A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Yutaro Nakamura, 2021)

Seemingly brought together by fate, a collection of lovelorn Tokyoites have a very weird New Year in Yutaro Nakamura’s absurdist farce, A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Atarashii Kaze). A collection of interesting, sometimes contradictory vignettes, Nakamura’s various tales of frustrated love and interpersonal tension are perhaps variations on a theme illustrated, sometimes literally, with an ethereal logic in which events repeat themselves from differing angles or familiar faces recur in slightly different roles. “What kind of future, if any at all, can we picture?” the opening title asks us, suggesting that this strange night might be imagined but in the end at least filled with a kind of possibility.

Opening in long shot, the first scene follows a pair of teenage friends who forcibly begin trying to play football with a boy who quite clearly wants to play on his own. Eventually, they give him his ball back, and he cries. In an apparent flash forward we find ourselves in contemporary Tokyo as Hikari (Hikaru Saiki), the young woman, goes on a non-date with a friend, Kotaro (Yutaro Nakamura), who confesses his feelings to her at the end of the evening and immediately apologises but gets no real reply. In any case, the moment is later interrupted as Hikari runs into an old friend, Yujiro (Yujiro Hara), the young man, who now works as an Uber Eats driver. Realising they’ve missed the last train, Hikari decides to hit up an old friend, Anzu (An Ogawa), to see if they can stay with her. Anzu is not very welcoming, it is New Year’s Eve after all, but eventually lets them in which is when we realise there is tension in the house. It turns out that Hikari used to live with Anzu until a couple of weeks previously when she kicked her out, presumably to move in the boyfriend, Takaya (Takaya Shibata), who wastes no time at all behaving like a complete tool firstly irritated to have guests at all and then apparently challenged by the double masculine presence of the extremely tall Yujiro and the smaller Kotaro who, equally, is somewhat inappropriately fussed over and infantilised by Anzu who asks him a series of insensitive questions and later brands him a “fairy”. 

Before the evening’s out, Takaya, the lonely solo footballer, has burst into tears once again after trying to start several fights, threatening to kill people, demanding that someone kill him and then making an unexpected declaration of love to a surprise third party. Taking to the streets in a random angel costume he ups the hyper-masculine act, turning up shortly after another street harasser to harass Hikari as a song plays describing her, presumably, as a “princess running away from desire and dominance”. Kotaro and Hikari had been continuing their non-date with typical New Year activities such as visiting a shrine, yet he is the only one willing to sit with the obviously distressed Takaya and attempt to talk him down with the aid of some instant udon and gentle wisdom. “The sky is blue today. The sun is warm. But we shouldn’t take it for granted. Such quiet days can often bring happiness.”

That is perhaps in a sense the lesson. The weird New Year crisis eventually begins to fade, a kind of calm finally returning and then giving way to a second possible flashback or merely a waking up returning to the opening scenes as the teens, slightly changed, attempt to heal the gaping wound while Takaya cries into his sleeve. Is this present a dream of the past or vice versa? In any case, romantic crises apparently pass and some find their feelings are returned after all, assuming it is not also a dream. Making frequent use of music accompanied by fun karaoke-style onscreen lyrics as well as stylish graphics and illustrations, Nakamura’s quiet indie dramedy revels in everyday strangeness and the pathos of frustrated dreams be they going to London to play guitar, making a friend, or having your feelings returned. Quiet days can indeed bring happiness if of a quiet kind despite the madness of everyday life allowing a new wind to blow carrying new possibility for a hopefully happier future. 


A New Wind Blows screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

POP! (Masashi Komura, 2021)

You’ve heard “turn that frown upside down”, but are you ready for turn that heart into a…well, perhaps that’s a sentence not worth finishing. The heroine of Masashi Komura’s MOOSIC LAB venture Pop! finds herself in a world of existential confusion on realising that what she assumed to be a heart symbolising love was in fact a giant bum intended to moon an indifferent society. Suddenly she doesn’t know up from down, her entire existence rocked as she contemplates life, love, and the pursuit of happiness on the eve of her 20th birthday. 

19-year-old Rin (Rina Ono) is currently the presenter/mascot character of local TV charity program “Tomorrow’s Earth Donation” which aims to collect money for the world’s disadvantaged children. Meanwhile, she also has a part-time job as a car park attendant which she takes incredibly seriously even though almost no one ever turns up (including her mysterious co-worker Mr. Numata). In fact, its Rin’s earnestness and youthful naivety which seem to set her apart from her colleagues, makeup artist Maiko later complaining that she makes others uncomfortable with her goody two-shoes act while her bashful present to puppeteer Shoji on his birthday of a framed portrait she’d drawn of him seems to elicit only confusion and mild embarrassment from her bantering co-workers. 

