Dawn Wind in My Poncho (ポンチョに夜明けの風はらませて, Satoru Hirohara, 2017)

Dawn Wind in My Poncho posterThe end of high school might signal impending doom for some, but it also provides a valuable opportunity for one last hurrah before surrendering to the demands of the adult world. That’s more or less how the heroes of Satoru Hirohara’s Dawn Wind in My Poncho (ポンチョに夜明けの風はらませて, Poncho ni Yoake no Kaze Haramasete) feel about it as they set off on an impromptu road trip to track down a Peruvian folksinger making his first visit to Japan in 18 years. Youthful irresponsibility and an openness to all things send our boys on a strange odyssey of self discovery in flight of a future that is almost certain to be disappointing.

Right before graduation, Janbo (Yuma Yamoto) and Matahachi (Taiga) are preparing to celebrate their friend Jin (Aoi Nakamura) getting into Uni. Only, Jin didn’t make the grade which has rather put a damper on the occasion. To make matters worse, new driver Matahatchi seems to have scratched the car belonging to Janbo’s dad which they weren’t supposed to be driving in the first place. Trying to fix the problem, they run into dejected idol Ai (Aimi Satsukawa) who dreams of chart success but is being pressured into a gravure career by her agency. Ai manages to upset some delinquents in a convenience store car park, leaving our guys wondering if they should step in but coming to the conclusion it’s not worth it unless the girl is pretty. Nevertheless, they end up driving off with Ai in the back of the car anyway with the delinquents in hot pursuit.

That’s only the beginning of the boys’ adventure, but they can’t go home yet anyway because by the end of the chase they’ve completely destroyed the car and will be extremely dead when Janbo’s dad finds out. Lovingly showing off a picture of his beloved new (secondhand) car, Janbo’s dad tells a young man coming into the bar owned by Matahachi’s single mother that if he works really hard for a very long time, he too could have a car like this. It’s a fairly depressing prospect, but it does seem like there might not be much more out there for these small town guys as they prepare to leave high school behind. Jin was the guys’ bright hope with his university dreams. Janbo is going to work for his dad and Matahachi is looking for a job. All there is to look forward to now is constraint. A boring low pay job with no prospects, followed by marriage, fatherhood, and death.

You can’t blame them for cutting loose, though in essence our guys are mild-mannered sorts well and truly outrun by Ai’s anarchic flight from her own disappointment with her faltering career. Of course, the boys are all interested in her nevertheless only Janbo is facing an embarrassing problem of his own which has him wondering if he’ll ever be able to have a “normal” sex life, marriage, or family. The problem eventually takes him to the “Banana Clinic” which is actually a front very specific sex services but does introduce him to a nice young lady (Junko Abe) who might be able to cure his sense of insecurity if in a roundabout way.

Meanwhile, the guys have blown off the fourth member of their “band” (Shhota Sometani) who is still hanging around waiting for them to turn up for practice ahead of their graduation show. A poignant radio message attached to a song request in which he reveals how lonely he was until some guys invited him to join their band goes unheard by the gang leaving him to gatecrash graduation all alone with an impromptu performance in which he sings about how school was pointless and no one cares about the future, starting a mini riot among the other kids in the process. The trio are still busy with a series of zany adventures as Matahachi tries to convince the guys to come with him on strange quest to hear the elusive folk singer, only latterly explaining to them why exactly this means so much to him. A typically teenage road trip ends up going nowhere in particular, leaving the guys in limbo as they run from their depressing futures towards the last traces freedom far in the distance. Silly, if endearing, Dawn Wind in My Poncho is a strangely sympathetic tale of youthful rebellion towards impending adulthood which ultimately places its faith in the strength of male friendship as the last refuge from a relentlessly conformist society.


