This Year’s Love (今年の恋, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1962)

The friendship between two underachieving teenage boys hints a series of conflicts in a changing society while accidentally bringing their respective siblings together in Keisuke Kinoshita’s cheerful romantic comedy, This Year’s Love (今年の恋, Kotoshi no Koi). In many ways, it’s the older siblings who appear to be stuck while the parents are largely content to let life be and the boys rejecting the conventional paths laid out for them while attempting to overcome their loneliness and sense of despair through the sincerity of their interclass friendship. 

As the film opens, high school boys Hikaru (Masakazu Tamura) and Ichiro (Ryuji Ishikawa) have been lured to a patch of grass above the city where they’re assaulted by an older bully who for some reason resents the fact that they weren’t wearing their traditional students caps even though such things are perhaps already outdated in the rapidly changing society of 1962. In any case, Hikaru vows revenge, deciding to give up golf club and a series of other things to take up boxing, instructing Ichiro to abandon the “girly” sport of basketball and join him. Neither boy is currently doing very well at their studies, with Ichiro’s prim and proper sister Mikako (Mariko Okada) convinced that Hikaru is a bad influence on her brother assuming that he is another spoilt rich kid set on leading him astray. 

In fact, she’s not entirely wrong. Hikaru does seem to be somewhat aimless probably because his family is wealthy and he doesn’t see much urgency in the situation nor hold that kind of anxiety for his future though is fond of telling people that he feels quite depressed. While Ichiro lives in Ginza where his family run a successful restaurant, Hikaru lives in a large townhouse in nearby Yokohama cared for largely by their kindhearted housekeeper (Chieko Higashiyama) and a live-in maid while his older brother Tadashi (Teruo Yoshida) is currently a graduate student heading towards a regular salaryman job. Their mother having died some time ago and their father always away on business, care for Hikaru has largely fallen to Tadashi who is nevertheless a young man himself with his own life to be getting on with. Similarly Mikako has largely taken on a maternal role when it comes to caring for Ichiro because her parents are always busy with the restaurant. Part of the reason she’s resentful of Hikaru is that she’s the one the school keeps calling in about her brother’s poor academic performance while Ichiro is always off messing around with his rich kid friend. 

Mikako seems to take against Hikaru in part because he is rich, assuming that wealthy people are necessarily decadent and lazy while concerned that Ichiro’s head is being turned by seeing the way the other half live without understanding what it takes to live that way. The Aikawas aren’t exactly poor, they also have a live-in maid and their quarters behind the restaurant are spacious enough, though they couldn’t quite claim to be middle class because they work in the hospitality sector which is still somewhat looked down upon. In any case, dressing exclusively in kimono Mikako is extremely uptight and obsessed with properness. She further takes against the Yamadas after an awkward first meeting with Tadashi who is dumped by his fed up girlfriend in her restaurant and ends up getting beer thrown in his face, while his father later turns up with his secret longterm mistress, a maid from an inn in Atami, leaving Mikako scandalised and embarrassed. 

Ironically enough, Tadashi’s name quite literally means “correct” though even if he isn’t quite as hardline as Mikako he also wants the best for his brother. Because of the realities of life in post-war Japan, both boys explain that they find it hard to study in part because they are lonely often left home alone with no one to talk to which is one reason they value their friendship so deeply. Hikaru’s mother has passed away and his father is largely absent, while Ichiro’s parents are always working in the restaurant as is Mikako even if she’s largely been delegated other maternal duties. Tadashi and the housekeeper attempt to set Hikaru straight that he needs to do well in school because he’ll have to be able to get a good job to support himself, but Hikaru is part of a new generation that doesn’t the see point in the emptiness of the salaryman lifestyle. Tadashi might not either, but he’s going along with it anyway whereas as Mikako is completely wedded to the idea of aspirational respectability intent that Ichiro should do his best to get into college and catapult himself into the middle classes.

Her cheerfully laidback parents meanwhile barely finished school and have done alright for themselves with restaurant. They aren’t that bothered if Ichiro isn’t academically inclined because they can train him up as a chef even if that isn’t quite the future Mikako had envisaged for him in her upwardly mobile worldview. Nevertheless, she’s not quite as prim as she makes out, sneaking the odd cigarette here and there, and despite herself begins to fall for Tadashi’s goofy charms while bonding in shared love for their siblings. In the end she’s the one who has to learn that it’s alright to have a little fun now and then and if longtime widower Mr Yamada has a girlfriend that’s probably alright too. The boys’ teacher hints that he finds it strange they aren’t more into girls, Hikaru apparently so popular that the phone at his house never stops ringing but he turns them all down because he’s too consumed with ennui to date, introducing an additional transgressive element to their friendship along with their bid for manliness with their new obsession with boxing which as Mikako’s maid points out does feature a series of shirtless musclebound men. Perhaps Mikako’s newfound appreciation for romantic freedom wouldn’t stretch that far, but it does seem to have opened her up to new possibilities in a less judgemental future as she rings in the new year in the old capital of Kyoto. 


