The Stormy Family (台風家族, Masahide Ichii, 2019)

A disparate group of now middle-aged children orphaned by the storm of their parents’ abandonment struggle to find solidarity on reuniting to put the past to rest, but eventually come to an understanding in letting go in Masahide Ichii’s darkly comic tale of familial resentments, The Stormy Family (台風家族, Taifu Kazoku, AKA Typhoon Family). Battling not just a sense of betrayal, but intense resentment in being left to deal with the fallout of a corrupted parental legacy the kids squabble over their “inheritance” but later perhaps regain a sense of mutual connection in reclaiming their shared history. 

10 years previously, Ittetsu (Tatsuya Fuji) and his wife Mitsuko (Rumi Sakakibara) robbed a local bank and then apparently made a run for it in the family hearse. With the statute of limitations now expired, the children decide to hold a funeral having had their parents declared dead so they can divide the estate and presumably draw a line under their shared trauma. The problem is, partly, that they’re hurt believing that their parents committed a crime and then simply abandoned them, but they have each also had to deal with the stigma of being the children of the elderly bandits who robbed a bank with a hearse. Oldest son Kotetsu (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) lost his job, daughter Rena’s (Megumi) marriage broke down, and while middle son Kyo (Hirofumi Arai) does not particularly mention how the crisis affected him, youngest brother Chihiro (Tomoya Nakamura) who was a teenager at the time remains resentful that as he only had a part-time job anyway no one from the media was very much interested in hassling him. 

Rather than finding siblings’ solidarity in their shared trauma, the crisis only seems to have driven them further apart. If perhaps slightly ashamed, they freely admit that they’ve only come to sort out the inheritance but even this leads to another argument as Kotetsu tries to use his oldest son privileges to claim he’s entitled to an unequal share because the others all went to uni on the parents’ dime, complaining that he needs the money more because he’s been unable to hold down a steady job and has to pay for his teenage daughter Yuzuki’s (Mahiru Coda) education, hoping to send her to music conservatoire in Vienna. As expected, that doesn’t go down very well with everyone else, while even Yuzuki expresses disdain and exasperation for her father’s amoral venality, telling him to get back on his feet with honest work rather than trying to cheat his siblings out of their birthright. In this, however, the family largely agree he might not be so different from patriarch Ittetsu who despite his motto of “don’t bother others” often penny pinched to an extreme degree and even seemed inappropriately happy to receive new business considering he ran a funeral parlour. 

On closer investigation of their parents’ home, what the kids learn is that there were things they didn’t understand perhaps because Ittetsu didn’t want to “bother” them with an explanation, though as someone else points out family aren’t “others” and probably it should be alright to bother them. Having argued with his father when he left to pursue his dream of being an actor, Kotetsu eventually sacrificed his desires recommitting himself to making his daughter’s dreams come true instead but like Ittetsu struggles to find a way to support her emotionally. Ittetsu may have been a difficult, perhaps less than honest, man but in learning the truth the family begin to realise that his actions came from a deep place of love even if it was a love he was unable to show on the surface. 

In an extremely ironic twist, the funeral and a climactic storm eventually allow the siblings to let their parents go, forgiving them for the fallout from their crime but also for their abandonment and all the petty resentments of their childhood. The world may be a pretty dishonest place, filled with greedy monks, telephone fraudsters, schemers and thieves, and perhaps you can’t even really trust your family but a father’s love is apparently the one true thing though it might not always be easy to understand. A darkly comic take on dysfunctional family bonds and the radiating legacy of crime, The Stormy Family gradually creeps towards its macabre but surprisingly moving finale allowing the family to rediscover itself in letting go only to set them at odds once again with the corrupting influence of greed. 


The Stormy Family streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2019 “The Stormy Family” FILM PARTNERS

Red Post on Escher Street (エッシャー通りの赤いポスト, Sion Sono, 2020)

“Freedom is disappearing from our world. Everyone rise up!” screams an accidental revolutionary having achieved a kind of self-actualisation in wresting the leading role not only in the film within the film but in the film itself in an act of characteristically meta Sion Sono playfulness. Harking back to the earlier days of his more recently prolific career, Red Post on Escher Street (エッシャー通りの赤いポスト, Escher dori no akai post) is perhaps a thinly veiled though affectionate attack on the mainstream Japanese cinema industry, a defence not only of “jishu eiga” but a “jishu” life in the meditation that a crowd is composed of many faces in which we are all simultanteously extra and protagonist.

