Ringu (リング, Hideo Nakata, 1998)

As the investigative duo at the centre of Hideo Nakata’s eerie supernatural horror Ringu (リング) begin to unlock the mystery of Sadako, we’re told that a strange woman who may have had some kind of psychic powers was loathed by those around her in part because of her habit of sitting and staring at the sea. Nakata opens the film with waves and often returns to them as if suggesting in this millennial horror that what we fear is a transmission we cannot see. In the end there may not be so much difference between the magic of an analogue TV broadcast and a message from another plane. 

In any case, perhaps the central message is that one should pay more attention to the words of those whose warnings are often dismissed on the grounds of their age and gender. Journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), for example, doesn’t seem too invested in a video she’s making about a cursed video related by a trio of high school girls in a cafe who explain that they don’t personally know anyone who’s died after watching it but have been reliably informed by friends of friends who apparently do. As will later be discovered, the girls actually give Reiko crucial information but for whatever reason she does not remember it until coming to the same conclusion herself. In any case, it’s not until her own niece, Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi), dies in mysterious circumstances that Reiko starts to wonder if this is more than a spooky story elevating the chain letter to new technological heights.

According to the urban legend, if you watch the cursed tape you’ll immediately get a phone call telling you you’ll die in seven days. The supernatural entity now synonymous with the film, Sadako, is manipulating these still analogue waves for herself. Sending her messages via television and telephone she is a literal ghost of the airwaves and as Reiko’s ex-husband Ryuji later puts it radiating her sense of rage in her own mistreatment, insisting that her story be known and that those who refuse to acknowledge it should not be allowed to survive. Just as Reiko should have listened to the high school girls, someone should have listened to Sadako and because they didn’t others now have no choice. 

In a sense Sadako represents this nascent fear of technological advancement. When Reiko answers her flip phone, it’s a reminder that there’s no escape from unwanted communication even if you can in theory try to switch it off. The girl with Tomoko when she died was driven out of her mind and now won’t venture anywhere near a television, as if you could escape Sadako’s wrath by merely keeping your distance from the portal. The two teenagers who died around the same time as Tomoko were in a car in the middle of nowhere, but cars have radios which receive radio waves. Sadako travels through the air, invisible until she chooses not to be. She may only have a direct line, but it is in one sense a call for help she’s issuing only in the very inefficient manner of a vengeful ghost whose rage has become indiscriminate or at least directed towards the society that wronged her and everyone in it rather than a single guilty party. 

In a certain sense, you can cure the curse only by spreading it. If everyone everywhere suddenly understood, learned Sadako’s painful history, then the curse would wither and die with no new hosts to go to which is perhaps what Sadako wants. Yet it leaves Reiko with a dilemma, knowing that to save the lives of those closest to her she may have to ask someone else to risk their life or even expose them without their consent. Throughout the film she’s been depicted as an imperfect mother, divorced and often leaving her small son Yoichi to fend for himself at home while the boy at one point walks past his own father in the street and does not seem to recognise him so absent had he been in his life. Through their shared quest to undo the curse, the pair in a sense reclaim their parental roles and repair their familial ties in working together to save their son’s life in contrast to the parental figures surrounding Sadako who may have done the reverse. Sadako frightens us because of her transgressive qualities, quite literally transgressing the barriers between ourselves and the stories we tell by crawling out of them and finding us here, on the other side of the screen, where we thought we were safe to remind us not to look away and to listen to those whose voices are all too often ignored. 


Ringu screens at Japan Society New York on Oct. 7 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

20th anniversary trailer (English subtitles)

Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Rin Shuto, 2021)

A straight-A student and popular girl enters a self-destructive tailspin on discovering her longterm crush has a secret girlfriend in Rin Shuto’s adaptation of the novel by Risa Wataya, Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Hirate). Wataya also penned the source material for Akiko Ohku’s Tremble All You Want and Hold Me Back, and while Shuto may shift away from Ohku’s quirky style she maintains and intensifies an underlying sense of unease in what has the potential to develop into an incredibly messy situation. 

As the film opens, popular girl Ai (Anna Yamada) walks away from a dance rehearsal and discovers fellow student Miyuki (Haruka Imo) collapsed by a tree next to a pouch containing her insulin. Barely conscious, Miyuki asks her for something sweet and Ai soon returns with some sugary juice. Unable to find to an efficient way of getting her to drink it, Ai passes the liquid from her own mouth in a literal kiss of life that seems have an unexpected effect on her. Meanwhile, after sneaking into the school late at night with some friends halfheartedly joking about stealing the exam papers, Ai raids the locker of her crush, Tatoe (Ryuto Sakuma), and discovers a series of love letters which turn out to be from Miyuki. 

For some reason this revelation turns Ai’s life upside-down even though she later reveals that she had been enduring the silent crush on Tatoe for some years without ever acting on it. It may partly be that Ai is popular and attractive and so the idea that someone may not find her desirable is destabilising, cutting to the quick of her teenage insecurity while pulling the rug out from under her if she had indeed thought of Tatoe as a kind of comfortable backstop or easy plan B. Enraged, she befriends Miyuki yet for unclear reasons, perhaps hoping to get some insider info on Tatoe, find out what it is Miyuki has and she doesn’t, or somehow break them up, but finally settles on seduction unexpectedly kissing her again in an echo of their awkward meet cute.  

