Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (ペコロスの母に会いに行く, Azuma Morisaki, 2013)

pecorossTopping the “best of 2013” lists in both Kinema Junpo and Eiga Geijitsu (something of a feat in itself), Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (ペコロスの母に会いに行く, Pecoross no Haha ni Ai ni Iku) is a much more populist offering than might be supposed but nevertheless effectively pulls at the heartstrings. Addressing the themes of elder care and senile dementia in Japan’s rapidly ageing society, the film is both a tribute to a son’s love for his mother and to the personal suffering that coloured the majority of the mid-twentieth century in Japan.

Based on a autobiographical manga by Yuichi Okano who uses Pecoross as his artistic name (it’s the name of a small onion and Yuichi thinks his head resembles one) Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days follows Yuichi in his daily life as he tries to adapt to his mother’s sharp decline. Yuichi is a multitalented artist who draws manga and also plays music at small bars around town, but neither of those pay very much so he also has a regular salaryman job that he’s always slacking off from. He’s also a widowed father with a grown-up son who is currently staying with Yuichi and his mother in the family home.

Ever since the death of Yuichi’s father a decade ago, his mother, Mitsue, has been gradually fading. First she was just forgetful but now she’s easily confused and distracted, often forgetting to put the telephone receiver back (though this does accidentally save her from an “ore ore” scam on the other end) or flush the toilet etc. When grandson Masaki finds her wandering the streets to buy alcohol for the long dead grandfather, the pair start to worry if she might be becoming a danger to herself and perhaps they really do need to consider more specialist care for her.

Of course, the decision to place an elderly parent in a home is a difficult one, especially in a culture where the elderly have traditionally been looked after by family. Generally, the daughter-in-law would end up being responsible for the often onerous task of caring for her in-laws as well as her husband, children and the household in general. Yuichi is a widower who can’t be home all day to watch to his mother and there’s always the fear that she might accidentally do harm to herself in her increasingly confused state.

Mitsue quite often becomes unstuck in time, remembering places and events from decades before as if there were happening right now. Born near Nagasaki, she remembers seeing the giant mushroom cloud rising from the atomic bomb and being worried for a young friend who’d been sent to the city only a short time before. The eldest of ten children she looks back on her childhood which had its fair share of hardships and loss. She became physically strong working in the fields and later married a weak willed man who took to drink and was often violent. Through her ruminations and fixations, Yuichi comes to discover a little more about his mother’s history deepening his respect for her and all that she endured in raising him.

The scene where Yuichi first leaves his mother at the home is heartbreaking as he slowly watches her receding in his rear view mirror, confused and hurt at having been abandoned. However, the staff at the care home are shown to be a group of dedicated and caring people who have the proper knowledge to fully cater to Mitsue’s needs. The other elderly residents each have very different symptoms from one woman who’s regressed to her childhood when she was class president at school and now thinks all the nurses are teachers, to a wheelchair bound man who keeps trying to inappropriately touch the female members of staff (though this is apparently just the way he is rather than any kind of condition). The home isn’t a sad place or a sterile one like a hospital, the guests are well stimulated, loved and cared for and Yuichi is welcome to visit and take his mother out on trips whenever he likes.

Though often sad, the events are depicted in the most humorous way possible often using the cute manga drawings Yuichi is making about his mother and there are also long stretches of animation reflecting on Mitsue’s life. The film is, however, unabashedly sentimental and proves a little too saccharine even if obviously sincere. Curiously pedestrian for such a highly praised film though anchored by superlative performances, Pecoross’ Mother and her Days perhaps plays better to a specific audience who are better placed to appreciate its historical meanderings and sweetly sentimental tone but may leave others feeling a little underwhelmed.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Yuki Tanada, 2012)

Cowards who looked to the sky posterThe work of director Yuki Tanada has had a predominant focus on the stories of independent young women but The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky sees her shift focus slightly as the troubled relationship between a middle aged housewife who escapes her humdrum life through cosplay and an ordinary high school boy takes centre stage. Based on the novel of the same name by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita) also tackles the difficult themes of social stigma, the power of rumour, teenage poverty, elder care, childbirth and even pedophilia which is, to be frank, a little too much to be going on with.

