress, but is now little more than a front for this strange enterprise in which she, characteristically, believes with her whole heart. Deep down, she just wants everyone to be happy and is sure that if people smiled more the world would be a brighter place. Wearing a giant red wig shaped like a heart, she reads out messages purporting to be from children outlining their dreams for the future even when they’re as banal and materialistic as wanting to become a race car driver. Unfortunately, however, she continually stumbles when asked to read a cue card featuring her own dream, fully scripted for the character she’s supposed to be playing. 

On her first audition, she was shouted out of the room by a director insisting her admittedly over the top improvised death scene was nothing more than attention seeking. The TV news attributes a similar motive to a mysterious bomber currently plaguing the city whom Rin accidentally witnesses one day fleeing the scene of his crime. For some reason struck by his strange presence, and perhaps disillusioned with her brief foray into online dating, Rin develops a fondness for him believing he is just like her because the pattern of his bombings corresponds to the shape of a giant heart enveloping the city. “We must get serious about saving the world!” she announces to her colleagues, “Let’s do it with a bang!” she ironically adds. She may, however, have slightly misunderstood his mission statement especially as when questioned as to his motives he tells her that he does it for the benefit of all because no one else will. 

In any case, she remains hopelessly naive, confused by a strange man who brings his van to the car park presumably for “privacy” and strangely unconcerned by an alarming message on an abandoned car left with its door open which states the driver won’t be needing it anymore. She role-plays direction and agency, but in the end goes nowhere until literally carried away by her “adult” realisation that it’s probably not possible for everyone to smile all the time and it’s not her job to make them. Caught up in the slightly duplicitous world of the cynical program makers who perhaps mean well but are hamstrung by the problems of contemporary Japan, desperate for pictures of smiling children only to realise that none are writing in and hardly any of them know any to ask, she maintains her desire for world peace even while privately conflicted in having lost sight of her own dream. Adopting a little of the bomber’s anarchist swagger, she allows herself to be swept up by a final flight of fancy towards a more cheerful world. Shot with a colourful “pop” aesthetic and a hearty slice of absurdist irony Komura’s strange fairytale is stuffed full of heart and has only infinite sympathy for its earnest heroine’s guileless goodness.


POP! screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

JOINT (Oudai Kojima, 2020)

The yakuza is in some senses at least an outdated institution long thought to be on its way to extinction, some positing that the coronavirus pandemic may be the final nail in the coffin. Organised crime is however nothing if not resourceful and facing post-war decline has long been sliding into corporatised legitimacy. As Oudai Kojima’s JOINT points out, however, the line between legitimate business and illicit enterprise has become increasingly thin especially when it comes to the usage of today’s most valuable commodity, our data. 

Emerging from two years in prison, middle-aged Take (Ikken Yamamoto) took a job ripe with symbolism in “deconstruction” on the invitation of a friend who has apparently managed to escape the criminal underworld for a respectable life as a “financier” with a wife and child. Having saved a small nest egg, however, Take soon makes his way back to the Tokyo underworld, good jobs being hard to find for ex-cons, where he attempts to remain on the fringes of the gangster world working as a kind of freelancer for the Oshima clan while not technically a member of the yakuza. Getting back in touch with an old underling and a Korean friend running a restaurant as a hub for the migrant community, he finds himself getting involved in the yakuza’s latest big business innovation trafficking big data to be used to facilitate large-scale fraud usually against the elderly. The thing about data is that it’s only pieces of a puzzle, the various lists of names with phone numbers, emails, and addresses etc are not worth much individually but coupled with related datasets giving a fuller picture of an individual life they are a veritable goldmine. Pulling together his various resources Take soon becomes a major data broker known for comprehensive documents. 

Ultimately, however, he wants out of the criminal underworld and decides to invest his money in venture capital through a start up working with, yes, big data but this time to be used for the purposes of advertising and marketing. His gangster life and supposed fresh start are in fact based on the exact same source, and who’s to say that illicitly collecting information and using it to sell us more stuff we don’t want or need is really any better than using it to commit fraud. Big data is indeed big business, and its possession it turns out to be as dangerous and contested as any other illicit substance from drugs to black market booze back in the post-war yakuza heyday. 

