Beautiful, Goodbye (ビューティフル、グッバイ, Eiichi Imamura, 2019)

A man on the run hits a woman running out of time, what else could you call it but fate? Winner of the Special Jury Award at the PIA Film Festival, Eiichi Imamura’s Beautiful, Goodbye (ビューティフル、グッバイ) sees its conflicted heroes cast adrift as they flee from past trauma, bonding over their shared sense of hopeless alienation while driving towards some kind of resolution to their respective anxieties but perhaps fearing that there are no real safe spaces for those who find themselves at odds with the world in which they live. 

As the film opens, 32-year-old Daisuke (Yasuke Takebayashi) is caught in the immediate aftermath of having stabbed a man while a small child curls himself into a ball in the corner. Pausing only to comfort him, Daisuke leaves in a hurry and later steals a pickup truck still laden with the last of someone’s moving boxes. Meanwhile, another man, Shinoda (Koki Nakajima), chases after a woman, Natsu (Yobi), who is later found wounded in an alley before being wrapped in a sheet and toe tagged at the local morgue. That is not, however, the end of her story. Shinoda, having recovered her body, performs some strange ritual which brings her back to life only for her to escape and run directly into the path of Daisuke’s car. Fearing he has made his day even worse, Daisuke puts her in the passenger seat and, unlikely as it seems, the pair end up travelling together pursued both by law enforcement and by the psychopathic Shinoda. 

Daisuke, a shy man nervous about his stammer which sees him exiled from mainstream society, does not immediately seem like the type of person to stab someone but we later find out that he had a good reason (if you can say such a thing) and was acting to protect someone else from longterm abuse. He’s not sure running was best thing to do, but it has at least introduced him to Natsu who doesn’t seem to mind about his stammer and makes a point of calling him by a diminutive in an effort to avoid detection on the road by amping up the couple act. Apparently from Taiwan but with a Japanese mother, Natsu is herself on the run, besides being undead, in trying to keep one step ahead of the violent boyfriend it seems was responsible for her demise and then brought her back after trying a few rituals he found on YouTube so he could terrorise her afterlife too. 

Both outsiders at the mercy of an unforgiving society the two discover a kindred spirit one in the other, retreating from their brush with crime to return the moving boxes to their original address with an apology for having borrowed some of the contents. Regaining her memories and coming to an awareness that her zombiefied state might only be temporary, Natsu wonders why her life has turned out the way it has and if God is punishing her for being a “bad” person. She has a tattoo of a lightbulb on her leg because of a story she was once told about there being two paths in the darkness, one to heaven and one to hell, and that God would always light the way for the good while the bad were left to stumble around on their own, losing their way and ending up in hell, so she decided to make her own light fearing that she was not one of God’s good people. Daisuke just laughs, pointing out that lightbulbs don’t work out of the box, leading her to make a few adjustments which allow him to give her the power to face the darkness.

Daisuke meanwhile remains on the run, in part because he wants to help Natsu move on from her traumatic past by facing her victimisation at the hands of the psychotic Shinoda who has been using social media to try and track them down but later finds himself falling victim to his bullying. Together, the undead woman and the barely living boy give each other the strength to face their respective anxieties, his in his crime and hers in her murder as they contemplate the calm at the end of the world, or at least the road, while the gentle tones of Teresa Teng linger in the breeze behind them like a lullaby as if in echo of a more innocent time.


Beautiful, Goodbye was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s “Toki No Nagare Ni Mi Wo Makase”

For Rei (レイのために, Yukari Sakamoto, 2019)

(C)Yukari Sakamoto

Going to university is a prime opportunity to start figuring yourself out, but if you feel a little hollow inside it can often be an uphill battle. The heroine of Yukari Sakamoto’s For Rei (レイのために, Rei no Tame ni) is intensely anxious, somewhat distanced from herself in the unresolved trauma of her parents’ divorce and subsequent loss of contact with her father. University can also be a prime opportunity to reach towards independence, but that necessarily means learning to “let go of the things you don’t like” to chase the things you do while figuring out what the difference between those two things might be. 

Philosophy student Rei finds herself at odds with her classmates, some of whom actively belittle her off the wall contributions for being off the point while the TA offers only the reassurance that she found her words “poetic”, which given the environment she finds herself in might not exactly be high praise. Meanwhile, she’s in a loose relationship with fellow student Nakamura who has a part-time job as a driver he doesn’t much like. As she reveals to her mother, however what’s really bothering her is that she’d like to reconnect with her estranged birth father whom she hasn’t seen since her parents divorced when she was small. Despite her mother’s warnings that her father may only cause her pain, Rei presses ahead and writes a letter, eventually meeting up with him for dinner in a swanky Western restaurant where he orders wine and she coke. 