Tsuyukusa (ツユクサ, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2022)

A middle-aged woman decides to embrace possibility after her car is hit by a meteorite in Hideyuki Hirayama’s charmingly quirky dramedy, Tsuyukusa (ツユクサ). Though dealing with difficult subjects such as grief, depression, alcoholism, and loneliness, a spirit of warmth and generosity shines through in the quiet seaside town as its various inhabitants each in their own way find themselves pondering new beginnings and while discovering that change may be scary it’s worth taking the risk for greater happiness. 

49-year-old Fumi (Satomi Kobayashi) lives in a quiet village by the sea and works in a textile factory where the atmosphere is laidback and collaborative. For poignant reasons only later disclosed she’s formed a close relationship with her friend’s son Kohei (Taiyo Saito) who is obsessed with all things space. It’s Kohei who decides that whatever it was that hit her car while she was driving home one evening was probably a meteorite and declares that Fumi must be one very lucky lady because the chances of witnessing a meteorite strike are all but infinitesimal. Fumi too seems to take it as a good omen, wearing the moon rock that Kohei finds at the beach as a pendant and symbol of the new possibilities in her life. 

Meanwhile it seems clear that Fumi is dealing with a series of things including a problem with alcohol which is why she’s been attending a local support group which is surprisingly large given the size of the town. Then again she’s not the only one dealing with crisis, her two friends from the factory are also at a point of transition. Kohei’s mother Nao (Kami Hiraiwa) is at odds with her husband (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who has accepted a job offer in another town but suggests that she and Kohei stay behind in part because he is the boy’s stepfather and worries about uprooting him especially as Kohei does not seem to have fully accepted him as a father. Taeko (Noriko Eguchi) meanwhile has embarked on a secret affair with a Buddhist monk (rakugo performer Tougetsuanhakusyu) she somewhat transgressively met when he read the sutras at her late husband’s funeral. Fumi is gradually warming up to new love of her own in taking a liking to Goro (Yutaka Matsushige), a melancholy gentleman of around her own age whom she often sees sadly blowing the tsuyukusa leaves like a harmonica in the local park. 

The village is for them a gentle space of healing, many coming from the city following some kind of emotional trauma and looking for a quiet place to escape their sorrow. Even Kohei is caught at a point of transition, exclaiming that all the adults he knows are liars while attempting to deal with his first real heartbreak and contemplating moving away from all his friends and the town he grew up in with a man he doesn’t quite feel he knows. But then as Goro points out, the tsuyukusa grow everywhere and happiness is always in reach as long as you decide to go out and fetch it. Fumi may originally over invest in the symbolism of the moon rock, as if being hit by a meteorite really was an omen of change and a kind of good luck charm in itself rather than a funny thing that happened and caused her to reevaluate her life but finally realises that she didn’t need a meteor strike to give her permission to be happy. 

Even so the quirky seaside town does seem to be a cheerful place with a series of colourful characters even if many of them are lonely or displaced. Fumi’s boss is forever doing tai chi by the beach after apparently being left by his wife and unsuccessfully travelling to Taiwan in search of a new one. The guy who runs the local bar used to be a whaler and sends customers out on errands on his behalf, while the old man who runs the alcohol support group finds his job so stressful that it’s driving him to drink. “Just fix the pain, please. Then I can keep on going” Fumi tells a dentist though it’s a fairly apt metaphor for life. Reminiscent of the work of Naoko Ogigami of which Satomi Kobayashi is perhaps a representative star, Tsuyukusa never shies away from the darker corners of life but nevertheless allows its warmhearted protagonist to rediscover joy if only in the simple things. 


Tsuyukusa screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Plan 75 (Chie Hayakawa, 2022)

In 2016, a 26-year-old man went on a violent rampage murdering 19 people at a care home for the disabled claiming that he had done it “for the sake of society”. Prior to his crime, the killer had written an open letter in which he stated that he dreamed of a world in which those with severe disabilities could be peacefully euthanised, while claiming that those with no ability to communicate had no right to life and were nothing more than a drain on society. An expansion of her earlier short featured in the anthology film Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 opens with a sequence which appears to directly reference the 2016 mass killing but in place of the widespread outrage and reconsideration of a social stigma towards disability that followed in its wake, the government decides to implement a “voluntary” euthanasia program for those aged 75 and over in response to the “concerns” of the young in an ageing society. 