To signal their commitment to moving on, the Oshima gang has already attempted to clean up its act by exiling old school, violent elements but their efforts have only created a further destabilisation in the criminal underworld as the “traditional” yakuza fight back by founding their own gang rooted in violence and vice. Take has one foot in one foot out of the yakuza life, yet sees fit to pontificate on the code of gangsterdom unable to understand why his old contacts have become so toothless unwilling to take a stand or claim revenge when one of their own is murdered by a rival intent on taking over both their turf and the big data business. Meanwhile, Jinghui, the Korean restaurant owner struggles to support the migrant community who, like Take, find it difficult to secure legitimate work, and ends up working with a third gangster conglomerate which is entirely staffed by foreign nationals themselves intensely marginalised in an often hostile society. They see fit to take things one step further by tapping data at source through tampering with routers to funnel it directly to them. 

The “information war” sees no sign of slowing down, though ironically enough having just got out of the “joint”, Take finds himself trapped in the liminal space somewhere between gangster and legitimate businessman even as that space seems to be shrinking so much that it may soon disappear entirely from beneath his feet. Shooting mainly with handheld, Kojima deglams the yakuza underworld surveying it with a documentary naturalism that suggests it is in fact perfectly ordinary while playing with the trappings of the classic jitsuroku throwing up onscreen text featuring the names of the main players along with details of their roles and affiliations. Though the moody score and twilight neon might hint at neo-noir there’s not so much fatalism here as a sense of sorry impossibility, yet in contrast to the perhaps expected nihilism there is a degree of hope for Take brokered by his internationalism even if it exists only outside of Japan. 


JOINT screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our Midnight (아워 미드나잇, Lim Jung-eun, 2020)

Should you continue following your dreams or accept defeat and “grow up” into a conventional adulthood with a steady job, marriage, and comfortable home? The hero of Lim Jung-eun’s Our Midnight (아워 미드나잇) is reluctant to give up on his acting dreams while his friends look down on him in bemusement, all secretly miserable in the regular corporate careers they’ve opted for partly for practical reasons but also because of intense social pressure. Meanwhile, across town a young woman finds herself dealing with the other side of the same problem struggling under the weight of patriarchal norms in which it becomes impossible to separate the personal and the professional. Approaching the same bridge from opposite directions, the pair of youngsters begin to find a sense of peace in shared anxiety emerging from the heavy gloom of a midnight city into a brighter light of day. 

Now in his 30s, Jihoon (Lee Seung-hun) is still an “aspiring” actor trapped in exploitative part-time work in which he has to actively fight to be paid the money he is rightfully owed. He finds himself hanging out in the old rehearsal room from his student days as if nothing had changed in the decade since he graduated. Meanwhile, his nine-year relationship with Areum (Han Hae-in) which began when they were both student actors is about to come to an abrupt end. She’s already “grown up” with a regular job earning real money and is sick of Jihoon’s fecklessness. Areum wants to get married and settle down, but not with Jihoon. Approaching another uni friend now apparently a civil servant (Lim Young-woo), Jihoon is offered a strange new job which ironically reflects the pressures of the world in which he lives. In order to combat Seoul’s notoriously high suicide rate, an experimental programme is being set up in which a squad of samaritans will patrol the local bridges overnight looking for people who seem to be in distress and may be thinking of taking their own lives. 

As one of the other employees points out, if you’re in a dark place perhaps the last thing you want is some guy turning up with a series of platitudes about how you’ll feel better in the morning but all Jihoon has to do is wander round at night so he might as well give it a try. His new role, however, may also feed into his hero complex while allowing him the opportunity to rehearse for real life in the streets. It’s on one nighttime voyage that he first encounters Eunyoung (Park Seo-eun) as she collapses on the bridge after mournfully peering out over the edge. As he later discovers, Eunyoung is a lower grade office worker who is facing workplace discrimination and career insecurity after experiencing domestic violence in her relationship with a co-worker. After reporting the matter to the police, she finds her own job in jeopardy, the older male bosses concluding she is the one at fault for causing embarrassment by dragging this taboo matter into the light while her abuser presumably gets a free pass to continue his career without further penalty. 

In any case, it seems that Jihoon’s friends aren’t faring much better in the world of work, one lamenting that Jihoon has it made because he’s living the way he chooses while another exclaims that his life is about to end because he’s getting married. In a coffee shop, he overhears a cynical businessman on the phone to his boss about scapegoating a middle-aged woman for a workplace mistake presumably to avoid keeping her on the books. Still in his hero mode, Jihoon eventually decides to say something and let the woman know she’s being manipulated, but his intervention is of little use. Like Eunyoung, the woman realises her lack of agency in the corporate hierarchy and accepts that she’s losing her job whatever happens so she might as well take the blame with the money. After all, she’s unlikely to find another position very easily in Korea’s famously difficult employment market. 

