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)

Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Huang Yin-Yu, 2021)

The legacy of Japanese imperialism continues to haunt a small Okinawan island once home to a sprawling network of coal mines but now mostly to ghosts of its troubled past at least according to Huang Yin-Yu’s beautifully lensed, elegiac documentary Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Lǜsè Láolóng). So named for its thick forests of mangrove trees, the island’s Iriomote Coal Mine ceased production in 1960 but from the late 19th century to the fall of the Japanese Empire at the end of the war, lured workers from not only from the Japanese mainland but from Korea, China, and Taiwan with false promises of tropical climes and plentiful fruits failing to disclose the harsh and exploitative working conditions they would later prove unable to escape. 

Possibly the last witness to these times, grandma Yoshiko Hashima (her name naturalised from the original Yang) travelled to the island with her adopted father, Yang Tien-fu who worked for the mines and was responsible for recruiting other workers, at the age of 10 leaving briefly after the war but soon returning. The last of the Taiwanese settlers, she recalls little regarding the running of the mines save witnessing frequent beatings by Japanese soldiers but does recall the discrimination she faced as a foreign worker from the local community who by far made up the smallest percentage of those employed at the mines finding herself with few friends as locals often even declined to eat their food or accept their hospitality. 

Yet in a strange way history perhaps repeats itself. Now elderly and alone, her children all having left the island returning only infrequently, she rents out her spare room for extra money to an American traveller, who, like her, came to Japan as a teenager. Though Luis tells us that he hadn’t intended to stay long on the island but likes being able to help Yoshiko who is elderly and alone, she tells us that she regrets her decision to rent to him which she claims she made in the belief he had a wife. She describes him as “‘messy”, claims he has lice, and that his slovenliness has attracted an influx of ants while the pet dog that he keeps on a leash outside disturbs her with its constant whining. Later we see him again having returned to Kansai revealing that he felt that people disliked him and found it difficult to fit in, but that his time in Okinawa has perhaps brought him clarity in the further direction of his life. 

Luis was at least able to leave the island at a time of his own choosing, but as the ghostly voice of Yoshiko’s late father reminds us those who worked in the mines were not so lucky. He tells us that he once slept on a pile of bones and the remains of workers who attempted to flee but ended up starving to death in the jungle were a frequent sight in local caves. Exploited and manipulated, workers were often hopped up on morphine, for which they had to pay, in order to up their productivity but also to make them dependent on their employment to avoid withdrawal aware that they would be unable to obtain a such substances in their home country. They also found themselves borrowing on their wages, especially if they contracted malaria and were unable to work, leaving them essentially indentured and therefore unable to leave without satisfying their debts. Yoshiko tells us that few wanted to come to “Dead Man’s Island” yet Tien-fu declares himself uncertain why some miners remained unhappy with the arrangement eventually needing to organise a specialised police force to enforce discipline complaining that workers who were in debt and therefore earning almost nothing often shirked and only worked when the police were around. 

Travelling around the otherwise idyllic landscape with its verdant green forests and peaceful rivers, Huang finds occasional ghosts of the departed miners hovering on the horizon dressed only in their white fundoshi underwear, slipping into brief scenes of reconstruction set amid the now ruined structures of the industrial mining complex. The last survivor, Yoshiko hangs on alone yet perhaps not quite reflecting on the implications of her father’s role in the development of the mines or particularly of their legacy. Her own life has evidently been hard, adopted as an infant and then married to her “brother” only to see her children desert her left behind alone in the Green Jail a guardian of a dark history few wish to remember. Juxtaposing the island’s traumatic past with the beauty of its verdant scenery Huang’s elegantly composed documentary poses some serious questions about the imperial legacy but always mindful of its wandering ghosts. 


Green Jail screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

The festival will also be screening Huang Yin-Yu’s accompanying short film Green Grass, Pale Fire: an elliptical, ethereal dramatisation of three men’s attempt to escape the mines only to find themselves trapped by the beautiful yet maddening landscape.

Images: (c) Moolin Films, Ltd./ Moolin Production, Co., Ltd.

