Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

Shinya Tsukamoto made his name as a punk provocateur with a series of visually arresting, experimental indie films set to a pounding industrial score and imbued with Bubble-era urban anxiety. Inspired by an Edogawa Rampo short story, 1999’s Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Soseiji Gemini) is something of a stylistic departure from the frenetic cyberpunk energy of his earlier career, marked as much by stillness as by movement in its strikingly beautiful classical composition and intense color play. Like much of his work, however, Gemini is very much a tale of societal corruption and a man who struggles against himself, unable to resist the social codes which were handed down to him while simultaneously knowing that they are morally wrong and offend his sense of humanity. 

Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) is a war hero, decorated for his service as a battlefield medic saving the life of a prominent general during the first Sino-Japanese War. He’s since come home and taken over the family business where his fame seems to have half the well-to-do residents of the area inventing spurious excuses to visit his practice, at least according to one little boy whose mum has brought him in with a bump on the head after being beset by kids from the slums. “They’re just like that from birth” Yukio later tells his wife echoing his authoritarian father, “the whole place should be burned to the ground”. A literal plague is spreading, but for Yukio the slums are a source of deadly societal corruption that presents an existential threat to his way of life, primed to infect with crime and inequity. His home, which houses his practice, is hermetically sealed from those sorts of people but lately he’s begun to feel uneasy in it. There’s a nostalgia, a sadness, a shadowy presence, not to mention a fetid stench of decay which indicates an infection has already taken place, the perimeter has been penetrated. 

The shadowy presence turns out to belong to his double, Sutekichi whose name literally means “abandoned fortune”, a twin exposed at birth as unworthy of the family name owing to his imperfection in the form of a snake-like birthmark on his leg and raised by a travelling player in the slums. Having become aware of his lineage, Sutekichi has returned to make war on the old order in the form of the parents who so callously condemned him to death, engineering their demise and then pushing Yukio into a disused well with the intention of stealing his identity which comes with the added bonus that Yukio’s wife, Rin (Ryo), was once his. 

Rin’s presence had already presented a point of conflict in the household, viewed with contempt and suspicion by Yukio’s mother because of her supposed amnesia brought on by a fire which destroyed her home and family. Yukio had reassured her that “you can judge a person by their clothes”, insisting that Rin is one of them, a member of the entrenched upper-middle class which finds itself in a perilous position in the society of late Meiji in which the samurai have fallen but the new order has not quite arrived. In Rin modernity has already entered the house, a slum dweller among them bringing with her not crime and disease but a freeing from traditional austerity. In opposing his parents’ will and convincing them to permit his marriage, Yukio has already signalled his motion towards the new but struggles to free himself from the oppressive thought of his father. He confesses that as a battlefield physician he doubted himself, wondering if it might not have been kinder to simply ease the suffering of those who could not be saved while his father reminds him that the German medical philosophy in which he has been trained insists that you must continue treatment to the very last. 

This is the internal struggle Yukio continues to face between human compassion and the obligation to obey the accepted order which includes his father’s feelings on the inherent corruption of the slum dwellers which leads him to deny them his medical knowledge which he perhaps thinks should belong to all. The dilemma is brought home to him one night when a young woman is found violently pounding on his door wanting help for her sickly baby, but just as he makes up his mind to admit her, putting on his plague suit, a messenger arrives exclaiming that the mayor has impaled himself on something after having too much to drink. Yukio treats the mayor and tells his nurses to shoo the woman away, an action which brings him into conflict with the more compassionate Rin who cannot believe he could be so cynical or heartless. 

Where Yukio is repressed kindness, a gentle soul struggling against himself, Sutekichi is passion and rage. Having taken over Yukio’s life, he takes to bed with Rin who laughs and asks him why it is he’s suddenly so amorous. She sees or thinks she sees through him, recognising Sutekichi for whose return she had been longing but also lamenting the absent Yukio who was at least soft with her in ways Sutekichi never was. “It’s a terrible world because people like you exist” Sutekichi is told by a man whose fiancée he robbed and killed. Yukio by contrast is unable to understand why this is happening to him, believing that he’s only ever tried to make people happy and has not done anything to merit being thrown in a well, failing to realise that his very position of privilege is itself oppressive, that he bears his parents’ sin in continuing to subscribe to their philosophy in insisting on their innate superiority to the slum dwellers who must be kept in their place so that they can continue to occupy theirs. 

