Two Wives (妻二人, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

Everything is facade in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of the corruptions of the post-war society, Two Wives (妻二人, Tsuma Futari). Based on the novel by Patrick Quentin and scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Masumura’s dark mystery drama is a characteristically circular affair revolving around the hero’s moral confusion but positioning its two women as mirrors of each other, one a conservative upperclass daughter of a magazine editor whose intense properness has alienated all around her, and the other a perpetual mistress hung up on no-good starving artists.

Kenzo (Koji Takahashi), the hero, is married to the upperclass Michiko (Ayako Wakao) but is accidentally reunited with former uni girlfriend Junko (Mariko Okada) through an act of extreme coincidence. Junko is sporting a bandage around her neck to hide bruises caused by her violent drunk of a boyfriend Kobayashi (Takao Ito), a failed writer. This is in a sense ironic, as Kenzo had himself been an aspiring author during their uni days and it was Junko’s introduction to an old family friend, Nagai (Masao Mishima), which resulted in him getting a regular salaryman job before dumping her to marry the boss’ daughter. Despite himself, Kenzo ends up doing the same thing for Kobayashi but the young man’s motives are less than pure and he’s not so much tempted by consumerist comforts as coldly avaricious quickly setting his sights on Michiko’s wayward younger sister Rie (Kyoko Enami) who is just young and reckless enough to rebel against her sister’s puritanism through an affair with an unsuitable man. 

The magazine, Housewife’s World, seems to have been Michiko’s brainchild and runs under the slogan “clean, bright, beautiful”. Its target demographic is conservative wives and mothers with a particular interest in wholesome family values. These are all things Michiko practices in her personal life though as it becomes clear her excessive properness often annoys those around her who claim her moral authoritarianism pushes them towards transgressive rebellion. As the film opens, Nagai holds a meeting in which he announces that he’s fired two employees for being cautioned by the police when caught in an after-hours nightclub fearing that if such an event were to make to the papers it would tarnish their brand. However, pretty much no one other than Michiko is very dedicated to wholesomeness, her father having married off his mistress to a penniless aristocrat for the prestige of his name while employing the couple to manage a fund Michiko had set up for disabled children only for them to siphon all the money off for themselves. 

Having chosen consumerist fulfilment over the romantic, Kenzo has dedicated himself to his new role but is perhaps still conflicted in his decision especially after reuniting with Junko. His mirror Kobayashi, however, has no conflict at all and is willing to do anything and everything to achieve consumerist success. “You’ve no idea what a man without standing or money will do” he snarls, laying bare the effects of post-war inequality, pledging to use the Nagais like a springboard to jump as high as he can while threatening blackmail over having discovered all the sordid goings on at Housewife’s World. 

The soul of properness, Michiko is presented as the ultimate image of respectability while Junko is perceived as its inverse, a sexually active unmarried woman living in squalid backrooms and hanging out in bars. Yet Michiko’s austere exterior hides an inner ruthlessness in addition to an internal conflict over her own role in society. She publishes a magazine aimed at housewives though she is not a housewife herself but technically her husband’s boss. Eventually Nagai attempts to promote Kenzo above his wife claiming that the present situation does not fit with the traditional patriarchal outlook of magazine but he refuses, uncomfortable with this little piece of political manoeuvring in thinking that Michiko is better suited to the job and mildly insulted by the attempt at manipulation knowing that the reason for his promotion has nothing to do with his own ability. “I’m not interested in being a dog” he eventually barks back having come to the conclusion that this life of consumerist comfort is not worth the sacrifice of his autonomy or dignity. 

