Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro

Monsters Club (モンスターズクラブ, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2011)

“I’m disappointed in you. Very disappointed. You’re still in love with the world” a young man is told in a dream or perhaps delusion by a man he respected but by whom he may also in a sense have been betrayed. Partly inspired by the life and writings of the Unabomber, Toshiaki Toyoda’s Monsters Club (モンスターズクラブ) is less a treatise on post-millennial Japan than it is a profoundly moving character study in trauma and isolation in which an orphaned young man struggles to find meaning in world in which he feels he has no control over his existence. 

The second son of a noble family, Ryoichi Kakiuchi (Eita Nagayama) has retreated from “this stench-filled society” to live alone in a small cabin in the woods. In an opening voiceover he reads from a manifesto railing against the “industrial society” which he believes railroads those born into it towards a life of wage slavery from the day they are born. Yet his existence is more 19th century than it is a primitive return to the land, his appearance meticulously well maintained in an incongruous clash with his rejection of social conformity, and he must necessarily in some sense still be connected with the outside world given that he will need to obtain batteries and gunpowder used for constructing the bombs he’s been mailing to CEOs of advertising and entertainment companies, not to mention the cigars he is often seen smoking after repurposing their packaging. 

Though he is aware people have died because of his bombs, Ryoichi regards them not as murder but as a “message”, later penning a letter to the prime minister which he ultimately discards in favour of sending him the poems of Kenji Miyazawa instead. Ryoichi’s dilemma is that, as one of the ghosts who visits him suggests, he still wants to save a world he believes is beyond salvation. The bombs are therefore a wake up call, but an awkward one which fails to deliver the message he intended in urging a corrective course away from empty capitalism towards a less regimented social order in which he is master of his own destiny. “Freedom is power” he later writes, resentful of a society he feels infantilises him by removing his “right to self-determination” while his life “depends on the decisions of others” whom he doesn’t even know. 

It might be easy to sympathise with his philosophy in the Japan of 2011 entering another decade of a stagnant economy in a rigid and conformist social culture in which the rewards of playing by the rules have all but disappeared. But Ryoichi’s nihilism is born as much of his successive traumas as it is by dissatisfaction with a world devoid of meaningful opportunity. Formerly the son of a wealthy man with no need to worry about the future, uncertainty enters his consciousness with the death of his father, followed soon after by his mother’s from illness, his younger brother’s in an accident, and his older’s by suicide leaving only he and his younger sister (whom he has also abandoned) as the last of his line. Literally orphaned he finds himself unanchored, forced into retreat and choosing self-isolation. Yet if retreat was all he wanted he could have achieved it, living quietly alone in the woods with no need for bombs or indeed any kind of communication at all. Taunted by the ghost of his brother Yuki (Yosuke Kubozuka), he at once takes aim at the “system” which drives those who cannot accommodate themselves with it to suicide, while flirting with the nihilism that suggests suicide is the only true expression of freedom in an oppressive society. 

Nevertheless, Ryoichi eventually loses faith in his brother’s philosophy rationalising that if he had managed to find the pathway to the ideal world he spoke of he would not have needed to take his own life and could have lived in “relative happiness” even if in “a forest of monsters”. He claims to have found this happiness himself and urges his sister to do the same, ignoring the ghosts of their brothers should they visit. Haunted both by familial trauma and a maddening demon, Ryoichi makes a monster of himself but is ironically later chased out of the forest and back towards civilisation, gradually removing his mask as he goes. In an ending he would later repeat in the similarly themed anti-Olympic treatise Day of Destruction, Toyoda leaves his hero screaming in the centre of the city left with no other outlet for his rage and grief, but uncertain if this represents defeat or victory, defiance or surrender. Elegiac and in its own way profoundly sad, Monster’s Club is the story of a man haunted by himself, unable to break free from the legacy of trauma and embracing his loneliness all alone surrounded by snow but ultimately still in love with an imperfect world and finally learning to play “that pipe organ made of light that fills the sky”. 


