Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Soichi Umezawa, 2019)

Kakame returns! Having been encased in concrete at the end of the previous film, it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually break free to feed on the frustrated dreams of insecure artists everywhere. Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Chi wo Su Nendo: Hasei) picks up shortly after the first film left off, but this time around the insecurities are less artistic than they are familial and social as those affected by the curse of Kakame find themselves wrestling with a sense of responsibility they must face alone to ensure that his bloody vengeance is contained lest he wreak more havoc on the wider world. 

After a short flashback, Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) sends the surviving student home and insists on going to the police alone but is involved in a car accident. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the new heroine, Karin (Itsuki Fujii), the daughter of Fushimi (Kanji Tsuda) who fell victim to Kakame at the end of the previous film. His body has now been found in the art school and so the police contact Karin, who is his only living relative seeing as Karin’s mother committed suicide shortly after the marriage broke down, to identity him despite the fact they had been estranged for the last 12 years. The problem is that Karin didn’t want anything to do with her dad and so she is a bit lax dealing with his bones which still contain traces of Kakame. Meanwhile, as an aspiring artist herself, she enrols in a dodgy art project run by sleazy artist Kida (Shinji Kasahara) who makes a point of recruiting six young women in their 20s because he apparently wants to know what the women of Japan today are thinking, instructing them to unbalance the unbalanceable by disrupting the harmony of the hexagonal form. 

The strange apianism of the hexagonal theme is never developed further save a rerun of the events from the first film with the minor difference that is already “unbalanced” in the additional presence of Kida’s troubled assistant and the fact that he is the only male. Nevertheless, difficulties quickly arise among the girls and not least between Karin and her adoptive sister, also an artist though insecure in her abilities. Once again these tiny cracks between people are enough to let the murderous clay in, targeting first the melancholy assistant demeaned by her dismissive boss who refuses to let her participate in the project because the other girls are all students where as she is an aspiring ceramicist. Meanwhile, another suspect is provided in a young woman strangely fascinated with the bones of dead animals while Karin realises she is still in possession of one of her father’s lost in a tussle with her sister. It’s bone then, rather than blood, which condemns her but still she finds herself paying for her father’s sin in receiving a visit from Kakame as he makes swift work of the innocent artists. 

The sculptor’s curse refuses to die, the other Kakame apparently fusing with a worm and creating ructions underground which threaten to destabilise the world at large. As Aina had in the first film, venal artist Kida ponders using the clay for his own ends, ironically desiring to turn it into art, perhaps making good on the sculptor’s unfulfilled desires but also exposing his own less worthy goals of becoming rich and famous which is perhaps one reason why he’s busily exploiting six pretty young women rather than getting on with his work. Aina eventually reconsidered, but then finds herself facing a similar dilemma, targeted by the police who obviously don’t buy her story about demonically possessed clay turning murderous, while wondering if it might not be better to just dump the remaining powder in the river and be done with it. Maintaining his focus on practical effects, Umezawa shifts focus slightly heading into a different register of body horror as the strange clay worms work their way into the bones of our heroes before Kakame makes himself whole, but otherwise pulls back from large scale effects often switching to blackout and soundscape as in the opening car crash. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a tale of shared responsibility as two women of different generations refuse to let the other carry the burden alone though neither of them is in any way responsible for the curse of Kakame save for the darker emotions which helped to birth him of which we all are guilty. 


Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Soichi Umezawa, 2017)

The artist consumed by their art is a potent motif, creation and destruction two sides of the same coin, but there’s rarely been a painter attacked by the canvas quite as literally as the sculptors of Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Chi wo Su Nendo) are depleted by their material. The first feature from practical effects specialist Soichi Umezawa is refreshingly unpretentious, unabashed schlock designed to showcase Umezawa’s obvious skill in stop motion and prosthetics but it does perhaps have a point to make in the legacy of embittered artistry and frustrated dreams of those whose art is never recognised. 