Dawn Wind in My Poncho was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Yuichi Fukuda, 2017)

psychic kusuo posterMany may bristle at an attempt to label director Yuichi Fukuda an auteur, but you can’t argue with the fact that he’s developed something of a house style. That house style may have just catapulted him to the top of the box office with two successful movies inspired by the gag filled Gintama, but outside of his big budget studio efforts he’s something of an acquired taste. Take Hentai Kamen, for example. For some a hilariously perverse super hero adventure comedy. For others one childish joke stretched out for 90 minutes. Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Saiki Kusuo no Sainan), coming from the same general area as the phenomenally successful Gintama in adapting an absurdist gag manga only this time one by Shuichi Aso, undoubtedly belongs in the latter category.

16-year-old Kusuo Saiki (Kento Yamazaki) is the most powerful esper on Earth. Seeing as he was born to a lovely, hippyish couple who didn’t mind that he was a bit strange, Saiki grew up appreciating his superpowers for what they are but also mindful that they could cause him a problem if they got out of hand. He uses his powers to hypnotise those around him so that they don’t notice his neon pink hair or the antennas in his head which keep his emotions in check and prevent him accidentally destroying all of Tokyo. Nevertheless, it is quite a bother to be burdened by unnatural abilities especially in that it makes life extremely dull not to mention a little stressful when you can hear everything everyone is thinking in every tiny detail.

The big problem is that Saiki is coming up on his first high school culture festival. Saiki is not big into celebrations and hanging out with other people so what he likes about festivals is that no one’s going to miss him so he can escape for a little me time. The last few festivals, however, have each descended into chaos and if it happens again this year they’re going to be cancelled for good. In order to save his precious haven of relaxation, Saiki will have to forgo it this time to make sure no one starts any trouble.

Fukuda began his career writing skits for TV variety shows and the humour in his films is indeed very specific and of the kind familiar to fans of Japanese television comedy, which is to say it is extremely broad and somewhat meta with frequent breaking of the fourth wall. The major antagonist of Psychic Kusuo is conceited high school classmate Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto) who is accounted by all as the school’s number one beauty and knows it. As he’s able to read minds, Saiki knows she’s in no way as pretty on the inside and makes a point of ignoring her. Of course, this only ends up attracting her attention because she’s incapable of accepting that there’s a boy who doesn’t instantly sigh on catching sight of her. In keeping with Fukuda’s over the top approach, Kokomi becomes little more than a collection of preening looks alternating between calculated cuteness and outright bunny boiler villainy.

Meanwhile, Fukuda throws in a series of in jokes and random references to other franchises from Assassination Classroom to Dragon Ball, piling absurdity on top of absurdity through a series of possible crises as yankees from another school threaten to cause a ruckus and the Dark Reunion turn up to prosecute their conspiracy on school grounds. Meanwhile a creepy stage magician and his surprisingly sprightly mother/assistant take credit for all the strange goings on and Saiki accidentally ends up marooned in space.

Yet the problem is that it just isn’t very funny or particularly interesting. It comes to something when the most entertaining part of the movie is Saiki’s extremely nice parents and their unflappable acceptance of the strange goings on which often befall their family. Over reliant on reaction shots and schoolyard humour, Psychic Kusuo may play well to Fukuda’s many fans, those familiar with the anime or manga, and lovers of TV variety skits but anyone else may find themselves scratching their heads at its decidedly lowbrow, scattershot attempt at humour and longing for an end to its considerably dubious charms.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

