Plastic Love Story (プラスチック・ラブ・ストーリー, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2014)

plastic love story posterFake plastic love, in the words of Radiohead – it wears you out. For three young women in contemporary Japan each seeking an identity through romantic connection, plastic love will have to do, for a time at least. Ryutaro Nakagawa’s indie feature Plastic Love Story (プラスチック・ラブ・ストーリー) is, in essence, anything but romantic as its three heroines veer dangerously between life and death, each lost, lonely, and lovelorn as they search for the pathways to lead them into a settled adulthood. For all of its gentle coming of age qualities, Plastic Love Story is a dark tale in which release is found only through loss, shared pain, and finally sacrifice.

Office lady Eri (Mai Sakata) is about to quit her job as she believes herself to be pregnant. A common occurrence even in modern Japan, though Eri’s case is less usual because she is not married. After confronting the probable father who wants nothing to do with it or her, Eri becomes fixated on a middle school classmate whom she feels was the last person to really understand her.

Meanwhile, high school girl Rina (Manami Takahashi) has a difficult home life with a flighty mother and distressed father. She dreamed of becoming a ballerina but since a leg injury put paid to her dancing dreams, Rina has tried to fill the void left by parental absence and early disappointment by hooking up with a string of useless boyfriends.

Kanae (Yumi Yamawaki), by contrast, is also a high school girl but sullen and depressed. A childhood trauma involving the death of her younger brother who had learning difficulties which was quickly followed by the death of her mother, has left her with an ongoing sense of guilt and hopelessness. Rejecting an erstwhile suitor from school, Kanae develops an odd relationship with a disturbed, suicidal young man currently in her doctor father’s care.

Each of the three women is in some way damaged, attempting to deal with extreme trauma and doing it all alone. Though they do not know each other and never meet, there are strange connections which bind them in their shared sufferings and inability to escape their oppressive environments. Eri’s loneliness is longstanding, leading her to attempt suicide as a schoolgirl at which point she was saved by the kindly attentions of another loner, Yasu, whom she has come to regard as a kind of absent soulmate. Yasu, in a trope which is repeated in all three stories, has since committed suicide but has left behind a series of videotapes through which, his sister says, he was able to make himself understood as he never could without a camera in his hand. The tapes centre on another high school classmate who seems to have been Yasu’s first (unrequited) love. Watching the videos forces Eri to face facts about her non-existent middle school romance and eventually helps her exorcise the ghost of her lonely teenage self.

Rina and Kanae are not quite so lucky, a little way behind on the path and each required to make a sacrifice of their potential mates in order to achieve what Eri achieves though her unattainable soulmate has already passed on. Rina’s life has been one of subservient neediness as she finds herself trapped in unfulfilling relationships with boys who see her only as a sex object. In fact, one of them actually describes her as a “toilet”, but all Rina says she wants is a “normal” relationship which starts as friends and gradually becomes something more. The janitor at her university has an intense crush on her which Rina originally rebuffs but every insane demand she makes of him, the janitor fulfils making more than a few sacrifices of his own.

Kanae’s relationship with the equally guilt ridden, suicidal young man at her father’s surgery is even less positive than Rina’s manipulative romance as the pair bond through their shared self loathing in feeling responsible for the deaths of people close to them whom they feel they did not try hard enough to save. Leaving aside the fact that the man is in his twenties and Kanae still a schoolgirl, the relationship is an intentionally doomed one. Kanae does not seek love but only an end to loneliness, avowing that no one has enough happiness to save someone else but that someday she plans to go faraway and learn to love herself once again.