At heart, Ai does not understand herself and is operating with no real plan. Each escalation seems to come as a surprise even to herself leaving her with moments of internal conflict gazing into a mirror wondering what it is she’s doing. On separate occasions, both Miyuki and Tatoe accuse her of lying and indeed she is, most particularly to herself in a wholesale denial of her own desires which fuels her impulsive and self-destructive behaviour. Others accuse her of being selfish and self-absorbed, unable to look beyond herself and indifferent to the feelings of others which is also in its way a reflection of the degree to which she is consumed by internal confusion, driven slowly out of her mind while taking out her frustration on those around her not least in her increasingly dark manipulation of Miyuki and Tatoe. In the end, as Tatoe points out, she’s little different from his abusive father in her need to possess and control but it’s the extreme control that she’s trying to exercise over herself and the desires she can not accept that is causing her self-destructive behaviour. 

Only Miyuki seems to be able to see through her, at least to an extent, yet it’s not entirely clear at first if she responds to Ai’s advances willingly or simply goes along with them because she has no other friends and is afraid Ai will reject her if she refuses. Ostracised by the students because of her diabetes which is of course a very visible condition in that it requires her to inject herself while at school, Miyuki is shy and lonely while required to keep her relationship with Tatoe a secret because of his abusive father. But as Miyuki later puts it in her letter, Ai isn’t quite as aloof as she’d like to pretend and acts with an unexpected tenderness and consideration, even a kind of vulnerability, in moments of intimacy that betray the true self otherwise stifled by anxiety and internalised shame. With a persistent air of danger and unease spurred by Ai’s impulsive and chaotic nature, Shuto’s intense drama reaches its climax in its deliberately abrupt conclusion perfectly capturing the heroine’s moment of realisation imbued with all of her idiosyncratic messiness. 


Unlock Your Heart screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Midnight Maiden War (真夜中乙女戦争, Ken Ninomiya, 2022)

An apathetic college student is pulled between nihilistic destruction and the desire for life in Ken Ninomiya’s adaptation of the novel by F, Midnight Maiden War (真夜中乙女戦争, Mayonaka Otome Senso). “Do those who struggle for life deserve to be defeated as evil?” is a question that is put to him while he asks himself if there’s something wrong in his yearning for a “boring”, conventional existence with a good job, house in the suburbs and people to share it. Then again as the forces of darkness point out, those who long for normality usually cannot attain it which only fuels their sense of resentment towards a “rotten” society. 

The unnamed protagonist (Ren Nagase) has come to Tokyo from Kobe to attend university and as his family are not wealthy is supposed to be studying for a scholarship exam while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Only as he’s abruptly let go from his side gig, he finds himself unfulfilled by his studies and wondering what the point is in wasting his youth just to lead a dull life of drudgery. In an intense act of self-sabotage which later goes viral, he tells his English professor (Makiko Watanabe) to her face that her classes are pointless while calculating exactly how much they cost per hour which turns out to be the equivalent to three hours of labour for his mother, the price of a new text book, or three months’ Netflix subscription which oddly becomes a kind of currency benchmark. He can’t see that anything he’s learning will be of much use to him in the further course of his life when the only prize is conventionality even if that conventionality might also provide basic comfort. 

After joining a mysterious “hide and seek” club and becoming distracted by a series of minor bombings of public bins on campus, the hero is pulled between a woman only known as “Sempai” (Elaiza Ikeda), and a man only known as “The Man in the Black Suit” (Tasuku Emoto) who sell him conflicting visions of hope and darkness. While Sempai thinks it’s wrong to belittle those who want to live their lives and are genuinely content with the conventional, The Man in the Black Suit quite literally wants to burn it all to the ground. What begins as an awkward friendship between two awkward men, soon develops into a cult-like organisation of, as the hero puts it, “social outcasts”, drawn to the Man in the Black Suit’s desire to destroy the rotten society which has rejected them through blowing up Tokyo on Christmas Day. 

Positing Tokyo Tower as the “root of unhappiness”, the hero claims he wants only to destroy, and most particularly himself along with everything else. Experiencing extreme ennui, he struggles to find meaning in his life yet is also conflicted in the breadth of the The Man in Black’s goals being fairly indifferent to the existence of others and unconvinced that those merely complicit in the system should also be targets of his social revenge. If not quite dragged towards the light, he realises that he must kill the nihilist within himself and in a sense be reborn, as the Man in Black puts it, as the god of a new world. “You’re alive, that’s good enough for me” Sempai echoes as the hero does at least in a sense embrace life even amid so much destruction. 

Ken Ninomiya has become closely identified with a singular style heavily inspired by music video and often taking place in Tokyo clubland. Midnight Maiden War is in many ways a much more conventional film mimicking the aesthetic of other similarly themed manga and light novel adaptations featuring only one real party scene and no extended musical sequences while routing itself in a more recognisably ordinary reality albeit one secretly ruled by a lonely tech genius. It does however feature his characteristic neon-leaning colour palate, focus pulls, and striking composition such as the revolving upside down shot which opens the film and hints at the unnamed protagonist’s sense of dislocation. Quite literally a tale of darkness and light, the film finds its dejected hero struggling to find meaning in a stultifying existence but perhaps finally discovering what it is to live if only at the end of the world. 


