Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

Paradise View (パラダイスビュー, Go Takamine, 1985)

“We’ll all be Japanese soon, so why don’t you marry one?” suggests the mother of a young woman on the eve of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan after three decades under American administration, having taken advice from a shamaness overly worried about her children’s “mixed blood” but assured that a union between her daughter and a Japanese man “would be fine”. Her daughter, however, is not so sure yet equally afraid to voice her concerns while lacking confidence in the local man she loves who has “lost his spirit”, become obsessed with black thorn ants, and begun eating soil. 

As Reishu (Kaoru Kobayashi) tells us, he’s been feeling listless lately and has come to the beach to gather sea salt in the hope that it will perk him up as it has before, Takamine’s camera catching him a lonely figure on the shore. Meanwhile, a funeral procession creeps into the frame and is eventually disrupted when one of the coffin bearers is bitten by a snake which had been hiding in the open casket that in any case contains only bones presumably about to undergo the bone washing ritual common on the islands. “The funeral’s ruined! Our ancestors will never forgive us!” the bitten man laments as the others try to get back on track. Casting the spectre of death over the proceedings, the funeral procession along with Reishu’s desire to find salt to cure his depression is also an early statement of intent from Takamine capturing the unique cultural character of a typical island village as distinct from that of the Japanese mainland to which it is to be “returned”. 

Reishu’s listlessness is itself perhaps also a reflection of the island’s liminal status caught between Japan and the US in a moment of transition. As he tells his grandmother, he’s quit his job at the American army base fearing that as the Vietnam War is drawing to a close and Okinawa is to be returned to Japan there won’t be much work on offer highlighting the extent to which the local area has been economically dependent on the Americans and their foreign policy in Asia. Later we see some of the village men handling weapons smuggled off the American base which they intend for the Okinawan independence movement but which later end up causing self-destructive tragedy. As for Reishu his new business plan involves buying an amphibious vehicle which is in one sense an attempt to hedge his bets, somewhere between being unable to make a choice and avoiding having to make one. 

Paradoxically, Mr. Ito (Haruomi Hosono) the Japanese language teacher to whom Nabee, who is love with Reishu and in fact pregnant with his child, is to be married is described as “more Okinawan than we are” by one of her brothers and both scandalises and confuses a local bar owner over his desire to perform an outdated wedding ritual she fears is unduly sexist and possibly for that reason no longer regularly performed by the local community. Ito speaks somewhat wistfully of the spiritual effect the Okinawan jungle has on him and says he fears being rejected by the vegetation if he does not make sure the ritual is done properly. Bearing all this in mind, there’s something a little uncomfortable in his desire to marry a simple Okinawan village girl which remains in its own way a small act of colonialism even as Nabee’s mother and brothers pressure her to accept the proposal as if a union with the new ruling power would help “purify” their family as the shamaness had suggested. 

What seems clear is that Nabee does not even really know Ito and is not in favour of marrying him, the proposal must have come by arrangement which does not otherwise seem to be the prevailing culture in the village. On discovering Nabee’s pregnancy, her mother encourages her to marry Ito anyway and discretely have an abortion after the ceremony but on the other hand the pregnancy itself is not a major issue as it might have been on the mainland though they worry what Ito might have thought about it. Both friends with Reishu, neither of the brothers quite has the courage to challenge him on his relationship with their sister the calmer of the pair later explaining that he can’t blame him because he was only messing around. As another villager tries to explain to a migrant from the mainland, the islands have a much looser idea of sexual propriety in which young people are free to be friendly with each other with no particular seriousness attached, while the mainlander is concerned and anxious on hearing one of the brothers repeatedly state he could kill Reishu for what he’s done only to be told he didn’t mean it literally and is probably just very annoyed with him to the point of mild physical violence. 

