Just Remembering (ちょっと思い出しただけ, Daigo Matsui, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A communication breakdown gradually erodes the love of a young couple in Daigo Matsui’s melancholy romantic drama, Just Remembering (ちょっと思い出しただけ, Chotto Omoidashita Dake). Inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Matsui’s city vistas are drenched in loneliness and regret made all the deeper by the enforced isolation of the coronavirus pandemic while echoing the sense of rueful nostalgia that draws the fated lovers back together but unites them only in their shared sadness. 

Told in a non-linear fashion, the film follows taxi driver Yo (Sairi Ito) and lighting technician Teruo (Sosuke Ikematsu) through the course of five year relationship picking up on each of Teruo’s July 26th birthdays as time ticks by with a weary fatalism expressed by an ever present wall clock. As the film opens, a lonely Teruo celebrates a birthday alone watching Night on Earth which we later learn to be his favourite film, a poster adorning the wall above his bed, and something of a touchstone in his relationship with Yo who is like Winona Ryder in the movie a woman who drives a taxi. Echoing the film’s title, each of them repeatedly encounters reminders of their time together from forgotten hair clips to outdated profile pictures that hint at the unresolved nature of their failed romance. In a park that leads to Teruo’s apartment, a man (Masatoshi Nagase) is often seen sitting by a tree waiting for his wife to arrive he says from the future. The man and his wife may perhaps represent an older version of Teruo and Yo though in contrast to his absolute faith and willingness to wait it’s uncertainty and an inability to reckon with intangible feeling that eventually disrupt their connection. 

Awkward and anxious, Yo struggles to express herself in words yet is unable to understand the world without them whereas Teruo communicates through dance and feels words to be largely unimportant unable to fully convey thoughts and emotions. The pair are indeed the most connected when they’re dancing, the otherwise shy and subdued Yo captivated by Teruo’s movement and dropping her guard to dance spontaneously in a quiet back alley while the street guitarist who forever connects them plays quietly behind. When Teruo injures himself and is left unable to dance, it destroys his ability to communicate and places an unbearable strain on the relationship as he retreats to lick his wounds unwilling to bother Yo with his mental and physical pain while she resents the distance he places between them and reads his reluctance to burden her as a fault line in their romance. She tells him that however he may change her feelings won’t, which only sounds to him as if she only loves an abstract idea rather than the reality while he too fears that she won’t like the him that that isn’t a dancer because not even he really knows who that Teruo may turn out to be. 

It’s telling in a way that the central love confession occurs in a taxi that’s being driven by someone else, a bemused older man who encourages the pair that it’s best to say what you want to say while you can and literally stops time for them by pausing the meter as twinkle twinkle little star echoes ironically in the background. Yo says she likes her taxi job because she has a desire to travel but not the ability to choose a destination and driving the taxi allows her to feel as if she’s on the way to something though she’s only following her passengers’ instructions. Her essential trait is passivity, feeling lost and aimless in her life and often allowing others to make her choices for her save when she follows the advice of a lovelorn barman (Jun Kunimura) who tells her that sometimes you have to chase after what you want only to later be disappointed when the wounded Teruo fails to chase after her. The barman tells her that she doesn’t understand love, and perhaps she doesn’t unwilling to trust her romantic destiny while perhaps neither does Teruo, always somehow waiting while gazing at visions of love on ordinary street, high school girls gossiping about boys, an elderly couple helping each other down the stairs, and a mother carrying her infant son. 

It’s tempting to view their romance as doomed because they speak different languages while their continual role reversal suits neither of them very well, Yo quite literally in the driving seat but by her own admission having no idea where they’re going while Teruo struggles to communicate with her in terms she can understand. Yet they also share moments of true connection and vulnerability in which they are each understood by the other in a way they may never be again that leaves each of them with a lingering loneliness and regret for their failed romance. Love is an escape route, according to the wise old barman, but it’s one that continually eludes the two lovers who like the like man at the park are trapped in a state of perpetual waiting for a far off resolution. 


