Carmen from Kawachi (河内カルメン, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation
(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation

A naive girl from the mountains finds herself chasing consumerist success and urban independence only to encounter further exploitation before eventually transcending her subjugation and returning to the source of her trauma in an ironic picaresque from the characteristically anarchic Seijun Suzuki. Adapted from a novel from Toko Kon whose book also provided the source material for The Incorrigible, Carmen from Kawachi (河内カルメン, Kawachi no Carmen) loosely adapts Bizet’s classic opera but ironically discovers a much positive outcome for its relentlessly plucky heroine. 

In Kawachi, meanwhile, a rural mountain backwater near Osaka, Tsuyuko (Yumiko Nogawa) is a rather innocent young woman with a crush on the son of the local factory owner, Bon (Koji Wada), who seems to like her too but is equally diffident if presumably mindful of the class difference which makes a relationship between them unlikely to succeed. Tsuyuko’s friend tells her of a girl from school who now works in a cabaret bar in the city and has all the mod cons in her fancy apartment including an electric fridge, washing, machine, and double bed but Tsuyuko doesn’t seem to be too impressed. However, when a pair of local reprobates overhear her romantic conversation with Bon, they begin to feel resentful and decide to rape her. As they approach Tsuyuko, they are seemingly joined by a small crowd of men from the local area each chasing after her. On her return home, she simply bursts into tears but is greeted by an even worse sight, catching her mother (Chikako Miyagi) in a passionate embrace with a lecherous monk whose disgusting fisheye face continues to haunt her, a spectre both of a world of patriarchal exploitation and her own prudishness which is also coloured by the trauma of her rape. 

Tsuyuko is indeed followed around by various men who are all in their way disappointing in their desire to possess her body. “When a woman sleeps with a man just one time, the man thinks she belongs to him”, her school friend explains after she begins working in the bar in Osaka thinking that as her honour’s already lost she might as well try cabaret. Yet there is a kind of power play involved in the hostess life, the men all running after Tsuyuko who only has to stand still and can in fact manipulate them in turn. Then again, as soon as she starts work she ends up having too much to drink and sleeping with a sad sack salaryman who lied that he was also from Kawachi in an attempt to win her sympathy. Like many in the bar he thinks of her as a bumpkin still smelling of mountain soil and is disappointed she’s not a virgin but then becomes obsessed with her to the point of ruination. Kanzo (Asao Sano) embezzles a humiliatingly small amount of money from the financial company where he works and is fired, hanging out in the rain outside the bar just to catch a glimpse of Tsuyuko. Tsuyuko isn’t interested in him but ends up feeling bad about her role in his downfall and letting him move into her apartment where he becomes something like her wife, taking care of all the domestic arrangements and even ironing her smalls.

For all that, Kanzo’s not that bad. He’s a sweet, if pathetic, guy who takes her sudden announcement that she’s moving on with good grace explaining rather sadly that these have been the happiest days of his life but he never expected them to last. Rather than a jealous lover, he willingly lets her go even agreeing to put on a show of anger so she won’t feel bad about abandoning him. In many mays, Kanzo is one of the best men she’s going to meet, save perhaps wealthy artist Seiji (Tamio Kawaji) who seem to have no romantic interest in her but becomes a valuable friend and confident. Then again, it’s not just men. After taking a job as a model to try and move on from the cabaret life, she’s sexually harassed by a predatory lesbian boss who takes her in as a maid and then tries to force her attentions on her, possibly lacking the language for seduction in this less enlightened age. When Seiji had tried to explain that her boss is a lesbian, Tsuyuko had simply laughed and been unable to believe such a thing could be true.

Suzuki pulls back from the fashion entrepreneur’s home to frame it as a dollhouse stage set, Tsuyuko now merely another plaything but also herself playing a role in the newly aspirant society. She does so again when Seiji gets her the gig as a mistress for a loanshark who sets her up in a fancy apartment but only asks her to wander around in the nude apparently interested in little other than voyeurism. Tsuyuko only agrees because she continues to chase the dream of pure love with Bon whom she has reencountered by chance. He is now brought low as his factory has gone bust and he’s broke which dissolves the class difference between them. But Bon is also chasing an elusive dream, in his case of success back in Kawachi by building an onsen at the site of a mysterious waterfall no one has been able to find for decades. Just as Tsuyuko is forced to prostitute herself for Bon, Bon prostitutes himself for his dream in that as she discovers he is her partner in a porn shoot directed by the sleazy loanshark who quite clearly also gets off on the romantic drama in play and the destruction of the “pure” love between Bon and Tsuyuko. 