Intergenerational resentment does indeed seem to be a motivating factory, the killer in this incident feeling himself oppressed by the responsibility of caring for the elderly while simultaneously hemmed in by a stangnant economy and heirarchical society. He points out that Japanese people have always praised self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation and alludes to the archaic tradition of ubasute or throwing out the old in which elderly people were abandoned on mountainsides to die in time of famine. There is no denying that the Plan 75 initiative has its insidious qualities in placing undue pressure on elderly people to give up their lives in order not to “burden” the young, an elderly woman attending a cancer screening remarking that she feels a little awkward as if she’s “clinging on to life”, being somehow greedy in the simple desire to continue living. 

Meanwhile, their society has already abandoned them. 78-year-old Michiko (Chieko Baisho) had no children and lives alone supporting herself with a job as a hotel maid where all of her colleagues are also elderly women. When one of them has a fall at work, they are all laid off. The hotel claims that they’ve received complaints from guests about exploiting elderly people, but Michiko suspects it’s more like they don’t want one of them to drop dead in someone’s room. Not wanting to be a “burden”, Michiko is reluctant to apply for social security but even when she accepts she has few other options the desk at city hall is closed. Her building, like her now old, is set for demolition but no one is willing to rent to an unemployed 78-year-old woman nor is anyone willing to employ one. More and more Michiko is pushed towards Plan 75 if only to escape her loneliness. Being robbed of the opportunity to work also removes the opportunity for socialising especially as the other old ladies decide to move in with family and leave the area. 

This is in fact an integral part of the Plan 75 business plan with case workers specifically instructed to keep the applicants happy through regular phone calls while prohibited from meeting them in person to prevent the older person changing their minds having made new social connections that make their lives more bearable. In the quietly harrowing scenes at the processing centre, for want of a better term, it becomes obvious that the majority of those submitting to Plan 75 are women as staff members empty out their handbags, dumping their possessions into a large bin while setting aside anything of value such as watches or bracelets which are perhaps another valuable revenue stream for a callous government that sees the programme as a cost cutting exercise.  

Case worker Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) only becomes conflicted about Plan 75 after recognising an applicant as his estranged uncle and eventually discovering that despite sales claims of dignified funerals remains are often sent to landfill care of an industrial waste company. His uncle’s plight perhaps highlights the pitfalls of life in post-war Japan. Living hand to mouth working construction jobs all across the country he never had an opportunity to put down roots or save for his old age and is now living a lonely life of desperate poverty. Heartbreakingly he put his application in on his 75th birthday, an act Hiromu’s boss describes as almost heroic as if he couldn’t wait to sacrifice himself for the common good. Later a sign goes up that fixed addresses are no longer needed to apply, while the Plan 75 stand in a local park where they are in the process of putting bars on the benches so that homeless people can’t sleep there doubles as a soup kitchen. 

One has to ask, if there was money available for all of these resources to help people die why is it not available to help them live? A young woman assigned as Michiko’s handler appears to have second thoughts while bonding with her over the phone, tearfully reminding her she still has the right to withdraw (though it’s never mentioned if that means repaying the $1000 signing bonus) while Michiko’s life too has been brightened by this little bit of intergenerational friendship, itself cruelly commodified in the allotted 15-minute sessions included in the plan. Told with quiet restraint, Hayakawa’s vision of an eerily dystopian future in which human life is defined by productivity and all human relationships transactional, where loneliness is the natural condition and society itself has become little more than a death cult, is painfully resonant in our increasingly disconnected world. 


Plan 75 screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 20 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 KimStim

She is me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

A gentle sense of haunting lingers over the protagonists of Mayu Nakamura’s pandemic-era anthology She is Me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Watashi no Naka no Kanojo). COVID-19 seems only to have exacerbated their sense of loneliness and regret, confronted by the ghosts of other lives and absent friends while having little else to do but think about past and future amid an atmosphere of anxiety. Yet within the lonely city there is space for fresh connection and new beginnings even if in themselves somewhat unexpected.

The sense of distance is obvious from the first episode, Among Four of Us, in which three university friends meet again after many years in a public park, only in reality they’re each sitting on their own in different parts of the city while connected by telephone. They speak briefly of their lives, each filled with disappointment one a struggling actor, one a conflicted housewife happily married but wondering what might have been, and the other living with a former lover who can’t forget their absent friend. Much of the conversation revolves around Sayoko who haunts them on this beautiful moonlit night as they each realise they’ve done little but think about her though she somehow slipped away from them and may have had sorrows and regrets of her own they never thought to ask about. 

It’s Sayoko who again seems to haunt the third chapter, Ms. Ghost, in which a young woman encounters an old lady sleeping on a bench near the station and realises they have more than a little in common. In fact it’s almost as if she were talking to an older version of herself, alone and beaten down by life, dreaming of past glories. Both women reflect not only on their broken dreams as country girls who came to the city to act, but on the various ways they’ve been displaced by the pandemic having lost their places of work and been left with nowhere else to go. Forced into sex work after her hostess bar closed down, the younger woman is haunted by a sense of danger that she might end up just another name in the newspaper killed by a violent man. 