Nevertheless, she’s beginning to wonder about love, in her own way lonely and unfulfilled simultaneously confused and disappointed by the direction of her life. She dreamed of becoming an actress, but is now little more than a front for this strange enterprise in which she, characteristically, believes with her whole heart. Deep down, she just wants everyone to be happy and is sure that if people smiled more the world would be a brighter place. Wearing a giant red wig shaped like a heart, she reads out messages purporting to be from children outlining their dreams for the future even when they’re as banal and materialistic as wanting to become a race car driver. Unfortunately, however, she continually stumbles when asked to read a cue card featuring her own dream, fully scripted for the character she’s supposed to be playing. 

On her first audition, she was shouted out of the room by a director insisting her admittedly over the top improvised death scene was nothing more than attention seeking. The TV news attributes a similar motive to a mysterious bomber currently plaguing the city whom Rin accidentally witnesses one day fleeing the scene of his crime. For some reason struck by his strange presence, and perhaps disillusioned with her brief foray into online dating, Rin develops a fondness for him believing he is just like her because the pattern of his bombings corresponds to the shape of a giant heart enveloping the city. “We must get serious about saving the world!” she announces to her colleagues, “Let’s do it with a bang!” she ironically adds. She may, however, have slightly misunderstood his mission statement especially as when questioned as to his motives he tells her that he does it for the benefit of all because no one else will. 

In any case, she remains hopelessly naive, confused by a strange man who brings his van to the car park presumably for “privacy” and strangely unconcerned by an alarming message on an abandoned car left with its door open which states the driver won’t be needing it anymore. She role-plays direction and agency, but in the end goes nowhere until literally carried away by her “adult” realisation that it’s probably not possible for everyone to smile all the time and it’s not her job to make them. Caught up in the slightly duplicitous world of the cynical program makers who perhaps mean well but are hamstrung by the problems of contemporary Japan, desperate for pictures of smiling children only to realise that none are writing in and hardly any of them know any to ask, she maintains her desire for world peace even while privately conflicted in having lost sight of her own dream. Adopting a little of the bomber’s anarchist swagger, she allows herself to be swept up by a final flight of fancy towards a more cheerful world. Shot with a colourful “pop” aesthetic and a hearty slice of absurdist irony Komura’s strange fairytale is stuffed full of heart and has only infinite sympathy for its earnest heroine’s guileless goodness.


POP! screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

yes, yes, yes (Akihiko Yano, 2021)

“If everything goes, then why are we even alive?” the young hero of Akihiko Yano’s yes, yes, yes asks himself as his family finds itself struggling under the weight of intense grief. Yet it’s in family that he finally finds his solace and the will to continue living even if life is meaningless or hard or sad. Hard and sad is an accurate description of their life at the present time as each of the family members tries to process the imminent loss of their mother who has recently entered a hospital she seems to fear she may not leave.

To begin with, the family are trying to remain cheerful as they move mother Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi) into her new hospital room, but youngest son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi) finds he cannot stomach the false jollity especially after his mother attempts to say a prayer for him. Walking off in a huff, he returns home only to take out his frustrations on a patch of flowers before dramatically taking a pair of scissors to his hair which he then dyes blond much to his father’s consternation. Meanwhile, oldest daughter Juri (Minami Inoue), ironically a hairdresser and pregnant with her first child which she plans to raise alone, does the family shopping, her father Masaaki trying to keep it together waiting in the car. 

There are perhaps already cracks in the family structure, patriarch Masaaki (Kazunari Uryu) seemingly a violent authoritarian who physically attacks his son after spotting his improvised new hairstyle, sending him running up the stairs to barricade himself in his room by jamming the door with his bed in a manoeuvre which seems somewhat practiced. Masaaki also doesn’t like it that his daughter plans to have a child out of wedlock, angrily reexplaining that he won’t stand for it though this is clearly not the the time. Juri reiterates that she’s made her decision, but takes offence at his apparent reasoning that he somehow blames her and the baby for his wife’s death as if only so many places are available in their family and they’re awarded on a first in first out basis. For him it’s as if the baby is here to replace Sayuri, kicking her out in a peculiar slice of cosmic irony. 

Yet as she tells Takeaki who asks her a similar question, he should be happy that their family is expanding. She resents the way the men seem to have monopolised their grief, feeling that it’s hardest of all for their mother and for her part she’s made up her mind not to cry. Sayuri meanwhile is struggling to accept her terminal diagnosis on her own, brought to a sudden realisation during an emotional phone call with Takeaki in which she tries to reassure him that she won’t die while he insists that if it’s come to this immense grief he’d rather that they’d never met at all. He can’t bear that his mother’s existence will be reduced to mere objects, the old voicemails and photos, the gifts and heirlooms. If all that’s left of us is stuff, he asks, what was the point of any of it?