Meanwhile, Chiru (Jun Togawa), a rural girl working as a maid, has also taken a liking to Reishu and is deeply worried for his safety having had a dream in which she saw a dog eat his soul which in their culture suggests he may soon be “spirited away”. Later he finds himself literally on the run after having been arrested when the independence movement storm the police van on which he’s being transported to rescue their comrades, another prisoner who waited patiently rather make his escape shot for his pains. Having lost his spirit he becomes increasingly listless, eating soil while wandering the forest without direction and vulnerable to the rainbow pigs who are it seems the real masters of this space. At the last point we see him, he’s staggering towards a fork in the road, heading towards what Nabee’s mother had described as a historical turning point, but seemingly choosing neither direction. With a dream-like, magical realist quality aided by Hosono’s etherial score and frequent use of traditional Okinawan folksong while spoken largely in the disappearing Okinawan language, Takamine’s laidback epic is a defiant evocation of local culture at a point of transition caught between two states while attempting to take hold of itself. 


Paradise View screens at Japan Society New York May 13 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections. It is also available to stream in the US May 14 to June 3.

Images: © Osamu Muranaka

Japan Society New York Announces Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Marking 50 years since Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, Japan Society New York’s Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections looks back to 1972 with a series of films either set or actually made around the time of this transitional moment each reflecting on the islands’ complex history and unique local culture. Running May 13 to June 3, the season will feature a series of in-person screenings and online streaming with two documentaries by Nihon Documentarist Union available to stream worldwide (excl. Japan & Taiwan).

In-Theater Screenings

All in-person screenings will take place in Japan Society’s auditorium, located at 333 E. 47th Street in New York, NY.

May 13, 7pm: Paradise View

Also streaming online in North America May 14 to June 3

Set immediately before Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, Go Takamine’s first feature is a magical realist exploration of a culture at a turning point of history as the village prepares for a wedding between a Japanese teacher (played by Haruomi Hosono) and a local girl who is already carrying the child of a man who has lost his spirit.

May 14, 4.30pm: Level Five

A computer programmer tasked with recreating the Battle of Okinawa explores the history of the islands while in dialogue with her late lover in the final feature from Chris Marker.

May 14, 7pm: Dear Summer Sister

Screening on 35mm

A teenage girl travels to Okinawa on the eve of its Reversion along with a friend in search of a boy who may be her half-brother and is guided around the islands by a grizzled war veteran in an uncharacteristically breezy summer adventure from Nagisa Oshima.

May 20, 7pm: Terror of Yakuza

Also known as Okinawa Yakuza War, Sadao Nakajima’s jitsuroku classic stars Sonny Chiba as a unhinged gangster whose hegemony is threatened on several fronts when Hiroki Matsukata’s loyal footsoldier is released from prison after knocking off the heads of two rival gangs only to find their space filled by encroaching mainland yakuza.

May 21, 7pm: Untamagiru

Screening on 35mm

Told mainly in the disappearing Okinawan language, Go Takamine’s second feature is an anarchic magical realist musical fable in which a day labourer is forced to flee to the forest after sleeping with his boss’ voluptuous daughter and unwittingly discovering she is an anthropomorphised pig only to gain superpowers thanks to a sympathetic tree spirit and subsequently use them in the service of the Okinawan independence movement.

Online Screenings

May 14 to June 3

Focus on the Nihon Documentarist Union (NDU)
Motoshinkakarannu

Available worldwide (excl. Japan & Taiwan)

Shot over 15 months from April 1969 to July 1970 Motoshinkakarannu takes its name from a euphemism for sex work in the Okinawan language and captures the islands on the brink of transition through the eyes of sex workers, yakuza, tourists, and American servicemen.

Asia is One

Available worldwide (excl. Japan & Taiwan)

Long thought lost until rediscovered in 2005, Asia is One examines a legacy of exploitation by mainland mining companies of the Taiwanese and Korean migrants working in harsh conditions in the mines.

Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections runs in person at Japan Society New York May 13 to 21 and online May 14 to June 3. Full details for all the films are available via the official website where tickets are already on sale while rentals for the movies streaming online are available via Japan Society’s streaming platform with passes for all three films available from May 14. You can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Monthly Anime at Japan Society New York April 15 to July 22

Japan Society New York has announced its latest monthly screening series running April 15 to July 22 and featuring four anime classics from Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi landmark Ghost in the Shell through to Masaaki Yuasa’s wild night in Kyoto, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl.