Told in a non-linear, overlapping structure the central spine of the film follows unfulfilled housewife Satomi who likes to dress up as her favourite character from the retro anime Magic Girl. Whilst dressed as its heroine, Anzu, she spots a high school boy at a convention who looks eerily like the anime’s hero, Muramasa. Takumi is only at the convention with a friend and has no particular interest in anime but as the two live in the same area “Anzu” convinces Takumi to come and try on a Muramasa outfit at her place. One thing leads to another and the pair embark on a proxy affair which takes the form of role-play between the two anime characters carefully scripted by Satomi. However, Satomi’s hitherto disinterested husband begins to notice a change in her behaviour and has spy cameras installed catching the hot cosplay action for all to see. When he uploads the video to the internet it causes a serious problem for the young and impressionable Takumi.

Actually, there’s a third person in Satomi’s marriage to her feckless husband Keiichiro in the form of his overbearing mother. So far, the couple have no children despite having been married for some time and this has distressed Michiko to the point that she’s the one dragging the couple in for IVF treatment and getting upset when it doesn’t work. Her son, Keiichiro, has weak swimmers and actively doesn’t want children but this doesn’t stop Michiko taking all her frustrations out on Satomi whom she brands as “defective” and gives the impression that she’d like to “fire” her if she could. A shy woman and probably quite bored as a stay at home housewife, Satomi retreats into fantasy by cosplaying as the familiar character from her favourite childhood anime Magic Girl. Becoming Anzu and having an affair with Muramasa isn’t quite cheating, after all, and perhaps she even hopes to have the child that her mother-in-law so desperately wants her to have even if her husband and medical science won’t help her.

Among the younger generation, Takumi lives with his mother, Sumiko, in a residential maternity clinic that she runs where pregnant women can come and be looked after in a more natural and homely environment than the comparatively cold and sterile hospital. Takumi is best friends with a boy who lives near by who, like him, has no father but unlike Takumi his mother is also an absent figure too so Ryota must work part-time at the combini whilst also looking after his grandmother who is suffering with dementia.

Sumiko tries to support Ryota by giving him occasional food parcels but as a young man Ryota sometimes finds this a little embarrassing and is offended by the idea of receiving charity. When it comes right down to it, he resents Takumi’s happy relationship with his mother and their relative financial security. The manager at the store brands Ryota a “ghetto kid” and even blames him for the increase in shoplifting by kids from the estate. He has little time to study even if he wanted to, but all he sees for his future is a great big dead end. Another worker at the store who previously worked as a teacher offers to help Ryota improve his grades and maybe even try for a university scholarship but turns out to have a dark side of his own.

Simply put, there are far too many plot strands in rotation here and the screenplay never manages to corral them into any kind of satisfying arrangement. There is a moment of unity where Ryota’s story meets Takumi’s but it’s a fairly brief point of intersection (though a hugely important one both in terms of themes and storyline) leaving Ryota’s entire subplot feeling like a distraction to the main high school boy meets damaged older woman narrative. That’s without all of the goings on at the clinic, the brief appearance of Takumi’s father and the disappearing act of Ryota’s deadbeat mother who makes off with all his savings. The film’s scope and ambition is admirable but it ultimately fails to unify its disparate plot strands into a convincingly focused form.

That said, other than running too long the The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky does have a lot of interesting elements and is always beautifully shot showing off a rarely seen side of suburban Tokyo. The performances are also of a high quality particularly given the film’s frank erotic content which is played with refreshing realism by the veteran former child actress Tomoko Tabata and the comparatively less experienced Kento Nagayama as the confused high school boy caught in the fire of his first affair. At once too superficial and too deep, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky spreads itself too thin to make a lasting impact though does offer enough rewards to justify its lengthy running time.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

Being Good (きみはいい子, Mipo O, 2015)

Being Goog J poster“Being good”. What does that mean? Is it as simple as “not being bad” (whatever that means) or perhaps it’s just abiding by the moral conventions of your society though those may be, no – are, questionable ideas in themselves. Mipo O follows up her hard hitting modern romance The Light Shines Only There by attempting to answer this question through looking at the stories of three ordinary people whose lives are touched by human cruelty.

The film begins with newbie teacher Okano (Kengo Kora) who is still trying to adjust to the extremely stressful life of a primary school teacher in charge of 38 little guys and girls. As he’s young and he’s only just started he’s filled with enthusiasm and is intent on doing his best to make a difference. On the other hand, he’s a young man with a private life of his own to think about and sometimes he’s just too tired to want to be bothered with a bunch of kids intentionally trying to push his buttons. When he notices one of the pupils hanging around the schoolyard everyday long after he should have gone home, he begins to worry about the boy’s life outside of school.