That comment that so riled her classmate was to do with the nature of perception and its mutual effect on the perceiver. Rei offers that she thinks being looked at is something inherently uncomfortable, that when someone looks at her she wants to look away while looking at someone else can be a cold, abstracted experience. Later, after meeting her father, she returns to the same topic with additional insight, admitting that she was always afraid of being perceived, feeling as if someone was continually watching and waiting for her to mess something up. As much as she feared the gaze, she also felt its pity and wanted to be embraced by it but as she grew she could no longer fit inside as it seemed to grow smaller and recede from her. The sense of loss and distance made her sad, but she is perhaps coming to the realisation that that feeling of disconnection is also a part of growing up as she outsteps the parental gaze to claim her own independent space. That process may necessarily be painful, but it’s her father’s hand on her shoulder that keeps her from moving fully forward as she struggles to separate herself from a half-felt presence. 

Rei’s father, apparently remarried, tries his best to reconnect with his now grown-up daughter but the encounter is unavoidably awkward, belonging both to the past and future as she realises she’s no longer a woman who needs a paternal presence just as she’s made the decision to find one. They chat awkwardly about the intervening years – her feelings of disconnection from her mother’s second family with a step-father and half-sister, and his remarriage, while eventually returning to the past. He never explains why he didn’t keep in contact (though this is sadly normal for divorced fathers in Japan) but is keen to explain that he didn’t leave because of her, only that he and her mother were very young and eventually discovered that they were incompatible, their views on money and family matters apparently entirely different. He didn’t understand her and the distance between them bothered him. 

Like Rei, he couldn’t feel himself inside the gaze and eventually absented himself from it. The reunion seems to have gone well, her father offering to take her mountain climbing, but we somehow feel that they might not meet again. What Rei learns is the power to perceive herself with pity and perhaps let go of the image of her father, a little disappointed in herself to have taken a throwaway comment to heart and remembered it all these years only to garner no reaction on recalling it. Freed from the overbearing gaze, Rei learns to centre her own perception, forgiving both herself and the past, as she steps boldly into a new adult space and sets off into a future of her own choosing.


 For Rei was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Atsuro Shimoyashiro, 2019)

Where now the dreams of youth? It may be impossible to escape a regretful middle age, wondering what might have been if only you knew then what you know now, but for the heroes of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Tokyo no Koibito) the pain seems all the more acute. “Today’s the day our youth ends” a brokenhearted woman laments, trying to make peace with her choices but finding that her return to the past may have done more harm than good. 

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a 31-year-old salaryman, married with a baby on the way and living in provincial Gunma. With the anxiety of impending fatherhood on his mind, he’s surprised to receive a message from his university girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), who wants to reconnect. Telling his wife he’s going on a business trip, Tatsuo decides to spend the weekend in Tokyo, staying with another friend from uni before meeting up with Marina for a Sunday in the city reminiscing about old times. 

Like Tatsuo, his old college friend Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura) has long since given up the dream of becoming a filmmaker. A breakdown at 27 has apparently led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaving him unable to hold down a job and dependent on his wife, Seiko (Maki Nishiyama), who supports both him and his step-daughter Shizuko through sex work while Komazawa has become an idle alcoholic. Despite his disappointment, Tatsuo spends the evening bonding with the local bar lady who claims to be able to see the future before leaving early in the morning to meet Marina who suggests revisiting the seaside they went to years before. 

Very much ready to step back into the more innocent past, Tatsuo has brought with him a tape of a song they used to listen to way back when and wastes no time in reassuming the poses of his 20-year-old self, sunshades and all. Marina, by contrast is self-consciously cute but mature, if perhaps sad. Tatsuo starts to tell her that he gave up his filmmaking dreams, married a good woman, and took a regular salaryman job at the family firm, but fails to complete the thought. Marina meanwhile casually remarks that she married a wealthy man but hints that she did so largely for convenience and material comfort rather than love. 

“We never get to marry the woman we love the most” Tatsuo’s strangely boys will be boys brother-in-law (Mutsuo Yoshioka) sighs, commiserating with Tatsuo’s lament for his disappointed youth and failure to make his filmmaking dreams a reality. We discover that an early success in a scriptwriting competition gave him an inflated sense of possibility, and that his desire for success was largely a desire to impress his girlfriend. Wounded male pride in his sense of artistic failure eventually convinced him he had to break things off while she silently cursed him, jokingly sentencing him to 18 years of solitude in a playful reference to a Tai Kato film. Now he realises his foolishness and is filled with regret in having settled for a conventional middle-class life as a husband and father.

Marina, meanwhile, is feeling something much the same in trying to achieve closure on the past before she becomes a mother. After breaking up with Tatsuo, she drifted through nude modelling and ended up the trophy wife of a wealthy man she doesn’t love, pegging her hopes on material comfort and hoping that love will come later. “I’m glad you’re happy now” a bar owner and former Instagram fan tries to congratulate her, but all Marina can do is smile sadly and ask her similarly troubled companion if happy is what she looks.    