Nevertheless, it’s in transitory human warmth that he eventually finds his reason. Chastened by his wife who tearfully apologises for having married him and subjected him to this grief, Masaaki begins to reassume his role as the father, taking responsibility for his family in finally deciding to welcome Juri’s child as one of his own while embracing his wounded son even as the ghost of the still living Sayuri inhabits their living room looking on at their fierce battle of grief. Shooting in a crisp black and white, somehow detached from the intense emotions at the film’s centre, Yano contrasts the family’s disparate sense of existential loneliness with brief pillow shots of cherry blossom in bloom, the rolling seas on the beach where the family took their last happy photo, and blinking fireworks as if to signal the brevity but also the force, joy, and colour of an ordinary existence. As Sayuri comes to accept death, her son comes to accept life, determined to live to the full so that he can be grateful he was born. A moving tale of learning to live with grief, yes, yes, yes, eventually makes makes the case for life even if it’s hard or sad but also for the saving power of human warmth however transitory it may be.


yes, yes, yes screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

JOINT (Oudai Kojima, 2020)

The yakuza is in some senses at least an outdated institution long thought to be on its way to extinction, some positing that the coronavirus pandemic may be the final nail in the coffin. Organised crime is however nothing if not resourceful and facing post-war decline has long been sliding into corporatised legitimacy. As Oudai Kojima’s JOINT points out, however, the line between legitimate business and illicit enterprise has become increasingly thin especially when it comes to the usage of today’s most valuable commodity, our data. 

Emerging from two years in prison, middle-aged Take (Ikken Yamamoto) took a job ripe with symbolism in “deconstruction” on the invitation of a friend who has apparently managed to escape the criminal underworld for a respectable life as a “financier” with a wife and child. Having saved a small nest egg, however, Take soon makes his way back to the Tokyo underworld, good jobs being hard to find for ex-cons, where he attempts to remain on the fringes of the gangster world working as a kind of freelancer for the Oshima clan while not technically a member of the yakuza. Getting back in touch with an old underling and a Korean friend running a restaurant as a hub for the migrant community, he finds himself getting involved in the yakuza’s latest big business innovation trafficking big data to be used to facilitate large-scale fraud usually against the elderly. The thing about data is that it’s only pieces of a puzzle, the various lists of names with phone numbers, emails, and addresses etc are not worth much individually but coupled with related datasets giving a fuller picture of an individual life they are a veritable goldmine. Pulling together his various resources Take soon becomes a major data broker known for comprehensive documents. 

Ultimately, however, he wants out of the criminal underworld and decides to invest his money in venture capital through a start up working with, yes, big data but this time to be used for the purposes of advertising and marketing. His gangster life and supposed fresh start are in fact based on the exact same source, and who’s to say that illicitly collecting information and using it to sell us more stuff we don’t want or need is really any better than using it to commit fraud. Big data is indeed big business, and its possession it turns out to be as dangerous and contested as any other illicit substance from drugs to black market booze back in the post-war yakuza heyday. 

To signal their commitment to moving on, the Oshima gang has already attempted to clean up its act by exiling old school, violent elements but their efforts have only created a further destabilisation in the criminal underworld as the “traditional” yakuza fight back by founding their own gang rooted in violence and vice. Take has one foot in one foot out of the yakuza life, yet sees fit to pontificate on the code of gangsterdom unable to understand why his old contacts have become so toothless unwilling to take a stand or claim revenge when one of their own is murdered by a rival intent on taking over both their turf and the big data business. Meanwhile, Jinghui, the Korean restaurant owner struggles to support the migrant community who, like Take, find it difficult to secure legitimate work, and ends up working with a third gangster conglomerate which is entirely staffed by foreign nationals themselves intensely marginalised in an often hostile society. They see fit to take things one step further by tapping data at source through tampering with routers to funnel it directly to them. 

The “information war” sees no sign of slowing down, though ironically enough having just got out of the “joint”, Take finds himself trapped in the liminal space somewhere between gangster and legitimate businessman even as that space seems to be shrinking so much that it may soon disappear entirely from beneath his feet. Shooting mainly with handheld, Kojima deglams the yakuza underworld surveying it with a documentary naturalism that suggests it is in fact perfectly ordinary while playing with the trappings of the classic jitsuroku throwing up onscreen text featuring the names of the main players along with details of their roles and affiliations. Though the moody score and twilight neon might hint at neo-noir there’s not so much fatalism here as a sense of sorry impossibility, yet in contrast to the perhaps expected nihilism there is a degree of hope for Take brokered by his internationalism even if it exists only outside of Japan. 


JOINT screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Japan Academy Prize Announces Winners for 44th Edition

The Japan Academy Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars awarded by the Nippon Academy-sho Association of industry professionals, has announced the winners for its 44th edition which honours films released between Dec. 16, 2019 and Dec. 31, 2020. The much lauded Fukushima 50 misses out on the big prize but gets Director, Supporting Actor, and a host of technical awards while Eiji Uchida’s Midnight Swan takes Picture of the Year and Actor, and Masami Nagasawa picks up the Best Actress award not for reprising her role in Confidence Man JP but for Tatsushi Omori’s grim maternal drama, Mother.