April 15: Ghost in the Shell

Preceded by a 6PM pre-screening party with Japanese foods and snacks provided by Kikkoman plus Sapporo beer

Mamoru Oshii’s landmark adaptation of the manga by Shirow Masamume in which cybernetically enhanced police officer Major Motoko Kusanagi finds herself hunting down the elusive Puppetmaster following a spate of cyberbrain hackings.

May 27: The Animatrix

Screening on 35mm in English (original language)

Produced as a companion piece to the Matrix: Reloaded, this nine-part anthology film features contributions from Cowboy Bebop’s Shinichiro Watanabe, Ninja Scroll’s Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Redline’s Takeshi Koike. Screening on 35mm in its original English-language voice track.

June 17: The Night is Short, Walk on Girl

Adapted from the novel by Tomihiko Morimi, Maasaki Yuasa’s madcap odyssey through a single night in Kyoto follows college student Otome on her quest for a book from her childhood all while a young man goes on a few adventures of his own hoping to win her heart. Review.

July 22: Princess Mononoke

Screening on 35mm

25th anniversary screening of the Studio Ghibli classic set the 14th century in which a young warrior cursed by a diseased boar spirit finds himself swept into a local conflict between a forest princess and the neighbouring iron town hellbent on destroying the Earth.

The series runs monthly April 15 to July 22 at Japan Society New York where tickets are already on sale.

Harmful Insect (害虫, Akihiko Shiota, 2001)

“We’re only in seventh grade, why does Sachi have to suffer so much?” a well-meaning friend eventually asks as she comforts the heroine of Akihiko Shiota’s Harmful Insect (害虫, Gaichu), even as her mother turns away from her too fragile herself to be of much use. Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki) does indeed suffer, continually victimised by the world in which she lives and having that victimisation used against her, rejected by her peers and almost blamed for the misfortunes which befall her as if she were the one at fault simply for existing. 

Shortly after the opening scene in which 13-year-old Sachiko’s mother (Ryo) attempts to take her own life, we see the girls at school gossiping about her while she’s still in earshot not entirely sympathetic as they remark on the fact her father left the family while implying that her mother is some kind of broken-hearted love fool driven to suicide over the loss of a man. Sachiko quickly becomes the woman of rumour, but in a motif which will be repeated the teens talk but never listen swapping stories between themselves and embellishing them as they go. It’s uncertain how much truth there is in the legend of Sachiko but it’s clear that they disapprove of her, adopting a puritanical moralising mindset in which they simply shun her for being something other. Only Natsuko (Yu Aoi) tries to stop them, reaching out to Sachiko even as Sachiko rejects her but is ultimately able to offer little help when even Sachiko’s mother is ill-equipped to protect her. 

The truth is that Sachiko is never safe anywhere. Everywhere she goes, she becomes a target for predatory men of all ages. A schoolboy on a bike harasses her by asking childish questions about her period, while sleazy salarymen repeatedly proposition her for sex, and even her mother’s new boyfriend in a doubly destructive act of betrayal cannot be trusted. She says little and keeps to herself, her silence and her isolation a kind of defiance and defence mechanism. After dropping out of school, she starts hanging around with a drop out 20-something (Tetsu Sawaki) and his homeless friend (Koji Ishikawa) who seems to have learning difficulties, discovering that they support themselves through staging accidents for compensation money. She considers doing the same thing, not for the money but craving the thrill of a near death experience only to find herself unable to go through with it. 

Meanwhile, she continues a letter-based correspondence with her former teacher with whom she is rumoured to have had an affair. Mr. Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe) later resigned for obvious reasons and now has a low-grade job at a nuclear plant. He answers her letters when he can, mostly offering paternalistic platitudes but like her absent parents is unable to provide her with the guidance she is seeking. What she seems to be looking for is the kind of parental input that would allow her to feel protected, safe, but no one is really there for her. She resents her mother’s emotional dependency and tendency to involve herself with unsuitable men, but worries she’s becoming the same striking out for an early independence but discovering only danger and futility. 