As for Junko, her love is indeed selfless continuing to support each of her starving artists even after they abandon her in favour of conventional success. Faced with Kobayashi’s rage, she cannot fire he effortlessly taking the gun from her which will eventually be retrieved by Michiko who does indeed use it to defend herself after Kobayashi attempts to rape her. “I want to be a woman who is loved like you” she exclaims on meeting Junko who has been accused of the murder she herself committed, jealous of her warmth and openness while Junko envies her for her refinement. Michiko claims that she hates lies, but discovers that everyone in her life has been lying to her while eventually forced to lie herself in covering up her crime. Yet it’s the weight of all the lies which eventually jolts Kenzo out of his complicity, resenting being made to lie to the police to cover up Rie’s potentially scandalous behaviour while unwilling to allow Junko to be convicted of a crime she did not commit. Nagai even convinces the family maid to lie for them in order to guarantee medical treatment for her sickly daughter. 

At his cruelest moment, Nagai goes so far as to undercut Michiko’s conflicted sense of self in telling her coldly that he only considered her a “token figure” he used for business who should have known her place and sat quietly in a corner ironically relegating her to the patriarchal space to which she on some level feels she ought to have confined herself while simultaneously wanting to take control as she had when she informed her father she would be marrying Kenzo rather than allowing him to find her a match. She too had worried about the direction of the current society and their magazine, wanting to move away from pure consumerism towards socially conscious content while her father clearly just wanted to make as much money as possible with no particular concern for morality only for optics. When she asks Kenzo if he loves her, he does not lie but replies only that he respects her which might in a way be an expression of love, later claiming that the properness which has alienated everyone else has in fact made him a better person who is determined to stand by her after she eventually commits to doing the right thing. 

In a final touch of irony, we see the “clean, bright” slogan echoed on a billboard outside the police station which is probably not an entirely transparent agency either though it appears as if in this case justice legal, moral, and emotional will be served striking back against amoral post-war consumerism and societal hypocrisy as the circle is brought to a close, both women landing on an equal footing and making their respective choices while Kenzo recommits himself to decency by pledging to start over together with Michiko. All in all, a more optimistic ending that might be assumed in a Masumura picture but then again no one can ever really escape the insidious hypocrisies of the contemporary society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Terror of Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War, Sadao Nakajima, 1976)

An old-school yakuza finds himself cornered on every side while caught in the confusion of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in Sadao Nakajima’s jitsuroku gangster movie Terror of the Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, Okinawa Yakuza Senso, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War). Where similarly themed Okinawa-set gangster pictures such as Sympathy for the Underdog had largely presented the islands as an appealing place for mainland gangsters because the conditions of the occupation which had allowed them to prosper were still in place, Sadao reframes the debate in terms colonisation and conquest as the hero finds himself increasingly marginalised as an island boy contending with amoral city elitists. 

Nakazato (Hiroki Matsukata) has just been released from prison after serving seven years for the murders of two rival gang bosses that allowed his boss, Kunigami (Shinichi Chiba), to rule the roost in Koza. But now that Okinawa has reverted to Japan, everything has changed. Kunigami has formed a loose alliance with another regional gang to oppose the incursion of mainland yakuza but behind the scenes the higher-ups are intent on a mutually beneficial alliance with the Japanese perhaps seeing the writing on the wall and assuming that it’s better to work with the new regime that against it. For his part, Nakazato is more loyal to the clan than he is opposed to Japan but he’s also resentful towards to Kunigami for failing to live up to his side of the bargain now that he’s been released while fearing the influence of his new sidekick Ishikawa (Takeo Chii) whom he suspects of murdering one of his former associates while he was inside. 

As such, much of the drama unfolds as in any other yakuza picture with Nakazato, regarded by some of the other bosses as a loose cannon and potential liability, reluctant to move against Kunigami for reasons of loyalty even while Kunigami becomes increasing unhinged and dangerous, deliberately running over an Osakan foot soldier who was apparently just on holiday with no particular business in town. Kunigami’s recklessness in his hatred of the Japanese threatens to start a turf war the Okinawan gangs fear they couldn’t win, sending snivelling yakuza middleman Onaga (Mikio Narita) along with Nakazato to negotiate in Osaka only to be told the price of peace is Kunigami’s head. Inspired by the Fourth Okinawa War which was still going on at the time of the film’s completion (in fact, the release was blocked in Okinawa in fear that it would prove simply too incendiary), the conflict takes on political overtones as the mainland gangsters assume their conquest of Okinawa is a fait accompli while those like Onaga are only too quick to capitulate leaving Kunigami and Nakazato as two very different examples of resistance. 

