I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Naoko Nobutomo, 2022)

Naoko Nobutomo’s documentary feature debut I Go Gaga, My Dear proved an unexpected hit on its 2018 release striking a chord with many middle-aged and younger people facing similar issues to the director while preoccupied about how best to care for their ageing relatives. Her 2022 followup I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Bokemasukara Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu -Okaeri Okasan-) once again follows her parents though this time witnessing her mother’s gradual decline and eventual hospitalisation along with her equally ageing father left alone at home. 

Nobutomo does retread some of the same ground reusing footage from the previous documentary to fill in gaps in her mother’s story giving a brief overview of life and marriage before the first signs of the Alzheimer’s with which she would later be diagnosed would appear. It is however also rawer, including several scenes of Fumiko in extreme distress calling out for a knife in order to end her life in a moment of frightening lucidity or walking around the house asking “what’s wrong with me?” 

The couple had hoped to stay in their home taking care of each other but as Fumiko’s condition declines that becomes increasingly impossible until she finally suffers a stroke and is hospitalised. Naoko frequently talks to her father Yoshinori about returning home to help him care for her but her offer is always refused. They tell her not to worry about them and to do the things she wants to do while she can but Naoko continues to worry. Explaining that her parents had married at a late age by the standards of the time and never expected to have any children, she recounts that she was raised in an extremely loving home and that sense of love and devotion is still very much evident between the elderly couple who continue to love and care for each other deeply. 

But then Yoshinori is also ageing, approaching his 100th birthday, and taking care of his wife takes an obvious physical toll. After Fumiko is hospitalised, he walks for an hour everyday to visit her while even carrying the shopping home from the local store is far from easy. Meanwhile he too undergoes physical therapy hoping to build up his strength for when Fumiko eventually returns home. Though in generally good health, at times he too struggles suffering a nasty fall during heavy rain on his way home from the dentist and later hospitalised with a hernia. His daily visits to Fumiko seem to keep him going, but even these come to an end during the COVID-19 pandemic during which hospital visits are restricted leaving Fumiko, bedridden having suffered a second stroke, all alone with nothing to do. 

The presence of COVD-19 is also reflected in the funeral, an incredibly small affair populated by people wearing masks. Fumiko’s condition caused her to worry about her quality of life while a poignant visit to her home reduces her to tears before she’s transferred to hospital for longterm care. In her voice over Naoko explains that she’s been spending more time in Kure with her father, but evidently does not wish to intrude on his independence as far as she can help it while he becomes an accidental local celebrity given the documentary’s success. Fumiko too had been looking forward to seeing it, a treasured pamphlet lying next to her bed, but was ultimately unable to because of her ill health. 

Like its predecessor, I Go Gaga: Welcome Home, Mom tells a heartwarming study of an elderly couple doing their best to care for each other though later turns in a poignant direction as Naoko and her father begin to process the possibility that Fumiko will not return home something very painful for Yoshinori who is evidently suffering himself extremely worried about the thought of losing his wife. Yet life in a sense goes on, Yoshinori edging his way to his 100th birthday and pledging to live until 120 before heading to a diner for the hamburger steak he’d been craving. He even gets an award from the local mayor in celebration of his centenary. Ending on a poignant note, Nobutomo switches back to older footage of happier days in which her parents go about their ordinary lives filled with precious memories never to return. 


I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Target (標的, Shinji Nishijima, 2021)

In the early 1980s, the well respected left-leaning national newspaper the Asahi Shimbun ran a series of articles based on accounts by author Seiji Yoshida of his involvement in wartime atrocities which brought the “comfort woman” issue into the mainstream consciousness for the first time. Unfortunately, however, Yoshida’s reputation was tarnished when it was revealed that much of his “autobiographical” writing had been heavily embellished or simply made up. The discrediting of Yoshida’s testimony handed an easy win to the resurgent right that allowed them to cast doubt on Japan’s history of wartime sex slavery.