Middle-aged sculptress Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) flees the duplicitous Tokyo art scene after being betrayed in love by her no good husband who also runs a studio specialising in training students to gain admission into one of Japan’s many exclusive art schools. In fact, Umezawa somewhat strangely opens with a title card revealing the comparatively small percentage of pupils each school accepts in contrast to the large number of applications, neatly setting up the desperation and sense of inadequacy that plagues most of our heroes, Aina included. Retreating to the country she sets up shop in a small shed which is later ravaged by an earthquake, leading to her discovery of a buried tin filled with mysterious clay and other artistic accoutrements left behind, she assumes, by the previous occupant. The trouble starts when errant student Kaori (Kyoka Takeda), who had been studying at a workshop in Tokyo, returns earlier than expected much to the chagrin of rival Reina (Ena Fujita) and discovers a new pupil has borrowed her clay. Predictably, she decides to use some from the mysterious bag, reviving the evil with water and discovering that somehow this magic substance seems to have upped her game. 

Umezama continues to flag the urban rural divide, the students beginning turn against Aina believing that it’s her time in Tokyo which has given Kaori a leg up, something that further wounds Aina in her sense of professional pride as she channels her rage and frustration into moulding her pupils into top candidates as a means of besting her ex. The sculptors knead their frustrated desires into the clay, it feeds on their misery and disappointment. This particular clay, however, is more cursed than most in that it is apparently infected by some kind of toxic disease which plagued the previous owner, symptomatic of the degree to which his art, or more pointedly the refusal of others to recognise it, destroys him. 

Aside from that there are a host of interpersonal problems between the students and their teacher. As the only male sculptor points out, they are both classmates and enemies as they are forced to compete against each other for the prize of recognition in the form of admission to an art school. Meanwhile, he is also the subject of a love triangle, refusing a homemade bento from an admirer in favour of one from another, this essential act of emotional betrayal later providing an in route for the murderous clay. 

Nevertheless, Umezawa is not so interested in the implications of the interpersonal drama as its potential for bloody action. The clay works its way into the bones of the sculptor, consuming and possessing them in a series of pleasingly retro, Cronenbergian practical effects. “I don’t want to lose my individuality to convention” Reina had snapped back in insisting that this small rural school suits her fine despite having just been given a dressing down for the “conventionality” of her final assignment. The clay, perhaps, attempts to rob them of their individuality, turning them into a mindless plastic mass fuelled only by negative emotions, thirsty for blood and hellbent on destruction. Somewhat incomprehensibly, a failed sculptor turned restaurateur convinces the original owner of the clay that his creepy creations will sell like hot cakes to hospitality establishments in the city, allowing his final humanoid legacy to become a kind of Frankensein’s child carrying all his rage and resentment into the future but attacking, it seems, other marginalised artists rather than the hated Tokyo arts scene which is the real target of his ire. Aina, having for the moment neutralised the clay, considers unleashing it against her ex, bringing the grudge full circle in its own, ironic, way but also consumed by resentment and jealousy. The “toxic waste” of artistic disappointment refuses to die, burrowing its way underground even as the responsible attempt to bury it, lying in wait for the next tortured artist willing to sell their soul for illusory success.


US release trailer (English subtitles)

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Naruhito Suetsugu, 2019)

(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners
(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners

“Growth comes only through connecting with others” according to a master craftsman in Naruhito Suetsugu’s manga adaptation Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Haruka no Sue). Japanese cinema has a long history of showcasing traditional crafts but this may be the first dedicated to Bizen ware, artisanal pottery which allows one lost young woman to find purpose in her life after being deeply moved by an oversize platter displayed in a department store exhibition. What she discovers, however, is that pottery is not an isolationist art and lives only in practical application which is in its own way impossible without interpersonal connection. 

A 20-something office worker, Haruka (Nao) laments that nothing exciting is ever going to happen to her. She has no dream or particular passion and sees nothing in her future other than an ordinary job and conventional marriage. Dragged into a department store exhibition by her boss who reminds her that she never has plans so she can’t refuse, Haruka is captivated by a large Bizen ware platter and finds herself heading to the library to find out all about this ancient craft. It’s not long before she’s made the decision to quit her job and try to become a potter herself, determined to train with the artist who made the platter, but when she arrives in the Bizen ware capital of Imbe, Okayama, she finds him cold and unresponsive. Only after bonding with an old man, Toujin (Takashi Sasano), who turns out to be a “national treasure” of traditional pottery does she manage to persuade Osamu (Hiroyuki Hirayama), the aloof and grumpy potter, to allow her to stay. 