Picture of the Year

Animation of the Year

  • Violet Evergarden: The Movie 
  • Poupelle of Chimney Town
  • Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train
  • Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
  • Stand by Me Doraemon 2

Director of the Year

  • Eiji Uchida (Midnight Swan)
  • Naomi Kawase (True Mothers)
  • Nobuhiro Doi (The Voice of Sin)
  • Ryota Nakano (The Asadas)
  • Setsuro Wakamatsu (Fukushima 50)

Screenplay of the Year

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

  • Shun Oguri (The Voice of Sin)
  • Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (Midnight Swan)
  • Koichi Sato (Fukushima 50)
  • Masaki Suda (Ito)
  • Kazunari Ninomiya (The Asadas)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Shohei Uno (The Voice of Sin)
  • Satoshi Tsumabuki (The Asadas)
  • Ryo Narita (The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese)
  • Gen Hoshino (The Voice of Sin)
  • Ken Watanabe (Fukushima 50)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Outstanding Achievement in Music

  • Taro Iwashiro (Fukushima 50)
  • Yuki Kajiura & Go Shiina (Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train)
  • Seiji Kameda (Ito)
  • Naoki Sato (The Voice of Sin)
  • Junnosuke Yamamoto (Tora-san, Wish You Were Here)

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Direction

Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction

  • Toshihiro Isomi & Emiko Tsuyuki (The Voice of Sin)
  • Tomoko Kurata & Shoko Yoshizawa (Tora-san, Wish You Were Here)
  • Michitoshi Kurokawa (The Asadas)
  • Yukiharu Seshimo (Fukushima 50)
  • Hiroyuki Agatsuma (Midnight Swan)

Outstanding Achievement in Sound Recording

Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing

Outstanding Foreign Language Film

  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX)
  • Parasite
  • Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans ’66)
  • 1917
  • Tenet

Newcomer of the Year 

  • Misaki Hattori (Midnight Swan)
  • Aju Makita (True Mothers)
  • Nana Mori (Last Letter)
  • Kenshi Okada (Hope; The Legacy of Dr. Death: Black File; I Have Loved you for 30 Years, Yayoi) 
  • Daiken Okudaira (Mother)
  • Ren Nagase (Yowamushi Pedal)

Special Award from the Association

(Lifetime achievement awards, technical fields)

  • Matsuo Ikehata (scenic artist)
  • Yoshikazu Yasuhiko (animator and character designer)
  • Kikuo Notomi (gun effects)

Award for Distinguished Service from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement awards, creatives)

  • Makiko Ishihara (former actress known as Mie Kitahara prior to her retirement on her marriage to frequent co-star Yujiro Ishihara, and until recently head of Ishihara International Productions, Inc. talent agency)
  • Akiko Koyama (actress)
  • Tatsuo Suzuki (cinematographer)
  • Yonezo Maeda (cinematographer)
  • Kazuko Yoshiyuki (actress)

Special Award from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement award presented to members of the film industry who passed away during 2020)

  • Jo Shishido (actor)
  • Nobuhiko Obayashi (director)
  • Tetsuya Watari (actor)

Award of Honour from the Association

(Lifetime achievement award for members of the film industry who received a national honour or made a great contribution to the development of the Association)

  • Yusuke Okada (chairman of Toei who passed away on Nov. 18 at the age of 71)

Popularity Awards

(Decided via an All Night Nippon listener poll)

Movie: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train

Actor: Shun Oguri (The Voice of Sin)

Source: Japan Academy Prize official websiteEiga Natalie

The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Yuya Ishii, 2021)

A collection of lonely souls is brought together by angelic intervention in Yuya Ishii’s grief-stricken appeal for “mutual understanding”, The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Asia no Tenshi). Brokering the sometimes difficult subject of Japan-Korea relations, Ishii makes a plaintive case for a pan-Asian family while his wounded protagonists each search for meaning and possibility in the wake of heartbreak and disappointment. Yet what they discover is less the urge to move forward than the gentle power of solidarity, bonding in shared sense of displacement and forging a new home from an apparently fated connection. 

Displacement is a feeling which immediately hits struggling author Tsuyoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) as he struggles to make himself understood to a grumpy Seoul taxi driver after taking his brother up on an offer to relocate to Korea with his young son following the death of his wife some time previously. Toru (Joe Odagiri), however, has not quite been honest about his life in the Korean capital, housed above a church where they always seem to be rehearsing the hymn Angels We Have Heard on High. Wandering into the apartment, Tsuyoshi is physically thrown out by Toru’s grumpy business partner (Park Jung-bum) obviously unaware they were coming as even Toru himself seems to have forgotten inviting them. In any case, the trio eventually find themselves on the street after Toru’s Korean friend with whom he’d started an illicit business smuggling cosmetics betrays them. 