In 1991, the truth became much harder to deny when former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun came forward to tell her story publicly. Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura wrote an article based on a taped recording of her testimony shortly before her own press conference but soon found himself the prime target for nationalist trolls who harassed not only the Asahi Shimbun but Uemura himself along with members of his family. In 2014 more than 20 years since the article was published, they once again swarmed when it was revealed that Uemura had accepted a part-time teaching position at woman’s university which was later rescinded because of the continued “bashing” both he and the institution received which included several death threats. 

Shinji Nishijima’s sometimes unfocussed documentary Target (標的, Hyoteki) is concerned less with the comfort woman issue itself than the scandal’s place in an ongoing culture war which has been quietly intensifying since the late 90s with the foundation of ultra-nationalist lobby group Nippon Kaigi in 1997 which is coincidentally the year that Kim Hak-sun passed away without seeing justice. Many other papers had run similar articles based on Kim’s taped testimony using the same terminology which reflects that used by Kim, yet only the Asahi Shimbun and Uemura himself were singled out as “traitors” to Japan and in the view of some more extreme commenters deserving of the death penalty. The article was branded a “fabrication” which is a serious accusation to make of a journalist at a major newspaper though in actuality the charges that are levelled at him concern only potential “inaccuracies” in his writing regarding use of terminology and the omission that Kim had trained as a kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of the geisha) which was revealed during her press conference but not included in the taped testimony while the journalist who later attacks Uemura relies on the same tired arguments insisting that there was no forced recruitment and the women at the comfort stations were established sex workers employed locally or trafficked by family members and middlemen. 

The argument put forward by the documentary suggests that Uemura was a convenient target because his wife was Korean and his mother-in-law was the head of the Association for the Pacific War Victims though the true target was the Asahi Shimbun which had long been a bugbear for nationalists because of its liberal democratic outlook. Part way through the documentary, Uemura visits the grave of a journalist who was murdered after penning an expose of police mistreatment of the Korean community in Osaka who had begun resisting fingerprinting on the grounds that it was discriminatory. The implication is that this is a campaign to silence the press and one which has proved increasingly effective with outlets largely choosing to self censor unwilling to upset the government and lose their access by addressing topics that might be thought taboo such as Japan’s wartime past. Meanwhile under the Abe administration there was a concerted campaign to revise school history textbooks to erase the concept of comfort women altogether along with other mentions of wartime atrocity. 

Suing the journalist who branded him a “fabricator” for defamation Uemura explains that his aim is not so much to vindicate himself and the story but challenge encroachments on free speech in an increasingly authoritarian society. Though the courts agree he has been “defamed” they find no “illegality” while upholding the conservative view that denies the existence of comfort women. As it later transpires the journalist who had attacked him in the press had previously written a similar article herself and had largely based her current views on those of a prominent conservative university professor without bothering to interview either Uemura or any of the surviving Korean comfort women in person ironically including several “inaccuracies” in her own writing owing to some fairly shoddy journalism and lack of familiarity with the source material. In any case, as someone puts it the most important thing is to record an accurate version of the truth so that nothing like this happens again while halting the erosion of democratic freedoms through creeping authoritarianism.


Target streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-,Tatsuya Matsubara, 2021)

At the age of 83 and not having made a narrative film in over 20 years, Sadao Nakajima decided to step back into the director’s chair in 2019 with a classic chambara in Love’s Twisting Path, an old-fashioned samurai drama taking place in the turbulent years of the Bakumatsu at the end of the Edo era. More than just a behind the scenes documentary, Tatsuya Matsubara’s YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-, Yu-Geki -Tajuro Junai-ki Gaiden-) explores the film’s production but also reflects on the director’s long career and the changing trends of the Japanese film industry. 

Changing times do seem to be Nakajima’s primary motivation, wanting to pay tribute to Toei’s Kyoto studios once home to its mainline of period pieces produced for the big and small screens. These days, however, such productions are few and far between. Of course, Japan continues to produce historical dramas in large numbers but they tend to be just that with swordplay a secondary concern. Nakajima had wanted to resurrect this dying sector of the industry in part because he felt sorry for the specialist performers who can no longer support themselves with samurai movies alone.

