Japan Cuts Announces Lineup for Online 2020 Edition

The latest festival to head online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Japan Cuts has unveiled another characteristically packed programme of recent Japanese cinema hits (plus a few retro classics) available to stream within the US July 17 – 30.

Feature Slate

  • Extro – mockumentary in which a 64-year-old dental technician tries to fulfil a life long dream as a jidaigeki extra
  • Fukushima 50 – real life drama starring Koichi Sato and Ken Watanabe inspired by the workers who stayed behind to mitigate the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
  • It Feels So Good – Steamy drama from Haruhiko Arai starring Tasuku Emoto as a young man retreating to his hometown where he reconnects with an old flame (Kumi Takiuchi) in the days before her wedding to another man.
  • Labyrinth of Cinema – final film from Nobuhiko Obayashi in which three youngsters find themselves lost in the movies.
  • Mrs. Noisy – a blocked writer blames all her problems on the noisy woman next-door in Chihiro Amano’s quiet plea for a little more understanding. Review.
  • My Sweet Grappa Remedies – latest from Akiko Ohku in which a lonely middle-aged woman finds love and friendship with the help of an outgoing colleague. Review.
  • On-Gaku: Our Sound – award-winning animation in which a trio of bored high school students decide to start a band.
  • Special Actors – meta-narrative from One Cut of the Dead‘s Shinichiro Ueda in which a shy aspiring actor joins an unusual agency where he’s asked to play a part in other people’s “real life”.
  • Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (Tora-san #50) – loving tribute to the classic Tora-san series
  • Voices in the Wind – a young woman travels back to her hometown in search of the famous “wind telephone” which has become a beacon of hope for those bereaved by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Next Generation

  • Beyond the Night – a brooding outsider connects with a young woman trapped in an abusive marriage.
  • Kontora – a young woman uses her grandfather’s wartime diary to look for buried treasure in Ansul Chauhan’s Bad Poetry Tokyo followup. Review.
  • Life: Untitled – Kana Yamada adapts her own stage play set in the office of a Tokyo escort service.
  • The Murders of Oiso – the everyday lives of four construction workers in a small town are thrown into disarray by the murder of their former teacher.
  • My Identity – a Taiwanese-Japanese teenager flees Tokyo with a harassed office worker.
  • Roar – parallel stories of violence in which a young man becomes involved with a vagrant paid to beat people up, while a radio host tries to fend off the aggressive attention of her boss.
  • Sacrifice – a former cult member who predicted the 2011 earthquake continues to have mysterious visions, while her classmate begins to suspect that another student is responsible for a murder.

Classics

Documentary Focus

  • Book-Paper-Scissors – Nanako Hirose explores the life of book designer Nobuyoshi Kikuchi. Review.
  • i -Documentary of the Journalist- – documentary following outspoken journalist Isoko Mochizuki.
  • Prison Circle – documentary exploring therapy programs for prison inmates hoping to reintegrate into mainstream society
  • Reiwa Uprising – the latest documentary from Kazuo Hara follows newly formed left-leaning political party Reiwa Shinsengumi.
  • Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films – documentary exploring the 60-year professional relationship between Nobuhiko Obayashi and Kyoko Hanyu who met as students at Seijo University in 1959.
  • Sending Off – documentary by Ian Thomas Ash following a doctor who cares for terminally ill patients across rural Japan.
  • What Can You Do About It – a filmmaker with ADHD documents his friendship with a relative who has Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

Experimental Spotlight

There will also be a number of complementary events on offer including a series of panel discussions on such topics as the career of the late Nobuhiko Obayashi, cinema during the pandemic, and documentary, plus a live Q&A with Shinichiro Ueda, CUT ABOVE Awards: Koichi Sato & Ken Watanabe, and the Closing Night Live Q&A with the Obayashi Prize Recipient.

Limited numbers of “tickets” are available for each film and can been pre-booked from July 10 to be viewed July 17 to 30. After you start playing a film you will have 30 hours to finish watching. Features stream for $7 and shorts for $1.50 – $3.00. You can also pick up an all access pass for $99 or a selection of bundles for each strand. Full details for all the films as well ticketing links (when available) can be found on the official Japan Cuts platform, and you can also keep up with all the festival news as well as the year round programme via Japan Society New York’s website, or by following them on Twitter and Facebook.

Jeux de plage (浜辺のゲーム, Aimi Natsuto, 2019)

105104a28dul1sw021sqjl“Listen, men are nice to all women, because sex is the only thing they think of” a young woman warns her friend as she recounts a casual encounter on the beach with a man they seem to have collectively decided to declare a bad idea. It’s not all fun and games by the sea for the romantically confused heroes of Jeux a plage (浜辺のゲーム, Hamabe no Game) which owes a fair bit to the French New Wave in its easy, breezy exploration of young love and an intensely sexist society. Produced by Kiki Sugino’s Wa Entertainment, Aimi Natsuto’s Rohmer-esque debut continues the internationalist vibe the studio is fast becoming known for in bringing together a disparate group of travellers each “invited” to a small seaside guest house by the mysterious Miwako.