Meanwhile, across town melancholy songstress Sol (Choi Moon) has been supporting her brother and sister with her music career which seems to be on the slide with a faintly humiliating gig in a shopping mall which briefly brings her into contact with Tsuyoshi, apparently captivated by her sadness. Abruptly informed her contract has been terminated, she tries to take the matter up with her manager/lover but gradually realises she’s merely one of several ladies on his books. Feeling lost, she agrees to follow up on a suggestion from her brother Jun-woo (Kim Min-jae) to pay a visit to the grave of their parents who passed away while she was only a child. 

Running into each other on the train after Toru talks Tsuyoshi into a possible seaweed venture in Gangwon, the two trios end up travelling together if originally struggling to find the “mutual understanding” that Tsuyoshi had been looking for. The first message Tsuyoshi sees on his phone on after arriving informs him that Korean-Japanese relations are at an all time low, though perhaps one would think national tension might not descend to the interpersonal level even if he appears to feel slightly awkward as a Japanese man in Korea aside from his inability to speak the language, but after a few too many drinks at a Chinese restaurant Jun-woo starts in on how 69.4% percent of Koreans apparently disapprove of Japan while 61% of Japanese apparently disapprove of Korea which is one reason he wouldn’t be keen on his sisters dating a Japanese guy. Describing himself as a “progressive”, he claims it’s the relatives who wouldn’t accept it but ends the conversation by cheerfully looking forward to when they can finally “part from these Japanese forever”. 

Yet, they do not part despite several opportunities and in fact end up travelling together for a significant distance during which they begin to bond, discovering that they have much in common including the loss of loved ones to cancer and the improbable sighting of angels who appear not like those on the Christmas cards but a weird old Asian man with a tendency to bite. Several times they are told they shouldn’t be together, Toru lamenting that love between Japanese and Koreans is as impossible as that between angels and humans while a police officer later bemusedly remarks that they don’t look like a family but family is in a sense what they become as they each sort out their respective traumas and resentments to reach a healthy equilibrium. Perhaps you couldn’t quite call it love, but almost and it might be someday if only you let it. “Seeing the world through your eyes I might come to like it a little more” Tsuyoshi admits, while Sol too begins to awaken to a new sense of freedom and possibility brokered by an angelic intervention. Marrying the melancholy poetry of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue with the gently surreal sense of humour of his earlier work, Ishii’s deeply moving drama makes a quiet plea for a little more “mutual understanding” between peoples but also for the simple power of human connection as evidence of the divine. 


The Asian Angel screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (c) 2021 The Asian Angel Film Partners

Over the Town (街の上で, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

Frustrated youngsters chase an unrealisable dream of idealised romance in Rikiya Imaizumi’s ode to Shimokitazawa, Over the Town (街の上で, Machi no Uede). For the moment at least known as the bohemian, avant-garde artists quarter of the contemporary capital beloved for its slightly retro quality replete as it is with narrow lanes and period buildings, Shimokitazawa is also a place of constant change but as the hero later points out even if “parts change and disappear that doesn’t mean they never existed”. Nevertheless, he seems to be marked by a particular anxiety, as do many of his age struggling to make meaningful connections in an ever shifting world. 

Ao’s (Ryuya Wakaba) world begins to crumble when he’s unexpectedly dumped by his beloved girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), on her birthday. Unceremoniously telling him that she’s met someone else, Yuki rationalises that breaking up is the only option but Ao tries to resist only for her to tell him that he can go on deluding himself that he still has a girlfriend but from now on she’ll be hanging out with someone new. From then on, Ao seems to be surrounded by frustrated couples and worryingly outdated ideas of romantic politics such as those of the students who drop into the vintage clothing shop where he works. Ao assumes they’re a couple, but a row slowly brews as the girl, Asako, declares herself bored with helping the guy, Shigeru, try on clothes that turn out to be for the purpose of impressing a different girl altogether despite knowing that Asako fancies him. Eventually Shigeru makes a highly inappropriate suggestion, almost akin to a bet, that if the woman he has a crush on rejects him he’ll deign to dating her even though Asako is “a distant second” in his heart. The shocking thing is that Asako agrees, a slightly mournful look in her eyes as she finally reaffirms that she really hopes it works out with the other girl. 