Strand two also features the life of an abused child as stressed out mother Masami (Machiko Ono) struggles to cope with her three year old daughter Ayane while her husband is frequently abroad on business. Having been an abused child herself, Masami enters a vicious cycle of hating herself for treating her daughter the way she does and resenting Ayane even more for making her feel this way. After becoming friends with a cheerful woman who seems completely at ease with her two rowdy kids, there may be a better way out on offer for Masami and Ayane.

The third tale is a little different than the other two as it encompasses themes of lonely older people in Japan’s rapidly ageing society and the position of those who are different from the norm. Akiko lost her entire family during the war and never had children of her own so she’s all alone now. Every evening while she’s sweeping the steps a young boy says “hello, goodbye” to her as he walks past. One day the boy is in a terrible panic because he’s somehow lost his house key but Akiko calms him down and takes him inside until his mother can come and fetch him.

Okano is full of good intentions. He wants to think himself a “good” person and genuinely wants to look after the young lives placed in his care. However, he is still young, inexperienced and a little bit vain so that the slightest bit of criticism niggles at him. Simply put, he just doesn’t really know what to do and several of his ideas backfire quite spectacularly or appear extremely ill-conceived. Some of this is still about him and his own idea of his being a “good person” rather than an altruistic desire to help the children under his care.

The same, however, cannot be said of the elderly lady who still takes such delight in the falling cherry blossoms which waft down from the school to her small suburban house. Akiko might be lonely, but there’s nothing selfish in the warmth she extends to others. When Hyato’s mother, Kazumi, arrives to fetch him, she’s immediately mortified, convinced that her son must have caused immense levels of trouble for this little old lady. Akiko claims not even to have noticed Hyato’s differences but remarks on how polite he is greeting her every evening and that he’s been the perfect houseguest – in fact she was enjoying herself so much she’s a little sorry Kazumi has turned up so quickly. Kazumi is completely overwhelmed by Akiko’s kindness – it’s the first time she’s ever heard anyone say something nice about her son rather than having people criticise him for being different. In fact, sometimes even she begins to forget how “good” he can be.

In the case of Masami and her daughter Ayane, it’s not that Masami is “bad” person but is responding to a cycle of violence that she finds impossible to escape. Masami doesn’t cope well with stressful situations, dislikes noise and disorder and has impossibly high (and arbitrary) standards for her daughter which result in “discipline” through physical violence. Nevertheless, Ayane loves her mother and, even if Masami recoils when Ayane tries to hug her, reacts with horror to cheerful friend Yoko’s joke of adopting her into their family. Ayane wants to be like her mum, taking delight in wearing a matching pair of shoes even if that means she can’t play with the other kids. As Masami was abused, so she abuses – will the cycle continue with Ayane? Luckily, the pair may have found a more gentle solution in the form of the kindly Yoko who proves far wiser than one would suspect.

As Okano’s sister tells him, when you’re nice to children, they’re nice to others. If everyone could be nicer to their children perhaps we could have a nicer world. The young boy whom Okano is trying to save has come to believe that he’s a “bad kid” – proven by the fact that Santa never comes to their house. He can’t bring himself to talk about his step father to his teachers and Okano’s interventions only make things worse for the boy. He needs someone to show him that he’s not at fault and that the world is not a bad place but it will take more than just “good will” to solve the problem. Sometimes, all you can do is knock on the door.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

This is the original trailer for the film but in my opinion it contains a few spoilers so bear that in mind if you plan on watching in the near future:

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (江分利満氏の優雅な生活, Kihachi Okamoto, 1963)

81zKsQWUtKL._SL1442_Kihachi Okamoto might be most often remembered for his samurai pictures including the landmark Sword of Doom but he had a long and extremely varied career which saw him tackle just about every conceivable genre and each from his own characteristically off-centre vantage point. The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (江分利満氏の優雅な生活, Eburi Man-shi no Yugana Seikatsu) sees him step into the world of the salaryman comedy as his hapless office worker reaches a dull middle age filled with drinking and regret imbued with good humour.