Taking a turn for the poetic, Nakagawa has each of the women dance happily as they learn to let go of the objects which have bound them, smiling less painfully and walking with a little more lightness. Three expressions of womanhood, they exclaim that now they know love, they know beauty, they know solitude. The path that leads them here is dark, littered with bodies of those they have lost or have sacrificed in order to enact their own happiness. Plastic does not only imply something “fake” or engineered, but something soft and pliable, which is to say it can be moulded for good or ill. These plastic loves have soon turned rotten, but perhaps there is hope for a better future for each of these women for having come through them, even if their escape was not without cost.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Pinkie (さまよう小指, Lisa Takeba, 2014)

the pinkie posterWhat if someone cloned you and then they liked the other you better? The “hero” of Lisa Takeba’s debut feature The Pinkie (さまよう小指, Samayou Koyubi) is about to find out when his rather depressing life takes a turn for the surreal. Winner of the Grand Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, The Pinkie is an exercise in madcap fun which packs a considerable amount into its barely feature length runtime of 65 minutes. Ever cineliterate, Takeba leaps from sci-fi to romance to yakuza movie and revenge flick but then her ambitions are more grounded in the real as she explores the fallacy of infatuation, the nature of true, selfless love and the necessity of waking up from a romantic dream.

Ryosuke (Ryota Ozawa) has a lifelong problem. Ever since they were five, a girl has been stalking him. Momoko (Miwako Wagatsuma), in Ryosuke’s words, is the ugliest woman in the village. So infatuated is she, that Momoko has even undergone cosmetic surgery to adjust her face to Ryosuke’s tastes but that’s only made him dislike her more. Truth be told, Ryosuke is no great catch. He has no job and exists on the fringes of the underworld. He has, however, found love, of a kind, but unfortunately the lady in question is the paramour of a local gangster kingpin. Discovered in his illicit romance, Ryosuke is tormented by the gangsters until they eventually exact some of their trademark justice by cutting off his pinkie finger which then flies halfway across town and into the path of Momoko who uses it to create her very own Ryosuke clone.

Shifting focus somewhat, Takeba then tells the story of Momoko and the clone whom she christens “Pinkie Red String” in reference both to his origins and to the red strings which bind true lovers together. Momoko begins taking care of Pinkie, buying him clothes and teaching him to survive in the modern world, and before long the two have become a couple.

Ryosuke doesn’t quite like having a doppleganger – especially one who’s almost his polar opposite in terms of outlook and general personality. Under the gentle guidance of Momoko, Pinkie is good person who works hard, is kind to those around him, and is almost entirely selfless. Stolen away by Ryosuke, Pinkie becomes something between maid and prisoner as he takes on a purely domestic role, cooking and cleaning for his new master who later sends him out to work dressed as a woman wearing a long black wig and red dress, just to ram the point home.

Takeba’s aim is madcap fun but she also offers up a commentary on emotional repression as both Momoko and Ryosuke pursue their respective romances. Momoko has only ever wanted to express her love but her methods backfire, eventually getting her sent to a reform school which leads to the breakup of her family. Ryosuke, by contrast seems to be a fairly romantic, if sometimes cynical soul, originally asking if anyone would really sacrifice themselves for love only to attempt to do exactly that later on (though far too late). Neither Ryosuke nor Momoko is able to show their love in a straightforward way, opting for grand gestures over simple words. “Love needs a victim”, as someone later puts it, but there’s no need to run so eagerly to the gallows.

The world of The Pinkie is one of intense genre fusion as Takeba mixes references from classic cinema with the anarchic pace of anime and manga. Mad scientist sci-fi shifts to classic kung fu before cycling back to jitsuroku yakuza movie complete with on screen captions and brief sting of the iconic Battles Without Honour theme, but even if Takeba can’t always control her rate of progression her leaps are always inventive and unexpected, humorous and melancholy in equal measure. Pinkie, fulfilling his stranger in town role, begins to change his progenitor’s cynical psyche. Ryosuke is no longer the selfish loser but has learned to befriend the wounded Momoko who has also realised she can do better, abandoning her youthful fantasies for something more “real”. Then again, perhaps there is a second chance for lost love even if it is, in a sense, a synthetic solution for a very human problem.


Currently available to stream via FilmDoo in most of the world!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Ryutaro Ninomiya, 2017)

Sweating the Small StuffAs portraits of stagnation go, Japanese indie is no stranger though few have found a protagonist as passive as the hero of Ryutaro Ninomiya’s Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Edaha no Koto). Played by the director himself and sharing his name, Ryutaro is a man who barely speaks and has long since given up the illusion that anything that might be said could be of real consequence. Like most of the men in his run down town he has no dreams or ambitions, barely tolerates those who might regard him as a friend, and finds his only refuge in the pages of a book. A chance phone call produces a brief change in his routine but perhaps not enough to shake him from his committed course of listlessness.