Talking to Toujin later Haruka reveals that one of the reasons she was so struck by the platter was because her family is small and she’d always dreamed of a big gathering where everyone could eat off the same large plate. Toujin fires the same logic back at Osamu, that subconsciously he made the plate because he’s lonely. It’s not something he would ever use, in fact it’s too big to have much of a practical use at all, it was basically just a kind of beacon to summon someone to him, to express the depths of his solitude. Osamu lost both his parents as a child, his mother to illness and his father (Jun Murakami) to overwork brought on by grief, and has kept himself to himself ever since. He may have become a master potter, but according to Toujin at least he is somewhat lacking as a human which means, in essence, that his art will never progress not to mention that he’ll go on being lonely and resentful all his life if he fails to seize this opportunity to pass on his Bizen ware skills to a willing pupil.

For her part, Haruka is determined to learn and only from Osamu, the man who made the plate. While others in the town which is largely populated by other Bizen ware potters are supportive if somewhat surprised that Osamu has taken on an apprentice, Haruka finds herself at odds with Toujin’s daughter Yoko (Maki Murakami) who, according to her husband, has not exactly had it easy as a female potter. Yoko resents Haruka as an arriviste, unconvinced she’s really serious and assuming she’s another refugee from the city fed up with urban life and looking for something simpler which is to say she’s probably underestimated the commitment required to become a Bizen ware craftsman. Haruka is fond of cheerfully stating that she’ll persevere, but that’s rarely enough for Osamu or for Yoko who’d prefer to see some concrete results. Yet as Toujin had said, it’s as well to connect with as many people as you can and learning something from each of them she begins to grow in confidence, becoming a full part of the Bizen ware community and earning the respect of the other potters. 

As an old lady puts it, Bizen ware is designed to be used. Its harsh corners become soft and round through contact, and the same is true for people too. Having pushed himself too far trying to connect with his late father through their shared art, Osamu too softens assuring Haruka that pottery is not an exact science and it’s OK to fail every now and then as long as you learn something when you do. “The potter must have a strong will and be as unbreakable as the pottery itself” in order to “melt people’s hearts on the spot” Toujin had somewhat paradoxically told her, but Haruka perhaps learns that there’s truth in what he says, falling in love not only with traditional craft but with the small community of craftsmen accepted as one of their own in her unbreakable love for Bizen ware. 


Haruka’s Pottery screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fancy (ファンシー, Masaoki Hirota, 2020)

“Every minute of life is yours to make use of” according to the ultra cool hero of Masaoki Hirota’s Fancy (ファンシー), a laconic postman with a penchant for sunshades and a resigned attitude to transience. Adapted from the manga short story by Naoki Yamamoto, Fancy is indeed a transitory tale, a minor episode in the life of a poet who thinks he’s a penguin, his best friend the postman, and his penpal seeking her own kind of escape in an impromptu and probably unwise proposal of marriage. 

The postman, Takasu (Masatoshi Nagase), is also a tattooist, a former yakuza now reformed and living quietly in an old-fashioned hot springs town which seems to be stuck in the Showa era. As Takasu’s colleague Tanaka (Tomorowo Taguchi) puts it, it’s pretty “standard” now for everyone to have two jobs, his side hustle being a shooting gallery which is a front for the sex trade. Even the local Buddhist priest is intent on trying to sell everyone he meets a funerary monument, while Southern Cross Penguin (Masataka Kubota) is a best-selling poet particularly popular with high school girls in addition to being a flightless aquatic bird in human form. Penguin doesn’t expect us to believe him, but tells us that a penguin is just what he is and there’s no particular reason for it. So completely does he take his penguinhood that he opens the door in a full penguin mask, dresses only in black and white, mainly eats raw fish, and keeps his home ice cold with the aid of several industrial-size air conditioners. Penguin prides himself on answering the many fan letters he gets, explaining that they’re not so much “fans” as “comrades” who are also looking for the “shining country”. In any case, his fan mail is how he met the postman, his only friend, who is content to shiver in his home putting whisky in his tea to stave off the cold. 

