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)

Bad Poetry Tokyo (東京不穏詩, Anshul Chauhan, 2018)

Bad Poetry Tokyo posterRunning towards a dream can help you forget whatever it was you were running away from, but there may come a time when you have to accept that your dream has betrayed you and the sun is already setting. For the heroine of Anshul Chauhan’s debut feature Bad Poetry Tokyo (東京不穏詩, Tokyo Fuon Uta) that moment has arrived all too soon and though she perhaps expected it to come and had actively resisted it, it can no longer be outrun.

30 years old, Jun’s (Shuna Iijima) dream has been a long time coming. At a make or break audition for a Canadian film, she tells the panel that she studied English at a top university in Tokyo and plans to move to LA to work in movies. Meanwhile, she blew out of her country home five years ago and has become estranged from her family. She supports herself working as a hostess in a seedy bar which is more a front for sex work than it is a drinking establishment, but sex work is work and at least pays well allowing her to save money to move to LA.

Unfortunately she plans to move there with her current boyfriend, Taka (Orson Mochizuki), who is a bouncer at the club and was responsible for getting her the job in the first place even if he now can’t quite reconcile himself with the feelings of jealousy and resentment her work causes him. Taka also has issues of his own and when twin crises present themselves in the form of a possessive and intimidating client, and a home invasion that seems like an inside job and leaves her with visible facial scarring, Jun is finally robbed of all hope and left with no other option than to retreat to her hometown and the quiet horrors which have been patiently waiting for her return.

Jun’s life, it would seem, has been one long scream. Returning to a seemingly empty home, she is less than happy to find her slumbering father (Kohei Mashiba) slumped over in the living room. Noticing the wounds on her face he begins to ask her what happened but more out of irritation than concern – he warns her not to bring any trouble to his door. Jun mutters that it might have been a mistake to come back, to which her father cooly retorts that the biggest mistake was her birth, resenting his daughter for her very existence and the taboo desires she arouses in him while insisting that this is all her fault because she is essentially “bad”. Jun’s dad didn’t even bother to tell her that her mother had died, perhaps out of embarrassment or shame for this was not a natural death and though not at his hand he is very much to blame. The first of many men to have wronged her, only now in her somewhat weakened and desperate state is Jun finally ready for a reckoning. After all, there is nothing more to lose.

Men have indeed ruined her life, as has the oppressive patriarchy which continues to define it. The first time we see her, Jun is forced to perform an intense audition scene of a woman being brutally beaten and abused for a dispassionate director. Which is to say, she is forced to humiliate herself and relive very real traumas in the quest to fulfil her dream. This early scene of playacting will be recalled several times, most obviously in the flashforward which opens the film and eventually leads to a moment of both liberation and transgression which ultimately seals her fate.

Unable to gain a foothold in acting, Jun is forced into a life of sex work which she finds degrading and unpleasant, allowing herself to be “violated” in return for money as she later describes it. Again reliving past traumas, her anger only grows and intensifies as she passively permits herself to be misused. A final act of rebellion in refusing the intimidating and entitled attentions of a controlling client leads to a dangerous situation in which he reminds her that women like her belong to men like him and if it pleases him he will destroy her. Jun gives up on her dream and therefore has no more need of the club, but employment in a hostess bar is not always as casual as it seems and one cannot just simply leave. Once again Jun has become someone’s property, not merely as an idea but as flesh.

Jun’s physical wounds are a manifestation of her emotional trauma and the legacy of violence which traps her in an oppressive cycle of abuse and despair. Back in her hometown, filled as it is with unpleasant memories and the shadow of her father’s cruelty, Jun is haunted by the spectre of an innocent childhood. Reuniting with an old friend who, it seems, has always carried a torch for the girl she once was, Jun is forced to confront the gulf between the “innocent” self which escaped with hope, and the defeated self which has returned with none. Even this seemingly positive, innocent romance is eventually tainted by violence offered as an act of love which has its own sense of disquieting poetry. Yet violence is the force which perpetuates despair, creating only fear and rage and pain each time it breeds. Jun is running once again but neither forward nor back, only full pelt towards the setting sun.


