Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Izuru Narushima, 2019)

“You wrote that a man should be pure and honest” a conflicted editor reminds his friend, “yes”, he replies, “but that was fiction.” Osamu Dazai is not particularly remembered for his sense of humour, but Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Goodbye, Uso kara Hajimaru Jinsei Kigeki) adapted from a play by Keralino Sandrovich (Crime or Punishment?!?) inspired by his final and in fact unfinished novel Goodbye is a dark-hearted farce grafting ‘30s screwball comedy onto an ironic satire of heartless post-war capitalism through the prism of one man’s emotional cowardice. 

As the black and white newsreel-style opening informs us, literary magazine editor Tajima (Yo Oizumi) made a bit of money on the black market amid post-war chaos but is beginning to feel conflicted about his Tokyo existence especially after receiving a postcard from his small daughter Sachiko in provincial Aomori whom he hasn’t seen since her infancy. His problem is that he’s an inveterate womaniser with several mistresses on the go at once who ironically all already know that he’s a married man, to that extent “honest” at least, but remain unaware of each other. Suddenly wanting to reform his image and become a proper father to his little girl, he’s realising he ought to sort out his problematic love life but Tajima is also the sort of man who can’t bear unpleasantness and is too frightened to break up with his lady friends in case they cry. His writer friend, Rengyo (Yutaka Matsushige), comes up with a cunning ruse – find a pretty woman to pretend to be his long absent wife returned and the mistresses will most likely retreat voluntarily. Tajima decides to do just that on catching sight of a beautiful lady through a peephole in the gents at a bathhouse only she turns out to be someone he already knows, manly black-markeeter Kinuko (Eiko Koike) who secretly loves dressing up in the latest fashions. 

Kinuko is in a sense everything Tajima is not. An abandoned child, she’s learned to take care of herself and is strong both physically and emotionally. She agrees to help him with his nefarious plan because he offers to pay her handsomely, feeding her well in her copious desire for food which perhaps indicates her strong desire to live in a society where many are starving. She’s a black-marketeer because that’s all that’s left for her to be and perhaps has made her peace with exploiting the desperation of others in the knowledge that they also need the service she provides. In any case, she won’t let herself be trampled, frequently getting into fights with male dealers and later throwing Tajima off a balcony when he follows some bad advice from Rengyo and attempts to seduce her in the hope that then he wouldn’t have to pay her for participating in his scheme to rid himself of extraneous women. 

Yet it’s also clear that it’s women who are most at the mercy of the times, Tajima’s first mistress being a heartbroken war widow (Tamaki Ogawa) making a living as a florist who later attempts suicide after saying “Goodbye” to Tajima and the possibility of romantic salvation from post-war hopelessness (though her involvement with him does perhaps eventually lead her to that). The second mistress is a young painter (Ai Hashimoto) who approached him for work on the magazine attempting to support herself while her brother (Sarutoki Minagawa) remained in a Siberian labour camp, and the third is a self-assured doctor (Asami Mizukawa) looking perhaps for company though seemingly aware that Tajima is a weak-willed, unreliable man. His wife, Shizue (Tae Kimura), meanwhile, has become fed up with waiting for him to accept his male responsibility as a husband and father and unbeknownst to him his plans to keep her looked after may have backfired. 

Yet strangely Kinuko finds herself falling for the “pathetic” Tajima without quite knowing why while he perhaps begins to accept that maybe what he needs is a capable woman to look after him because he is after all too cowardly to look after himself. He’s fond of saying that the war changed everything for everyone, but she points out that her life has always been one of scrappy survival and now perhaps they are all equal in that. The post-war world however seems to be in permanent decline, an associate of Tajima’s (Gaku Hamada) eventually becoming accidentally rich, buying a suburban mansion, dressing in a garish white suit and snarling with a mouth full of gold teeth as he advances that money is everything and can even love can be bought. In this at least it turns out he may be wrong. Taking a “detour” allows Tajima to shed his commitment phobia and finally say “Goodbye” to post-war limbo in embracing both a desire to live and the possibility of enduring love. 


Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2002)

laughing frog posterEver have a day (or perhaps a lifetime) where you feel so stupid that even the frogs are laughing at you? That’s pretty much how it is for disgraced former bank manager Ippei when he turns up one day at a family holiday home he assumed would be empty but turns out not to be. In Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Warau Kaeru) director Hideyuki Hirayama deftly dissects the modern family, the gradual redundancy of the middle-aged man, and the way society seems to have of anointing the lucky and the unlucky, in a darkly humorous satire in which even mother nature seems to be mocking our petty human concerns.

33 year old Ryoko (Nene Otsuka) is attending the third memorial service for her late father at which her greedy sister-in-law (Kumija Kim) asks for various things in an attempt to get some of the inheritance in advance while Ryoko’s brother (Shuzo Mitamura) wanders off to chat about silkworms in Chinese on his mobile phone. The event ends with Ryoko’s sprightly mother (Izumi Yukimura) and the sister-in-law urging her to sort out some kind of marital difficulties in order to ease the awkwardness surrounding her lack of external connections.

Meanwhile, Ryoko’s missing husband, Ippei (Kyozo Nagatsuka), rocks up at a rural station and climbs into a familiar house through an open window. Wandering around in his pants, he hears a noise and realises someone lives there after all. Ryoko has moved into her father’s old house in the country and started a whole new life for herself. After a brief discussion, Ryoko agrees to let him stay for a while on the condition that he finally sign the divorce papers but Ippei soon finds himself confined to an especial kind of irrelevance as he starts his new life in the hall cupboard observing his wife’s new freedoms by means of a tiny hole in the wall.

No one seems to have much of a good word to say about Ippei, which is fair enough seeing as he apparently became obsessed with a bar hostess and embezzled money from his bank to pay for a lavish affair before running away and leaving his wife to deal with the fallout. He is, however, paying for it now as his own irrelevance is once and truly brought home to him as he lives out his days like an impotent ghost trapped in a storage cupboard undergoing his wife’s strange mix of kindness and revenge.

Ryoko, the goodly wife, is not quite all she seems. Ippei’s mistress makes a surprise appearance to try a spot of extortion on the wealthy wife but she’s no match for Ryoko’s perfectly practiced poise. One of the oddly cruel accusations the mistress has to offer is that Ippei once referred to a kind of boredom with his wife’s properness, branding her a “fancy pet cat” whilst apparently avowing the mistress’ bedroom superiority. If Ippei’s sheepish behind the wall expression is anything to go by he is guilty as charged but then perhaps the uncomfortable statement leads right back to his uncomfortable place within Ryoko’s upperclass family who seem to look down on a mere bank manager, affecting politeness while secretly bemoaning the fact that their daughter has married beneath herself.

The model upperclass family is a simulacrum. Feigning politeness, elegance and dignity they attempt to disguise their otherwise distasteful affectations. Ryoko’s sister-in-law is at least honest in her constant harping on about the inheritance, plan to steal grandma’s house out from under her to knock it down and build a new one, and constant asides to her apparently hopeless (and unseen) son away at a (not great) university. Meanwhile her husband, Ryoko’s brother, pretends to chat silkworms in Chinese on his phone but is really talking to a Chinese mistress and Ryoko’s mum is planning to get married again to a (possibly dodgy) antiques dealer (Mickey Curtis) who is so deeply in debt there won’t even be any inheritance anyway.

Ryoko too has moved on. Ippei is forced to watch as she entertains her new boyfriend (Jun Kunimura), a stonemason whose main line is headstones, while the frogs outside work themselves into some kind of frenzy. Little by little all his manly affectations are worn away – he’s forced to realise how foolish he’s been, how irrelevant he is in Ryoko’s life, and how perfectly pointless his fugitive existence really is. Ryoko meanwhile remains calm and calculating. She “lies” and she wins in a bloodless victory, allowing her opponents to sentence themselves to the punishments they feel themselves to deserve. Ippei, it seems, is just a weak, unlucky man doomed to ruin himself through a series of poetic failures and petty self involved mistakes. Meanwhile the frogs look on and laugh at our human follies. Makes you feel small doesn’t it….