The Midnight Maiden War screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It’s All My Fault (ぜんぶ、ボクのせい, Yusaku Matsumoto, 2022)

A young boy and a homeless drifter attempt to overcome the legacy of parental rejection in Yusaku Matsumoto’s sensitive coming-of-age drama, It’s all My Fault (ぜんぶ、ボクのせい, Zenbu, Boku no Sei). “It’s all my fault” is something many children think about circumstances which are well beyond their control, but it’s also something they’re encouraged to believe by an abusive or neglectful parent who tells them that they are to blame for the treatment they receive. Nevertheless, Yuta (Haruto Shiratori) comes to think that all the bad things happening in the world are in some way his fault, which might on one level be easier to believe than trying to accept that the world is sometimes a relentlessly unkind place. 

A sad and sullen boy, Yuta is viewed with some suspicion by the staff at the care home where lives due to his brooding nature and refusal to speak. The cause of his anger is that he was told by a previous caretaker that he’d be able to see his estranged mother, Rika (Marika Matsumoto), when he entered middle school and is resentful that he has still had no contact with her. The sad fact is, however, that Rika stopped taking their calls a long time ago and seemingly has no further intention of maintaining contact with her son. 

After the orphanage is rocked by a literal earthquake, Yuta sets off to find his mother but though she is moved to see him it quickly becomes clear that she is not really prepared to play a maternal role. When her drunken boyfriend returns home, she tells him that Yuta is a relative’s child she agreed to watch for a short time and appears otherwise conflicted, solicitously making sure he has enough to eat but more or less forgetting he’s even there whenever the boyfriend is around. Eventually she rings the care home to come and take him back, forever ruining Yuta’s faith in genuine human connection. 

Managing to run away, Yuta is later taken in by eccentric drifter Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri) who strongly identifies with the boy in having grown up with an abusive mother whose legacy he has been unable to escape. Shiori (Ririka Kawashima), a teenage girl with issues of her own who also befriends Sakamoto, is envious of his untethered lifestyle viewing him as free and bound by no one. But in truth he too is trapped as symbolised by the broken van which prevents him from leaving to travel to Nagoya and confront his mother as he often says he intends to do. Sakamoto describes his trauma as a like a rock in the heart that tortures him as he continues to resent his mother for the abuse she dealt him while simultaneously suggesting that she has dementia and may not even remember that she has a son. Yuta by contrast insists that his mother is not a bad woman and continues to yearn for her, treasuring the friendship bracelet she made for him only for it to be broken by thuggish teens who get their kicks bullying those they perceive to be weaker than themselves.

Sakamoto becomes an awkward paternal figure, teaching Yuta how to survive in his way of life by hatching scams on wealthy passers by and fetching junk to sell to a local scrap merchant but is equally arrested, unable to come to terms with the traumatic past and therefore unable to move on. Shiori envies what she sees as his freedom in part because she has little of her own. Secretly blaming her authoritarian father for her mother’s death which she has come to doubt was really from an illness as she was told, Shiori has an internalised sense of shame and inadequacy knowing that she cannot be the person her father wants her to be and longs to escape him. Yuta continues to dream of a family, inviting Shiori to come with them to Nagoya when the truck is fixed, but is met only with despair as the world conspires against his happiness and encourages him to blame himself for his all his misfortune. Shot with an unsentimental if empathetic eye, Matsumoto’s hard-hitting drama examines the legacies of parental abuse, neglect, or absence persisting long into adulthood while his young hero struggles with himself in his conflicting emotions towards the woman who abandoned him with only an impossible future. 


It’s All My Fault screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Record of a Woman Doctor (女医の記録, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

By 1941 it was becoming harder to make films which were strictly apolitical, though many directors were able to circumvent the constraints of a tightening censorship regime in focusing on the kinds of messages they could get behind. Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1941 drama Record of a Woman Doctor (女医の記録, Joi no Kiroku) is in essence a public information film hoping to foster better hygiene practices in rural areas while encouraging those who might have felt mistrust towards modern medical professionals that they need have no fear of doctors, but in its own way presents a challenge to the militarist line in implying that the humanist teacher and female doctor of the title are in a sense “re-educated” though their exposure to the rural poor. 

As the film opens, a collection of medical students from Tokyo Women’s Medical University is sent to a small rural village as part of a pop-up free clinic in an area which otherwise has little access to professional healthcare. As the school teacher, Kamiya (Shin Saburi), who is their liaison explains, the the major health problems faced by the villagers are largely those of poverty, i.e. malnutrition, while infant mortality remains high. Each of these is compounded by the contemporary economic and social realities in that the young often leave to work in cities and then bring back with them urban diseases such as tuberculosis to which the locals are especially vulnerable while in the absence of a professional doctor medical emergencies such as appendicitis or complications with childbirth which might be easily treated are often fatal. 