Yet Nakazato finds himself doubly marginalised because he is from one of the smaller islands with most of his men also hailing from smaller rural communities (one uncomfortably wearing extensive makeup to ram the point home that he is from the southern reaches) with the result that they are often pushed around by the city gangsters who view them as idiot country bumpkins. On his trip to Osaka, Nakazato even describes himself as such in an attempt to curry favour apologising in advance should he make a mistake with proper gangster etiquette. Like a good platoon leader, Nakazato’s primary responsibilities are to his men which is one reason why he takes so strongly against Ishikawa, one of the new breed of entirely amoral yakuza who care nothing at all for the code and think nothing of knocking off his guys for no reason. Consequently he finds himself caught between the invading mainlanders, the unhinged chaos of Kunigami, the coldhearted greed of Ishikawa, and the spineless venality of turncoats like Onaga. 

It’s no wonder that he eventually loses his cool, going all out war and like Kunigami dressing in vests and combats in an internecine quest for vengeance precipitated in part by Kunigami’s attempt to discipline one of his men for encroaching on his territory by removing his manhood with a pair of pliers. “Someone will get to you someday too” Nakazato is reminded though having lost everything including his loyal wife who insisted on selling herself to a brothel to get the money to fund his war of revenge he may no longer care so long as he cleans house in Okinawa to the extent that he is really able to do so. “Okinawa is such a scary place” one of the Japanese guys admits, though showing no signs of backing off in this maddeningly chaotic world which turns stoic veterans and hotheaded farm boys alike into enraged killers fighting on a point of principle in a world which no longer has any. 


Terror of Yakuza screens at Japan Society New York May 20 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: Terror of Yakuza © 1976 Toei

Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

Paradise View (パラダイスビュー, Go Takamine, 1985)

“We’ll all be Japanese soon, so why don’t you marry one?” suggests the mother of a young woman on the eve of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan after three decades under American administration, having taken advice from a shamaness overly worried about her children’s “mixed blood” but assured that a union between her daughter and a Japanese man “would be fine”. Her daughter, however, is not so sure yet equally afraid to voice her concerns while lacking confidence in the local man she loves who has “lost his spirit”, become obsessed with black thorn ants, and begun eating soil. 

As Reishu (Kaoru Kobayashi) tells us, he’s been feeling listless lately and has come to the beach to gather sea salt in the hope that it will perk him up as it has before, Takamine’s camera catching him a lonely figure on the shore. Meanwhile, a funeral procession creeps into the frame and is eventually disrupted when one of the coffin bearers is bitten by a snake which had been hiding in the open casket that in any case contains only bones presumably about to undergo the bone washing ritual common on the islands. “The funeral’s ruined! Our ancestors will never forgive us!” the bitten man laments as the others try to get back on track. Casting the spectre of death over the proceedings, the funeral procession along with Reishu’s desire to find salt to cure his depression is also an early statement of intent from Takamine capturing the unique cultural character of a typical island village as distinct from that of the Japanese mainland to which it is to be “returned”. 

Reishu’s listlessness is itself perhaps also a reflection of the island’s liminal status caught between Japan and the US in a moment of transition. As he tells his grandmother, he’s quit his job at the American army base fearing that as the Vietnam War is drawing to a close and Okinawa is to be returned to Japan there won’t be much work on offer highlighting the extent to which the local area has been economically dependent on the Americans and their foreign policy in Asia. Later we see some of the village men handling weapons smuggled off the American base which they intend for the Okinawan independence movement but which later end up causing self-destructive tragedy. As for Reishu his new business plan involves buying an amphibious vehicle which is in one sense an attempt to hedge his bets, somewhere between being unable to make a choice and avoiding having to make one. 