In a sense perhaps Sono’s stand-in, the director at the film’s centre, Tadashi Kobayashi (Tatsuhiro Yamaoka), is a festival darling who made his name with a series of critically acclaimed independent films but has since been dragged towards the mainstream while forced into a moment of reconsideration following the sudden death of his muse and lover. Kobayashi’s ambition is to produce another DIY film of the kind that first sparked his creative awakening, but it’s clear from the get go that his desires and those of his backers to not exactly match. Middle man producer Muto (Taro Suwa), sporting a sling and broken leg after being beaten up by the jealous boyfriend of a starlet he’d been “seeing”, is under strict instructions to ensure Kobayashi casts names and most particularly the series of names the studio want. To convince him, they go so far as to have the established “stars” (seemingly more personalities than actresses) join the open auditions at which the director hoped to find fresh faces, hoping he can be persuaded to cast them instead. The irony is that the studio want Kobayashi’s festival kudos, but at the same time deny him the freedom to make the kind of films that will appeal to the international circuit, the director frequently complaining the producers keep mangling his script with their unhelpful notes. 

A handsome young man, Kobayashi has also inspired cult-like devotion among fans including a decidedly strange group of devotees branding themselves the “Kobayashi True Love Club” who each wear Edwardian-style white lace dresses and straw hats while singing a folksong everywhere they go. Nevertheless, most of the hopefuls are ordinary young women with an interest in performing or merely for becoming famous. Their stories are the story, a series of universes spinning off from the central spine from a troupe kimono’d actresses performing a play about female gamblers, to a young widow taking on the mission of making her late husband’s acting dreams come true, and a very intense woman with an extremely traumatic past. The audition speech finds each of the hopefuls vowing to drag their true love back from “the crowd” into which he fears he is dissolving, only for them later to save themselves by removing their “masks” to reclaim their individual identity and agency as protagonists in their own lives rather than passively accept their relegation to the role of extra.

Then again, there are those who wilfully embrace the label such as a faintly ridiculous old man who commands near cult-like adoration from his disciples of professional supernumeraries for his ability to hog the screen even if his less than naturalistic acting is at best a distraction from the main action. Without extras, he points out, the screen would become a lonely place, lacking in life and energy though he at least seems to be content to occupy a liminal space never desiring the leading role but seizing his 15 seconds of fame as a prominent bystander. Others however are not, determined to elbow aside the vacuous leading players and reclaim their space. Subtly critiquing the seamier ends of the industry from the lecherous producers who always seem to be draped with a young woman eager for fame and fortune, to the machinations of star makers and manipulations of talentless celebrities, the film makes an argument for sidestepping an infinitely corrupt system in suggesting the jishu way is inherently purer but nevertheless ends on a note of irony as its defiant act of guerrilla filmmaking is abruptly shutdown by the gloved hand of state authority. 


Red Post on Escher Street streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Masashi Yamamoto, 2020)

A moribund Tokyo mansion becomes the scene for an orgy of life, death, love, and rebirth in Masashi Yamamoto’s surrealist party movie Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Noten Paradise). Sometimes you have to learn to say goodbye and move on, other times you have to learn to forgive and let go of past resentment. Of course, sometimes you have to do both of those things at the same time, which is perhaps appropriate for the former home of the Sasayas which seems to exist between the realms of life and death, a perpetual Bon festival where departed spirits and lost souls congregate for one almighty party. 

Dad Shuji (Seiko Ito) has had a run of bad luck and unfortunately lost the family home he inherited from his parents meaning he and his two adult children, son Yuta (Soran Tamoto) and daughter Akane (Mayu Ozawa), are having to move on though who knows where to. Resentful that she’s having her life uprooted by her father’s fecklessness, Akane takes to social media and Tweets that there’s a party at hers and everyone’s invited as kind of goodbye to the house. Meanwhile, a series of strange events occur from a weird old monk (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to pray to the various neoclassical statues on the property going nuts at a belligerent removal man and then apparently dropping dead, to the resurfacing of mother Akiko (Kaho Minami) who apparently left the family some years previously for a man who ran a coffee shop but has since passed away. 

The first people to arrive for the party are a gay couple looking for somewhere to celebrate their marriage, a minor irony in that the event will later descend into an elaborate funeral for two people who may or may not be dead. As more and more guests arrive, along with a series of opportunistic commercial food stands and other businesses, the party begins to get out of hand becoming ever stranger as the night wears on. 

At the heart of it all are the tensions in the family, an unresolved resentment directed at son Yuta who is, according to his brash aunt Yuka (Sonomi Hoshino), overly preoccupied with his family circumstances to the extent that it prevents him from getting a regular job and moving on with his life. Shuji has quite clearly failed both as a son and as a father, eventually betting one of his dad’s precious antiques in a card game run by yakuza loansharks setting up shop in the house. Akane appears exasperated, but is also harbouring an intense resentment towards Akiko for her abandonment that prevents her being able to “move on” from her former family home. 