Then again the lonely woman of part two, Someone to Watch Over Me, finds herself captivated by a delivery driver, Kazuya, who hastily polished off one of the meals she ordered but did not have the strength to eat. Becoming somewhat obsessed with him she continues ordering food only to have him eat it, but is conflicted on discovering a note of darkness in their relationship. When he tells her that she is not alone even if she thinks she is, it comes across as a much less comforting statement than he meant it to be hinting at the various ways having someone to watch over you isn’t always as nice as it sounds. She too is haunted by absence, along a with a vague sense of being watched that she may however uncomfortably have started to enjoy. 

The heroine of the fourth episode, Deceive Me Sweetly, is haunted by the loss of her youthful dreams taken from her along with her high school lover, a photographer just like the delivery driver, by her declining sight. Yet she can perhaps see further than most and straight through the young man who arrives at her door attempting to run an ore ore scam poignantly claiming to be the brother that hasn’t contacted her in years. Struck by remorse, the young man begins to regret scamming this strangely trusting woman remarking that the real Kazuya wherever he may be must be lucky to have a family he could call in time of need, which the young man perhaps does not. While she is haunted by lost youth, the woman is also in a way haunting him like a mystical figure offering the hand of redemption and setting him free into a world that seems more open fuelled by the need to repay a debt of kindness to a woman he never really knew. Even in these days of lonely desperation, there can still be hope and connection. Filmed with dreamy minimalism, Nakamura’s four tales each starring actress Nahana and connected by seemingly random details discover a sense of the comfort in strangers that a city can offer even in the midst of its own loneliness. 


She is me, I am her had its World Premiere at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Omphalos Pictures

The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yuka Yasukawa, 2021)

A young woman begins to regain a sense of self-confidence in the face of social prejudice when invited to consult on a film in Yuka Yasukawa’s adaptation of the Rio Shimamoto novel, The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yodaka no Kataomoi). Drawing inspiration from a Kenji Miyazawa story about an ostracised nighthawk bullied by a hawk who cannot accept that they are the same because he finds the nighthawk’s difference offensive, Yasukawa’s gentle drama is less about the transformational quality of love than it is about learning to accept oneself as distinct from the self that others see. 

A shy young woman, Aiko (Rena Matsui) keeps a distance with others because of a longterm sense of rejection owing to a prominent birthmark on her face. After agreeing to be interviewed for a book about people living with facial difference and disfigurement, Aiko is approached by filmmaker Tobisaka (Ayumu Nakajima) who just happened to chance on their photoshoot and was struck by what he describes as a quiet sense of strength in her reserve. Though Aiko is not originally keen on the idea of having someone turn her life into a film, she soon begins to bond with Tobisaka who does not appear to react to her birthmark and eventually embarks on a romance only to find herself insecure in his continuing attachment to a former muse and dedication to his craft. 

While visiting her publisher, Marie (Lisa Oda), Aiko encounters a curious little girl who touches her own face and bluntly asks Aiko if the bruise-like mark on her cheek hurts. Aiko answers patiently that it doesn’t and isn’t offended by the little girl’s question, but perhaps is by the mother’s reaction as she stares and wonders what to say before apologising for her daughter’s rudeness but not for her own. Aiko recounts something similar in recalling her childhood bullying in which the kids in her class nicknamed her “Lake Biwa” because the mark on her face resembled the famous landmark which they were learning about in school. Though they were being cruel to her, Aiko remembers that a part of her enjoyed the attention while the teacher’s attempt to shut her classmates down was in a way more painful as if it were the birthmark itself which was “horrible” rather than the kids’ comments. After that the other children began to avoid her, unsure what to say and perhaps blaming her for having gotten into trouble with the teacher. She explains that she worries people often drift away from her in part because of the birthmark itself and in part because of the way it influences her behaviour generating a vicious cycle of doubt, rejection, and loneliness. Tobisaka’s muse, Miwa (Miyuu Teshima), looks very much like her only without the birthmark and Aiko worries if she can keep him while fearing in her insecurity that their relationship is nothing but a long con designed to get her to agree to participating in the film. 

Yasukawa often frames Aiko looking into mirrors, at one point a reflection of her face appearing next to that of Miwa in her makeup on a poster for the film. Tobisaka gives her a compact mirror as a gift that he possibly intends to help her see herself though perhaps as he sees her, while she remains internally conflicted insistent that there’s nothing wrong with having a birthmark but carrying a degree of internalised shame and wondering if her life would be different without it. It’s another compact given to her by a similarly troubled friend that later grants her agency in realising that she does have a choice in displaying her birthmark or not even if deciding that she might not want to have it removed after discovering that it may be medically possible. Her supervisor advises her that attempting to become a different person in the pursuit of growth is nothing but a fantasy while she gradually comes to the realisation that change is not quite not quite what she’s looking for, quite literally freeing herself from her self-imposed imprisonment to embrace her authentic self. Her growth lies not simply in being loved by a man who may in a way be exploiting her, but in truly seeing herself and others for the first time. An elegantly lensed tale of self-acceptance, Yaskukawa’s gentle drama allows its diffident heroine the space to grow while becoming more rather than less of herself in defiance of a social prejudice that is all to often routed in the same insecurity she has now escaped.


