My Small Land (マイスモールランド, Emma Kawawada, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Despite the nation’s relative wealth, Japan’s refugee policy is incredibly strict. In 2021, it approved the claims of just 74 asylum seekers which may seem like a small amount but is actually the highest number of people granted asylum since Japan first began recognising refugees in 1982. In fact, only 915 people (as of May 2022) have been granted refugee status in the 40 years since the policy was put in place. For a nation that prides itself on omotenashi, it’s a curiously hostile stance and one which has increasingly come under the spotlight in contemporary cinema with films such as Thomas Ash’s hard-hitting documentary Ushiku exploring the lives of asylum seekers trapped in indefinite detention, Akio Fujimoto’s Passage of Life, and briefly in Nobuhiro Suwa’s Voices in the Wind in which the heroine encounters a welcoming community of Kurdish refugees. 

Director Emma Kawawada is not from a refugee background herself but the daughter of a British father and Japanese mother and in her first feature My Small Land (マイスモールランド) explores the themes of cultural dislocation through the eyes of a young Kurdish woman who came to Japan at five years old after her father was persecuted and tortured for his political beliefs in Turkey. In the film’s opening sequence, Sarya (Lina Arashi) is visibility distressed at a community wedding when a well-meaning older woman tells her it’ll be her turn next, her father (played by Arashi’s real father) chipping in that they still have her late mother’s dress for her to wear. She looks down at the red paint on her hand which, as she later explains to convenience store workmate Sota (Daiken Okudaira), is worn by relatives at a wedding but also closely resembles the red sun of the Japanese flag. She tries to scrub to it off, but it won’t come clean and she’s eventually warned about it at work making an excuse rather than attempting to explain. 

In fact, Sarya has most been telling people that she’s German following an incident in primary school in which she wanted to say she was supporting Japan in the World Cup like everyone else but felt awkward about it and said Germany instead leading her classmates to assume that’s where she was from. When she tries to explain to Sota that she’s actually Kurdish, he hasn’t even heard of Kurds before and is confused later given a small lecture by Sarya’s father Mazlum explaining that the Kurds are an ethnic group divided by irrational borders and have no country of their own. His explanation echoes Sarya’s sense of rootlessness as a young woman with no clear homeland torn between two competing cultures. Though she has become an unofficial translator for the Kurdish community and her father keeps them immersed in Kurdish traditions she does not feel completely comfortable stating that she is a Kurd while on another level bothered by the community’s constant joking that she will one day wed construction worker Welat.

Sarya is bright and on track for a scholarship to university in Tokyo hoping to become a primary school teacher in tribute to the teacher who helped her when she first arrived in Japan with no language skills, but all that goes out of the window when Mazlum’s asylum claim is refused and the family lose their visas. Given a provisional release, they are not permitted to work and cannot leave Saitama, the prefecture where they are registered, without permission from the authorities. Saitama is directly adjacent to Tokyo, its borders as arbitrary as any other as demonstrated by the sign halfway along a bridge demarcating its boundaries. This is quite inconvenient for Sarya as her secret part-time job is technically in Tokyo, while it also means she has to explain to Sota why she can’t accompany him to Osaka where he hopes to look at art schools and is now technically working illegally. When Mazlum is caught working his construction job, he is put into indefinite detention and advised by the family’s sympathetic lawyer to reapply for asylum. If he is sent back to Turkey, he will be immediately arrested and his life will be in danger. 

The family’s situation lays bare how vulnerable asylum seekers are in the contemporary society. They are told they can’t work and can’t leave yet are provided no financial support leaving them with little option other than to break the rules or appeal to friends and family, if they have them, for immediate help. Left in charge of her two younger siblings who barely remember any Kurdish and know only Japan, Sarya finds herself resorting to compensated dating, pushed into potentially dangerous ways to earn money now that her route to legal employment has been taken away. Meanwhile, as her father is detained in a kind of “prison” and she has lost her visa, she is viewed as an “illegal” immigrant leading even those who had otherwise been sympathetic towards her such as Sota’s warmhearted mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) distancing themselves from the stigma of illegality. Sota wants to help, but he’s just a teenage boy and is unable to offer much beyond his savings which Sarya is understandably reluctant to accept. Even so, despite the bureaucratic cruelty at its centre, My Small Land has an otherwise hopeful outlook as Sarya begins to find the strength to define her own borders and boundaries while taking care of her family in a sometimes hostile society. 


My Small Land screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン, Shinji Higuchi, 2022)

The classic tokusatsu hero rises again to rescue kaiju-plagued Japan from geopolitical tensions and internal bureaucracy in Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン). Scripted by Hideaki Anno, Shin Ultraman shares much in common with Shin Godzilla which the pair co-directed but is also a much more obvious homage to the world of classic tokusatsu or “special effects” franchises which became cult TV hits from the 1960s onwards and have remained popular with children and adults alike throughout Asia. 