Part of Tsuyuko’s disillusionment had been caused by the discovery that not only was her mother sleeping with the creepy priest but that she was doing it for money and her father knew. Her troubles have largely be precipitated by male failure, firstly her father’s in his inability to support his family, secondly in the fragile masculinity of the local boys who assaulted her, and then finally in the weakness of Bon who chose his fleeting dream of local success over his love for her. Having inherited the loanshark’s riches after he is randomly killed in a plane crash, Tsuyuko discovers she no longer wants them and tries to free her mother from male exploitation by giving her money in part for a decent funeral for her father. Only then does she learn that her mother has already substituted her younger sister Senko (Ruriko Ito), forcing her to sleep with the priest and blaming Tsuyuko for it for having run away. 

Tsuyuko takes dark and destructive action to rid herself of the troublesome priest as if exorcising the roots of her trauma, no longer afraid of men or of sex but firmly in charge of herself and her body. Her mother is not, however, particularly happy to be emancipated if ironically expressing the same sentiment in that she need have no fear of loneliness or penury for she can always find company if she desires it. Unlike Carmen, Tsuyuko is not undone by toxic masculinity and frustrated male pride but eventually transcends them even if as her mother says she may never be free of the priest’s “dark magic” while she takes to the streets of Tokyo with a rose in her teeth looking, if not quite perhaps for love, then at least satisfaction. Brimming with the joie de vivre and anarchy that would later make him famous from the raucous club scenes to the ironic framing of the porno shoot and dramatic freeze frames as Tsuyuko finally loses her faith in men, Suzuki’s Carmen allows its pure hearted heroine not only to triumph over the forces that oppress her be they men or merely consumerism but to subvert them to her advantage.


Carmen from Kawachi screens at Japan Society New York on Feb. 10 as part of the Seijun Suzuki Centennial.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation

Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

“Money and power rule now, honour means nothing” according to the new bread of upstarts gangsters in Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Tokyo Nagaremono). In many ways, what separates Nikkatsu’s youthful crime movies from Toei’s yakuza epics is that the nobility of Toei’s heroes is rarely questioned. In a Toei movie, it’s the world that’s wrong because the code is good and should be obeyed just as the hero obeys it, but in a Nikkatsu picture nihilism rules. The code isn’t right either, in fact it’s just another tool to manipulate and the hero, while noble, is wrong to follow it. 

That is in essence how Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) will end up a Tokyo drifter, caught between the old world and a new consumerist Japan in which even the yakuza is attempting to corporatise and reform its image. His old boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita), has done just that only he’s had to take out a sizeable loan from another former gangster turned real estate agent, Yoshii (Michio Hino), to do it. Realising his weakness, the upstart Otsuka gang sees an opportunity and stages an elaborate ruse that allows them to get their hands on Kurata’s valuable building and take out Yoshii at the same time though it results in Yoshii’s secretary (Tomoko Hamakawa), also the girlfriend of one of the Otsuka gang, getting caught in the crossfire. 

Tetsu describes his relationship with Kurata as like father and son and is sure he would never betray him. To preserve their new image, Tetsu does not fight back when ambushed by Otsuka goons and even puts himself on the hook for the secretary’s murder, but as much as Kurata insists he wouldn’t betray one of his “kids” to make things easier for himself perhaps he will if the situation calls for it. A defector from Otsuka’s gang, Shooting Star (Hideaki Nitani), tries to warn Tetsu that his faith in ideals like duty and loyalty is misplaced but Tetsu refuses to believe him. “Don’t shatter my dreams” Tetsu pleads, claiming that he cannot be around someone with “no sense of duty”.

Tetsu even feels sorry for Shooting Star, attributing his melancholy air to his having lost his sense of purpose in his disillusionment with post-war gangsterism. He might have a point in Shooting Star’s world weariness, but fails to realises that Shooting Star does in fact have a sense of duty and is in some ways the film’s only truly free man in forging it for himself from basic humanitarian values if tinged with a degree of cynicism. Though the pair clash, Shooting Star claims that he wants to save Tetsu from the pain of his inevitable betrayal and the disillusionment that will eventually come with it rendering him a perpetual wanderer and exile from mainstream society. 