Rebirth (Youkame no semi) 八日目の蝉

高解像度寒霞渓First of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme for this year up on UK-Anime.net. I’m going to do a general round-up later in the week but this was the best of the (impressive) bunch.


Kiwako has been having an affair with a married man who swears he’s going to leave his wife (just not right now) but now things have come to a head as she finds out she’s carrying his child. Despite her being desperately happy and excited about it – planning to call the child Kaoru and designing visions of the a domestic bliss, Kiwako’s married lover is decidedly less enthusiastic and persuades her to opt for a termination. However, complications from the procedure leave her unable to have any more children and she also begins being harassed by her lover’s wife who finally turns up on her doorstep one day, heavily pregnant, to taunt her – going so far as to remark that her ‘barren womb’ is a direct result of her immoral relations with her husband. One day Kiwako just snaps and in an act of madness abducts her lover’s newborn baby and raises the child as her own for four years until she is finally caught.

In the present day, Erina – who was Kaoru, raised by Kiwako for the first four years of her life, has grown up and is in college. She is deeply scarred by the traumatic events of her early childhood and seems to have difficulty with forming relationships with people, not that she seems to want to make any. After being returned to her birth parents she struggled to adapt to her new life and her birth parents struggled to come terms with everything that had happened. Now, as a young woman, Erina finds history begin to repeat itself in more ways than one and she’s forced to consider who she really is and what she wants out of life. In order to do that, she’ll finally have to confront her traumatic past and all of the complex questions and emotions that will inevitably arise.

In a Chalk Circle-esque way, Rebirth wants to ask a lot of questions about motherhood. Who is the mother of this child really? The woman who gave birth to it or the one who has cared for it all its life and who the child regards as its parent? It is obviously a terrible situation for all involved – the birth parents have lost their child, something truly awful, but the child now believes her abductor to be her mother and ‘returning’ her to a pair of ‘strangers’ she has no recollection of is beyond cruel. Being cruelly ripped away from everything she knew would be traumatic enough, let alone being dragged away from her ‘mother’ in a car park late at night and bundled into car by a harsh woman who tells her she’s being taken to her ‘mummy’ when her total understanding of that word is being handcuffed and taken away.

At only four years old you might think she’d be young enough to gradually ease back into her birth family, and you might be right had her natural parents been better equipt themselves to cope with the situation. Erina’s mother is very definitely of the ‘carry on as if nothing happened’ school so any allusion to the first four years of the girl’s life provokes a hysterical fit that only further exacerbates the confusion already ripping apart the poor child’s soul. So jealous is she that she’s effectively projecting all her resentment and bitterness towards Kiwako’s actions onto the child itself – as if she can’t forgive her for the crime of growing older or having spent so much time with the other woman. The child is a reminder of the trauma of its disappearance, of her husband’s infidelity, and subsequently of her own fear of not measuring up as a mother.

Izuru Narushima has crafted an intense and deeply layered character study that neatly sidesteps the risk of becoming as overblown or melodramatic as the plot description might sound. He approaches the subject matter with great sensitivity and with as even a hand as is humanly possible. His camera is incredibly non-judgemental and treats each of the characters with the same level of sympathy and understanding. Surprisingly, it is the birth parents that become the most difficult to sympathise with but even they are presented with a great deal of compassion.

Rebirth is certainly a very complex film that raises all sorts of uncomfortable moral questions from the nature of motherhood to the treatment of the women of society. If I had one criticism it would be that the male characters don’t come out of this well at all – which may be slightly unfair given the deliberate similarity between the two prominent male characters, but certainly the portrait it paints of masculinity is far from flattering. The performances are astounding, particularly those of Mao Inoue (probably still best known for Hana Yori Dango) as the damaged Erina and Hiromi Nagasaku as the desperately maternal Kiwako. Excellently shot and fantastically well conceived Rebirth is one of the best Japanese films of recent times.