The Light of Spring (ひかりのどけき, Fumito Fujikawa, 2022)

“The more we try to be a family the more we feel like strangers” a husband laments reflecting on the pressures of the contemporary society which seem to have stretched his marriage possibly to breaking point. Starring a cast of non-professional actors, actually a real family living in the suburbs of Tokyo, Fumito Fujikawa’s neorealist drama The Light of Spring (ひかりのどけき, Hikari Nodokeki) examines the effects of familial breakdown largely from the perspective of the couple’s young son Shui (Shui Hirabuki) as he struggles to process the changes in his life and the indefinite absence of one parent or another. 

As the film opens, the father (Masana Hirabuki) hugs his infant daughter, Chikasa (Chikasa Hirabuki), while the mother (Yuki Kimura) gets her son, Shui, ready for an outing repeatedly asking him if he is able to do things for himself such as zip up his jacket or put on his mask as if preparing him for an early independence. She puts a backpack on his shoulders and tells him dad is taking him somewhere nice, but when the pair get back she and Chikasa will be gone. Something has obviously gone wrong in the parents’ relationship and the mother is taking Chikasa with her to the grandparents as the couple embark on a trial separation. 

The majority of the rest of the film focusses on the boy and his father adjusting to life alone as little Shui attempts to process what’s happening thinking that perhaps his mother has just gone away somewhere temporarily and will return in a few days. Indeed, his father does not tell him concretely that she won’t be coming back, just that he doesn’t really know if or when meanwhile they leave the baby gate in place even though there’s no baby around each of them stepping over it to access the kitchen and the balcony. Dad tries to make it fun, spending additional time with his son, but also discovers the pressures of being a single parent having to rearrange his working life in order to accommodate picking him up from school. Even so as he later admits to him the trial separation is working out in his favour. Without apologising he explains in simple terms that he feels trapped by the responsibility of fatherhood and is coming to believe perhaps it’s better if he and his wife do not continue to live together. 

The mother meanwhile is beginning to feel the opposite, asking her own mother if she often fought with her father and getting a fairly typical answer wondering if perhaps they’re overreacting and should try and find a new way through together. Where dad shuts down Shui’s questions, he even wondering at one point if Chikasa is still alive, she is more mindful on the effect on the children returning home when Shui calls her from a public telephone and taking him back to the grandparents only for him to then miss his dad. Dad meanwhile thinks he needs more time to decide, uncomfortably admitting that he likes it better with fewer responsibilities but perhaps in the end also missing his family.  “I wonder what a family is supposed to be” mum sighs, “we’re becoming more and more like strangers” as the pressures of the contemporary society along with the pressing anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic distance them ever further from each other. She remains at the table, but the father tells her to go with increasing intensity as if making clear that he no longer wants to have this discussion and means to exile his family from his life continuing to live in the family home marked as it is by a sense of absence while they remain displaced temporarily housed with the grandparents. 

Shot in the classic 4:3 of retro home video, Fujikawa’s neorealist drama captures the everyday life of a contemporary family with its trips to the park, museums, and burger bars or just cooking together at home but also hints at the anxieties which come with it exacerbated by the existential anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic. “Nothing’s unbreakable” the father admits, “but I’m sad when they break” the boy complains. “Even if you take good care of things, some things still break” his father goes on to explain in what seems like more of a life lesson than might be expected in a discussion about a worn-out pillow. Even so perhaps they don’t break all the way, as the hopeful conclusion implies set amid the pretty cherry blossom not quite in full bloom in a quiet corner of an otherwise busy city. 


The Light of Spring screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Switchback (スイッチバック, Shunnosuke Iwata, 2022)

Really, everything in life is a learning experience but how should you feel if something that you thought was quite profound and serendipitous was actually engineered even if the way you reacted to it wasn’t? The young heroes of Shunnosuke Iwata’s Switchback (スイッチバック) find themselves caught in a moment of confusion uncertain how far they should trust the adult world while equally at odds with each other and trying to figure out what it is they may want out of life. 

Brazilian-Japanese teenagers Arham and Chiemi are attending a summer workshop project along with basketball enthusiast Suzuka while her childhood friend Eiichiro never actually shows up. Led by Tokyo influencer Rei, the kids will be working together in order to produce a video of a ball bouncing through the countryside. By reversing the footage to make it seem as if the ball is on its own little adventure she hopes to create a sense of the uncanny and with it a new perspective. Arham doesn’t quite get the point of it, but participates anyway and ends up forming a special bond with an old man in a wheelchair they encounter who has a hobby of flying drones. Yet when he finally arrives, Eiichiro claims to have seen the old man walking around and accepting something from Rei assuming he must be some kind of stooge and the children’s adventure they’ve all been on since has been a setup. 