Moving on is also a problem for a few of the ghosts, the line between the living and the dead becoming increasingly blurred. One random surreal moment to the next, Yamamoto careers between absurdist episodes culminating in a fight between a murderous sentient coffee bean and a statue come to life. What began as a lowkey wedding eventually becomes a bizarre funeral enacted through the medium of Bollywood song and dance transitioning into a traditional enka festival number all of which happens before a couple of hapless crooks who’ve been operating a drug factory on the family’s property for the last two years without them ever knowing turn up with their “super mandala drug of paradise” to send the evening in a psychedelic direction. 

Yet for all the surreality of death, violence, sex, and rebirth when dawn arrives it brings with it a kind of calm brokering a new peace between friends and family members as they learn to accept each other and the past in an unburdened sense of openness. Possibly deceased monks, talking cats, kids who can’t figure out how to stop swinging and mysteriously turn themselves into sticks or dissolve in bath water, scorned lovers, unrepentant thieves, ghosts and family secrets descend on this weird gothic mansion in the middle of a city, creating a “wonderful paradise” for one night only filled with surrealist magic and unforgettable strangeness that nevertheless pushes the family back together through dream logic and a taste of the absurd. A weird, sometimes incomprehensible, journey into an etherial, psychedelic twilight psychodrama rave, Yamamoto’s charmingly bizarre nighttime odyssey is a law unto itself but one filled with wonder for the uncanniness of the everyday. 


Wonderful Paradise streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sasaki in My Mind (佐々木、イン、マイマイン, Takuya Uchiyama, 2020)

A young man is forced to confront his quarter life malaise when presented with unexpected tragedy in Takuya Uchiyama’s heartfelt youth movie, Sasaki in My Mind (佐々木、イン、マイマイン). A study in inertia, Uchiyama’s moody drama finds its melancholy hero defeated by life, looking back to more hopeful high school days and the larger than life friend he has, by his own admission, failed convinced by his own rather solipsistic sense of personal inadequacy that he lacked the capacity to save him. 

An aspiring actor, Yuji (Kisetsu Fujiwara) lives in a small apartment with his ex-girlfriend (Minori Hagiwara) and makes ends meet with a factory job he seems to be embarrassed by. Approached by an actor friend (Nijiro Murakami) apparently doing a little a better with a series of bit parts in TV shows and commercials, Yuji is reluctant to take him up on his offer of a part in a play, while an accidental meeting with an old high school friend, Tada (Yuya Shintaro), pushes him into a defensive mindset after he’s rightly called on his passivity. “Watching life go by in terror” as his character in the play eventually puts it, Yuji is so defeated by life that it has rendered him entirely listless. Ironically taking up boxing, he gets into a random fight with a customer from the the next table at an izakaya, insisting that he doesn’t want to lose but otherwise refusing to fight for anything even the girlfriend he apparently still loves whose refusal to move on perhaps hints at the desire to be given a reason not to. 

His meeting with Tada, now a moderately successful, married salaryman, reminds him of his high school friend, Sasaki (Gaku Hosokawa), a larger than life character who used to strip impromptu and dance in the nude when greeted by chants of his name. It was Sasaki who first convinced him to become an actor as they watched Kirk Douglas in Champion on TV, though after graduation and a move to Tokyo Yuji made no real effort to keep in touch with his friend seeing him only once and discovering he had become a lonely pachinko player equally consumed by a sense of personal hopelessness. As Sasaki once put it, elephants communicate with each other through low frequency sound imperceptible to humans, his own quiet distress call apparently missed by his old friends who perhaps tired of his outlandishness as they outgrew their teenage selves and became bogged down in their own lives leaving him behind as they strove forward alone. 

Left behind is something which Yuji cannot help but feel, further deepening his sense of personal failure in having achieved not much of anything in his Tokyo life. Sasaki aside, his high school friends, Tada and Kimura (Yusaku Mori), have each shifted into a conventional adulthood with regular salaryman jobs, homes, wives, and even children. He didn’t go to his last high school reunion, probably as Tada seems to have realised out of a sense of shame, for the same reason avoiding contact with his old friends while living in an awkward limbo with the ex who apparently grew bored with his lack of drive and continuing air of defeated ennui. Despite his own insecurity, Sasaki had encouraged him to live his life, ensuring him that he’s got this, but when it came to it Yuji failed to do the same abandoning him in their old home town as a relic of the past he can’t quite accept. 