The central psychodrama plays out between three young women, not quite friends, who are apparently engaged in some sort of revolving love triangle. Yui (Juri Fukushima) has brought her uni friend Sayaka (Haruna Hori) on a trip to her hometown where they’ve hooked up with her high school friend Momoko (Nanaho Otsuka), but the atmosphere is beginning to sour. Sayaka increasingly feels like a third wheel while secretly pining for Yui who seems to have regressed into a more vacuous version of her teenage self while obsessing over Momoko who only talks about guys despite later claiming to be pansexual.

Meanwhile, the three women find themselves constantly bombarded by (largely) unwanted male attention – firstly from another guest at the hotel, Akihiro (Shinsuke Kato), who seems to have completely messed up his personal and professional lives with an ill-advised love affair. Akihiro’s eyes are out on stalks when he spots the three pretty women though they, while admitting that he’s “cool”, declare him a little sleazy, maybe even creepy seeing as he’s probably “as old as 35” and giving the eye to a bunch of college girls. Even so, Akihiro is not the only lothario on the prowl. Korean student Min-jun (Koo Hyunmin) has brought a Korean girl, Yona (Li Taun), who’s come to visit him, to stay in the hotel after getting a recommendation from Miwako. It seems Yona is just a friend who came to find out about studying film, but Min-jun keeps making awkward passes and intermittently reminding her about an introduction to his professor which occasionally seems like a creepy sort of pleading.

All that’s aside from the randy professor (Kentaro Kanbara) who might as well be a escapee from a Hong Sang-soo film, having started the picture without his trousers in the empty hotel swimming pool after apparently being seduced by the ever absent Miwako the night before. Despite being profoundly sorry, he turns up the next day to return the clothes he had to borrow and makes a worryingly aggressive play for the previously sympathetic manageress all while his suspicious wife (Kiki Sugino) watches from behind a nearby hedge, presumably following him after doubting whatever story he told her to explain not having arrived home the previous evening. Meanwhile, Sayaka, sick of feeling like a spare part, takes off for the beach where she’s quickly hit on by two different creepy guys, one of whom turns out to be a film director (A cameo from Edmund Yeo) who wanted to hire her for a movie though she wasn’t particularly interested.

Matters come to a head right there on the beach where the women collectively take out their frustrations with the male sex on the cocksure Akihiro, who is not really at fault in this instance save insensitively mocking other people’s romantic distress. Unfortunately, however, the incident does not seem to have relieved the pressure on the central trio who continue to dance around their romantic confusion without talking about anything “real”. While Sayaka looks for advice in asking random strangers if they’ve ever had a same sex crush, Yui becomes increasingly stressed and as irritated by Momoko’s gravitating towards the guys as Sayaka is by her intimacy with Momoko. Meanwhile, the only “nice guy” – a sympathetic Thai filmmaker (Donsaron Kovitvanitcha) observing from the sidelines, fails to add to the drama when attempting to make his own romantic confession (a sweet and innocent one with flowers and poetry) at an extremely inopportune moment. Bookended by time cards with chapter headings taken from classics of the French New Wave, Natsuto’s approach is one of detached playfulness tinged with farce as she observes this collection of flawed but very human protagonists fail to plainly express their desires, becoming ever more frustrated and confused as they struggle to orientate themselves around each other in a repressive and infinitely sexist environment. 


Jeux de plage was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Takuji Suzuki, 2019)

Randen posterStill running over a century later, the Randen tram line is the only one in Kyoto and connects a series of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations in the famously “historical” city. It is also, of course, a key method of public transportation much loved by locals. Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Randen) fits neatly into that subgenere of Japanese films which might as well have been funded by the tourist board, but even so has real affection for its anachronistic street cars as they traffic a series of romantically troubled souls towards the places they need to be with a little help from the supernatural.

Chief among them, Eisuke (Arata Iura) is a blocked writer specialising in real life strange tales. He’s come to Kyoto, rich with culture and history, in search of local mystery but finds himself preoccupied with thoughts of home and the Kyoto-born wife from whom he fears he may have grown apart. Meanwhile, Kako (Ayaka Onishi), a painfully shy woman working in a bento shop finds herself unexpectedly sucked into the world of showbiz when she is persuaded to help a Tokyo actor, Fu (Hiroto Kanai), run lines in a Kyoto accent. Back on the platform, high school girl Nanten (Tamaki Kobuse), on a school trip from Aomori, falls for aloof high school boy Shigosen (much to the consternation of her friends) but unfortunately for her trains are “everything” for him.