The film opens with an exciting, strangely edited setup of young people having fun singing, dancing and playing sports on a rooftop while a middle aged man sits apart from them looking gloomy with his head in his hands. Eburi is a depressed ad exec who laments that nothing really interests him anymore. It’s all so crushingly dull that he’s taken to drink, only he’s not very good at it so no one wants to join him. When Eburi drinks, he tends to go off on long and often non sensical rants which is probably quite funny for the first half hour but perhaps less so at 3am. One day he runs into some people from a magazine and gets so roaring drunk that he accidentally promises to write them the best magazine serial they’ve ever seen. Only problem being Eburi’s a copywriter, not a novelist, so he’s no idea what he’s doing. Going with “write what you know” he turns his everyday life into a humorous exposé of modern society and ends up becoming one of the most popular writers around.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is based on the prize winning magazine serial by Hitomi Yamaguchi which was also inspired by the author’s own life. Yamaguchi and Eburi are both of the generation who came of age around the end of the war, spared the front lines but not the post-war chaos. Somehow, they were the ones who were supposed to rebuild their nation whilst trying to make a life for themselves in the difficult post-war economic environment. Eburi spins a humorous yarn about how he ended up marrying his wife for reasons of financial necessity and the pair didn’t even get a proper honeymoon because they hadn’t bothered to book ahead so all of the inns in the resort town they ended up at were full. Eburi also lost his job twice when the companies he worked for went under and seems a little mystified that he has this pretty good position in the ad agency (even if he doesn’t like it much and no one seems to think he’s very good at it).

There’s an awful lot of social comedy here as the Eburis try to lead their “elegant” lifestyle on his relatively modest salary. The family – Eburi, his wife, son, and father, all live in “company accommodation” which is a complex of small homes where all the employees live close to each other. Eburi’s neighbour works in his office and is a much younger man who’s been married for six months and, in contrast to Eburi, comes straight home at 6pm to have dinner with his wife whom he adores. Eburi is wearing army surplus suits, cheap underwear from the thrift store and a vest which is full of holes in contrast to his neighbour who is wearing swanky sports underwear and fashionable outfits including unshined shoes – unthinkable to Eburi (though his own footwear is in such a state that the shoeshine boys send him packing). Eburi’s wife is also quite excited when she realises their garden might just be a little bigger than next door’s, something which also gives Eburi a lot of pleasure.

In keeping with the source material, Okamoto opts for a first person narrative style with Eburi narrating his life in the manner of his book only employing a fair few other devices in addition to the wild and radical editing. When Eburi goes further back into the past to tell the story of how his no good father became a rich man by exploiting the populace during the years of militarism, the film suddenly becomes a chaplin-esque silent comedy complete with over emphasised acting and pantomime-like painted sets before turning into a full on cartoon. He mixes montage with onscreen graphics which appear way ahead of their time considering this is a film from 1963 and a fairly mainstream comedy at that.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is also extremely funny. Obviously owing a lot to its source material, the script is one of the wittiest ever written and even if it’s talking about early 1960s social mores, the humour has barely dated at all. Much of the success of this is owed to the committed performance of the leading man, Keiju Kobayashi, who is able to give Eburi a sort of soulful weariness as his cynical rants take on an odd quality of warmth, appearing both strangely energetic and endlessly tired.

Whatever else he says and does, Eburi loves and has a duty to his family that proves extremely stressful for him as he feels the pressure to provide though he only wants the best for them (even at one point lamenting that he’s had to give up thinking about suicide because of the responsibilities he now has). These simple things must have struck a cord with the men of Eburi’s age who found themselves in a similar position of feeling eclipsed by the younger generation coupled with resentment towards their parents who had lead Japan into the folly of war and left the mess for their kids to clean up. Keenly observed, hilariously recounted and brilliantly brought to the screen, The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman might just be one of the funniest films ever made and an unjustly neglected masterpiece of early 1960s Japanese cinema.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 at London’s ICA 10th February 2016.

 

Cheers from Heaven (天国からのエール, Chikato Kumazawa, 2011)

tengoku_teaser_“üeolOkinawa might be a popular tourist destination but behind the beachside bars and fun loving nightlife there’s a thriving community of local people making their everyday lives here. Just like everywhere else, life can be tough when you’re young and the town’s teenagers lament that there’s just not much for them to do. A small group of high schoolers have formed a rock band but they’re quickly kicked out of their practice spot at school after a series of noise complaints from neighbours.

The school kids all buy their lunches from the bento shop down the street run by Hikaru “Nini” Oshiro, his wife and his mother. Whilst there, Aya – the rock band’s female singer, starts eying up a covered courtyard area and remarks that it’s a shame they can’t practice there. Nini overhears and gives them the space but once again the neighbours complain ,so the kids reluctantly decide to give up on the band for now because there aren’t any studio spaces on the island and they wouldn’t have the money to hire somewhere anyway. At this point, Nini makes a surprising decision – digging deep into his family resources, he buys the materials and commits to building a studio space on a patch of disused land next to the bento shop with his own hands.