Arham is very invested in the old man’s story and outright rejects Eiichiro’s suggestions that he isn’t “real”, carrying out an investigation into everything he told them about a former airfield that had been built in their town during the war and was later bought by a media company for recording aerial footage. What he discovers is that all of that seems to be true save for one crucial personal detail the old man had mentioned, leaving a grain of doubt in his mind while he continues to resent Eiichiro despite being unable to come up with a reason as to why he would lie. Eiichiro is in fact not quite telling the whole truth though he’s right about the old man, engaging in a kind of engineered adventure of his own but later offers the explanation that adults too are often frustrated and they may have tried to “destroy” Arham because they’re jealous of his cheerful and openhearted nature. 

Even though he concedes that he still experienced what he experienced for himself after meeting the old man, developing an interest in drones and learning a lot of local and aviation history, Arham is uncertain how he should feel about being manipulated, disappointed on trying to confront Rei and hearing exactly the same speech as she’d used in her influencer videos explaining her approach to life and art aiming to give young people a head start in gaining new experiences without them realising that they’re being taught something even if she doesn’t otherwise attempt to push them in a particular direction simply provide the catalyst for growth. Chiemi experiences something similar when she’s offered the opportunity to become a model, a skeevy older man repeatedly telling her she is suited to the work and may have a promising future, adding that she has a quality of ferocity that “Japanese” kids don’t while she complains that she dislikes being told what does and doesn’t suit her preferring to do as she pleases whether other people think it suits her or not. 

Suzuka meanwhile quietly struggles to fit in on her own having come to the town only eight years previously hinting that she and her family may have moved in the wake of the 2011 earthquake but stating only that she doesn’t like to talk of it either traumatised or fearing stigmatisation. Unity came first security second she claims of her basketball team reflecting on the positivity she experienced as they came together before a match in the face of their opponents. The kids perhaps do something similar as they each in their own way react to adult duplicity while deciding to take it in their stride embracing the experiences they’ve had as their own. Rei’s social experiment could easily have backfired leaving them cynical and indifferent, unwilling to believe in or pursue anything fearing that there is no objective truth only manipulation but in they end they run the other way, deciding to trust each other and themselves while creating new experiences of their own. Produced in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the town of Obu in rural Aichi Prefecture, Iwata captures the beauty of the local landscape along with the natural openness it engenders in allowing the children to become fully themselves as they ride their own individual switchbacks to adulthood.   


Switchback screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Kasho Iizuka, 2022)

A resentful young man struggles to orient himself amid constant xenophobia and social prejudice in Kasho Iizuka’s sympathetic coming-of-drama Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Sekai wa Bokura ni Kizukanai). At a difficult age, he flails around lashing out at all around him without fully comprehending the consequences of his actions, but eventually comes to understand a little more about his mother’s past, his place in Japan, his relationships with his extended family, and his possibilities for the future while searching for the father he has never really known save for a name on his maintenance payments. 

Jun’s (Kazuki Horike) main source of resentment is towards his mother, Reina (GOW), a Filipina bar hostess by whom he feels emotionally neglected while unfairly blaming her for the discrimination he faces for being mixed ethnicity. The pair live incredibly modestly as Reina sends all her money back to her family in the Philippines even telling Jun to use his child support payments to get the electric turned back on if it bothers him that much, leaving Jun feeling as if he isn’t really included her definition of “family” or that perhaps she resents him as a burden that causes her to hold back even more of her pay. That’s one reason that he becomes so irate on coming home one day and unexpectedly finding an unfamiliar man in his pants in their living room only to be told he’s his mum’s new boyfriend, Mr. Morishita, who will be moving in the week after next because they’re getting married. Granted, this is not an ideal way to find out about such a drastic change in his living circumstances but Jun just can’t accept it, fearing firstly that Reina is after his money only to discover to his further bemusement that Morishita is also unemployed.  

News of his mother’s impending wedding has Jun feeling even more pushed out than before, especially when Reina confirms that if he’s forcing her to choose she’s going to choose Morishita and he’ll have to fend for himself. Meanwhile, his high school boyfriend Yosuke is already talking up the possibilities of marriage seeing as their prefecture has recently brought in a same sex partnership scheme. Though Yosuke excitedly talks it over with his supportive parents, Jun is noticeably sullen replying honestly that he really isn’t sure if it’s a such a good idea mostly because he doesn’t want Yosuke to get “dragged” into his ever increasing financial responsibilities to his extended Filipino family. Like many of the other kids, Jun has left his careers survey blank and it’s his refusal to think seriously about his future that eventually disrupts his relationship with Yosuke. 