Mimicking the linearity of the tramline, Randen takes us through three ages of love with three variously troubled lovers each trying to find the right stop. Teenagers Nanten and Shigosen struggle with their feelings in the normal way. She is certain, he (more romantic than he seems) is not – denying his feelings in the anxiety that requited love evaporates where the suffering of unreciprocated attraction does not. Kako, meanwhile, is struggling with quite different issues in that she lacks self confidence and has decided she’s no good with people. She rebuffs Fu’s straightforward attempts at romance out of shyness and confusion, unable to parse his non-committal replies and wondering if he finds her line of questioning irritating, in which case why is hanging around with her. Eisuke, meanwhile, does something much the same as he recalls a “failed” trip he took with his wife to Kyoto sometime ago and ponders the various ways each of them will change in the time they are apart.

Through it all, the rail station cafe owner (Ryushi Mizugami) is there to dispense his wisdom and knowledge of the city. Picturesque as it is, the tramline is also pregnant with local superstition – the teenagers believe catching sight of the “Yuko” train and its distinctive retro livery means a couple will stay together, while accidentally catching sight of a train staffed by kitsune and tanuki will lead a couple to part. Superstition is as superstition does, but there may indeed be some truth in it if only as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The presence of the contrary trains does, however, prompt true emotions to the surface if only to avoid a negative outcome born of getting on the wrong train at the wrong time and ending up in an unwelcome romantic destination.

Sometimes the train takes you where you want to go, and other times you need to get off and rethink. Shigesen bought his camera to film the things he likes, but worries now it’s more that he likes the stuff he films. There might be room in his heart for something other than trains, but he’ll have to put the camera down for a minute to find out. Nanten’s friends busy themselves the touristy stuff – the Jidaigeki movie theme park and putative trips to feed monkeys, but for her Kyoto is the city of love and she doesn’t want to leave it without fulfilling her romantic destiny. A loving tribute to the iconic, appropriately historical, method of mass transit and to the charmingly, picturesque town itself, Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram exists at the intersection of past and present as its conflicted lovers make ghosts of themselves riding the tram into eternity and fading into the city as just another part of local history, running the lines forevermore.


Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Demolition Girl (JKエレジー , Genta Matsugami, 2019)

Demolition Girl poster 1High school is tough for everyone, but some have it harder than most. Cocoa (Aya Kitai), the heroine of Genta Matsugami’s Demolition Girl (JKエレジー, JK Elegy), struggles to envisage a way out of her dead end existence in small town, rural Japan but begins to find a new sense of purpose when presented with unexpected opportunity. Circumstances, however, continue to conspire against her as she fights bravely for her right to define her own destiny while those around her all too often try to drag her down.

17 and in the last year of high school, Cocoa isn’t planning on going to uni like her friends because her family is poor. Cocoa’s mother died several years ago and her father (Yota Kawase) has been a feckless mess ever since. A gambling addict, he spends his days at the races frittering away the meagre stipend he gets through fraudulently claiming disability benefit. Meanwhile, Cocoa’s equally feckless 26-year-old brother Tokio (Ko Maehara) has come home from Tokyo after failing to make it as a comedian and spends his days lounging around at home. Cocoa is the only one working, providing for the entire family with her part-time job at a sausage stand at the amusement park. Just recently she’s started supplementing her income through starring in some “videos” her brother’s friend and former comedy double act partner Kazuo (Hiroki Ino) has been making with the hope of flogging them to the select group of people who might find footage of a girl in high school uniform stomping on things “satisfying”.

Symptomatic of the perils of small-town life, Kazuo offers the videos to an old friend who owns the local rental store, not quite realising that his old buddy Naoki (Ryohei Abe) is now what passes for a gang leader in these parts. Still, Kazuo is not a bad guy, just a naive one who realises he’s hit his wall and this small-town existence is all there is waiting for him. Knowing he’s in way over his head, he eventually tries to do the right thing and genuinely wants to see Cocoa succeed even when he knows that means his cash cow will be leaving town.

Cocoa, meanwhile, has become re-energised after a well-meaning teacher tells her she is probably bright enough to get into a national university (rather than just a private one) where the fees are much more manageable. Still unconvinced, she becomes determined when her aunt tells her that her late mother had been putting money away for her especially for university. Sadly, it turns out her wastrel father may have already burned through that, but her resolve is undampened. She’s seen a way out, and she’s going to take it no matter what it takes. As her aunt tells her, she needs to get out of that apartment otherwise she’ll be stuck there forever “caring” for her feckless family members while they sit idly by frittering her money away on easy pleasures.