She asks herself if vice is the essence of human existence, then is goodness only the quality of not being entirely bad? Her view of the world already coloured with nihilistic despair. The men who misuse her feel they have no real need to justify their actions, but simultaneously blame her for tempting them though she does nothing other than exist remaining silent in order to avoid attracting attention. Then again even she doesn’t quite understand, asking her teacher why it is he can’t forgive himself simultaneously accepting that what happened between them, whatever that was, was wrong enough to warrant forgiveness but unable to grasp why he cannot let go of his guilt, continuing with this half-hearted correspondence unable to grant her the care that she is seeking. Wandering between flashbacks and brief vignettes of her life, Shiota captures Sachiko’s sense of total aloneness as even her sole source of sanctuary is taken from her leading to an explosive act of partially self-destructive violence that sends her forever on the run. The choice she makes at the film’s conclusion, be it in submission or defiance, is hers alone but in its own way a tragedy dragging her deeper into dangerous despair with escape an ever distant possibility.


Harmful Insect streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2002 NIKKATSU / TBS / SONY PCL

My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Kyoko Miyake, 2013)

“I can’t let TEPCO ruin my life” the heroine of Kyoko Miyake’s personal documentary My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Nami no Mukou) eventually asserts, explaining that when you have no more tears to cry then you become defiant. Having lived in London for 10 years prior to filming the documentary, a lack of defiance was something that had initially interested Miyake, wondering if she’d simply been away too long no longer understanding why everyone in her family’s hometown of Namie in Fukushima continued to refer to the Tokyo Electric Power Company in such affectionate terms. Then again, as her aunt Kuniko points out before losing her patience, “anger won’t get us anywhere”.

Returning to Japan soon after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Miyake details her own relationship with Namie, rendered uninhabitable after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, during her opening voiceover describing it as a warm and nostalgic place marked by a sense of rural tranquility. Nevertheless through making the documentary she comes to question both herself and the town, wondering why it was that people were so keen to have the plant come when the prevailing wisdom of her own generation was anti-nuclear and wary of duplicitous heavy industry. As her aunt and her friends reveal, however, post-war Namie was a poor village where farmers often had to leave for city jobs over the winter to make ends meet. Some grew envious of other local towns which had become economically prosperous thanks to corporate investment while others remained sceptical. Those who refused to sell their land for the development of another nuclear plant were harassed into submission by those convinced of its benefits, while TEPCO was keen to invite the local community to inspect existing plants to prove that they were safe. 

An awkward and in fact incredibly sexist propaganda video targeted at local wives and mothers demonstrates that safety was still an issue as late as the ‘90s, a company representative ominously claiming that the plant has been designed to withstand a tsunami before adding “we will never betray your trust”. Many residents still want to believe in TEPCO’s promises, sure that they will somehow fix what is broken even while many of them are trapped in temporary housing with no idea when or if they’ll be allowed to return home. Aunt Kuniko tries to stay cheerful, bored with trying to kill time having previously devoted herself entirely to work. Miyake describes her aunt as a feminist pioneer who showed her how to be glamorous and successful while also having a rich family life. Ironically enough, Kuniko ran both a wedding parlour and a funeral home right next to each other with a bakery in-between. She wanted her children to take the businesses over, but her three sons have already moved on, one buying an apartment and starting a business of his own far away without saying anything at all about it to her. 