Both men are in a sense lost amid the rapid social changes of their era, unable to move on from the post-war past into the new society even after breaking with the yakuza code in order to live by their own. In Suzuki’s complex colour scheme, Shooting Star is always clad in a forest-like green which echoes his freedom, while Otsuka is represented by a bloody red, and Tetsu dressed in an innocent powder blue suit until the final confrontation in which, along with his equally innocent love interest Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) who had previously been associated with the colour yellow, is dressed in a pure white while all around him are now in black as representatives of those who have succumbed to the amoral capitalism of the the contemporary society. 

Suzuki even has Tetsu walk down an arched corridor reminiscent of a church into an abstract space expanding the stage at the club to lend this moment of existential struggle a little more theatricality. In a sense what Tetsu does is an act of suicide, severing his ties to the yakuza world by smashing Kurata’s glass and killing at least the image of him as a father figure to become a new man or perhaps a wandering ghost who no longer has a home and must even give up his romance with Chiharu in an acknowledgement of his exile. On Otsuka’s death, it’s almost like an alarm is switched off in the sudden shift from red to white in the giant statue standing behind Chiharu, the survivors united in white but rather than the wedding suggested by the colour of their clothes the atmosphere is funereal as Tetsu accepts he can no longer stay in this temporary space and must enter another sort of purgatory as lonely wander comforted only by his newfound freedom.


Tokyo Drifter screens at Japan Society New York on Feb. 4 as part of the Seijun Suzuki Centennial.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Japan Society New York to Host Seijun Suzuki Centennial Feb. 3 – 11

In collaboration with The Japan Foundation, Japan Society New York will be marking the 100th anniversary of late director Seijun Suzuki’s birth with a mini retrospective featuring six of his films from across his career each screening from imported 35mm prints.

Feb. 3, 7pm: Kagero-za

Yusaku Matsuda stars as a confused playwright drawn to a woman who may be a ghost in Suzuki’s hallucinatory Taisho-era drama adapted from a story by Kyoka Izumi.

Feb. 4, 5pm: Satan’s Town / Love Letter

Early Nikkatsu crime feature Satan’s Town hints at the future direction of Suzuki’s career in its dark humour and anarchic use of freeze frame while charting a gang boss’ attempts to set up a new heist after getting out of prison only to find his scheme undermined by the competing desires of his gang of thieves. Satan’s Town screens with the short kayo or ballad film Love Letter starring singer Frank Nagai as a performer whose pianist makes a new discovery when she attempts to visit her lover with whom she has been corresponding by mail after he moved to the wilderness.

Feb. 4, 8pm: Tokyo Drifter

Avant-pop gangland drama starring Tetsuya Watari, who also performs the opening ballad, as a recently released yakuza trying to start again but immediately drawn back into underworld intrigue as his old associates attempt to knock him off.

Feb. 10, 7pm: Carmen from Kawachi

(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation
(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation

Surreal picaresque inspired by Bizet’s Carmen following a naive young woman’s flight to the city where she progresses through a series of exploitative jobs and disappointing relationships before regaining a sense of confidence and independence.

Feb. 11, 7pm: A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness

Suzuki’s comeback after being fired by Nikkatsu is a surreal media satire inspired by Ikki Kajiwara’s sports manga in which a fashion studio wanting to compete with a rival who’ve just made a top Russian gymnast their brand ambassador decide to create a homegrown star by grooming a promising golfer. Events take a darker turn when her newfound fame attracts the attentions of a psycho housewife stalker from the conservative upper middle class neighbourhood her bosses have chosen for her new home.

The Seijun Suzuki Centennial runs at Japan Society New York, Feb. 3 – 11. Tickets priced at $15 / $12 students & seniors, and $10 Japan Society Members are on sale now via the official website while you can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (ラーマーヤナ ラーマ王子伝説, Ram Mohan, Yugo Sako, Koichi Sasaki, 1992)

Raised in a Buddhist temple after an early orphanhood, documentary filmmaker Yugo Sako became a great devotee of Indian culture and apparently fell in love with the story of the Ramayana while filming a documentary for NHK, later reading as many as 10 different translations of the classic legend in Japanese. Certain that only animation could do justice to this epic tale of gods and demons, he proposed adapting it in the style of Japanese anime which was then gaining in popularity all over the world. 