Penguin’s life begins to change, however, when he gets a letter from “Moon Night Star” (Sakurako Konishi), a fan with whom he’d been corresponding. Moon Night Star pretty much insists on becoming his “wife”, failing to take Penguin’s hints that she might not be very happy “married” to an aquatic animal who can’t go outside. As we will later discover, Moon Night Star is in her own way rebelling against her fate, taking refuge in Penguin’s igloo and engaging in a delusion that she loves him in order to make it work. For his part, Penguin perhaps comes to like her too, but he can also see that she’s quite “depressed” stuck in the cold with him, pushing her towards the outside and into the arms of the postman. 

Takasu, meanwhile, finds himself on a series of borders as he begins to confront his past in the form of his absent father and the family he seems to have lost, sympathetically telling his pained former wife that her life is hers to do with as she wishes, perhaps in a sense cuttingly refusing her apology but also accepting her right to seize the present. Another man with two jobs, Takasu’s childhood friend is both yakuza gang boss and hotelier, confiding that the gangster stuff is too stressful and he wishes he could just focus on the hotel in the same way the Takasu has now become a postman. It’s his strange relationship with a yakuza drifter, however, that threatens to drag him back into gangsterdom as he learns that there’s been a schism in his former clan. With a turf war brewing, the loyalists have taken over his friend’s hotel, unreconstructed Showa-era yakuza on the streets of a pleasant hot springs resort. 

“We’re doomed anyway, do what you like” one of the goons intones, in one sense subverting Takasu’s mantra but in another perhaps embracing it. A memory of his father reminds him to “make very second count” while also catching him in an endless moment of gaze, unable to forget the back of the woman his father was tattooing at the time. Takasu looks and does eventually touch, but admits his jealousy obsessed with skin as canvas only latterly taking off his shades in a willingness to see and be seen. Penguin, meanwhile, who wanted to swim in a sea of words, finds himself floating free, braving but eventually succumbing to the heat before exclaiming that he’s going to close his eyes to allow a new story to start. The love of a poet is fleeting, Takasu reflects as each of the various protagonists shifts towards their “main” identity, edging back towards conventionality in abandoning the “fancifulness” of their sometimes strange existences. There will, however, be more strange adventures because even if it falls apart beneath your feet, life’s what you make it, be you a postman or a penguin. 


Fancy screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Day-Off of Kasumi Arimura Ep. 1 (有村架純の撮休 第1話, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2020)

As has sadly become all too clear recently, the Japanese entertainment industry can be a brutal place rife with exploitation in which performers are often expected to push themselves well beyond the limit or risk offending their agencies and thereby disrupting their careers. That is perhaps why a “day off” for a headline actress seems like a concept incongruous enough to spawn an eight-part, late night TV drama aired on premium channel WOWWOW. Often around half an hour in length (though this one is a little longer), drama series running after midnight have the freedom to embrace darker themes and can sometimes be risqué, but more often than not cater to those looking for easy comfort watching often revolving around food and/or local culture such as in the phenomenally popular Midnight Diner which was later picked up by Netflix, or the much loved Solitary Gourmet.  

The chief draw for international viewers, however, is that the first and third episodes of A Day Off of Kasumi Arimura (有村架純の撮休 第1話, Arimura Kasumi no Satsukyu) are directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, with Rikiya Imaizumi (Their Distance; Little Nights, Little Love) and Santa Yamagishi also doing double duty, while Satoko Yokohama (Bare Essence of Life, The Actor) and Megumi Tsuno (Ten Years Japan “Data”) fill the remaining slots. Each of the eight self-contained stories features lead actress Kasumi Arimura (Sekigahara, Narratage, Flying Colors) playing a fictionalised version of herself enjoying a surprise “day off” when, for one reason or another, shooting is cancelled at short notice. In the first episode under review here penned by Sakura Higa, Kasumi is currently filming a TV drama playing a top prosecutor but is given the day off after a member of the creative team calls in sick with flu. As a producer points out, flu isn’t the sort of thing that would have held up filming in the old days but what can you do?