Bad Poetry Tokyo was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Festival promo (English subtitles)

A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Aya Igashi, 2018)

A Crimson Star posterFalling in love is, perhaps, like standing too close to the sun and for the young heroine of Aya Igashi’s debut feature A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Makkana Hoshi), it means nothing unless it burns. Set in the otherwise serene environment of a rural Japanese summer, full of blue skies and green fields bursting with life, A Crimson Star is the story of two ostensibly very different women in very different places who nevertheless develop an essential and inescapable bond in their shared sense of loneliness and isolation, but their relationship is also a problematic one in which the familial and the romantic have become inextricably linked.

14-year-old Yo (Miku Komatsu), undergoing a lengthy period of hospitalisation for an undisclosed illness, develops an intense fondness for her kindly nurse, Yayoi (Yuki Sakurai). On her discharge, however, Yo is stunned to learn that Yayoi has abruptly resigned and all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Yo’s family life continues to deteriorate. Her disinterested mother has got a new boyfriend who is often drunk and violent. In order to escape him, Yo takes a trip to the corner shop and makes a surprising discovery in a street of parked cars which turns out to be (as yet unknown to the the naive Yo) the secluded byroad used for secret assignations seeing as this is such a one horse little town that there isn’t even a love hotel. Yayoi has become an embittered sex worker and her lonely degradation breaks Yo’s heart. When her mother’s boyfriend eventually begins molesting her, it’s to Yayoi that Yo turns looking for care and support from a woman who had nursed her but is no longer a nurse.

The “crimson star” of the title most obviously refers to the wings of the paraglider gazed at so often by the earthbound Yo, but it is also echoed in the tiny scars and wounds which define the relationship between the two women. In the first scene of the film, the hospitalised Yo has a prominent bruise on her foot apparently caused by Yayoi nicking a vein when taking a blood sample. Even so, Yo leans in tell her that she is her favourite nurse – words which bring tears to Yayoi’s eyes and perhaps precipitate her decision to leave the hospital. For Yo, who is emotionally neglected by her mother and has never known true care and affection, the bruise becomes an odd kind of proof of love which she has come to associate with pain. Later, Yo spots an odd mark on Yayoi’s neck – she is of course too young to know what it is. Yayoi shows her, literally, by biting her slightly below the shoulder and creating another kind of “crimson star”.

Yo’s early attraction to the 27-year-old Yayoi has a distinctly maternal quality in which she looks for the same kind of compassionate care she experienced in hospital and which her mother refuses to give her. There is also, however, a nascent sexual attraction which provokes intense jealousy as Yo attempts to get closer to Yayoi but finds herself unable to achieve the kind of all encompassing love she is seeking. Given Yo’s extreme youth, the relationship is in many ways extremely inappropriate and infinitely confused, a combination of familial, platonic, and romantic longings which appear to be unbreakable but remain unresolved. Yo, almost becoming the thing she wants to find, begins to take care of the depressed, broken Yayoi – tidying the apartment, folding washing, and repairing external signs of damage, while Yayoi becomes care taker rather than care giver presenting her with an opportunity to reexamine her self-destructive tendencies including a dead end relationship with married paraglider Kengo (Katsuya Maiguma).

Kengo becomes a particular point of contention for Yo, not just for reasons of jealousy but because he causes Yayoi to suffer. Early on she spots him on his bike with his small daughter, every inch the doting dad which is, of course, something she never had. Kengo is also a symbol of familial betrayal as he undermines his seemingly happy family by continuing to string Yayoi along on what is, ironically enough, a no strings basis. Family has betrayed both women who find themselves adrift and alone with no clear anchor except perhaps each other.

Yet what Yo wants is to escape – to soar in the quiet skies high above all, free of earthly constraints like the paraglider she so often sees, but paragliders are crafts built for two and Yo wants to go with Yayoi, strapped together enveloped in a private world into which nothing else may enter. The “crimson star” then becomes the unattainable feeling of closeness and total connection that continues to elude her, furthering her view that love is pain and the pain she feels must be love. Backed by a crimson sky, the future is both hopeful and filled with light, but perhaps also tethered and marked by a melancholy resignation. Beautifully composed, Igarashi’s debut is a raw, often uncomfortable examination of an elemental bond forged between two lonely, damaged women each seeking impossible connection as an escape from a loveless existence.


A Crimson Star made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)