Just Remembering screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Kasho Iizuka, 2022)

A resentful young man struggles to orient himself amid constant xenophobia and social prejudice in Kasho Iizuka’s sympathetic coming-of-drama Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Sekai wa Bokura ni Kizukanai). At a difficult age, he flails around lashing out at all around him without fully comprehending the consequences of his actions, but eventually comes to understand a little more about his mother’s past, his place in Japan, his relationships with his extended family, and his possibilities for the future while searching for the father he has never really known save for a name on his maintenance payments. 

Jun’s (Kazuki Horike) main source of resentment is towards his mother, Reina (GOW), a Filipina bar hostess by whom he feels emotionally neglected while unfairly blaming her for the discrimination he faces for being mixed ethnicity. The pair live incredibly modestly as Reina sends all her money back to her family in the Philippines even telling Jun to use his child support payments to get the electric turned back on if it bothers him that much, leaving Jun feeling as if he isn’t really included her definition of “family” or that perhaps she resents him as a burden that causes her to hold back even more of her pay. That’s one reason that he becomes so irate on coming home one day and unexpectedly finding an unfamiliar man in his pants in their living room only to be told he’s his mum’s new boyfriend, Mr. Morishita, who will be moving in the week after next because they’re getting married. Granted, this is not an ideal way to find out about such a drastic change in his living circumstances but Jun just can’t accept it, fearing firstly that Reina is after his money only to discover to his further bemusement that Morishita is also unemployed.  

News of his mother’s impending wedding has Jun feeling even more pushed out than before, especially when Reina confirms that if he’s forcing her to choose she’s going to choose Morishita and he’ll have to fend for himself. Meanwhile, his high school boyfriend Yosuke is already talking up the possibilities of marriage seeing as their prefecture has recently brought in a same sex partnership scheme. Though Yosuke excitedly talks it over with his supportive parents, Jun is noticeably sullen replying honestly that he really isn’t sure if it’s a such a good idea mostly because he doesn’t want Yosuke to get “dragged” into his ever increasing financial responsibilities to his extended Filipino family. Like many of the other kids, Jun has left his careers survey blank and it’s his refusal to think seriously about his future that eventually disrupts his relationship with Yosuke. 

In response to all of these crises, he decides to try tracking down his birth father whom he has never met a quest which takes him through a series of Filipino hostess bars across their largely rural area and eventually to a man, Watanabe, who was once married to “Loopy Lisa” as she was then but is not actually his dad. Even so, Watanabe begins to open his eyes and change his perspective on his mother’s occupation for which he had previously looked down her beginning to understand the sacrifices she is making not only for her family back home but for him too and that while her love may be difficult for him to understand it is not absent. Meanwhile, she too faces prejudice and discrimination on more than one level, a co-worker at a part-time job at a bowling alley she took while laid off from a bar struggling in the post-corona economy expressing openly racist sentiment even in front of their boss, and from the local council when she tries to apply for rent relief which she is denied on the grounds that those working in the “adult entertainment” industry are not eligible for benefits. 

Reina gives as good as she gets and refuses to let discrimination slide, but Jun finds it all quite embarrassing and is carrying a degree of internalised shame which later leads her challenge him on his fragile sense of identity that he too looks down on her as an inherently dishonest foreigner just like any other prejudiced Japanese person no different from her unpleasant colleague or the kids at school who’d bullied him for being half-Filipino, gay, and the son of a bar hostess. Confronted with his own bad behaviour and gaining a new perspective thanks both to Mr Watanabe and Morishita whom he realises is sensitive, kind, and genuinely cares for his mother he begins to envisage a future for himself only to have his horizons broadened once again when Yosuke introduces him to a young woman at the school, Mina, who is asexual but wants to raise a family and is looking for another kind of partnership that hints at a new evolution of the family unit. 

A willingness to embrace the idea of family and of being a part of one himself marks Jun’s passage into adulthood, coming to an understanding of his mother and her relationship with her family in the Philippines and willing to take on the responsibilities of a committed relationship in mutual solidarity and support. A highly empathetic coming-of-age tale, Angry Son never shies away from societal issues such as widespread xenophobia, homophobia, bullying, prejudice, and discrimination but eventually allows its enraged hero to discover a new sense of confidence in his identity in order to forge his own future in a sometimes hostile environment. 