Accordingly, Kasumi decides to take a bullet train to her hometown in southern Japan to visit her mother, Yumiko (Jun Fubuki). Having not returned for New Year, Kasumi is perhaps slightly put out to realise that her mother seems to lead a very active life and though she is obviously happy to see her it’s clear that she doesn’t just sit around wishing her daughter would call. On their way home from the station, Yumiko takes Kasumi by the supermarket to pick up supplies for a home cooked dinner where she shows her off to the cashier with whom she seems to be on extremely friendly terms. Kasumi smells romance in air, and even if a little surprised is not unsupportive but unwittingly puts her foot in it by bringing up the fact that Mr. Onishi (Akio Kaneda) is divorced and has a son from his previous marriage. 

It’s not Mr. Onishi that Kasumi ends up worrying about, however, so much as a mysterious young man, Makoto (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), who calls in to see her mother. While Yumiko has her signing autographs for all her friends and posters of her hit movies Flying Colors and Cafe Funiculi Funicula standing in the living room, Kasumi can’t help but feel put out having come all this way only to see her mum much more interested in this random man even if she seems to have come more out of duty than of love, disappointing Yumiko by declaring she won’t be staying overnight but heading back to Tokyo to go over her lines. Out of jealousy and a slight awkwardness, she worries as to what Makoto’s true motives are, especially after hearing her mother hint that she’s been giving him money, though it’s perhaps also true enough that she is simply grateful to have someone close by to help out with small but irritating tasks like changing the chain on a bicycle or getting rid of unneeded appliances. What Kasumi realises, however, is that her mother is harbouring a sense of guilt that relates to their perhaps atypical family history, something which she herself is forced to process through her surprise journey home which finds another echo in her relationship with her sickly, or not as it turns out, colleague. 

More or less a three hander, the episode is like much of Koreeda’s work replete with the detail of everyday life and the slight awkwardness of familial reunion. On stepping into her childhood home, Kasumi is chided by her mother for behaving like a guest, signalling that she no longer views herself as someone who belongs there or has the right to simply walk in. Kasumi never gets round to talking to her mother about whatever it was she might have wanted to talk about, but through their encounter with Makoto the two women begin to repair their relationship, meditating on the things which have changed while they were apart and those which haven’t. A beautifully gentle tale of familial reconnection, Kasumi Arimura’s first day off is another slice heartwarming drama from the empathetic director in which an actress takes the day to play herself and learns to make peace with the past by accepting the present.


A Day-Off of Kasumi Arimura Ep. 1 streams in the UK 10th October 1pm to 1pm 13th October as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Series trailer (no subtitles)

Take Over Zone (テイクオーバーゾーン, Shinpei Yamasaki, 2019)

The Take Over Zone (テイクオーバーゾーン) is where the heroine of Shinpei Yamasaki’s coming-of-age drama finds herself trapped, resentfully mired in adolescent confusion torn between the childish delusion of familial reunion and an adult acceptance of change. Sari (Riru Yoshina) is indeed on the run, a lonely loner convincing herself that freedom lies only in total independence while simultaneously justifying her new found appreciation for a team sport in insisting that they need her, basking in their gratitude when they win only thanks to her. 

Running may be the only bright spot in Sari’s life, though she can hardly be bothered even with that anymore. Two years previously her parents divorced. Sari’s mother Fumi (Chika Uchida) left with her younger brother Toma while she stayed behind with her feckless father Kenichi (Yota Kawase), a construction worker with a gambling problem. Forced to grow up all too soon, Sari is more or less looking after herself. Finding only beer in the fridge and a betting slip in the bin which explains why the cash jar is empty, she’s forced to raid her piggy bank for food while the house is a permanent mess. Understandably resentful, Sari is rude and petulant, talking back not only to her dad but to her teachers too. At school she’s a bullying delinquent, hanging out with the cool kids and picking on the captain of her track team, Yukina (Nanaha Itose). Seeking escape from her disappointing life, she tells her teacher she’s no interest in high school and plans to get a job, arrogantly refusing to train with her teammates preferring to hang out with the boys playing cards in the shed. 