Apart, both men are opposing destructive forces in excess austerity and violent passion, only through reintegration of the self can there be a viable future. Tsukamoto casts the austerity of the medical practice in a melancholy blue, contrasting with the fiery red of the post-apocalyptic slums, eventually finding a happy medium with the house bathed in sunshine and the family seemingly repaired as a doctor in a white suit prepares to minister to the poor. Having healed himself, he begins to heal his society, treating the plague of human indifference in resistance to the prevalent anxiety of the late Meiji society. 


Gemini is released on blu-ray in the UK on 2nd November courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a commentary by Tom Mes, making of featurette directed by Takashi Miike, behind the scenes, make up demonstration featurette, Venice Film Festival featurette, and original trailer.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Naruhito Suetsugu, 2019)

(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners
(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners

“Growth comes only through connecting with others” according to a master craftsman in Naruhito Suetsugu’s manga adaptation Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Haruka no Sue). Japanese cinema has a long history of showcasing traditional crafts but this may be the first dedicated to Bizen ware, artisanal pottery which allows one lost young woman to find purpose in her life after being deeply moved by an oversize platter displayed in a department store exhibition. What she discovers, however, is that pottery is not an isolationist art and lives only in practical application which is in its own way impossible without interpersonal connection. 

A 20-something office worker, Haruka (Nao) laments that nothing exciting is ever going to happen to her. She has no dream or particular passion and sees nothing in her future other than an ordinary job and conventional marriage. Dragged into a department store exhibition by her boss who reminds her that she never has plans so she can’t refuse, Haruka is captivated by a large Bizen ware platter and finds herself heading to the library to find out all about this ancient craft. It’s not long before she’s made the decision to quit her job and try to become a potter herself, determined to train with the artist who made the platter, but when she arrives in the Bizen ware capital of Imbe, Okayama, she finds him cold and unresponsive. Only after bonding with an old man, Toujin (Takashi Sasano), who turns out to be a “national treasure” of traditional pottery does she manage to persuade Osamu (Hiroyuki Hirayama), the aloof and grumpy potter, to allow her to stay. 

Talking to Toujin later Haruka reveals that one of the reasons she was so struck by the platter was because her family is small and she’d always dreamed of a big gathering where everyone could eat off the same large plate. Toujin fires the same logic back at Osamu, that subconsciously he made the plate because he’s lonely. It’s not something he would ever use, in fact it’s too big to have much of a practical use at all, it was basically just a kind of beacon to summon someone to him, to express the depths of his solitude. Osamu lost both his parents as a child, his mother to illness and his father (Jun Murakami) to overwork brought on by grief, and has kept himself to himself ever since. He may have become a master potter, but according to Toujin at least he is somewhat lacking as a human which means, in essence, that his art will never progress not to mention that he’ll go on being lonely and resentful all his life if he fails to seize this opportunity to pass on his Bizen ware skills to a willing pupil.

For her part, Haruka is determined to learn and only from Osamu, the man who made the plate. While others in the town which is largely populated by other Bizen ware potters are supportive if somewhat surprised that Osamu has taken on an apprentice, Haruka finds herself at odds with Toujin’s daughter Yoko (Maki Murakami) who, according to her husband, has not exactly had it easy as a female potter. Yoko resents Haruka as an arriviste, unconvinced she’s really serious and assuming she’s another refugee from the city fed up with urban life and looking for something simpler which is to say she’s probably underestimated the commitment required to become a Bizen ware craftsman. Haruka is fond of cheerfully stating that she’ll persevere, but that’s rarely enough for Osamu or for Yoko who’d prefer to see some concrete results. Yet as Toujin had said, it’s as well to connect with as many people as you can and learning something from each of them she begins to grow in confidence, becoming a full part of the Bizen ware community and earning the respect of the other potters. 