Admitting as much to his theatre director, Yuji is once again told to shine in his own spotlight and that lonely people aren’t necessarily lonely because they’re alone. Everyone keeps telling him to grow up, act like an adult, but Yuji doesn’t seem to know how hung up on high school immaturity and reflecting only too late that perhaps they never really understood their friend and in the end they simply left him behind. Only a confrontation with finality pushes him towards a break with his sense of inertia, acknowledging that what he feared was letting go and the eventual forgetting that comes with loss but the “world is rushing forward. We have to keep up”. Sasaki remains for him at least in his mind as he always was, the first of many goodbyes in an “empty elegy” that eventually becomes one’s own. A touching tale of quarter life crisis, Uchiyama’s moving drama eventually pushes its static hero towards an acceptance of his moral cowardice but finally gives him the courage to move forward taking his memories with him into a freer future. 


Sasaki in My Mind streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ainu Neno An Ainu (アイヌネノアンアイヌ, Neo Sora & Laura Liverani, 2021)

Japanese society often presents itself as homogenous claiming a harmony born of a universal culture to which all subscribe, but in reality has sometimes sought to exclude or assimilate those it regards as different such as the still continuing prejudice against the burakumin underclass and towards the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, who were only officially recognised by the Japanese government in 2008. Laura Liverani & Neo Sora’s documentary Ainu Neno An Ainu (アイヌネノアンアイヌ, lit. humanlike human) explores the realities of what it means to be Ainu in contemporary Japan as the community strives to recover and preserve its traditional culture in the face of increasing modernity. 

Japan annexed Hokkaido during the Meiji era largely through settler colonialism, later determining to “develop” the island which entailed confiscating Ainu lands along with banning their language and traditional practices such as tattooing in an act of forced assimilation. Many of the participants in the documentary have the same name but this is not necessarily because they are related as one explains, the entire town was in fact given the same surname inspired by the name of their settlement translated into Japanese when assimilated as Japanese citizens. While some aspects of traditional culture survived, many of the older residents lament that their parents preferred not to teach them the Ainu language in fear of social discrimination, something which is repeatedly cited by many as a reason some prefer not to disclose their Ainu identity after leaving for the cities. 

Nevertheless, some younger people are eagerly attempting to reclaim and preserve the Ainu language which is entirely oral and has no writing system. The main protagonist of the documentary, Maya, opens the film by teaching a traditional lullaby to a class of students later revealing that her father Kenji, who was not born Ainu, taught himself the language and has become passionate about passing it on. Language classes can also be heard on local radio while remnants of Ainu words pepper the local dialect even if many may not realise. Meanwhile, others relearn ancient lullabies not directly from their mothers but from archival tapes. 

Maya’s mother is also part of a stage performance showcasing traditional Ainu music for tourists from outside of the community, a Korean translator interpreting for a rapt audience each clutching pamphlets as they listen. A young man, Hibiki, who works for the Ainu museum admits that some feel ambivalent about the way they’ve chosen to commodify their culture in order to preserve it while others feel it’s a price worth paying in order to ensure that something at least survives. Some customs are perhaps harder to justify in the modern society such as the Iomante bear sacrifice which no longer takes place after successful campaigns by animal rights organisations. 

While some speak of divisions within the Ainu communities, others praise the local traditions of acceptance and hospitality in which it is normal to offer food, gifts, and shelter to others without expectation. Many who were not born Ainu have been accepted into the community, the Takanos for example who arrived from Tokyo in the 1960s and now run a store selling the Ainu handicrafts they have spent a lifetime learning, or Magi a transgender woman from Okinawa finding family and a place to belong among the Ainu. 

It is not in any case an either or situation, the local children cheerfully singing the theme from My Neighbour Totoro as they supervise the harvest as well as a Japanese folk song before they leave school for the day while at the end of the film introducing themselves in the Ainu language for a local radio host. Intended as a “family photo album” of the local community, an image which opens the film and recurs throughout in static captures of the various protagonists posed for a portrait, Ainu Neno An Ainu examines what it means to be a member of the Ainu community in the present society and uncovers with it a tremendous warmth and openness not only among the extended families as its centre but towards the wider society in the hope of preserving their culture through sharing it as widely as possible with all who wish to learn. 