This new iteration takes place in a world in which kaiju attacks have become commonplace, so much so that there is a specialised government department, the SSSP, dedicated to dealing with them. Led by determined veteran Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the team do not engage with the giant monsters directly but are responsible for research and strategy quickly trying to work out what kind of kaiju they’re dealing with, what the dangers associated with it may be, and where it’s weaknesses lie so they can figure out a way to stop it. Just when it looks like an electricity-guzzling lizard monster is about to do some serious damage, a robot-like giant humanoid arrives and saves the day. The team are very grateful to the heroic defender they name Ultraman, but are puzzled that he seems to be aware of all their research while otherwise missing the connection that their near silent colleague Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh) always seems to be mysteriously absent every time Ultraman arrives.  

At heart, Shin Godzilla had been a satire on government bureaucracy and a mediation on the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Shin Ultraman might not be so pointed but still has a few bones to pick with the political machine as the team’s boss at HQ moans about the need to keep buying fancy weapons from the Americans (and making sure it’s the Defence Ministry that foots the bill) while cynically suggesting that the government is keen to use the kaiju crisis as leverage to further its policy goal of nuclear re-armament. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that for some reason kaiju attacks only happen in Japan and the International community largely sees them as a Japanese issue which they have to deal with alone, but as soon as Ultraman turns up and is thought to be extraterrestrial everyone is suddenly interested. 

As it transpires these geopolitical divisions are incredibly useful to another extraterrestrial visitor, Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), who plans to sow discord among nations so that humanity will destroy itself thereby, ironically, preventing an intergalactic war between planets who may be tempted to fight amongst themselves over the potential enslavement of humanity as valuable bioweapons. Aware of Zarab’s power, the government is manipulated into signing an uneven treaty with him in order to be first out of the gate and gain an advantage over other nations who, for reasons of self preservation, are also keen to ensure no one has sole access to new alien technologies and emissaries. Asked why he picked Japan, all Zarab can come up with it that he happened to land there which is quite a coincidence though he also has a vested interest in taking out Ultraman, the only force capable of resisting him. 

Even so, according to Zarab, the kaiju plague is humanity’s doing in having awakened sleeping monsters through environmental destruction. Hailing from the Planet of Light which has strict rules about what he’s supposed to be doing, Ultraman longs to understand humanity having merged with a human he accidentally killed who had dedicated his life to saving others. What he gains is a sense of communal responsibility along with a desire to care for what he sees as, essentially, babies someway behind his own planet in terms of evolution and in need of guidance. What he doesn’t want to do is endanger their “autonomous progression” by solving all their problems for them, so in grand tokusatsu fashion its up to the team to engineer their own solution in addition to deciding what they will do with this new technology using it for good or ill. Being buddies is all about trust, after all. Higuchi’s composition borders on the avant-garde recalling both that of the legendary Akio Jissoji and those more often associated with anime and manga rather than live action while the effects, even those utilising CGI, are pleasantly nostalgic with retro mono explosions and the iconic ringing of laser beams. Heading in a melancholy philosophical direction in its final moments, Shin Ultraman does at least suggest that the best weapons against a kaiju attack are teamwork and mutual trust especially if one of your friends is an all powerful being from another galaxy. 


Shin Ultraman screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS CO., LTD. / TOHO CO., LTD. / khara, Inc. © TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS

Offbeat Cops (異動辞令は音楽隊!, Eiji Uchida, 2022)

A maverick lone wolf comes to understand that it’s all about harmony after getting demoted to the police band in Eiji Uchida’s procedural dramedy, Offbeat Cops (異動辞令は音楽隊!,  Ido Jirei wa Ongakutai!). Offbeat is definitely one way to describe Naruse (Hiroshi Abe) who has not only been taken off the streets but is constantly out of step not just with the times, but with his colleagues and family members too. Yet like so many in his position, he thinks it’s the world that’s wrong only later realising that creating a harmonious society is another means of effective policing. 

That realisation is however hard won. An unreconstructed ‘70s cop, Naruse thinks being a detective’s all about intimidation. He reads the paper during morning briefings and ignores advice from his superiors, insisting that it’s legwork that counts in modern day policing while privately convinced that a repeat offender he failed to catch five years previously is linked to a current spate of burglaries targeting the older generation in which scammers ring up claiming to be from the crime prevention squad and convince elderly people to tell them where the valuables are before breaking in, tying them up, and robbing the place. Barging into a suspect’s home without a warrant and threatening violence, he tries to prove his theory but is soon hauled before his bosses and told there’s been a complaint about him so he’s being demoted to the police band. 