As an old lady puts it, Bizen ware is designed to be used. Its harsh corners become soft and round through contact, and the same is true for people too. Having pushed himself too far trying to connect with his late father through their shared art, Osamu too softens assuring Haruka that pottery is not an exact science and it’s OK to fail every now and then as long as you learn something when you do. “The potter must have a strong will and be as unbreakable as the pottery itself” in order to “melt people’s hearts on the spot” Toujin had somewhat paradoxically told her, but Haruka perhaps learns that there’s truth in what he says, falling in love not only with traditional craft but with the small community of craftsmen accepted as one of their own in her unbreakable love for Bizen ware. 


Haruka’s Pottery screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Makuko (まく子, Keiko Tsuruoka, 2019)

“In this world nothing lasts forever” the conflicted hero of Keiko Tsuruoka’s Makuko (まく子) is tearfully told, though it’s a lesson he struggles to learn as he battles the anxiety of leaving the certainties of childhood behind. Adapted from Kanako Nishi’s 2016 novel, Makuko is unafraid of the fantastical but resolutely rooted in the everyday as “aliens” make their descent into regular small-town life to learn what it is to die, or so they say, while the hero discovers what it is to live through the beauty of transience. 

11-year-old Satoshi (Hikaru Yamazaki) is coming to the realisation that he is growing up. Things around him, or more precisely his perception of them, are changing in small but obvious ways and he’s not OK with it. Like the other children he used to enjoy being read manga by Dono (Jun Murakami), a middle-aged man with learning difficulties who hangs around with the local children, but has for some reason begun to find it embarrassing. Meanwhile, he’s also battling a degree of resentment towards his distant father (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) in becoming aware of his parents’ complicated relationship after spotting him with another woman and hearing constant references to his philandering which his mother (Risa Sudou) seems to have accepted. Satoshi doesn’t know much, but he knows he doesn’t want to be like his dad or any of the other duplicitous adults he sees around the town which is one of many reasons that he fears growing up and being forced to enter the world of adult hypocrisy against his will. 

All of these fears are challenged by the unexpected appearance of intergalactic transfer student Kozue (Ninon) who tells him that she and her equally odd mother (Miho Tsumiki) are actually from a distant planet somewhere near Saturn where nothing ever changes and no one gets old. This is, she explains, because their bodies are made of particles which are eternal and unchanging, unlike those of Satoshi’s body which are constantly in flux which is why humans grown old and die. When a meteorite carrying different particles hit the planet’s surface, it caused a population explosion leaving her people with the unprecedented choice to die only no one really knows what “death” means which is why she’s come to Earth. Satoshi is envious of an unchanging world, seeing only futility in his equation of change with death which is what it is that he’s really afraid of. Why grow up only to die? he asks, only for Kozue to point out that like the leaves she’s fond of throwing in the air, if they didn’t fall they wouldn’t be so pretty. 

Satoshi isn’t really sure he believes Kozue’s strange story, only that he’s certain he doesn’t want her to die. It seems he fell out with a friend who stopped coming to school because of stories the other kids thought he was making up about UFOs and ladders in the sky, but if what Kozue says is true then perhaps he owes him an apology. Dono, whom he’d previously looked down on as “the town’s second biggest loser” offers him some valuable advice that perhaps it’s better to believe the things that people tell you and if you find out later that they lied, well you can deal with that then. 

Whether Kozue’s an alien or not, Satoshi is fairly certain he’s falling in love with her which is a whole other set of problems which brings him back to his problematic dad and the awkwardness of puberty. He doesn’t want to be an adult, but his body is changing all on its own and there’s nothing he can do about it. The local festival is all about “rebirth” through creation and destruction, but Satoshi still struggles to accept the necessity of change in order to grow, wishing things could simply remain as they are. What he learns is that we’re all “aliens” in one sense or another, everyone is lost and afraid and different but also the same, keepers of a hundred “tiny eternities” equating to one vast whole.  