In response to all of these crises, he decides to try tracking down his birth father whom he has never met a quest which takes him through a series of Filipino hostess bars across their largely rural area and eventually to a man, Watanabe, who was once married to “Loopy Lisa” as she was then but is not actually his dad. Even so, Watanabe begins to open his eyes and change his perspective on his mother’s occupation for which he had previously looked down her beginning to understand the sacrifices she is making not only for her family back home but for him too and that while her love may be difficult for him to understand it is not absent. Meanwhile, she too faces prejudice and discrimination on more than one level, a co-worker at a part-time job at a bowling alley she took while laid off from a bar struggling in the post-corona economy expressing openly racist sentiment even in front of their boss, and from the local council when she tries to apply for rent relief which she is denied on the grounds that those working in the “adult entertainment” industry are not eligible for benefits. 

Reina gives as good as she gets and refuses to let discrimination slide, but Jun finds it all quite embarrassing and is carrying a degree of internalised shame which later leads her challenge him on his fragile sense of identity that he too looks down on her as an inherently dishonest foreigner just like any other prejudiced Japanese person no different from her unpleasant colleague or the kids at school who’d bullied him for being half-Filipino, gay, and the son of a bar hostess. Confronted with his own bad behaviour and gaining a new perspective thanks both to Mr Watanabe and Morishita whom he realises is sensitive, kind, and genuinely cares for his mother he begins to envisage a future for himself only to have his horizons broadened once again when Yosuke introduces him to a young woman at the school, Mina, who is asexual but wants to raise a family and is looking for another kind of partnership that hints at a new evolution of the family unit. 

A willingness to embrace the idea of family and of being a part of one himself marks Jun’s passage into adulthood, coming to an understanding of his mother and her relationship with her family in the Philippines and willing to take on the responsibilities of a committed relationship in mutual solidarity and support. A highly empathetic coming-of-age tale, Angry Son never shies away from societal issues such as widespread xenophobia, homophobia, bullying, prejudice, and discrimination but eventually allows its enraged hero to discover a new sense of confidence in his identity in order to forge his own future in a sometimes hostile environment. 


Angry Son screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

International trailer (dialogue free)

Images: ©2022「世界は僕らに気づかない」製作委員会

Body Remember (ボディ・リメンバー, Keita Yamashina, 2021)

“It’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not.” according to the hero of Keita Yamashina’s twisty take on meta noir, Body Remember (ボディ・リメンバー). For him, the superficial, literal truth is perhaps less important than that which it conceals, hoping to expose the buried reality hidden between the lines in the novel he is attempting to write inspired by a story narrated by his infinitely unreliable femme fatale cousin Yoko (Yume Tanaka). Shifting between an apparently concrete “reality” that is perhaps exposed as anything but by the final scene, dreams, memories, and the act of creation, Yamashina hints at collective fantasies and the essential truth of sensation as his artist hero attempts to turn an enigma into art. 

An unsettling presence, Yoko strides into a cafe dressed in a vibrant red and proceeds to explain to novelist Haruhiko (Takaya Shibata) and his artist girlfriend Ririko (Momoka Ayukawa) that she has long found it difficult to distinguish reality from dream, believing in a sense that the “truth” is irrelevant. Her story seems to be a rather ordinary if tawdry one of finding herself at the centre of a love triangle but also feeling like a third wheel as if she were a puzzle piece hovering over empty spaces unsure where to land while the men are comfortably installed in their rightful places. When lawyer Jiro (Ryuta Furuya) turns up at the bar she has been running with husband Akira (Yohei Okuda) and mournfully explains he suspects his wife is having an affair, the trio reassume an intimacy from their uni days which is later broken by a passionate embrace between Jiro and Yoko accidentally witnessed by the betrayed Akira. 

Playing with images of sex and death, Yoko also recounts that seeing Jiro loosen his tie provoked in her a powerful urge to strangle him with it. Yoko apologises for scaring Haruhiko, but on the contrary he seems to find it arousing later openly telling Ririko that he too is captivated by Yoko while she complains that Jiro and Akira, now (or perhaps always) characters in a novel, are underwritten foils who exist only for Yoko. Haruhiko in a sense agrees, but also pulls focus and makes his potential story, in fact the story we have been watching, about the two men, foreseeing a conclusion which is all manliness and honour tinged with a frisson of homoeroticism that joins them both in the inevitable death foreshadowed in the opening scene. 