One criticism he’d repeatedly received was that he had no ability to work as a team, always heading off to do his own thing rather than following the investigative line of the offer in charge. His demotion to the band is then ironic, especially as he’s being asked to play the drums, given that in order to succeed he’ll have to learn to march to the common beat. But being demoted eats away at his sense of self. If he’s not a cop then what is he and why are they making him waste his time on music when there are real bad guys out there cheating vulnerable people out of their life savings. Having divorced two years previously his relationship with teenage daughter Noriko (Ai Mikami) is already strained while he is also sole carer to his elderly mother (Mitsuko Baisho) who is suffering from dementia and keeps asking for his ex-wife and late father. He often snaps at her, cruelly reminding her of the reality rather than trying to be mindful of her constant confusion. 

What he realises while playing in the band is that wading in all fists blazing is not the only way to fight crime. After encountering a cheerful old lady who enjoyed his drum playing and tells him that she looks forward to hearing the police band play, he comes to understand that people want different things from their police force and community support is just as much a part of that as chasing crooks in the street. Though he has been relegated to the band, many of his colleagues are expected to do their regular jobs too and have familial responsibilities and petty resentments of their own. Meanwhile, his former partner begins to reflect on Naruse’s dogged love of justice in his absence taking on more than a few of his characteristics in his determination to catch the criminal, realising that perhaps it’s alright to bend the rules a little if the occasion calls as long as you don’t take it too far. 

Jamming with his new colleagues Naruse finally begins to realise the importance of group harmony, acknowledging his faults and apologising for them while rebuilding his relationships with friends and family. He may be wearing a different uniform, but he’s still a policeman and as long as the bad guys get caught it doesn’t matter by who. The big wigs may think the police band’s not really important, but as the banner says it helps build a bridge between the police force and the community which in turn helps prevent crime and leads to a happier, more harmonious society. Then again if you turn that around it might sound a little authoritarian in insisting that Naruse must learn to ignore the beat of his own drum to march to that of the collective while presenting an idealised view of the police’s place in the community, but it does indeed seem that he has managed to find a better accommodation with himself no longer so angry or intimidating but understanding of others and their troubles while rededicating himself to a more compassionate policing. 


Offbeat Cops screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 “Offbeat Cops” Film Partners

Just Remembering (ちょっと思い出しただけ, Daigo Matsui, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A communication breakdown gradually erodes the love of a young couple in Daigo Matsui’s melancholy romantic drama, Just Remembering (ちょっと思い出しただけ, Chotto Omoidashita Dake). Inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Matsui’s city vistas are drenched in loneliness and regret made all the deeper by the enforced isolation of the coronavirus pandemic while echoing the sense of rueful nostalgia that draws the fated lovers back together but unites them only in their shared sadness. 

Told in a non-linear fashion, the film follows taxi driver Yo (Sairi Ito) and lighting technician Teruo (Sosuke Ikematsu) through the course of five year relationship picking up on each of Teruo’s July 26th birthdays as time ticks by with a weary fatalism expressed by an ever present wall clock. As the film opens, a lonely Teruo celebrates a birthday alone watching Night on Earth which we later learn to be his favourite film, a poster adorning the wall above his bed, and something of a touchstone in his relationship with Yo who is like Winona Ryder in the movie a woman who drives a taxi. Echoing the film’s title, each of them repeatedly encounters reminders of their time together from forgotten hair clips to outdated profile pictures that hint at the unresolved nature of their failed romance. In a park that leads to Teruo’s apartment, a man (Masatoshi Nagase) is often seen sitting by a tree waiting for his wife to arrive he says from the future. The man and his wife may perhaps represent an older version of Teruo and Yo though in contrast to his absolute faith and willingness to wait it’s uncertainty and an inability to reckon with intangible feeling that eventually disrupt their connection. 

Awkward and anxious, Yo struggles to express herself in words yet is unable to understand the world without them whereas Teruo communicates through dance and feels words to be largely unimportant unable to fully convey thoughts and emotions. The pair are indeed the most connected when they’re dancing, the otherwise shy and subdued Yo captivated by Teruo’s movement and dropping her guard to dance spontaneously in a quiet back alley while the street guitarist who forever connects them plays quietly behind. When Teruo injures himself and is left unable to dance, it destroys his ability to communicate and places an unbearable strain on the relationship as he retreats to lick his wounds unwilling to bother Yo with his mental and physical pain while she resents the distance he places between them and reads his reluctance to burden her as a fault line in their romance. She tells him that however he may change her feelings won’t, which only sounds to him as if she only loves an abstract idea rather than the reality while he too fears that she won’t like the him that that isn’t a dancer because not even he really knows who that Teruo may turn out to be. 