Paradoxically this becomes a secondary problem for the production team as the pool of actors with training in stage combat becomes ever smaller, Nakajima forced to hire early career trainees while star Kengo Kora puts in overtime vigorously training to master the sword skills needed to seem convincing as a jidaigeki lead. Along with the decline of classic chambara, itself perhaps an expression of studio system as it existed before the 1970s, goes all the skills that accompany it from swordsmen to costumiers and makeup artists who know how to work on period features giving rise to the worry that the expert techniques honed over lifetimes will eventually be lost. 

Aside from the problems securing their creative team, Nakajima also runs into funding difficulties with backers unwilling to invest given the director’s age and poor health worrying that he may not be able to complete the project. Ironically this places further pressure on the production as Nakajima is forced to shorten the script and shooting time packing in as much as humanly possible per day. A young production assistant is beginning to feel bad about having to explain to him that so many things just aren’t possible while he too grows frustrated wandering around the mountains looking for a particular temple he remembers from his time at the studio but unable to remember exactly where it was or how to find it. Meanwhile he’s ably assisted by his former pupils including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Mukoku, Antenna, Sketches of Kaitan City) who acts as his AD along with Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda Linda Linda, Over the Fence, Hard Core) who also visits the set

It’s the presence of these pupils that Nakajima eventually hints makes his life worth living others suggesting that so many people wanting to learn from him gives him a sense of purpose and validation. Love’s Twisting Path was intended to be his final film, but asked if he’d have an idea for any more he likens himself to an elderly Musashi Miyamoto, the legendary swordsman, who became withered with age but faced a constant stream of young challengers each excited to fight him while he too saw it as a way to prove to the world that he still existed. 

Despite the tremendous effort put into its production, Love’s Twisting Path did not do as well as Nakajima had hoped at the box office leading him to blame himself wondering if he was too focussed on his own interests and understandably deflated having invested so much into the project hoping to kickstart a revival of classic jidaigeki that would revitalise the old Toei lot. Then again this feeling of not quite having lived up to his aspirations might contribute to a sense of wanting to try again with another film if only it had not been for the advent of the global pandemic. Journeying through his career history, Matsubara finds Nakajima a contrary figure, rebellious and frustrated even then in the barriers erected between himself and his art ,the films he wanted to make shot down by studio execs while he tries his best to inject a characteristic sense of reality into a series of programme pictures, contemporary yakuza films, action dramas, and finally chambara which he claims never to have liked in the first place. In the end it’s all about love, Nakajima’s son insists seeing something of his father’s romanticism in his films but also his deep love of cinema and of the riches to be found in the artistic legacy of the Kyoto studios. 


YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A2 (Tatsuya Mori, 2001)

“Japanese society is definitely worse than it was five years ago” according to director Tatsuya Mori, returning to the subject of Aum Shinrikyo following his 1998 documentary A, “It is definitely warped.” In A2, he wonders if the legacy of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway has affected society in unexpected ways as its rage and fear is channeled in the wrong direction in its pathological hatred of the new religion sect without attempting to understand why the attack happened or why people continue to follow the cult’s teachings given its violent history. 

Five years on, Aum has rebranded as Aleph and distanced itself from the teachings of Shoko Asahara but is still holding out on coming up with a plan for compensating victims and their families while some members directly involved in the attack remain on the run (the final fugitive was apprehended only in 2012). The government has decreed that those who had no connection to the incident should be allowed their constitutionally guaranteed rights to practice their religion, but as Mori follows them the current members face constant harassment in the local communities in which they attempt to settle. As someone later puts it, there is no real solution, once Aum is rejected they have no option but to move on to another town where the same thing will happen again with no real progress made. 

Even so, in one particular community the locals become almost friendly to the Aum members they are also keeping under close and intensive surveillance. Though instructed not to interact with them, some residents explain that they personally would prefer to be on friendly terms, others jokingly even offering them food or alcohol over the fence and almost sorry to see them leave when their rental contract finally expires. Through their admittedly hostile interactions, they’ve come to accept the members of Aum as distinct from their association with the sarin gas attack and no longer harbour the same sense of fear they once held for the unknown quantity of the new religion organisation. 