A chance encounter with Toma in a local supermarket, however, begins to change her perspective. Her polar opposite, Toma is quiet and polite, though his awkward formality perhaps upsets her in his wilful distance after two years apart. Before long she runs into her mother too, discovering not only that her father hid from her the fact that she had remarried and returned to the area, but that she is actually married to Yukina’s dad which is somewhat pouring salt on the wound. Not only is her mother apparently happy, leading the kind of life she wanted to lead as a middle-class housewife, but she has a replacement daughter in Yukina who is everything she currently is not, the archetypal good girl. Bonding with Toma who is overburdened by his mother’s well-meaning ambition for him and dejected that the other kids don’t let him play because he’s no good at sports, Sari decides to run away childishly believing that the two of them can simply move in with grandma to be a family in rejection of their “selfish” parents. 

Sari resented her mother because she was always hounding her to study, perhaps a reflection of her dissatisfaction with their working class existence wanting to ensure her children enjoyed a more comfortable standard of life. Economic pressures do indeed seem to have been the motivating factor in the breakdown of the marriage, Fumi irritated by the exact same qualities in Kenichi which are beginning to drive Sari away, convincing her she’s better off alone than with her irresponsible father who has only casual employment with no prospect of advancement. She yearns for independence, not only for practical freedoms but for the emotional to simply not need to be burdened by disappointment or hurt. “Teams just hold you back” she snaps at her teacher threatening to quit the relay in favour of the solo race. 

Yukina meanwhile has problems of her own, missing her mother who passed away from illness while struggling to accept Fumi’s intrusion into her family home. A climactic event sees her moving towards the centre, claiming Toma as her own little brother while positioning herself as Fumi’s rightful daughter leaving Sari feeling further exiled, unable to process her resentment towards her mother for her abandonment while struggling to accept that her childish belief her parents would get back together and the family would be repaired will not come to pass. Yet it’s their shared love of running which eventually brings the two young women together, no longer rivals but teammates, later perhaps friends and then sisters as Sari comes to acceptance of her complicated family circumstances while realising just how unpleasant she has often been to those around her out of a mistaken attempt to push them all away. “I always ran like I was all alone” Sari admits, no longer running away but passing through her own take over zone, ready to face herself and her grief as she steps into the next stage of the relay race that is life.


Take Over Zone screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba (108 海馬五郎の復讐と冒険, Suzuki Matsuo, 2019)

In Buddhism, there are said to be 108 earthly desires, 108 lies, and 108 human delusions. As he points out however, all that is merely coincidence to Goro Kaiba, his petty revenge is founded entirely on the fact that a Facebook status in which his wife, using a pseudonym, detailed an affair with a lithe young contemporary dancer, garnered 108 Likes. Waxing self-referential, Suzuki Matsuo’s surreal sex comedy 108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba (108 海馬五郎の復讐と冒険, 108: Kaiba Goro no Fukushu to Boken) in which he also stars, finds a middle-aged screenwriter somehow still trapped in adolescent insecurity, intensely self-involved as he pursues a “revenge” which is also a strange kind of ironic self harm intended to prove his manhood but accidentally exposing the love’s sordid underbelly in the vacuousness of its inversion. 

As the film opens, successful screenwriter Goro Kaiba (Suzuki Matsuo) is overseeing auditions for the musical adaptation of his greatest hit, Dancing in the Mental Ward. He tells us that he’s bored with his work and somewhat disrespectfully is actually writing a column due in a couple of hours’ time, barely paying attention to the actress as she valiantly perseveres with the less than stellar material before rudely dismissing her performance and suggesting she dump the boyfriend who helped her come up with it. Goro claims that he carries on in a job he hates for three reasons: he loves money, his wife’s a spendthrift, and he loves her. It’s something of a shock therefore when a young actress comes up to him after the auditions to ask for a private chat which turns out to be about something slightly different than he’d assumed. She shows him a Facebook profile she believes belongs to his wife, Ayako (Miho Nakayama), in which she claims to have fallen in love with a “contemporary dancer” named “Dr. Snake”. 