Monsters Club is released on bluray in the UK on 18th October as part of the Toshiaki Toyoda: 2005 to 2021 box set courtesy of Third Window Films and is accompanied by a richly detailed audio commentary by film scholar Jasper Sharp.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Hiroshi Kurosaki, 2020)

“What can we do? It’s for the victory of our country” one woman stoically laments as her family home is demolished in an attempt to mitigate the damage from potential aerial bombing in Hiroshi Kurosaki’s wartime drama, Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Taiyo no Ko). A co-production between Japanese broadcaster NHK and American distributor Eleven Arts, Kurosaki’s ambivalent interrogation of the price of progress asks some difficult questions about scientific ethics while simultaneously suggesting we may have been stoking a fire we cannot fully control in a bid for a technological evolution which has become unavoidably politicised. 

The hero, Shu (Yuya Yagira), is an idealistic young man who excels at running experiments. He has been spared the draft because his work has been deemed essential for the war effort as he is part of the research team at Kyoto University working on the development of an atomic bomb. A theoretical thinker, Shu has not fully considered the implications of the project and largely views it as a problem they are trying to solve in the name of science rather than a concerted attempt to create a super weapon with the potential to bring death and destruction to the entire world. 

Others meanwhile are beginning to question the ethical dimensions of their work. The team is equipped with a shortwave radio receiving the American broadcasts and is fully aware that Japan is losing the war. There are frequent power outages which interfere with their research, while food shortages are also becoming a problem. The potter Shu has been visiting in order to acquire Uranium usually used for a yellow glaze tells him that he rarely needs to use colour anymore because the vast majority of his output is plain white funerary urns for boys who come back as bones. Some of the scientists feel guilty that they are living in relative safety while other young men their age are fighting and dying on the front line, while others wonder if working on the bomb, which will almost certainly not be finished in time, is the best way to help them. They also wonder if scientists should be involved in the creation of weapons at all, but their mentor Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura) justifies the project under the rationale that they aren’t just trying to make a bomb but to unlock the power of the atom and harness its intrinsic energy to take humanity into a brave new world. 

As it turns out, Arakatsu may not have expected the project to succeed but was in a sense using it in order to protect his students by ensuring they would be exempt from the draft. Another senior researcher meanwhile points out the Americans are also working on a bomb, and if they don’t finish it first the Russians will. Arakatsu claims this war, like most, is about energy but nuclear energy may be infinite and therefore its discovery has the potential to end human conflict forevermore. Still, it’s difficult for Shu reconcile himself to the reality of what he was working on seeing the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima. The scientists are plunged into a deep sense of guilt and despair that they failed to prevent this tragedy, but also perhaps relief in knowing they were not responsible for inflicting it on the city of San Francisco as had been the plan. 

Arakatsu claims he wants to change the world through science, a sense of purpose that appeals to Shu even while he remains firmly in the present moment. His childhood friend, Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), however is looking far ahead already thinking about what to do when the war is over. Seeing through the wartime propaganda disturbed by the answers the high school girls co-opted to fill-in at her factory give when asked about their dreams that all they want is to marry as soon as possible and raise children to serve the nation, she aims to educate. Shu’s brother Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), meanwhile, is a conflicted soldier filled with guilt for having survived so long crying out that he can’t be the only one not to die. The theory that nothing is ever created or destroyed becomes an odd kind of justification, yet Shu is also forced to admit that destruction can be “beautiful” while claiming that scientific progress is a body already in motion which cannot be stopped. “The nature of science transcends humanity” Shu is told by an accented voice speaking in English, insisting that the bomb is merely another stop on the inevitable march of progress in the great chain reaction of history. Kurosaki’s melancholy drama preserves both the beauty and wonder of scientific discovery as well as its terrible ferocity but offers few answers as to the extent of its responsibilities. 