Even so, the villagers are not initially grateful for the doctors’ arrival for various interconnecting reasons. The first is obviously their poverty, not realising that the clinic is free and assuming they cannot afford to take advantage of it. Secondly, they have experience of being ripped off by duplicitous conmen calling themselves doctors and fear that they will simply incur a large debt to be paid at a later date, wary that though the consultation may be free the treatment may not be, the doctor suddenly discovering they are actually incredibly ill and must part with a lot of money in order to redeem their health. The third reason, meanwhile, is older still in the intense stigma surrounding sickness and particularly any respiratory condition. 

These are all the attitudes the doctors and the film intend to challenge in insisting that modern medicine is both safe and responsible, interested only in helping prevent the onset of sickness rather needlessly meddling in their way of life. All from the city, the conditions in this small mountain village necessarily shock the doctors noting that the villagers have no culture of regular bathing, often wear the same clothes day and night for indefinite amounts of time with no washing, never air their futons, and live in dark and poorly ventilated homes. The authorities have often recommended felling a thick circle of trees which surrounds the village to let more light in and allow the breeze to travel through though the villagers have always refused. 

The felling of the trees takes on a symbolic association of freeing the village from primitive superstition, literally enlightening it, as they shift closer towards modernity in learning the importance of proper sanitation. In a sense these ordinary rural people are being patronised, even sympathetic teacher Kamiya describing them as “culturally deprived” while later implying that he himself has been reformed by their simple way of life. Kamiya’s life is certainly not easy, effectively acting as something like a village headman called in to deal with any sort of local problem while often providing childcare to the infants brought in by his pupils who are supposed to be minding their siblings while the parents work in the fields but are not always completely responsible. Earnest doctor Natsuki (Kinuyo Tanaka) is later much the same, touched by the plight of a local girl suffering with TB kept like a secret in the back room by her mother after being sent back from her factory job. The mother is intent on sending the younger sister in her place even though she too is in poor health because the family is without a male earner and unable to support itself. 

The fact that the doctors are all female may in itself be somewhat progressive but also speaks of the times, the male medical students presumably diverted to the military ironically reinforcing the idea that “domestic” concerns are women’s concerns, something echoed in the film’s concluding scenes which see Natsuki, a qualified doctor, operating a daycare centre taking care of local infants while Kamiya runs a callisthenics session behind her. Conversely, it’s also implied that Natsuki must give up her womanhood or any sense of personal desire in order to dedicate herself to the village making it quite clear that there is no possibility of a romantic connection with Kamiya. Even so, the secondary message seems to be that the key to inspiring confidence lies in a process of mutual understanding, Natsuki belatedly realising she’s accidentally alienated some of the local children by usurping their position as caregivers to Kamiya, less relieving them of a burden than firing them from a job they were proud to do while the only real way to gain the villagers’ trust is to listen to their concerns and show them they really do care about their welfare. The subtext may be that their health is important because healthy bodies are needed to fuel the war effort, but even so you can’t argue with the humanist message even as Shimizu’s subversive implication that one can learn alot from the simple way of life cuts against the militarist grain. 


Prior Convictions (前科者, Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2022)

An earnest young woman finds herself questioning her way of life after one of her charges is implicated in a spate of murders in Yoshiyuki Kishi’s social drama Prior Convictions (前科者, Zenkamono). As the double meaning of the English title implies, the issue is as much about preconceived notions and unfair judgements as it is about “crime”, its causes and legacies, while ultimately arguing for a more compassionate approach to law enforcement which prizes healing and rehabilitation over meaningless punishment. 

Kayo (Kasumi Arimura) is what’s known as a volunteer probation officer which is to say that she assists those who’ve recently been released from prison to reintegrate into mainstream society so that they can live comfortable lives within the law. She is not however a civil servant and though making regular reports to an official probation officer has very little power and no pay for her work which can at times be difficult and emotionally draining especially considering that she also needs to work a regular job in a convenience store to support herself. In what seems like a very poor safeguarding decision, she meets most of her clients in her own home where she lives alone one of them even breaking in while she’s not there for an impromptu hotpot party. 

While she is exasperated by some of her charges such as a woman who can’t seem to stick to a regular job no matter how many she finds her, Kayo is incredibly proud of her work with Kudo (Go Morita), a quiet and soulful middle-aged man who was convicted of murder after stabbing a co-worker who had been bullying him so badly that he lost the hearing in one ear. Kudo had been struggling to reconcile himself to his crime, intensely worried that while unable to understand why he did it he might end up doing it again. When Kudo suddenly disappears after being linked to a series of suspicious deaths most assume the worst, but Kayo alone refuses to believe that Kudo could be the killer and is determined to find out what’s really going on if only to vindicate her conviction that her work is good and useful rather than naive and misguided as some including intense police officer Takimoto (Hayato Isomura) seem to see it. 

As Kayo later reveals she’s carrying some baggage herself which contributed to her decision to begin working with those who’ve been convicted of crimes, but is doing it with the aim of reducing suffering and ending the cycle so that there are no more victims or victimisers. Also wounded, Takimoto tells her that murderers aren’t human and can never be rehabilitated, while she’s forced to consider the problem from all angles meeting with a lawyer (Tae Kimura) who defended an abusive husband who murdered his wife and learning that she did so for similar reasons to herself certain that he too deserved a second chance and could perhaps be reformed if given the proper treatment. Kayo sees that many of the people she meets ended up committing crimes because of traumatic personal circumstances and if someone had helped them earlier they may not have offended in the first place. She can’t change the past but at least in helping them now she might prevent further crimes in the future while giving them a source of stability as they attempt to root themselves more firmly in mainstream society. 