Still, it won’t easy. Circumstances conspire against her from a stern school board suspicious about her extracurricular activities to the ominous presence of the petty thugs who’ve become quite interested in the potential of the videos. Cocoa’s 18th birthday (which her family didn’t even seem to really remember) turns out to be one of the saddest ever as she parties with her two friends in a karaoke box and is then forced into the realisation that they’re each standing a crossroads and likely taking different paths. Supportive as they are, her friends can’t seem to understand why she got involved with the videos in the first place. From much more comfortable backgrounds, they struggle to comprehend her desire for ready cash as a means of escape or her yearning for independence and to be free from her burdensome family who over rely on her for support but offer very little in return.

A subtle condemnation of systemic inequality and the innate unfairness of a world in which circumstances of birth determine almost everything, Demolition Girl revels in its heroine’s resilience as she decides not to be beaten down by those who tell her she cannot make it out. A beautifully lensed evocation of small-town life, Matsugami’s debut is a wonderfully observed coming of age tale in which its determined heroine learns that she can choose to do things “her own way” without compromising her sense of integrity or having to leave her friends behind.


Demolition Girl was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Atsushi Kasezawa, 2019)

bokushi_B5_01“It is very difficult to say what is right and what is not right” a conflicted pastor laments, reflecting on perceived past failings and the sad death of a man who eventually took his own life despite the best efforts of all to help him find a way to go on living. Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Bokushi to Inochi no Gake) follows a small-town pastor who is on constant call near a series of rocky cliffs which attract both cheerful tourists and those looking for a way out of life’s suffering.

Pastor Yoichi Fujiyabu works with a local suicide prevention charity to try and rescue vulnerable people who might be thinking of taking their own lives. So common is suicide at the clifftop, that the society has erected a sign urging those in distress to reconsider with a number they can call for help. Of course, sometimes other people call too which seems to be the case with the first incident we see in which Fujiyabu spends two hours patiently trying to coax a middle-aged woman away from the cliff edge, eventually taking her back to the rectory and offering her a place to stay.

Suicide prevention does not just end at the clifftop. Fujiyabu also runs a rehabilitation centre which, as his wife later suggests, becomes a kind of “home” for those who feel they no longer have anywhere else to go. Though there may not be any one reason someone decides they have no option other than to end their life, it remains true that many of the people Fujiyabu saves have either lost or become estranged from their families and feel themselves to be alone in the world. The Fujiyabus aim to provide them with the safety net of a place they know they can always return to so that they can begin to rebuild their lives and ultimately return to mainstream society.

Then again, as Mrs. Fujiyabu also points out, they are not “suicide experts” or trained psychologists, just compassionate people trying to do their best to help those in need. Thus they are quite honest about the fact that their work is often emotionally difficult or frustrating, and that though they do their best to love and support everyone there will inevitably be people in life that you cannot like or get along with. Nevertheless, they do what they can with what they know in the hope that the people in their care will eventually be able to leave and become independent. To help in practical as well as emotional ways, they also run a small not for profit bento shop where they employ some of the people Fujiyabu has saved from the cliffs. Working brings many benefits aside from the ability to earn a wage, giving the rescued men and women a new sense of being useful while allowing them to learn new skills surrounded by people in a similar situation so they can perhaps begin to feel less lonely and alone.

It’s just that sense of existential loneliness that Mori, a young man to whom Kasezawa devotes special attention, is seeking to escape. Though he was surrounded by people and in regular contact with his family, Mori always felt at a painful distance from those around him – something which seems to have decreased thanks to the communal lifestyle of the rehabilitation station. When he tries to move on, however, he quickly encounters the same old difficulties as he feels himself disliked by his colleagues, unable to fit in to the point that his therapist eventually advises him to quit for the sake of his mental health. Meanwhile, Fujiyabu, to whom he returns, gently tries to explain to him that he’s living well beyond his means – something that he seems to understand on one level but is entirely unable to rectify.

Fujiyabu, well-meaning as he is, quickly becomes irritated by Mori’s inability, or he wonders lack of will, to change. This is perhaps a little unfair in that he fails to consider the various ways that Mori maybe be unable to conform to the standards he expects for a grown man in his society, thereby failing to find effective methods to help him with the areas of life he seems to have the most trouble with – appropriate social interactions, and executive functioning. Being berated for being selfish and irresponsible when he simply does not understand only adds to his sense of despair and conviction that he is unwanted by the world around him. Though many of the people arriving at the church have more obvious motives to end their lives – debt problems, marital breakdown, career ruin etc, there are also those like Mori who struggle to find acceptance in a fiercely conformist society which perhaps hasn’t yet woken up to the needs of those who “cannot read the air”.

