One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“One man’s not enough to make a difference, you learn something and pass it on” the heroine of Shuichi Okita’s One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai) is told, learning about life from her philosophical, slightly defeated birth father. Adapted from the manga by Retto Tajima, Okita’s teen drama is in many ways a typical “summer story” in which a high schooler goes on a quietly life changing journey during one of the last summer breaks of their adolescent lives, but it’s also as much of his work is an empathetic plea for a kinder world built on mutual understanding and acceptance. 

Okita signals as much with his animated opening, taken from the heroine’s favourite show, Koteko, in which a magical girl plasterer helps “Count Cement” repair his relationships with his estranged children, Mortar and Concrete, from whom he had withdrawn in shame realising that without water he is nothing while his kids could still make something of themselves through becoming bridges and houses. Koteko is something of a touchstone for Minami (Moka Kamishiraishi), a regular high school girl and member of the swimming team moved to tears by the opening song which preaches that walls aren’t something to be overcome but a canvas on which you can plaster your dreams. At the pool one day, she spots a boy on the roof painting a picture she quickly recognises as Koteko, rushing up there to befriend him as a fellow fan. In addition to being a Koteko-lover, Moji (Kanata Hosoda) is the son of a prominent calligraphy family and it’s at his house that she finds a vital clue, a talisman which matches the one she got from her birth father for her last birthday. 

Immediately following the end of the opening anime sequence, Okita shows us a happy family scene in which Minami’s stepdad (Kanji Furutachi) hands her tissues while she cries to the ending theme, joining in with the dance while her mum (Yuki Saito) cooks in the background and her live-wire half-brother runs round in his pants. Her family setup might still be considered unusual in conservative Japan, in fact one of her friends even exclaims that they’d never have guessed that her stepdad isn’t her birth father on hearing her mother was married before, but they are clearly very close and loving, ordinary in the very best of ways. Minami isn’t unhappy or lonely at home, she isn’t really thinking too much about her birth father even if perhaps on some level curious but the talisman becomes a thread to tug on, sending her on a quest of self-discovery seeking some answers about her past as she begins to come of age. 

To do this, she enlists the help of Moji’s older sibling Akihiro (Yudai Chiba), a transgender woman disowned by the conservative, traditionalist family of calligraphers and now living above a bookshop while working as a “detective”. As the pair find out, it’s less high crime than missing moggies that are Akihiro’s stock in trade but she’s moved to have a go helping to find Minami’s dad after looking at her bankbook containing her life savings, not for the amount but because she remembers saving up herself at Minami’s age to fund her reassignment surgery. Invoicing her later, Akihiro bills her zero yen telling her merely to make sure she uses her money to help others when she grows up, echoing the film’s pay it forward philosophy as advanced by Moji who teaches kids calligraphy at his dad’s school, advising Minami that people can only pass on skills they’ve learned from others and so perhaps she could teach someone to swim. Her birth father Tomomitsu (Etsushi Toyokawa), a former cult leader who lost faith in himself for being unable to teach his innate mind reading ability to his followers, eventually tells her the same thing, that what’s important in life isn’t grandstanding, trying to change the world all on your own, but sharing what you know in a gentle process of continuity and change. 

Ironically enough and in true teenage fashion, Minami finds new security in family after lying to her mother about going on a school trip to find her dad, later realising her mother is only slightly hurt about the lying and not at all about her reconnecting her birth father. Through her extended stay with him at the seaside she begins to find the courage step into herself, accepting the position of teacher in helping a lonely little girl learn to swim, while also processing her growing feelings for the equally shy Moji who leaves her space to complete her quest on her own but chases after her when he thinks she really might be in danger. A gentle summer story Okita’s breezy drama has a pleasingly timeless, occasionally retro feel, full of summer warmth in its spirit of acceptance and mutual support as its surprisingly carefree youngsters come to an appreciation of themselves and each other as they push forward into a more adult world with confidence and compassion. 


One Summer Story screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2019)

Three years after Destruction Babies, Tetsuya Mariko returns with another ultra-violent though strangely humorous masculinity drama as a mild-mannered salaryman embarks on a quest to win the heart of his one true love by proving himself a man even if aware that his efforts are entirely meaningless while he strikes out where it counts. Inspired by Hideki Arai’s manga, Mariko previously adapted Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Miyamoto kara Kimi e) as a late night TV drama with the majority of the cast reprising their roles for the big screen feature.