Paradoxically, Mr. Ito (Haruomi Hosono) the Japanese language teacher to whom Nabee, who is love with Reishu and in fact pregnant with his child, is to be married is described as “more Okinawan than we are” by one of her brothers and both scandalises and confuses a local bar owner over his desire to perform an outdated wedding ritual she fears is unduly sexist and possibly for that reason no longer regularly performed by the local community. Ito speaks somewhat wistfully of the spiritual effect the Okinawan jungle has on him and says he fears being rejected by the vegetation if he does not make sure the ritual is done properly. Bearing all this in mind, there’s something a little uncomfortable in his desire to marry a simple Okinawan village girl which remains in its own way a small act of colonialism even as Nabee’s mother and brothers pressure her to accept the proposal as if a union with the new ruling power would help “purify” their family as the shamaness had suggested. 

What seems clear is that Nabee does not even really know Ito and is not in favour of marrying him, the proposal must have come by arrangement which does not otherwise seem to be the prevailing culture in the village. On discovering Nabee’s pregnancy, her mother encourages her to marry Ito anyway and discretely have an abortion after the ceremony but on the other hand the pregnancy itself is not a major issue as it might have been on the mainland though they worry what Ito might have thought about it. Both friends with Reishu, neither of the brothers quite has the courage to challenge him on his relationship with their sister the calmer of the pair later explaining that he can’t blame him because he was only messing around. As another villager tries to explain to a migrant from the mainland, the islands have a much looser idea of sexual propriety in which young people are free to be friendly with each other with no particular seriousness attached, while the mainlander is concerned and anxious on hearing one of the brothers repeatedly state he could kill Reishu for what he’s done only to be told he didn’t mean it literally and is probably just very annoyed with him to the point of mild physical violence. 

Meanwhile, Chiru (Jun Togawa), a rural girl working as a maid, has also taken a liking to Reishu and is deeply worried for his safety having had a dream in which she saw a dog eat his soul which in their culture suggests he may soon be “spirited away”. Later he finds himself literally on the run after having been arrested when the independence movement storm the police van on which he’s being transported to rescue their comrades, another prisoner who waited patiently rather make his escape shot for his pains. Having lost his spirit he becomes increasingly listless, eating soil while wandering the forest without direction and vulnerable to the rainbow pigs who are it seems the real masters of this space. At the last point we see him, he’s staggering towards a fork in the road, heading towards what Nabee’s mother had described as a historical turning point, but seemingly choosing neither direction. With a dream-like, magical realist quality aided by Hosono’s etherial score and frequent use of traditional Okinawan folksong while spoken largely in the disappearing Okinawan language, Takamine’s laidback epic is a defiant evocation of local culture at a point of transition caught between two states while attempting to take hold of itself. 


Paradise View screens at Japan Society New York May 13 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections. It is also available to stream in the US May 14 to June 3.

Images: © Osamu Muranaka

The Wonder of a Summer Day (幻の蛍, Yuka Ibayashi, 2022)

A solitary teenage girl struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce gains a new perspective through a trip to grandma’s in Yuka Ibayashi’s charming indie drama, The Wonder of a Summer Day (幻の蛍, Maboroshi no Hotaru). Somewhat numbed emotionally, Kanata (Konoha Nogishi) is consumed with a sense of emptiness and has no idea what she wants to do in the future or even what her favourite food is while spending almost all of her time alone even going into school during the summer holidays to keep up her cleaning routine or work in the library. 

Part of this as we discover is that she doesn’t have a smartphone because her mother’s (Akiko Kikuchi) business running a small bar is struggling so she can’t join the group chat on phone-based social network LINE, the other girls in any case walking away before she’s fully time to explain even if she were going to. Kanata is certainly a very responsible young woman, often needing to get herself up and out because her mother rises late given the nature of her work, and helping out behind the bar when she gets home from school where she seems to be taking care of all the cleaning needs single handedly simply explaining “we’re supposed to rotate” when questioned by her eccentric science teacher as to why she has to do all of this extensive labour on her own. 