Angry Son screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

International trailer (dialogue free)

Images: ©2022「世界は僕らに気づかない」製作委員会

Ton-Kaka-Ton (トンカカトン, Teppei Kohira, 2020)

“Life’s meant to be enjoyed, right?” the fun-loving uncle at the centre of Teppei Kohira’s Ton-Kaka-Ton (トンカカトン) tries to convince his grumpy nephew, but it’s a difficult lesson to learn for a young man apparently so overburdened with loss. Set in a small fishing village in rural Fukui, Kohira’s quiet coming-of-age tale is as much about familial reconnection and paternal legacy as it is about frustrated futures, but is in essence the story of a moody youngster learning to carve a life for himself in which he can stand alone.

19-year-old Nobu has just started work with his uncle Shinji at the local boathouse. Having lost his father at some unspecified point in the past, Nobu remains sullen and uncommunicative apparently not altogether excited about his new job heading off to the workshop alone rather than waiting for his uncle to pick him up. Shinji wanted to hold a party to celebrate Nobu getting a job, but he tries to wriggle out of it and then sits in the corner staring at his phone rather than joining in. He is perhaps a little irritated by the whole thing, feeling railroaded by his well-meaning uncle into an occupation he might not have chosen while also belittled in feeling as if he’s not actually allowed to do very much because he’s still only in training and Shinji keeps stopping him from trying anything complicated. Matters come to a head when Shinji sends him out on a private errand during work hours, driving his aunt to her regular hospital checkup for a heart condition but Nobu, apparently fed up, throws her out of the truck in the middle of the highway and then drives off leaving her behind. Whichever way you look at it, this is unjustifiably irresponsible behaviour, but is all the more galling when Shinji is forced to reveal that he asked him to take her, in part, because he has recently learned he is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer and has only a few months at most to live. 

Of course, Shinji is in part hoping that Nobu will continue to look in on his aunt seeing as they have no children of their own and he quite plainly positions himself as a surrogate father to Nobu following his brother-in-law’s death. Nobu, however, is moody in the extreme and actively resists fathering, apparently irritated by his uncle’s admittedly large personality. Shinji works hard and is an accomplished craftsman, but he also likes to have a good time and is, in Nobu’s eyes, irresponsible, always adding to his tab at the cafe run by an old school friend who knows him too well to expect any better while continuing to smoke and drink knowing that it can hardly make much difference now. Other than his wife, Shinji’s main worry is that he won’t be around to finish teaching Nobu everything he needs to know for the future or continue guiding him towards a more settled manhood. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Nobu’s mother suggests that he temporarily move in with with his uncle and aunt so he can spend quality time with him while he’s still around, much to Shinji’s excitement and Nobu’s chagrin. Nevertheless, enforced proximity does perhaps begin to bring the two men together, Nobu eventually scrubbing his uncle’s back at the local baths in a typically filial gesture. “It’s actually quite painful, and that’s proof of life!” Shinji ironically exclaims, though Nobu continues to struggle with his anxiety over his uncle’s illness, cruelly berating him that if he weren’t ill they wouldn’t all be suffering. There’s a kind of projection in his charges of “selfishness” and “self-obsession” as he continues in his sullen denial and resentment, only latterly bonding as Shinji imparts the rest of his remaining knowledge including the proper technique for a hammer and chisel chipping away at his moody facade.

“Learn what you can by watching others” he eventually tells him, as much a reminder to be present in the world as a workplace instruction given in the knowledge he is running out of time. Learning to accommodate loss, Nobu perhaps also comes to appreciate not only absence but legacy, accepting what his uncle left behind in the form of his teaching feeling less abandoned and alone than reconnected with family and history yet also carving his own path as he prepares to move forward into a more settled adulthood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shell and Joint (Isamu Hirabayashi, 2019)

A capsule hotel is a contradictory space, a hub for compartmentalised pods which are nevertheless joined to form one greater whole. The people who frequent them are usually looking for confined private spaces as if cocooning themselves before emerging as something new, or at least renewed, yet the hotel at the centre of Isamu Hirabayashi’s Shell and Joint is slightly different, a noticeably upscale take on convenience with its stylishly modernist design and well appointed spaces from showering facilities to saunas. It is also, it seems, at the nexus of life and death as its bored receptionists, childhood friends, debate what it is to live and what it is to die. 

Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), the female receptionist, has considered suicide many times but continues to survive. She attributes her death urge not to existential despair but to brain-altering bacteria and is certain that a vaccine will eventually be found for suicidal impulses. While her deskmate Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe) is struck by the miracle of existence, Sakamoto thinks his tendency to adopt a cosmic perspective is a just a way of dealing with his fear of death in rejecting its immediacy. Her suicide attempts are not a way of affirming her existence and she has no desire to become something just to prove she exists, nor does she see the point in needing to achieve. Just as in her bacterial theory, she rejects her own agency and represents a kind of continuous passivity that is, ironically, the quality Nitobe had admired in the accidentally acquired beauty of the pseudoscorpion. 

This essential divide is mirrored in the various conversations between women which recur throughout the film and mostly revolve around their exasperation with the often selfish immediacy of the male sex drive. The creepy “mad scientist” starts inappropriate conversations about sperm counts and his colleague’s impending marriage, offering to loan him some of his apparently prime stock to vicariously father a child with the man’s “cute” fiancée who, in a later conversation with another female researcher, expresses her ambivalence towards the marriage, like Sakamoto passively going with the flow, because men are like caterpillars permanently stuck in the malting phase. Her colleague agrees and offers her “men are idiots” theory which is immediately proved by the male scientists failing to move a box through a doorway. 

A middle-aged woman, meanwhile, recounts the process of breaking up with her five boyfriends who span the acceptable age range from vital, inexperienced teenager to passionate old age through the solipsistic, insecure self-obsessed middle-aged man but her greatest thrill lies in the negation of the physical, remarking that “ultimately eroticism is all mental” while suggesting the ephiphany has made her life worth living. On the other hand, a young man is terrorised in a sauna by a strange guy claiming that he is actually a cicada and simultaneously confiding in him about the strength of his erection along with the obsession it provokes to find a suitable hole in which to insert it. 

“What’s the deal with leaving offspring?” another of the women asks, seemingly over the idea of reproduction. The constant obsession with crustacea culminates in a butoh dance sequence in which lobsters spill their eggs down the stairs of an empty building (much to the consternation of an OL sitting below and, eventually, the security team) while other strange guests tell stories of women who underwent immaculate conception only to be drawn to the water where hundreds of tiny crab-like creatures made a temporary exit. The urge to reproduce, however, necessarily returns us to death and the idea of composition. The melancholy story of a Finnish woman drawn to the hotel because of its similarity to a beehive meditates on the sorrow of those left behind while a fly and a mite mourn their cockroach friend by wondering what happens to his dream now that he has died only to realise that because he told them about it, it now lives on with them. Nitobe wonders what the corruption of the body in death means for the soul and for human dignity, while the images Hirabayashi leaves us with are of a corpse slowly suppurating until only a scattered skeleton remains. Such is life, he seems to say. Life is itself surreal, something which Hirabayashi captures in his absurdist skits of the variously living as they pass through the strange hotel and then, presumably, make their exits towards who knows what in the great cycle of existence.


Shell and Joint streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. Viewers in the US will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s Japan Cuts!

International trailer (dialogue free)

Erica 38 (エリカ38, Yuichi Hibi, 2019)

Erica 38 poster“Everybody’s life is in someway unfulfilling”, admits the philosophical victim of a con woman in ripped from the headlines tale Erica 38 (エリカ38). “It’s like a crutch” he adds, without a little fantasy you can’t go on. Like the “Erica” of the title, her victims are also looking for escape from an unsatisfying reality, and unfortunately for them already have what she feels would make her life more bearable – vast wealth. Returning to Japan after three decades abroad, director Yuichi Hibi does his best to humanise the figure of the coldhearted grifter, painting her as just another disappointed, lonely old woman desperately trying to recapture the sense of possibility so cruelly denied her in youth.