Inspired by Masahito Kagawa’s manga, Prior Convictions was previously adapted into six-part WOWWOW TV drama to which the film is technically a sequel though fairly stand alone in its gentle unpacking of Kayo’s own unresolved trauma and subsequent epiphanies as regards her relationships with those she’s trying to help. As one young woman puts it, they find her vulnerability reassuring in contrast to the often authoritarian, didactic approaches taken by law enforcement and social services who only talk down to them from a condescending place of superiority rather than trying to meet them on a more human level. In the end it’s about healing, trying to find an accommodation with the traumatic past and limiting its legacy to break the cycle of pain and violence. The prior convictions which most need addressing are those of a judgemental society that all too often contributes to the mechanisms of violence in seeking to punish rather than to help.


Prior Convictions screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bad City (バッド・シティ, Kensuke Sonomura, 2022)

V-Cinema legend Hitoshi Ozawa returns in a tale of big city corruption helmed by Hydra’s Kensuke Sonomura. Scripted by Ozawa himself and apparently created in part as a celebration of his 60th birthday, Bad City (バッド・シティ) is a clear homage to the classic yakuza dramas of the early ’90s while boasting some of the best action choreography in recent Japanese cinema performed by the likes of Tak Sakaguchi along with Ozawa himself who performs all of his own stunts. 

According to dodgy CEO Gojo (Lily Franky) who has just inexplicably been acquitted of extortion and colluding with the yakuza, Kaiko City is riddled with crime and violence which is why he’s announcing his candidacy for mayor. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a mysterious assassin (Tak Sakaguchi) is cutting swathes through the Sakurada gang who dominate the city’s western district which Gojo has earmarked for a redevelopment project he claims will improve the lives of citizens but is in reality just an excuse to build a massive casino complex intended to enrich himself and his company. The previous mayor had won a landslide victory thanks to his opposition to the redevelopment plan which enjoys little support from the local population but Gojo isn’t exactly interested in winning hearts and minds in the community. 

Really just another gangster himself, Gojo’s machinations are also destabilising the existing underworld equilibrium in seducing treacherous minions from other gangs including vicious Korean gangster Kim Seung-gi whose loyalty to ageing gang boss Madam Kim is clearly waning. Then again, an enemy’s enemy is a friend allowing unexpected alliances to emerge between previously warring factions especially given that the sudden offing of a high status gang boss is frowned upon in the gangster play book. 

With police and judicial collusion the only possible explanation for Gojo’s miraculous escape from justice, an earnest prosecutor sets up a secret task force under the command of Public Security agent Koizumi (Mitsu Dan) and led by veteran officer Torada (Hitoshi Ozawa) who is currently in prison awaiting trial on suspicion of offing Mrs Kim’s only son, Tae-gyun. Torada is an unreconstructed violent cop operating under the philosophy that if you beat up a good guy that’s violence but if he’s bad then it’s justice. He has perhaps learned to see the world as morally grey, not believing himself to be necessarily on the side of right so much as resisting the forces of darkness by doing whatever it takes to survive in this city which is indeed already quite corrupt. Partnered up with two veterans and a junior female officer from violent crimes who were assigned to investigate the Sakurada boss’ murder, the gang do their best to trap Gojo legally by uncovering incontrovertible evidence of his dodgy dealings they can use to nail him in court, or failing that the court of public opinion, that cannot be swept aside by his friends in high places. 

Sonomura opens as he means to go on with a series of bloody assassinations culminating the massacre of the Sakurada gang in a bathhouse, while building towards the final mass confrontation in which Ozawa and his team face off against hordes of foot soldiers trying to fight their way towards a confrontation with Kim Seung-gi. Dynamically choreographed, the action sequences are surprisingly bloody and heavy on knife action but crucially also displaying a high level of characterisation and dramatic sensibility as the earnest cops square off against amoral gangsters willing even to sacrifice their own. 

Though there might be something uncomfortable in setting up the major villain as a rogue Korean gangster, the film paints his defection in part as a reaction to Mrs Kim’s initial loathing of the Japanese while in the end allowing a kind of cross-cultural solidarity to emerge as the Sakurada gang become accidental allies and Mrs Kim receives a lost letter from her son that allows her to change her way of thinking while helping to take down the destabilising force of Gojo, restoring a kind of order at least to the streets of Bad City Kaiko. Ozawa may be an equally dangerous extra-judicial force, but at least for the moment he’s standing in the light where everyone can see him taking out the trash and leaving those like Gojo no quarter in an admittedly violent place.


Bad City screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Riverside Mukolitta (川っぺりムコリッタ, Naoko Ogigami, 2021)

The spectre of death hangs over the protagonists of Naoko Ogigami’s adaptation of her own novel Riverside Mukolitta (川っぺりムコリッタ, Kawapperi Mukolitta) despite the sunniness and serenity of the riverside community where they live. They are each, in their own way, grieving and sometimes even for themselves in fear of a far off lonely death or else wondering what it’s all for and if this persistent suffering is really worth it, but eventually find a kind of solidarity in togetherness that can at least make the unbearable bearable. 