Ainu Neno An Ainu streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

The photo project which sparked the documentary

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Extraneous Matter – Complete Edition (異物-完全版-, Kenichi Ugana, 2021)

If you suddenly encountered a weird, decidedly alien, octopus-like creature living in your wardrobe what would you do? Would it frighten or intrigue you, would you want to get rid of it as quickly as possible or look after it for the rest of your life? The presence of these strange creatures provokes different responses from each of the heroes of Kenichi Ugana’s Extraneous Matter – Complete Edition (異物-完全版-, Ibutsu – Kanzenban-), an expansion of his earlier short of the same title. Drawing inspiration from the early work of Shinya Tsukamoto, Ugana’s crisp, academy ratio black and white photography makes use of an ironic score mimicking classic Hollywood melodrama lending a mythic quality to this lowkey tale of alien sex fiend invasion and human loneliness. 

For Kaoru (Kaoru Koide), heroine of the first segment, the creature seems to signify her sexual frustration and sense of existential inertia. For her, every day is the same. She wakes up alone, makes herself a cup of coffee and eats a pastry in front of the television which always seems to be carrying news of a celebrity sex scandal, and then starts work with her friends (for some reason working at her apartment) who gossip about their various sugar daddies. Her boyfriend (Shunsuke Tanaka) apparently lives with her, but immediately disappears right after dinner and actively avoids intimacy. Were it not for later events, we might wonder if the creature is somehow a transformation of the boyfriend, Kaoru herself unsure whether it was a dream, first violated but then apparently satisfied by the alien tentacles which later begin satisfying all of her friends. 

If the “extraneous matter” of Kaoru’s life was indeed her unfulfilled desire and internalised shame, then for the barmaid (Momoka Ishida) of the second sequence it’s perhaps a lack of excitement while for the young man (Kaito Yoshimura) who brings a creature zipped into a holdall to a pub to meet his ex-girlfriend (Makoto Tanaka) it’s more a desire for familial intimacy or a sense of commitment that may previously have frightened him. He appears to want to get back together with the young woman, apologising for his past behaviour while explaining that he found the creature in his wardrobe scary to begin with but later became fond of it and is convinced he could raise it with her help, ordering a parfait to feed it because he’s discovered it has a sweet tooth and particularly likes strawberries. He swats the errant tentacles away as if shushing a naughty baby as the woman too begins to coo over it, shovelling cream from the parfait into its mouth with a spoon. 

But then, the extraneous matter of the lives of others can also present a challenge to the social order. Some wish to eliminate the alien threat, a young man working at a factory (Shuto Miyazak) charged with disposing of alien bodies eventually conflicted on discovering one alive sure that he can hear the creature begging him for help. Together with a like-minded colleague (Duncan) he determines to save it and help it return to its people, culminating in an unexpected ET moment which perhaps realigns the “alien” threat with a social other as the two compassionate employees evade the authorities to get the creature to safety despite having been betrayed by their female colleague (Mizuki Takanashi). 

So, what is the “extraneous matter” of our lives, a kind of loneliness, a sense of “alienation”, or of emptiness in an “absurd” world of infinite mundanity? Perhaps all of the above, Kaoru returning to her lonely life apparently missing the strange and unidentified creature only to re-encounter it in an unexpected place and discover it has not forgotten her. Gently ironic, Ugana’s sci-fi-inflected aesthetic begins with grim body horror before progressing into something warmer, for good or ill becoming fond of its alien invaders as compassionate humans refuse to reject them embracing in a sense these “extraneous” sides of themselves they may have previously found disturbing in search of more fulfilling lives. Elegantly composed in its classic academy ratio frame with its ironic bonsai pillow shots and continuing sense of unease, Extraneous Matter nevertheless ends on a note of hope rather than threat even as the invaders apparently lurk among us but bringing with them comfort even in the reflection of our unmet desires. 


Extraneous Matter – Complete Edition streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

BOLT (Kaizo Hayashi, 2019)

“We have to trust the bonds that tie us” intones a voice from the control room, “if you can’t tighten that bolt the water will pollute the future”. A series of post-Fukushima tales, Kaizo Hayashi’s tripartite portmanteau movie BOLT is less about the radiating effects of a nuclear disaster than their legacy, insisting that if you can’t pull together you can’t move forward but then in the end the bolt cannot be tightened or the deluge stemmed. It is perhaps too late, but still you have to live. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the first of the three tales follows a series of selfless engineers sent in to tighten a bolt on a leaking tank. They are informed their suits will protect them but not completely, they have only half an hour of oxygen, and should work in pairs for no longer than a minute before changing over. The older men tell the younger to wait behind, hoping to spare them from harm while the young men bristle wanting to do their bit. In any case, one of the young men later freezes, his feet rooted to the spot as if under some kind of spell while his friend begins to go quietly mad when a second bolt works it way out seconds after he’s fixed the first. The unnamed chief (Masatoshi Nagase) refuses to return with his team, staying to ensure he’s done all that can be done but in the end they cannot stop what is already in motion. 