It was though a somewhat sensitive topic. Following a minor misunderstanding concerning Sako’s documentary, complaints were submitted to the Japanese Embassy on behalf of religious organisations who objected to the film on the grounds that it was inappropriate for a Japanese company to adapt their national epic, that their culture was being misappropriated and that they worried the animation format may damage the ethics of the tale. Working with veteran director Ram Mohan, Sako had wanted to make the film in India with Indian animators but given all the difficulties he faced eventually decided to produce it in Japan bringing Mohan and other consultants with him to advise the Japanese animation team how best to reflect the local culture. 

Starring a cast of Indian actors, the film was released first in an English-language audio version only later dubbed into Hindi. In essence it follows Prince Rama (Nikhil Kapoor), the seventh of Lord Vishnu’s 10 incarnations and the first son of a good king, Dasharatha (Bulbul Mukherjee), who rules the happy and prosperous kingdom of Ayodhya. Rama is first called on to deal with a cannibalistic mother and son demon tag team terrorising the local forest but must then tackle the evil demon king Ravana (Uday Mathan) who kidnaps his beautiful wife, Sita (Rael Padmasee), in an attempt to intimidate him during a particularly low point in which he has been exiled to forest for 14 years because of some otherwise fairly gentle palace intrigue. Perhaps surprisingly, each of Rama’s three brothers are also goodhearted and righteous, possessing no desire to unseat him or usurp the throne for themselves despite the machinations of some around them. Rama is also well loved by his people who can see that he is a righteous person prepared to risk his life killing demons to protect them. 

Yet the lesson he learns through his journey to defeat Ravan’s darkness once and for all while rescuing Sita, is that it’s more important to be a good person than it is to be a good warrior. He laments that so many have lost their lives in this “avoidable war” and dreams of the day such sacrifices will no longer be necessary while even Sita begins to feel guilty on realising that people from a series of different kingdoms have died to win her freedom. Rama earns the censure of his brother Lakshman (Mishal Varma) when he suggests burning the bodies of fallen soldiers on both sides together, reflecting that they are all the same now and were so even before they died as were the creatures of the mountains and the sea. 

Even so, the difference is stark between the gloomy and ominous castle where Ravan holds court and the bright and airy chambers of government in Dasharatha’s home. The animation style is strongly reminiscent of the contemporary work of Studio Ghibli particularly in its depictions of the natural world along with the various demons with whom Rama comes into conflict which may not be surprising given that several key members of the creative team were Ghibli alumni. Yet it also reflects its Indian influences, featuring a soundtrack of traditional music along with several songs performed in sanskrit, musical sequences otherwise not generally a feature of this kind of animation in Japan. Epic in nature, it also employs the voice of a storyteller to fill in the blanks as Rama progresses from one adventure to the next while chasing his quest to free the world from darkness and war as represented by venal Ravan who is not above using trickery to disadvantage his foes nor wilfully sacrificing the lives of his men. Sadly, given the controversy which surrounded it, the film struggled at the box office and was largely relegated to a handful of festival screenings before being rediscovered by its intended audience after India’s Cartoon Network began regularly screening it finally allowing the film to take its place in animation history.


Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama screens at Japan Society New York on Jan. 20 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Restoration trailer (Japanese narration, English voice track)

Japan Society Announces January 2023 Monthly Classics & Anime

Japan Society New York has announced the titles for its Monthly Classics and Anime strands for January 2023.

Jan. 18, 7pm: A Fugitive from the Past

World Theatrical Premiere of 4K restoration. Introduced by John David Baldwin, creator of http://www.uchidatomu.com/ and contributor to Arrow’s recent blu-ray release.

Also known as The Straits of Hunger, Tomu Uchida’s late career masterpiece stars Rentaro Mikuni as a man whose attempts to start again in the post-war era are frustrated by the reappearance of a woman from his past. Review.

Jan. 20, 7pm: Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama

Indo-Japanese co-production 10 years in the making adapting the sanskrit epic in which exiled prince Rama retreats to the forest where he incurs the wrath of the demon king Ravana. When his beautiful wife Sita is kidnapped, be becomes embroiled in a battle which will decide the fate of the kingdom.