The science teacher is also surprised to learn that Kanata has no plans for the summer vacation planning to continue coming into school to do her various jobs, Kanata sadly wiping the word “summer” off the blackboard and cleaning the eraser afterwards. Then again, the teacher’s idea of fun is sitting in a bowling alley watching people bowl, prompting Kanata to begin wondering what fun might be or if there’s something she might like to do after all. “Life tends to provide us something we enjoy” according to the man at the grocery store, but she struggles to find an answer even refusing an invitation from her father to go to a local festival with her younger sister Sumire (Nonoka Ikeda) when he calls to borrow her old yukata.  

Part of the reason for her loneliness is rooted in the disintegration of the family unit. Not only is she harbouring a degree of resentment towards her father but has also been separated from her sister and feels acutely divided by the traditional social codes which mean that she and her mother have reverted to her maternal family’s name while Sumire and her father have kept theirs the same marking them as no longer family to the extent that she isn’t quite sure why Sumire regrets not having been allowed to attend their grandfather’s funeral. The situation is compounded by the fact that she suspects her father has a new girlfriend, her shock and distress palpable after spotting the three of them driving around looking like a family a pair of sisters excitedly crossing the road ahead of her while she remains frozen on the spot. 

Invited to spend a few days with grandma in the country along with Sumire, Kanata remains sullen and uncommunicative in contrast to her upbeat and cheerful sister who displays an unusual degree of emotional maturity in trying to take the moody teen to task. “You’re not the only person in this world with problems” she eventually fires back fed up with Kanata’s moods and hurt by her most recent barb basically blaming her for their parents’ divorce while insisting that she only makes trouble for those around her. Even so, a trip to find out of season fireflies finally allows the sisters to re-establish their bond with Kanata coming to accept her situation realising that she doesn’t have to cut off contact completely just because they won’t be living together and even if there are many things they may never do again there are plenty more they could do for the first time, like looking for fireflies. “If we keep walking we’ll end up somewhere” Sumire offers encouragingly as they find themselves temporarily lost during their brief summer adventure neatly proposing a metaphor for life and relationships as the sullen heroine begins to repair her fracturing family bonds letting go of her pain and resentment now a little less lonely if only in having shared her loneliness. 


The Wonder of a Summer Day screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Love Nonetheless (愛なのに, Hideo Jojo, 2022)

“Don’t deny love!” the fantastically awkward yet empathetic hero of Hideo Jojo’s Love Nonetheless (愛なのに, Ai Nanoni) eventually exclaims when confronted by the parents of a high school girl whose crush on him he’d tried to diffuse sensitively while growing to appreciate her friendship. Scripted by the ever prolific Rikiya Imaizumi who has made something of a name for himself examining the complicated romantic lives of young people in the contemporary society, Jojo’s prickly dramedy like his other film this year To Be Killed by a High School Girl deals with some quite uncomfortable ideas but does so with as much sensitivity as it can muster. 

The lovelorn hero, Koji (Koji Seto), for example is always trying to rationalise the circumstances around him considering his own actions and their implications carefully. When he catches a high school girl, Misaki (Yuumi Kawai), stealing a book from the secondhand bookshop where he works he chases her but she, surprisingly, stops running when she notices him struggling and buys him a bottle of water from a vending machine before eventually confessing that she stole the book because she saw him reading it. Not only does she announce she’s in love with him, she immediately proposes marriage. 30-year-old Koji is shocked and alarmed. He tries to turn her down but she doesn’t listen, continuing to frequent the store bringing him letters reiterating her marriage proposal which he never answers. 