On the other hand, the fear and anxiety which has become linked with Aum has been hijacked by right-wing nationalist groups seeking to manipulate it for their own gain as they step into the vacuum created by a lack of action with their own ideas for potential solutions to the Aum problem. Their solutions are not as extreme as one might assume, but advocate for Aum’s forced disbandment with no practical plans for how that might happen. As Aum members admit, as a new religion organisation they often attract those who are vulnerable and looking for solutions to their own mental anguish. Faced with the intense harassment they face in smaller communities, these members are often pushed towards taking their own lives while the press has sometimes also attempted to manipulate their image for personal gain one man claiming he was essentially abducted and taken to hospital on the grounds he seemed malnourished but was prevented from leaving after getting the OK from a doctor as the police had already issued a statement about him which the press had printed without verifying. 

The current Aum members frequently complain that they have been misrepresented by the press while Mori himself is on one occasion accused of being an Aum sympathiser when challenging potential inaccuracies or asking if those participating in anti-Aum activity might be better off trying to understand them instead. This seems to be the direction in which some of the protests have drifted, local societies putting up signs to encourage thse who might want to leave the organisation to reassure them that they will be reaccepted by mainstream society, that their friends and relatives with whom they have severed ties are waiting for their return. The members, however, are often so disconnected from “worldly” matters that they may not know what mainstream society is, Mori’s brief questioning of an official revealing that she is unable to recognise the names of even the biggest contemporary pop stars. “Ultimately harmony can’t be achieved, can it?” Mori asks somewhat rhetorically, worrying that the psychological strain placed on the followers not only in the austerity of their religion but their treatment by wider society cannot but lead to further damage while opinions on either side are unlikely to soften. 


A2 streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Weald (杣人物語, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

@KUMIE Inc.

“I wish I were younger” comes a common refrain among the cast of elderly men and women living a traditional life in the mountains and forests of rural Japan in Naomi Kawase’s 1997 documentary, The Weald. Arriving in the same year as Kawase’s Caméra d’Or-winning narrative feature Suzaku, The Weald (杣人物語, Somaudo Monogatari) continues many of the same themes in her fascination with nature and moribund ways of life while taking on a meta existential dimension as her interviewees muse on loss, loneliness, and a lifetime’s regrets. 

What they almost all say is that they wish they could be young again with all the possibilities of youth. A lumberjack dreams of becoming a timber dealer, while another man jokes that he was once handsome though you wouldn’t know it now. One heartbreakingly laments that he’d like to start over because he’s never felt true happiness in his life. Then again, another believes that “happiness depends on your way of thinking” and that a man who’s learned to be satisfied with a small portion is in his own way rich. For another man happiness lies in having people speak well of him after he’s gone, knowing he must then have lived a good life. 

Then again life has its sadnesses. A carpenter reveals his private grief in having lost a son, unable even to watch his daughter’s wedding video because it’s too painful to see him there. “In a city he wouldn’t have had a motorbike” he sighs, reflecting that he was unlucky to have been born in the country and needlessly blaming himself for something not in his control. The last man, meanwhile, speaks movingly of his late mother’s descent into dementia and his own decision to give up on marriage while still young to dedicate himself to her, only to be left on his own in the end. He wonders if he was right to sacrifice his life for her while longing to be reborn in the hope of seeing his former girlfriend, his face dissolving into an old photograph in which he is young and handsome as if to grant his wish. 

Meanwhile, an old lady meditates on loneliness in a solo life of busyness firstly claiming to feel none but then revealing the emptiness of her days with no one to cook for. “I don’t know the meaning of life, I just live day to day” she explains, insisting that it’s pointless to worry and better just to get on with things. “I am satisfied to live each day peacefully” she adds, immersing herself in the moment. She like the others is uncertain why Kawase is filming her, telling her to come back later when she’s 18 again because old people are no fun. Another man later tells her not to waste her expensive film on him in case she needs it for something more important, the elderly residents either maudlin or amused but each mystified as to why someone is so keen to listen to their stories.  