The screenings take place in January, 2023 at Japan Society New York. Tickets priced at $15 / $12 students & seniors, and $5 Japan Society Members are on sale now via the official website and you can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

April Story (四月物語, Shunji Iwai, 1998)

Shunji Iwai’s wistfully nostalgic coming-of-age drama April Story (四月物語, Shigatsu Monogatari) opens with a POV shot as its heroine awkwardly waits for her train to depart while her family, assembled on the platform, look back at her anxiously before the train door closes and the carriage begins to move. The girl says nothing but places a hand on the glass, freezing amid the snows of Hokkaido, as if bidding a silent goodbye now all alone as she makes her way towards her new life in the capital. 

Shot with the breezy soft focus associated with Iwai’s early work, the film positions its heroine’s growth alongside the blossoming of the cherry trees which in contrast to many other nations in Japan mark the beginning and end of a school year. Shy and somewhat reserved, Uzuki (Takako Matsu) does her best to seem grown up, managing the removals men while insisting on helping but mostly just getting in the way of their work until they finally tell her that, like many students, she’s brought far too much stuff and there’s no way it’s all going to fit in her modest two-room flat. She makes sure to introduce herself politely to her new neighbours bearing gifts, but is met with a wary indifference from the woman across the hall perhaps more accustomed to city living and less likely to be instantly trusting of a stranger. 

At the university some of her fellow students treat her like a country bumpkin asking stupid questions like whether it’s cold in Hokkaido and making fun of her snazzy jumper which is a little too heavy for Tokyo at the start of spring. In the cafeteria she takes it off and hangs it around her waist, embarrassed by her early fashion faux pas. One of the other girls, Saeko (Rumi), attempts to befriend her but as it turns out Uzuki has other things on her mind except for study and in fact Saeko may have an ulterior motive too that neatly reflects her own in looking for fresh recruits for the fly fishing club. 

In any case it’s as if the world gradually opens itself up to her, Uzuki riding the wide streets of the city on her bicycle through parks and under cherry trees before making her way to a particular bookshop. She discovers the dangers of city life while stopping in to watch a classic samurai movie, a beautifully realised historical fantasy homage to golden age cinema and old-fashioned serials in which Oda Nobunaga (Yosuke Eguchi) has managed to escape death at Honnoji Temple and is out for ironic revenge. A late arriving salaryman (Ken Mitsuishi) sits himself down a few seats away from her and surreptitiously tries to edge closer until she’s forced to flee the cinema leaving some of her belongings behind. Even so it doesn’t seem to dampen her enthusiasm for life nor for her unofficial mission and the the reason that’s brought her to Tokyo in the first place. 

Iwai focusses on the domesticity of her newly independent existence, building a cosy nest in her tiny flat and attempting to cook for herself but finding her invitation to her neighbour for dinner politely rebuffed while uncertain if the fly fishing club is really for her given that the guy who runs it is condescending and incredibly full of himself. But then as she tells her mother on the phone she just wanted to try something new and there is something comfortable in the gentle rhythms of casting the fly especially as no one seems to do any actual fishing only practice in the park. She makes friends with the equally awkward Saeko and even finds her neighbour gradually opening up to the idea of friendship. Her world continues to expand until she’s finally ready to reconnect with the unrequited high school crush she followed to the city if admittedly in another slightly awkward meet cute involving a series of umbrellas, torrential rain, and a very patient gallery director. 

A self-declared “nice film”,  Iwai’s heartwarming drama is an innocent tale of first love and romantic obsession that is nothing other than sweetness and light. “A miracle of love” is how Uzuki chooses to describe her arrival in Tokyo and subsequent reunion with her romantic destiny, but it’s in the pursuit of love that she finally begins to come into herself and embrace the possibilities of life blossoming under the cherry trees of an unseasonably warm Tokyo.


April Story screens at Japan Society New York on Dec. 10 and will be available to stream online in the US from Dec. 9 – 23 as part of Love Letters: Four Films by Shunji Iwai

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Japan Society Presents Love Letters: Four Films by Shunji Iwai

Japan Society New York will pay tribute to one of the defining voices of ’90s Japanese cinema Shunji Iwai with four of his most representative films screening Dec. 9 & 10 with April Story also available to stream across the US until Dec. 23.