It’s telling in a way that the central love confession occurs in a taxi that’s being driven by someone else, a bemused older man who encourages the pair that it’s best to say what you want to say while you can and literally stops time for them by pausing the meter as twinkle twinkle little star echoes ironically in the background. Yo says she likes her taxi job because she has a desire to travel but not the ability to choose a destination and driving the taxi allows her to feel as if she’s on the way to something though she’s only following her passengers’ instructions. Her essential trait is passivity, feeling lost and aimless in her life and often allowing others to make her choices for her save when she follows the advice of a lovelorn barman (Jun Kunimura) who tells her that sometimes you have to chase after what you want only to later be disappointed when the wounded Teruo fails to chase after her. The barman tells her that she doesn’t understand love, and perhaps she doesn’t unwilling to trust her romantic destiny while perhaps neither does Teruo, always somehow waiting while gazing at visions of love on ordinary street, high school girls gossiping about boys, an elderly couple helping each other down the stairs, and a mother carrying her infant son. 

It’s tempting to view their romance as doomed because they speak different languages while their continual role reversal suits neither of them very well, Yo quite literally in the driving seat but by her own admission having no idea where they’re going while Teruo struggles to communicate with her in terms she can understand. Yet they also share moments of true connection and vulnerability in which they are each understood by the other in a way they may never be again that leaves each of them with a lingering loneliness and regret for their failed romance. Love is an escape route, according to the wise old barman, but it’s one that continually eludes the two lovers who like the like man at the park are trapped in a state of perpetual waiting for a far off resolution. 


Just Remembering screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Takuya Kato, 2022)

“You’re a grown-up. If something’s wrong you gotta handle it” the passive aggressively condescending hero of Takuya Kato’s Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Watashitachi wa Otona) chastises, but what even really is being “grown-up” when you find yourself in a situation which is emotionally difficult and will define the future course of your life. Shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 and told in a non-linear fashion, Kato’s intense drama lays bare the inequalities of a patriarchal society in which in a sense there are no real grown-ups because no one is ever comfortable enough with anyone else to be able to speak their real feelings honestly. 

This becomes a particular problem for college student Yumi (Mai Kiryu) who discovers that she is pregnant but is uncertain as to who the father might be having had a one night stand during the time her live-in boyfriend Naoya (Kisetsu Fujiwara) had broken up with her. Yumi immediately tells Naoya that there’s a chance the baby isn’t his, but remains otherwise reticent unwilling to talk about what might have happened while filled with an internal panic. Naoya thinks he’s being grown-up about the situation by deciding to accept responsibility given the probability that he is the father but despite pledging that he would accept the baby even if it turned out he wasn’t can’t stop trying to pressure Yumi into a DNA test for peace of mind. 

The irony is that even Naoya, who was Yumi’s first sexual partner, refused to wear a condom and joked about contraception before making her go on the pill when he moved in with her. Later we learn that the one night stand violated her consent by again refusing to wear a condom and ignoring her objections, later joking about it that the chances of conception are incredibly small while making it clear that men in general don’t consider pregnancy as something that happens to them and because, as one of Yumi’s friends puts it, they only chase “innocent” girls they don’t seem to worry about the possibility of contracting an STI. Meanwhile, Yumi is constantly stalked by a fellow student she briefly dated who presents her with a memory book of their relationship and is always creepily hanging around waiting to give her gifts, but all her friends can seem to talk about is boyfriends implying that a bad boyfriend might be better than none. 

Yet Yumi seems to have intimacy issues that run even deeper, for some reason not even telling Naoya that her mother has passed away leaving him to think she has run away from their problems by returning home just when he’s ready to tell her his decision about their future. When her father asks about boyfriends she brushes the question off though perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her relationship status with Naoya or what she’s going to do about the baby. She calls her friend to hear a friendly voice after hearing her mother has died but gets little sympathy, the same friend later abruptly hanging up on her after getting a boyfriend of her own while knowing of Yumi’s romantic troubles. 

Then again, it’s hard to know whether Naoya was really interested in her or in her lovely duplex apartment. When they started dating he was still living with his ex and it’s obvious that Yumi fully conforms to the feminine ideal taking care of all the domestic tasks while it isn’t even clear if Naoya is contributing in any way to the household. The film both begins and ends with Yumi making breakfast, firstly toasting the last slice of bread for Naoya while suffering with what turns out to be morning sickness, and finally making herself something to eat in the early light of dawn. Naoya says he’s give up on his dreams of working in theatre to get a regular job, again conforming to an outdated patriarchal ideal, but of course resents it particularly because he doubts the child is his while Yumi isn’t really sure she wants to go through with it either for some of the same reasons but is swayed by Naoya’s determination to make all their decisions for them unable to say out loud that she might not be ready to become a mother. 