The Nighthawk’s First Love screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 13 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Kenji Nakanishi, 2022)

As it turns out, the modern world is not so different from the feudal after all. After realising that their friend and mentor has passed away, a team working together to create an accurate map of Japan in the early 19th century are immediately worried that their project will be axed as a part of a cost cutting exercise at the hands of the penny-pinching Shogun. Inspired by Shinosuke Tatekawa’s rakugo story, Kenji Nakanishi’s heartwarming dramedy Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Taiga e no Michi) tells parallel tales of hardworking civil servants trying to put their town on the map and Edo-era officials trying to avoid incurring the Shogun’s displeasure so they can ensure their late friend’s life’s work will eventually be finished. 

In the present day, the small town of Katori is trying to think of ways to raise its profile but according to junior civil servant Kinoshita (Kenichi Matsuyama) the programme proposed by the tourist board has little to offer in simply imitating the initiatives of other better known cities. As he points out, if tourists want to experience life in olden times there are lots of places they can do that already. Chief of General Affairs Ikemoto (Kiichi Nakai) idly suggests that they try and get local historical personannage Chukei-san, better known as Ino Tadataka the man who completed the first accurate map of the Japanese islands, featured as the subject of a year-long historical TV drama. Of course, Kobayashi from the tourist board (Keiko Kitagawa) thinks it’s a silly idea, but the governor likes it so Ikemoto now has a very difficult job not least because the governor wants him to convince a grumpy writer who hasn’t written anything in 20 years to handle the script. 

The reason Kato (Isao Hashizume) retired from screenwriting is that he too was fed up with placating commercially-minded executives and isn’t prepared to work on anything in which he doesn’t have full creative control which might be a problem a civil servant like Ikemoto could sympathise with if he wasn’t so desperate to bring him on board. It can’t be denied that the story of the map’s creation is itself fascinating if only in its technical detail of how these men were able to complete a map which almost perfectly aligns with modern aerial photography using only the technology of the early 19th century. As Kato points out, Tadataka was already in his 70s and the bulk of the work is simply walking all around Japan measuring it step by step. He’d only begun the project because he wanted to figure out the size of the earth by charting the Meridian Arc, but figured that out right away and still went on to work on the map for reasons largely unknown though later hinting a sense of anxiety in the late Edo society in believing that understanding the shape of the nation’s coastlines was the key to national defence in the wake of a Russian attack that had cost two of Tadataka’s local helpers their lives. 

Yet the drama idea is pretty much dead in the water after realising that Tadataka “died” three years before the map was completed. Fearing they’d lose their funding, Tadataka’s team buried him in secret and told people he was simply out on location while trying to finish the map before anyone found out knowing that their lives were at risk if the Shogun discovered they’d been lying to him and assumed they’d been doing it to continue claiming Tadataka’s stipend. To ram his point home, Nakanishi has the civil servants taking on the role of the mapmakers in Kato’s putative version of the story as they come together as a team to finish their mentor’s project but are eventually forgotten by history in much the same way as Ikemoto and his team will eventually be even as they too work for their betterment of their nation by taking care of the community. Ikemoto becomes something of a Tadataka figure, deciding to pickup a new skill in middle-age and aiming high in perfecting it (while slightly misleading the boss as he does so). A heartwarming tale of the value of teamwork and the perils of bureaucratic cost cutting, Nakanishi’s historical dramedy implies that not so much as changed in 200 years but that’s not entirely a bad thing as the dedicated team of civil servants do their best to put their city on the map.


Dreaming of the Meridian Arc screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022 “Dreaming of the Meridian Arc” Film Partners

Wedding High (ウェディング・ハイ, Akiko Ohku, 2022)

“Today is the best day of our lives” a couple exclaim seconds before taking their marital vows, but if you think about it, isn’t that just a way of saying that it’s all downhill from here? Even the determined wedding planner at the centre of Akiko Ohku’s ensemble comedy Wedding High (ウェディング・ハイ) admits that a good wedding day doesn’t amount to a good marriage and it’s certainly true that almost everyone in attendance has rather overhyped the occasion insisting that it’s a grand turning point in their lives even if they aren’t the ones swearing eternal devotion at the altar. 