“Everything disappears in the end” Satoshi is told during an intense encounter with his father’s mistress, but then again perhaps it doesn’t only remaining in a different form. A cosmic event brings the townspeople together in banal awe that quickly passes into a collective memory, and while some depart others arrive in their place bringing with them their own near identical anxieties and, like meteorites striking home, new opportunities for growth. 


Makuko is available to stream in Germany until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

SR2_teaserWhere now the dreams of youth? Japanese cinema seems to have been asking that very question since its inception but the answer remains as elusive as ever. The heroine(s) of Ryuichi Hiroki’s adaptation of a series of short stories by Mariko Yamauchi, It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Koko wa Taikutsu Mukae ni Kite), idolise Audrey Hepburn and long for urban sophistication only to find themselves hung up on unfulfilled high school promise and unable escape the wholesome romanticisation of their small-town youth to embrace the demands and possibilities of adulthood.

Hiroki follows his small-town high schoolers from 2004 to 2013, jumping freely between time periods as memories spark one another in emotional rather than chronological order. We begin with the unnamed protagonist, “I” (Ai Hashimoto), who has returned to her hometown after 10 (seemingly disappointing) years in Tokyo and now works as a freelance journalist for the provincial paper writing local culture articles on ramen shops and patisseries. She has contacted only one friend since her return, Satsuki (Yurina Yanagi), who has suggested, rather tongue in cheek, that they reconnect with former high school crush Shiina (Ryo Narita).

Back in high school, Shiina was like some kind of untouchable god. Everyone just wanted to be around him as if he alone made the sun shine. All the girls were in love with him, and the all boys wanted his approval. Asked about his hopes and dreams, Shiina just wants high school to go on forever, perhaps realising that he’ll never have it so good again. “I” meanwhile, claims that she wants to “become someone”. A small town girl who didn’t fit in, she hoped to find herself amid the hustle and bustle of the big the city but has returned with an even deeper sense of alienation than when she left with only the bright memory of her brief time as a chosen member of Shiina’s after school posse to cling to.

Satsuki, meanwhile, stayed behind but seems equally hung up on unfinished high school business. Having never been to Tokyo she is envious of her friend’s experiences and longs for the anonymity of the city. If you mess up in Tokyo, she claims, people will eventually forget whereas if you make a mistake in the country it’s all anyone will talk about for the rest of your life. That certainly seems to be true for another of the girls’ contemporaries (Rio Uchida) who left to become an idol only for it all to go wrong and come home branded as a loose woman. Cynical and calculating, she decides on an arranged marriage only to find herself shackled to an old man she doesn’t like very much while her shy friend (Yukino Kishii) seems to have found love by stealth and apparently won the jackpot without even knowing it.

Continuously travelling, the now almost-middle-aged high schoolers meander without direction as if circling around the locus of their departing youth and the sense of possibility disappearing with it. Running into another classmate, Shinpo (Daichi Watanabe), also connected with Shiina, I and Satsuki get a few more clues about their high school crush who apparently now lives a fairly ordinary life as a driving instructor thanks to Shinpo’s recommendation without which he was set to hit rock bottom after some kind of breakdown while failing to make it in Osaka. Nicknamed “Chinpo” (which means “willy”) in school, Shinpo’s dream for the future was to exist alongside someone that he loved but he seems to have given up even on this depressingly compromised desire and resigned himself to loneliness and lovelorn misery as someone who will never be able to find his place in a conservative and conformist society.

I meanwhile, like a similarly unnamed counterpart (Mugi Kadowaki) who really did date Shiina until he cruelly cast her aside, is finally able to burst her high school bubble by confronting it directly and seeing the reality rather than her romanticised impression of it. Those shining days of fun and friendship with everything still ahead will never come again, and so the memory of them remains bittersweet at best. Adult life is dull and disappointing, but there is perhaps melancholy happiness to be found in learning to embrace the present moment rather than harping on a largely imagined past or idealised future. 