At 27, Ryutaro lives alone in a modest, messy apartment filled with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and piles of books. He has a dead end job at a moribund garage and spends his breaks avoiding his co-workers whom he seems to find annoying. Receiving a phone call from a childhood friend, Ryutaro informs his drunken boss that he needs to leave early before going home to eat noodles, read, and wait to be picked up. His friend, Yusuke, takes him to see his mother, Ryuko, who has been ill with hepatitis C for some years during which time Ryutaro has avoided seeing her despite having been close to her following the death of his own mother when he was just a child.

Ryutaro is a sullen sort of man, almost vibrating with an internalised rage which is only calmed at home with his books. Conversations with his friend Yusuke and later with Ryuko reveal that Ryutaro once had literary aspirations himself, even placing well in competitions, but has more or less given up writing. Yusuke also wanted to be an artist but has abandoned his dreams for a regular salaryman life, as has Yusuke’s brother Satoshi who used to bleach his hair and play in a band. Ryutaro’s boss seems to be among the few who has yet to definitively give up, planning to leave the garage to take over an interiors company owned by a friend of his mother’s who has no heirs to inherit it. Ryutaro’s boss has mentioned similar schemes before and they’ve always fallen through, but he thinks this time will be different. Ryutaro, in contrast, seems to have abandoned any idea of forward motion, refusing to pursue his literary goals, a more stable career, or relationships with friends and lovers in favour of whiling the time away inconsequentially.

Having lost his mother at a young age and then watched his step-mother battle a serious illness which she seems to have recovered from, Ryutaro perhaps has reasons to be wary of forming deep attachments. Only once does his stony facade crack, during a private conversation with Ryuko in which he tells her that sometimes he cheers himself up by remembering that there must be people in a much worse place than he is. Yet Ryutaro is not an unkind man, much of the little he does say is offered quietly in kindness such as his defence of Ryuko’s sometimes absent minded husband, but what he can’t stand is babble and insincerity. Pushed into an unwanted, vacuous conversation with a potential girlfriend he quips that he likes his cheap hairdressers because they get it done without talking before becoming overwhelmed and cruelly laying into the chatty woman with a lengthy rant about the utter pointlessness of her one-sided loquacity. Failing to realise the depth to which he’s hurt her, Ryutaro goes back to the bar where she works to try and see her again only to be rebuffed.

A similar event occurs in another bar when his boss makes a joke about his seeming blankness. Twice Ryutaro gets himself into fights and twice he refuses to defend himself, remaining passive as blows rain down on him. Trying to shut everything out, Ryutaro drinks heavily, declines invitations, and stays at home alone but Ryuko’s illness has forced him to re-emerge, to a degree at least, into the world. Caught in a state of permanent anxiety, Ryutaro finds himself paying repeated visits to Ryuko before finally attempting to talk with his equally detached father who appears to suffer from many of the same problems as Ryutaro himself.

Inspired by true events, Sweating the Small Stuff is both a picture and mild rebuke of aimless youth and of a generation which has collectively decided that everything is meaningless and devoid of purpose. In an odd way, Ryutaro, in his inertia, may be the last man standing, still resentfully clinging on to an idea of real meaning which is defined by its own absence. Ryutaro’s tragedy is that he wants more out of life than there perhaps is to be found and remains frustrated among all those content to waste their time in idle pursuits or surrender themselves to a life of respectable drudgery and ordinary happiness but there are perhaps brief flickers of connection to found even within his ever more disconnected world.