Gift of Fire screens in Chicago on Sept. 16 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema before opening at cinemas across the US on Nov. 12 courtesy of Eleven Arts.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Daihachi Yoshida, 2020)

“Landscapes don’t stay the same” laments a young woman in Daihachi Yoshida’s slick corporate drama, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Damashie No Kiba), though the more things change the more they stay the same and the push and pull of traditionalists and modernisers seems set to be an unending battle. If someone were brave enough to think of it, there may be a third way, but one thing is clear – it’s adapt or die for the printed word and the real war is over who makes it onto the page and how they do it. 

When the CEO of a major family-owned publishing house dies of a heart attack while walking his dog, it throws the entire industry into disarray and even makes it onto the national news where pundits discuss who might be most likely to succeed while pointing out that publishing is already in crisis seeing as most novels are serialised in literary journals and magazine readership is on its way out. Earnest editor Megumi (Mayu Matsuoka) is forever told that old and new is a false dichotomy and in some ways it may be, but century-old literary journal Kunpu Review is quite clearly mired in a traditionalist past woefully out of touch with contemporary society. 

This Megumi learns to her cost when pulled straight from the CEO’s funeral to a 40th anniversary event marking the debut of their best-selling author Daisaku Nikaido (Jun Kunimura). Encouraged by rival editor Hayami (Yo Oizumi), she gives her honest opinion on Nikaido’s work pulling him up on the latent sexism in his novels by suggesting his sexual politics are at best old-fashioned. This is of course a huge faux pas and a moment of minor embarrassment for all concerned, though it will also become a repeated motif Megumi again trying to bring up a younger author on his subpar portrayal of women but finding her concerns falling on deaf ears. 

Part of the problem is that authors, and particularly well-established ones, rarely undergo a rigorous editing process such as they might outside of Japan. Kunpu is so desperate to keep Nikaido on side that they treat him as a mini god, wasting vast amounts of their budget expensing him for “research” holidays and a healthy interest in fine wines. They simply wouldn’t have the courage to tell him that his drafts are improvable or that elements of his writing may cause offence. 

Hayami, the tricky editor of rival culture mag Trinity, is by contrast deliberately looking for the modern but in other ways is not so different from Kunpu. Poaching an up and coming author Megumi had pitched but was rejected, Hayami embarks on an elaborate PR campaign casting the young and handsome Yajiro (Hio Miyazawa) as a literary idol star. But Yajiro seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, unprepared to deal with demands of being a prominent writer and resenting Hayami’s attempts to manipulate his image by forcing him into photoshoots dressed in outfits he would never wear. Hayami also engineers a publicity stunt implying Yajiro is in a relationship with his other protege, a young model and unexpected firearms enthusiast (Elaiza Ikeda) who is later arrested after shooting a stalker with a homemade pistol. 

What happens to Saki Jojima is either an unintended consequence or direct result of Hayami’s inability to fully control the situation, but it also creates both crisis and opportunity for Trininty when Hayami breaks protocol and decides to run Saki’s issue rather than pulling it entirely with an apology as is usual in Japan when a celebrity is the subject of scandal. This places him in direct opposition to the traditionalist Kunpu, horrified and insistent that his decision stains the integrity of the publishing house. Like Hayami, however, new CEO Tomatsu (Koichi Sato) is determined to do things differently and prepared to take a gamble, secretly working on his own plan to streamline the business and build their own production/distribution facility in Yokohama. 

Everyone is so absorbed in their own plotting that they fail to notice others plotting around them. Megumi, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the survival of her father’s old-fashioned book shop which itself badly needs another literary hit because half the customers are kids who come in to browse the manga and then download the good ones when they get home. One young woman looking for a particular novel even explains that she only wants to read it because there’s no movie or drama adaptation. With all this finagling, it’s easy to think everyone’s forgotten about the books while Megumi desperately tries to get someone to let her do some actual editing because they’re all too busy mollycoddling their authors. Nevertheless there’s more to the Kunpu vs Trinity battle than it first seems as they vie for the future of Japan’s publishing industry little suspecting that there may be another contender with a less acrimonious solution. “If something could be updated it should be” Megumi insists, a sentiment which apparently goes both for dinosaur writers unwilling to reckon with their latent misogyny and the book business itself. 