Throughout the exchange during which Ao looks on as an awkward bystander, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s so great about Shigeru. Meanwhile, not even Ao comes off particularly well, struggling to deal with his breakup and refusing to accept Yuki has moved on. So hung up on her is he that she eventually ends up contacting the barman at his favourite haunt to ask him to have a word, explaining that it’s inappropriate to go on texting your ex even if she doesn’t reply. Meanwhile, he finds himself at the centre of romantic missed connection, captivated by a sad woman at a concert who gives him a menthol cigarette he keeps in his ashtray as a kind of talisman for the rest of the picture. Infinitely awkward, he talks himself out a potential date with the cute girl at his favourite used bookstore (Kotone Furukawa) by asking an inappropriate question, later doing something similar to a woman (Seina Nakata) with whom he makes a more platonic connection as they each reflect that for some strange reason it’s much easier to open up to someone you have no romantic interest in. 

Perhaps that’s why a melancholy policeman keeps stopping random people in the street to ask their advice on his peculiar romantic dilemma in having inconveniently fallen in love with his “niece” (by marriage and the same age as he is, so maybe it’s “OK”, he’d like to think). Shimokitazawa, which Ao rarely leaves, is indeed a small world, the various strands of his romantic entanglements strangely connected from a young woman’s unrequited longing for her sumo wrestler childhood sweetheart to a TV actor’s (Ryo Narita) troubled love life and a young film director’s (Minori Hagiwara) attempt to deflect her own sense of romantic disaffection. Just as Yuki used another man as an excuse to break up with Ao, Ao finds himself recruited as a fake boyfriend to help a young woman shake off a controlling ex whose refusal to accept the relationship is over in the absence of another man skews even darker than his own signalling perhaps like that first vintage shop exchange the dangerously outdated sexual politics which continue to underpin modern dating. Perhaps boring love is the real kind of fun, comfortable and balanced marked by true connection and mutual vulnerability rather than a giddy anxiety. A stubborn holdout where everything’s secondhand in a continual circulatory process of exchange and return, Shimokitazawa is the kind of place where love finds you even if it takes a while to wander on its way. A charming ode to this timeless yet ever-changing district, Imaizumi’s quirky dramedy keeps the neurosis of young love on the horizon but suggests that romance, like a well baked cake, keeps much better than you’d think when cooled.


Over the Town screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Shinji Araki, 2020)

“You’re free now, so the world is more beautiful” the hero of Shinji Araki’s dystopian thriller The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Ninzu no Machi) is unironically told by a mysterious saviour even as a watchtower lingers on the horizon behind him. Modern Japan, it seems to say, is no paradise but is it worth trading your identity and existence for the guaranteed satisfaction of your basic needs? Freedom, happiness, and love may be nebulous concepts which mean different things to different people, but in the end leading a satisfactory life might just come down to what it is you decide you can live without. 

The nameless protagonist later credited as Aoyama (Tomoya Nakamura) describes himself as an “average joe” who has “a weak will” and doesn’t “belong anywhere in society”. While being beaten up by a loanshark, he’s unexpectedly rescued by the miraculous appearance of the mysterious “Paul” (So Yamanaka), a middle-aged man dressed in an orange jump suit who tells him there’s a place he can go where’d he fit right in. After a lengthy bus ride, he finds himself a new resident of “The Town” where those like him who for one reason or another felt themselves rejected by mainstream society can live in ease and comfort, only as he later discovers he is unable to leave. Should he walk too far beyond the fence, the microchip in his head activates a sonic wave of painful and disabling distortion. 

Somewhere between a utopian cult commune and a penal colony occupying a disused conference centre, The Town is a free love society which insists that equality is possible and that freedom and peace are more than mere dreams. Family creates inequality, so The Town’s Bible says, so residents must live alone. Pregnancy is prohibited, while children brought into the compound are separated from their parents and raised in a communal nursery. All basic needs, food, warmth, shelter and even sex, are otherwise guaranteed though the residents are expected to “work” to earn them, performing often pointless tasks parasitically underpinning modern capitalism such as writing meaningless product reviews in return for treats, or performing as stooges to create hype around new store openings. Aoyama’s sense of morality is however shaken when he’s asked to commit electoral fraud by repeatedly voting for a chosen candidate with stolen ballots, later recruited as a crisis actor in a fake terrorist incident intended to further influence an election in the wake of a corruption scandal. 

In The Town, he’s told his existence is meaningful and given a place to belong. Yet he has to surrender his name, known as “Dudes” residents must greet each other ritualistically only by the word “fellow” followed by some kind of compliment. All his needs may be met, but he’s forbidden to fall in love, can never marry or have a family, and it does seem troubling that there are no elderly people around even if some suggest there are other “Towns” just for them. Some might say, The Town is way is a way for mainstream society to get rid of all the people it doesn’t want or feels have no value. Araki throws up frequent title cards featuring various statistics such as the numbers of homeless people, bankruptcies, unemployment etc along with brief flashbacks to whatever it was that brought residents to The Town from being thrown thrown out of a manga cafe after attempting to live there to being almost choked to death by debt-collecting yakuza suggesting there’s little “freedom” in the rigid contemporary society and most particularly for those unable or unwilling to live by its rules.  