Along the Sea (海辺の彼女たち, Akio Fujimoto, 2020)

Japan has famously tough immigration law and surprisingly robust labour protections though enforcing them often proves difficult. The plight of undocumented migrant workers can however be stark as Akio Fujimoto’s Along the Sea (海辺の彼女たち, Umibe no Kanojotachi) makes plain. The three women at the film’s centre, originally from Vietnam, came to Japan legally as part of the government-backed Technical Intern Training Program set up in the early ‘90s supposedly to provide temporary training opportunities for workers from developing economies. Perhaps inevitably, the scheme has often come in for criticism that it amounts to little more than legalised people trafficking allowing employers to maintain exploitative working practices while hiring cheap foreign labour and placing the so-called interns into positions which offer no real technical training. 

This is very much the experience of Phuong (Hoang Phuong), Nhu (Quynh Nhu), and An (Huynh Tuyet Anh), three women in their early 20s who decide to leave their placement because of untenable exploitative conditions requiring them to work 15-hour days with little provision for meals or rest and no payment of overtime. Little different from traffickers, the employers have also held onto the women’s documentation in an attempt to prevent them leaving. The result of this, however, is that they will be living in Japan essentially illegally and without any kind of paperwork at all making it extremely difficult to return to Vietnam. 

Fujimoto opens with the women’s nighttime escape, a perilous journey carrying heavy bags through the night until reaching a train station and then on to buses and ferries to the frozen north of Japan where they are met by a man in a van who takes them to their new place of employment, a fish packing warehouse in Aomori. Though the work is physically strenuous, the payment is much higher than they were previously receiving and paid on time, and the conditions are much more like a regular job with more reasonable hours including weekends off. They are not watched and have a much greater degree of freedom but are obviously nervous of discovery and prevented from participating in certain activities owing to having no ID. This becomes a particular problem for one of the women, Phuong, who has begun feeling ill but is unable to get medical treatment without some kind of documentation to show hospital staff. 

What Phuong hasn’t shared with the other two women is that she suspects she may be pregnant by her hometown boyfriend. During their escape there had existed between them a fierce solidarity and now in a sense they have only each other to rely on, otherwise entirely alone in a foreign land. Phuong’s pregnancy revelation however drives a wedge between the women with Nhu in particular quickly losing sympathy and heavily pressurising her towards an abortion less out of concern and practicality than fear that she may give them all away. The later conclusion can only be that one or both of the women has betrayed Phuong by telling the broker about her pregnancy further piling on the pressure and almost certainly destroying the only support network the women had through an irreparable breach of trust. 

Turned away by the hospital Phuong resolves to buy fake documentation only to be exploited once again by a fixer who suddenly demands more money forcing her to trek through the frozen countryside after losing her train fare home. Like the broker, who is actually nice, polite, and considerate (to a point) in his treatment of the women, the fixer is also Vietnamese a reminder that the women are in a sense being exploited by their fellow countrymen. One of the broker’s chief concerns is obviously that he’s taking 10% of the women’s pay on top of his original commission on finding the work and therefore he loses out if Phuong is unable to work during her pregnancy while childcare is also incompatible with her current lifestyle. Compounding the problem is the fact that each of the women is working to provide not for themselves but for their families meaning that Phuong is in no way free to simply decide to go home and raise her child. Cheerfully discussing what they’d like to do if they had more money, Nhu and An want to pay off their parents’ debts and provide for their siblings’ education. Phuong’s predicament affects more than just the lives of the three women and it seems they are not above forcing her hand in order to protect the better life they’re suffering to provide for their families.

A melancholy character study, Fujimoto’s unflinching drama follows Phuong with documentary precision towards an almost inevitable conclusion as she finds herself hemmed in by the demands of others entirely unable to act on her own desires while denied basic rights and freedoms by virtue of her lack of documentation. Shining a light on the all too hidden lives of migrant workers, Along the Sea paints a bleak picture of the contemporary society in which even solidarity can be broken by the cruel desperation of those who have nothing else on which to depend.