A few years later the chief has apparently moved on, now working as a house clearer in the exclusion zone. His job is to tidy up and sanitise the home of a man who refused the evacuation order and has since passed away alone. As he’s been told, he carefully saves important documents and personal items such as photo albums for the family only to be told there is no family to take them, they were all taken by the tsunami. His cynical partner asks him why he got into this kind of work. He doesn’t have much of an answer for him save that someone’s got to do it and can offer only the declaration that he has to go on living for further direction of his life. 

On Christmas Eve 2014 however he’s still alone, living in an auto garage making some kind of metal device while a pair of children outside set the scene for a ghost story claiming there’s a mermaid living in the tank inside. Like the deceased man, the chief also seems to have lost someone, a black and white photograph sitting on the desk behind him, while apparently attempting to return to his former life as a nuclear technician only to be told he’s taken too much radiation already though the plant is short staffed seeing as many prefer to work on the Olympics, forging the future while neglecting the past. His Christmas gets off to a strange start when a beautiful woman in a red convertible bedecked with festive lights literally crashes into his life. An echo of someone else her arrival and subsequent departure hint at the strange and ethereal impermanence of post-disaster life in the continuing impossibility of moving on from irresolvable trauma. 

Beginning in science fiction with the high concept opener and its cyber punk design, Hayashi posits the nuclear threat as a kind of supernatural curse which can perhaps never be undone. Crackles of electricity take on a spiritual air while the permanent pinking of the sky seems to hint at a world forever changed as if something has been unleashed and can never again be caged. Tormented by cosmological unease, the chief chooses action, trying to his best to live even when action fails. The bolt can’t be tightened, the water pollutes the future, and all he can do is continue to stem the tide, tightening the bolts wherever they fray. With occasional flashes of psychedelic surrealism, Hayashi’s three tales offer a bleak and melancholy vision of life in the shadow of an almost supernatural disaster, but find finally a determination to live no matter how futile it may turn out to be. 


BOLT streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©L’espace Vision, Dream Kid, Kaizo Production

My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy (砕け散るところを見せてあげる, SABU, 2020)

“Do heroes need a reason to be heroes?” asks the hero of SABU’s adaptation of the light novel by Yuyuko Takemiya My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy (砕け散るところを見せてあげる, Kudakechiru Tokoro wo Misete Ageru). A little lighter than the Japanese title which translates as “I will show you a broken place”, SABU’s latest collaboration with EXILE TRIBE is a sometimes surreal tale of the great confluence of love, undercutting and repurposing a traditional idea of masculinity as the young man at its centre tries and fails to overcome himself to be the hero he longs to be while finally discovering that true heroism lies in the capacity to lend courage to others in a world often haunted by violence and despair. 

SABU opens, however, with a brief framing sequence in which another young man (Takumi Kitamura) meditates on the legacy of his father who died a hero trying to save a little girl from a submerged car. A flashback to sometime in the ‘90s introduces us to Kiyosumi (Taishi Nakagawa) running full pelt late for school and surreptitiously joining the back of the assembly hall behind a class of younger students hoping to avoid detection. Once there, however, he witnesses a young woman being relentlessly bullied by her classmates and intervenes. After the assembly concludes he tries to make sure the girl is OK, but when he touches her in comfort she begins screaming uncontrollably and leaves the room. Kiyosumi, however, is undeterred and continues trying to protect her, eventually earning her trust after rescuing her when she’s doused in water and locked up in a bathroom storage cupboard. The pair soon become friends, Kiyosumi apparently falling for the melancholy young woman but naively failing to realise that her problems may be bigger than he realises and that there are some monsters you can’t fight alone. 

During one of their early conversations, Hari (Anna Ishii), the young woman, outlines her UFO theory of universe in which she visualises each of the forces which oppress her as alien spaceships floating ominously in the sky above. Standing in for unresolved trauma, the ever present threat of violence, and the pain of loneliness, the presence of the UFOs both brings the pair together and overshadows their growing romance, Kiyosumi’s voiceover hinting at an unhappy ending in which he will not fulfil his dream of being forever by her side. He continues to doubt himself, unsure if he can really be the hero that Hari believes him to be while she draws confidence from his kindness to become one herself. 