Once again adapting a literary source, Yoshida’s gentle farce quietly builds the tension with courtly intrigue as the wider society remains rapt over the succession crisis at a publishing firm while its ambitious courtiers plot amongst themselves in order to steal the throne. Casting Yo Oizumi in the role he apparently inspired in the book is another masterstroke of meta commentary as his thrill-seeking manipulator plays the long game but even if the prognosis for Japan’s publishing industry may be bleak there is unexpected glee to be had in the eventual triumph of a righteous underdog over a thoroughbred plotter. 


Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction screens on Aug. 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Keishi Ohtomo, 2020)

“There’s nothing wrong with leaving it a mystery” the enigmatic presence at the centre of Keishi Ohtomo’s Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Eiri) advises the hero as he vows to look into the unexpected appearance of a fish found swimming in the wrong river. Best known for mainstream blockbusters such as the Rurouni Kenshin series, March Comes in Like a Lion, and Museum, Ohtomo shits towards an arthouse register in adapting the Akutagawa Prize-winning novella by Shinsuke Numata which is in a sense obsessed with the unseen, the hidden details of life and secret sides we all have that are perhaps intended to protect but also leave us vulnerable. 

Konno (Go Ayano), an introverted man in his 30s, has just been transferred to rural Morioka by the pharmaceuticals company at which he works. He keeps himself to himself and largely spends his time caring for a Jasmine plant which appears to have some especial yet unexplained significance. It’s at work that he first encounters the enigmatic Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda), reminding him that theirs is a non-smoking building only to discover that Hiasa isn’t the sort to care very much about rules. For some reason or other, Hiasa takes a liking to Konno, turning up at his house with sake, teaching him how to fish, and going on what to anyone else look like dates. Yet when winter comes Hiasa abruptly quits his job and disappears without a word, resurfacing a few months later with a better haircut and a sharp suit explaining that he’s now a top salesman for a suspicious insurance company designed to help pay for expensive ceremonies such as weddings or more commonly funerals. The two men resume their friendship, but soon enough Hiasa again disappears. Only when he’s contacted by a co-worker (Mariko Tsutsui) after the earthquake hoping to find him because it turns out he owes her a large some of money does Konno begin to reflect on how little he might really have known this man he thought a friend. 

“Right from the start you have to groom it so it’s tantalised” Hiasa later explains, operating on several metaphorical levels but talking quite literally about lighting a fire. Konno has to wonder if that’s all it really was, if Hiasa is just a manipulative sociopath playing a long game, getting him on side in case he’d be useful later. When he resurfaces after his first absence, Hiasa eventually asks Konno to sign for one of his policies claiming that he’s one away from his quota and will be getting the can if he can’t fill it despite having talked a big game in proudly showing off a commendation he’d won as a top salesman when he turned up on Konno’s doorstep. “What you see is where the light hit for an instant, no more than that. When you look at someone you should look at the other side, the part where the shadow is deepest”, Hiasa had pointedly told him during a heated fireside conflagration, seemingly hurt as if in the moment he had wanted to be seen and is disappointed to be met with Konno’s irritated rejection, fed up with his mixed signals and distance both emotional and physical. 

Yet Konno is also himself living half in shadow as a closeted man choosing not to disclose his sexuality to those around him. A meeting with an old friend who has since transitioned presumably having embraced her own essential self raises further questions about the reasons he accepted the transfer to Morioka as if he too, like Hiasa, wanted to disappear from his old life and reinvent himself somewhere new, he’s just done it in a more conventional way. Even in contemporary Japan which is in some ways very old fashioned when it comes to the technology of everyday life and with a strong belief in personal privacy it’s surprisingly easy to just vanish at the best of times, but even his family members who are in no hurry to find him wonder if Hiasa may simply have used the cover of disaster to disappear for good. His conflicted brother (Ken Yasuda) affirms he thinks he’s probably alive because he’s “someone who can survive anywhere” which in the way he’s putting it is not much of a character reference. 