Mary and the witch's flower posterWhen Studio Ghibli announced that it would be ceasing production, it couldn’t help but feel like the end of an era. The studio which had made Japanese animation an internationally beloved art form was no more. Into the void stepped a brand new animation studio which vowed to pick up the Ghibli gauntlet – Studio Ponoc was formed by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura who enlisted a host of other ex-Ghibli talent including Arrietty director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Mary to Majo no Hana), Ponoc’s first feature is, like Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, an adaptation of a classic British children’s novel. Part of the ‘70s children’s literature boom, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick was more or less forgotten until the film, paradoxically, brought it back into print. Like many post-war children’s novels, The Little Broomstick is the story of a clever and kind little girl who thinks she doesn’t quite fit in. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is no different in this regard, even in updating the tale (seemingly) to the present day as its spiky heroine finds herself taking on mad scientists and crazed witches in a strange fantasy realm all while trying to get used to the comparatively gentle rhythms of country life.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is bored. She hates her frizzy red hair which a horrible local boy, Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki), uses as justification to describe her as a “red haired monkey”, and fears that the rest of her life will merely be a dull exercise in killing time until its inevitable conclusion. Mary has just moved in with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the country while her parents are apparently working away and, as she still has a week left of summer holidays until school starts, she’s desperate for something to do. Unwisely following two cats into a misty forest, she chances upon a mysterious flower – the “Fly By Night” which blooms only once every seven years. With no respect for nature, Mary picks herself some of the pretty bulbs to take back to the gardener but unwittingly opens up a portal to another world. Taking hold of an abandoned broomstick, she finds herself swooped off to Endor College – an elite institution of witchcraft and wizardry where she dazzles all with her magical skills. Thinking she’s finally found her place, Mary is content to go along with everyone’s assumption that she is the new student they’ve been waiting for but on closer inspection, Endor College is not quite all it seems.

Mary’s initial dissatisfaction with herself is somewhat sidelined by the narrative but there’s something particularly poignant about her loathing of her red hair. In British culture at least, those with red hair often face a strange kind of “acceptable” prejudice, bullied and ostracised even into adulthood. Thus when Peter calls Mary a “red haired monkey” it isn’t cute or funny it’s just mean and she’s probably heard something similar every day of her life. When she rocks up at Endor and they tell her that her red hair makes her special and is the sign of high magic potential, it’s music to her ears but it’s also, perhaps, reinforcing the idea that simply having red hair makes her different from everyone else.

Feeling different from everyone else perhaps allows her to look a little deeper into the world of Endor than she might otherwise have done. Despite her conviction that she doesn’t fit in and is of no use to anyone, Mary is never seriously tempted by the promises of Endor which include untold power as well as a clear offer of acceptance and even respect. When she realises that the couple who run the school – a witch and a scientist, have been abusing their powers by committing heinous acts of experimentation on innocent “test subjects”, Mary learns to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves even if she couldn’t have done it for herself.

Messages about the seductive power of authoritarian regimes exploiting feelings of disconnection, the scant difference between magic and science, and the need for respect of scientific ethics in the pursuit of knowledge, all get somewhat lost amid Mary’s meandering adventures, as does Mary herself as her gradual progress towards realising that she possessed her own “magic” all along ticks away quietly in the background. Yet the biggest problem Mary and the Witch’s Flower faces is also its greatest strength – its ties to Studio Ghibli. With echoes of Yonebayashi’s previous adaptations of classic British literature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower also indulges in a number of obvious Ghibli homages from the Ponyo-esque flying fish and Laputa influenced design of Endor to the overt shot of Mary riding a deer on a rocky path, and the unavoidable girl+broomstick echoes of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even if Mary and the Witch’s Flower cannot free itself from the burden of its legacy, it does perhaps fill the void it was intended to, if in unspectacular fashion.


Mary and the Witch’s Flower will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Altitude Films in May 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

all around usRyosuke Hashiguchi returns after an eight year absence with All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。Gururi no Koto) and eschews most of his pressing themes up this by point by opting to depict a few “scenes from a marriage” in post-bubble era Japan. Set against the backdrop of an extremely turbulent decade which was plagued by natural disasters, terrorism, and shocking criminal activity Hashiguchi shows us the enduring love of one ordinary couple who, finding themselves pulled apart by tragedy, gradually grow closer through their shared grief and disappointment.