It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.


My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dynamite Graffiti (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Masanori Tominaga, 2018)

Dynamite Graffiti posterThe division between “art” and “porn” is as fuzzy as the modesty fog which still occasionally finds itself masking “obscene” images in Japanese cinema, but for accidental king of the skin rag trade Akira Suei it’s question he finds himself increasingly unwilling to answer even while he employs it to his own benefit. Back in the heady pre-internet days of the 1980s, Suei was the public face behind a series of magazines along differing themes but which all included “artistic” images of underdressed women in provocative poses alongside more “serious” content provided by such esteemed figures as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki in addition to stories and essays penned by “legitimate” authors and the more scurrilous fare written by Suei himself. Inspired by one of Suei’s essays “Dynamite Graffiti” (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Sutekina Dynamite Scandal), Masanori Tominaga’s ramshackle biopic has the informal feel of a man telling his sad life story to a less than attentive bar girl as he takes us on a long, strange walk through the back alleys of ‘70s Japan.

The entirety of Suei’s (Tasuku Emoto) life is lived in the wake of a bizarre childhood incident in which his mother (Machiko Ono), suffering with TB and trapped in an unhappy marriage to a violent drunk, chose to commit double suicide with the young man from next door. Perhaps there’s nothing so strange about that in the straightened Japan of 1955, but Suei’s mother chose to end her life in the most explosive of ways – with dynamite stolen from the local mine. Carrying the legacy of abandonment as well as mild embarrassment as to the means of his mother’s dramatic exit, Suei finds himself a perpetual outsider drifting along without the need to feel bound by conventional social moralities as symbolised by the “ideal” family.

What he longs for, by contrast is freedom and independence. Bored by country life he dreamt of moving to the city to work in a factory, but the problem with factories is that they’re mechanical and turn their employees into mere tools with no possibility of personal expression or fulfilment. Spotting an advert for courses in “graphic design”, Suei’s world begins to open up as he embraces the bold new possibilities of art even as it wilfully intersects with commerce.

Taken with the new philosophy of design as the message, a means of “exposing” oneself and ultimately enabling true human connection, Suei remains frustrated by the limitations of his role as a draughtsman for local advertisers and, inspired by a friend’s beautiful poster, finds himself entering the relatively freer creative world of the “cabaret” scene as a crafter of signboards and flyers. The cabaret bars are little better than the factories, exploiting the labour of women who themselves are the product, but Suei’s distaste is soon worn down by constant exposure. From the clubs and cabarets it’s only a natural step towards erotic artwork, nudie photographs, and finally a vast magazine empire of “literary” pornography.

Suei’s accounts of his youth are filled with a lot of high talk about the possibilities of art, of his desire to remove the masks which keep us divided so that we might all know “true” human love. Whether his adventures in adult magazines can be said to do that is very much up for debate. They are, as he freely admits, expressions of male fantasy – exposing a perhaps unwelcome truth about the relationships between men and women even as they continue to exploit them. Yet Suei’s own desire to find something more than a potential for titillation in his work continues to dwindle as he finds himself engaged in increasingly complicated schemes to avoid censure from the police while simultaneously insisting that his magazines are both “artistic” and not.

His insistence that the photographs are “artistic” becomes his primary weapon in getting sometimes vulnerable young women to agree to take their clothes off. Abandoning his loftier aspirations, Suei sinks still further into the smutty morass whilst still maintaining the pretension that his magazines are not like the others. He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) to chase fleeting affections with unsuitable or unstable women, one of whom eventually descends into a mental breakdown which provokes in him only the realisation that his desire for her was a romantic fantasy which her illness has now dissipated. Art is an explosion, Suei claims, but his mother was the explosive force in his life, blowing him off course and leaving him too wounded to embrace the reality he so desperately claims to crave but continues to reject in favour of the same kind of male fantasies his magazines peddle.