“I’m not young anymore, I can’t live for a dream” Tatsuo accepts, but living on a dream is all they’re doing, recalling the time when they were “modern lovers” in Tokyo kidding themselves that they were urban sophisticates when perhaps all they did were the kinds of things unsophisticated suburbanites do like hang out at batting cages and go to barbecue restaurants. It’s too late to turn back now, but the past is a difficult trap to escape and perhaps what they long for is not so much the love cut off in its prime but a return to the possibilities of youth. Meeting again reawakens the desire for something more out of life than life may now have to give them, but this is day that youth ends, hitting the end of the road in a slow car crash of realisation that regret is the price of age.


The Modern Lovers was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Retro hit Love You, Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa (not that one!) & Los Primos which recurs frequently throughout the film

Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Takeshi Kushida, 2020)

(C)PYRAMID FILM

“We can only love ourselves through others’ eyes” according to an increasingly obsessed young woman desperately trying to “fix” her image of herself through retouching her photo. An inverted take on Woman of the Dunes, Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Shashin no Onna) sees the world of a bug-obsessed photographer with a talent for “improving” on reality disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious dancer who falls from a tree in the forest into his previously ordered existence.  

Kai (Hideki Nagai), a middle-aged man dressed in an old fashioned white suit, operates a small photo studio taking official photos for things like funerals and omiai arranged marriages. As we later find out from his only regular human contact, the funeral director from across the road (Toshiaki Inomata), Kai’s mother died in childbirth and his father opened this shop to support his son. Kai has taken over but has an intense fear of women and lives alone save for his pet praying mantis with whom he regularly eats his preferred dinner of microwave pizza. 

It’s on a regular bug hunting trip that Kai is struck by the beautiful figure of Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) tumbling out of a nearby tree and causing herself manageable if painful injuries including a nasty gash along her collarbone. Not wanting to go to a hospital, Kyoko gets Kai to take her to a pharmacy and patches herself up, later accompanying him home where he takes some photos of her to post on her Instagram, retouching them to get rid of the traces of wounds. Despite Kai’s silence, she manages to convince him to have dinner with her in a nearby restaurant and later to allow her to stay the night, after which she becomes a more permanent fixture in his life. 

A former dancer now Instagram star, Kyoko originally thinks nothing of getting Kai to clean up her photos to rid them of unsightliness, but is mildly disturbed to watch him do it. In a reverse Dorian Gray effect, Kai must scar the image to repair it, scrubbing away traces of unwanted “reality” in an act which seems to contradict the true nature of photography. “A good lie can make people happy” according to the funeral director who regularly uses Kai’s services to create suitably solemn photos of the suddenly deceased, but Kyoko isn’t so sure. Ever since she asked Kai to soften her reality, her followers have begun to desert her and she’s losing her lucrative sponsorship deals. The apologetic lady from the agency points out that she’s diverging from the “image” her fans expect from her and if she wants to keep them she’ll have to be the Kyoko they want her to be. 

Kyoko doesn’t quite like that, she’d like to be more authentic. Hisako (Toki Koinuma), meanwhile, an unexpected regular to the studio, is of the opposite opinion. In her view, retouching the photo allows her to be more herself, reflect her true essence through manipulating her image. Asking if she hasn’t got things the wrong way round, Kyoko wonders if the men she’s sending them to will be confused or disappointed that the photo and the reality don’t match but Hisako counters her that a man falling in love with her idealised self would only bring her closer to it. The self reflected in the eyes of others is the true self and only through others’ eyes can you find self love, according to Hisakao. Ironically, Kyoko has been looking for something similar through her Instagram success, but begins to resent the extent to which it is changing her, encouraging her to hide the parts of herself others might find ugly in order to gain acceptance. 

Deciding not to retouch the photos, however, has the opposite effect. Her fans love her again, bowled over by her authenticity, but at the same time perhaps she’s engaging in a strange kind of self-exploitation. Her wounds will, after all heal. Could she be tempted into a life of continued self-harm just for likes? Kyoko begins to lose her sense of self, as if she doesn’t quite exist online or off, caught between the “real” and the “ideal”.

Kai, meanwhile, remains silent but also captivated by the conflicted Kyoko. His life has been one of isolation, afraid of female touch and contented only among his insects. Yet like Kyoko he’s learning that scars can be beautiful because wounds are a sign of life. Waking up to connection and desire, he learns a different lesson from the lifecycle of the praying mantis realising that the male’s greatest pleasure lies in surrendering its body so the female can continue in life and creation. He no longer fears being devoured, but honours the true connection of mutual exchange. Inverting the conclusions of Woman of the Dunes, Kai finds himself liberated not by a sense of simplicity in life but by its complication, accepting all the richness it has to offer in joy and pain, engaging in his own strange mating dance as a man with a camera capturing his subject in all of her essential beauty. 