In The Town rules are few, and you’re well looked after, but you can’t leave and though it seems like an individualist paradise where you’re free to satisfy each of your physical desires you have no further control over your existence. As one resident puts it, “life here is kind of weightless”, perhaps a relief for some but a crushing existential crisis for others. Aoyama realises that in The Town he rarely feels angry, but perhaps he feels nothing much of anything else, either. Just as he’s starting to adjust, his feelings of unease are strengthened by the arrival of a young woman who apparently had no previous societal issues but has come to The Town in search of her younger sister whom she failed to help despite knowing she was trapped in an abusive relationship. Unlike Aoyama, Beniko (Shizuka Ishibashi) claims not to have felt much of anything in the regular world, unsure even what love is and unimpressed by the beautiful vistas of freedom that are supposed to define The Town, but doesn’t want to stay and be rendered a mindless drone exploited by mysterious forces for whatever purpose they may choose.

What Aoyama realises he craves is the love and companionship of a conventional family life. “We want to support each other and work hard. Love each other and live together” he explains to a non-plussed Paul who seems to pity him, his simple desire at once at odds with the values of The Town and perhaps equally unobtainable in contemporary Japan. In the end, the only “freedom” he may find lies in complicity with one system or another, becoming an oppressor as one of the oppressed. The question is what sort of life is most satisfying, freedom from the anxiety of hunger and cold, or the freedom to love and live fully in manner of your choosing. The modern society may not grant you either, and both perhaps have their costs. A bleak dystopian thriller, Araki’s steely drama features innovative production design and slick direction mimicking the hero’s sense of disaffection with detachment and a total lack of resistance to the otherwise bewildering world of The Town but saves its real sense of confusion for the state of the modern society and the fate of those who survive on its margins. 


The Town of Headcounts streams in the US March 15 – 19 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ito (いとみち, Satoko Yokohama, 2021)

“Ye can’t hear my silence!” the timid young heroine of Satoko Yokohama’s Ito (いとみち, Itomichi), an adaptation of the Osamu Koshigaya novel, finally fires back, reminding us that silence too is means of communication. The film’s Japanese title, Itomichi, refers to the groove in shamisen player’s nail caused by the friction of the strings, but also perhaps to the path of the heroine of the same name as she makes her way towards self actualisation, figuring out the various ways there are of connecting with people as she begins to step into herself while coming to terms with the past. 

As we first meet Ito (Ren Komai) she’s trapped in a boring history lesson about local famines, reminded by the teacher to raise her voice while reading from the textbook but reluctant to do so firstly because she has an unusually strong local accent and often speaks in dialect and secondly because she is intensely shy. When she’s finished, the teacher even jokes that listening to her read is a little like classical music though it doesn’t seem much like a compliment. Even so, it’s particularly apt as Ito, like her late mother, has a talent for playing the Tsugaru shamisen and has even won numerous competitions yet she’s barely touched her instrument recently, perhaps developing a slight complex about the bumpkinishness of her intensely local way of life, especially as her father Koichi (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a university professor researching the traditional culture of the local area. 

Pointing out that talking is Ito’s weak spot, Koichi reminds her that she can communicate with others through her music even if he later admonishes her to use her words if she has something to say. Her refusal to pick up her shamisen is then a kind of withdrawal if of a particularly teenage kind. Hoping to get over her shyness, she finds herself quite accidentally applying for a part-time job at a maid cafe in the city, an incongruity in itself but one that helps her begin to open up to others. Then again, a maid cafe might not be the best environment selling as it does an outdated conception of sexual politics. Koichi later makes this argument pointing out that a maid cafe is not so different from a hostess bar while another maid, Tomomi (Mayuu Yokota), takes issue with the false chivalry of some of the middle-aged men who frequent the establishment who set up a club to “protect” Ito after she is inappropriately touched by a belligerent customer. To Tomomi the very idea that women need “protection” from men against men is inherently sexist and wrongheaded while the fact that they all rally round to protect the shy and vulnerable Ito also speaks volumes about their ideals of womanhood explaining why it is they’re in a maid cafe where the waitresses call their customers “master” and indulge their every whim in the first place. Even so, Ito’s colleagues are also quick to reassure her that she is in no way at fault, the customer’s behaviour was unacceptable and against the spirit of their establishment.

Yet as the manager points out “moe moe” is also a “means of communication” not perhaps intended to be taken literally. Ito does not exactly discover how to use her words, but through interacting with her colleagues at the cafe begins to come into an acceptance of herself no longer seeing her accent and dialect as uncool or old fashioned giving herself space to breathe as she makes new friends guided by her cafe mentor Sachiko (Mei Kurokawa) and finally getting up the courage to speak to another lonely young woman whom she’d been on awkward nodding terms with seeing as they catch the same train home from school. As Ito’s grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) reveals, she learned how to play the shamisen with her eyes and ears proving that communication comes in many forms. Ito’s name which she had previously found old-fashioned and embarrassing appropriately enough means threads or here strings of a shamisen which become in their own ways channels to connect with other people which as the slightly dubious owner of the cafe (Daimaou Kosaka) points out is the most important thing of all. 