Friday, December 9 at 7:00 PM: Love Letter

A phenomenal hit across Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s intensely moving romantic melodrama sees two lost young women (each played by pop star Miho Nakayama) make a serendipitous connection through a misdirected letter that allows each of them to come to terms the traumatic past. Review.

Saturday, December 10 at 5:00 PM: Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?

One of a number of shorts Iwai directed for anthology television series, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? won the Japan Film Director’s Guild Newcomer Award in 1993 and takes place over the climactic final day of school as boys argue about whether fireworks are round or flat depending on the angle you look at them from and a young woman decides to leave town. It also provided the inspiration for Akiyuki Shinbo & Nobuyuki Takeuchi’s 2017 anime Fireworks. Joint screening with April Story.

Saturday, December 10 at 5:00 PM: April Story

Also available to stream online in the US Dec. 9 to 23.

A beautifully lensed soft focus meditation of first love and new beginnings, Iwai’s perfectly pitched drama stars a young Takako Matsu as a lovelorn student who’s travelled from Hokkaido to Tokyo for university while chasing a high school crush. Joint screening with Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?.

Saturday, December 10 at 7:15 PM: All About Lily Chou Chou

Screening on 35mm

An elegy for the turn of the century teen, Iwai’s brutal bullying drama oscillates around the lives of two boys communicating via a message board dedicated to the Faye Wong-inspired pop star Lily Chou Chou.

Tickets for all the films priced at $15/$12 students and seniors /$10 Japan Society members are on sale now via Japan Society’s website while streaming rentals for April Story will be available from Dec. 9 priced at $10 (Japan Society members receive a 20% discount via coupon code) with a three-day viewing window. You can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Plan 75 (Chie Hayakawa, 2022)

In 2016, a 26-year-old man went on a violent rampage murdering 19 people at a care home for the disabled claiming that he had done it “for the sake of society”. Prior to his crime, the killer had written an open letter in which he stated that he dreamed of a world in which those with severe disabilities could be peacefully euthanised, while claiming that those with no ability to communicate had no right to life and were nothing more than a drain on society. An expansion of her earlier short featured in the anthology film Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 opens with a sequence which appears to directly reference the 2016 mass killing but in place of the widespread outrage and reconsideration of a social stigma towards disability that followed in its wake, the government decides to implement a “voluntary” euthanasia program for those aged 75 and over in response to the “concerns” of the young in an ageing society. 

Intergenerational resentment does indeed seem to be a motivating factory, the killer in this incident feeling himself oppressed by the responsibility of caring for the elderly while simultaneously hemmed in by a stangnant economy and heirarchical society. He points out that Japanese people have always praised self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation and alludes to the archaic tradition of ubasute or throwing out the old in which elderly people were abandoned on mountainsides to die in time of famine. There is no denying that the Plan 75 initiative has its insidious qualities in placing undue pressure on elderly people to give up their lives in order not to “burden” the young, an elderly woman attending a cancer screening remarking that she feels a little awkward as if she’s “clinging on to life”, being somehow greedy in the simple desire to continue living. 

Meanwhile, their society has already abandoned them. 78-year-old Michiko (Chieko Baisho) had no children and lives alone supporting herself with a job as a hotel maid where all of her colleagues are also elderly women. When one of them has a fall at work, they are all laid off. The hotel claims that they’ve received complaints from guests about exploiting elderly people, but Michiko suspects it’s more like they don’t want one of them to drop dead in someone’s room. Not wanting to be a “burden”, Michiko is reluctant to apply for social security but even when she accepts she has few other options the desk at city hall is closed. Her building, like her now old, is set for demolition but no one is willing to rent to an unemployed 78-year-old woman nor is anyone willing to employ one. More and more Michiko is pushed towards Plan 75 if only to escape her loneliness. Being robbed of the opportunity to work also removes the opportunity for socialising especially as the other old ladies decide to move in with family and leave the area. 

This is in fact an integral part of the Plan 75 business plan with case workers specifically instructed to keep the applicants happy through regular phone calls while prohibited from meeting them in person to prevent the older person changing their minds having made new social connections that make their lives more bearable. In the quietly harrowing scenes at the processing centre, for want of a better term, it becomes obvious that the majority of those submitting to Plan 75 are women as staff members empty out their handbags, dumping their possessions into a large bin while setting aside anything of value such as watches or bracelets which are perhaps another valuable revenue stream for a callous government that sees the programme as a cost cutting exercise.  