Currently available to stream via Festival Scope as part of their Locarno Film Festival selection.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles for captions)

The Sower (種をまく人, Yosuke Takeuchi, 2016)

the sower stillWhen tragedy strikes the one thing you ought to be able to rely on is your family, but when the tragedy occurs within that sacred space which exits between you what is to be done? Yosuke Takeuchi’s The Sower (種をまく人, Tane wo Make Hito) attempts to provide an answer whilst putting one very ordinary, loving and forgiving family through a series of tests and tragedies. Lies, regret, and despair conspire to ruin the lives of four once happy people but even in the midst of such a shocking, unexpected event there is still time to turn towards the sun rather than continuing in the darkness.

Mitsuo has just been released from a mental hospital where he received treatment for a nervous breakdown suffered as a direct result of his time as a relief worker after the Tohoku earthquake. Returned to the home of his brother Yuta and his wife Yoko, Mitsuo’s family welcome him with open arms and he is delighted to become reacquainted with his niece Chie as well as meet her younger sister, Itsuki, for the first time. Yoko’s mother was supposed to be coming to help out with the children but has let them down once again. Uncle Mitsuo seems like the perfect solution but tragedy strikes when he leaves the girls on their own to use the bathroom and comes back to discover that Chie has dropped her sister causing her to hit her head on a curb stone surrounding the play area. Mitsuo rushes to the hospital but Itsuki sadly passes away. Chie, overcome with guilt and fear hastily blurts out that her uncle dropped her sister while Mitsuo remains silent.

Chie’s claim sparks a series of consequences, the most serious being the intervention of the police investigating the case who are very keen to poke into each and every dark corner of this ordinary family. Despite the fact that Mitsuo has only been staying with them a few days, the police almost push Chie into accusing Mitsuo of abuse of herself or her sister, trying to paint him as some kind of deranged threat to children everywhere. Feeling guilty about her lie and fearing discovery Chie wisely says nothing, refusing to further incriminate her uncle save for a brief indication that he dropped Itsuki on purpose.

The police are confused, there is no evidence to support the idea of Mitsuo having behaved suspiciously towards either of the girls or anyone else for that matter. There would seem to be no motive for him to intentionally harm his niece, though they don’t want to accuse a grieving little girl of making things up, either. Conscious that making Chie give evidence in court, especially if she is going to lie, may have terrible consequences for her future the police urge Yuta to talk seriously with his daughter and try to get to the truth through more gentle means.

The swarm of tragedy has, however, already begun to drive a wedge between husband and wife. Even at the funeral, Yoko’s mother, forgetting that much of this is her fault for letting the family down in the first place, overtly criticises their decision to take in someone just released from a mental hospital and then leave him in charge of small children. Yuta loves his brother unconditionally, knows he is a good person and does not blame him for his daughter’s death. Yoko cannot bring herself to understand her husband’s reaction, accusing him of choosing his brother over their little girl. Mitsuo’s mental state is repeatedly offered as an explanation for what happened despite the fact that his condition is down to an excess of compassion rather than any violent or destructive impulses.

This same kindness means that he never speaks out or tries to appeal to Chie to tell the truth, shouldering the burden of her guilt and perhaps feeling responsible for having left her alone with her sister even if it was only for a few short minutes. Chie, terrified and remorseful, deeply regrets her original lie but is too afraid to tell the truth. When she finally does decide to confide in someone she is instantly told to keep quiet about it, placing an additional burden on this already fragile little girl in asking her to keep two terrible secrets perhaps for the rest of her life.

As the family falls apart, Mitsuo retreats to the woods, planting sunflowers which Itsuki loved in every conceivable place. Literally trying to plant the seeds of hope, Mitsuo spreads his sunflowers far and wide bringing colour and life to a landscape of desolation but it may take more than flowers to light the way out of this hellish, inescapable tragedy.


The Sower was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)

my houseYukihiko Tsutsumi has made some of the most popular films at the Japanese box office yet his name might not be one that’s instantly familiar to filmgoers. Tsutsumi has become a top level creator of mainstream blockbusters, often inspired by established franchises such as TV drama or manga. Skilled in many genres from the epic sci-fi of Twentieth Century Boys to the mysterious comedy of Trick and the action of SPEC, Tsutsumi’s consumate abilities have taken on an anonymous quality as the franchise takes centre stage which makes this indie leaning black and white exploration of the lives of a group of homeless people in Nagoya all the more surprising.