Confronted, Ayako admits “everything”, but explains that the Facebook profile is nothing more than wish fulfilment, a romantic fantasy to distract from the emptiness of her married life. Predictably, Goro fails to pick up on the fact there are obviously problems in their marriage, fixating on the extent of Ayako’s relations with Dr. Snake of whom she now has a large tattoo on her shoulder, something which he hasn’t noticed because they have not been intimate in some time. Ayako assures Goro that she means to stay with him forever, but will be fantasising about Dr. Snake when they make love, further hinting at another problem undermining their relationship. Goro, however, is not convinced and starts talking to his friends about divorce only to be reminded Ayako will be entitled to half his savings if he splits up with her. Consumed by pettiness, he decides to spend all the money so she’ll be left with nothing by sleeping with 108 women as “revenge” for her infidelity. 

Of course, the problem is less Ayako than his wounded male pride and emotional immaturity. Perhaps he’s doing this because he can’t admit to himself how much he really does love his wife and how hurt he is by her “betrayal”, but in any case he makes it all about him, refusing to engage with the problems in his marriage or reflect on the fact Ayako is obviously unhappy and unfulfilled. He tries giving some of the money away to his ex-wife and 20-year-old son Michio (Louis Kurihara) from whom he has apparently been withholding alimony and child support, put out that his ex won’t take it because she has no need of him, a man who abandoned her. Not abandoned, he points out to his son, simply “ran away”. In an awkward conversation, he goes so far as to blame Michio for his family’s collapse, claiming that he left essentially because Michio didn’t love him enough while complaining that no one seems to appreciate him. 

Meanwhile, we also realise Goro has been hypocritically carrying on a casual affair with an old friend, Mitsuko (Natsuko Akiyama), perennially unlucky in love but planning to put an end to their “arrangement” to marry a much younger man she is fully aware is only after her money. As part of his sexploits, Goro hires a high class call girl, Azusa (Shiori Doi), but she is also romantically challenged in that despite being the number one herself, she’s only really doing this to make her host club boyfriend top dog at his establishment. In love, it seems there is always some kind of transaction, a misplaced desire. Edging deeper into his pointless and petty quest to bed 108 women, it’s not until late in the game as he’s overseeing a pool full of glistening, gyrating bodies that he perhaps begins to realise how vacuous and meaningless it all really is, sordid in its emptiness. By then, however, he’s gone too far to turn back. 

Better to him than he deserves, Ayako eventually confesses that she was “fighting the inevitability of ageing”, both facing and refusing to face the fears which informed the choice she made to retire from acting and become his wife, but Goro remains petulant and immature, indulging in a romanticisation of their early romance but unwilling to confront himself, his fears, and the real reason he’s embarked on this pointless and silly quest to vindicate himself through aggressive masculinity. Worryingly indulging in fantasies of sexualised violence against his wife which admittedly have an unexpected pay off, Goro struggles to identify what it is he’s really reeling from while pursuing not so much pleasure but misdirected pain in flight from adult vulnerability. In his usual style, Matsuo has ironic fun with Goro’s flights of fancy, suddenly breaking into song like one of his shows while simultaneously mocking them and undercutting Goro’s thinly veiled misogyny by having the leading actress abruptly walk out in protest against his childishly smutty song about the joys of sex. Nevertheless, we leave Goro exactly where we found him, all at sea torn between the risky rewards of honest romantic connection and the dubious pleasures of hedonistic conquest. 