Tokyo, 1993. Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) have had an “on and off” (but seemingly solid) relationship since their art school days. She works at a publishing house and he’s kind of a slacker with a job in a shoe repair booth. Shoko worries that Kanao plays around too much (but actually doesn’t seem that bothered about it) whilst continuing to attempt to micromanage their entire existence with her clearly marked calendar planning out the most intimate of actions. When Shoko discovers she’s expecting a child, the pair decide to finally get married and begin their lives as a family. Kanao also gets an opportunity on the work side when an old college friend helps him get a job as a courtroom artist for a news agency.

However, their joy is short-lived as an abrupt jump forward in time shows us a tiny shrine underneath the calendar (shorn of its red crosses) dedicated to the memory of their infant daughter. Kanao is the keep calm and carry on sort so he just tries to bluster through but Shoko is distraught and slowly descending into a mental breakdown. If that weren’t enough to contend with, Shoko’s estranged father has been tracked down and is apparently very ill dredging up even more pain an uncertainty from the long buried past.

We follow Shoko and Kanao over a period of nine years. As well as the ever present motif of the calendar, we feel the passage of time through Kanao’s work at the court house which sees him become the artistic recorder of some of the most traumatic moments of the age. Having entered into an era of economic turmoil following the end of the bubble economy, the 1990s saw not only the devastating Kobe Earthquake but also the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground perpetrated by a dangerous religious cult, members of which wind up in court in front of Kanao, tasked with the thankless task of bearing witness to their testimony.

Kanao evidently decided not to discuss his personal tragedy with his work colleagues or, one would assume, his boss would not have reacted so harshly when he made the reasonable request to turn down the opportunity to sit in on yet another child murder trial – either by accident or design, the trials which present themselves to Kanao (and are all real, sensationalised media events of the time) involve the horrific murders of small children with only one of the defendants voicing any kind of regret or remorse.

Meanwhile, Shoko has been trying to get on with life as best she can but finds herself sinking ever deeper into depression. Her uptight, controlling personality cannot cope with this perceived “failure” on her part or of the destruction of all her plans by a truly unforeseen tragedy. Having had her doubts before regarding Kanao’s commitment to her, she finds his lack of reaction puzzling. Mistaking Kanao’s lack of outward emotion for indifference, Shoko finds it hard to continue believing in their shared destiny and wonders if her husband ever really cared for her at all. Kanao is a laid-back soul, someone who’s learned to become used to disappointment by accepting it quickly and then trying to move on. His more grounded approach might be just the one Shoko needs in order to come to terms with what’s happened – never pushing or complaining Kanao is contented simply by her presence and is prepared to give her the space she needs whilst always being around to offer support.

Hashiguchi relies on visual cues to help navigate the shifting dynamics including the repeated use of the calendar as a symbol of Shoko and Kanao’s marital status, the now unneeded pregnancy books bundled to be thrown out, or rice discarded in the sink as a marker of a house proud woman’s slide into crippling depression. Small moments make all the difference from a mother’s bandaged wrists and a cutback to the only person who’s noticed them, to the repeated joke of all the veteran journalists suddenly falling over themselves in an attempt to escape the courtroom and be the first to file their copy. A necessarily sad story, but an oddly warm one as two people worried they may be mismatched grow into each other in the face of their shared tragedy. Anchored by the strong performances of its two leads (particularly Tae Kimura who manages some convincing on screen crying in a difficult role) All Around Us is another beautifully pitched human drama from Hashiguchi who proves himself an adept chronicler of the human condition even whilst stepping away from his trademark themes.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hush! (ハッシュ!, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2001)

hushThe family drama is a mainstay of Japanese cinema, true, but, it’s a far wider genre than might be assumed. The rays fracture out from Ozu through to The Family Game and Crazy Family which sought to ask a few questions about where the idea of “family” was headed in a society of rapidly increasing materialism. Ryosuke Hashiguchi comes at the idea from a different angle in 2001’s Hush! (ハッシュ!) as he once again takes the perspective of the gay community and asks if the “traditional family” is about to change – what could, or should, survive if the old, rigid ideas can be remade into something lasting created out of love and acceptance rather than obligation?