As Ito rehearses her maid routine with a video of her mentor, grandma outlines her thoughts about shamisen on camera for Koichi’s eager students, handing her knowledge down for the next generation. Literally finding her groove again, carving a niche in her fingernail, Ito rediscovers her love for music while gaining the confidence to stand on stage and be herself encouraged by all her friends and family. A beautifully pitched coming-of-age tale celebrating the local culture of Yokohama’s hometown Aomori, from which leading actress Ren Komai also hails, Ito is a warm and loving tribute not only to Tsugaru shamisen but to friendship and community brokered by a wealth of communication and a willingness to listen even to silence. 


Ito screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (C)2021『いとみち』製作委員会

B/B (Kosuke Nakahama, 2020)

“It’s been a while since I asked, who are you?” comes the incongruous question at the beginning of Kosuke Nakahama’s stylish, hugely accomplished graduation movie B/B. What begins as an unconventional, reverse investigation of a bizarre crime committed in a bizarre world, eventually descends into a philosophical interrogation of the modern society and most particularly its continued indifference. “All the oppressors and all the oppressed, those who didn’t notice the pain. We’re all complicit. You think you’re the exception?” asks the witness of her questioners, partly perhaps in justification but also pointing the finger back at a society which prefers to avoid asking uncomfortable questions. 

Set in an alternate 2020 in which the Olympics has been suspended not because of a global pandemic but because of a bribery and corruption scandal, and a terrorist gas attack by a shady cult has recently been foiled, the central mystery revolves around the murder of a convenience store manager dubbed by some the “Icarus” killing. Sana (Karen), a high school girl, has been called in as a person of interest because of her connection with the victim’s son Shiro (Koshin Nakazawa) who has become withdrawn and is unable to offer testimony of his own. The problem is that it’s not exactly “Sana” that they want to talk to as the young woman apparently suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, once known as multiple personality. A cynical policeman and sympathetic psychiatrist have been tasked with trying to sort out her unreliable narrative to discover her connection with the crime. 

In a handy piece of symbolism, Sana apparently hosts 12 distinct personalities, a perfect inner jury, while the body of the murdered man was apparently dismembered into 12 parts. As the psychiatrist later advances, the personalities are a symptom of Sana’s mental fracturing in response to trauma and were not born altogether but arrived individually following the increasingly traumatic events of her life presumably beginning with her mother’s death. It’s this sense of parental abandonment that allows her to bond with Shiro who, like her, avoids school by hanging out in local parks in his case because of a further sense of rejection in realising that his teachers are aware of the abuse he suffers at home, Sana immediately noticing the scars protruding from the collar and sleeves of his T-shirt, but have chosen to do nothing to protect him. 

The goal is not to unlock the mystery of Sana, to cure her or to address the various traumas which lie at the root of her psychological fracturing but to investigate the Icarus murder. She is not, however, a credible witness. An infinitely unreliable narrator, her personalities switch at random each giving their own contradictory testimonies in their characteristic fashion. Nakahama mimics Sana’s mania through frantic cutting and abrupt edits, close ups on hands, feet or random objects rather than faces or landscapes. The earliest scenes with Sana and her posse of imaginary friends, only six of whom she is apparently able to manifest at one time, hanging out in the park are shot with a beautiful summer glow coloured with its own kind of nostalgia as she slowly befriends Shiro bonding in shared trauma and a mutual sense of safety. 

While the interrogation scenes trapped in the relative claustrophobia of the doctor’s office may have a sense of the clinical, the judicial manifests most clear in Sana’s mind. The “Council of Sages” in which all her personalities are present takes place in a minimalist space of black and white, shot like a Renaissance painting with echoes of the The Last Supper, as they crowd around and wonder what’s to be done about the Shiro problem, the manic pace slowing somewhat as Sana’s thoughts apparently clear. Yet as she later says to the disbelieving policeman pointing out the absurdity of prosecuting crimes committed as opposed to preventing those yet to occur, “This is hell, we are all trapped in hell”, advancing that she does not believe someone from hell belongs in heaven and would rather reign below than live in pitiable servitude above. Anchored by a phenomenally strong performance by Karen, sophisticated fast paced dialogue including more than a few surprisingly retro pop culture references, and featuring stylish on screen text Nakahama’s striking debut ultimately takes aim at societal indifference and perhaps points the finger at the viewer to pay more attention in a world of constant suffering. 


B/B screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)