The tsunami disaster has deepened a generational divide with the young leaving the area to make new lives elsewhere while as one old lady puts it the elderly are left behind with nothing to do but laugh. These people haven’t just lost their homes, they’ve lost their hometown, in a sense orphaned and free floating in a Japan struggling to find space for them as the heartrending echoes of plaintive folksong Furusato make clear. Forced to accept they may never be able to return, Kuniko looks for new premises but only for her funeral home conceding that there’s not much future in the wedding business, with all of the youngsters gone there’s no one left to get married. “There’s no such thing as absolute safety” she laments, regretting having been duped by TEPCO and the dubious promises they sold even as they positioned themselves as the driving force of the post-war economic miracle. The town felt proud by proxy that the energy they generated went into rebuilding the country, but as Miyake admits as long as the lights stay on in Tokyo no one cares about Fukushima or about the people still living in temporary accommodation caught in a never-ending limbo waiting for someone to tell them what they’re supposed to do now that everything they’ve ever worked for or built is lost in an instant. 

While her husband remains somewhat sympathetic to TEPCO, arguing that the problem isn’t nuclear power but safety, Kuniko begins to lose her patience taking part in protest marches against the plant while trying to salvage what she can from her old life. Miyake bookends the film with images of post-Fukushima Namie now an eerie ghost town, pastries still sitting in Kuniko’s bakery the area’s timelessness ironically mirroring Miyake’s description of it in her childhood memories as a kind of time-warp to post-war Japan from bubble-era Tokyo. An elegy for a community erased, Miyake’s quietly angry documentary takes aim at indifferent government and corporate greed, but finds also a stoical sense of endurance as Kuniko waters her abandoned flowers and prepares to start again. 


My Atomic Aunt streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Vision (ビジョン, Naomi Kawase, 2018)

In her most recent work, Naomi Kawase has been moving further towards the mainstream, shooting in a more conventional arthouse register and mainly casting established professional actors in contrast to the amateurs who often took centre stage in her earlier career. Vision (ビジョン) however returns her to her familiar Nara Prefecture with its verdant forests and rolling mists and to more obscure realms of poetic ambiguity and new age philosophy.

French scientist/travel writer Jeanne (Juliette Binoche) has come to Japan in search of a herb so rare it apparently only spores once a millennium but has the capability to “dispel human weakness, agony, and pain”. Tomo (Masatoshi Nagase), a mountain man she ends up lodging with along with her interpreter Hana (Minami), answers only that “happiness exists in each of our hearts”, a somewhat hollow and ironic reply given his general grumpiness and stern expression. He tells them that he’s only lived in the cabin for 20 years having moved to the country because he was “tired” and that his purpose is to save the mountain. Despite his seeming reluctance, he eventually introduces the pair to a blind shamaness who claims to be 1000 years old and was born when the last plant (or as she points out fungus) spored. 

Lost in the beauty of nature, Jeanne begins to wonder if she is really in the present, losing the certainty of the moment. We get occasional snippets of what seems to be memory bathed in a golden light and presented as flashback which might hint at the “pain” Jeanne is trying to cure through finding the “vision” herb even as she engages in a halfhearted though apparently passionate affair with the indifferent Tomo. She sees him as “starving” for something, not knowing what it is he’s longing for, though her friend describes him as “happy” as if silent like the mountain he claims to be saving though all we see him do is destroy it by carving up trees even if he does point again to the transience of things in explaining that the lumber he produces is the work of several generations who planted and grew so he could cut down, perhaps hinting back at Jeanne’s claim that when life develops too far it begins to destroy itself. 

Tomo doesn’t quite seem to buy her new age philosophies, explaining only that “you see, and hear, touch, you feel, that is everything”, rooting his sense of reality firmly within the realms of the sensual. “Sometimes because we have language we can’t understand each other” Jeanne later says, echoing him though perhaps accidentally while expounding on the human condition to a mysterious young man, Rin (Takanori Iwata), discovered injured in the forest. Aki (Mari Natsuki), the shamaness, advances that there are changes in the forest, that it has become unbalanced, and that it will soon be time for the “vision” to present itself though it seems to take a while for Jeanne to understand what form that may take. Aki dances furiously amid the trees as if bending them to her will, her ritualistic dance later echoed in the climatic final sequence that sets a fire in the mountain but causes Tomo to suddenly declare that it is after all alive. 