Case worker Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) only becomes conflicted about Plan 75 after recognising an applicant as his estranged uncle and eventually discovering that despite sales claims of dignified funerals remains are often sent to landfill care of an industrial waste company. His uncle’s plight perhaps highlights the pitfalls of life in post-war Japan. Living hand to mouth working construction jobs all across the country he never had an opportunity to put down roots or save for his old age and is now living a lonely life of desperate poverty. Heartbreakingly he put his application in on his 75th birthday, an act Hiromu’s boss describes as almost heroic as if he couldn’t wait to sacrifice himself for the common good. Later a sign goes up that fixed addresses are no longer needed to apply, while the Plan 75 stand in a local park where they are in the process of putting bars on the benches so that homeless people can’t sleep there doubles as a soup kitchen. 

One has to ask, if there was money available for all of these resources to help people die why is it not available to help them live? A young woman assigned as Michiko’s handler appears to have second thoughts while bonding with her over the phone, tearfully reminding her she still has the right to withdraw (though it’s never mentioned if that means repaying the $1000 signing bonus) while Michiko’s life too has been brightened by this little bit of intergenerational friendship, itself cruelly commodified in the allotted 15-minute sessions included in the plan. Told with quiet restraint, Hayakawa’s vision of an eerily dystopian future in which human life is defined by productivity and all human relationships transactional, where loneliness is the natural condition and society itself has become little more than a death cult, is painfully resonant in our increasingly disconnected world. 


Plan 75 screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 20 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 KimStim

She is me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

A gentle sense of haunting lingers over the protagonists of Mayu Nakamura’s pandemic-era anthology She is Me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Watashi no Naka no Kanojo). COVID-19 seems only to have exacerbated their sense of loneliness and regret, confronted by the ghosts of other lives and absent friends while having little else to do but think about past and future amid an atmosphere of anxiety. Yet within the lonely city there is space for fresh connection and new beginnings even if in themselves somewhat unexpected.

The sense of distance is obvious from the first episode, Among Four of Us, in which three university friends meet again after many years in a public park, only in reality they’re each sitting on their own in different parts of the city while connected by telephone. They speak briefly of their lives, each filled with disappointment one a struggling actor, one a conflicted housewife happily married but wondering what might have been, and the other living with a former lover who can’t forget their absent friend. Much of the conversation revolves around Sayoko who haunts them on this beautiful moonlit night as they each realise they’ve done little but think about her though she somehow slipped away from them and may have had sorrows and regrets of her own they never thought to ask about. 

It’s Sayoko who again seems to haunt the third chapter, Ms. Ghost, in which a young woman encounters an old lady sleeping on a bench near the station and realises they have more than a little in common. In fact it’s almost as if she were talking to an older version of herself, alone and beaten down by life, dreaming of past glories. Both women reflect not only on their broken dreams as country girls who came to the city to act, but on the various ways they’ve been displaced by the pandemic having lost their places of work and been left with nowhere else to go. Forced into sex work after her hostess bar closed down, the younger woman is haunted by a sense of danger that she might end up just another name in the newspaper killed by a violent man. 

Then again the lonely woman of part two, Someone to Watch Over Me, finds herself captivated by a delivery driver, Kazuya, who hastily polished off one of the meals she ordered but did not have the strength to eat. Becoming somewhat obsessed with him she continues ordering food only to have him eat it, but is conflicted on discovering a note of darkness in their relationship. When he tells her that she is not alone even if she thinks she is, it comes across as a much less comforting statement than he meant it to be hinting at the various ways having someone to watch over you isn’t always as nice as it sounds. She too is haunted by absence, along a with a vague sense of being watched that she may however uncomfortably have started to enjoy. 