Based on a true life story, Cheers From Heaven (天国からのエール, Tengoku kara no Yell) is a tribute to Hikaru Nakasone who really did build a studio space for the local kids that turned into something more like a youth centre offering support to all kinds of youngsters so long as they obey the rules. In the film, Nini is a fairly gruff but big hearted man who’s big on discipline and doing the right thing. His rules include being courteous to the other kids, sticking to your allotted time and crucially that your grades don’t suddenly start dropping because you’re hanging out in the studio all the time.

Nini’s wife is, perhaps unsurprisingly, originally horrified by the idea of the studio especially as it will require an additional financial burden for the family, not to mention that Nini failed to run the idea by her before launching headlong into it. However, eventually the entire family comes around and they even start catering for the kids too. When his wife asks him why he’s doing this Nini remarks that in his day people were poor, yes, but they helped and supported each other. Older people taught younger ones how to do things and how to behave but that doesn’t seem to happen now and he doesn’t want his daughter to grow up in a world like that.

The building of the studio becomes a real community project as half the kids from the local area suddenly turn up to help. The project that Nini assumed he’d be finishing with his two hands alone becomes a symbol of pride for the various teenagers who commit their time and hard work into making it happen. They’ve built something together that’s now their collective responsibility and a place where they can go to practice their music or just express themselves creatively.

Nini doesn’t stop there, he wants to help the kids in the band make it big. Convincing a fourth member to join them, taking demos around radio stations, organising live gigs – he’s their unofficial manager. The band’s young struggles hit a chord with Nini because he also had a friend with dreams of becoming a musician that were tragically cut short just as he was finally getting somewhere. It also transpires that Nini came home to Okinawa with his family following an illness which has now returned and this headstrong determination to make a difference is, in part, because he feels as if he’s running out of time.

Despite his failing health, Nini continues to do everything possible to look after the kids from the band even going so far as to discharge himself from hospital to go check on the leaking roof of the studio during a storm only to discover the kids already have it covered. A warm tribute to its real life inspiration, Cheers from Heaven proves far less sentimental than its rather melodramatic title suggests preferring to emphasise its themes of togetherness and legacy which bear out the way in which one committed soul can leave an indelible mark on its community.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 at the ICA London on 6th February 2016.

Miss Hokusai (百日紅, Keiichi Hara, 2015)

MISS_HOKUSAI_teaser_A4_oldpaper_1600When it comes to the great Japanese artworks that everybody knows, the figure of Hokusai looms large. From the ubiquitous The Great Wave off Kanagawa to the infamous Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, the work of Hokusai has come to represent the art of Edo woodblocks almost single handedly in the popular imagination yet there has long been scholarly debate about the true artist behind some of the pieces which are attributed to his name. Hokusai had a daughter – uniquely gifted, perhaps even surpassing the skills of her father, O-Ei was a talented artist in her own right as well as her father’s assistant and caregiver in his old age.

Miss Hokusai, based on the popular 1980s manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, takes up O-Ei’s story towards the beginning of her career before her marriage and subsequent divorce, after which she returned to her father’s side to nurse him as his health declined. Like the manga, the film is a collection of scenes from Edo life loosely tied together by its overarching theme, but broadly follows O-Ei as she lives her life as a young woman with a level of forthrightness and determination which sets her apart from the women of the time. Determined to become an artist, she lives with her father in their studio where neither of them cooks or cleans but each devotes themselves solely to art. Also living with them at the time is an ex-samurai and aspiring artist, Zenjiro, who specialises in erotica which has its own particular qualities even if his skills aren’t on a par with Hokusai or O-Ei.

When not in her father’s studio, O-Ei likes to visit her younger sister who, ironically, was born blind and is being cared for by the local nuns. O-Nao’s blindness is a sore spot for her father who hardly ever visits her, feeling as if her lack of sight is some sort of cosmic slight against him – the master painter with the daughter unable to appreciate his art and therefore his entire life philosophy. O-Ei is not so rigid and delights taking the girl out on trips where she can experience the world through her richly developed other senses. O-Nao particularly likes visiting the bridge with its complicated soundscape from the river below to the vendors above and all the passersby. There’s also a lovely set piece in which a young boy who quickly figures out that O-Nao can’t see tries to entertain her by knocking snow off a tree. Miss Hokusai, though a story of visual art, has an especially intricate sound design which proves that you can paint with materials other than ink and makes a point of calling out the stubbornness inherent in the world view of someone like Hokusai whose singleminded vision has become his entire universe.