Groom Akihito (Tomoya Nakamura) didn’t even really want a wedding, they are after all expensive and time consuming, but is paranoid that not having one, or having one that’s not quite right, will eventually poison his relationship with his soon-to-be wife Haruka (Nagisa Sekimizu). For him the day has to go well, or at least Haruka has to feel as if she’s had the best day of her life, or their marriage will get off to a bad start. Meanwhile they’re under pressure from friends and family members trying to decide on a guest list especially considering that key guests are expected to handle entertainment with both sets of fathers and an eccentric uncle keen to get in on the action while it’s also customary to invite one’s boss to give a brief speech at the reception. 

Akihito’s boss Zaitsu (Katsumi Takahashi) doesn’t exactly try to steal the day but does invest it with a surprising degree of personal significance, oddly touched that Akihito has asked him despite his having been disgraced at work because of a sleazy scandal in his personal life. Zaitsu sees the wedding speech as a chance for a comeback, obsessively studying standup comedy determined to deliver a genuinely funny routine that will make everyone laugh and perhaps conclude that he’s not such a bad guy after all. For Akihito’s schoolmate Shinji (Akiyoshi Nakao) the wedding becomes something similar, allowing him to regain his creative mojo after hating himself for being trapped in variety television having dreamed of becoming an arthouse movie director when Akihito tasks him with directing a wedding video to be shown at the reception. Even one of Haruka’s friends from high school dance club launches into a story about how this is their big chance to make up for their final performance being cancelled due to injury by performing it again at Haruka’s wedding.

A subplot sees Haruka’s uni ex (Takanori Iwata) decide this is his big day too, planning to storm the ceremony and win her back. He’s convinced himself they only broke up because he reacted in the wrong way when she mentioned her parents’ wanted to introduce her to a guy for an arranged marriage and thinks she’s sent him a coded message that she’s being pressured into an unwanted union and needs rescuing before it’s too late. Somehow Maho (Ryoko Shinohara) manages to keep everything running smoothly, springing into action when the couple’s big day gets derailed by competitive speech making and pretty much everyone else trying to have their moment, yet as her colleagues remind her it’s the next couple’s big day too and the last thing they want to do is spoil that by trying to save Akihito and Haruka’s wedding from falling into complete chaos. 

Like most Japanese ensemble comedies, the resolution turns on the team pulling together to make everything work out. In this case, Maho’s speed wedding strategy leads to something genuinely beautiful and better than the original plan in allowing the couple’s friends and family who may not have known each other before to present a united front of support that neatly symbolises their union as a couple and makes their special day a little more special than it might have been if everything had gone smoothly. Almost everyone does indeed get something from the big day even if it wasn’t what they originally thought they wanted, seizing the chance for a new beginning or to put the past behind them. Asked to boil her speech down to the bare minimum a high school teacher (Hairi Katagiri) offers the simple advice “be happy” while Maho reflects on her role in the proceedings admitting that a good wedding day doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a good marriage but at least you’ll have a few good memories if it all goes wrong somewhere down the line. 


Wedding High screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 11 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Wedding High Film Partners

My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

© 1988 Studio Ghibli

“Trees and people used to be good friends” explains a father to his little girls newly arrived in the idyllic countryside of post-war Japan seeking respite from the destructive modernity that has made their mother ill. Released alongside the harrowing wartime drama Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, Tonari no Totoro) is a charming tale of childhood adventure if not quite without its shades of darkness in which two sisters embrace the wonder of the natural world while trying to come to terms with mortality and the uncertainties of adulthood. 

Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and her younger sister Mei (Chika Sakamoto) have moved into a large, ramshackle house in a rural village on the outskirts of Tokyo for the benefit of their mother’s health while she remains in hospital a few miles away. Living with their cheerful father (Shigesato Itoi), a professor in the city, the girls rejoice in exploring their new environment learning of the dust bunnies that inhabited their home before they moved in. An old lady from the village (Tanie Kitabayashi) who’s come to help keep house until the girls’ mother returns home explains that she could see the “soot spreaders” too when she was a child but presumably not anymore. The idea that the soot speakers will soon move on appears to make the sisters sad, and everyone including the parents is quite excited about the idea of living in a “haunted house” even if it’s one that rattles a little in the wind. It’s younger sister Mei who later follows the trail of acorns that mysteriously appear in their home and encounters a series of strange forest creatures she names “Totoro” that eventually introduce the girls to a parallel world of magic and fantasy. 

Their father probably doesn’t believe them, but indulges the girls’ stories and adventures while encouraging them to embrace a sense of wonder in their environment along with something deeper and older than contemporary modernity. “You probably met the king of this forest” he explains to Mei, pausing to offer a word of thanks to the ancient tree he says first drew him to the house that will be their new family home. Whether Totoro is “real” or simply a childish fantasy he helps the sisters escape their anxiety over their mother’s absence, not least by introducing them to new life in the seeds the girls plant in their garden and patiently wait to grow. The oldest, Satsuki, is perhaps a little more aware, worried that her father might not have told her everything about her mother’s condition and processing the idea that there is a possibility she won’t come home to them. She wants to protect her sister from the same fears but perhaps can’t, eventually losing her patience with her and instantly regretful when Mei goes off in a huff and gets lost.