Naoya is always trying to be grown-up about everything, but more often than not his understanding approach is partway towards passive aggressive control in insisting that Yumi is being childish in her anxiety and confusion while simultaneously avoiding having to admit that he isn’t really ready either. Early in their relationship he breaks up with her by simply returning her apartment key and refusing to elaborate, failing to treat her with respect or maturity and once again leaving her to deal with the fallout of their relationship all alone. Then again, Yumi’s determination to convince him that green peas are good may signal that the relationship was always doomed when they couldn’t even reach a grown-up understanding over something as trivial as taste in veg. A raw examination of what it is to be young and faced with a decision that will define the rest of your life, Kato’s naturalistic drama perhaps suggests that it never really gets any easier to say how you really feel when you feel that someone is judging you all the way. 


Grown-ups screens at Lincoln Center 23d July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022“Grown-ups” Production Committee

Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

“So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world.” The world is indeed cursed in Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark 1997 animation Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Mononoke-hime). As the greedy monk insists, “there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation. And no one cares”. Yet as an impassioned parable as it is about the destructive forces of industrialisation, Miyazaki’s mystical drama is really about balance and duality along with the necessity of harmony and co-existence with nature red in tooth and claw. 

Young prince Ashitaka (Yoji Matsuda) already lives in what seems to be perfect harmony with the natural world, but his idyllic existence in an ancient clan long exiled by the emperor is disturbed one day by a marauding giant boar chased out of the forest having been turned into a demon consumed with hate and resentment. Ashitaka first tries reasoning with the beast, but is finally forced to put it out of its misery to protect the village and is infected himself in the process. Now unable to stay lest he endanger his community, Ashitaka ventures West in search of the corruption which sent the boar hurtling towards his home. 

What he eventually comes to is an industrial settlement, Irontown, ruled by Lady Eboshi (Yuko Tanaka) who ought by all rights to be a villain in her casual disregard of or active hostility towards unruly nature which her industrialisation pollutes. But then as we can see Lady Eboshi is a good and compassionate leader who has erected a community of the marginalised buying out the contracts of indentured sex workers and freeing them to labour in her ironworks while taking in lepers to manufacture her futuristic firearms. Uncharitably, one could also say that she’s chosen these people because they have little power and will be more likely to put up with hardship and exploitation without complaint because it’s better than the lives they lived before, but it does it does seem that she has her heart in the right place as far as her people are concerned determined to build a community of mutual solidarity between workers. 

Conversely, the titular Princess Mononoke, San (Yuriko Ishida), ought by rights to be the heroine but she and the wolf deities she lives with are also violent and unforgiving in their hatred of humans as determined to wipe out the threat presented by Lady Eboshi as she is them. Ashitaka was dispatched to be a peacemaker, to see with eyes unclouded by hate, in an attempt to find common ground and a way that the forest and humanity can live together because in reality one cannot survive without the other. He is by turns disappointed with each of them but holds compassion for both while a tertiary political threat lingers on the horizon in the machinations of shady priest Jigo (Kaoru Kobayashi) and the emperor who wants the head the of the Forest Spirit because he believes it will confer immortality. Lady Eboshi, who otherwise appears to reject the feudal order, intends to give the emperor the head in order to gain protection from overreaching lord Asano who hopes to capture the capitalistic potential of Irontown for himself. 

Jigo is an embodiment of humanity’s greed and its destructive potential, not caring that severing the Forest Spirit’s head will cause untold destruction in which any financial gain he might make would be all but irrelevant. His role is even more ironic given that he is a priest who has supposedly rejected material desire describing himself as a monk just trying to get by while seemingly willing to manipulate and betray almost anyone in his quest for gold. Lady Eboshi wants to improve conditions for her community while San essentially wants the same but Jigo just wants to improve things for Jigo and no one else. 

What Ashitaka wants is to cure his curse by restoring the balance between the human world and the natural in the creation of a society in which neither need be a threat to the other. Thus he pledges to help rebuild Irontown along less destructive lines while entrusting the forest to San to protect though she finds herself unable to forgive humanity for the destruction it has already wrought and may do again. Even so, as Ashitaka says, “it’s time for us both to live” hinting at a kind of rebirth and a new beginning free from the old authority be it the Forest Spirit or the emperor and the feudal order in a new world of freedom and equality. 


Princess Mononoke screens on 35mm at Japan Society New York on July 22.

Trailer (english subtitles)

The Fish Tale (さかなのこ, Shuichi Okita, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Shuichi Okita has made a career for himself exploring the lives of eccentric people and The Fish Tale (さかなのこ, Sakana no kKo) is certainly no exception. Based on the memoirs of the real life “Sakana-kun”, the film is a testament to the ways in which true enthusiasm can become an infectious source for good while even subjects which might seem esoteric can have universal appeal when delivered in the right way. Meebo (Non) is not like everyone else but sees nothing wrong in that nor do they see anything wrong in the way others live their lives (save for thinking edamame are better than fish). 