The film begins with its hero, Suzumoto, pulling a cart followed by his friends with other supplies and equipment. Arriving at their appointed destination, the men and women embark on a process they’ve obviously enacted a thousand times before. Dismantling their cart, they arrange the components for a kind of prefab house made out of found materials and propped up on crates.

Though the life may seem impossible to those from the outside – as it does to the well meaning men from the council eager to get the mini commune to move on by dangling a promise of sheltered accommodation or assistance, but thanks to Suzumoto’s innovations they have access to many of the benefits of the modern world from television to laptops. The main source of income comes from recycling – collecting tin cans, bottles, cardboard etc to be sold back to scrap merchants and recycling plants. It’s not easy money to make and there isn’t much of it but Suzumoto has his routine well worked out and is able to maximise his takings by cutting deals with householders and businesses for handiwork in return for what is essentially rubbish.

Getting into a discussion with a hotelier, Suzumoto is offered a regular job and a place in company accommodation but turns it down. He likes his life. It might seem hard to others and it is annoying to be continually dismantling and rebuilding your house, but the innovation appeals to him. He likes to work and to make things work. He wouldn’t want to be cooped up and constrained by the world of contracts and salaries and taxes.

The freedom and simplicity of Suzumoto’s life is contrasted with a seemingly ordinary middle class household which is defined by its tension and sterility. School boy Shota is an ace student but his austere father pushes him hard, allowing him little freedom or responsibility. Nursing a mild addiction to Pepsi, Shota’s only friend is the pet turtle he keeps in a tank in his wardrobe. While his father returns home only to shout at everyone and then go to bed, Shota’s mother is as obsessed with cleaning as he is with Pepsi and rarely leaves the house. Talking to almost no one, Shota’s mother’s existence is one of cold rigidity, living in fear of her domineering husband and accidentally neglecting her stressed out son in the process.

Through a series of inevitable coincidences the two worlds will clash with tragic consequences on each side. Tsutsumi doesn’t seek to glamorise life on the streets or paint it as some kind of hippyish quest for better living, but he does dare to suggest that Suzumoto’s self reliance and inner calm are much more healthy than the fear and repression which make Shota’s home as much of a prison as the tank he traps his turtle in. Suzumoto and his friends are looked down on, hassled by the authorities, and accused of crimes they did not commit but they are the victims and not the instigators of violence. Tension bubbles over and misses its target as rage against authority and society at large is redirected towards its most vulnerable citizens.

Suzumoto takes all of this in his stride, as he always does, dismantling his house only to rebuild somewhere else hoping only to continue the cycle while Shota is left to ruminate on the consequences of his actions still trapped inside the empty pressure cooker of his family home. Tsutsumi’s elegantly composed black and white aesthetic adds to the contemplative edge as two worlds are thrown into stark contrast but the one central tenet is the enabling factor for both – the intense pressures and total indifference of the mainstream world towards those attempting to live within in it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1980)

Even in the Japan of 1980, many kinds of love are impossible. Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Kazetachi no gogo), the indie debut from Hitoshi Yazaki follows just one of them as a repressed gay nursery nurse falls hopelessly in love with her straight roommate. Based on a salacious newspaper report of the time, Afternoon Breezes is a textbook examination of obsessive unrequited love as its heroine is drawn ever deeper into a spiral of inescapable despair and incurable loneliness.

Nursery nurse Natsuko (Setsuko Aya) is in love with her hairdresser roommate Mitsu (Naomi Ito), who seems to be completely oblivious of her friend’s feelings. Mitsu has a boyfriend, Hideo (Hiroshi Sugita), and the relationship is becoming serious enough to have Natuko worried. Hideo, unlike Mitsu, is pretty sure Natsuko is a lesbian and in love with his girlfriend but finds the situation amusing more than anything else. Beginning to go out of her mind with frustration, Natsuko tries just about everything she can to break Mitsu and Hideo up including introducing him to another pretty girl from the nursery, Etsuko (Mari Atake). Hideo is not exactly a great guy and shows interest in Etsuko though does not seem as intent on leaving Mitsu as Natsuko had hoped. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so Natsuko steels herself against her revulsion of men and seduces Hideo on the condition that he end things with her beloved Mitsu. He does, but the plan goes awry when Natsuko realises she is pregnant with Hideo’s child.