Woman of the Photographs was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Good-bye (グッドバイ, Aya Miyazaki, 2020)

“The things you learn as a child stay with you” admits a melancholy nursery teacher, lamenting that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if only her parents hadn’t been so easy going. Most people probably wind up wondering something similar, who they might have been if their parents had or hadn’t made the choices that they made on their behalf, but sooner or later you have to leave childhood behind and take responsibility for yourself. 

That’s the part that the heroine of Aya Miyazaki’s Good-bye (グッドバイ), 20-something Sakura (Mayuko Fukuda), is currently having trouble with, struggling to find a way forward largely because in one sense everything comes too easy for her and life is no kind of challenge. Privately, however, she’s caught in an adolescent dilemma pining for the father who, it seems, has been largely absent from her life since leaving the family when she was small. 

The crunch comes when Sakura abruptly quits yet another boring office job just because it didn’t light her fire. Her mystified friend who can’t really believe someone would just quit their job on a whim in Japan’s competitive employment environment just because it was dull (let alone make a habit of it), suggests she fill in at a daycare centre that another friend has just vacated leaving them in the lurch and with a temporary contract available. Sakura is unconvinced seeing as she has no childcare qualifications, but is persuaded on hearing the facility is “unlicensed” and therefore not fussy. She doesn’t exactly take to it right away, but beginning to bond with the children reminds her of her more innocent self, especially once she encounters the father of one little girl, Ai, who is often the last to get picked up. 

Sakura is taken with Mr. Shindo (Kohei Ikeue) because he looks a little like her dad and also smells of the same brand of cherry-scented cigars that he used to smoke. It also doesn’t help that his family situation closely resembles a mildly traumatic incident from her own childhood in that Ai’s mum seems to be temporarily absent from the family home for unclear reasons. Sakura finds herself playing mother, brushing Ai’s hair and tying it up in pigtails the way her father couldn’t quite master on his own. Running into the pair in the street, she even finds herself cooking dinner for them, giving Ai a few lessons in peeling carrots, while accidentally stepping into the space vacated by another woman and perhaps crossing a line with the extremely awkward Mr. Shindo. 

The encounter does, however, prompt her into a long delayed conversation with her sympathetic mother (Asako Kobayashi) who offers no explanation for why she did what she did, or sees any need to apologise, but is perhaps touched by some of her words which convince her that her daughter needs a final push to help find her place in the world. Prompted by the other teacher at the nursery, Sakura asks her mother why she sent her to all those after school clubs etc, only to be told that she did it because she wanted Sakura to find her passion but though she was good at everything, Sakura always quit after only a few weeks. Her mother wonders if that’s because when everything is easy for you you have no incentive to stick with it and never get the opportunity to become invested. 

That has perhaps been Sakura’s problem, she says goodbye too early before there’s any possibility of getting attached. Bonding with the kids reminds her of the little girl she once was, processing the sudden absence of her mother and the possibility of her familiar world ending. Her mother eventually returned, but perhaps gave her an incomplete sense of security in the feeling that she would never leave her or the house, while her father is of the opinion that the family photo was something best left behind in the family home which was no longer his. In learning to say “good-bye” to Ai, Sakura learns to bid farewell to the little girl she once was, insecure and afraid of rejection. As her mum tries to hint, it’s time for her to find a place of her own, no longer so afraid to stick around past the part where everything seems too easy.


Good-bye screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Yujiro Harumoto, 2016)

going the distance posterThe “family drama” is often regarded as Japanese cinema’s representative genre, but in the consumerist atmosphere of the late 20th century the family itself became an increasingly discredited concept. Nevertheless, it remains true that discriminating against those who have no family is the last acceptable prejudice with orphans in particular unfairly viewed as somehow untrustworthy, rejected by mainstream society, and denied both work and the possibility of starting a family of their own. The hero of Yujiro Harumoto’s debut feature Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Kazoku e) thinks he has everything finally back on track with a steady job and an engagement to a middle-class secretary, but his good heart coupled with his precarious social status seem set to ensure his new start is a non-starter.

Raised in an orphanage in the Goto Islands, Asahi (Shinichiro Matsuura) now lives in Tokyo with this fiancée Kaori (Yumi Endo) for whom he has given up his boxing career to work as a trainer in a gym. Though Kaori, superficially at least, does not care that Asahi is a man with no family, she is a little preoccupied about how it’s going to look that his “family table”  at the reception will be largely unoccupied because he’s only planning on inviting his “brother” from the orphanage, Hiroto (Masahiro Umeda), and his wife.