All in all, it isn’t difficult to understand why so many people are pushed towards ending their own lives, crushed by the various pressures of Hell Joseon. Yet through their midnight walk through the strangely empty streets the pair begin to generate a kind of solidarity, literally role playing their way out of mutual despair as they each stand up to those who try to keep them down be it an abusive partner and internalised shame or dismissive friends and family who disapprove of those who refuse to follow the accepted path to conventional success. A black and white odyssey through a depressed city, Our Midnight throws up its strangely colourful title card in a vibrant yellow and purple at the half hour mark, allowing its wandering heroes finally to board the train out of despair through mutual acceptance crossing the bridge together into a brighter, less oppressive existence. 


Our Midnight streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Beyond the Night (夜のそと, Natsuki Nakagawa, 2019)

“I’m leaving this place” a traumatised woman declares, trying to free herself from an oppressive environment but discovering that escape is not necessarily synonymous with freedom. Completed at Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate School of Film and New Media, Department of Film Production, Natsuki Nakagawa’s Beyond the Night (夜のそと, Yoru no Soto) locates itself somewhere between Wuthering Heights and The Postman Always Rings Twice as its traumatised heroine struggles to assert herself, trapped in the black hole of incestuous small-town life while yearning for a return to a more wholesome existence.

When we first meet Sotoko (Saki Tanaka), she is trying to run away only to stumble in the forest and be dragged back by her husband, Atsuya (Yasuhiro Isobe), whom she was presumably trying to escape. At work the next day, she’s wearing a large bandage on her cheek, but her colleague, Yuki (Haruka Konishi), has little sympathy for her. It’s at that point that she encounters mysterious drifter Mikiro (Kenta Yamagishi) on a delivery job to the office. Taken by her melancholy, Mikiro begins watching over her, concerned that no one else in the town seems to care that Sotoko is a victim of domestic violence. He learns from an old man that Atsuya is from the village’s most powerful family and therefore can do whatever he likes, while Sotoko, according to Yuki, is a “worthless” woman, an orphan who lost her family in a mysterious car accident. In addition to beating her, Atsuya has been pimping Sotoko out for money and influence, forcing her to sleep with a dirty old man, Tokyo-based politician Ishikawa (Hiroaki Kono), who later turns up dead in extremely suspicious circumstances. 

Atsuya claims that he treats Sotoko the way he does because he’s responding to her desires, pointing out that she’s tried to leave many times but has never been able to move beyond the forest. She lives surrounded by memories of the family she has lost, pictures drawn by her little brother Shota tacked on the wall, hugging his fluffy teddy for emotional support. Atsuya however wants to be her only family, destroying his totemic rivals in order to dominate her more completely while also taking from her the hope of forming a more complete family of her own. We learn that Atsuya has been shielding her from the consequences of involvement with a previous crime which is one reason she can’t leave him, but another is her battered psyche as she tries and fails to convince herself that she has the right to a better life or to her freedom. 

Mikiro, meanwhile, seems like an unlikely saviour, carrying a dark secret of his own as he plays the benevolent stalker wandering around Sotoko’s home when no one’s around and leaving little calling cards to remind her of his presence. Where Sotoko wants freedom, Mikiro wants love and is willing to go to great lengths to get it. “If I kill him will you love me?” he asks, while Sotoko explains to Yuki that she cannot simply leave Atsuya because their souls are entwined and someone needs to cut her free. “You can’t go anywhere, I’m the only one who can protect you” Atsuya counters, “She’ll never love you” he adds to Mikiro, “You’ll end up like me, you’re my replacement”. 

“We can’t change anything” a friend of Mikiro’s insists deepening the sense of fatalism, “one rotten person dies and nothing changes” echoing his own assertion that “there are bad people everywhere”. Sotoko declares her love for Mikiro as a symbol of the freedom she now desires, but at the same time reveals that there is nowhere she wants to go. To her Mikiro seems like a visitor from another world come to take her away from all this, but her salvation is not another perhaps equally problematic man but an awakening to her own agency, finally choosing a clear destination in the fullness of her “freedom”.

Nakagawa shoots her noirish tale with deadpan realism and a healthy respect for the ancient borders of the natural world, amping up the Lynchian sense of dread with ominous musical cues as Sotoko attempts to navigate her life in this strange little town where misogyny rules that seems to stand in for the prison of her trauma. Literally named “child of beyond”, she looks for the new world somewhere on the outside but struggles to extricate herself from an internalised sense of shame and worthlessness in order to find it. “Wherever you go you won’t be satisfied” a threatening policeman (Tomoki Kimura) had told her, but if you never leave the village then how would you ever know?


Beyond the Night streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Trailer (English subtitles)