Less about lesbianism and more about love which can never be returned slowly eroding a mind, Afternoon Breezes perfectly captures the hopeless fate of its heroine as she idly dreams a future for herself which she knows she will never have. Natsuko buys expensive gifts for roommate, returns home with flowers and courts her in all of the various ways a shy lover reveals themselves but if Mitsu ever recognises these overtures for what they are she never acknowledges them. Her boyfriend, Hideo, seems more worldly wise and makes a point of cracking jokes about Natsuko, asking Mitsu directly if her friend has a crush on her but Mitsu always laughs the questioning off. Mitsu may know on some level that Natsuko is in love with her, she seems to be aware of her distaste for men even if she tries to take her out to pick one up, but if she does it’s a truth she does not want to own and when it is finally impossible to ignore she will have nothing to do with it.

Despite Mitsu’s ongoing refusal to confront the situation, Natsuko basks in idealised visions of domesticity as she and Mitsu enjoy a romantic walk in the rain only to have their reverie interrupted by a passing pram containing a newborn baby. What Natsuko wants is a conventional family life with Mitsu, including children. After their walk, the pair adopt a pet mouse which Natsuko comes to think of as their “baby” but like a grim harbinger of her unrealisable dream, the mouse dies leading Mitsu to bundle it into a envelope and leave it on a rubbish heap along with Natsuko’s heart and dreams for the future.

When her colleagues at the nursery get stuck into the girl talk and ask Natsuko about boyfriends, her response is that she would not “degrade” herself yet that is exactly what she finally resorts to in an increasingly desperate effort to get close to Mitsu. After her attempts to get him to fall for another girl fail, Natsuko’s last sacrificial offering is her own body, surrendered on the altar of love as she pleads with the heartless Hideo to leave Mitsu for good. Though her bodily submission is painful to watch in her obvious discomfort her mental degradation has been steadily progressing as Hideo deliberately places himself between the two women, even going so far as to disrupt a seaside holiday planned for two by inviting himself along.

Yazaki perfectly captures Natsuko’s ever fracturing mental state through the inescapable presence of the dripping tap in the girls’ apartment which becomes a dangerous ticking in Natsuko’s time bomb mind. Occasionally gelling with clocks and doors and other oppressive noises, the internal banging inside Natsuko’s head only intensifies as she’s forced to endure the literal banging of Mitsu and Hideo’s lovemaking during her romantic getaway. Just as an earlier scene found Natsuko sitting on the swing outside embracing the flowers she’d brought for Mitsu only to find Hideo already there, Natsuko’s fate is to be perpetually left out in the cold, eventually resorting to rifling through her true love’s rubbish and biting into a half eaten apple in a desperate attempt at contact.

Natsuko’s love is an impossible one, not only because Mitsu is unable to return it, but because it is essentially unembraceable. In a society where her love is a taboo, Natsuko is not able to voice her desires clearly or live in an ordinary, straightforward way but is forced to act with clandestine subtly. After Hideo unwittingly deflowers her and laughs about it, stating that she “must really be gay” Natsuko lunges at him with a knife, suddenly overburdened with one degradation too many. Though the prospect of the baby may raise the possibility of a happy family, albeit an unconventional one, the signs point more towards funerals than christenings, so devoid of hope does Natsuko’s world seem to be. Shot in a crisp 16mm black and white, Afternoon Breezes owes an obvious debt to the art films of twenty years before with its long takes, static camera giving way to handheld, and flower filled conclusion, but adds an additional layer of youthful anxiety as its heroines find themselves moving into a more prosperous, socially liberal age only to discover some dreams are still off limits.