Yet Ririko wants to know the truth of it, investigating the bar where Yoko claimed to work and discovering that no such establishment ever existed though the location was recently used by a shady cult. Perhaps jealous, she dreams of an intimate encounter between the smitten Haruhiko and his “sexy” cousin, yet later reflects on her own tendency to run away from reality in flights of fancy. Her revelations perhaps provoke a deeper intimacy with her conflicted boyfriend who finds himself attempting to construct an “authentic” narrative from unreliable testimony, but then again we can’t be sure everything we see is real as the couple engage in a surreal game of beach volleyball with two men resembling Akira and Jiro whose behaviour is strange and childlike if displaying a similar intimacy to that which they appear to share in Haruhiko’s nascent “novel”. 

Challenged by Ririko, Haruhiko merely disappears his heroine, avowing that in the end she was never important in his story about the ambiguous relationship between two men turning her into a mythical femme fatale while Ririko continues to sketch her rival in an attempt to figure her out. Yoko herself tells us that she sees no real distinction between dream and reality that one is no more true or important than the other while insisting that while her mind may forget the facts, the sensation is recorded in her body which will always “remember” if indistinctly. 

Using a cast of mostly theatre actors, Yamashina crafts an unsettling atmosphere founded on tactile sensuality that belies the frequent unreliability of verbal communication while the jazz score and shadowy photography contribute to the sense of noirish dread complete with wafting cigarette smoke and a fatalistic, morally ambivalent conclusion. Further disrupting our sense of reality with a final self cameo, Body Remembers nevertheless reminds us that the truth is less important than our perception of it just as it returns us to where we started even less certain than before. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ton-Kaka-Ton (トンカカトン, Teppei Kohira, 2020)

“Life’s meant to be enjoyed, right?” the fun-loving uncle at the centre of Teppei Kohira’s Ton-Kaka-Ton (トンカカトン) tries to convince his grumpy nephew, but it’s a difficult lesson to learn for a young man apparently so overburdened with loss. Set in a small fishing village in rural Fukui, Kohira’s quiet coming-of-age tale is as much about familial reconnection and paternal legacy as it is about frustrated futures, but is in essence the story of a moody youngster learning to carve a life for himself in which he can stand alone.

19-year-old Nobu has just started work with his uncle Shinji at the local boathouse. Having lost his father at some unspecified point in the past, Nobu remains sullen and uncommunicative apparently not altogether excited about his new job heading off to the workshop alone rather than waiting for his uncle to pick him up. Shinji wanted to hold a party to celebrate Nobu getting a job, but he tries to wriggle out of it and then sits in the corner staring at his phone rather than joining in. He is perhaps a little irritated by the whole thing, feeling railroaded by his well-meaning uncle into an occupation he might not have chosen while also belittled in feeling as if he’s not actually allowed to do very much because he’s still only in training and Shinji keeps stopping him from trying anything complicated. Matters come to a head when Shinji sends him out on a private errand during work hours, driving his aunt to her regular hospital checkup for a heart condition but Nobu, apparently fed up, throws her out of the truck in the middle of the highway and then drives off leaving her behind. Whichever way you look at it, this is unjustifiably irresponsible behaviour, but is all the more galling when Shinji is forced to reveal that he asked him to take her, in part, because he has recently learned he is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer and has only a few months at most to live. 

Of course, Shinji is in part hoping that Nobu will continue to look in on his aunt seeing as they have no children of their own and he quite plainly positions himself as a surrogate father to Nobu following his brother-in-law’s death. Nobu, however, is moody in the extreme and actively resists fathering, apparently irritated by his uncle’s admittedly large personality. Shinji works hard and is an accomplished craftsman, but he also likes to have a good time and is, in Nobu’s eyes, irresponsible, always adding to his tab at the cafe run by an old school friend who knows him too well to expect any better while continuing to smoke and drink knowing that it can hardly make much difference now. Other than his wife, Shinji’s main worry is that he won’t be around to finish teaching Nobu everything he needs to know for the future or continue guiding him towards a more settled manhood. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Nobu’s mother suggests that he temporarily move in with with his uncle and aunt so he can spend quality time with him while he’s still around, much to Shinji’s excitement and Nobu’s chagrin. Nevertheless, enforced proximity does perhaps begin to bring the two men together, Nobu eventually scrubbing his uncle’s back at the local baths in a typically filial gesture. “It’s actually quite painful, and that’s proof of life!” Shinji ironically exclaims, though Nobu continues to struggle with his anxiety over his uncle’s illness, cruelly berating him that if he weren’t ill they wouldn’t all be suffering. There’s a kind of projection in his charges of “selfishness” and “self-obsession” as he continues in his sullen denial and resentment, only latterly bonding as Shinji imparts the rest of his remaining knowledge including the proper technique for a hammer and chisel chipping away at his moody facade.