The conclusion Konno seems to come to, in a happier epilogue some years later, is that Hiasa himself was perhaps a fish swimming in the wrong waters, unable to adapt to the world around him. Perhaps it’s alright for him to remain a mystery because a mystery was what he was. Konno, by contrast, sets himself free apparently less gloomy, no longer living half in shadow, even if still hung up on the one that got away. A slow burn affair, Beneath the Shadow eventually refuses conflagration in favour of something cooler in accepting that you never really know anyone, perhaps not even yourself, even when you peer into the darkest part of the shadow. In the end you just have to let it go, “the cycle keeps repeating”. 


Beneath the Shadow streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, Tony Au Ting-Ping, 1991)

Love and Resistance go to war in Tony Au’s noirish romance, Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, AKA Till We Meet Again). The evocative title sets the scene for a tale of love betrayed by changing times, but ultimately asks if love is a question of priorities and if you have the right to put your romantic destiny on hold to serve a greater good, even if that greater good is a shared ideal. Predictably, the answer may be no, because in the world of the movies at least love is an absolutist choice and you won’t be forgiven for resisting it. 

One fateful evening in the Shanghai of 1941, Resistance operative Sum (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is an accidental witness to the murder of “notorious Japanese monks” which he later learns may have been set up by the Japanese authorities themselves. Chasing the perpetrator, Shirakawa (Jun Kunimura), through a series of back allies where he slices and dices his now redundant Chinese mercenaries, Sum is brought to a smoky nightclub where the singer, Mui-Yi (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), is none other than his one true love whom he met thanks to the Resistance movement some years earlier but was forced to leave behind with only a heartfelt letter explaining that he would return when the battle was done. Returning the favour Sum had done her in saving her life when she was about to be hit by a car, Mui-Yi tosses him a gun that allows him to defend himself against a crazed Shirakawa and thereafter shelters him in an abandoned garage until he is well enough to return to his mission. 

Heartbroken and embittered, Mui-Yi is still lowkey anti-Japanese and seemingly unafraid of telling the local goons where to get off despite her father’s attempts at collaboration. Her aunt Jing (Carrie Ng Ka-Lai), however, finds herself succumbing to the dubious charms of violent and thuggish turncoat Tit Chak-Man (Norman Chu Siu-Keung) who is working with the Japanese apparently because he thinks China is weak and unsophisticated. Tit Chak-Man thinks nothing of blowing up little children and blackmailing suspects which is how he begins to manipulate Mui-Yi after seizing her father’s bar and having him put in prison on a trumped up charge. Meanwhile, she flip flops in her relationship with Sum, at once resenting him for his tendency to disappear and then longing for his return, while he berates her in a mistaken assumption that she has decided to collaborate but promises that he will be hers and hers alone once the war is over. 

Unlike many similarly themed movies from both the Mainland and Hong Kong, the big bad is not the Japanese themselves but the Chinese who betrayed their country and sided with the enemy. Somewhat two dimensional, Tit Chak-Man is a thuggish brute who is prepared to do anything and everything to stamp out the Resistance but is at once humanised by his intense romance with Jing which continues even after she attempts to assassinate him and eventually proves his weakness when he refuses to abandon her to escape from a baying mob. Though Shirakawa is indeed crazed and bloodthirsty, we’re shown his opposite in the gentle, sensitive Noguchi (Hidekazu Akai) who has also fallen in deep and selfless love with Mui-Yi and is willing to facilitate her romance with Sum while doing everything he can to keep her safe. 

Years later, Sum irritably points out that Noguchi had a choice in serving his country and was therefore free to choose love instead which seems extremely disingenuous seeing as he was most likely (in some way) a conscript too but was in his own way resisting in order to serve the best interests of his country. Sum chose China over Mui-Yi. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to wait in line until you’ve finished being a revolutionary hero and have the proper time to devote to love, no one likes being second choice even if you’re right behind “freedom” when it comes to priorities. To save his love, Sum sent it into the arms of the enemy but failed to realise that she might also find a home there or at least a sense of relief in no longer needing to wait for someone who might never return. Can there be love in time of war? Yes, but love like revolution is a choice and it won’t wait for you forever, if you betray it you may not be forgiven. 