Implicitly in these stories of the elderly, Kawase hints at the effects of continuing rural depopulation with fewer young people around, an elderly couple explaining that they have come to depend on each other even more as they aged only for the wife to fall ill and need care from her husband 14 years older but in better health. They go about their lives in the same way they have for decades, wandering the forests and practicing traditional skills which may all too soon be lost. 

In keeping with her earlier documentary work, Kawase often films in extreme close up or layers dialogue on top of another scene as when old lady wanders aimlessly trough the forest while her meditations on loneliness accompany her. What she seems to have discovered in the wisdom of those who agreed to speak to her is that happiness and suffering go hand in hand while youthful regret tinged with nostalgia can in itself almost be lonely. Even so many have managed to find meaning in their lives whether it be being present in nature or the love for one’s spouse and family while longing to be reborn eager for their next lives whatever they will be. “I wish only the best for everyone” someone adds before returning at last to spring and all the brief joys it will deliver. 


The Weald streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Makoto Sato, 1992)

Image ©️ Murai Osamu

With a crew of seven including himself, director Makoto Sato spent three years embedded within the small communities along the Agano River capturing a disappearing way of life but also the resilience of the elderly residents many of whom are unrecognised victims of Minamata disease caused by the chemical discharge from the Showa Denko chemical plant. 

“Kids don’t care about our rivers and our mountains” 80-year-old Miyae Hasegawa reminds her husband on the phone to their oldest daughter as she once again tries to convince him that he’s too old for the intensive labour of farming their rice paddies. Like many, the Hasegawas’ children have fled the rural village for more comfortable lives in the cities while their parents attempt to preserve their traditional way of life. “Gradually we realised that these rice paddies were their entire existence” the film crew later reflect, almost pitying them as they witness these quite elderly people bent over still harvesting the rice in their 80s while discovering on trying to help them that the work is far more difficult than they could have imagined not, presumably at least, very used to physical labour at least of this kind. 

Even so, “humans are cruel” Yoshio Hasegawa laments to his son having had too much to drink, somewhat ambivalent in having become proficient at catching salmon by hook. After all, the fish are only trying to live but humans keep pulling them out of the water. Later we watch him hook fishing at the river, the camera cutting to black as another man takes a fish he’s caught on a hook and bashes its brains in. Ironically, as the voiceover explains, Miyae had worked on the construction of the Kanose hydraulic dam in the 1920s which later powered the fertiliser plant which then became Showa Denko. After completion of the Yogawa dam in 1963, the fish ominously disappeared from the river and with them the traditional practice of fishing by hook.  

Many in the small communities along the water had welcomed the arrival of modernity that the Showa Denko plant had represented, some still remaining loyal to the company despite knowing what they know unable forget that they had benefitted economically from the factory’s existence. Ebana, meanwhile, who had worked for Showa Denko for 34 years now runs regular patrols of his local area monitoring for the possibility of landslides behind the plant. He was the only employee to sue Showa Denko as a victim of Minamata disease though the company’s attempt to transfer him out of the area when he did so put others off following his example, as did the degree of animosity towards him as others feared for their own economic stability or resented him for betraying his employers. Though the chemical emissions from the plant which flowed into the Agano have been acknowledged as the cause of the disease, the government introduced increasingly strict criteria for official recognition as a Minamata victim leaving many along the Agano unrecognised and therefore ineligible for support or compensation. Those involved in the ongoing legal case were required to make an arduous journey to Niigata once a month by bus or car, a heavy imposition on a community which is often elderly and suffering physical disabilities caused by the illness. As one elderly woman talks of her arched hand which she cannot straighten, a man shows her his burned foot after treading on the heated rail for his bath and being unable to feel it because of the loss of sensation caused by the Minamata disease. 