As Fujiyabu says it’s difficult to know what to do for the best. That first lady we saw him save eventually decided to leave the centre and Fujiyabu, after all, has no real right to stop her only to make sure she knows what’s she’s doing. He has to wonder if suicide is a valid choice for those whose suffering is incurable and if, after all, it’s all a part of God’s plan. Nevertheless, he resolves to carry on doing what he can to help those in pain find the will to live again. Director Atsushi Kasezawa approaches the most sensitive of subjects with a compassionate, yet unflinching eye, hinting at the entrenched social problems which cause mass despair as well as the toll taken on those who are determined to help.


A Step Forward was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Leo Sato, 2018)

Kamagasaki couldron warAs far as Japanese cinema has been concerned, the city of Osaka is renowned for two very specific things – gangsters and comedy. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Tsukiyo no Kamagassen), the debut narrative feature from Leo Sato, neatly brings them both together in an anarchic tale of social inequalities and the pettiness of organised crime. A warmhearted exploration of the eponymous “invisible slum”, Kamagasaki Cauldron War delights in everyday resistance as its ordinary citizens attempt to live their ordinary lives all but forgotten in a society intent on swallowing them whole.

The drama begins with drifter Henmi – a casual labourer with a young son, Kantaro (Tumugi Monko), who dreams of joining the local yakuza gang Kamitari but is rudely rejected by its foot soldiers. In revenge, he steals their precious “kama” sake bowl which is the symbol of their clan and essential for carrying out the succession ritual. This is all the more embarrassing because the elderly boss is thinking of retiring now that his son, Tamao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), has been released from a 20-year prison stretch. Tamao, however, is secretly pleased because he doesn’t much fancy taking over while the petty yakuza who’s been running the show all this time is also quite happy because he doesn’t really want to give up control. Nevertheless, the precious Kama must be recovered at all costs or the gang will continue to face a significant loss of street cred.

Meanwhile, a bigger drama is underway. Kamagasaki is home to a significant proportion of “homeless” people, many of whom congregate around Sankaku Park where a regular soup kitchen runs next to the giant symbolic Kama cauldron in the park’s centre. It also the last remaining undeveloped post-war area and is therefore rich pickings for unscrupulous property developers such as Capital Beat who are primed to bulldoze the welfare centre to build more housing and therefore need to clear the park of the homeless in order to make the area seem attractive. Already trying to prevent the homeless from settling, the city has put up a series of insidious barriers including floral centrepieces and more obvious metal barriers but is nervous of taking direct action such as physical evictions. Which is where the yakuza come in. Working with Capital Beat and corrupt police, the yakuza take clubs to the soup kitchen and get vulnerable people to commit arson by setting fire to live rats and having them run into “derelict” buildings.

At the centre of events, orphan Nikichi (Yota Kawase) tries to keep himself afloat when the only gigs going are transfers to Turkish nuclear power plants by taking advantage of the Kama crisis and getting his hands on as many as possible little knowing that he is actually in possession of the Kamitari sake bowl thanks to little Kantaro whom he has been persuaded to adopt with his sex worker girlfriend Mei (Naori Ota) who grew up with him in the same orphanage. Coincidentally, the pair were also childhood friends with Tamao who has apparently been holding a torch for Mei all these years as well as grudge against Nikichi for an embarrassing injury caused during a sports contest at school. While they’re busy scrapping it out, the local area decides to fight back against Capital Beat by protesting the city’s treatment of the homeless leaving Nikichi an accidental figurehead for a campaign he doesn’t quite believe in and is only tangentially involved with.

Decrying that there is “no place to rest in the whole world” some enterprising homeless guys have built a tunnel under the giant Kama while others attempt to repurpose their penury by declaring that “garbage is the weapon of the people”. Recalling the anarchic spirit of the student protests (including a surprising cameo by Masao Adachi), the residents of Kamagasaki rise up against social intransigence by taking on the yakuza armed with pots and pans before the police stick their oar in and end up becoming a mutual point of irritation. Filmed on retro 16mm, Kamagasaki Cauldron War offers no real solutions to its various problems but delights in the everyday anarchism of its workaday world in which its scrappy residents do their best to get by in an often hostile environment, finding whatever ways they can to resist societal oppression while maintaining a sense of humour and world weary hope for the future.


The Kamagasaki Cauldron War was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Naoko Nobutomo, 2018)

I go gaga posterWith the population ageing at unprecedented levels, Japanese society is facing a series of interconnected social issues as it contemplates the best way of caring for large numbers of elderly people often living away from family members who, in the past, might have been expected to bear responsibility. What sometimes gets forgotten, however, is the human dimension as older people go on living their everyday lives sometimes surrounded by family and sometimes not. Veteran TV director Naoko Nobutomo’s first feature I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Bokemasukara, Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu) follows her ageing parents from her own perspective as their daughter as they continue supporting each other into old age.