Fortune Star trailer (no subtitles)

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2018)

Miracle of Crybaby Shottan poster 1Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s with a series of visually stunning expressions of millennial malaise in which the dejected, mostly male, heroes found themselves adrift without hope or purpose in post-bubble Japan. For all their essential nihilism however, Toyoda’s films most often ended with melancholic consolation, or at least a sense of determination in the face of impossibility. Returning after a lengthy hiatus, Toyoda’s adaptation of the autobiography by shogi player Shoji “Shottan” Segawa, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki), finds him in a defiantly hopeful mood as his mild-mannered protagonist discovers that “losing is not the end” and the choice to continue following your dreams even when everything tells you they are no longer achievable is not only legitimate but a moral imperative.

An aspiring Shogi player himself in his youth, Toyoda opens with the young Shoji discovering a love of the game and determining to turn pro. Encouraged by his surprisingly supportive parents who tell him that doing what you love is the most important thing in life, Shoji (Ryuhei Matsuda) devotes himself to mastering his skills forsaking all else. The catch is, that to become a professional shogi player you have to pass through the official association and ascend to the fourth rank before your 26th birthday. Shoji has eight chances to succeed, but in the end he doesn’t make it and is all washed up at 26 with no qualifications or further possibilities seeing as he has essentially “wasted” his adolescence on acquiring skills which are now entirely meaningless.

As his inspirational primary school teacher (Takako Matsu) tells him, however, if you spend time indulging in a passion, no matter what it is, and learn something by it then nothing is ever really wasted. Shoji’s father says the same thing – he wants his son to follow his dreams, though his brother has much more conventional views and often berates him for dedicating himself to shogi when the odds of success are so slim. It may well be “irresponsible”, in one sense at least, to blindly follow a dream to the exclusion of all else, but then again it may also be irresponsible to resentfully throw oneself into the conventionality of salaryman success.

Nevertheless, shogi is a game that drives men mad. Unlike the similarly themed Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, also inspired by a real life shogi star, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan has a classically “happy” ending but is also unafraid to explore the dark sides of the game as young men fail to make the grade, realise they’ve wasted their youths, and retreat into despair and hopelessness. Shoji accepts his fate, internalises his failure, and begins to move on neither hating the game nor loving it, until finally reconnecting with his childhood friend and rediscovering his natural affinity free from ambition or desire.

Another defeated challenger, expressing envy for Shoji’s talent, told him he was quitting because you can’t win if you can’t learn to lose friends and he didn’t want to play that way. Shoji doesn’t really want to play that way either, freely giving up chances to prosper in underhanded ways and genuinely happy for others when they achieve the thing he most wants but cannot get. He does in one sense “give up” in that he accepts he will never play professionally because of the arbitrary rules of the shogi world, but retains his love of the game and eventually achieves “amateur” success at which point he finds himself a figurehead for a campaign targeted squarely at the unfair rigidity of the sport’s governing body.

Shoji’s rebellion finds unexpected support from all quarters as the oppressed masses of Japan rally themselves behind him in protest of the often arcane rules which govern the society. As his teacher told him, just keep doing what you’re doing – it is enough, and it will be OK. Accepting that “losing is not the end” and there are always second chances even after you hit rock bottom and everyone tells you it’s too late, a newly re-energised Shoji is finally able to embrace victory on equal terms carried solely by his pure hearted love of shogi rather than by ambition or resentment. A surprisingly upbeat effort from the usually melancholy director, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is a beautifully pitched reminder that it really is never too late, success comes to those who master failure, and being soft hearted is no failing when you’re prepared to devote yourself body and soul to one particular cause.


The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hana (花よりもなほ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2006)

Hana poster 1The heart of the samurai movie lies in the conflict between human feeling and duty to one’s code, unexpectedly the code usually wins but its victory is often tragic. Following a series of bleak modern dramas, Hirokazu Koreeda took his first (and so far only) foray into the jidaigeki with Hana (花よりもなほ, Hana yori mo Naho), stopping to ask if the entirety of the samurai ethos was founded more on pride and a sense of entitlement than a supposedly high ideal of honour of justice, and if perhaps the negative legacy of the samurai era is one that continues to be passed on through toxic masculinity and the patriarchal primacy of problematic fathers.