Jeanne finds her “vision” in an alignment of past and future, a familial, generational reunion which allows her ease her pain just as it was said vision would do. All moments are perhaps one moment. On the train Hana had described a feeling of long forgetten happiness that Jeanne’s travel essay had provoked in her as akin to “nostalgia”, instantly amusing Jeanne who is overcome by the incongruity of this young woman already romanticising a sense of nostalgia for an unlived past. Tomo had declared that it was enough simply to remember that he too was a part of this world, but is suddenly reminded that he is not alone. Literally setting fire to the past they buy themselves the possibility of being reborn, making space for new growth in the knowledge that the mountain is “alive” as indeed are they. Tomo has saved the mountain, and Jeanne has perhaps saved herself. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she exclaims embracing a new vision of a bright and shining future no longer burdened by pain or despair.


Vision streams in the US until Dec. 23 alongside Naomi Kawase’s 1997 debut Suzaku as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Suzaku (萌の朱雀, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

Changing times and economic malaise slowly encroach upon the lives of an ordinary rural family in Naomi Kawase’s Caméra d’Or winning feature debut, Suzaku (萌の朱雀, Moe no Suzaku). Previously known for her experimental 8mm documentaries, Kawase maintains a trademark naturalism in capturing both the beauty of the natural world and the incidental details of everyday life as the family finds itself at odds with its environment, facing a moment of extreme transience as they recognise the existential threat to their way of life that is caused by, perhaps ironically, a failure of modernity. 

The action opens in the early 70s as an ordinary family take breakfast in a remote rural cabin with a picturesque view of a verdant local mountain. Patriarch Kozo (Jun Kunimura) lives with his wife Yasuyo (Yasuyo Kamimura), mother Sachiko (Sachiko Izumi), daughter Michiru (Machiko Ono), and Eisuke (Kotaro Shibata), the son of his estranged sister whose continued absence already seems to hint at cracks in the family unit. Meanwhile, the village has been badly hit by an economic downturn causing many of the younger people to leave and seek their fortunes in the city. Hopes have been pinned on a controversial rail line with Kozo one of its foremost proponents, hoping that with greater infrastructure provision the town will be reinvigorated. Kawase then flashes forward 15 years during which a now grown Eisuke has become the family’s breadwinner with a job at an inn outside of the village while Kozo appears depressed and Yasuyo seems to be suffering from some kind of illness. The long delayed rail project is finally cancelled, much to the consternation of the local community who now seem to have universally come round to the idea. They fear that cut off as they are, the village will dwindle, they will find it harder to find spouses, and their children will have far fewer possibilities. 

The smallness of the community is both a strength and a weakness as Kawase plays with the less palatable sides of isolation in the awkward adolescent infatuation of Michiru for her cousin who has been raised more or less as her brother while he appears to have a not altogether maternal appreciation for his aunt who is nearing the end of her tether with stultifying rural life and her husband’s emotional absence, her mysterious illness perhaps a manifestation of her existential unease. She takes a part time job at the inn, moving further away from the family home, out of the village and towards the town while Kozo walks in the other direction, retreating into nature unable to step into the present let alone the future. 

Kozo’s camera reels may not contain any great secret but perhaps have their own profound truths, mimicking Kawase’s documentary practice as he captures the smiling faces of local farmers amid the natural greenery. It is precisely this, it’s implied, that he wanted to save, the traditional way of life with its tightly bound communities and local festivals, a life lived in concert with the natural world in all its glorious greenery. He watches the old couple next-door prepare to leave the village because their children have decided to put them in a nursing a home and the sight breaks his heart. He can’t bear to go on living in such a declining world. Pinning all his hopes on modernity he throws himself into the rail project, but in a slightly overworked metaphor the tunnel stops right in the middle. He cannot cross to the other side, and neither can Eisuke, permanently trapped by a painful sense of nostalgia but exiled from his natural habitat. 

Eisuke himself is already displaced as a foster child whose mother has abandoned him, apparently in the city but out of contact with her family. Michiru faces a similar dilemma when her mother finally decides it’s time to leave and return to her hometown. Grandma Sachiko sings a folksong sitting on her front porch which quickly gives way to the voices of children echoing those we heard in the opening sequence of 15 years previously in which the local kids played together happily making the most of a warm summer’s day. The family is scattered, divided along its natural fault-lines and trapped between tradition and unrealised modernity with only the melancholy comfort of transience to sustain them.