Hiroto still lives in Goto and works as a fisherman. Hoping to help him out, Asahi sets him up with a man from his gym, Kita (Nobu Morimoto), who is opening a restaurant specialising in super fresh fish. The meeting goes extremely well and earns Hiroto a hefty contract that convinces him he needs to take out a loan to get a bigger boat. Unfortunately, however, Kita turns out to be a crook and Hiroto ends up well out of pocket, not only for the loan but for all the fish he never gets paid for.

Feeling intensely guilty and somewhat responsible, Asahi wants to do everything he can to put things right for Hiroto, even suggesting to Kaori that they postpone the wedding so that he can give part of the money they’ve saved to help take care of his debts. As predicted, Kaori is not happy about the idea, not least because she’s repeatedly explained to Asahi that she needs to get married as soon as possible because she wants her grandmother, who is suffering with dementia, to be able to attend the wedding while she’s still well enough to know what’s going on.

Unbeknownst to Asahi, one of the reasons Kaori is so keen on her grandmother attending is that her mother almost certainly won’t. Despite telling Asahi that her mother is lukewarm on the idea but coming round, the truth is that she won’t even talk to her, rudely rejecting the invitation and vowing that she’s no interest in seeing her daughter throw her life away on a man with no family and no prospects. In fact, Kaori’s mother crassly makes a point of sending her omiai photos for potential arranged marriages to more “suitable” men – ones from “good families” matching her own class background. Kaori wastes no time in calling her a “bigot”, accusing her of indulging in an outdated and offensive prejudice against the orphaned that regards them as untrustworthy because they have no history and are not anchored to anyone who might be held responsible for their actions.

Yet, despite her anger towards her mother Kaori is not quite free of those same prejudices, snapping back at Asahi that he wouldn’t understand what she’s going through because he had no parents of his own. She keeps the drama a secret from him to avoid having to admit that her family oppose the marriage solely because he is an orphan, partly wanting to spare his feelings and partly aware that Asahi is a good and noble man who might choose to absent himself rather than force her to choose between the man she loves and her family.

Meanwhile, Asahi does something similar in refusing to confide in Kaori about everything that’s going on with Hiroto, partly out of guilt and embarrassment, and partly out of shame in knowing that he is on some level betraying her by choosing to save Hiroto rather than prioritise their marriage. He wants to make things right, put them back to the way they were before, but he has an impossible choice – either reject his responsibility to his brother who is also a good and kind man and would not want to cause him trouble in his relationship, or neglect his new responsibilities to his soon-to-be-wife.

Unfortunately, the couple elect to go on deceiving one another, intending to protect but causing only more harm. It may be the case that they’ve rushed into marriage because of Kaori’s grandmother’s precarious health and Asahi’s hopes for a solid family foundation, but their previously happy relationship is eventually eroded by a gradual disillusionment born of refusing to rely on each other, continuing to fight separate battles rather than combine their efforts to fight them together. Faced with the realisation that he may have ruined his relationship by his own foolishness in trying to help a friend with a problem that was really none of his responsibility, Asahi begins to reject Hiroto, giving up on the idea of “family” in its entirety in mistaken resentment towards his brother for a series of decisions that were entirely his own. Nevertheless, what he discovers is that true family isn’t always about blood ties but about people who will always be there for you no matter what you do. Asahi wasn’t quite as alone as he thought he was, but only by admitting his mistakes, accepting his responsibilities, and finally allowing himself to confide in and rely on others can he truly begin to build a family anchored by something deeper than blood.


Going the Distance was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our House (わたしたちの家, Yui Kiyohara, 2017)

our house posterIs the definition of “space” defined by absence as much as presence? Do we carve out pieces of the world to inhabit, or simply shift into an idea of place which we construct entirely around ourselves? Yui Kiyohara’s feature debut Our House (わたしたちの家, Watashitachi no Ie), completed as part of her graduation project for a masters at Tokyo University of the Arts, hints at the eeriness of a shared existential continuum as four women bridge inter-dimensional connections while living in the “same” two-storey house in Yokohama.

We begin with 14-year-old Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) dancing cheerfully with a few of her friends presumably on a sleepover wearing incongruously old-fashioned nightgowns like the heroines of a gothic boarding school drama. The fun stops however when Seri thinks she hears a funny noise, half convinced the house is haunted. Her friends tell her it’s all in her mind, but something seems odd and she can’t seem to shake the sense of presence in the house.

Part of that might be because, though Seri’s father appears to have left long ago, she still dwells on his memory and perhaps feels the echo of him in their family home. It may seem particularly poignant to her right now because her mother, Kiriko (Yukiko Yasuno), has found a new man – Takashi (Toshio Furuya), who drives the local rubbish truck. Kiriko wants to get married again, and Seri, entering adolescence herself and playfully teasing her friend about a possible romance, cannot quite accept that her mum’s moved on.