Recently released from prison, Yamada (Kenichi Matsuyama) has been sent to a remote rural village to start again with a job in a fermented squid factory and an apartment in a small row of houses by the river. His landlady Shiori (Hikari Mitsushima), an eccentric young woman with a little girl, assures him that though the building is 50 years old and many have passed through during that time no one has yet died in his unit. His neighbours Mizoguchi (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and his small besuited son Yoichi traipse the local area selling discounted tombstones reminding potential customers that no one lives forever and it might remove some of the burden of living to have your affairs in order for when you die. If all that weren’t enough, the last house in the row is thought to be haunted by an old lady whose ghost sometimes appears to water the flowers so they don’t turn to weed. Arriving home one day, Yamada discovers a letter from the local council letting him know that his estranged father has passed away in a lonely death and his remains are ready to collect at the town hall at his earliest convenience. 

Yamada is a man who keeps himself to himself, clearly ambivalent in trying to adjust to his new life wondering if he really deserves the opportunity to start again and if there’s any point in doing so. Seeing as his parents divorced when he was four and he had no further contact with his father, he is unsure if he wants the responsibility of his ashes which will of course contain additional expense for some kind of funeral. He meditates on the fates of “those who are not thought to exist”, such as the many homeless people who live by the river and are swept away by typhoons, and the elderly who die nameless and alone. When he ventures to the town hall, he discovers an entire room filled unclaimed remains some of which remain anonymous while the sympathetic civil servant (Tasuku Emoto) explains that in general they keep them for a year and then bury them together if no one comes forward to claim them. Aside from the staff members at the crematorium, the civil servant was the only person present at his father’s cremation which at any rate must be quite an emotional burden for him though he is familiar with the case and willing to talk Yamada through his father’s final days. 

Meanwhile, he’s bamboozled into an awkward friendship with the strange man from next-door (Tsuyoshi Muro) who brands himself a “minimalist” and claims to be self-sufficient in the summer at least with the veg he grows in the garden behind their apartments but insists on using Yamada’s bath because his is broken and he doesn’t have the means to fix it. Giving in to Shimada’s rather aggressive attempts at connection, Yamada comes to feel the power of community in finding acceptance from the other residents in the small row of apartments along with the paternal influence of his boss at the factory and the kindness of an older woman who works there. Yoichi, the tombstone seller’s son, is fond of playing on a junk heap which is in its way a graveyard of forgotten and discarded things from rotary telephones to CRT TVs and broken air conditioners, while he and Shiori’s daughter Kayo try to contact aliens from a purgatorial space where the living and the dead almost co-exist. Taking place at the height of summer during the Bon festival when the mortal world and the other are at their closet, Ogigami’s laidback style gives way to a gentle profundity in the transient nature of existence but also in the small joys and accidental connections that give it meaning. 


Riverside Mukolitta screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Camera Japan Announces Complete Programme for 2022

Camera Japan returns for its 17th edition in Rotterdam 22nd to 25th September and in Amsterdam 29th September to 2nd October bringing with it another fantastic selection of the best in recent and not so recent Japanese cinema.