There is darkness in the village too, a floating sandal in a nearby lake giving rise to fears that a child may have fallen in and drowned, but there’s also the gentle strength of the community in the kindly old lady and her shy grandson Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa) along with all the other villagers who come out in force to look for Mei fearing she may have tried to visit her mother at the hospital on her own. The old lady prays furiously while muttering Buddhist sutras and it’s probably not a coincidence that Mei sits by a row of Jizo statues after realising that she’s lost not knowing what to do. The girls are always careful to offer thanks at the Jizo shrine just as their father thanked the tree though it’s Totoro and the Catbus that eventually bring them back together echoing a sense that in a just world kindness will always be repaid. 

The countryside is in many ways closer to that just world, largely free of the evils of modernity such as the pollution of industry that has corrupted the cities. Technology is often unreliable, dad’s train is late, telegrams bring bad news, and telephone calls result in anxious waits, but life in the village is peaceful and happy and the people help each other when times are hard. It may be an idealised vision of rural living, but there’s no denying its appeal. Evoking a sense of nostalgia in its beautifully painted backgrounds, Miyazaki’s gentle drama is like much of his work an advocation for the importance of nature as a source of healing but equally for wonder in the fantastical adventures of two little girls finding strength and possibility in the heart of the forest.


My Neighbor Totoro screens on 35mm at Japan Society New York on Nov.4 as part of the Monthly Anime series. Japan Society will also be hosting a talk with puppet artist Basil Twist on Nov. 10 delving behind the scenes of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s currently running stage adaptation.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 1988 Studio Ghibli

The Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

“You’ve become an evil beast that sucks blood!” intones ace detective Kindaichi, though just as his later The Lady Vampire featured no lady vampires, there is no literal bloodsucker involved in Noburu Nakagawa’s Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Kyuketsuga). Inspired by one of Seishi Yokomizo’s mysteries featuring his iconic detective here played by the rather suave Ryo Ikebe cutting a very noirish figure in contrast to the famously disheveled eccentric from the original novels, the film is for a time at least a werewolf movie though as usual the villain turns out to be post-war greed and amorality. 

This is perhaps rammed home in the open sequence as the camera pans around the neon-lit nighttime city before entering a small cabaret bar where a fashion competition is currently in progress. A note of discord is immediately introduced by a white-haired grumpy old man (Eijiro Tono) sitting in the front row who appears to be in an incredibly bad mood, later exclaiming that the winning design by rising star Fumiyo Asaji (Asami Kuji) does not seem very original to him. Some of the models later complain about the strange spectator who’s evidently come to several other shows and has begun to creep them out. Meanwhile, an aloof, conservatively dressed woman brushes past them. Fumiyo’s assistant Toru (Ichiro Arishima) explains that she is Tazuko Kusakata (Chieko Nakakita) who had been the previous number one before Fumiyo returned to Japan after an extended stay in France. The real drama begins however with the arrival of a masked man with a box for Fumiyo who reveals his wolf-like face to Toru in an effort to convince him to deliver it. After opening the box and finding an apple with a few distinctive bite marks on the outside, Fumiyo promptly collapses.  

From the introduction of the three loose “suspects” an ominous atmosphere takes hold in the certainty that something untoward is about to happen. Soon enough some of the models start getting bumped off in quite bizarre and unpleasant ways. The first girl’s body is shipped back to the studio in a mannequin box which later leaks blood, while the gang are then delivered a cake with the next victim’s name on it in pretty icing with a butterfly moth motif above. There may not be any vampires, but there are certainly moths. The old creepy guy is revealed to be a moth specialist living a giant gothic mansion with a butterfly room in the middle full of specimens nailed to boards. His front door even has a moth motif above it like a coat of arms, while a butterfly mural lies behind it in the hallway. The killer places a decorative moth on each of his victims to cover their modesty which would seem to indicate the grumpy professor but, once he finally arrives, Kindaichi isn’t quite so sure. 

Though this is technically a Kindaichi mystery and he does finally get to unmask the criminal, he is not actually in it very much and as previously mentioned is nothing like later incarnations of the famous detective such as that of Kon Ichikawa’s series of Kindaichi movies released throughout the 1970s. In a common B-movie motif, the main detective work falls to a male and female team in dogged reporter Kawase (Minoru Chiaki) and intrepid model Yumiko (Kyoko Anzai) who eventually succeed in digging up clues at the creepy mansion while simultaneously stumbling across a subplot involving plagiarism in the world of fashion with Tazuko implying that Fumiyo stole her winning outfit from another designer and then passed it off as her own thereby robbing Tazuko of her rightful place as the best designer in Japan. Partly because of all this stress and the vast amounts of money apparently needed to sustain a career in the fashion industry, Fumiyo’s well-meaning boyfriend wants her to abandon the profession but also admits that asking her to give up fashion would be like asking her to give up her life. 