Set in 1702, the action revolves around noble hearted samurai Soza (Junichi Okada) who has been living in a rundown tenement ally for the last three years looking for the man who killed his father in a pointless quarrel over a game of Go in order to avenge his death. Despite being a fine samurai and heir to a dojo, Soza’s big secret is that he’s not much of a swordsman and is also tenderhearted which leaves him doubly conflicted in his mission. Unwilling to admit he has simply come to like living among these “ordinary” people, and most particularly alongside the widow Osae (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son Shinbo, Soza has perhaps begun to slack off and no is longer looking very hard for his quarry, willingly allowing himself to be conned into buying meals for the cheeky Sado (Arata Furuta) who already has tabs running all over town.

Unlike the majority of samurai tales, Koreeda deliberately shifts the focus to the poor – routinely oppressed by an unscrupulous landlord who has even taken to selling their excrement for extra money just to make sure they are as thoroughly exploited as possible. These people exist so far out of the samurai world that it might as well not exist for them and its rules are nothing more than a ridiculous affectation when your primary concerns are how to keep yourself fed for the day and make sure your house doesn’t suddenly fall down while you’re out. These facts are well and truly brought home to Soza when, knowing he has little chance of winning anyway, he is challenged to a fight by jaded street punk Sode (Ryo Kase) who is keen to prove to little Shinbo that dojo skills mean nothing in the real world. Soza gets a pounding, but somehow wins people’s hearts anyway if only for being so easily humiliated and bearing it with good grace.

Lessons to little Shinbo, who has figured out his father is probably dead but worries that maybe his mother still doesn’t know, becomes a persistent motif as Koreeda embraces his favourite theme – good fathers and bad. Soza’s samurai code pushes him towards martial rigour and the necessity of obeying his father’s wishes which in this case would be hating the man who killed him and avenging his death. Hate is, however, something the fair-minded Soza finds difficult even if he seems to have a fair amount of inner conflict towards his father whom even his cheerful uncle describes as a joyless prude. Osae, sensing Soza’s inner pain, points him in the right direction in remarking that if all his father left behind for him was hate then that legacy would be too sad. Eventually, Soza remembers that there were other things, better things, that his father taught him and that he could pass on to Shinbo which aren’t about pointless cycles of revenge killing and century old grudges. He can honour the spirit of his duty without having to obey it to the letter.

Meanwhile, Koreeda deliberately contrasts Soza’s gradual confidence in his humanitarianism with the stubborn pride of the 47 ronin who are also hiding out in the tenement ally while they bide their time waiting to strike. Soza manages to effect his “revenge” with some theatrical subterfuge, whereas the 47 (well, in the end 46) ronin take theirs for real but not altogether honourably and end up becoming legend overnight, earning the tenement a brief reprieve after the landlord threatens to close it down through becoming a tourist spot. The title, apparently inspired by the death poem of Lord Asano whose seppuku triggered the series of incidents later retold as the legend of the Chushingura, alludes to the nihilistic pointlessness of the samurai ideal of a death as elegant as falling cherry blossoms, later imbuing it with earthier, warmer wisdom as an unexpected fount of profundity affirms that the reason cherry blossoms fall so beautifully is that they know they will soon bloom again.


Hana was screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective playing at the BFI Southbank in April and May 2019.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ten Years Japan (十年 Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa, Yusuke Kinoshita, Megumi Tsuno, Akiyo Fujimura, Kei Ishikawa, 2018)

Ten Years Japan posterBack in 2015, five aspiring Hong Kong filmmakers came together to present a collection of shorts speculating on the fate of their nation in 10 years’ time. Coinciding with if not directly inspired by the Umbrella Movement, Ten Years was a deliberately political project which tapped into the nation’s unique preoccupations almost 20 years on from the end of British rule and a little more than 30 before One Country, Two Systems expires. The film proved an unexpected box office hit and has gone on to become an unconventional franchise with a host of other Asian nations creating their own omnibus movies musing on what may or may not have occurred in a decade’s time.