Along the Sea screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dreams on Fire (ドリームズ・オン・ファイア, Philippe McKie, 2021)

“A dancer must always be careful” the heroine of Philippe McKie’s Tokyo odyssey Dreams on Fire (ドリームズ・オン・ファイア) is warned, though her passage may prove smoother than that of many small town girls coming to the big city in search of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, her progress will take her through the unseemly underbelly of the entertainment industry rife with exploitation and duplicity to the relatively comforting world of fringe subcultures where mutual support is a way of life and failure merely another kind of opportunity. 

As a young girl, Yume (dancer and model Bambi Naka in her first leading role), whose name literally means “dream”, is captivated by an avant-garde dance performance and determines to become a dancer herself though her authoritarian father (legendary butoh dancer Akaji Maro) does not approve of her artistic ambitions and attempts to forbid her from leaving for Tokyo but she defies him and leaves anyway. Once there, however, she finds herself struggling to survive living in tiny cubical rooms and able to support herself only by working on the fringes of the sex trade in a cosplay hostess bar dressed as a schoolgirl. She pursues her dancing dream by visiting underground hip hop clubs but receives the first of many setbacks when she’s voted out of a dance off in the first round in favour of a talented child in an improbably snazzy outfit. 

Nevertheless, as the first of her teachers, who happened to see and admire her performance, tells her the humiliation of losing only smarts so much because you care which is the kind of pain you can easily repurpose for motivation. This is a motif which will be repeated in Yume’s life which proves nowhere near as dark or depressing as one might assume though it’s true she continues to experience setbacks and disappointments while occasionally doubting her vocation as a dancer in the face of seemingly constant failure but always rescued by another hopeful who saw and liked her performance even if the judges might have preferred someone else. 

Yet as she finds out, dance talent isn’t all it takes in the contemporary arts scene. An audition she might otherwise have booked is lost at the last moment when she confesses she’s not got many followers on social media, the interviewer patiently explaining that she might be a better dancer than anyone in their current troupe but their business is built on “image” and dependent on their online reach so someone with no profile is of not much use to them though they’d love to see her again once she’s successfully built her “brand”. Conversely, a client at another job working the floor show at an S&M-themed bar gets her a job coaching an aspiring underground idol who apparently can’t dance for toffee, but once she gets there Yume quickly realises the young woman’s lack of aptitude is a result of her exploitative treatment at the hands of the idol industry. Apparently not allowed to change her outfit even if it smells she’s been instructed not to eat to keep her weight down which of course leaves her lightheaded and low in energy, an unhelpful combination for learning complicated dance routines. On the way out, Yume hears the other members of the band bullying her though there’s nothing she can do to help. 

Meanwhile, she finds it increasingly difficult to weigh up the degrees of exploitation she’s willing to accept from her increasingly manipulative boss at the hostess bar (Masahiro Takashima). Her first friend, Sakura (AV actress Okuda Saki), had taught her the ropes cautioning her never to let anyone touch her in ways that make her uncomfortable but herself quits abruptly in embarrassment after a customer brings up her past as an AV star thereafter disappearing without trace. Sakura had explained in an ironic paradox that she wasn’t in hostessing for the money but was essentially lonely, introducing Yume to the first of her experiences of the more unusual aspects of the Tokyo subculture scene in a metal bar where she fondles a lizard over drinks but is herself perhaps slightly lost in an internalised and unwarranted shame because of her past in the porn industry. This seems to be a fate Yume is keen to avoid, eventually telling her exploitative manager where to go rather than consent to his control after narrowly escaping a dangerous encounter with “important” yakuza clients. 

Going by “Asuka” at the club and eventually assuming the dancer name of “Karasu” (crow), Yume searches for an identity while continuing to pursue her dream but perhaps unrealistically meets only good and supportive people outside of the exploitative Kabukicho bar world discovering in her various subcultures from fetish clubs to the dance studio only dreamers like herself eager to see others succeed. Capturing the neon night life of the contemporary city, McKie’s camera perhaps leans too far towards the ethnographic in its slight exoticisation of the underground Tokyo scene even if admittedly seen through the eyes of country girl Yume but also allows her to find within it freedom and self-actualisation while her talent takes her in new, sometimes unexpected directions, as she continues to pursue her dream in an atmosphere of positivity and mutual support.