O-Ei has her fair share of troubles as a young woman, though living with her father as his assistant she is a relatively free and unsheltered one. Her father doesn’t hide any aspect of his work from her – she even assists him with his erotic pieces and is said to be a particularly fine painter of women though her male figures lack conviction. “Sensation” itself becomes a theme, art is something which must be felt and therefore must have feeling imbued within it. As an unmarried woman O-Ei is ill equipt to complete these kinds of assignments and some say perhaps she should not be given them though her determination would never permit her to turn them down leading to rather a strange interlude in which she tries to gain some “experience” in a presumably “safe” way which won’t have much effect on her later life.

Less successfully, the film also attempts to enter the realm of the supernatural as we learn a painting can have other effects on the viewer particularly if it isn’t completed in the proper fashion. From a possessed geisha to a woman driven mad by O-Ei’s suitably creepy painting which features terrifying scenes from hell, Miss Hokusai most definitely occupies a world where ghosts, spirits and demons are real things which co-exist with real people. Luckily, Hokusai is able to fix the problem with the disturbing painting by closing its symbolic imagery with a suitable addition whilst berating O-Ei for having cut corners and not properly complete her vision so as to leave the onlooker “haunted” in an unintended way. Again, the painter is parent to the painting which attains the kind of immortality impossible for its creator in this transient world.

Clearly bound-up with the notion of transience, Miss Hokusai makes a valiant attempt to bring ordinary Edo living with its geisha houses, dusty rooms and drinking songs to life in vivid detail. However, its message becomes slightly confused with the superimposition of the modern Tokyo in the final frame of the film. At this point, the rather bizarre choice of a modern, electric guitar based soundtrack, begins to make a degree of sense at least on a thematic level but nowhere near enough to mitigate its jarring presence throughout the film.

Animated by animation powerhouse Production I.G who have been responsible for some of the most beautifully made animated movies of recent times, Miss Hokusai is a giant step up from Hara’s previous film, Colorful, in terms of its execution and boasts a number of scenes which are remarkable in their technical proficiency. The sky in particular as well as the background in general takes on a dreamy, woodblock style which is perfectly fitting for the film’s themes. An interesting look at the young O-Ei, an inexperienced female artist still looking for her voice in a world where the only thing that counts is the signature, Miss Hokusai doesn’t quite succeed in breathing life into its disparate collection of tales but makes a valiant attempt all the same.


Miss Hokusai is currently touring the UK with the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 and will be released by All the Anime later in the year.

 

A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1953)

A Japanese Tragedy 1A Japanese tragedy, or the tragedy of Japan? In Kinoshita’s mind, there was no greater tragedy than the war itself though perhaps what came after was little better. Made only eight years after Japan’s defeat, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1953 film A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Nihon no Higeki) is the story of a woman who sacrificed everything it was possible to sacrifice to keep her children safe, well fed and to invest some kind of hope in a better future for them. However, when you’ve had to go to such lengths to merely to stay alive, you may find that afterwards there’s only shame and recrimination from those who ought to be most grateful.

After opening with a series of genuine newsreel segments overlaid with newspaper clippings which tell of nothing other than crime, corruption and suicides, Kinoshita shifts focus to our ordinary mother, Haruko, currently working in an inn. Her son, Seiichi, has something he wants to tell her and will be staying with his sister, Utako, if she’d care to call. Neither of the children seems very excited about seeing their mother and, in fact, Seiichi’s news is that he wants to be adopted into a wealthy medical family so he can eventually take over their hospital. Utako is studying dressmaking and learning English but has also developed an attraction to her married English teacher which is threatening to develop into quite a difficult situation.

Kinoshita makes it plain that everybody suffered during the war which generally brought out the worst in people and even afterwards it was every man for himself as each tried desperately to climb out of the deepening hole that was Japan’s wartime defeat. Haruko lost her husband in the conflict, leaving her alone with two young children to feed and no one to help her. She did what she had to do whether that was a spot of black-marketeering, hoarding, or even casual prostitution but she put her children first every time. Unfortunately, she also falls for some bad self serving advice from her brother-in-law who offers to take over her husband’s land and look after the children while she earns more money out of town. Of course, he didn’t exactly keep his promises and both of the children suffered as a result.

Far from feeling grateful for their mother’s sacrifice, what the children feel is a mixture of shame and resentment. They’re embarrassed by their mother’s hardline personality and rural earthiness which no longer match their postwar upwardly mobile aspirations and force them to remember the unpleasantness of their upbringing. Seiichi is particularly disgusted by his mother’s having prostituted herself, branding her a “loose woman” and calling into question her character even before the disruptive effects of the war. Utako suffered a far greater betrayal at the hands of her relatives which has coloured her entire world view and left her with nothing but lingering resentment towards the mother who placed her in this situation.