There is, it has to be said, an air of chauvinism and a mild saviour complex in Kiyosumi’s otherwise altruistic desire to stand up to injustice. He doesn’t stop to ask himself if Hari wants saving or if his intervention may end up making things worse for her as it eventually does if in an unexpected way. Childishly naive, he fails to look beyond the immediate problem of high school bullying, recalling his own days as a lonely first year rejected by the cool crowd only later finding a friend, while certain that he can protect Hari solely with the force of his presence. To begin with, he may be right, his initial intervention allowing other like-minded souls to stand up against the school’s bullying culture and earning Hari another friend in the equally defiant Ozaki (Kaya Kiyohara). But only too late does he begin to realise that the bruises on her wrists may not be caused in class and that her victimisation does not end at the school gates. 

Rescued from the storecupboard, Hari tried to defend her aggressors citing the fact that they used clean tap water the last bucket of which was even warm as a sign of “kindness”. So brutalised is she that she expects nothing more. The irony is Kiyosumi cannot in the end protect her, but does perhaps lend her the strength to protect herself as she in fact saves him. Yet as Kiyosumi points out, the “UFOs” do not simply disappear in the midst of red rain but may strike again at any moment, his attempts to rescue a drowning girl a kind of metaphor for his desire to drag Hari free of the source of her trauma and show her “the glowing beauty of this world”, a desire he can only realise by becoming one with a galaxy of eternal love. True heroism, he eventually realises, is just being there if only in spirit as a source of constant support and reassurance in a world of dizzying anxiety. At times infinitely bleak but coloured with teenage sunniness and youthful naivety, SABU’s empathic drama both recognises and forgives its hero’s chauvinistic self-obsession while allowing the heroine to save herself each bolstered by a sense of mutual solitary born of a deep compassion with love perhaps the best weapon against the circling UFOs of a sometimes cruel existence. 


My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It’s a Summer Film! (サマーフィルムにのって, Soshi Matsumoto, 2020)

“Movies connect the present with the past through the big screen” according to the jidaigeki-obsessed heroine of Soshi Matsumoto’s charming sci-fi-inflected teen movie It’s a Summer Film! (サマーフィルムにのって, Summer Film ni Notte). True to its title, Matsumoto’s whimsical drama very much belongs to the grand tradition of high school summer movies as its youthful heroines contemplate eternity, romantic heartbreak, and artistic fulfilment while secretly plotting to best their vacuous rival by filming their very own teen samurai movie ready in time for the all-important school cultural festival. 

Aspiring director Barefoot (Marika Ito) is completely obsessed with classic samurai movies, arguing with her similarly devoted friends about who is hotter Shintaro Katsu or Raizo Ichikawa. She is a key member of the school movie making club, but intensely resentful of star player Karin (Mahiru Coda) who won the tender to make the film for this year’s cultural festival with a sappy teen romance which mostly seems to involve repeated scenes of the central couple loudly declaring their love for each other. Barefoot thinks a film should convey love without words and has written a script for a teen samurai movie in which adversaries become too emotionally invested in each other to engage in the expected final confrontation. All she’s lacking is a star and after spotting a handsome guy apparently as moved by a local rep screening as she is decides she’s found her man. What she doesn’t know is that Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko) is a secret time traveller from a future in which she has become a renowned master filmmaker but film itself sadly no longer exists. 

Being from the future and all explains Rintaro’s reluctance to star in the film, dropping accidental hints that he’s from another place as in his amusement that humans still staff removal companies and total mystification by the word “Netflix”. Yet he too is completely obsessed with classic jidaigeki from the heyday of the genre which had largely gone out of fashion by the early 1980s. As many point out, Barefoot’s hobby is slightly unusual, though she learned her love of chanbara from her grandma, receiving messages from the past she hoped to pass on to the future. Gathering most of the other rejected, outsider teens from a boy who looks about 40 to a pair of baseball nerds who can correctly guess the player from the sound of a ball hitting a glove and a bleach blond biker, she assembles a team to make her movie dreams come true as if to prove there’s something more out there than the, as she sees it, vacuous high school rom-coms favoured by the likes of Karin. 

Among the series of lessons she finally learns is that Karin need not be an adversary but could be a friend if only she look beyond her snootiness and resentment of the popular crowd even if Karin’s all pink, needlessly extravagant and egotistically branded crew shirts don’t do much to dispel Barefoot’s perception of her as entitled and self-obsessed. Another lesson she learns is that she’s not as disinterested in romance as she thought she was, though falling for Rintaro leaves her with a secondary dilemma realising that he’ll eventually have to return to his own times while also contemplating what the point of the future even is if they don’t have movies there. What she’s going to do with the rest of her life if the art of cinema is already obsolete? 