The fact that the river by which so many lived became actively harmful contributed to the rural exodus and decline of traditional ways of life along with skills which may then die out with no one to pass them on to. Boatmaker Endo had long since retired from making boats and had never taken on any apprentices but at an advanced age finally consented to teach a local carpenter how to make boats the traditional way, a special Shinto ceremony conducted as the next generation boat is completed. Meanwhile we also see a Shinto ceremony performed for the Mushi Jizo which protects people from disease born by insects such as the tsu-tsu living in the river which both gives and takes. Gently observational, Sato captures these disappearing ways of life with a poignant lyricality while equally addressing the politicisation of life along the river in a sense poisoned by modernity as the villagers must come together to fight for justice in a society which seems to have all but forgotten them. 


Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Aga ni Ikiru) streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

A Movie Capital (映画の都, Toshio Iizuka, 1991)

As the opening of Toshio Iizuka’s A Movie Capital (映画の都, Tokyo no Miyako) makes plain, 1989 was a year of turbulence all over the world but also perhaps also of hope as many of the directors invited to the very first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival often insist in positioning their art as an act of resistance against authoritarianism. In essence a visual record commemorating the festival’s inauguration, Iizuka’s film also has its meta qualities interrogating not only what documentary is and what it’s for but its potential as a means of bringing disparate communities together in an exchange of truth and solidarity. 

In fact, the film opens with a brief prologue dedicated to Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens, who sadly passed away just before the festival opened, contrasting Ivens’ 1928 work The Bridge with the box office hit of that year in Japan, Shozo Makino’s Chushingura. Jumping into the film proper we witness something similar as the tranquility of the Bubble-era nation is directly contrasted with the events of Tiananmen Square as seen in a video sent to the festival by a Chinese associate living in Hong Kong. In actuality, the first Yamagata featured no films from Asia in its competition section provoking a symposium in which a number of Asian directors, producers, and critics discuss why that might be. Ironically enough, fifth generation Mainland Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Horse Thief) was invited but unable to speak because, as his wife explains during an exasperating phone call, it’s not as easy for someone from China to travel abroad as it would be for someone elsewhere. The authorities haven’t granted him permission to leave and so he cannot even apply for a passport. 

Censorship and an element of personal danger to oneself or one’s family are otherwise cited as reasons documentary filmmaking has not taken taken off in Asia. The director of May 80 Dreamy Land which concerns the Gwangju Uprising is also unable to attend because he is currently on trial. Meanwhile, his representative Kong Su-Chang laments that he is among the older members of his small circle of documentary filmmakers who are of a generation without mentors having to teach themselves how to make films because there was no one there teach them. Filipino directors meanwhile cite the continuing influence of America along with wealth inequality as potential reasons the documentary has not flourished while asking if documentary and entertainment are in some way incompatible given that documentary is at its most popular at moments of crisis. 

Still as almost every interview states at one time or another, their primary goal is to make sure the voices of their subjects are heard and their faces seen determined to capture the everyday experiences of ordinary people as honestly as possible. While it’s obviously true that none of them were themselves included in the competition, many directors also claim that more important is the opportunity to meet other filmmakers in order to generate friendships and exchange ideas. They see their mission as making the world a better place to live hoping to challenge the status quo through their filmmaking while what Yamagata becomes to them is an opportunity to improve the fortunes of documentary filmmakers throughout Asia through mutual solidarity while the town of Yamagata itself also comes together as a community in order to celebrate documentary art even recruiting the marching band of a local primary school to help. 

One director’s suggestion that the future will become harder for dictators thanks to the democratisation of technology may in a sense be naive but in its own way true in the ability of ordinary people to record their own stories even if they face the same difficulties and dangers. Even so Iizuka’s assembled footage from the films which played that first edition alongside interview and Q&A footage not only help to give an impression of the open and enquiring nature of the festival, but also to interrogate itself and its art asking what it’s for and what purpose it can serve at a moment of geopolitical instability as the Berlin Wall falls and the echoes of Tiananmen reverberate while documenting not only a single event but its purpose and intention. 