As the film opens, the titular Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) is walking bruised and bloodied through a children’s park, staring at his unrecognisable face in the hazy mirror of a public bathroom. A regular salaryman, he’s later taken to task by his boss (Kanji Furutachi). After all, how does he expect people to do business with him when he’s lost all his front teeth and has his arm in a sling? His boss reminds him he’s about to be married and will soon be a father so perhaps a little more forward-thinking responsibility is in order. It seems that Miyamoto got into some kind of fight and improbably enough he won, the other guy apparently in hospital not to recover for months though thankfully he does not want to press charges. Nevertheless, Miyamoto seems strangely cheerful, happy in himself as he takes his bride to be, Yasuko (Yu Aoi), home to meet his parents who don’t disapprove but are extremely put out by his continued secrecy especially as Yasuko is already pregnant though something tells us there’s much more to this than your average shotgun wedding.  

Skipping back between the present day of the happily settled couple and the various stages of their courtship we begin to see a pattern developing as the hapless young salaryman falls for the pretty office lady only to discover she was technically using him to break up with an obsessive ex struggling to accept that their relationship is over. Challenged by bohemian playboy Yuji (Arata Iura), Miyamoto instinctively barks out that Yasuko is a special woman and he will protect her at all costs though the jury’s out on how exactly he plans to do that. In any case, Yuji exits and even if unconvinced, Yasuko is taken in by the idea of finding a protector. But Miyamoto is less than true to his word. When it really counts, he lets her down, passed out drunk as she’s assaulted by a friend from his rugby team (Wataru Ichinose). What ensues is partly, in his mind, a means of making amends to her by getting his revenge and a quest to reclaim his self-respect by asserting his masculinity in besting his girlfriend’s rapist in a fight. “It was me he insulted” Miyamoto somewhat problematically insists, rage shovelling rice into his mouth directly from the cooker while Yasuko can barely contain her resentment and exasperation with his continued failure to follow through while painting himself as the victim in her rape. 

Consumed by toxic masculinity, Miyamoto does indeed frame everything through the prism of his fracturing manhood, never jealous or abusive but comparing himself unfavourably to the other men in Yasuko’s life and convincing himself the way to beat them all is by proving himself the most manly through the medium of pugilism. Meanwhile, he emotionally neglects the woman he claims to love and promised to protect, temporarily distancing himself from her while he embarks on his quest, leaving her entirely alone to deal with her trauma. Yasuko makes it clear that she doesn’t care about his pointless and idiotic need to validate himself through male violence, but he does it anyway and then expects her to be impressed (which she isn’t, really). In any case he freely admits he did it all for himself, literally shredding his rival’s manhood in order to retake his own in addition to gaining an extremely ironic form of revenge.  

Absurd and ridiculous as it is, Miyamoto’s quest does at least allow him to gain the self-confidence which will eventually allow him to patch things up with Yasuko, ironically by affirming that he no longer sees the need to look for approval and will protect her and their new family forevermore. A dark satire of fragile masculinity filled with cartoonish yet surprisingly graphic violence, Mariko’s third feature nevertheless retreats from the pure nihilism of Destruction Babies towards a more positive if perhaps equally uncomfortable resolution as the no longer quite so insecure Miyamoto prepares to enter a new phase of his life as a paternal figure and protector of a family.


Miyamoto 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)

Tamaran Hill (たまらん坂, Tadasuke Kotani, 2019)

Does Japan have more uphills or downhills? You have to think about that one for a second, like one of those trick questions they put in books for children. Nevertheless, you can’t argue with the idea that so much of life is really about perspective and perhaps perspective itself can also be a subjective choice. Shot in crisp black and white with occasional animation and adapting the novel by Seiji Kuroi who actually appears at one particularly meta moment, Tadasuke Kotani’s Tamaran Hill (たまらん坂, Tamaranzaka) follows a young woman’s path towards forging, or perhaps rediscovering, her identity through a meditation on the word “unbearable”, its association with her father, and the long buried memories of a potential hometown. 

Hinako (Hinako Watanabe), a college student, lost her mother at four years old and is at something of a crossroads as she contemplates her future. Her teacher (Makiko Watanabe), who for some reason has an ever present robot assistant at her side, advises Hinako and her fellow students that if they want to get a good job what they need to get good at is the art of narrative lying. They need to assert their individuality in inoffensive ways, quantify their experiences in concrete numbers, but avoid embellishing facts in which hard evidence is available. Her advice to Hinako is that she needs to create a convincing “character” to pep up the self intro on her CV, perhaps paint herself as a survivor who lost her mother not to cancer of the vocal chords but in a natural disaster. 

Hoping to start at the beginning in rebuilding herself, Hinako begins researching the idea of “hometowns” only to be sidetracked by a book titled “Tamaran Hill”. The title catches her eye because “tamaran” which means “unbearable” is one of her father’s catchphrases, indeed we heard him say it numerous times after getting stuck at the airport by a typhoon meaning that he couldn’t get back for his late wife’s memorial service. In the book, the narrator details his friend’s increasing obsession with a slope near his home by the name of Tamaran Hill, something with which Hinako also becomes intrigued as she finds herself sliding into the narrative, the narrator detailing her own experiences as if she were reading them. 

It seems that for most, “tamaran” does indeed mean “unbearable”. The explanations for the name run from a deserting samurai decrying the folly of war as he ran from a nearby battlefield to Showa-era students resentful at having to climb uphill to gain their education but Hinako is disappointed to learn that the answer may be far more prosaic than she’d hoped. Reality and fiction begin to blur. She finds herself asking if an old man is merely a character from her imagination only to receive a philosophical answer that characters are composed of words but that words have vitality, warmth, and power. Meanwhile she begins to have visions of a mysterious past which mingle with those of the narrator’s friend leading her towards the “hometown” she has long been looking for. 

Hinako’s “unbearable” Buddhist priest father (Kanji Furutachi) apparently doesn’t like to talk about the past, which might be why she feels so lost, while he also berates her for not properly looking after her seemingly adopted younger brother. He actively hides from her the keys to her history, offhandedly remarking on the reappearance of a long absent relative in Hinako’s questions about a mysterious cosmos flower placed on her mother’s grave. Hinako wonders if it’s her mother’s fault that she can’t love anyone, retracing her steps inspired both by the novel and a letter hidden by her father in order to make sense of the brief and fragmentary memories which comprise her visions and thereby reconstruct an image of herself which is, essentially, narrative. 

Hinako’s process towards self identification hints at personal fictions and the strange alchemy of fantasy and reality that is memory, but she does at least seem to have straightened her story as per her teacher’s instruction, confidently stating that she has “decided” on her hometown. Perhaps the fiction is more reliable than truth in its manufactured certainties, and after all no one takes “just be yourself’ at face value. Does the slope go up or down, or is it actually on the level and it’s just that everything else is tilted? It’s all a matter of perspective, “unbearable” only in its inscrutability. 


Tamaran Hill streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Sweet Grappa Remedies (甘いお酒でうがい, Akiko Ohku, 2019)

In Tremble All You Want, Akiko Ohku showed us a painfully shy woman’s path towards seizing control of her romantic destiny while Marriage Hunting Beauty told us that there are no short cuts to love. My Sweet Grappa Remedies (甘いお酒でうがい, Amai Osake de Ugai) takes things one step further as a lonely middle-aged woman gradually finds the desire to make a change in her otherwise unchanging existence, coming to like herself as seen in the eyes of others and trusting in happiness however temporary it might turn out to be. 

40-something Yoshiko (Yasuko Matsuyuki) is an unmarried woman working at a publishing company. She tells us that she keeps a diary that she never expects any one to read, not even herself, and mostly spends her free time drinking alone at home or in elegant bars. From the sometimes lengthy gaps between entires, we can see that Yoshiko’s life is generally uneventful and essentially unchanging, that she has few friends, and though she gets by well enough on her own she often dwells on what might have been, disappointed that she was never able to become a mother. 

She is, however, a deeply caring person, sublimating her need for human attachment into anthropomorphising objects, gently patting her bicycle saddle as she parks it for the day and becoming alarmed that has ended up “in prison” after being impounded. If she’d had children, she muses, she might never have let them leave the apartment. Yet when she discovers one of her favourite earrings is missing, she decides not to look for it because she accepts its decision, later welcoming it home when it makes an unexpected return. 

Overhearing the conversation of the women next to her at a bar, she wonders if their idle complaints that half the year is gone already are excessively negative but accepts that she too is living life in retrograde and needs to learn how to look forward with positivity, which might be why she starts making a series of small but active changes. She observes the world around her from a new angle in crossing a footbridge she has never crossed before, swaps her comfortable red loafers for grey high heels, and her futon for a bed. 

Some of these changes at least are down to an unexpected friendship with a young woman in her office, Wakabayashi (Haru Kuroki), who invites her out on paydays and brightens up the office atmosphere with her goofy antics. Yoshiko herself might be classically quirky, but she mainly keeps her quirks to herself, quietly getting on with her work, while Wakabayashi is the opposite, cheerfully outgoing yet perhaps just as lonely if in a less obvious way. It’s Wakabayashi who sets her on off another path by introducing her to a friend from university, Okamoto (Hiroya Shimizu), who has recently joined their company and to whom Yoshiko had already taken a liking in passing though he is more than 20 years her junior.  

Too shy to shout bingo, Yoshiko is a lifelong believer in love, observing a young couple at festival and hoping they enjoy a night of passion in the fullness of their youth. She still remembers old anniversaries with long gone exes and wonders if they still remember her, but resents the universe’s attempts to test her with texts from past lovers every time she becomes interested in another man. The fact that Okamoto is so much younger is never really an issue, though Yoshiko admits that she likes the fact he seems to favour older, lived in homes over sparkling new builds while she helps him look for a new apartment. 

Yoshiko celebrates the fact that colour seems to be returning to her black and white days, her desire to see the dark sea where she feels closest to death in order to reaffirm her connection to life seemingly receding. From her childhood, Yoshiko had wondered if the woman she sees in the mirror is the same one everyone else sees, but later realises that the vision of herself reflected is “somewhat nice”, catching sight of herself in Wakabayashi’s mirrored sunshades and noticing that she is in fact smiling. Reinvigorated by her younger friends, Yoshiko steps into an acceptance of herself, looking forward rather than back and willing to take on new challenges rather than merely dropping into a defensive position of protecting the irreplaceable. No longer dark and foreboding, the sea is now sunny and calm, a scene of peace and positivity with nary a cloud on the horizon.


My Sweet Grappa Remedies is available to stream online (worldwide excl. Japan, Mainland China, Taiwan, USA, & Italy) from 9th to 14th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Chaplain (教誨師, Dai Sako, 2018)

The Chaplian posterJapan is one of the few developed nations which still maintains the death penalty, though in practice infrequently. The sentence of death is handed down almost exclusively to mass or serial murderers, child killers, or those whose crimes are judged to be of extraordinary barbarity. Unlike other nations, Japan houses those on death row not in prisons but in detention centres, denying them the rights that are afforded to regular prisoners such as visitation, exercise, and entertainment. Execution must be carried out within five days of the judgement being handed down. The prisoner themselves is informed on the morning of their death and given a choice of last meal, but their family members, legal team, and the general public are only informed once it has taken place preventing any last minute attempts for a stay.

In what would be his final screen role (and his first as a producer), Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain, Saeki, attempting to guide a series of Death Row prisoners towards spiritual peace as they prepare to accept their judgement. Though none of the prisoners he visits protests their innocence, some are more repentant than others and not all of them have fully internalised the fact they will never leave the facility even when no further legal attempts to commute their sentences seem to be underway. Some might say there is an element of exploitation in sending a chaplain in at all seeing as this is literally a captive audience. The crimes which lead to being on Death Row are necessarily extreme, many prisoners either have no remaining family members or have been abandoned by them out of shame, leaving them intensely lonely and devoid of human contact (not even televisions or radios are permitted). They are therefore much more interested in conversation than they are in The Bible or accepting Jesus into their hearts.

Then again, Saeki’s first visit is to a man who says nothing at all, allowing him to fill the silence with some of his own backstory which hints at a personal trauma possibly informing his desire to save the souls of these unfortunate people. Another prisoner, by contrast, is all too eager to convert but, as Saeki soon realises, is almost entirely illiterate and therefore struggling to hear the word of God through being unable to read. Saeki does his best to help them, gently listening to their fears and worries but encounters a familiar series of social problems which made their fates inevitable stemming from entrenched poverty and social inequality.

Only six months into the job, he wonders if he’s really getting through and if his efforts are worthwhile. His most challenging prisoner is a young man convicted of a mass killing of those with learning difficulties (inspired by a real life case), whom he deemed to be a drain on national resources. A hyper-rational sociopath, Takamiya (Leo Tamaoki) baits Saeki with unassailable, coldhearted logic which asks why, if he’s happy enough to kill and eat “stupid” animals like cows and pigs, but not “clever” ones like dolphins, his application of the same logic to the human world can be wrong? If all creatures have an equal right to life, then killing for food is as wrong as any other kind of killing and the death penalty nothing more than state sanctioned murder. There is no rational answer for Takamiya’s philosophy and aside from his abhorrent, unfeeling rationality he may have a point when it comes to social hypocrisy. All Saeki can do is ask him to stand with the people that he killed, and acknowledge that God or no God, Saeki too will be with him until the very end.

If Takamiya begins to question the terrifying rationalism which led him to his truly barbaric act, he does so probably not because of Saeki’s ministrations but because of his proximity to death. Meanwhile, another prisoner, Suzuki (Kanji Furutachi), convicted of a stalker murder, seems to have picked up entirely the wrong message in coming to blame just about everyone else for his crime and absolving himself of responsibility. He might have found peace, but it is not the kind of peace he was supposed to find. Noguchi (Setsuko Karasuma), meanwhile, the only female prisoner, continues to talk about the future as if she really thinks she’s getting out. Only Shoichi (Takeo Gozu), an elderly man, seems to truly accept Saeki’s teachings though it is perhaps enough to make him feel as if he really is making a difference.

Sako opts for subtlety in pointing out the inherent hypocritical immorality of the death penalty and particularly in the context of the Japanese legal system which relies heavily on confessions often extracted under duress. Battling his own sense of guilt, Saeki tries to save himself by saving the souls of others but finds his work an uphill battle in a society which prefers not to speak of unpleasant matters and thereby renders itself absolute and unaccountable in the rigidity of its justice.


The Chaplain (教誨師, Kyoukaishi) was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original 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)

Blindly in Love (箱入り息子の恋, Masahide Ichii, 2013)

Blindly in love posterPost-war Japanese cinema was intent on investigating whether father really did know best while his children strived to find their place in a changing society. Contemporary Japanese cinema may feel as if the question has been more than well enough answered already but then again Japanese society remains conformist in the extreme and arranged marriage still an option for those who find it difficult to find a match on their own (remaining single, it seems, is still an option requiring intense justification). The protagonists of Blindly in Love (箱入り息子の恋, Hakoiri Musuko no Koi) find themselves in just this position as their well meaning (to a point) parents attempt to railroad them into the futures they feel are most appropriate while perhaps failing to deal with the various ways their own behaviour has adversely affected their children’s ability to function independently.

Kentaro (Gen Hoshino) is 35. He has a steady job as a civil servant and still lives at home with his parents which is hardly an unusual situation in contemporary Japan save for the fact he is not married and seems to have no interest in dating. Rather than eat with his colleagues, Kentaro comes home for lunch every day and returns straight after work, retreating into his bedroom to spend quality time with his pet frog and play video games. His parents, worrying that he may be lonely when they are gone, decide to find him a wife by effectively going speed dating on his behalf with a host of other parents in a similar position.

There they meet the Imais who are keen to marry off their 23-year-old daughter Naoko (Kaho). The elephant in the room is that everyone at this meeting is there because they believe there is something “wrong” with their children that makes them difficult prospects for marriage. Consequently, the Imais have decided not to disclose the fact that Naoko is blind until later in the negotiations.

The Imais’ ambivalent feelings towards their daughter’s disability speak to a persistent social prejudice which views those who have different needs as somehow less. Mr. Imai is a high flying company CEO who puts on a show of only wanting the best for his little girl, but he’s also a snob and a bully. He keeps trying to set Naoko up with “elites” like him, but those elites will also share his own prejudices in feeling that his daughter is “imperfect” and therefore not a prime match in the arranged marriage stakes. Kentaro, who unbeknownst to everyone except Mrs. Imai has already enjoyed a love at first sight meet cute with Naoko, is the only one brave enough to call Mr. Imai out on his hypocrisy when he accuses him of neglecting his daughter’s feelings in favour of asserting his own paternal authority. As you can imagine, Mr. Imai is not happy to have his faults read back to him.

Making the accusation at all is extremely hard for Kentaro who has just spent the last ten minutes getting a dressing down from Mr. Imai who has read out a list of his perceived imperfections from his unbreakable introversion to his lack of career success. Mr. Imai wants to know if a man like Kentaro who has basically been the office coffee boy for the last 13 years can keep his daughter in the manner to which she’s been accustomed. Kentaro has to admit that he probably can’t and that Imai has a point, but unlike Imai he is thinking of Naoko’s happiness. He sees her disability but only as a part of her personality and respects her right to a fully independent life which is something her father seems to want to deny her, not out of a paternalistic (or patronising) worry for her safety but simply as a means of control.

Conversely, Kentaro is attracted to Naoko precisely because he feels as if she might be able to see him in greater clarity in being unable to judge him solely on appearance. In a rare moment of opening up as part of his defence against Mr. Imai, Kentaro reveals the pain and suffering that have led him to withdraw from the world, admitting that after years of being taunted or ignored, branded an oddball and mocked for his rather robotic physicality he simply decided it was easier to be alone. It might be safe to say that Kentaro’s parents are being overly intrusive, that they are trying to impose their idea of a “normal” life on their son who may be perfectly happy playing video games alone for the rest of his days. Kentaro, however, is not quite happy and as is later pointed out to him had merely given up on the idea of any other kind of existence as an unattainable dream.

Giving up has been Kentaro’s problem and one that recurs throughout his awkward courtship. Like his pet frog, Kentaro has been perfectly contained within his own tank and somewhat fearful to crawl outside but is slowly finding the strength thanks to his bond with Naoko who struggles to overcome her conservative patriarchal upbringing and escape her father’s control. Yet it isn’t only the youngsters who have to learn to leave the nest but the parents who have to learn to let them go. Kentaro’s mum and dad have perhaps enabled his sense of disconnectedness by keeping him at home with them as a treasured only son, while the Imais’ problems run deeper and hint at a deeply dysfunctional household with a father who is controlling and eventually violent while Mrs. Imai tries to effect her daughter’s escape from the same patriarchal conservatism which has succeeded in trapping her. Blindly in Love refuses either of the conventional endings to its unconventional romance but edges towards something positive in affirming its protagonists’ continued determination to fight for their own happiness even if opposed at every turn.


Blindly in Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Akiko Ohku, 2017)

tremble all you want posterShojo manga has a lot to answer for when it comes to defining ideas of romance in the minds of its young and female readers. The heroines of Japanese romantic comedies are almost always shojo manga enthusiasts – the lovelorn lady at the centre of Christmas on July 24th Avenue even magics herself into a fantasy Lisbon to better inhabit the cute and innocent world of a manga she loved in childhood. The heroine of Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Katte ni Furuetero), Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), does something similar in creating an alternate fantasy world filled with intimate acquaintances each encouraging and invested in her ongoing quest to win the heart of a boy she loved in high school who became the hero of her personal interest only manga, The Natural Born Prince.

At 24 Yoshika is still obsessed with “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura) who is forever number “One” in her affections. Working as an office lady in the accounts department, Yoshika’s fingers tip tap over the calculator all day long until she can finally go home and read about her favourite topic, extinct animals, on the internet before it’s time to head back to work. Because of her undying love for Ichi (whom she has not seen or heard from in many years), Yoshika has never had a boyfriend or engaged in “dating” – something which causes her a small amount of anxiety and embarrassment when considering the additional awkwardness of starting out at such a comparatively late age.

Yoshika’s dilemma reaches a crisis point when, much to her surprise, a colleague becomes interested in her. Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she rechristens number “Two”, is, like her, slightly shy and bumbling but also outgoing and with a need to say things out loud. Seeing as this is apparently the first time this has ever happened to Yoshika, she finds it very confusing – not least because she can’t decide if “dating” Kirishima is a betrayal of Ichi or if she is really ready to leave her Natural Born Prince behind.

The dilemma isn’t so much between man one and man two but between fantasy and reality, idealism and practicality. Yoshika, painfully shy, lives in a fantasy world of her own creation as we discover during a tentative, emotionally raw musical number in which she is forced to confront the fact that the reason she doesn’t know the names of any of the people we’ve seen her repeatedly engage with is that, despite her longing and her loneliness, she has never been able to pluck up the courage to actually speak to them. Thus they exist in her head as a series of nicknames, theoretical constructs of “friends” with whom to engage in (one-sided) conversations – a frighteningly relatable (if extreme) concept to the painfully shy. Deprived of her fluffy fantasy, Yoshika arrives home to collapse in tears and finds her world growing colder, riding the bus all alone and eventually cocooning herself in her apartment.

Thus when Kirishima starts to show an interest, Yoshika can’t quite figure out which “reality” she is really in. The idea that he might simply like her doesn’t compute so she assumes the worst and pushes him away in grand style, retreating to the entirely safe world of Ichi worship in which she, in a sense, has already been rejected so there is nothing left to fear. Coming up with a nefarious plan to meet Ichi by stealing the identity of a former classmate and organising a reunion, Yoshika’s fantasy is challenged by the man himself or more specifically his perception of events which differs slightly from her own owing to not placing herself at the centre. Though Yoshika had correctly surmised that Ichi was uncomfortable with the attention he received as the school’s “number one” and decided to ignore him as a token of her love, she remained unaware of the degree to which he suffered in her obsession with her own unrequited desires.

Wondering if she should just “go extinct” like the animals she loves so much who evolved in ways incompatible with life on Earth – literally too weird to live, Yoshika begins to lose her grip on the divisions between fantasy and reality, unable to accept the “real” attention and affection of those who would be her real world friends if she’d only let them while continuing to engage in the wilfully self destructive mourning of her illusions. Tremble All You Want (but do it anyway) seems to become Yoshika’s new mantra as she makes her first active decision to gravitate towards the land of the real despite her fear and the conviction that it will not accept her. Filled with whimsical charm but laced with a particular kind of melancholy darkness, Ohku’s tale of modern love in a disconnected world is a strangely cheerful affair even as our heroine prepares to swap her colourful fantasy for the potential comforts of the everyday.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (hit the subtitle button to turn on English subs)

The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

8-year bride posterRomantic melodrama has long been a staple of Japanese cinema which seems to revel in stories of impossible love. The short lived boom in “jun-ai” or “pure love” romances which blossomed at the beginning of the century may have petered out gracefully after plundering every terminal or debilitating illness for traces of heartbreaking tragedy, but the genre has never quite gone away and is unlikely ever to do so. Takahisa Zeze’s The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, 8-nengoshi no Hanayome: Kiseki no Jitsuwa) is, however, a slightly different case in that it is inspired by a true story which became something of a hot topic in the relatively recent past. Romantic in a grand, old fashioned sense, the film shifts away from the melodrama of misery while praising the power of perseverance and the enduring potency of true love in bringing about unexpected miracles.

In 2006, shy and retiring car mechanic Hisashi (Takeru Satoh) tries and fails to get out of a party his chatty colleague is arranging for that very evening. Sullen and resentful at having been roped into a social occasion he was not mentally prepared for, Hisashi says barely anything and then manages to free himself when the others decide to go for karaoke. Just as he’s walking off mildly regretful, one of the other partygoers, Mai (Tao Tsuchiya), comes back to harangue him about his “attitude”. Hisashi explains that he’s sorry but he’s not very good at this sort of thing anyway and the truth is he wanted to go home because he’s got a killer stomach ache which being forced to eat fatty meat and down sake out of politeness has done nothing to help. Mai approves of this excuse, and even loops back after leaving to meet the others at the karaoke to hand him a heat pack she had in her bag in the hope that it might help with the stomach trouble. The pair start dating, become wildly happy, and get engaged. Three months before the wedding, Mai is struck down by a rare illness and winds up in a coma.

The romance itself is tucked up neatly into the first half hour or so and mostly conforms to genre norms – he is shy and extremely sensitive, she is extroverted and extremely kind. The love story proceeds smoothly, though there are signs of trouble to come in Mai’s increasing clumsiness followed by headaches which lead to memory loss and finally a painful hallucinogenic episode resulting in prolonged hospitalisation. Zeze wisely scales back on medical detail and focuses on Hisashi’s devotion and unwavering belief that Mai will one day open her eyes and return to him. Rather than cancel the wedding date, Hisashi decides to keep it open in the hope that Mai will be well enough to attend before booking the same date, the date of their first meeting, in every subsequent year just in case she should wake up and regret missing out on her dream wedding.

As the condition is so rare, no one is sure what the prognosis will be though the doctors admit there is a strong possibility Mai may never awaken or that if she does there may well be extensive brain damage and irreparable memory loss in addition to life long medical needs. Hisashi puts his life on hold and comes to the hospital every day, making short video messages he sends to Mai’s phone so she can catch up on what she’s missed when she wakes up. His devotion does however begin to worry Mai’s doting parents (Hiroko Yakushimaru & Tetta Sugimoto) who eventually decide to explain to him that as he’s “not family” there’s no need for him to feel obliged to stick around. They do this not because they’re territorial over their daughter’s care, or that they don’t like Hisashi, they simply worry that he’s going to waste his life waiting for a woman who will never wake up. As he’s still young and has a chance to start again, they try to push him away in the harshest way possible – through cool politeness, but are secretly pleased when he refuses to be pushed.

People making other people’s decisions for them as a means of reducing their suffering becomes a recurrent theme. Rather than say what they mean, kindhearted people say the things which they believe are for the best and will end someone else’s suffering through a moment of intense pain. Everyone is so keen to spare everyone else’s feelings, that they perhaps suffer themselves when there is no need to. Hisashi’s supportive boss remembers a rather odd comment he made during his interview – after replying that he enjoyed fixing things when asked what made him apply for the job, Hisashi’s boss asked him what he thought about while he did it to which he replied “love”. Love does it seems fix everything, at least when coupled with undying devotion and a refusal give up even when things look grim. A romantic melodrama with a positive ending The 8-year Engagement is a happy tearjerker in which love really does conquer all despite seemingly unsurmountable odds.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Takahiro Miki, 2013)

girl in the sunny placeThe “jun-ai” boom might have been well and truly over by the time Takahiro Miki’s Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Hidamari no Kanojo) hit the screen, but tales of true love doomed are unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon. Based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya, Girl in the Sunny Place is another genial romance in which teenage friends are separated, find each other again, become happy and then have that happiness threatened, but it’s also one that hinges on a strange magical realism born of the affinity between humans and cats.

25 year old Kosuke (Jun Matsumoto) is a diffident advertising executive living a dull if not unhappy life. Discovering he’s left it too late to ask out a colleague, Kousuke is feeling depressed but an unexpected meeting with a client brightens his day. The pretty woman standing in the doorway with the afternoon sun neatly lighting her from behind is an old middle school classmate – Mao (Juri Ueno), whom Kosuke has not seen in over ten years since he moved away from his from town and the pair were separated. Eventually the two get to know each other again, fall in love, and get married but Mao is hiding an unusual secret which may bring an end to their fairytale romance.

Filmed with a breezy sunniness, Girl in the Sunny Place straddles the line between quirky romance and the heartrending tragedy which defines jun-ai, though, more fairytale than melodrama, there is still room for bittersweet happy endings even in the inevitability of tragedy. Following the pattern of many a tragic love story, Miki moves between the present day and the middle school past in which Kosuke became Mao’s only protector when she was mercilessly bullied for being “weird”. Mao’s past is necessarily mysterious – adopted by a policeman (Sansei Shiomi) who found her wandering alone at night, Mao has no memory of her life before the age of 13 and lacks the self awareness of many of the other girls, turning up with messy hair and dressed idiosyncratically. When Kousuke stands up to the popular/delinquent kids making her life a misery, the pair become inseparable and embark on their first romance only to be separated when Kosuke’s family moves away from their hometown of Enoshima.

“Miraculously” meeting again they enjoy a typically cute love story as they work on the ad campaign for a new brassiere collection which everyone else seems to find quite embarrassing. As time moves on it becomes apparent that there’s something more than kookiness in Mao’s strange energy and sure enough, the signs become clear as Mao’s energy fades and her behaviour becomes less and less normal.

The final twist, well signposted as it is, may leave some baffled but is in the best fairytale tradition. Maki films with a well placed warmth, finding the sun wherever it hides and bathing everything in the fuzzy glow of a late summer evening in which all is destined go on pleasantly just as before. Though the (first) ending may seem cruel, the tone is one of happiness and possibility, of partings and reunions, and of the transformative powers of love which endure even if everything else has been forgotten. Beautifully shot and anchored by strong performances from Juri Ueno and Jun Matsumoto, Girl in the Sunny Place neatly sidesteps its melodramatic premise for a cheerfully affecting love story even if it’s the kind that may float away on the breeze.


Original trailer (no subtitles)