Nobutomo begins her story on New Year’s Day 2014 as she begins to notice a change in her sprightly, independent mother Fumiko and decides to take her to a doctor where they discover she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Over the next three years, Fumiko’s condition intensifies while her husband of 60 years, Yoshinori, does his best to care for her though he himself is already over 90.

Flashing back to home video taken in earlier years, Nobutomo recalls her difficulty dealing with breast cancer at 45 throughout which her mother had been there to look after her. Having looked after her family for all of her life, there is an especial irony that now it’s Fumiko who needs looking after and it is perhaps these small moments of change that force her to acknowledge a gradual decline in her living standards even if she cannot clearly process them. Though Yoshinori bravely starts taking more domestic responsibility at 95, losing the ability to cook for herself is an obvious blow to Fumiko who nevertheless determines to keep her kitchen spotlessly clean.

Luckily, Fumiko and Yoshinori have a generous health insurance policy which entitles them to assistance in the home though that is something they obviously feel ambivalent about accessing. Fumiko, in particular, remains confused about the presence and role of their new helper, believing she is something to do with the insurance company, and is a little resentful of her offer to help with physically difficult housework such as cleaning the bath and emptying the washing machine. Likewise, she is originally reluctant to attend the daycare centre but noticeably perks up after being given a valuable opportunity to socialise rather than staying home all day with relatively little stimulation.

Seeing that her parents are struggling to manage on their own, Nobutomo wonders if she should give up her job in Tokyo and come home to Kure to look after them but is assured by her father that they’d prefer her to go on living her own life. Yoshinori, born in 1920, wanted to study literature at university but the war got in the way. Perhaps for this reason, he was determined that his daughter follow her dreams and is profoundly happy that she’s been able to make a career doing something she loves in the big city. Fumiko too, marrying at the comparatively late age of 30, had been a career woman, graduating from a woman’s school and working as an accountant before her marriage. A notably progressive pair, perhaps usually for the times in which they lived, they were content to let their daughter live the life she wanted to live and never placed any particular pressure on her to conform by getting married and having children.

Married for over 60 years, Fumiko and Yoshinori are determined to go on living independently and managing on their own as best they can. Fumiko, however, has brief painful moments of anxiety in which she is acutely aware of her declining condition and implications for her future. Some days she refuses to get out of bed, either resigned to the fact that “life isn’t always happy”, or lamenting that her life “miserable”. Neither of them want to be a “burden”, but find it increasingly difficult to continue managing on their own as much as they prefer to be as independent as possible. Nevertheless, they go on supporting each other much as they always have living together in hope and happiness while Nobutomo watches warmly from the sidelines supporting them in the same way they supported her, gently and with compassionate understanding.


I Go Gaga, My Dear was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chaplain (教誨師, Dai Sako, 2018)

The Chaplian posterJapan is one of the few developed nations which still maintains the death penalty, though in practice infrequently. The sentence of death is handed down almost exclusively to mass or serial murderers, child killers, or those whose crimes are judged to be of extraordinary barbarity. Unlike other nations, Japan houses those on death row not in prisons but in detention centres, denying them the rights that are afforded to regular prisoners such as visitation, exercise, and entertainment. Execution must be carried out within five days of the judgement being handed down. The prisoner themselves is informed on the morning of their death and given a choice of last meal, but their family members, legal team, and the general public are only informed once it has taken place preventing any last minute attempts for a stay.

In what would be his final screen role (and his first as a producer), Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain, Saeki, attempting to guide a series of Death Row prisoners towards spiritual peace as they prepare to accept their judgement. Though none of the prisoners he visits protests their innocence, some are more repentant than others and not all of them have fully internalised the fact they will never leave the facility even when no further legal attempts to commute their sentences seem to be underway. Some might say there is an element of exploitation in sending a chaplain in at all seeing as this is literally a captive audience. The crimes which lead to being on Death Row are necessarily extreme, many prisoners either have no remaining family members or have been abandoned by them out of shame, leaving them intensely lonely and devoid of human contact (not even televisions or radios are permitted). They are therefore much more interested in conversation than they are in The Bible or accepting Jesus into their hearts.

Then again, Saeki’s first visit is to a man who says nothing at all, allowing him to fill the silence with some of his own backstory which hints at a personal trauma possibly informing his desire to save the souls of these unfortunate people. Another prisoner, by contrast, is all too eager to convert but, as Saeki soon realises, is almost entirely illiterate and therefore struggling to hear the word of God through being unable to read. Saeki does his best to help them, gently listening to their fears and worries but encounters a familiar series of social problems which made their fates inevitable stemming from entrenched poverty and social inequality.

