Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2012)

If you had the opportunity to reunite with someone no longer here for a single night, would you take it? The young hero of Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Tsunagu) is beginning to wonder whether or not it’s a good thing to be able to converse with the dead, if some people regret their choice to meet again, and if it’s better to just move on accepting that there will always be unanswered questions at the end of a life. Arriving shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Hirakawa’s moving drama is a meditation on grief and living with loss, but also on life and legacy and everything it means to be alive. 

High schooler Ayumi (Tori Matsuzaka) is being apprenticed by his grandmother Aiko (Kirin Kiki) to become a “connector” able to meet with spirits of the dead. As he explains to his potential clients, each person is allowed to meet only one other from the other side for one time only and should the deceased decline the invitation the petitioner will not be permitted to make another. If all goes to plan, Ayumi sets up a meeting at a fancy hotel where the pair can stay until dawn on the night of a full moon. Obviously this is not exactly a well publicised activity and the first customer Ayumi meets, Hatada (Kenichi Endo), is reluctant to trust him assuming it’s some kind of scam no better than an end of the pier clairvoyant despite repeated assurances that they accept no money and even the hotel expenses are covered.  

Tellingly, in the first reunions which we see the deceased does not tell the living anything they did not already know, Hatada claiming that he wanted to talk to his mother to find out where she put the deeds for their house only for her to tell him he already knows where they are and obviously had some other reason for wanting to see her. Even Aiko admits that she can’t be sure she’s really summoning the spirit of the deceased, Ayumi wondering if they really call someone back from the other side or if it’s more like the memories of a person who is no longer alive that have remained in the world are pulled back to together building a composite picture of someone as others saw and remembered them. He isn’t sure if what they’re doing is ethical, or if some people might wish they’d never chosen to meet again. The subject of another meeting, a young woman who died while presumed missing, is uncertain whether to meet her former boyfriend on hearing that he had spent the last few years waiting for her return realising that the her that had remained in him will die when he is forced to accept her death but deciding it’s worth it so that they both can achieve some closure and he can perhaps begin to move on. 

Moving on is something Ayumi is himself struggling to do, presented with the option of setting up a meeting of his own before he prepares to take over from his grandmother as the connector while meditating on the deaths of his parents wondering if he should meet one of them and simply ask why they left him behind. Meanwhile, he also finds himself proximate to death when a classmate is killed in a traffic accident, her guilt-stricken friend unknowingly asking for his services though for less than altruistic reasons worried her friend may use the service to tell others about their falling out. She’s fond of repeating the phrase that you regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did though her reunion turns out to have a sting in the tail she may not have been expecting hinting at the bad outcomes Aiko had also warned were possible in such emotionally fraught situations. 

The conclusion that he comes to is to embrace the true nature of his calling as a connector hearing that Aiko only got the power from her brother (Tatsuya Nakadai) to keep her connected to the family while she later gave it to her son for the same reason only to harbour a sense of guilt that her imperfect instruction may have contributed to his death. Learning to see with his heart, Ayumi comes to understand that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there discovering a source of comfort in the feeling of someone gently watching over those below while accepting that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the reunions are real or illusionary because their true purpose is to comfort those left behind. A gentle meditation on grief and living with loss, Hirakawa’s quietly moving film eventually makes the case for growing old happily with no regrets living to the full until the break of dawn.


Until the Break of Dawn streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rain of Light (光の雨, Banmei Takahashi, 2001)

In the closing voice over of Banmei Takahashi’s Rain of Light (光の雨, Hikari no Ame), the elderly narrator thanks us, the younger generation, for listening to this long, sad story. The death of the leftist movement in Japan has never been a subject far from Japanese screens whether from contemporary laments for a perceived failure as the still young protestors swapped revolution for the rat race or a more recent and rigorous desire to examine why it all ended in such a dark place. Rain of Light is an attempt to look at the Asama-Sanso Incident through the eyes of the youth of today and by implication ask a few hard questions about the nature of revolution and social change and if either of those two things have any place in the Japan these young people now live in. Takahashi reframes the tale as docudrama in which his young actors and actresses, along with their increasingly conflicted director, attempt to solve these problems through recreation and role play, bridging the gap between the generations with a warning from those who dreamed of a better world that was never to be.