Feature Films

  • Alivehoon – an e-sports champ finally gets the chance to test his skills on the track in Ten Shimoyama’s retro drift racing drama. Review.
  • Angry Son – a resentful young man comes to a better understanding of his place in the world while searching for his estranged father in Kasho Iizuka’s sensitive coming-of-age drama. Review.
  • Anime Supremacy – adaptation of the novel by Mizuki Tsujimura following three women in the anime industry.
  • Arc – a young woman ponders the concept of immortality when presented with two opposing versions of its manifestation in Kei Ishikawa’s sci-fi drama. Review.
  • Awake – childhood rivals eventually find a sense of equilibrium after an AI challenge in Atsuhiro Yamada’s shogi drama. Review.
  • Baby Assassins – a pair of mismatched high school girls raised as elite assassins get swept into gangland conflict while forced to live together to learn how to integrate into society in Yugo Sakamoto’s deadpan slacker comedy. Reivew.
  • Bad City – a ruthless veteran cop in prison on suspicion of murder is brought out to tackle rampant violence and corruption in a V-cinema homage starring Hitoshi Ozawa.
  • Broken Commandment – a young man wrestles with himself torn between breaking a promise to his father and speaking out against prejudice in Kazuo Maeda’s adaptation of the Toson Shimazaki novel. Review.
  • End of the Pale Hour – dejected youngsters flounder amid the ruins of the salaryman dream in Hana Matsumoto’s youthful drama. Review.
  • Eternally Younger than Those Idiots – An aimless 22-year-old college student’s life changes after bonding with a mischievous philosophy major but she discovers through her various encounters that life isn’t always as it first seems in Ryohei Yoshino’s adaptation of the novel by Kikuko Tsumura.
  • The Great Yokai War: Guardians – an anxious little boy discovers his inner hero and saves the world through kindness in Takashi Miike’s warmhearted return to the world of folklore. Review.
  • Intolerance – latest from Keisuke Yoshida in which the father of a teenage girl killed by a car while running away after being accused of shoplifting takes revenge.
  • It’s all My Fault – a lonely young man befriends a drifter after his mother rejects him in Yusaku Matsumoto’s indie drama.
  • Joint – A gangster in search of reform finds himself caught between old school organised crime and the shady new economy in Oudai Kojima’s noirish take on yakuza decline. Review.
  • Just Remembering – former lovers are confronted by reminders of their failed romance amid the loneliness of the coronavirus pandemic in Daigo Matsui’s melancholy drama. Review.
  • Let Me Here it Barefoot – two alienated young men struggle to identify their feelings while searching for escape from moribund small-town Japan in Riho Kudo’s indie drama. Review.
  • The Midnight Maiden War – a nihilistic young man is torn between a mysterious tech genius and his more cheerful sempai in the latest from Ken Ninomiya.
  • My Brother, the Android, and Me – a lonely researcher attempts to ease his existential anxiety by building a simulacrum of himself in Junji Sakamoto’s gothic sci-fi chiller. Review.
  • Nagi’s Island – cheerful indie drama in which a young girl tries to overcome family trauma after moving to an idyllic island.
  • Offbeat Cops – a maverick cop develops a new appreciation of group harmony after being demoted to the police band in Eiji Uchida’s warmhearted comedy. Review.
  • Popran – a self-involved CEO gets a course correction when his genitals suddenly decide to leave him in Shinichiro Ueda’s surreal morality tale. Review
  • Prior Convictions – a volunteer probation officer questions her life philosophy when one of her charges is implicated in a spate of killings in the latest from Yoshiyuki Kishi.
  • Ribbon – a young student wrestles with her sense of purpose when her graduation exhibition is cancelled in Non’s charming directorial debut. Review.
  • Riverside Mukolitta – a young man recently released from prison finds a new sense of community after moving to a remote village in the latest from Naoko Ogigami.
  • Shrieking in the Rain – a rookie female film director faces industry sexism and corporate interference while trying to fend off a visit from the censors before shooting an erotically charged love scene in this 80s drama from Eiji Uchida.
  • Small, Slow, But Steady – latest from Sho Miyake (And Your Bird Can Sing) following a young woman’s determination to become a champion boxer.
  • Spotlight – a struggling director is approached by a young woman who offers him a large amount of money to make a film in this indie drama from KOUMEI.
  • Thanc You – comedy duo Jaru Jaru take on 11 roles each in this anarchic sketch comedy.
  • They Say Nothing Stays the Same – an ageing boatman finds himself adrift on the great river of time in Joe Odagiri’s exquisitely shot, ethereal meditation on transience and goodness. Review.
  • Unlock Your Heart – teen romantic drama in which a high school girl befriends her crush’s girlfriend.
  • Wandering – intense drama from Lee Sang-il in which a student takes in a neglected little girl but is later accused of kidnapping.

Animation

  • Dozens of Norths – feature animation by Koji Yamamura.
  • Goodbye, Don Glees! – three teenage boys come to terms with past and future while on a climactic summer adventure in Atsuko Ishizuka’s heartfelt coming-of-age anime.
  • House of the Lost Cape – two young girls are taken in by a kindly old lady who lives in a remote mansion by the sea which is also home to a series of mysterious creatures in this family animation adapted from the novel by Sachiko Kashiwaba.
  • Summer Ghost – three teens team up to search for the elusive spirit of a woman said to have taken her own life.

Documentary

  • Salaryman – Allegra Pacheco’s wide ranging documentary examines Japan’s contemporary corporate culture through the prism of the salaryman. Review.
  • Target – Shinji Nishijima’s documentary follows former Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura as he continues to fight for press freedom in an increasingly authoritarian Japan. Review.
  • Tokyo Kurds – documentary exploring the lives of young Kurdish refugees in Japan.
  • Yonaguni – documentary following a group of teens living on a remote island.

Special Screenings

  • (c) Nikkatsu 1955
  • Forever a Woman – Kinuyo Tanaka’s directorial debut draws inspiration from current events to interrogate contemporary notions of womanhood through the story of a female poet suffering from terminal breast cancer who eventually rediscovers her femininity through the embrace of her sexual desire. Review.
  • Love Under the Crucifix – Juxtaposing the use of the crucifix as a method of execution for sexual transgression with the growing influence of Christianity in late 16th century Japan, Takana’s final film as a director stars Ineko Arima as a young woman in love with a reticent lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is already married and among the growing class of merchant samurai who have converted to Christianity through trading links with European nations. Review.
  • The Moon Has Risen – Tanaka’s second film was co-scripted by Yasujiro Ozu and features several homages to his visual style including the use of pillow shots but otherwise has a sensuality and sensitivity not common in his filmmaking. The comic melodrama follows the attempts of a young woman (Mie Kitamura) to set her lovelorn sister up with a sensitive visitor while falling for her childhood friend. Look out for Tanaka’s brief cameo as a ditsy maid. Review.
  • Wandering Princess – again based on very recent events, The Wandering Princess is a sumptuous romantic melodrama in which a Japanese noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) agrees to marry the brother of the former emperor of China now a puppet king of the Japanese colony of Manchuria but is eventually separated from him by the fall of the Japanese empire. Review.
  • Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth – Ozu silent melodrama in which a young man learns a painful lesson about class and friendship when he becomes CEO of his father’s company and sets his uni friends up with jobs.