Only six months into the job, he wonders if he’s really getting through and if his efforts are worthwhile. His most challenging prisoner is a young man convicted of a mass killing of those with learning difficulties (inspired by a real life case), whom he deemed to be a drain on national resources. A hyper-rational sociopath, Takamiya (Leo Tamaoki) baits Saeki with unassailable, coldhearted logic which asks why, if he’s happy enough to kill and eat “stupid” animals like cows and pigs, but not “clever” ones like dolphins, his application of the same logic to the human world can be wrong? If all creatures have an equal right to life, then killing for food is as wrong as any other kind of killing and the death penalty nothing more than state sanctioned murder. There is no rational answer for Takamiya’s philosophy and aside from his abhorrent, unfeeling rationality he may have a point when it comes to social hypocrisy. All Saeki can do is ask him to stand with the people that he killed, and acknowledge that God or no God, Saeki too will be with him until the very end.

If Takamiya begins to question the terrifying rationalism which led him to his truly barbaric act, he does so probably not because of Saeki’s ministrations but because of his proximity to death. Meanwhile, another prisoner, Suzuki (Kanji Furutachi), convicted of a stalker murder, seems to have picked up entirely the wrong message in coming to blame just about everyone else for his crime and absolving himself of responsibility. He might have found peace, but it is not the kind of peace he was supposed to find. Noguchi (Setsuko Karasuma), meanwhile, the only female prisoner, continues to talk about the future as if she really thinks she’s getting out. Only Shoichi (Takeo Gozu), an elderly man, seems to truly accept Saeki’s teachings though it is perhaps enough to make him feel as if he really is making a difference.

Sako opts for subtlety in pointing out the inherent hypocritical immorality of the death penalty and particularly in the context of the Japanese legal system which relies heavily on confessions often extracted under duress. Battling his own sense of guilt, Saeki tries to save himself by saving the souls of others but finds his work an uphill battle in a society which prefers not to speak of unpleasant matters and thereby renders itself absolute and unaccountable in the rigidity of its justice.


The Chaplain (教誨師, Kyoukaishi) was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Orphan’s Blues (オーファンズ・ブルース, Riho Kudo, 2018)

Orphan's Blues posterThe past becomes an irresistible trap for a collection of variously troubled souls in Riho Kudo’s Pia winning feature Orphan’s Blues (オーファンズ・ブルース). “Things change” the heroine laments, unable to keep up with the relentless passage of time as her memory begins to collapse in on itself, leaving only nostalgia behind. A poetic exploration of grief, rootlessness, and trauma, Kudo’s bold debut sends its fugitive protagonists on a sad road trip into the long buried past as they attempt to dig up their childhood innocence in escape from an intolerable present.

Emma (Yukino Murakami), a middle-aged woman making a living with a tiny book stand at the side of the road in a small town, has been experiencing unexplained moments of memory loss – forgetting to place a customer’s order, leaving taps on, repeating herself having forgotten that she’s asked this question several times before. Losing the present sends her back to thoughts of the past as evidenced by a picture of a pack of elephants drawn by her childhood friend, Yang (Yu Yoshii), with whom she grew up in the same orphanage. Longing for that same closeness, she decides to track him down but a visit to Chinatown proves fruitless, as does an attempt to call in at the last address she had. Determined to find out what happened to Yang, she reconnects with another friend, Van (Takuro Kamikawa), who is in the process of fleeing to Tahiti with his girlfriend Yuri (Nagiko Tsuji) after stealing some gangsters’ money. When that doesn’t work out they end up accompanying Emma to a small inn run by a woman, Luca (Tamaki Kuboso), who was once in a relationship with Yang, and where a mysterious young man, Aki (Shion Sasaki), is currently staying.

All of our protagonists, bar perhaps Yuri, have a prominent burn somewhere on their body. Emma’s is on her left shoulder – a scald mark she keeps rubbing at times of stress. Van has a scar from a cigarette burn on his right arm, while Luca has what looks like a brand where a wedding ring might once have been worn. Even Aki has some kind scar on his right wrist, conveniently hidden by his long-sleeved shirts. Each of these people is in some way connected by the absent Yang, desperately in search of him even if some perhaps are more aware than others what might have befallen their absent friend.

Luca, who has a series of elephant tattoos across the nape of her neck, recounts that Yang once told her that elephants separate from the pack after receiving a premonition of their deaths. To spare the others the suffering of seeing them pass away, they leave before they go. Yang, they posit, may have followed their example but if he has all he has done is provoke additional suffering among his confused friends. Emma struggles to remember, frustrated by her inability to stay in the present while being pulled towards the past, feeling as if she’s missing some vital clue which will explain everything.

Meanwhile, the tensions between the five residents at the inn ebb and flow. Yuri, who never knew Yang and is beginning to fear she and Van will never get to Tahiti after all, feels herself excluded from the ongoing drama. She resents the closeness between Van and Emma, irritated that only Emma knows how to calm him down in the midst of emotional meltdown, while wondering how long he’s going to keep her waiting in this strangely liminal space caught between a past she never knew and a possibly unattainable future.   