A Movie Capital streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Kyoko Miyake, 2013)

“I can’t let TEPCO ruin my life” the heroine of Kyoko Miyake’s personal documentary My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Nami no Mukou) eventually asserts, explaining that when you have no more tears to cry then you become defiant. Having lived in London for 10 years prior to filming the documentary, a lack of defiance was something that had initially interested Miyake, wondering if she’d simply been away too long no longer understanding why everyone in her family’s hometown of Namie in Fukushima continued to refer to the Tokyo Electric Power Company in such affectionate terms. Then again, as her aunt Kuniko points out before losing her patience, “anger won’t get us anywhere”.

Returning to Japan soon after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Miyake details her own relationship with Namie, rendered uninhabitable after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, during her opening voiceover describing it as a warm and nostalgic place marked by a sense of rural tranquility. Nevertheless through making the documentary she comes to question both herself and the town, wondering why it was that people were so keen to have the plant come when the prevailing wisdom of her own generation was anti-nuclear and wary of duplicitous heavy industry. As her aunt and her friends reveal, however, post-war Namie was a poor village where farmers often had to leave for city jobs over the winter to make ends meet. Some grew envious of other local towns which had become economically prosperous thanks to corporate investment while others remained sceptical. Those who refused to sell their land for the development of another nuclear plant were harassed into submission by those convinced of its benefits, while TEPCO was keen to invite the local community to inspect existing plants to prove that they were safe. 

An awkward and in fact incredibly sexist propaganda video targeted at local wives and mothers demonstrates that safety was still an issue as late as the ‘90s, a company representative ominously claiming that the plant has been designed to withstand a tsunami before adding “we will never betray your trust”. Many residents still want to believe in TEPCO’s promises, sure that they will somehow fix what is broken even while many of them are trapped in temporary housing with no idea when or if they’ll be allowed to return home. Aunt Kuniko tries to stay cheerful, bored with trying to kill time having previously devoted herself entirely to work. Miyake describes her aunt as a feminist pioneer who showed her how to be glamorous and successful while also having a rich family life. Ironically enough, Kuniko ran both a wedding parlour and a funeral home right next to each other with a bakery in-between. She wanted her children to take the businesses over, but her three sons have already moved on, one buying an apartment and starting a business of his own far away without saying anything at all about it to her. 

The tsunami disaster has deepened a generational divide with the young leaving the area to make new lives elsewhere while as one old lady puts it the elderly are left behind with nothing to do but laugh. These people haven’t just lost their homes, they’ve lost their hometown, in a sense orphaned and free floating in a Japan struggling to find space for them as the heartrending echoes of plaintive folksong Furusato make clear. Forced to accept they may never be able to return, Kuniko looks for new premises but only for her funeral home conceding that there’s not much future in the wedding business, with all of the youngsters gone there’s no one left to get married. “There’s no such thing as absolute safety” she laments, regretting having been duped by TEPCO and the dubious promises they sold even as they positioned themselves as the driving force of the post-war economic miracle. The town felt proud by proxy that the energy they generated went into rebuilding the country, but as Miyake admits as long as the lights stay on in Tokyo no one cares about Fukushima or about the people still living in temporary accommodation caught in a never-ending limbo waiting for someone to tell them what they’re supposed to do now that everything they’ve ever worked for or built is lost in an instant. 

While her husband remains somewhat sympathetic to TEPCO, arguing that the problem isn’t nuclear power but safety, Kuniko begins to lose her patience taking part in protest marches against the plant while trying to salvage what she can from her old life. Miyake bookends the film with images of post-Fukushima Namie now an eerie ghost town, pastries still sitting in Kuniko’s bakery the area’s timelessness ironically mirroring Miyake’s description of it in her childhood memories as a kind of time-warp to post-war Japan from bubble-era Tokyo. An elegy for a community erased, Miyake’s quietly angry documentary takes aim at indifferent government and corporate greed, but finds also a stoical sense of endurance as Kuniko waters her abandoned flowers and prepares to start again. 