Changing tack, a young woman wakes up on a ferry with seemingly no memory of how she got there or of her previous life aside from her name, Sana (Mariwo Osawa). Another woman on the boat, Toko (Mei Fujiwara), stops to ask if she’s alright and then offers to let her stay at her place, which happens to be an identical house to the one in which Seri and her mum live, until she remembers who she is.

Though Seri’s story has its whimsy, it remains firmly within the realms of the natural while there’s something decidedly odd about the world Toko and Sana inhabit. There is, however, a strange symmetry to their relationships. Both sets of women are keeping things from one another if for slightly different reasons. There are after all secrets which must exist between a teenage girl and her mother, so perhaps Kiriko doesn’t quite discuss her relationship with Takashi with her daughter, and Seri doesn’t talk to her mother about the kinds of things she talks to her friend about, but there are also additional communication difficulties in their shared reluctance to talk about the “ghost” of Seri’s absent father or about Seri’s various anxieties which manifest in her preoccupation with a possible haunting.

With Toko and Sana there is of course the issue of amnesia, but in this case it’s Toko who appears to be keeping secrets in her well concealed paranoia and illicit activities which see her handing over plain envelopes in dingy corridors and asking pointed questions about water pollution. Does she know more about Sana than she lets on, or is Sana perhaps a spy herself faking her amnesia to get close to Toko? In any case, Toko seems to want to keep her around, letting her know she can stay for as long as she wants, but it’s not entirely clear if that’s altogether a good thing or if Toko has more or less kidnapped a friend to keep safely at home. When she recommends drinking from the bottled water in the fridge rather than from the tap, we’re apt to wonder which source it is that might be “polluted”.

In that sense, both environments, hitherto exclusively female spaces, are eventually “polluted” by unexpected male intrusion. The spectre of Seri’s father may be ever present in the home, but it’s Takashi who places a strain on the relationship of mother and daughter, whereas Sana’s coffeeshop buddy Natsuki (Masanori Kikuzawa) sets off Toko’s alarm bells in more ways than one as he simultaneously encourages her to doubt her new friend, become jealous on an emotional level, and then anxious on a professional one as she wonders if Natsuki has befriended Sana to get into the house and look for a mysterious “something” she quickly tells him is no longer there. 

“Things embedded in the mind can never be lost” Toko reassures Sana, but also affirms that “nobody can prove who they are”, which might be true but doesn’t do much to help her identity-shorn friend. Natsuki too, claiming that Sana resembles someone he used to know, describes his old acquaintance as if she were “filled with a light that can’t be seen” perhaps alluding to the hidden depths he could only be aware existed within her but was never permitted to see. Toko says she lives the way she does so that she “won’t be defeated by gravity” but offers no reply when asked if she knows of anyone who has ever successfully defied it.

What we’re left with, is two mutually dependent realities though we’ve no way of knowing if each is located in the same temporal space or if one is past and another future. There’s a curious timelessness to Seri’s innocent world of birthday parties and walking on the beach with a friend, whereas Toko’s odd attire and slightly robotic manner of speaking hint towards a kind of retro futurism. The space, it seems, remains the same. Seri’s aunt, looking around, notices cracks in the walls but admires the house’s resilience prompting Kiriko to describe it as “still healthy”, as if it were a living entity which envelops them rather than a space they shape themselves. Yet the space is what connects them, one location existing at an intersection between two worlds. Events mirror each other, actions begin to have effect on each side though unknowingly. The curious symmetry might go someway to explaining life’s uncanniness, the sense of echoing we all feel on entering a dark and empty room, but it also provides a mechanism for harmony as items find themselves transferred to the place in which they are most needed. The space defines itself, but then perhaps it really is all “our house” – a shared universe in which we remain aware of each other but painfully unable to connect.


Available to stream via Mubi (UK) until Sept. 27.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Jesus (僕はイエス様が嫌い, Hiroshi Okuyama, 2018)

Jesus posterIt’s tough being a kid. You have no control over anything and everyone always insists they know best, dismissing resistance as childish rebellion. Yura, the hero of Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus (僕はイエス様が嫌い, Boku wa Jesus-sama ga Kirai), has things harder than most as his peaceful days are disrupted by the abrupt announcement that the family will be moving from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to the sleepy Nakanojo where he doesn’t even get his own room and has to share with grandma! To make matters worse, his new school is going to be a little “different” in that it’s a religious institution.

Yura’s (Yura Sato) family are not themselves Catholic and so the choice of a religious school adds an additional layer of displacement to his already irritated sense of alienation. Bored and lonely, even more of an outcast than solely being the new kid in town as a confused non-Christian suddenly dropped into an unfamiliar environment, Yura prays for a friend to make his days less dull and subsequently gains the constant companionship of a tiny Jesus (Chad Mullane) who follows him around and occasionally grants wishes. Eventually, Tiny Jesus gifts him a real friend in the form of Kazuma (Riki Okuma) – one of the most popular kids in school and a star footballer. Tragedy, however, lingers on the horizon leading to Yura to reconsider his relationship with Tiny Jesus who seems to have betrayed him in granting his trivial wishes only to break his heart.