Waiting is however where they are. Van wants to go back, return to a happy place the three childhood friends once travelled and dig up something they buried but can no longer remember. Emma, confused, eventually finds herself rooted in a delusion of the past, unable to see the present clearly while Van is left with little choice other than to abandon himself to facilitate her temporary happiness. Scarred, they run from a disappointing future into childhood nostalgia unable to reconcile the adults they’ve become with the children they once were. Literally as well as figuratively orphaned, they remain adrift with no clear place to belong or return to. Subtle and poetic, Kudo’s beautifully lensed debut is an achingly melancholy piece but one which perhaps finds hope in the solidarity of the lost as much as it suggests there is no path forward for those who can only look back.


Orphan’s Blues screens in New York on July 28 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Journalist (新聞記者, Michihito Fujii, 2019)

The Journalist poster 2In these days of “fake news” and misinformation, a robust press is more important than ever. In Japan, however, the news media institution has long been decried as toothless, if not actually in league with the ruling regime. A timely and appropriately exasperated conspiracy thriller, Michihito Fujii’s The Journalist (新聞記者, Shinbun kisha) is inspired by the non-fiction book by newspaper reporter Isoko Mochizuki who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film and has herself been singled out as “problematic” by politicians unused to being held to account and objecting to her intensive interview technique.

Mochizuki’s fictionalised stand in, Erika Yoshioka (Shim Eun-kyung), is a rookie reporter who grew up in America with her Japanese journalist father and Korean mother. Following her father’s “suicide” she returned to Japan and is currently working for Toto News where she receives a mysterious fax containing information about a suspicious government plan to found a new medical university.

Meanwhile, idealistic former international diplomat Sugihara is on temporary secondment to CIRO (Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office) – a secretive organisation set up under the occupation to mirror the US’ CIA but often criticised for acting like a secret police force and expending too much effort on spying on ordinary Japanese citizens on Japanese soil rather than gathering useful international intelligence. Sugihara (Tori Matsuzaka) finds himself conflicted in his new work, the first assignment of which is handling a smear campaign against a young woman (clearly inspired by the Shiori Ito case) who has accused a high ranking journalist close to the government of rape. A married man with a baby on the way, he fears rocking the boat but resents his complicity with such obvious government finagling and failure to counter the misogynistic narrative that passes for office banter.

When his former mentor, Kanzaki (Kazuya Takahashi), commits suicide, no longer able to live with his compromises, Sugihara begins to reconsider his decision not to go against his superiors but finds it difficult to countenance “betraying” his organisation even in the knowledge that they are no longer working in the best interests of the people. Yoshioka, with whom he eventually bonds after witnessing her sympathetic treatment of Kanzaki’s bereaved daughter, may in some senses be better placed to resist given her overseas upbringing. Where Sugihara and the news media at large struggle with the idea of standing up to authority, Yoshioka is keen to sell the ideals of journalistic integrity, insisting that a robust press is essential in holding power to account.

Meanwhile, she finds herself a lone voice adrift in the largely patriarchal world of Japanese news media. Leaving the press conference called by the woman accusing the government crony of rape, she stops to tell off a pair of journalists making sexist comments but receives only a brief eye roll before they walk away laughing. She also finds herself resented by her colleagues for pointing out that their hounding of Kanzaki’s bereaved wife and daughter at his funeral is insensitive and inappropriate, but refuses to back down in fierce determination to do what is right even if it is not popular.

Meanwhile, Sugihara’s odious boss Tada (Tetsushi Tanaka) is desperately trying to keep a grip on power from the shadows. He uses Sugihara’s conflicted loyalties against him, subtlety reminding him that he has a wife and newborn daughter to whom he has a greater responsibility, and insisting that there is no “shame” in complicity when it comes to maintaining “the illusion of democracy”. CIRO, it has to be said, does not come out of this well as it wilfully does the government’s dirty work – covering up the indiscretions of “valuable” politicians and their relatives in order to avoid the unpleasant chaos of unwelcome political scandals. Kanzaki’s compromises left him a broken and defeated man, Sugihara wonders what kind of man his daughter would think him to be if he too just went along with the government line and enabled their subversion of democracy solely for personal and economic security.

The press may be waking up, but The Journalist’s chief takeaway is that change comes when enough people find the courage to keep saying no. As the ending implies, the battle is far from over but it has perhaps begun thanks to the efforts of those like Mochizuki and her filmic counterpart Yoshioka as well as the courage of whistleblowers like Sugihara who risk personal ruin merely for speaking out. A timely, urgent defence of press freedom in the face of tightening authoritarianism, The Journalist is an all too plausible conspiracy thriller in which the last guardians of liberal democracy are the nails which refuse to be hammered down.


The Journalist screens in New York on July 27 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)