Unlike the original Hong Kong edition, Japan’s vision (十年 Ten Years Japan) is decidedly less political, perhaps reflecting a greater level of stability. Nevertheless, taken as a whole there are a number of recurrent themes running through each of the segments from the ageing population to the increasing power of the state and the dark possibilities of technology.

In Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, the first and darkest of the shorts, a conflicted salaryman (Satoru Kawaguchi) makes his living selling the titular “retirement” plans to those who have reached the age of 75 and decided enough is enough. Japan’s population is ageing faster than any other and caring for the elderly has placed a significant strain on the young. The old and infirm are therefore encouraged to think of themselves as burdensome, that they should do the decent thing and relieve the pressure on their loved ones by going gracefully at the right time. So far so Ballad of Narayama, but age isn’t quite the issue – the rich are excluded because they’re still spending their money and therefore economically useful. The government would rather roll out the invitations to the “unproductive”.

Ironically enough, a little girl who wants to be a vet in Yusuke Kinoshita’s Mischievous Alliance is advised to become a doctor instead and specialise in elder care which is in fact a growth industry. Unlike the elderly in Plan 75, the kids of Mischievous Alliance are not quite so willing to sit back and conform despite being fitted with invasive headsets connected to a monitoring program which “corrects” their bad behaviour whenever they try to break the rules. The hero rejects his oppressive schooling by self identifying with a stabled horse previously used for medical experimentation, longing to run free if only for a few moments.

If the “promise” system at the centre of Mischievous Alliance presented a vision of a future in which privacy and individual agency have all but disappeared, Data asks us if we have the right to reconstruct someone’s identity after they’ve gone by examining their digital footprint. A high school girl (Hana Sugisaki) tries to adjust to the idea of her widowed father’s (Tetsushi Tanaka) new girlfriend by opening up her mother’s “digital inheritance” but learns more than her mother might have wanted her to know. High school videos and pictures of old boyfriends jostle with beautiful flowers and private anxieties, but when it comes right down to it the organic memories are the only ones that count and the only things to make sense of the cluttered imagery in an uncurated personal museum of random digital moments.

Youth’s desire for knowledge and freedom is also at the heart of Akiyo Fujimura’s The Air We Can’t See which is the only one of the shorts to address nuclear anxiety in the post-Fukushima world. After some kind of event has made the surface uninhabitable, humanity has survived underground. A curious little girl, however, is fascinated by the idea of the outside. Longing to hear the birds and feel the rain, she imagines herself an exterior world but also comes to wonder if her home is a kind of prison born of fear and maybe it’s all alright up top if only you have the courage to look.

Meanwhile the apocalypse is still a little way off in Kei Ishikawa’s For Our Beautiful Country which hints obliquely at the growing threat of North Korea as missiles fly overhead with increasing frequency. The references, however, are older. A cynical ad man (Taiga) oversees a campaign promoting Japan’s remilitarisation but is later charged with letting the elderly, eccentric graphic designer (Hana Kino) know her poster is being “substituted” with something more “powerful”. After spending the day with her and coming to understand the subtle act of rebellion which has made her poster unusable for its propaganda purposes, the ad man gets a new a mission. It’s all up to the young now who have both an opportunity and a duty to ensure their country does not fall into the same kind of ugliness that sent young men off to die in the name of beauty.

Bookending the piece, Hayakawa and Ishikawa present the bleakest visions in which the descent into cruel authoritarianism may have already passed the point of no return. The children, however, seem to disagree and universally turn away from oppressive social codes, preferring to find their own truths and committed to exploring their own freedoms. Ten Years Japan may shed the overtly political overtones of its Hong Kong inspiration but finds brief rays of hope in the midst of despair in a child’s ability to break the programming and strive for a better, fairer world free of adult duplicity.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)