The heroine of the fourth episode, Deceive Me Sweetly, is haunted by the loss of her youthful dreams taken from her along with her high school lover, a photographer just like the delivery driver, by her declining sight. Yet she can perhaps see further than most and straight through the young man who arrives at her door attempting to run an ore ore scam poignantly claiming to be the brother that hasn’t contacted her in years. Struck by remorse, the young man begins to regret scamming this strangely trusting woman remarking that the real Kazuya wherever he may be must be lucky to have a family he could call in time of need, which the young man perhaps does not. While she is haunted by lost youth, the woman is also in a way haunting him like a mystical figure offering the hand of redemption and setting him free into a world that seems more open fuelled by the need to repay a debt of kindness to a woman he never really knew. Even in these days of lonely desperation, there can still be hope and connection. Filmed with dreamy minimalism, Nakamura’s four tales each starring actress Nahana and connected by seemingly random details discover a sense of the comfort in strangers that a city can offer even in the midst of its own loneliness. 


She is me, I am her had its World Premiere at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Omphalos Pictures

The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yuka Yasukawa, 2021)

A young woman begins to regain a sense of self-confidence in the face of social prejudice when invited to consult on a film in Yuka Yasukawa’s adaptation of the Rio Shimamoto novel, The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yodaka no Kataomoi). Drawing inspiration from a Kenji Miyazawa story about an ostracised nighthawk bullied by a hawk who cannot accept that they are the same because he finds the nighthawk’s difference offensive, Yasukawa’s gentle drama is less about the transformational quality of love than it is about learning to accept oneself as distinct from the self that others see. 

A shy young woman, Aiko (Rena Matsui) keeps a distance with others because of a longterm sense of rejection owing to a prominent birthmark on her face. After agreeing to be interviewed for a book about people living with facial difference and disfigurement, Aiko is approached by filmmaker Tobisaka (Ayumu Nakajima) who just happened to chance on their photoshoot and was struck by what he describes as a quiet sense of strength in her reserve. Though Aiko is not originally keen on the idea of having someone turn her life into a film, she soon begins to bond with Tobisaka who does not appear to react to her birthmark and eventually embarks on a romance only to find herself insecure in his continuing attachment to a former muse and dedication to his craft. 

While visiting her publisher, Marie (Lisa Oda), Aiko encounters a curious little girl who touches her own face and bluntly asks Aiko if the bruise-like mark on her cheek hurts. Aiko answers patiently that it doesn’t and isn’t offended by the little girl’s question, but perhaps is by the mother’s reaction as she stares and wonders what to say before apologising for her daughter’s rudeness but not for her own. Aiko recounts something similar in recalling her childhood bullying in which the kids in her class nicknamed her “Lake Biwa” because the mark on her face resembled the famous landmark which they were learning about in school. Though they were being cruel to her, Aiko remembers that a part of her enjoyed the attention while the teacher’s attempt to shut her classmates down was in a way more painful as if it were the birthmark itself which was “horrible” rather than the kids’ comments. After that the other children began to avoid her, unsure what to say and perhaps blaming her for having gotten into trouble with the teacher. She explains that she worries people often drift away from her in part because of the birthmark itself and in part because of the way it influences her behaviour generating a vicious cycle of doubt, rejection, and loneliness. Tobisaka’s muse, Miwa (Miyuu Teshima), looks very much like her only without the birthmark and Aiko worries if she can keep him while fearing in her insecurity that their relationship is nothing but a long con designed to get her to agree to participating in the film. 

Yasukawa often frames Aiko looking into mirrors, at one point a reflection of her face appearing next to that of Miwa in her makeup on a poster for the film. Tobisaka gives her a compact mirror as a gift that he possibly intends to help her see herself though perhaps as he sees her, while she remains internally conflicted insistent that there’s nothing wrong with having a birthmark but carrying a degree of internalised shame and wondering if her life would be different without it. It’s another compact given to her by a similarly troubled friend that later grants her agency in realising that she does have a choice in displaying her birthmark or not even if deciding that she might not want to have it removed after discovering that it may be medically possible. Her supervisor advises her that attempting to become a different person in the pursuit of growth is nothing but a fantasy while she gradually comes to the realisation that change is not quite not quite what she’s looking for, quite literally freeing herself from her self-imposed imprisonment to embrace her authentic self. Her growth lies not simply in being loved by a man who may in a way be exploiting her, but in truly seeing herself and others for the first time. An elegantly lensed tale of self-acceptance, Yaskukawa’s gentle drama allows its diffident heroine the space to grow while becoming more rather than less of herself in defiance of a social prejudice that is all to often routed in the same insecurity she has now escaped.


The Nighthawk’s First Love screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 13 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)