Dreams on Fire streams from 6th March as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Soirée (ソワレ, Bunji Sotoyama, 2020)

“You can run but not from yourself” a gruff but sympathetic farmer explains to a fugitive young couple, astutely perhaps understanding the quality of their flight. Less a lovers on the run romantic fantasy than a gentle character study in trauma and insecurity, Bunji Sotoyama’s Soirée (ソワレ) finds its two wounded youngsters struggling to find safety and security in an increasingly indifferent society in which they are perhaps expected to care for an older generation they may feel has long since abandoned them. 

Aspiring actor Shota (Nijiro Murakami) for instance has been participating in a spate of “It’s Me!” scams targeting the older generation in which they are convinced that their grandson has been involved in some sort of trouble and is in desperate need of money. We can see by the ambivalent look on his face that he hates himself for his “role” in this sordid piece of modern day drama but also that it plays into his self-destructive conviction that he is no good and cannot achieve conventional success. His need for slapdash, quick fix solutions is further driven home by the coach at his acting class who gives him a very public dressing down for coming in unprepared, insisting that he’ll never move anyone until he gets some real life experience and engages with the text. 

While Shota takes an envelope from an anxious grey-haired old lady, Takara (Haruka Imou), a withdrawn young woman working at a nursing home, gently brushes another’s hair only for her to suddenly disappear while Takara hums a comforting lullaby. We witness her nervousness at the unexpected ring of the doorbell and the panic attacks when some of the older gentlemen mistakenly grab at her, later realising they are each responses to a deep-seated trauma as revealed by a letter telling her that her estranged father who had been in prison for long term abuse is about to be released. 

The pair eventually meet when Shota returns to his hometown with an acting troupe hired to put on a play at the home though things get off to an ominous start when one of the old ladies suddenly collapses while working with the actors, the head of the troupe rather cynically musing on DNR orders and the desires of some absentee children to keep their parents alive in order to continue receiving their pension. These contradictory impulses, Takara’s warmth and compassion towards the elderly people in her care and Shota’s wilful exploitation of their weakness, is brought home when Takara’s father suddenly returns, barges his way into her home asking for a fresh start claiming to have paid his debt, and then proceeds to rape her all over again. Discovered mid-act by Shota who had come to collect her for the local festival, Takara eventually stabs her father with a pair of dressmaking scissors in order to protect him, the pair thereafter finding themselves on the run. 

Coming to her senses, Takara intends to hand herself in but is convinced by Shota to make a run for it. “Why do the ones who struggle most get hit worst, why do the weakest always lose?” he ironically asks her, “We weren’t born to be hurt”. Yet their contradictory qualities are only further highlighted as they try to chart a new course for themselves. The pair find temporary refuge with a pair of plum farmers who take pity on them thinking they are a young couple eloping as apparently they once were, only Shota later makes a half-hearted attempt to rob them which he quickly gives up on being challenged by the sympathetic husband. In the next town, Takara determines to look for work while Shota tries to make money through bicycle races and pachinko, chastened by her admonishment on finding employment that it’s possible to support oneself without cheating others. 

Somewhat tritely, Shota tries to tell her that God never burdens you with more than you can bear, while the older woman at the plum farm also offers that plums are all the sweeter for their suffering during a harsh winter dangerously playing into a notion of internalised shame that told Takara she would blossom into the kindest soul who ever lived once her suffering was over only to leave her feeling empty and despoiled as if she somehow deserved everything that happened to her. Shota’s troubles are by comparison small, his conservative brother irritatedly telling him he should accept he has no talent and get a real job, while he too perhaps thinks he is empty inside and therefore incapable of moving anyone just as his director told him. Finding salvation in mutual acceptance they begin to see the “way out” only for their essential connection to be threatened by its very existence. 

A melancholy character study through the legacy of trauma and toxicity of internalised shame, Sotoyama’s occasionally ethereal drama takes on the qualities of a fable through the repeated allusions to princess Kiyohime and her doomed love for the wandering monk Anchin yet he is careful enough to hold out a ray of hope for each of the wounded lovers in their apparently fated connection even as they struggle to find refuge in an often hostile society.