Kinoshita intercuts the present day action with completely silent scenes of the family escaping from the military police, or memories of the various traumas each of the family members encountered in the chaotic period immediately after the end of the war. We see them travel from the warm letters sent by the children to their mother which lament the way their aunt and uncle are treating them to the outright hostility of the contemporary era. Haruko may not be the easiest of women, she’s certainly had a difficult life by any standards and it’s understandable why the relationship with her children might be strained, but in this case blood is not enough to overcome all the years of hardship and neither Seiichi nor Utako is willing to fulfil their filial obligations towards their mother.

Haruko substitutes the relationship she’s missing with her own children by offering maternal advice to the chef who works in her inn and a sad wandering guitarist who often comes by to serenade the guests. Not much older than her own son, the guitarist also has a mother in the country whom he rarely sees – Haruko gives him some money that he tearfully promises to use to send his mother a present, though he confesses at the end of the film that he drank it himself in the end. He feels guilty about it and he’s moved by Haruko’s kindness towards him but in the end he’s forgotten his own mother too and even if he isn’t treating her with the same level of disdain that Seiichi and Utako display for Haruko, he isn’t doing much better in the filial piety stakes.

An extended metaphor with a series of tightly packed layers, A Japanese Tragedy is a lament for a homeland that’s lost its way. Haruko, like the idealised mother, has given her own life in sacrifice for those of her children only to find that her children disown her for it. Everything she has ever done, good and bad, has been in their name yet they refuse even to acknowledge her suffering but rather apportion blame for their own hardships. Kinoshita litters Haruko’s story with news reports bearing out the depths to which the country has fallen – corrupt politicians, rioting, violence on the streets and mothers who commit suicide taking their children with them. At a moment near the end of the film, Haruko remains motionless on the train station steps as a crowd of passengers surges past her. Left alone, uncertain, and believing herself to have lost the only thing that has ever mattered to her, Haruko becomes a casualty of a society that is so intent on marching forward that it’s lost sight of where it’s going. An enraged state of the nation address, this bleak and tragic tale is nevertheless filled with genuine human feeling and naturalistic detail which only deepen the impact of the desperately sad ending.


Opening sequence of the film:

Reviewed at the 2016 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, ICA 7th February 2016.

 

Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme Announces 2016 Line-up!

Farewell letter to jinu

The Japan Foundation London’s annual festival of Japanese film is back for 2016 and boasts its biggest programme yet. There are 14 films in total which will play at London’s ICA from 5th February 2016 before some of them head off around the country.

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky

(ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita)

This 2011 film from Yuki Tanada (One Million Yen and the Nigamushi Woman) stars Tomoko Tabata (Moving) as a bored housewife obsessed with cosplay who embarks on an unwise affair with a high school boy.

A Farewell to Jinu

(ジヌよさらば ~かむろば村へ~, Jinuyo Saraba ~ Kamuroba Mura e)

The latest film from Otakus in Love director Suzuki Matsuo, A Farewell to Jinu is the familiar story of a burned out salaryman (played by Ryuhei Matsuda) who decides to upsticks to the country for a simpler life. “Simpler” isn’t isn’t always simple though as he finds out in this zany comedy based on the manga, Kamuroba Mura e, by Mikio Igarashi.

The Letter

(手紙, Tegami)

The Letter is a social drama circling the lives of two brothers one of whom has gone to drastic measures to protect the other but now finds himself resentfully languishing in prison. Directed by Jiro Shono and stars Takayuki Yamada, Tetsuji Tamayama and Erika Sawajiri.

This is based on a novel by Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X) who, to be frank, I don’t get on with as he’s so rigidly “moral”. His mysteries are often good but I end up thinking the detective should just shut up at the end because he just ends up making a tragic situation even more pointless and stupid than it needs to be. I’m from the Poirot school of just letting everyone go and hoping they won’t do it again, I guess. That said, he also wrote the book Himitsu is based on and tends to be a bit weird so you never know. [/rant]

Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days

(ペコロスの母に会いに行く, Pekorosu no Haha ni Ai ni Iku)

This social drama focuses on the growing problem of elder care in an aging society. Directed by Azuma Morisaki, the film follows the daily life of a manga artist as he tries to care for his elderly mother who has alzheimer’s. Topped the Kinema Junpo best of list back in 2013.