Suzaku streams in the US until Dec. 23 series alongside Naomi Kawase’s 2018 drama Vision as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“I never thought my life would come to such a lonely autumn” an old woman laments in Shuichi Okita’s touching adaptation of the novel by Chisako Wakatake Ora, Ora, Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Ora Ora de Hitori Igumo), her husband now gone, a son so estranged he may as well be too, and a daughter (Tomoko Tabata) who only stops by to ask for money. What’s it all for? In an increasingly ageing Japan, later life loneliness has become a pressing issue, but for Momoko (at 75: Yuko Tanaka, at 20 – 34: Yu Aoi) the problem may be that she’s beginning to find her own company oppressive mainly because she’s become plagued by a trio of mental sprites dressed in regular old lady clothes who speak to her in her native Tohoko dialect and force her to think about the realities of her life. 

And then there’s the other guy who looks really like the guy she was briefly engaged to before running out on an arranged marriage only dressed in her pyjamas and telling her there’s no point getting out of bed because every day is the same and she doesn’t have anything to do anyway. Meanwhile, she finds herself pulled back towards memories of happier times when her children were small. All of this has Momoko wondering if she’s sliding into dementia, or if perhaps she’s merely beginning to go out of her mind with grief, loneliness, and existential futility. 

It’s also clear that like everyone else her age despite having led a happy life, Momoko has doubts and regrets. When she ran out on her arranged marriage inspired by the Olympic buzz of Tokyo in 1964, she thought she was striking out for freedom and independence, that she was a “new woman” of the post-war era and she was going to live her own life the way she wanted it. Yet in Tokyo the first friend she makes is someone from the same area who’s managed to completely shed their regional accent, and then she met a man who refused to lose his (Masahiro Higashide) and fell in love with him. She doesn’t regret her life, but feels in a sense disappointed that she ended up falling into the same patriarchal patterns she tried so hard to escape as a conventional housewife and mother dedicating herself to supporting the man she loved. Her friend, Toko (Toko Miura), points out that she always hesitates when she refers to herself as “watashi” rather than the familiar “ora” in the Tohoku dialect as if shamed by the inauthenticity and resentful that her accent, her essential identity, is something she has to lose in order to blend in to Tokyo society. 

Heartbreakingly, we witness her bamboozled into leasing a new car, a symbol of freedom and independence, from a young man who seems nice but is obviously intent on leveraging her loneliness, addressing her as “mother” (not an unusual way to refer to the woman of a house but definitely a deliberate avoidance of “granny”) and encouraging her to think of him as a son. Ironically, while he’s there the phone rings but it’s an “ore ore” scam claiming that her son’s in trouble and needs money. She laughs it off and tells the salesman she’s not silly enough to fall for something like that just as she signs on the dotted line, but later we discover that she did indeed fall prey to it sometime earlier in desperation for the son who, as she had, left home young and never looked back. Her daughter meanwhile, stops by after hearing about the car but mostly so she can ask for money to pay for art lessons for her son. 

Thinking back on their days as a family, Momoko can’t reconcile herself to this sense of parental rejection but meditates on her relationship with her own grandmother realising she too must have been desperately lonely but she was “young and stupid” and didn’t understand. Her interior monologue with her trio of sprites is recited entirely in the voice of her younger self, and at one point she even tries throwing beans at them like demons during Setsubun, but eventually accepts them enough to talk out loud which is either a sign that she’s really losing it or a kind of liberation. “How will I carry on by myself?” she asks, meditating on this new kind of “independence” which might itself soon be taken from her whether she wants it or not. Nevertheless, what she discovers is that she might not be as alone as she thought she was and more has been passed on than she assumed but if you have to go alone then that’s alright too.


Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 series alongside Shuichi Okita’s debut Chef of South Polar as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)