Later rebranding herself as “Erica”, a 38-year-old woman of means, our “heroine” is Satoko Watanabe (Miyoko Asada), an ageing bar hostess supplementing her income by peddling a dodgy multi-vitamin pyramid scheme to bored housewives eager to make a few extra bucks. Her sales pitch, however, gets her noticed by a refined old woman sitting close by in an upscale hotel during in one of her sessions. The woman, Mrs. Ito (Midori Kiuchi), introduces her to a “friend”, Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), who cuts in with a sales pitch of his own in branding himself as a paid up member of the global elite who works with the Pentagon on important international matters. Hirasawa heavily implies his business is not quite on the level, but Satoko, captivated by his suave sophistication, fails to realise just how dodgy he really is. Before long, she’s joined him in his “consultation” business, selling fraudulent investment opportunities in the emerging market of Cambodia.

It is surprisingly easy to sympathise with the dejected Satoko as she falls under Hirasawa’s spell. Already well into her 50s when the film begins and clearly over 60 when she rebrands herself as the 38-year-old Erica, Satoko has led an unhappy life beginning with a traumatic childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive, adulterous father. The only memory of joy from her youth is when she and her mother (Kirin Kiki) giggled together after accidentally tipping rat poison into dad’s miso soup. Life since then, it seems, has been one disappointment after another spent in the hostess bars of Kabukicho. What all of that means, however, is that she’s become skilled in the art of selling fantasy. All that time invested in extracting cold hard cash from lonely men has set her in good stead for selling unrealistic investment opportunities to the already comfortably off.

Unrepentant, Satoko tells herself that she bears no responsibility towards those who lost money in her scams because they were chasing exactly the same thing she was – escape, and they both found it at least for a moment. Her victims made the decision themselves, she never forced anyone, and so it’s their own fault that they fell for her patter while she perhaps laments only that she’s been foolish and profligate in not planning better for the eventual implosion of all her schemes.

“There’s a thin line between real and fake”, she tells a party guest admiring one of her paintings, “if someone sees it as real then real it is”. Satoko’s cons are, in essence, an extension of the paradox of the hostess business. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen that the business isn’t legitimate, but like a salaryman in a hostess bar they invest in the semblance of connection while knowing in a sense that isn’t “real”. Ironically enough, Satoko is forced to realise that the first victim of her subterfuge is herself. Chasing a dream of love, she fell hard for Hirasawa without thinking him through. Hirasawa succeeds in his schemes because he’s scrupulously careful in maintaining his persona – he operates out of hotels, has no fixed address, and uses several cellphones. As Satoko later finds out, he is effectively running a harem, romancing several women all like herself bringing in the big bucks while he sits back relatively risk free. She has been used, once again.

The implosion of her dream of romantic escape is what sends her to Thailand where she ponders a reset, rebranding herself as the 38-year-old Erica of the title and beginning an affair with a young and handsome Thai man she rescued from gangsters with her ill-gotten gains. Porche (Woraphop Klaisang) later describes her as “My Angel”, of course realising that she was much older than she claimed but claiming not to care. It may be that he really did love her, but you can’t ignore the corruption of all that money and the power that it buys. In the end, money can’t buy you love, or a path out of loneliness, or a cure for disappointment.

Satoko was, like many, just another lonely, disappointed old lady trying to escape an unsatisfying present through a fantasy of returning to the past, rebooting herself as a successful business woman, loved and in love, as someone with a brighter future to look forward to. Her sales patter worked because it was “true”, the similarly dejected could sense in her the desperation for escape and as they wanted to escape too they let her take them with her. A melancholy tale of delusion and disillusionment, Erica 38 has immense sympathy for the scammer and the scammed painting them both as victims of an often unfair, conformist society in which freedom is the rarest commodity of them all.