Soirée streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our 30-Minute Sessions (サヨナラまでの30分, Kentaro Hagiwara, 2020)

“I want to move on” a grieving young woman explains, though perhaps ironically heading in the wrong direction. A youthful take on learning to live with loss, Our 30-Minute Sessions (サヨナラまでの30分, Sayonara made no 30-bun) finds a group of college hopefuls shattered by the unexpected death of a charismatic friend leaving them each lost, moving on in one sense but treading water in another uncertain what to do with the unfulfilled potential of their adolescent memories. Yet, through ghostly intervention, what they eventually realise is that nothing’s ever really lost, the echoes of those memories merely add to the great symphony life and all you can do in the end is learn to play along with it. 

That’s something introverted college student Sota (Takumi Kitamura) has however struggled with, unable to emerge from the trauma of losing his mother at a young age. As we first meet him, he’s subjected to a painful group interview for a regular salaryman job at which they ask about the memories he’s made with his university friends but rather than come up with a convincing lie, Sota honestly tells them he has no friends and that’s a good thing because it means he’s free to dedicate himself to work 100%. As expected, he gets a rather brutal rejection text before he’s even reached the lift, pausing only to rudely but perhaps accurately decline an invitation to join a WhatsApp group with the other hopefuls for the reason that it’s “pointless” because they’re unlikely to meet again. 

Sota doesn’t like to share his space with other people, but after noticing a walkman abandoned at a disused swimming pool finds himself a permanent host to Aki (Mackenyu), recently deceased lead singer of up-and-coming college band Echoll. Unlike Sota, Aki is charismatic and outgoing, every inch the rock star but less cocky than aggressively caring. It pains him that the thing he left unfinished has fallen apart in his absence and that all his friends seem to have given up their dreams and aspirations in life. For unknown reasons it seems that when Sota presses the play button on the walkman, it allows Aki to take over his body for the length of a single side of a cassette tape temporarily lending him the swagger and verve hitherto missing in his life even if he claimed not to particularly have missed them. 

In fact, Sota quite enjoys the arrangement because it means he doesn’t quite exist for the time the tape is playing, other people are no threat to him in his literal invisibility. Yet over time, a conflict obviously develops especially as the main thrust of Aki’s mission is healing his former girlfriend’s broken heart. Having lost her love of music, Kana (Sayu Kubota) has spent the last year largely inside working her way through a book of daily soup recipes that only her mother tastes. She claims she’s “moved on”, but in reality has done anything but caught in a kind of limbo unable to let go of her guilt and memories of lost love while conflicted as she bonds with the shy and introverted Sota himself it turns out also a frustrated musician.

A poignant reminder of Aki’s unfinished business as he and his friends attempt to find a degree of accommodation with loss the Japanese title translates more closely to “30 minutes to goodbye”, but there’s also something in the Japanese for playback (再生) equating to “again life” as it grants the late singer a temporary resurrection if one that lasts only the length of a set list. Perhaps a hipsterish affectation, the love of the outdated analogue recording mechanism, besides its practical advantages, provides a tangible proof of life albeit a fallible one in which every attempt to replay necessarily weakens integrity. Yet as a veteran later puts it, no matter how many times the tape is erased and overwritten, traces of previous recordings remain becoming in a sense just one of many layers that add depth and richness to the quality of the whole. 

The bandmates begin to realise that starting over doesn’t mean forgetting Aki or betraying his memory, they don’t have to leave him behind but can in a sense take him with them in the memories they share while Sota eventually begins to see the joy in human interaction and the power of connecting through music shedding his introversion in the knowledge that not all friendships are inauthentic and even if someone makes an early exit they leave traces of themselves behind on which others can build. A stylistically interesting take on the band movie with a fantastic soundtrack of convincing college rock hits, Our 30-Minute Sessions is a classic coming-of-age drama but one dedicated perhaps less to the art of moving on than to that of moving forward adding new notes to an ever expanding symphony of life.


Our 30-Minute Sessions streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)