In fact, the film’s Japanese title translates to the more provocative “I hate Jesus” which might give more of an indication of the film’s final destination as Yura first flirts with and then rejects the religiosity of his new environment. Confused by the zeal with which his classmates seem to run off mass and embarrassed that he doesn’t have a bible or hymnbook to join in, he nevertheless goes along with his teacher’s constant prayer meetings. Through the offices of Tiny Jesus, he comes to associate the power of prayer with asking and receiving. He asks Tiny Jesus for money, and suddenly his grandma comes up with 1000 yen, he asks for a friend and finds one, but just as he’s starting to have faith in his possibly imaginary friend doubt enters his mind. What is Tiny Jesus up to, and why won’t he help when it really matters?

Suddenly angry and resentful, Yura rejects his teacher’s kind yet insensitive attempts to comfort him with the affirmation that all that praying turned out to be completely pointless. Despite not being a Christian and only being a small boy, he is suddenly asked to give a eulogy for someone important to him that he has just lost. The adults might think this is a nice gesture, one that will bring a kind of closure while honouring the memory of the deceased, but it’s also a big ask for a child facing not only loss and grief on an intense scale for the first time but also trying to process his complicated relationship with a religion which is not his. Thoroughly fed up with Tiny Jesus, Yura brings his fist down on the good book as if to crush the false promise of misplaced faith in accepting that there are no real miracles and sometimes no matter how hard you ask your wish will not be granted.

Yura’s disillusionment with religion is swift as he realises you cannot get what you want merely by asking for it. He feels betrayed, not only by Tiny Jesus, but the entire religious institution which led him to believe he could change the world around him through prayer and positivity. Nevertheless, his disappointment does at least begin to bring him some clarity which, ironically, helps him to accept his new surroundings through bonding with grandma and coming to feel at home with his family even if his new environment is likely to be one tinged with sadness as he remembers better times before Tiny Jesus ruined everything. Whimsical if perhaps slight, Okuyama’s debut provides a rare window into Japan’s minority Christian culture as it celebrates Christmas in the Western fashion and seemingly exists in its own tiny little bubble, but subverts its religious themes to explore childhood existential angst as its adolescent hero is forced to deal with loss at a young age and discovers that there is no magic cure for death or eternal life (on Earth at least) for those who believe, only the cold reality of grief and bittersweet memories of happier times. 


Jesus was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sea (海抜, Kensei Takahashi, 2018)

Sea posterSome things can’t be forgiven, and there are those for which it becomes impossible to forgive oneself. Inaction is one such crime, as the hero of Kensei Takahashi’s Sea (海抜, Kaibatsu) discovers as he attempts to atone for his failure to oppose wrongdoing followed by a huge overcompensation born of rage towards his own impotence more than a desire to protect. Takahashi’s film is, somewhat problematically, yet another which paints a woman’s rape as something that happened to a man, but does its best to be even handed in assessing damage done to those whose lives were touched by violence of which they were not the direct victim.

Takahashi opens in the present day with the melancholy Hiroshi (Satoshi Abe) going about his mechanical newspaper delivery job. A sad and silent figure, he is not well liked by his colleagues and mostly keeps to himself though his boss appears to be sympathetic towards whatever it is that he’s doing through. Flashing back almost ten years previously, we discover that high school Hiroshi was a nerdy loner and outcast mildly bullied by delinquents Kengo (Seijyuro Mimori) and Tatsuya (Seiya Okada). “Borrowing” his bike, they keep him hanging around on the beach before convincing him to invite a passing young woman they knew in middle school to join them. While Hiroshi is dispatched to fetch some drinks, the boys force Rie (Arisa Sato) into a nearby boat shed and rape her. When Hiroshi returns mid-act, he is too afraid to do anything to stop them and becomes an accidental accomplice to his friend’s degradation.

Some years later, Hiroshi runs in to Tatsuya at a reunion and catches him assaulting another woman at which point his rage boils over. It is not, however, protective instincts which motivate him so much as revenge – he does what he couldn’t do before, which is to say that he avenges the damage done to his own self image rather than acting in deliberate defence of the woman Tatsuya is currently terrorising or an attempt to make him pay for what he did to Rie.

Tatsuya and Kengo are, it has to be said, thoroughly unpleasant people and few will object to seeing them pay for their crimes even if the extent of the violence and its motivation in some sense make Hiroshi no better for being on the side of “right”. Believing the world was about to end (Hiroshi’s high school days took place at the turn of the Millennium), Tatsuya and Kengo thought they could do as they pleased because their actions had no meaning. Hiroshi shows them they were wrong, but damns himself even further as he does so.