With some ironic help from Karin, what she realises is that even if something is destroyed it doesn’t disappear, films live on in the memories of those who saw them who can then take their memories with them into the future. Where her first draft had ended with an emotional anti-climax that saw her heroes too emotionally involved to engage in conflict, she now realises that samurai movies are love stories too and that “killing is a confession of love” in a slightly worrying though not altogether inaccurate take on the homoerotic subtext of the chanbara. A charmingly whimsical coming-of-age tale filled with meta touches from the constant references to classic jidaigeki to the heroine’s sci-fi-obsessed sidekick who seems to have an unrequited crush on her best friend idly reading The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, It’s a Summer Film! more than lives up to its name in its cheerful serenity as the teenage old souls defiantly learn to claim their own space while connecting with each other as they contemplate love and transience in the eternal art of cinema. 


It’s a Summer Film streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Ayako Imamura, 2020)

“I thought we could understand each other because we’re both minorities, but that was wrong”, director Ayako Imamura admits in her revealing, self-reflective documentary I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Tomodachi Yameta) in which she contemplates her sometimes awkward relationship with a friend who has Asperger’s and struggles with communication. Imamura herself was born deaf and so also faces daily communication barriers living in a hearing society but often has difficulty understanding Ma-chan’s sense of anxiety and social rejection becoming increasingly irritated by seemingly trivial examples of what she sees as rudeness or lack of consideration. 

Ayako apparently met Ma-chan a few months before the film began at a screening of her previous film, Start Line, which charted her journey across Japan by bicycle. Ma-chan had become involved with social welfare issues in university, making friends with deaf students and learning sign language. At the event, Ma-chan was supposed to be her interpreter, but as the screening began ahead of schedule she arrived after it started and simply sat in the front row of the audience not knowing what else to do. This seems to have irritated Ayako, put off by her supposed bad attitude. 

It is then a minor irony that part of Ayako’s growing resentment stems from something she did not even notice directly in that Ma-chan never says “itadakimasu” as is customary and polite before eating. Ayako’s grandmother pointed this out to her, taking against Ma-chan thinking her rude or ungrateful while Ayako herself who obviously couldn’t hear if she said it or not tried to defend her if superficially on the grounds of her disability. Later Ma-chan explains that she believes not saying itadakimasu is not (directly) related to her neurodivergence but simply because her family did not say it and so she never learned the habit, while Ayako gradually realises that she has perhaps become fixated on “Asperger’s” to the extent that she stopped seeing Ma-chan as person rather than an embodiment of her “condition”. 

She had perhaps assumed that as two people who experience similar problems with communication they would be on the same wavelength, but finds it increasingly difficult to accept Ma-chan’s atypical behaviour, perhaps irrationally upset by the itadakimasu issue while otherwise put out by her tendency to eat other people’s snacks without asking and smack her on the back of the head when she’s done something silly. For her part, Ma-chan reveals she prefers using sign language because there’s less need for superficial politeness and therefore less chance of causing offence. Ayako consciously affects tolerance, wary of turning into one of those people who ask a deaf person if they haven’t just tried listening harder in railroading Ma-chan into neurotypical behaviour patterns but eventually decides to end their friendship explaining that she’s “done with trying to act like a nice person”. 

While Ayako only obliquely addresses some of the problems she faces in the hearing world, using a relay system to book tickets over the phone for example, she is surprised to realise that Ma-chan has similar problems, too anxious to order food in a restaurant for example and reluctant to use the telephone even if not physically incapable. We’re told that Ma-chan also suffers from depression and see her expressing suicidal thoughts in despair of being constantly told that she needs to change in order to adapt to neurotypical society and knowing that she can’t. What occurs between the two women is perhaps an ironic kind of miscommunication informed by a degree of culturally specific rigidity in which rudeness deliberate or otherwise is an unforgivable sin. 

Despite having elected to end their friendship, Ayako eventually changes her mind and decides to try again, more directly, with a little mutual understanding each stating bluntly what behaviour they find puzzling or hurtful and attempting to explain why it occurs, drawing up something like a set of ground rules and boundaries for their relationship. Attending a meeting in Tokyo in which disabled activists express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community following a politician’s crass remark that “unproductive” (ie those who do not contribute to solving the declining birthrate problem) people do not deserve social support, both women are forced to reconsider their views on and as minorities addressing some uncomfortable thoughts they too may have had about their place in society and that of others. Nevertheless, in the end they each resolve to struggle against any unconscious prejudice they may have, actively striving to forge a friendship based on mutual understanding and brokered by resolute honesty rather than allow pettiness and resentment to drive them apart. 


I Quit, Being “Friends” streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)