After beginning with a voice-over and archive footage of the original protests beginning in the ‘60s, Takahashi introduces us to the main thrust of the conceit as veteran TV commercial director Tarumi (Ren Osugi) announces his intention to make a film about the Asama-Sanso Incident and hires indie film director Anan (Masato Hagiwara) as an AD who will also film behind the scenes footage. From here on in we swap between the various levels of the film as we meet the young men and women who will inhabit the roles of the student radicals of 40 years before and then witness the tragic events which befell them eventually culminating in the famous siege which became Japan’s first live broadcast news event gathering a record number of viewers across its ten hour duration.

This is a sad story and a difficult one to watch. As the student movement dwindled in the early 1970s, factionalism was rife and the scene chaotic. Two different factions merged to become known as the United Red Army and retreated to a secret mountain camp where they would train for the coming revolution, believing that only armed insurrection could destroy the old order and allow them to build the bright new socialist future for which they were fighting. However, in the extreme paranoia surrounding the underground movement, there had already been two murders of suspected traitors and suspicion was everywhere. Led by Kurashige (Taro Yamamoto) and Uesugi (Nae Yuki) the mountain lodge quickly becomes a place of fear and rigidity as dogmatic maoist slogans take on near religious significance. Pushing the “soldiers” through the process of continuous “self criticism”, the group places personal revolution as a paramount necessity for social change. Using the system to ease personal grudges or clear the political air, Kurashige and Uesugi bring about the deaths of several cadre members through beatings, exposure, or starvation before resorting to bare faced murder all in the name of “reform”.

Less interested in simply reviewing events, Takahashi’s treatment attempts to speak directly to the young people of today who, at least according to the video interviews conducted by Anan, know little of this traumatic era which presumably formed the backdrop to their parents’ lives. As time moves on it transpires that Tarumi has a much more personal connection to the material than he’d previously been able to admit and one which eventually sees him attempt to absent himself from the film’s completion. In the absence of their director, the cast take on the attributes of their characters in trying to understand his actions. Beginning to self criticise themselves, the actors attempt to find the fault that has driven their leader away despite the fact that his reasoning is entirely personal.

The young discuss the various merits of change and revolution but find their forebears hard to grasp. It is, indeed, impossible and all too possible to understand how this happened. Young men and women who wanted to change the world found their ideals misused, driven half mad by a kind of quasi-religious cultism which demanded nothing less than total commitment the rules of which were entirely decided by a deluded madman terrified of losing his own grip on power. Though some of the performers come to sympathise with their roles, this era of heavily politicised thought and activism is so entirely alien to them as to seem arcane.

Takahashi delineates each of the various media through differing camera effects and aspect ratios from the mid-range digital of the film within the film to the low grade video of the direct to camera “behind the scenes” footage. The film is itself the bridge which the director claims he wants to make yet eventually backs away from as his own painful past becomes the subject he does not want to address. Anan, the AD, pleads with the director to deliver his message to the young. The old, he says, talk about the past like it’s yesterday but refuse offer anything of real substance to those who have come after them. Tarumi does indeed tell his story in all of its pain and sadness, stopping to remind us, as the troupe of actors gleefully start throwing snowballs around, that this was a children’s revolution begun by young men and women who wanted nothing other than to build a better world. So what of the youth of today? Is such idealism still present, and if it is could it ever be as frustrated and misused as the unhappy revolutionaries of the post ’68 generation? The answer seems to be no, but then nothing came of the grand gestures and political posturing of 40 years ago, perhaps the genial, everyday goodness of the youth of today will have more luck.