Later a TV personality, best-selling author, and YouTuber, Meebo has been totally obsessed with fish all their life. They draw pictures of fish, edit a fish-themed newspaper in middle school, and talk about fish all day long but they still eat fish and find how good it tastes just another thing that makes fish the best thing ever. Though Meebo’s mother (Haruka Igawa) is ever supportive, their father (Hiroki Miyake) has his doubts worried that Meebo isn’t like the other children and is going to struggle later in life. When Meebo meets a strange man with a fish hat on his head (a cameo from the real life Sakana-kun) whom most of the other children avoid, their mother says it’s alright to go to his house to see his aquarium but their father disagrees for obvious reasons later calling the police when Meebo fails to return home at the agreed time. Mr. Fish Head is the only person with whom the young Meebo can truly bond in their shared love of sea life but he also bears out their father’s sense of disapproval in admitting that he came from a wealthy family but is now low on funds because like Meebo he wasn’t suited to conventional schooling and has never been able to hold down a steady job. 

Meebo’s mother meanwhile is more relaxed, calmly telling Meebo’s teacher that having good grades isn’t necessarily important for everyone and she doesn’t want to force Meebo to make themselves unhappy by giving up fish to get them. In any case employment is something Meebo struggles with, fired from the aquarium for spending too much time admiring the fish and then later let go from a sushi bar. Meebo is hired to create an aquatic display for a dentist with an extremely gaudy office but fails to correctly interpret the brief unable to understand the dentist just wanted something flashy and superficial (like himself), but is finally offered a job at a pet shop with a sympathetic boss who appreciates their deep knowledge of and love for fish. 

As Meebo says, they don’t understand what “normal” is save for a vague sense that they may not be but continues to live their life happily no matter what others might think. When they’re targeted by delinquents in high school, Meebo ends up simply inviting them to come fishing with them and is generally able to win over those who don’t understand or approve of their obsessive interest with the force of their enthusiasm. Then again, there are those who are simply too conventional such as the young woman childhood friend Hiyo (Yuya Yagira) tries to introduce her to who rudely laughs at Meebo’s “childish” determination to become a “fish expert” as if such a thing were inherently ridiculous. Time and again its these special connections often made in childhood which continue to help Meebo on their way, engineering a friendship between the leaders of two rival high school gangs who later hire them to help decorate the interior of a new sushi bar. 

That’s not to say their life is not sometimes difficult, but their love for fish always seems to carry them through while the joy and enthusiasm they bring with them makes others happy and more curious about the world in which they live. Their love of sea life eventually trickles down to the next generation with childhood friend Momo (Kaho) taking her daughter to the aquarium just like Meebo’s mother had them and buying her an encyclopaedia of fish which Meebo themselves had written. A quirky, warmhearted tale of total self-acceptance, Fish Tale is also testament to the positive influence of “obsessive” passion which far from dark or introverted can help to illuminate the lives of those who might also be afraid of their differences and love for that which others may deride as niche.


The Fish Tale screened as part of this year’s Fantasia.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Lesson in Murder (死刑にいたる病, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2022)

Parental disconnection and the legacy of abuse come under the microscope in a dark psychological thriller from Kazuya Shiraishi, Lesson in Murder (死刑にいたる病, Shikei ni Itaru Yamai). Adapted from the novel by Riu Kushiki, the film’s ironic Japanese title means something more like Sickness Unto Death Sentence and hints at an almost spiritual infection that spreads violence and cruelty as embodied by the moral vacuum at the film’s centre, a genial serial killer of stereotypically “good” kids chillingly played comic actor Sadao Abe. 

The psychodrama is played out, however, in the mind of young legal student Masaya (Kenshi Okada) who once frequented the popular bakery owned by Yamato (Sadao Abe) before he was exposed as the killer of 23 teens and one adult woman. On returning home for his grandmother’s funeral, Masaya is surprised to receive a letter from Yamato asking for his help. He admits killing the 23 teens (and perhaps more) but claims that he is not responsible for the death of the adult woman who after all does not fit his pattern. As he reveals, Yamato killed teens in their last year of high school and the grooming process which may have started even years before was central to his M.O. He delighted in winning their trust and then betraying it by torturing them to death in a smokehouse on the grounds of his isolated farmhouse. 

In court, Yamato explains that killing is simply “essential” to his being while insisting that he was caught because he became complacent rather than as a result of efficient policing. Yet he tells Masaya that it annoyed him that he never fell under suspicion, people always trusted him without question and he wanted to challenge that level of social complacency. In any case what’s clear is that he is and has always been a manipulative narcissist attributing those personality traits to his childhood abuse implying that they were a part of an abandoned child’s defence mechanism. He praised others to make them love and protect him, becoming drunk on the power he held over them. At first it seems as if his killings stem from resentment towards these “perfect” children who were well behaved and studied well in school but in fact the reason the children behaved in that way was often born of a desire for parental approval which made them vulnerable to Yamato’s grooming. “Repressed children have low self-esteem” he tells Masaya, an abused child himself, claiming that he wanted to help them grow in confidence through his persistent love bombing. 