Erica 38 screens in New York on July 25 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Name (名前, Akihiro Toda, 2018)

b5_olNames are a complicated business. Most people do not choose them for themselves, yet they come to define an identity or at least provide a substantial peg on which to hang one. If you give someone a fake name you are by definition shielding your essential self from view, refusing connection either in fear of discovery or intention to harm. The protagonist of Akihiro Toda’s The Name (名前, Namae) adopts several different titles as a part of his increasingly disordered everyday life in which he takes a hammer to his original identity in an ongoing act of guilt-ridden self harm. Meanwhile, his teenage would-be saviour, engages in a little role play of her own hoping to discover an essential truth about herself only to be disappointed, in one sense, and then perhaps find something better.

Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), if that is his real name, is not just leading a double life but is currently engaged in a number of iffy scams each compartmentalised under a different title and in which he plays an entirely different version of himself. Once a successful businessman, personal tragedy, marital breakdown, and bankruptcy have left him a floundering, cynical mess living in a rundown rural hovel with a pernickety neighbour and a decidedly lax approach to housekeeping. Masao’s main “job” appears to be working in a recycling plant where he’s managed to wangle a preferential contract by telling the higher-ups that his (non-existent) wife is seriously ill in hospital. Just as Masao’s scheme is about to be discovered, a mysterious teenage girl suddenly appears out of nowhere and plays along with Masao’s sob story, claiming to be his daughter come to remind him that he needs to leave earlier today because mum has been moved to a different hospital (which is why his boss’ contact had never heard of her).

Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), as we later find out, is a more authentic soul but has decided on a brief flirtation with duplicity in observing the strange and cynical life of the morally bankrupt Masao. Facing similar issues but coming from the opposite direction, the pair meet in the middle – regretful middle-age and anxious youth each doing battle with themselves to define their own identities. Like Masao, Emiko is also living in less than ideal circumstances with her bar hostess single-mother, forced into adulthood ahead of schedule through the need to take care of herself, purchasing groceries, cooking, and keeping the place tidy. Thus her approach to Masao has, ironically enough, a slightly maternal component as she tries to get him back on his feet again – cleaning the place up and giving him something more productive to do than wasting his idle moments in bars and other unsavoury environments.

Masao’s current problems are perhaps more down to a feeling of failure rather than the failure itself. Once successful, happily married and excited about the future, he felt it all crash down around his ears through no real fault of his own. Nevertheless he blamed himself – his intensive work ethic placed a strain on his relationship with his wife and his all encompassing need for success blinded him to what it was that really mattered. By the time he realised it was already too late, and so it’s no surprise that he longs to escape himself through a series of cardboard cutout personalities, enacting a bizarre kind of wish fulfilment coupled with masochistic desire for atonement.

Now cynical and morally apathetic, Masao lets Emiko in on a secret about the grown-up world – it’s all lies. You have to put on disguise or two to get by; the world will not accept you for who you really are. Teenage girls might know this better than most, though Emiko is a slow learner. She might tell Masao that pretending to be other people is fun, but the one role she hasn’t yet conquered is that of Emiko Hayama – something which particularly irritates the demanding director of the theatre club she’s been cajoled into joining. Like Masao, Emiko’s life begins to fall apart through no fault of her own as she finds herself swallowed up by a typically teenage piece of friendship drama when her best friend’s boyfriend dumps her in order to pursue Emiko. Branded a scheming harlot and ejected from her group of friends, berated by the director of the theatre troupe, and having no-one to turn to at home, Emiko finds herself increasingly dependent on the surrogate father figure of Masao who is happy enough to play along with the ruse so long as it is just that.

Through their strange paternal bond, Emiko and Masao each reach a point of self identification, figuring out who it is they really are whilst facing the various things they had been afraid to face alone. Lamenting missed opportunities while celebrating second chances, The Name makes the case for authenticity as a path to happiness in a world which often demands its opposite. Melancholy but gently optimistic, Akihiro Toda’s peaceful drama is a heartwarming tale of the power of unexpected connection and the importance of accepting oneself in order to move into a more positive future.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.