Meanwhile, he’s hung up on an unrequited crush, Ikka (Honami Sato), who he’s just learned is about to be married. Even he describes himself as a “creep” looking back over of a cringeworthy series of tweets he’d sent her which she never replied to, while she explains to her fiancé Ryosuke (Ayumu Nakajima) why she’s not planning on inviting him to the wedding despite inviting everyone else from her old part-time job. Unbeknownst to her, Ryosuke has secretly been carrying on with their wedding planner, Miki (Yuka Kouri), who is content with the no strings nature of their relationship and ironically hates the “bizarre ritual” she has been hired to organise having developed a rather cynical view of marriage due to the nature of her work. The couple seem to be in a fairly liminal state, their apartment still full of boxes while they bicker about the financial strain of a ceremony which as Miki points out is not even about them but solely for their families and any children they may later have. 

All these people supposedly love each other, so why is it all so difficult and destructive? Always introspective, Koji realises he may have alienated Ikka with his inappropriate behaviour and has reflected on his actions but the fact remains that most of the other men are not so emotionally aware. Misaki is also courted by an awkward classmate who greets her with roses but thrashes them to the ground in frustration when she turns him down and later physically attacks Koji even when he points out that hitting his love rival won’t change the fact that Misaki’s not interested in him. Ikka meanwhile is approached by a sleazy salaryman when drinking alone in an izakaya whose response when she tells him she’s married is “so what, I am too”. Ryosuke appears to be having an affair for no other reason than he could while simultaneously confused by Miki’s lack of emotional investment in their relationship only for her to patiently explain to him that his problem is he’s bad in bed something which a lover would be unable to tell him directly. Ikka begins to realise this for herself while turning to Koji to get back at Ryosuke on learning of the affair as if believing that a level playing field of emotional betrayal would somehow allow them to start their married life on an equal footing. 

The secondary question arises of how important sex is in a romantic partnership, Ikka wondering if Ryosuke really is just a bad lover or if their unsatisfying sex life is a sign that they are simply incompatible and should separate given that she finds much more fulfilment with Koji whom she chose because of her lack of romantic interest in him. Koji meanwhile, fully aware of the realities of the situation, points out that it’s unfair and irresponsible of Ikka to exploit his feelings for her while cautioning her that her behaviour is heading towards the self-destructive and that she should reconsider marrying Ryosuke not because he thinks she should date him but simply because this complicated situation is obviously unhealthy for everyone. You could of course say the same about his awkward, perhaps uncomfortable relationship with the teenage Misaki which might in a sense be romantic, both slightly inappropriate and essentially innocent even if his eventual concession that he might love her one day is a step too far in failing to fully diffuse her one-sided crush in part because he’s become dependent on the attention he receives from her in the letters he doesn’t answer. 

Then again, the most troubling aspect of Ryosuke’s affair is not the extra-marital sex but the manipulative lie he constructed to excuse it designed to arouse Ikka’s sympathy in tying it back to her awkward experience with one-sided workplace crushes. Aware of the affair but not the lie, the choice she thinks she’s making is if her relationship with Ryosuke is strong enough to accept sacrificing sexual fulfilment or if perhaps this is as good as it gets when it comes to marital compromise. Koji’s solution seems to be that you should let love rest where it lands, denying it is pointless even if not reciprocated while sensitivity with other people’s feelings is essential for a happy, healthy society. Warmhearted and empathetic in its forgiveness of its messy protagonists’ many flaws, Jojo’s steamy drama never pretends love is easy but suggests it comes in many forms and in the end maybe follow your heart is as good advice as you’re ever going to get.


Love Nonetheless screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Noise (ノイズ, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2022)

The dark heart of small-town Japan is fully exposed in Ryuichi Hiroki’s ironic tale of murder and mass deception, Noise (ノイズ). “It’s for the sake of the island” the heroes are fond of claiming, one morally dubious justification leading to another as they contemplate the greater good saving their town while eroding its soul assuming of course that it had one to begin with. Addressing everything from rural depopulation to a back to the land philosophy, Hiroki’s quietly escalating drama imbues its “idyllic” wholesome island with an unsettling sense of quasi-spiritual unease as its well-meaning hero begins to buy in to his own saviourhood deciding all things are permissible so long as they serve the town. 