Masaya is also on some level being groomed and may at times even be aware of it, but is so consumed with resentment towards his own father that he longs for a more sympathetic father figure and is even willing to accept to a serial killer as a potential paternal mentor. He becomes desperate to prove Yamato didn’t kill Kaoru (Ryo Sato), a 26-year-old office worker, almost forgetting that the killing of the 23 teens is not in dispute. His father resents him because the family run a prestigious school but Masaya was not academically gifted, bullying and beating both Masaya and his mother who is also an underconfident survivor of childhood neglect. She constantly asks for Masaya’s help making decisions, as do other survivors that he meets, while Yamato ironically tells him that the choice to investigate Kaoru’s death is entirely his own while wilfully manipulating him. Even so under his influence, Masaya’s own feelings of resentment towards the conservative society as mediated through middle-aged salarymen eventually bubble to the surface leading him on a dark path towards a potentially murderous destiny. 

Then again, as much as Yamato tries to take control of the narrative Kaoru’s death would still have been as a result of his actions no matter who it was who actually killed her. In another uncomfortabe irony what he’s doing while clearly grooming Masaya is in a sense as he claimed to be doing with his victims restoring his self-confidence in forcing him to face his dysfunctional family situation while proving that he is capable of solving this crime and perhaps in the end solving it a little better than intended. A killer final twist lends an additional layer of insanity to Yamato’s banal evil while Shiraishi’s cool direction at times superimposing the faces of the two men one over another in the glass that divides them at the prison with the faces of the victims projected behind may suggest that darkness hangs all around us and more to the point within. 


Lesson in Murder screens at Lincoln Center 21st July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 ”Lesson in Murder” Film Partners

Ox-Head Village (牛首村, Takashi Shimizu, 2022)

“A story about nothing” is how one middle-aged man jokingly dismisses a local legend about an ox-headed woman. Are urban legends just one big dad joke? Everybody who hears this story dies, so they say, which is obviously true whichever way you look at it though if it really were a curse it would have to move quickly or there’d be no-one to pass it on. As the heroine of Takashi Shimizu’s summer adventure horror movie Ox-Head Village (牛首村, Ushikubi Mura) discovers, however, there may be something to it after all in uncovering the dark history behind the local folklore. 

In her last year of high school, teenager Kanon (Koki) is beginning to experience strange events such as a series of mysterious scratches on her arm, odd bangs and noises at home, and her phone constantly playing a message about bad pennies and their tendency to keep turning up. Her friend Ren (Riku Hagiwara), who has a crush on her, shows her a viral video of some girls on paranormal live stream that goes wrong leading one, who looks exactly like her, to fall down a lift shaft and then mysteriously disappear. To find out what’s going on the pair head out into the country to the abandoned hotel where the shoot took place but end up battling supernatural malevolence born of the cruelty of previous eras. 

Like the previous two films in the “Village” trilogy, Ox-Head Village revolves around rural folkloric beliefs this time focussing on the suspicion cast against twins which in this village at least seems to have continued until the late 1960s. The root of the curse is the unnatural act of dividing something that should be one into two in attempting to separate pairs of twins leaving the one left behind, lonely, burdened with the residual stigma of being one of multiple births, and perhaps experiencing a little survivor’s guilt. In the film’s second sequence, bathed in yellow and shot with a 70s-style soft focus, two little girls kill a butterfly and bury it with its friends because it would just be lonely on its own. The resolution is that that which has been divided must be reunited in life or in death in order to end the curse, though as we later see that may not quite be the end of it. 

Meanwhile, though a supernatural horror film, Ox-Head Village is also part of a grand tradition of teen summer adventure movies. Kanon and Ren are about to embark on the last summer as high schoolers, the trip they take together as so many are is also about self-discovery as Kanon answers a few lingering questions about her past while searching for her doppelgänger. Her quest is also in its way about rescuing herself and laying to rest the sense of loneliness which has always plagued her. Along for the ride, Ren is perhaps more curious while obviously smitten hoping to cement his romance through a romantic road trip only to be blindsided by supernatural intrigue and country superstition. 

Nevertheless, there is something truly creepy about the innocent flowers the little girls draw along with the pre-modern superstition that informs life in the village. Though the sinister presence may in this case be firmly rooted in the past, they are able to mediate their curse through modern technology such as manipulating Kanon’s phone as a means of communication while using lift shafts to mimic the well which becomes the repository for the darkness of the village. As an old man puts it, a prejudice against twins might have been intellectually understandable in a time of famine, though morally indefensible and obviously absurd and out of place in the modern society. Even so, old beliefs have a way of persisting even if they are no longer clearly understood. 