 

Out There (Takehiro Ito, 2016)

out-thereWe don’t move forward in this dance, comments the lady currently being waltzed by a charming lost soul. Don’t worry, he says, that’s not a bad thing. Indeed, Out There, the first independent feature film from director Takehiro Ito exists in a fixed yet liminal space, here and not there as its protagonist finds himself without the proper place to be. Conceived as a way of salvaging some of the material collated for a documentary on the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, Out There takes more of its cues from Tsai Ming-liang or even Lav Diaz in its preoccupation with the intersection between time, existence, and place. If that all sounds to weighty, there’s a little whimsy in here too, but the intent is a serious one as nationhood (or the lack of it), drifting cultures, love and history all conspire to confuse and distract the course of a young man in search of an identity which is entirely his own.

Beginning with an interview or perhaps an audition, the onscreen director questions the man who will be our star, Ma, about his motivations for applying – only, characteristically, he doesn’t quite know. From what he tells us, it seems his interests are largely introspective, unable to find a place to exist, perhaps he can carve one out for himself inside the fictional world of a film. Ito returns to this interview (or series of interviews?) throughout the action as Ma shows an apt desire to dissect himself on camera. The director is a minor player as Ma takes over, but like Ito he is trying to recover something from the ashes of a lost project, his producer sitting to the side, neatly picking apart the director’s somewhat thin proposal for a film about a cross cultural couple in which “everything happens by chance”.

The historical relationship between Tokyo and Taipei is perhaps a complicated one (though significantly less complicated than with many of its other neighbours), but there is a third party in this difficult romance in the spectre of America. Returning to Taiwan in the second segment, notably titled Land of Shadows, Ma talks to his parents about their views on global culture as Green Card holding Taiwanese who never made the move. In his original interview, Ma explained that one of the reasons he came to Japan was that he always felt like an outsider in Taiwan, unable to express himself fully. Having spent some time in the US as a child, Ma has a feeling America is “not for him”, but has also found that Japan is probably not the place he’s supposed to be either, and unlike his family he does not feel as if he can simply live out his days in his native Taiwan.

In a final discussion with Ayako – the actress in the film which never quite happens (in a sense, outside of the way it’s happening for us), Ma talks about the importance of memory which prompts Ayako to remark that it’s as if everything is already in the past for him. As if to symbolise Ma’s lack of forward progress, everything which happens in Tokyo bar a single flash of colour at the end of the interview sequence is cast in sharp black and white. Taiwan, by contrast, is shot in verdant colour though allowing for 16mm and 4:3 framing adding to the sense of nostalgia and homesickness which seem to invade Ma’s mind. This Taiwan is a place of backstreets and ruins, faded grandeur and unseen histories. Empty cinemas and abandoned film eventually give up their ghosts, but it’s Ma himself who seems to join them as he fades into the frame, here and not here as he repeatedly doubts the matter of his own existence.

There’s a slight irony in the way America has been idealised as a place of possibility given its (until extremely recently) severing of diplomatic ties with the island nation of Taiwan. Seeking a home in a place which refuses to acknowledge the land in which you were born exists may make one feel like a ghost, but Ma’s sense of existential dislocation runs deeper. A kind of hiraeth, a longing for a home which doesn’t quite exist, becomes a force which propels and halts in equal measure. Skating around Tokyo on his roller blades, Ma has no particular destination in mind except perhaps to escape himself. He takes photos of places because he doesn’t want to point his camera at people, refusing human connections which will have to be broken in his ongoing quest for a sense of belonging. As the director puts it, there are many endings but as long as he remains fixed on the concept of “there”, Ma risks losing the idea of “here” which remains in a state of perpetual future past, outside of this liminal space in which nothing moves or changes.

Ito’s drifting, experimental approach moving between documentary, narrative and fantasy with the borders between each as unclear as the hero’s sense of identity is one which defies categorisation, as much about the idea of place as the characterisation of the two cities at hand and the ever unseen spectre of the hovering America. Poetic, wistful, and imbued with a sense of loss, Out There is a poignant exploration of cultural dysphoria and existential confusion in an ever widening world in which past, present and future become indistinct in an endless journey onward to place or no place at all.


Currently available to stream worldwide via Festival Scope in connection with the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Short scene from the end of the film: