A Sparkle Of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Bunji Satoyama, 2013)

sparkle-of-lifeAs Japan’s society ages, the lives of older people have begun to take on an added dimension. Rather than being relegated to the roles of kindly grandmas or grumpy grandpas, cinema has finally woken up to the fact that older people are still people with their own stories to tell even if they haven’t traditionally fitted established cinematic genres. Of course, some of this is down to the power of the grey pound rather than an altruistic desire for inclusive storytelling but if the runaway box office success of A Sparkle of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Sansan) is anything to go by, there may be more of these kinds of stories in the pipeline.

77 year old Tae (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) lost her husband some years ago after nursing him through a long illness. Spotting a pretty wedding dress in a shop window and examining the adverts on the outside, Tae ventures in and attempts to sign up with the matchmaking service which so prominently promises a happy ending at its doorway. The clerk is surprised, to say the least, after realising that Tae is not a pushy relative trying to find a spouse for an unmarried son or daughter but is seeking someone to brighten her remaining days. Now that she is totally free, Tae just wants to feel her heart flutter again and perhaps enjoy the warm glow of companionship one last time.

Looking it up on the computer, Ayako (Kanami Tagawa) – the assistant dealing with Tae’s application, is surprised to find there are a number of older men already on the books. Accordingly, she sets Tae up with some of the more promising candidates though it seems that men don’t really change all that much and not all of them are exactly after “a relationship” after all. Eventually Tae hits it off with a charming older gentleman, Yuichiro (Gaku Yamamoto), who seems to be everything she wants in a partner but there’s something else that seems to be keeping them apart.

Just as Ayako originally reacted with mild horror on learning that Tae herself was seeking a romantic partner, not everyone approves of her decision. Tae’s longtime friend (the best friend of her late husband), Shinji (Akira Takarada), is strangely angry and somewhat resentful though, predictably, he has reasons which are more personal than social or moral when it comes right down to it. Tae’s family, finding out by accident after letting themselves into her home while she’s out, are also outraged. Getting over the shock, Tae’s son announces that he supposes it’s OK for her to think about getting remarried but finds the idea of using a dating service embarrassing and orders her to stop right away.

Like Tae’s son, many people try to infantilise Tae and her friends, relegating them to a kind of second childhood now that their working or family lives have ended. Running into her friends from the Sunny Day Club, Tae is exasperated by their game of throwing hoops which, as Shinji says, they used to enjoy as children. Tae may be older but she still wants more out of life than being handed a juice box and told to sit in the corner while the grownups talk.

Dating is, however, harder with so much already in the past. Yuichiro may describe his relationship with Tae as being like a second stab at first love but with everything so different than it was before the situation presents its own set of difficulties. The essential problems are, of course, the same though Tae’s longed for second chance for love may have been right by her side all these years only too bound up with duty and tradition to have made his feelings plain.

Bunji Sotoyama’s approach is tailor made for his target audience but the warm and gentle atmosphere coupled with the often laugh out loud humour is sure to appeal to all age groups. Tae’s quest for love and determination to enjoy the time she has left to the fullest despite what anyone else might have to say about it is a quiet but firm bid for freedom and individual happiness in old age rather than the unwelcome relegation to the world of second childhood otherwise offered to women in Tae’s position. A comedic tale of late life love, A Sparkle of Life is a lesson in realising you only see the fireworks once it begins to get dark but that only makes them all the more precious.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2012)

ninkyo helperIn old yakuza lore, the “ninkyo” way, the outlaw stands as guardian to the people. Defend the weak, crush the strong. Of course, these are just words and in truth most yakuza’s aims are focussed in quite a different direction and no longer extend to protecting the peasantry from bandits or overbearing feudal lords (quite the reverse, in fact). However, some idealistic young men nevertheless end up joining the yakuza ranks in the mistaken belief that they’re somehow going to be able to help people, however wrongheaded and naive that might be.

The hero of Hiroshi Nishitani’s Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Ninkyo Helper) is just one of these world weary idealists turned cynics. We find him working a low rent convenience store job where he fills the shop with the kind of intensity that only a disappointed former yakuza can generate. Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) was trying to make a go of things in the regular world, but when a sad little old man comes in with armed robbery on his to do list, Hikoichi shows his yakuza stripes by easily beating him down in front of his stunned colleague.

This might have earned him some brownie points at work, but overcome by pity for this pathetic old man reduced to robbing corner shops for petty change, he gives him the cash and tells him to run. The police soon turn up and arrest them both – during the robbery Hikochi’s colourful tattoos were caught on security camera and no one wants a yakuza working here, even if he did volunteer to pay back the tiny sum of money the old guy got from his own wages.

Meeting up in prison, Hikoichi and the armed robber eventually become friends and after his release, Hikoichi ends up in the old guy’s home town where he joins his former clan as an enforcer. Extremely bitter by this point, Hikoichi has decided to play the modern yakuza game to the max so when he finds out his assignment is running a dodgy “care” home which gets its residents by extorting old people through outrageous loans which send them bankrupt, he only briefly pauses.

The idea of a yakuza running a care home is a strange one. The Uminoneko residential care facility is far from what one would want from a old people’s home – there are no doctors, or even carers, the entire home is run by one nurse, herself an elderly woman who got her nurse’s certification and eldercare qualifications back in 1943!

With a rapidly ageing population, eldercare is a big topic in Japan as the birth rate has progressively fallen while lifespans have increased leaving many older people without family to look after them. With the nature of the family unit also changing, it’s become much harder to care for elderly relatives at home especially if they need around the clock attention. There are simply not enough facilities available to cope with the increasing needs of the older generation leaving families struggling to cope and social services overwhelmed. It’s not surprising that the yakuza have picked up on this as a growth area.

When Hikoichi arrives at the Uminoneko facility, which is just really a prefab shed with some futons in it, he finds a hellish place filled with unstimulated old people left on their beds to die. The place is filthy, and about the only attention the guests receive is the occasional offering of food to keep them alive so that the clan can keep claiming their pensions and welfare payments. Though Hikoichi goes along with this to begin with, it’s not long before his idealism rears its ugly head and he hits on the idea of reforming Uminoneko by turning it into a kind of old person’s commune in which the residents themselves will help out with the running of the place. What was a sad and gloomy prison of exploitation suddenly transforms as the older generation rediscover a place that they can belong, working together to build their own community. However, this of course means less money for the clan and more trouble for Hikoichi.

The clan aren’t his only problems as the town also has a progressive mayor who made a commitment to wipe out organised crime and turn the area into a tourist hotspot with a special focus on caring for the older generation. Teruo (Teruyuki Kagawa) has is own stuff going on which again causes a problem for Hikioichi as he also has a long standing crush on the older yakuza’s daughter, now a single mother with two young children and a mother of her own with senile dementia who needs expensive medical care. Yoko (Narumi Yasuda) has a grudge against yakuza after enduring decades of stigma and eventual abandonment by her father but is willing to deal with them if it will enable her to help her mother. Predictably she begins to develop a better understanding of her father as she bonds with Hikochi and warms to his noble tough guy ways.

Directed by Hiroshi Nishitani and inspired by a TV show (though functioning as a standalone movie), Beautiful World is a finely plotted drama which explores both the roles of the ageing population and eldercare explosion in Japan, and the conflicting role of the yakuza who seek to exploit those who are arguably the weakest in society. Hikoichi makes for a very Takakura-like, brooding presence as his innate idealism and desire to help those around him conflict with his experiences as a yakuza which teach him to distrust everyone and expect betrayal and exploitation at every turn. Resolving in an unconventional and unexpected way, this otherwise mainstream, if  beautifully photographed, drama develops into one of the more interesting character driven pieces of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer:

Midsummer’s Equation (真夏の方程式, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2013)

midsummer's equationSometimes it’s handy to know an omniscient genius detective, but then again sometimes it’s not. You have to wonder why people keep inviting famous detectives to their parties given what’s obviously going to unfold – they do rather seem to be a magnet for murders. Anyhow, the famous physicist and sometime consultant to Japan’s police force, “Galileo”, is about to have another busman’s holiday as he travels to a small coastal town which is currently holding a mediation between an offshore mining company and the local residents who are worried about the development’s effects on the area’s sea life.

As fans of the series will know, Manabu Yukawa is a fastidious and difficult man who likes things just so. On the train he ends up encountering a small boy who annoys the other passengers by answering his phone. Apparently he can’t turn it off because all sorts of notifications will be sent to his parents and they’ll go into panic overdrive. The old man across from him doesn’t believe this and grabs the phone away from the small boy after an undignified tussle. In an uncharacteristic move, Yukawa comes to the boy’s rescue by taking back the phone and wrapping it in foil so it won’t go off again – problem solved.

The boy, Kyohei, turns out to be the nephew of the inn owners at the place where Yukawa is staying. After another guest is found dead in mysterious and suspicious circumstances, little Kyohei immediately raises several doubts of his own which endears him to Yukawa who is sad to hear that the boy hates science classes at school. Still, Yukawa concedes there are some odd details in this case especially as the dead man is an ex-Tokyo policeman. Before long Detective Kishitani has been dispatched to assist in  the investigation of another strange mystery.

Again based on a novel by Keigo Higashino, the fourth in his Galileo series, Midsummer’s Equation (真夏の方程式, Manatsu no Houteishiki) is something of a departure as it takes place in an idyllic summer seaside town and is more like some of Higashino’s other mysteries as it places secrets of the heart at its core. Yukawa is generally a difficult man who can’t stand children, in fact they bring him out in a rash. However, for some reason Kyohei doesn’t seem to have this effect on him and he becomes determined to teach the boy the joy of science through a series of experiments while also investigating the central mystery. The incurably curious little tike becomes almost like a mini deputy to Yukawa as he begins to piece together what exactly has happened but it turns out Kyohei may have a different part to play than had originally been suspected.

In the usual mode, it’s not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit and a how will they catch them. The mystery’s solution is heavily signposted from the beginning and there aren’t a lot in the way of twists. In contrast with some of the other Yukawa mysteries, particularly those from the TV drama, there aren’t a lot of clever scientific shenanigans either and though the central murder is plotted in quite an elaborate way, it’s also a panicked adaptation to circumstances which could be enacted by anyone, anywhere.

Long term series director Hiroshi Nishitani pulls out all the stops here and leaves the small screen far behind as he creates a surprisingly artistic take on a fairly run of the mill murder mystery. Beginning with the repeated motif of the falling red umbrella, he takes care to create a nuanced visual poetry which is quite different in approach both to the construction of the TV series and the other big screen outing which adapted Higashino’s most famous novel, The Devotion of Suspect X. Suspect X never quite managed to marry its roots as the theatrical adaptation of a TV drama and as an adaptation of a hugely popular and award winning book into something which was convincing on both levels. Midsummer’s Equation has an easier time with this as it’s slightly separated from the TV drama series and largely succeeds in becoming a standalone adventure for its famous detective.

Masaharu Fukuyama returns to the role with which he’s become most closely associated and once again captures Yukawa’s detached, though not necessarily uncaring, exterior with ease. He’s ably assisted by a fairly starry supporting cast which includes veteran actress Jun Fubuki, Tora-san’s Gin Maeda and the relatively young actress Anne (Watanabe) as well as the returning Yuriko Yoshitaka as the reluctant Detective Kishitani and cameo appearances from Kazuki Kitamura and Tetsushi Tanaka as Kyohei’s father.

Midsummer’s Equation is Higashino in a more forgiving mood as his hardline moralism never really kicks in and he’s content to merely be sorry for this rather complicated mess of affairs. Here, there’s hope for the future and the possibility of a path forward now that long buried secrets have been uncovered and the truth set out to bloom in the sunlight. He makes it plain that secrets are the root of all evil and that only by embracing the truth, and all of the truth, can you ever be able to make informed choices about your future. This is a lesson that Yukawa wants to pass on to little Kyohei who might be too young to understand the exact implications of his role in the affair (though he seems to have figured some of it out), but will undoubtedly have a few questions as he grows up. A well crafted addition to the series, Midsummer’s Equation proves another enjoyable excursion for Yukawa which succeeds not only in terms of its intricately plotted mystery but also as an intriguing and emotionally satisfying character drama.


The Hong Kong release of Midsummer’s Equation includes English subtitles.