“Learn what you can by watching others” he eventually tells him, as much a reminder to be present in the world as a workplace instruction given in the knowledge he is running out of time. Learning to accommodate loss, Nobu perhaps also comes to appreciate not only absence but legacy, accepting what his uncle left behind in the form of his teaching feeling less abandoned and alone than reconnected with family and history yet also carving his own path as he prepares to move forward into a more settled adulthood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My World (Murantin, 2021)

Perhaps we’ve all had that lonely feeling recently, walking around eerily empty streets as if somehow the world had ended while we were asleep and now we’re all alone, but the hero of theatre actor Murantin’s feature debut My World is about to discover that he really is (almost) the last of his kind as he struggles to reconstruct his history, identity, and sense of self while encountering only two other women one young and one more his own age but each with strange and unclear motives. 

A man wakes up naked in a park, almost rebirthed in a sense, and rises in confusion. Finding a grey tracksuit abandoned a little way away he wanders through a town he doesn’t recognise where all the stores are closed and there are no people nor any traffic on the streets. With no sign of life to be found he’s drawn towards a library but finds little in terms of illumination before leaving and noticing a second Earth hanging in the sky where the moon ought to be. Returning to the park he sleeps, but is woken in the morning by an apparently concerned high school girl who later offers him a place in her home where she is currently living alone as her siblings are away and her parents abroad. A kind gesture, but perhaps not very sensible given her circumstances. In any case, she tells the man not to go out, buying him some nicer clothes and cooking dinner every night.

With no memories of his own, the man remains confused. The high school girl appears to be living normally. She leaves every day to attend class which suggests there are other people around though he never sees any and the strangely old-fashioned TV in the living room only displays static. One day she informs him her boyfriend wants to come over so he’ll have to make himself scarce, later escorting him to the basement where she handcuffs him to a water pipe. Why would a regular high school girl own a pair of sparkly handcuffs with fairytale-esque little blue keys? Why is he not supposed to look into any of the other bedrooms? What secrets is this world hiding from him? The plot begins to thicken when he decides to break the rule and follow the high school girl to see where she goes, only to find himself at the library again where he encounters a middle-aged woman in what appears to be her negligee. 

The man is in a sense imprisoned within the house, the handcuffs a literal extension of his mental constraint in a world which may be of his own making in wilful self-exile from a traumatic past. His strange dreams hint at another life, possibly on the other Earth, in which there are flashes of potential violence. Before long he begins encountering other versions of himself, fracturing under the weight of his internal confusion when directly confronted. The high school girl tells him he’s creating too much “disorder” and the only way to repair it is to go back to his own world, but the man doesn’t want to. Describing it as painful, he insists there’s no need to return if he can stay with the high school girl but in the end he will have to face himself and the traumatic past from which he seems to be in mental flight. 

Dreamlike in its uncanniness, Murantin’s camera chases a man on the run from himself as he walks through a world already dead, a still place with no past or future. He does not know himself, and no one else does either or at least that’s what they claim. The world is quite literally his, a place which he has unwittingly created in refuge from his trauma but he is no god only a man imprisoning himself, a wilful exile from a world he couldn’t accept. A tale of guilt and loneliness, My World offers its hero a chance at redemption through facing his past, accepting his responsibility, and learning the truth about himself but nevertheless concludes that there may be only one path to freedom while atoning for his transgressions in a world suddenly more alive and once more in motion. 


My World streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Kyoshin (共振, Keiichi Higuchi, 2021)

In modern society we often criticise others, but not always ourselves, for a perceived lack of empathy but what would it be like to truly empathise with everyone, all of the time, with no control over our own feelings? The hero of Keiichi Higuchi’s psychological drama Kyoshin (共振) finds himself with just this problem after a traumatic incident leaves him with both intense PTSD and the unwelcome side effect of being forced to feel the pain of others as his own. 

26-year-old Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) thought of himself as perhaps a little over sensitive, feeling obvious discomfort sat opposite two salarymen arguing loudly in a crowded restaurant while also somewhat disconnected from his partner in a moment of supposed intimacy. It’s one evening on the beach, however, when everything goes into overdrive. Spotting two guys manhandling a screaming woman into a van he and his friend Gin (Keisuke Sohma) intervene but aren’t much of a match for two the young thugs and find themselves tied up and stunned in the back while the woman is forced to provide oral sex to the driver. Taking advantage of a momentary lapse from the other man who was busy interrogating Gin and Takehiko, the woman takes drastic action of her own in a bid to escape. Gin tries to help her, but seeing what’s befallen the driver Takehiko is plunged into fugue state able to do nothing other than scream in pain as if it were he that had suffered the catastrophic injury. 