Camera Japan 2022 takes place in Rotterdam 22nd to 25th September and Amsterdam 29th September to 2nd October. Full information on all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website and you can also keep up to date with all the latest news via Camera Japan’s official Facebook pageTwitter account, and Instagram channel.

The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Mikio Naruse, 1960)

For a small boy in post-war Japan, childhood’s summer is already over in Mikio Naruse’s at times uncharacteristically cheerful The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Aki Tachinu) . In truth, the Japanese title is the slightly more depressing “autumn has begun” echoing the dismal circumstances that the hero eventually finds himself in while working his way towards an understanding of the disappointments and loneliness of adulthood. Abandoned by his mother he remains alone, in a sense homeless, trapped between the new Japan and the old in a liminal space shrinking by the hour as the construction of modernity encroaches all around him. 

The amazement on Hideo’s (Kenzaburo Osawa) face is palpable as he exits a train station in the middle of Tokyo peering up at the high rise buildings amid busy city streets. He and his mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) have travelled by train from rural Nagano following the death of his father intending to stay with his mother’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) who owns an old-fashioned grocery store in Ginza. What Shigeko has not really explained to her son is that they will not be living there together as she has taken a job as a live-in hostess at a nearby inn. 

Plunged into this unfamiliar world all alone, Hideo cannot help but feel awkward in the house of relatives he has never before met. His grown-up cousins playfully argue in front of him about having to share a room, while he makes a point of not eating too much at dinner though as Harue (Hisako Hara) jokes perhaps he doesn’t like the food seeing as his penny pinching uncle mainly feeds the family on fruit and veg from the store that’s gone past its best. Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends with the local children who mock his country bumpkin accent and use him as a scapegoat when it looks like they might get in trouble. His only companion is the precocious daughter of the owner of the inn where his mother works, Junko (Futaba Hitotsugi), who instantly takes to him and even goes so far as to beg her mother to adopt Hideo as an older brother. 

Junko is in a similarly liminal position herself as we later find out. Her mother (Murasaki Fujima) is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who only visits them every so often and appears to be well aware of the precarity of her position. Junko’s father, awkwardly inviting her out on a playdate with his other two children born to his legal wife who apparently knows everything and at least pretends to be alright with it, urges her mother to take advantage of rocketing Ginza land prices and sell the inn to buy a fancy new apartment but she is understandably wary. Running an inn is all she knows how to do and should he die or simply decide to drop her she’d be in trouble fairly quickly. Hideo’s cousins similarly nag their father to sell the shop, reminding him that with the increasing gentrification of the area there is no longer sufficient footfall to support it, and suggesting they use the money to buy larger premises in suburbia. Both Hideo and Junko are in a sense orphans of these liminal spaces, relics of a disappearing Japan soon to be eclipsed by endless office buildings symbols of the nation’s increasing economic prosperity. 

All of the sites on which the children play are earmarked for construction, Junko later explaining that the docks where they eventually head looking for the sea are built on reclaimed land big enough to build a baseball field. Like Hideo she longs for the country with clean air and unpolluted rivers though as Hideo points out it’s all the same to him, his mother isn’t in either place and so neither has any meaning for him. Her strange idea of adopting Hideo is in a way an attempt to anchor herself with family, assuring her mother that she’s old enough to understand but struggling to parse her family circumstances while deeply hurt on discovering she does have siblings after all only they don’t want to know her. She is looked down upon because of the choices her mother has made, as is Hideo especially after his mother leaves abruptly with a customer from the inn (Daisuke Kato) abandoning him with his uncle in search of romantic fulfilment which it seems she probably did not find considering a later telegram explaining she’s working as a maid at a hotel in the resort town of Atami. 

Shigeko is made out to be the villain, but she too is only chasing safety in a changing society hoping to find it in the arms of a reliable man be he a husband or not. Hideo may be an obstacle to that, but her anxiety is mostly maternal, unwilling to rely on her brother’s goodwill and knowing she will need to find a way to support her son even if she is not with him. Hideo’s cousins meanwhile are the youth of the new society. Harue has rejected the old-fashioned family grocers and now works in a department store while her former student protestor boyfriend is certain of getting a salaryman job seeing as there’s a massive labour shortage. Shotaro (Yosuke Natsuki), who is always kind to Hideo, runs around town on his scooter ferrying girls to the beach sometimes forgetting his melancholy cousin in favour of transitory pleasures. He envisages taking over the store and selling it to open up somewhere new, reassuring Hideo that there will always be a place for him there even while letting him down in the present. 

In the end, Hideo’s only friend is a beetle packaged in a box of apples from his grandma in the country which his uncle selfishly claims for the shop under the rationale that he can’t eat them all himself. A symbol of an older, rural Japan as well of the idyllic childhood for which Hideo’s longs, the beetle is as out of place in central Tokyo as he is the pair of them looking down on the sprawling city and out towards the barely visible sea from the roof of a department store which holds no sense of promise for them. Despite the bleakness of the ending, Naruse’s depiction of an ordinary childhood is deceptively cheerful perhaps implying that Hideo is merely enduring a period of adjustment only to leave him with the crushing weight of impossibility, trapped between the new society and the old with no home to go to. 


French release trailer (French subtitles only)