Nakagawa ramps up the tension with a series of elegantly presented reversals, making us think we’re witnessing the killer stalking Fumiyo before pulling back to reveal it’s someone else or presenting the same scene of a masked man ominously peering out from behind a tree. The presence of the “wolf man” links back to a Japanese traveller who supposedly fell victim to a supernatural curse in France described as being akin to possession by a fox in Japanese mythology causing the infected person to gain wolf-like characteristics, become violent, and eventually be consumed by an overwhelming desire for human flesh, but perhaps also hints at the sense of voracious greed that has overtaken the killer and caused them to abandon their sense of of humanity in favour of material riches. Filled with a sense of the gothic along with noirish dread in Nakagawa’s foggy, kilted angles eventually giving way to an atmospheric chase sequence strongly recalling that of The Third Man, The Vampire Moth presents a banal evil with palpable anxiety yet suggests justice will be done to those who however briefly stray from the path. 


Missing (さがす, Shinzo Katayama, 2021)

“None of us are needed” claims the nihilistic serial killer at the centre of Shinzo Katayama’s dark mystery drama, Missing (さがす, Sagasu). That he’s wrong is an obvious point, but also one reinforced by the teenage heroine’s determination to find her father not just literally and physically, but spiritually and emotionally as she struggles to reorient herself and find direction in her life in the midst of grief and despair. Drawing inspiration from the so-called “Twitter Killer” case of 2017 Katayama asks some difficult questions about the ethics of life and death and how seemingly ordinary people can be pulled towards the dark side by a mixture of greed and misplaced compassion. 

As the film opens, young Kaede (Aoi Ito) is running through the backstreets of Osaka looking for her dad (Harada). What occurs is something of a role reversal as she arrives, breathless, at a convenience store and is forced to apologise because her father has been caught shoplifting having been short the paltry sum of 20 yen which she then has to pay to smooth things over so he won’t actually be arrested. It’s at this point that Satoshi tells her about his big get rich quick scheme which involves claiming the reward for catching a fugitive serial killer, Terumi Yamauchi (Hiroya Shimizu), known as “No Name”, whom he believes to have seen in the local area. Kaede does not take her father seriously, but then Satoshi suddenly disappears. She can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth and that something untoward has happened to him. 

What she quickly discovers, however, is that no one except herself is very interested in her father’s disappearance. Her teacher tries to help by taking her to the police, but it’s clear that they do not consider Satoshi to be a person worth looking for suggesting that whatever’s happened to him is most likely his own fault for being an imperfect person, implying that he drinks and has debts so most likely has gone missing on purpose. The teacher later comes to the same conclusion, getting a nun from a local orphanage to come and fetch Kaede believing her father has no intention of returning. Probably meaning well, the nun also tells her that her father has abandoned her and there’s no point waiting for him. But even if everyone else thinks that Satoshi is an “unnecessary” person, he is important to her and so she will not stop until she finds him even if that puts her in similar danger hot on the heels of a serial murderer. 

Like the Twitter Killer, Yamauchi disingenuously claims to be helping people, offering “salvation” to those who want to die but cannot bring themselves to end their own lives. By his logic, there are some who are only clinging on to life out of guilt for those who will be left behind while simultaneously blaming themselves that they are “unneeded” and nothing more than a burden to the few who do care about them. His claims are however nothing more than sociopathic justification designed to convince others that what he’s doing is in some way compassionate rather than a sickening attempt to satisfy his own dark desires. As he finally concedes with a repeat customer, in the end none of the people he killed wanted to die but were looking for something else which obviously was not what he wanted to give them. 

Perhaps Satoshi was looking for something too though whether he found it or not only he could say. Katayama hints at the grimness of everyday life in Satoshi’s unsatisfying existence of casual labour, guilt, and loss. When Kaede tries to check whether or not he’s been going to work, no one recognises his picture and it turns out that someone else has been working under his name. A migrant worker urges her to be careful, that the man calling himself Satoshi Harada has bad vibes of the kind he claims you often find “in places like this”. All Satoshi wanted to was to reopen the ping pong parlour he was forced to close in order to care for his wife during a longterm illness which left him with financial debts along with the emotional. It is quite literally a back and fore between father and daughter, a ping pong ball flying across a table until finally hitting its mark as Kaede reveals that she has found the answers she was looking for even if not quite the ones she wanted. Lightened by moments of dark humour, Katayama’s strange procedural grimly suggests that none of us is really so far away from acts of desperate brutality but equally that none of us is ever unneeded no matter how lonely it might feel. 


Missing screens in Chicago on Oct. 30 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. It will also be released in the US on Nov. 18 courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

US release trailer (English subtitles)