Nevertheless, years later Kengo comes calling to plead with Hiroshi not to ruin the “respectable” life he’s built for himself as a conventionally successful husband and father. Admitting his wrongdoing but insisting it’s “all in the past”, he can’t understand why Hiroshi might not be willing to let it slide. Hiroshi, rightly, tells him he’s apologising to the wrong person and should probably attempt to make some sort of atonement towards Rie though she herself might prefer to not to have the past dragged up again. Meeting her again by chance, Hiroshi discovers she too has been able, to an extent at least, to move on and build a happy life for herself while he alone remains locked in a purgatorial cycle of self punishment and isolation, unable to live with his twin crimes, the first of inaction and the second of rage.

Powerlessness continues to dominate his life as natural disasters bring sunken feelings to the surface just as they were about to settle. Supported by a loving girlfriend (Misaki Matsuzaki) who attempts to bring him back to the world, Hiroshi finds himself unable to reconcile the twin sides of his fractured masculinity as man who failed to protect and then received the gratitude freely given to a saviour when he only sought to save himself. An artfully composed character study, Sea is a bleak meditation on the impossibilities of redemption as its hero finds himself unable to escape the past while wallowing in his own sense of wounded male pride in a society which continues to stigmatise victimhood and reward silence rather than attempt to address the destructive effects of entrenched patriarchy.


Sea was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Call Of Zon (ゾンからのメッセージ, Takuji Suzuki, 2018)

The Call of Zon posterWalls – do they constrain or protect? The residents of Yumetoi which has been sealed off for the last two decades by a mysterious force known as “Zon” cannot help but ask themselves the question. No-one claims to know what Zon is or why it arrived, but everyone has their own opinion on its existence from the youngsters brimming with curiosity about what lies outside to the older residents who think perhaps its best not to question the thing which keeps you safe.

Among the curious, intrepid youngster Ippo (Ryudai Takahashi) has got his hands on a videocamera and begun investigating the local environment, venturing well beyond “safe” limits in his quest for truth which is how he encounters the eccentric figure of Kantaro (Shogo Ishimaru) – a strange middle-aged man living in a disused building right next to the Zon barrier. Thanks to Kantaro, Ippo learns that Zon likes to throw things out into the world and is particularly intrigued by a strange black box (it’s a VHS tape but he’s too young to know what that is) he thinks might be some kind of message.

The small town of Yumetoi is a wholesome, nostalgic place filled with happy, innocent people who ostensibly want for nothing. Most of them have become used to Zon and accepted it as their new reality, neither resenting it nor particularly feeling its presence because they have little desire to leave. Others however, like Ippo, are intensely curious and begin to doubt everything they’ve been taught, wondering if Zon is really “dangerous” at all and if what lies outside of its walls really is nothing more than the land of the dead or if a lie has been spun to keep them from venturing forth.

Conceived in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Zon makes a subtle point about invisible barriers and the business of sealing off “unsafe” territory in wondering which side of the wall one is really on. Many residents of Yumetoi, like Kantaro, think Zon keeps them safe from external “evil” (as evidenced by adult magazines, apparently), while Ippo wonders if it might not be the opposite and it’s Zon keeping them prisoner. In any case, he wants to understand the message even others warn him that it’s best not to poke the beast and he’s better to let things lie. Nevertheless, he begins trying to communicate with the strange manifestation of existential dread through its own medium – by sending it video messages asking for greater clarification.

His quest has a profound impact on the town at large and most particularly Kantaro along with his former friend turned creepy cult minister running “rebirth” workshops, Ninomiya (Masahito Karakama). The pair “lost” a friend to Zon when he decided to cross the barrier in search of his own sound never to return. Though many have ventured outside, none have made it back. Some believe they died, others that they merely could not return, but still there are those who wait for them, like Michiko – the owner of Bar Yu who regards it as her calling to provide a place to which those who are lost can return.

Shooting in a constraining 4:3 and heightened colour palate, veteran director Takuji Suzuki adds an unexpectedly meta dimension to his already surreal exploration of physical and mental imprisonment in allowing the film crew to to appear on screen and including scenes of retake and rehearsal. In a roundabout way, the film crew itself becomes a manifestation of “Zon” as it literally captures the dreamy world of Yumetoi from outside as if trapping it in cinematic amber. Zon in itself may be a state of mind, a manifestation of the complex push and pull between the anxious need for safety and natural longing to understand the nature of the world, but it also serves as a literal barrier to transgressive thought as the more conservative residents resent any attempt to question its true purpose while the curious young insist on change and inquiry. The gift of Zon may be a kind of paradise but it’s one that comes at a price that the young are increasingly unwilling to pay. Zon’s message is its own undoing, urging the curious to free themselves from the accepted order by questioning its authority and finally finding the courage to step outside its bounds.


The Call of Zon was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)