A year on, Takehiko is a broken shell of a man unable to venture outside owing to the intense assault of other people’s pain. Ignoring calls from Gin, he’s cared for by his older brother Yuya (Daichi Yamaguchi) who ferries him to various doctor’s appointments, jeopardising his own employment in the process. Sick of medical professionals unwilling to admit they don’t know how to help him and obsessed with the curse of 27, Takehiko decides he’ll take his own life if there’s no improvement in his condition by his next birthday but then discovers potential salvation in an experimental programme run by a lesbian couple in which he will receive treatment from a woman who once experienced something very similar to himself but claims to have learned to live with it. 

The irony is that Takehiko’s condition is caused by extreme empathy in that he cannot avoid feeling other people’s physical pain as his own, yet he continues to treat those around him badly blind to the emotional toll caring for him is taking on them. His brother, feeling a parental responsibility as their parents passed away young, drops everything to help him but his boorish boss, ironically, has a fundamental lack of empathy. Annoyed that Yuya takes so much time off, he openly mocks him making the rather irrelevant point that Takehiko is 26 not six and therefore shouldn’t need so much care virtually accusing him of mollycoddling as if the problem were Yuya’s anxiety rather than his brother’s precarious mental health. 

Yet the experimental programme Takehiko finds himself involved with raises its own collection of ethical questions as the psychiatrist pushes him into a series of erotic situations arguing that if he learns to empathise across the emotional spectrum to experience other people’s pleasure as well as their pain he’ll be able to turn it off much more easily or at least flatten it out. She implies that similar therapies are what has enabled her to live a relatively normal life, but fails to disclose that she is also carrying a similar trauma which the treatment ironically recalls while largely failing to deal with the obvious possibility of transference in the potentially inappropriate lack of boundaries between patient and doctor. 

It might not be appropriate to ask how much empathy is too much empathy, but Takehiko’s path to recovery ironically enough lies only in secondary shock and a brush with death that allows him to reconnect with his friend Gin, suffering alone in their shared trauma, while empathising emotionally with his brother’s obvious care for him. It isn’t so much that Takehiko needs to disengage with those around him, but learn how to process effectively so that he can better help and understand rather solipsistically internalising external suffering. Shot with a sense of uneasy eeriness and a sci-fi twist in the manifestation of Takehiko’s descent into an oppressive empathy bubble, Higuchi’s provocative drama advocates for caring a little more about the pain of others but not so much that it stops you seeing where it hurts. 


Kyoshin streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lovely Little Ai (愛ちゃん物語♡, Ohno Candice Mana, 2021)

A lonely teenage girl begins to reevaluate her ideas of freedom and family after bonding with a sophisticated older woman from her neighbourhood in Ohno Candice Mana’s cheerfully quirky coming-of-age tale Lovely Little Ai (愛ちゃん物語♡, Ai-chan Monogatari). Aptly named for this is indeed a story of love, Ohno’s gentle drama cycles through the destructive effects of toxic, unsupportive parenting while finally finding solace in the strength of human connections to create new and enduring bonds not tied by blood. 

16-year-old Ai (Akane Sakanoue) explains that she lives alone with her father, her mother having passed away shortly after she was born, though alone is perhaps the most accurate word seeing as workaholic salaryman Tetsuo (Kan Hotoda) is rarely at home. Nevertheless, his authoritarian parenting style borders on the abusive as he bans Ai from hanging out with friends, makes her ask permission before anything she does, and insists she send him a photo of the clock to prove she’s home by the 6pm curfew (why she doesn’t just send the same picture every day is anyone’s guess). Ai seems not to think too much of it, but is also beginning to yearn for more freedom while additionally anxious that she has no friends and no idea how to make them because of her father’s controlling personality. 

Everything changes when she accidentally bumps into another woman on the street, knocking her over and spilling her bespoke cosmetics all over the road. Sensing a connection and hoping to get some feminine advice, Ai asks the woman to stay for a while and eventually ends up becoming friends with her, often eating in her apartment and taking various shopping trips together. In a sense, Ai comes to think of Seiko (Hisao Kurozumi) as a maternal figure but their relationship is later strained when she incorrectly comes to believe that she really is her mother despite having known all along that Seiko is trans and therefore could not have given birth to her. 

Well, Ai mostly refers to Seiko as someone who wears women’s clothing but evidently has no problem accepting her, offended on her behalf when a boy from school, Ryo (Ryo Matsumura), who has a crush on her rudely runs away screaming on seeing them together in town though he later makes a point of apologising explaining that he was merely shocked and had an unusual reaction born of nervousness. Nevertheless, a melancholy flashback reveals Seiko’s difficult childhood with an authoritarian father not unlike Ai’s who disturbingly decapitated her Barbie and broke her colouring in pencils in two in an attempt to discourage her femininity. Watching over Ai she encourages her to embrace her freedom, explaining that life is dull if you can’t do the things you want to do and allowing her the space and confidence to make friends with the popular girls at school while figuring out who she is in defiance of her father’s control. 

Even so on finding evidence that suggests Seiko has been keeping something from her she begins to doubt her new maternal relationship, unfairly feeling betrayed while refusing to give Seiko the opportunity to explain. What she eventually learns is that she’s come to see Seiko as a mother even if they are not related by blood and that the connection she has with her is what is most important. Her decision validates her right to choose and redefine the meaning of family including the boundaries around her own, but also affirms Seiko’s right to play a maternal role despite the rather unkind words Tetsuo had used to describe her before himself getting a wake up call in what it means to be a responsible father. 

Cute and quirky with its pastel colour scheme, whimsical production design, and frequent flights into fancy, Lovely Little Ai is a heartfelt tale of family as active choice in which a young woman comes of age while repairing her fracturing relationships by embracing the love of a new maternal figure and pushing her wounded father into accepting his emotional responsibilities and relinquishing his need for control. A lovely little tale indeed, Ai’s sweet summer story is a breath of fresh air and a welcome advocation for the new family founded on love and mutual respect rather than blood or obligation. 


Lovely Little Ai streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Teaser trailer (no subtitles)

PARALLEL (Daiki Tanaka, 2021)

A wounded young woman in search of a protector and a nihilistic serial killer fight for the meaning of existence in Daiki Tanaka’s dark romantic drama, Parallel. Taking different paths out of a sense of “unworthiness” each look for ways out of this “rotten world” but find themselves mirroring the magical girl anime that inspires the killer’s desire for escape in discovering an uncomfortable sense of mutual salvation in the histories of their shared trauma. 

Panning over a scene of scattered cosmetics and tangled wigs, the camera first lights on the sight of a bearded man gently stroking coloured hair before putting on lipstick in the mirror. We then transition to a scene of violence as a young girl is brutally beaten by her parents who later lock her inside a cupboard only for the cross-dressing man to turn up and kill them with a knife. The man spots the lock on the door and rescues the girl, giving his name as Shinji and asking in a soft voice if the girl, Mai, thinks he is beautiful. Mai nods tearfully, evidently viewing the killer as her saviour. Flashing forward a decade or so, Mai is a 20-year-old woman still haunted by her childhood trauma and captivated by reports of the “Cosplay Killer” who dismembers his victims and places lights inside to make them glow. The Cosplay Killer uploads photos of Shinji along with videos of his kills though it seems that Shinji was killed by police at the scene of Mai’s parents’ murder so the current killer is thought to be a copycat. 

That turns out to be true and not. A very emo, nihilistic young man, Mikio is a manga artist working on a magical girl series in which humanoid robots developed as anthropomorphic weapons develop a sense of humanity after becoming “broken” through fighting an earlier iteration of themselves inspired by Shinji. Something similar happens to Mikio on encountering Mai. A sociopath with no sense of morality, he is confused by his innate connection with the wounded young woman apparently the only person he would not like to kill, which makes him think perhaps he should kill her. 

Meanwhile, he secretly plots with a collection of similarly disaffected young men fed up with being made to feel inferior by this “rotten” world full of “trash humans” who can’t recognise people from machines. The present source of their ire is TV pundit Okudera who is a frequent commenter on the Cosplay Killer later going on a long rant about how anime should be banned for corrupting the minds of the youth seeing as they never had this kind of thing in their day. Backstage meanwhile he makes a point of humiliating his assistant, forcing him to get down on his knees and apologise for being “worthless” insistent that he should be grateful Okudera is training him so thoroughly when the rest of the world is so cold. 

Mai too just wants to feel “worthy”, laughing about a rubbish date with her friend Kana in which a dating app hook up earnestly declared his love. Kana not unfairly thinks that might have been a little creepy but even though she doesn’t plan to see the man again Mai enjoyed the attention in the sense that in the moment she needed to feel desirable. That might be why she seems to be making a living through compensated dating, making the middle-aged man she hangs out with wear a wig to better resemble Shinji while he somewhat uncomfortably echoes the words of her abuser in making her say “I love you, Daddy” over a hug to end the session. He offers her more money for a pair of her used panties, but at present Mai thinks that’s a step too far. 

Equally drawn to Mikio, Mai finds herself bonding with the “creepy” young man the pair of them baring their literal scars and then symbolically giving each other new ones with the aid of a box cutter. Mikio is obsessed with the idea of transformation but originally rejects his attraction to Mai because would it tie him to this rotten world rather than the better anime one his killing sprees allow him to escape into, his mangaka mentor later asking him why he can’t use love to transform himself and find new meaning, a kind of Earthly magic, in human connection but all of this is perhaps forgetting that Mikio is a man who stalks, kills, and dismembers his prey later explaining that unlike Mai no one came to save him from the abuse he too suffered and this was the way he freed himself. His concept of revolution has an extremely dark edge reminiscent of that pursued by angry, embittered young men radicalised by their sense of inferiority and so the otherwise touching affirmation from Mai that he has shown her the magical moment everything can change because they can create their own meaning in life has an unavoidable air of discomfort. A mix of slasher horror and emo teen romance, Tanaka’s giallo-esque neon-lit journey through a world of trauma and abuse allows its “broken robot” to find both peace and purpose but equally to avoid responsibility for his heinous violence.


PARALLEL streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Scherzo (スケルツォ, Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu, 2021)

It may be one thing to live profoundly in the moment, but if you have no memory of yesterday and know you’ll have no memory of today tomorrow can you really say that you “exist”? The hero of Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu’s Scherzo (スケルツォ) believes that he’s born every day and dies every day, his mind wiped clean each time he sleeps but how can you learn to find meaning in a life so defiantly brief in which you have no past or future?

Then again, according to a random man in a laundrette people only start thinking about the value of life in order to avoid thinking about how bad their lives are currently when the real answer is to concentrate less on whether your current life has value and more on how to lead a better one. For “Koji” however, a name he chose for himself, the question may be moot. He wakes up every day on a stained mattress in a partially exposed rooftop flat with a sign above telling him to look at the wall where he’s explained to himself that his memory resets every day. A selection of polaroid photos feature the same young woman who also appears in a video tape playing on a nearby TV though Koji doesn’t know who she is. Taking the video camera with him he walks out into the town recording his every movement in lieu of his ability to remember and lives as if there’s no tomorrow because in a sense there isn’t. His first few days he hangs out in a hostess bar where he can’t pay the bill, robs a pizza man, and visits a sex worker for some existential chit chat abandoning the rules of morality in the knowledge that there can be no consequences because he dies by night and his existence is futile. 

All that begins to change, however, when he encounters a woman, Hinako, who looks like the one in his photos and appears to be suffering from the same condition as himself. Bonding with her slowly though neither of them can recall the other, Koji suddenly wants to find a way to remember certain that logically they are here today because of something that happened yesterday because of all the yesterdays that came before. 

Scherzo literally means “joke” in Italian, and you could indeed read Koji’s predicament as a bizarre cosmic prank otherwise unexplained in its absurdity. Yet it’s perhaps also a metaphor for the mutability of memory and elusiveness of love as much as in its usage in classical music a playful allusion to the self-contained brevity of his daily lives. He feels an innate connection to Hinako, as if he must have known her before but simply can’t remember. Even the most essential of emotions, love, can it seems be forgotten or gently fade away even if, as in the bar hostess’ melancholy ballad, something of it remains when everything else is gone. This is in one sense at least, a story of a couple who’d fallen out of love, or perhaps taken it for granted to extent that they’d almost forgotten it was there, rediscovering their feelings for each other and discovering in them a meaning for life. 

Meanwhile, Koji obsessively records all of his actions, filling 40 DV tapes of a sleepless road trip with Hinako, as if a physical recording could be more accurate than an organic memory. Memory is of course subjective and you can never know what it is you’ve forgotten whereas a tape maybe tampered with or faulty but supposedly contains objective truth though even that has a subjective quality simply by virtue of who recorded it and how. Nevertheless, if you can forget love, does memory really count for anything at all? Koji thinks he dies every day, but like Alice in Wonderland no one except for Koji is the same person they were yesterday or will be tomorrow. He can’t change or grow and has only the same version of himself to offer imperfect guidance. Nevertheless it’s love that in a sense restores his identity, gives him the will to remember, and makes it possible for him to live in the shadow of tomorrow rather than in an eternal present. Shot with a deadpan absurdism, Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu’s dryly humorous drama eventually concludes that it’s the memory of love, even if old or faded or failed, that gives life meaning allowing its anxious hero to move forward in finally regaining a sense of self if reflected in the eyes of another.


Scherzo streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.