Everyone around Suei seems to be damaged. Nary a face in the red light district is without a bandage or bruise of some sort. These are people who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the ladder and are desperately trying to scrap their way up. Times change and Suei’s empire implodes. Porn is swapped for pachinko as the exploitable pleasure of choice paving the way for yet another reinvention which sees him throw on a kimono to rebrand himself as his own mother and self-styled pachinko expert. You couldn’t make it up. Still, perhaps there is something more honest in Suei’s pachinko persona than it might first appear even if his present “art” is unlikely to enlighten us to the true nature of love.


Dynamite Graffiti is screening as the opening night movie of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Hiroshi Ando, 2017)

Moon and Thunder posterThe family is coming in for another round of fierce criticism in Japanese cinema where the “family drama” has long been revered as a representative genre. Hiroshi Ando who has hitherto been more interested in atypical romantic relationships is the latest to reconsider whether family is really all it’s cracked up to be in adapting Mitsuyo Kakuta’s novel, Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Tsuki to Kaminari). Two children from dysfunctional homes now fully grown struggle to adapt themselves to the nature of adult society, unsure if they should remove themselves from it entirely or force themselves into the socially expected roles they fear they don’t know how to play. Yet perhaps what they find in the end is not so much a talent for conventionality as an acceptance of life’s many imperfections.

20-something Yasuko (Eriko Hatsune) lives alone in her family home following the death of her father (Jun Murakami). She has an unsatisfying job in the local supermarket and is in an unsatisfying relationship with a co-worker who wants to get married but she isn’t convinced. Yasuko’s striving for an “ordinary” life is disrupted when Satoru (Kengo Kora), the son of one her father’s former girlfriends who lived with them for a few months 20 years ago, suddenly tracks her down. The reconnection between them is instant and easy but also confused, somewhere between siblings and lovers as they resume the physical intimacy they shared as children but on an adult level.

Satoru, a drifter like his flighty mother (Tamiyo Kusakari), pushes Yasuko towards a consideration of the idea of family which she’d long been resisting. She becomes determined to track down the biological mother who abandoned her when she was just a toddler, hoping to find some kind of answer to the great riddle of her life. Her birth mother, however, fails her once again. Kazuyo, faking tears for the reality show cameras reuniting her with her daughter, is a selfish woman who claims she left her country home because it was boring and that she left her daughter behind because she said she didn’t want to go. Feeling as if she’s being blamed for her own abandonment Yasuko is left with only more confusion and resentment but does at least discover something by accidentally encountering her younger half-sister, Arisa (Takemi Fujii), who shows her that life with her mother might not have been very much different than without.

Yasuko and Satoru revert to their childhood selves because that brief period 20 years ago is the only time either of them ever experienced what they felt to be a “normal” family life as they played together happily and were well fed and cared for by adults acting responsibly. It was however all over too soon – Naoko, Satoru’s drifting mother, upped and left just as she always does. Someone probably left her years ago, and now she makes sure to leave them first before she can be can rejected. Naoko is the only “mother” Yasuko can remember, and her abandonment the most painful in her long memory of abandonments. First came Satoru, and then Arisa her sister, and finally Naoko too returning, filling Yasuko’s home with an instant family that at times seems too perverse and difficult to bear.

Yet she struggles with the idea of “family” itself as something she’s supposed to want but perhaps doesn’t out of fear it will fail her. She considers marrying her workplace boyfriend even though it appears she doesn’t particularly like him and they aren’t suited, solely because his proposal offers her the “normal”, “conventional” kind of life she both fears and longs for. With Satoru she has found a kind of love that is more complicated than most, two lonely children looking for a home and finding it in each other but each fearing that they will not be able to bear the anxiety of its potential end. Yet rather than continue onward along the same dull path she’d walked before, longing for soulless normality, what Yasuko discovers is that she’ll be OK on her own even if things don’t work out in the way that most would consider “normal”. Abandoning past and future, Yasuko begins to accept her presence in the present as a woman with possibilities rather than a passive object clinging onto the life raft of “normality”, accepting that nothing is forever but that once something starts it never really ends.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)