108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Other Home (向こうの家, Tatsuro Nishikawa, 2018)

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they start to realise that things are not always as they appear and no matter how happy and settled your family life might seem, your parents aren’t perfect though they are probably doing their best. For Hagi (Ayumu Mochizuki), that moment comes at 16 when he gets fed up with school and takes some time off believing he might be able to learn more outside of the classroom than in. An unconventional coming-of-age tale, Tatsuro Nishikawa’s graduation project The Other Home (向こうの家, Mukou no Ie) is also a meditation on the modern family and the patriarchal order. 

Getting back to school after the summer break gets off to a rocky start when Hagi and his friend are told that the fishing club of which they are members is being shut down as the teacher who was in charge of it is scaling back her workload because she’s just got engaged and will eventually be leaving to get married. Hagi takes this in his stride, mostly at a loss over where to eat his lunch because his girlfriend, Naruse (Mahiru Ueta), for some reason thinks it’s embarrassing to eat alone in the classroom. In any case, Hagi reacts by deciding not to go to school at all. His parents don’t approve, but decide to give him some space to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, he’s beginning to wonder if it’s odd that his family never fight, his parents committed to talking things through peacefully rather than resentfully hiding their true feelings. 

Or, so he thought. There is something childishly naive in his conviction that because his parents never fight in front of him they never fight at all, though it’s true enough that he comes from a talking about things family in which his mother Naoko (Mana Minamihisamatsu), in particular, is keen that they share their thoughts and feelings honestly, looking forward to her husband Yoshiro (Toru Kizu) returning home each day after which they share a drink and make time to talk. It comes to something of a surprise to him then when his dad asks him to pick up a set of keys he’s forgotten and bring them to a cafe near where he works without letting his mother know. Hagi does as he’s told only to learn the keys are for a cheerful cottage by the sea which he’s been renting for his mistress, Toko (Mai Ohtani), with whom he now wants to break up preferably before the lease is due for renewal. Too cowardly to do it himself, Yoshiro enlists his teenage son’s help to break up with the woman he’s been cheating on his family with. 

Strangely, this revelation does not seem to sour him on his dad even if he realises the threat it poses to their happy family life. “Protecting the family peace. Men must uphold that promise” Yoshiro unironically tells his son, problematically implying that the way to do that is by covering up affairs rather than simply not having them. Dutifully Hagi heads over to “the other home”, only to be thrown out by Mr. Chiba (Denden), a friend of Toko’s who not unreasonably tells him that this is something his father should be dealing with himself rather than sending his teenage son to guilt his mistress into moving out of her house. Failing to engage with his father’s betrayal, Hagi nevertheless comes to sympathise with Toko who is about to be rendered homeless thanks to his father’s moral cowardice, staying with her in the cottage while lying to his mother that he’s doing an internship at his father’s company. 

Nevertheless, each of his parents is eventually found wanting as Toko teaches him the things they perhaps should have including how to ride a bike, an embarrassing oversight which had seen him deemed “uncool” by his exasperated girlfriend. The film has little time for Naoko’s talking about things philosophy, her husband merely lying to her while engaging in the same patriarchal double standards simultaneously insisting it’s a man’s duty to “protect family peace” while deliberately endangering it through an extramarital affair. Hagi too perhaps picks up these uncomfortably old fashioned ideas partly from his teacher who proudly shows off her engagement ring boasting that it cost her fiancé three months’ salary, the expense apparently proof that he intends to look after her well for the rest of her life as if she couldn’t do that herself. He begins to feel sorry for Toko as she outlines her life as a kept woman, a backroom full of unwanted presents from various men who too looked after her for a time, but in the end merely offers to look after her himself by quitting school to get a job so he can renew the lease to make up for his father’s moral cowardice.

The reason they were so happy, it seems, is that Yoshiro gave himself an escape valve. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to be dad” he admits, apologising for his inability to share his burdens honestly, his male failure neatly undercutting the tacit acceptance of the patriarchal authority which stands in contrast to Naoko’s ideal of a healthy relationship founded on emotional authenticity. Finally learning to ride a bike, Hagi finds himself entering a less innocent world as a young man now fully aware of the universe’s moral greyness if perhaps not quite so enlightened as he might feel himself to be.


The Other Home screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)