Cheers from Heaven

(天国からのエール, Tengoku Kara no Yell)

This one sounds like a weepy. Hiroshi Abe plays a man with an undisclosed terminal illness who decides to open his shop up to a group of youngsters who have nowhere to practice their music. Directed by Makoto Kumazawa.

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune

(のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan noriben)

Directed by Akira Ogata, this 2009 food focussed feature tells the story of Komaki – a woman who decides to leave her husband and move back to her hometown with her little daughter, Non-chan, in tow. When the “Noriben” (a bento with nori on top of rice) she makes for Non-chan becomes a hit at school Komaki decides to try her hand at running a bento store.

Uzumasa Limelight

(太秦ライムライト)

Loosely based on Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, this gentle tale of a dying industry tells the story of Seiichi, a now elderly “kirareyaku” whose sole job is repeatedly dying in samurai movies. However, these days period films are not as popular as they once were and even those that are made don’t require his particular skillset. Feeling the sun setting, Seiichi is given another chance to make an impact in the form of an unlikely young girl who hopes to become his pupil.

I have already reviewed this one! Spoiler – quite good! It’s also getting a release from Third Window Films at some point.

I’ll Give it My All…Tomorrow

(俺はまだ本気出してないだけ, Ore wa Mada Honki Dashite nai Dake)

Sounds familiar…this one’s a comedy about a 41 year old who quits his job to become a “full time slacker” playing video games and working part time at a fast food restaurant before realising his true dream is manga! Adapted from the manga by Shunju Aono and directed by Yuichi Fukuda the film has a starry cast including Shinichi Tsutsumi, Ai Hashimoto, Takayuki Yamada, and Gaku Hamada.

Being Good

(きみはいい子, Kimi wa iiko)

Latest movie from Mipo O (The Light Shines Only There), Being Good starts Kengo Kora as an idealistic teacher who fears one of his students is being abused at home meanwhile Machiko Ono plays a mother who was abused herself as a child and finds herself lashing out at her own infant daughter. This is the big ticket, folks!

The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman

(江分利満氏の優雅な生活, Eburi Man Shi no Yugana Seikatsu)

Now here’s an unexpected gem! A 1963 salarayman comedy from Kihachi Okamoto (The Human Bullet) The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman is the story of a drunken salaryman who pitches articles to two different magazines and ends up deciding to write a novella about himself and his middle class life. Excited about this one!

Predictably no trailer but here’s the DVD cover which features Keiju Kobayashi looking confused!

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A Japanese Tragedy

(日本の悲劇, Nihon no Higeki)

Rare outing for this 1953 classic from Keisuke Kinoshita. A bleak picture of a mother’s sacrifice for her ungrateful children, A Japanese Tragedy is a portrait of maternal love and social indifference in post-war Japan.

If you’re looking forward to this one you could read up on some of my other Kinoshita reviews

(sorry).

(This trailer has no subtitles but there is no dialogue either)

Tale of a Butcher Shop

(ある精肉店のはなし, Aru Seinikuten no Hanashi)

This is apparently exactly what it sounds like as it’s the story of a family run butcher shop which also farms and slaughters its own produce. Contains actual footage of real animal slaughter.

(I don’t think this one is for me, also not including a trailer.)

Anthem of the Heart

(心が叫びたがってるんだ, Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterunda)

Recent anime from Tatsuyuki Nagai. From the same team as Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, this is the story of Jun Naruse, a young girl who feels she she always seems to say the wrong thing and hurts people’s feelings. She then meets an “Egg Fairy” (!) who says he can help by casting a spell on her so she’ll never speak again. The years go by and eventually Jun is cast in a high school musical where she enounters music and friendship.

Might start paying more attention to eggs in future…especially if they’re wearing hats…

Miss Hokusai

(百日紅~Miss HOKUSAI~, Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai)

Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, Miss Hokusai is the story of the daughter of the famous woodblock artist of the Edo era. Directed by Keiichi Hara whose film Colorful was also featured in a previous Touring Film Programme, Miss Hokusai has been receiving mixed reviews but has also won a few international animation awards. Will also be released by All the Anime at some point.

The festival begins at the ICA from February 5th before heading to: Aberystwyth, Birmingham, Bristol, Cumbria, Derby, Dundee, Endinburgh, Exeter, Leicester, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield. Dates are as yet unconfirmed, as is which films will play which venues but you can keep up with all the latest news on the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme website (which is also updated with Japanese film related content throughout the year).