As the film begins, Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) wakes up to find his one night stand already fully dressed and heading out the door, awkwardly, without even stopping to say goodbye. Eventually he hooks up with the kindly Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) and the two quickly become fairly serious but then a damaged woman, Asako (Reiko Kataoka), enters their lives hoping to use Katsuhiro as a sperm donor, forcing the men to reassess a number of important desires and beliefs, putting strain on their still fledgling relationship. If that weren’t enough drama, a girl at Katsuhiro’s place of work has also developed a crush on him and is prepared to take her unreturned love to some extremely dark places.

The first level of mini stresses Naoya and Katsuhiro have to contend with is their conflicting (if complementary) personalities and attitudes to their sexuality. Naoya is an easy going type with a job at a pet grooming salon. He’s a fully out gay man and a frequenter of city’s gay scene. Katsuhiro, by contrast, is much more mild mannered and innately kind. He works at a scientific research station and is more or less closeted – that is, he doesn’t particularly go out of his way to hide his sexuality from his work mates and family but he doesn’t volunteer the information either. This attitude seems to bother Naoya at various points but being the easy going type he’s apt to let it go most of the time.

However, when Katsuhiro reveals Asako’s offer, Naoya is actively against it. His idea of gay life suggests that relationships are generally short, he prefers the relative freedom of his life as an essentially “single” man rather a husband shackled to a family. Katsuhiro on the other hand perhaps would have liked children, or to be a father figure to someone else’s. Though Naoya has previously expressed boredom and disillusionment with his life spent in clubs and gay bars, he’s still resistant to the idea of settling down, or at least to the belief that a single relationship really can stay the course.

All three of the central characters have, in a sense, been let down by the “traditional” family. Naoya’s father left when he was small, leaving him with a single mother which is something that wasn’t so common when he was a child resulting in a fair amount of social stigma from other people in the community. These days his brassy mother knows about his sexuality and seems OK with it (aside from getting the random idea that Naoya will be wanting a pair of breasts at some point). Katsuhiro’s father was an alcoholic who died when he was just a small boy, his relationship with his brother and his family seems good but he’s afraid to reveal his sexuality to them for fear of disapproval. His brother had an arranged marriage, which doesn’t seem to have worked out so well at least from the sister-in-law’s perspective. Asako has also had a troubled life looking for affection in all the wrong places, feeling that if she had not been neglected as a child perhaps she’d have been a steadier adult. Naoya was running away from the idea of family ties, but Katsuhiro and Asako are actively seeking to repair the ones which never grew into the kind of roots one needs to anchor onself in a society entirely built around familial bonds.

After receiving some surprising medical news, Asako perversely decides that her own salvation lies in becoming a mother. She’s had enough of casual relationships and decided to go a different route so when she spots the kind look Katshiro gives a small child at a restaurant, she decides he must be the one to father her baby. Asako knew that Naoya and Katsuhiro were a couple, but that works out pretty well for her plan so she approaches him and makes her left field offer right off the bat. It will take some figuring out but this literal third way is a neat solution to a series of problems and, being completely new, is safe from the pettiness and misery often found within the traditional family unit. Contrasted with the bitterness displayed by Katsuhiro’s sister-in-law, the unusual arrangement of these three would be parents and their unborn child(ren) is one filled with love, forgiveness and mutual support rather than cold obligation or a simple fulfilment of societal expectations.

Once again Hashiguchi proves himself adept at creating a series of complex, flawed human beings who are nevertheless relatable and often endearing. Hashiguchi’s films tend to run long but he also ensures that even his supporting characters are well enough drawn to maintain interest in the many subplots from Naoya’s abrasive gay bar buddy to Katsuhiro’s unhinged stalker. An interesting sideways look at the state of the modern family, Hush! seems to advocate that just shutting up and going with the flow is not the answer but there are quieter solutions to be found if everyone is willing to listen to the silence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)