Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト 夏・秋 / 冬・春, Junichi Mori, 2014/15)

Divided into four hour-long segments, Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト) opens with a voice over from Ichiko (Ai Hashimoto) introducing us to Komori, her home village. High in the mountains, Komori is a community of farmers without a single store though there is a farmer’s co-op if you make the half-hour bike ride to the high street. It’s downhill so not so far on a bike on your way, but a good 90 minute walk in the winter snow. Most people do their shopping at the supermarket a few towns over but if Ichiko wants to go there it takes her the best part of a day. Ichiko, however, has a taste for doing things herself and so she grows most of her own food or barters for that which she doesn’t have with some of the other sharecroppers. Always with one eye on the future and particularly for the winter to come, Ichiko preserves her produce and makes the most of all she has.

Despite her feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness, Ichiko throws herself into the business of farming, weeding her rice field and preparing for the harvest all alone. She doesn’t seem to mind the solitude or the monotony, rejoicing in cooking the food she has grown and savouring each of its flavours. A gifted cook, Ichiko also likes to experiment, finding new ways to use each of the vegetables in her garden and trying them out on her two old school friends Yuta (Takahiro Miura) and Kikko (Mayu Matsuoka).

Yuta, like Ichiko, tried life in the city but ultimately decided to come home to the country. Despite wanting nothing but escape, Yuta found that he couldn’t adapt to the city’s insincerity. He missed real conversation and the ability to talk seriously about serious things whilst learning from others – something he so admired in the village. Ichiko, rather than empathising with him, is a little jealous. Yuta came home to face himself and discovered who he really was whereas she suspects she came back to escape doing exactly that. In short, she ran away and is living in hiding.

Yuta, adopting the gentle tones he was so in praise of, almost points this out to Ichiko albeit in a subtle way by telling her that he admires the way she does everything for herself but that he’s worried she may have missed the point. Ichiko’s need for independence is perhaps a reaction to abandonment by her mother which apparently happened quite abruptly in her teenage years. Her mother’s letters are vague and don’t include a return address or any details regarding where, how, or with whom she is currently living. Her last letter, however, seems to contain some relevant advice in the form of various excuses. Ichiko’s mother tells her that she was worried she’d just been wandering round in circles but finally realised that the arc of her life has been more like a spiral. Never taking the same path twice, she learned as she went and so finding yourself back at the start is not the same as never having set off.

Rather than actively making the choice, Ichiko merely commits to making it. Realising that it’s time to come out of hibernation and figure out where it is she wants to be rather than simply allowing Komori to become her default setting, the decision is made quickly and keenly. Yet it takes time, effort, and experience to bring something to fruition and, skilled as she is, Ichiko still has a few things to learn. Filled with wonderful food and idyllic scenery, Little Forest is perhaps an idealised view of country life – the kind of life lived by those who know how to live happily even when life is hard, but there is truth in its age old wisdom as long as you know how to harvest it.


Released as two two-part movies: Summer/Autumn (2014) & Winter/Spring (2015)

Summer/Autumn trailer (no subtitles)

Winter/Spring trailer (no subtitles)

Gravity’s Clowns (重力ピエロ, AKA A Pierrot, Junichi Mori, 2009)

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Based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka (Fish Story; The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker), Gravity’s Clowns is the story of two very different brothers who discover a dark family secret following the death of their mother. Part mystery story part character drama, Gravity’s Clowns takes a look at the themes of nature vs nurture as well as the importance of familial love and acceptance.

Returning home for the first anniversary of his mother’s death, Izumi (Ryo Kase) and his younger brother Haru (Masaki Okada) spend some time with their father Tadashi (Fumiyo Kohinata) reminiscing about the past. Watching a local news broadcast, Haru realises the site of a recent arson attack is not far from where he’s been working. Noticing a pattern in the location of the attacks, Haru decides to investigate and ropes his brother in for the ride. However, the mystery Izumi finds himself embroiled in ends up being far different than the one he imagined.

It’s revealed fairly early on in the movie, but the fact of the matter is that Izumi and Haru may only be half brothers as their mother became pregnant with Haru shortly after being brutally assaulted in her own home by a serial rapist operating in the area. Having decided to have the baby and raise the child together whatever his true parentage, Haru’s parents did their best to give him a normal, loving upbringing alongside his older brother. Though there was some gossip in the town thanks to the incident’s notoriety, neither Haru nor Izumi were aware of their mother’s ordeal until after her death. After discovering the truth, both brothers react in different, though ultimately similar ways.

As a mystery, Gravity’s Clowns tries to pack in a fair few twists and turns though ultimately they are all quite obvious and frequent viewers of crime thrillers or psychological dramas will have guessed the entire plot in the first ten minutes. However, the mystery is definitely of secondary importance to the character drama that is being played out in front of it. The real key to the film is in the relationship between the two brothers, and to a larger extent the family as a whole. What’s important is that the brothers support and and love each other no matter what and as their father told them, their family is the strongest family there is. No matter what past traumas or biological facts may interfere, these guys will always come through for each other.

Having said that, the narrative does meander somewhat and in particular the “comedy stalker” subplot feels a little out of place and under developed. Despite playing a crucial plot role, and providing quite an amusing joke early on in the film and at its end, Yuriko Yoshitaka’s “Natsuko” (this is just a nickname and a fairly amusing pun as Haru’s name means “spring” and she always follows him around so they called her “Natsuko” which means “summer’s child” , she doesn’t even get a proper name) doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do. Likewise, the small but important role played by the boys’ father feels as if it bounces around a little in terms of weight as does that of their mother who is only seen in flashback. Ultimately Gravity’s Clowns over reaches itself as it tries to tackle some more weighty themes like nature vs nurture and the ethics of certain kinds of crimes which are only addressed in a very superficial way, and in fact concluded fairly ambiguously.

A flawed, if pleasant enough character drama, Gravity’s Clowns is generally entertaining but ends up feeling a little insubstantial. High quality and committed performances from the cast and especially from Ryo Kase and Masaki Okada as the two central brothers help to elevate the material but somehow it never quite takes off. Heart warming and actually quite funny at times, Gravity’s Clowns is a noble effort but one that ultimately fails to strike home.