Following a recent trend, Keita’s (Tatsuya Fujiwara) big plan for saving the island is through the cultivation of black figs which he hopes to turn into a local industry boosting the economy and encouraging young people from the mainland to repopulate the rapidly ageing village. Ironically enough, it’s this that brings him to the attention of recently released ex-offender Mutsuo (Daichi Watanabe) whose kindly probation officer has brought him to the island in the hope of finding him an honest job so he can restart his life in a wholesome and supportive environment. Unfortunately, however, Mutso suddenly kills the old man for no particular reason and then begins wandering the island generally acting suspiciously and alarming the islanders including Keita’s best friend Jun (Kenichi Matsuyama), a hunter. When Keita returns home and discovers the bottle he’d seen Mutso drinking from lying in his garden and his small daughter Erina missing, he assumes the worst. He, Jun, and their childhood friend Shin (Ryunosuke Kamiki) recently returned to the island to take over as its one and only policeman, finally track Mutsuo down to one of the greenhouses and challenge him only for Mutsuo to fall over and hit his head during the tussle. 

Obviously on a personal level it’s not an ideal situation for the three guys but their first thoughts are for the island. Keita was supposed to be its saviour and now he’s killed someone in right under the figs that were supposed to rescue the economy. If this gets out it’s game over for everyone. The first lesson new policeman Shin had been taught by his departing predecessor (Susumu Terajima) had been that a policeman’s job is about more than enforcing the law and sometimes what’s “right” might not be “best” for the town using the example of a middle-aged woman with a history of bad driving who’d hit a wild boar. If she lost her license the family’s life would become impossible, so seeing as it’s “only” an animal, perhaps it’s better not to bother logging it as a “crime”. Faced with this situation, Shin decides the greater good of the island is more important and that covering up the crime is best thing for everyone only to be caught out when mainland police arrive having been alerted by the probation officer’s daughter. 

The situation is complicated by the fact that the town had been in the running for a government development grant based on the potential of the figs which gives everyone a reason not to want the scandal of a murder taking place on the “idyllic” wholesome island where according to the mayor, Shoji (Kimiko Yo), there is “absolutely no crime”. That may largely be true especially given the attitude of local law enforcement but is also an ironic statement seeing as we later discover Shoji apparently cannot sleep without her trusty taser by her side, just in case. Having lied in trying to cover up the murder, Keita is later forced to get even more of the townspeople involved in the conspiracy while they are it seems surprisingly happy to help because they believe in him as the saviour of the town and are prepared to do pretty much anything to help save the island. 

Stoic yet omniscient police detective Hatakeyama (Masatoshi Nagase) sneers at the villagers’ tendency to see all outsiders as enemies. “Typical of a dying town” he adds, commenting on the way the combination of isolation and desperation has brought the townspeople together as they present a united front in the face of the things they think threaten their small-town wholesomeness, some objecting to the idea of new residents moving in a fear which is ironically borne out in the arrival of a man like Mutsuo. Yet their small town wasn’t all that wholesome to begin with. Shoji had told the three guys to eliminate the “noise” that disturbs the island though in the end it isn’t’ so much Mutsuo who created the disturbance as their own quasi-religious determination to save the island by whatever means necessary. Keita wants to save the island because the island once saved him, but in saving it like this he ironically destroys the very qualities he hoped to preserve in building their new future on blood and lies. 

Meanwhile the strain of trying to conceal a murder exposes the cracks in the foundations of the friendship between the men, earnest policeman Shin continually conflicted in betraying his own ideals, while hunter Jun’s personal insecurity in continually playing second fiddle to saviour Keita who is so obsessed with the idea of being the island’s chosen one that he never notices the pain in each of his friends, gives rise to a degree of instability in their otherwise carefully crafted plan. Maybe this island isn’t so idyllic after all, keeping a dark hold on the bewitched Keita as his increasingly worried wife Kana (Haru Kuroki) suggests concerned he’s “becoming someone else” in buying in to his own messianic hype. “What are you trying to protect?” Hatakeyama had asked him hinting at the dark side of the furusato spirit but also at his misplaced priorities as the forces of greed and anxiety threaten to consume the wholesome soul of moribund small-town Japan. 