My Atomic Aunt streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

SUMODO ~The Successors Of Samurai~ (相撲道~サムライを継ぐ者たち~, Eiji Sakata, 2020)

“Every day is a traffic accident” according to a sumo wrestler describing the motion of two men colliding each trying to shove the other out of a protected area. Often regarded as a quintessentially Japanese combat sport, sumo has also come in for its share of misconceptions sometimes mocked or dismissed as a pastime popular mainly among the elderly or else a source of comedy in which in two large men clumsily grapple with each other. It’s precisely these unfair stereotypes that Eiji Sakata’s documentary SUMODO ~The Successors Of Samurai~ (相撲道~サムライを継ぐ者たち~, Sumodo ~Samurai o tsugu monotachi~) hopes to correct in gaining unprecedented access to the usually secretive world of professional sumo. 

He does this largely through focussing on two very different sumo stables and two key tournaments, one at New Year and the other in May. Though he interviews several of the rikishi at each, he adopts two main subjects who eventually clash in the ring but otherwise avoids clear narrative for an overview of what it’s like to live as a professional sumo wrestler in the present day which is to say a lifestyle that is largely unchanged over hundreds of years. Perhaps surprisingly, he even stops to appreciate the way in which a sumo tournament has also become something of a fashion show in which an audience comes expressly to appreciate the traditional kimono modelled by the rikishi as they make their way towards the auditorium. Living communally at the stable where they train, sumo wrestlers are expected to dress in traditional clothing at all times and wear their hair in a traditional style. 

Their diet is of course strictly monitored in order to help them maintain their weight. At the second of the stables, Takadagawa, food is a particular issue one rikishi stating that the high quality of the cuisine is one reason he chose to train there and while the chef explains that he keeps the vegetable content high and is keen to encourage healthy, nutritious eating the stable master is also determined that the meals be tasty rather than an austere exercise in body building. Sumo wrestlers do nevertheless eat quite a lot, the director perhaps regretting his decision to take the rikishi from the first stable Sakaigawa out for Korean barbecue when they literally eat the place out of its entire stock of meat generating a bill for US$8000 for under 50 people. 

Even so, despite their size the sumo wrestlers are necessarily extremely fit and spend much of their time deliberately building muscle. Whereas Sakaigawa is more traditional in its rather austere outlook, the master at Takadagawa, a former rikishi himself, explains that the sport has in a sense changed in keeping with the modern society in that he’s moved away from an aggressive coaching style that some might regard as bullying or harassment towards something kinder that values endurance and perseverance. The contrast is also visible in the choice of the two protagonists, Goeido being much more the traditional image of a sumo wrestler with his rather intense demeanour and emphasis on manly stoicism, whereas Ryuden is a surprisingly cheerful man with a joyful laugh and aura of serenity. 

Yet even Goeido describes the tournament process as mentally and physically exhausting despite fighting only one bout a day. At one particular tournament he tears a muscle in his upper arm but refuses to have it strapped unwilling to expose his area of weakness to an opponent later criticising younger wrestlers for making too much fuss over injury advising them that they should remain stoical without complaint like “true men”. Despite his more progressive coaching style, the master of Takadagawa says something similar in regarding injuries as tests from god or else a clear sign that more training is necessary. Ryuden himself suffered recurrent problems from a broken pelvis that saw him temporarily demoted but worked his way back to health by concentrating on “the basics”, later advising younger rikishi that there’s no hurry what’s important is to keep pushing through and avoid giving up too easily. The spirit of sumo, however, never changes at least according to the closing text. Illuminating the sport’s ancient history and ties to shinto ritual through a brief animated sequence, Sakata is most interested in the everyday lives of sumo wrestlers and the physical, emotional toll the sport can take on their lives as they push their bodies to the absolute limit of their capabilities. 


SUMODO ~The Successors Of Samurai~ screens in Canberra (Oct. 31), Perth (Nov. 7), Brisbane (Nov. 14), Melbourne (Nov. 20/23) and Sydney (Nov. 26/28) as part of this year’s Japanese Film Festival Australia.

Original trailer (English subtitles)