Along with all the folk horror of ox-headed women, headless buddhist statues and “stories about nothing” there is the lingering dread of the lonely incompleteness visited on the little girls in yellow because of the outdated superstitions of an earlier era. Overcoming the curse requires both self-knowledge and self-sacrifice in order to heal the unnatural act of division which has been carried out but even this may not be enough to repair the damage of centuries of cruelty and prejudice. 


Ox-Head Village screens at Lincoln Center 19th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 OX-HEAD VILLAGE Production Committee

The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Tai Kato, 1973)

After joining the studio in the mid-1950s, Tai Kato quickly made a reputation for himself with Toei’s key brand of ninkyo eiga yakuza movies set in the chivalrous world of pre-war gangsterdom. By the early 70s, however, the genre was already played out and Kato began to work more frequently with other studios and in various genres but 1973’s The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Nihon kyoka den), produced for Toho the studio which he had first joined at the beginning of his career in 1937, takes him back to his ninkyo roots if less directly in a politicised tale revolving around the 1918 rice riots

The film opens, however, a few years earlier with the heroine, Mine (Hiroko Maki), attempting to sell children’s educational picture books aboard a train (an activity strictly prohibited). As she explains, they are in the middle of a recession and times are hard for everyone though as we discover the reason for Mine’s journey is that she is in the process of eloping with the mild-mannered Minoru (Kunio Murai), the son of a wealthy family with literary dreams, who is prevented from marrying her because of the class difference between them. The couple are doing well enough evading detection, but are caught out when accidentally implicated in the murder of a treacherous politician by left-wing agitator/noble gangster Seijiro (Tetsuya Watari) who fatefully locks eyes with Mine while trying to escape forever binding their fates together. 

Epic in length the film was originally released in two parts with an interval in-between, this first half focussing on Mine’s doomed romance which is thwarted in part by the outdated social codes of the early Taisho society and the moral cowardice of her lover who finds himself unable to resist them. The pair are thrown in prison as possible co-conspirators and beaten by the police, Mine striking up a friendship with a woman, Tsuru (Junko Toda), imprisoned for distributing pamphlets as a labour activist who later helps her to get a waitressing job and teaches her rudimentary writing while Minoru lounges around in their home sort of writing a novel. Tsuru seems to be touched by their cross-class romance, “where love is concerned to hell with social status!” she insists berating Minoru for giving in so easily when the pair are finally tracked down by his austere mother. Her socialist activism may not directly rub off on Mine but does perhaps inform her later actions after discovering the depths of Minoru’s spinelessness, rescued after a failed bid at double suicide by a truly good man, Kinzo (Meicho Soganoya), who also happens to be a traditional yakuza heading a harbour gang in Kobe. 

After becoming his wife, Mine comes to witness the persistent unfairness and exploitation all around her as mediated by the outcry surrounding the fluctuation of rice prices in the late 1910s caused by attempts at profiteering and the necessity of supplying the military forces then participating in the war in Europe. Meanwhile, would be local dictator and amoral yakuza Kishimoto (Toru Abe) is intent on squeezing the Osada gang out of the harbour further pushing up rice prices while in cahoots with corrupt local authorities. Seijiro re-enters her life when dispatched to assassinate Kinzo on the orders of Kishimoto but stabbing him as carefully as possible to make sure he doesn’t die, thereafter switching sides to fight for the rights of the poor who he warns face even greater oppression should a man like Kishimoto be allowed to dominate the harbour. 

With Kinzo out of action, Mine assumes her natural destiny as a local leader doing her best to stand up to Kishimoto and the corrupt authorities but still faces difficulty getting her voice heard without a man standing next to her. On taking Kinzo’s place at a meeting of local bosses, she is dismissed as “just a woman” before a sympathetic naval officer decides to hand her a lucrative job shifting rice intended for sailors overseas because of her knowledge of current affairs undercutting Kishimoto’s attempts to game the system. It’s the trust the navy have in her that later saves her again when she is arrested and brutally tortured by corrupt policemen working with Kishimoto intent on tracking down Seijiro for the murder on the train all those years previously. Mine’s rise is also in a sense Seijiro’s redemption as he atones for the attack on Kinzo, rejects his association with Kishimoto to re-embrace his socialist beliefs, and fulfils the romantic destiny sparked when their eyes met on the train. 

Drawing a direct line between burgeoning militarism and gangsterdom along with the amoral exploitations of an increasingly capitalist society, Kato makes his intentions clear by dropping a ninkyo eiga hero into a world of infinite corruptions in which he eventually becomes a defender of the poor. Kato’s striking composition and use of colour along with expressionistic imagery lend the air of legend implied by the title as Mine fights her way through the oppressions of her era as a figurehead for justice in an increasingly unjust society.