Noise streams in Europe until 30th April as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

international trailer (English subtitles)

Melting Sounds (ほとぼりメルトサウンズ, Kahori Higashi, 2021)

“They’re all dealing with something. They have nowhere to go back to” an old man sighs watching a cohort of similarly aged men doing callisthenics in a local park knowing that they’re about to lose this place too. A Moosic Lab production, Melting Sounds (ほとぼりメルトサウンズ, Hotobori Melt Sounds) is about what you keep and what you have to let go as the heroes try to preserve a disappearing soundscape while unable to resist the march of progress as even their little backwater finds itself at the mercy of modernising developers. 

Hoping for a solo getaway, Koto (xiangyu) arrives at the rural home of her late grandmother only to discover a strange man, Take (Keiichi Suzuki), camping in the garden. As she will repeatedly, rather than enlist the authorities Koto invites Take into the house where it’s warmer and discovers that he’s in the middle of an important project recording ambient noise from around the village attempting to capture the banal sounds of everyday life such as someone going to the dentist or a young couple having a pointless argument in the street. Meanwhile, the pair receive a visit from a young man, Yamada (Amon Hirai), bearing a tablet featuring the face of a woman, Hiroko (Umeno Uno), trying to explain to them that the house needs to be knocked down so they should hurry up and move out. Unfazed, Koto once again asks Yamada to come and sit under the kotatsu where it’s warm, the young man later taking a break from his job to stay with them under the pretext of convincing them to leave while they’re later joined by Hiroko who also becomes increasingly conflicted and decides to join their small family. 

Just as Take had said they’re all dealing with something, Koto having become estranged from her father whom she no longer talks to, Take as we discover recording the sounds on old-fashioned speaker walkmans for his late sister who was killed in a landslide, and Hiroko and Yamada each conflicted in their work for a greedy amoral developer who reveals that he too was responsible for evicting mostly elderly people from their homes in a town that has since become famous for bubble tea. The four of them are already displaced by the modern society, as are the men doing callisthenics in the park as they watch their town gradually dismantled around them, pushed out even from disappearing and depopulated rural Japan by an encroaching modernity. The developer claims he wants to rejuvenate the town to attract young people to return but is indifferent to what is being lost such as the recording of the nostalgic five o’clock chimes which so moves Hiroko, adding only that they no longer have them where they are only for Hiroko to suggest that you can only hear them if you’re pure of heart. 

Take claims he’s making a “grave of sounds” but he’s also capturing a moment in time and with it the essence of life. As he puts it everything has a sound from a flower blooming to air conditioners and church bells, each of them a part of something bigger immersed in the now. As he points out, everything comes to an end eventually, be it love or friendship or even family. The recordings are a kind of proof of life, but paradoxically also its passing the final implication being that all things have their season and it’s best to enjoy them while there’s time. Small-town Japan may be disappearing or at least changing even if the promised bubble tea might not be quite what you’d expect but that doesn’t necessarily mean it all has to go. 

Thanks to Koto’s warmheartedness, inviting each of them into the house despite having arrived for a “solo” getaway, the trio of youngsters find a new solution to their sense of lonely disconnection discovering a kindred spirit in their shared desire for something simpler and more wholesome as they play boardgames together by candlelight, making curry and gyoza sure to record the sound of them sizzling. A warm and quirky ode to the various ways life can be improved by the simple act of stopping to listen, Kahori Higashi’s laidback debut may be about learning to let things go but also appreciating what you have while you have it and taking what you can with you while being kind and openhearted even in the face of those attempting to run you out of town.


Melting Sounds screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)