Where I Belong (しゃぼん玉, Shinji Azuma, 2017)

Where I Belong PosterTo the rest of the world Japan often seems as if it exists in the future, all gleaming city scapes and high-tech living, but Japanese cinema has a noticeable ambivalence about urbanisation. Where I Belong (しゃぼん玉, Shabondama) is the latest in a long series of films to lament the coldness and disconnection brokered by the anonymity of life in a metropolis and long for a return to a simpler time in which small communities supported each other in good times and bad, taking care to reinforce positive social values through mutual responsibility. Of course, such pictures of rural life tend towards the optimistic – these communities are accepting rather than judgemental and usually free from extreme hardships, but there is something universally comforting in the solidarity of community providing a home for those otherwise cast out.

Izumi (Kento Hayashi), a young man of indefinite age, was abandoned by his mother after his parents divorced and has lived the majority of his life on the streets. He gets by by bag snatching – mostly targeting the vulnerable, elderly and lone women. To make the job faster he carries a knife to cut the handles, never meaning to hurt anyone with it, but one night an attempted mugging in a rainy underpass ends in tragedy when his target is injured during the struggle. Getting out of town, Izumi finds himself kicked out of a truck in the middle of the mountains where he later finds an apparently abandoned scooter. Just as he’s about to continue his escape, an old woman cries out from the grassy verge. Izumi can’t quite bring himself to just ride off and helps the woman, Suma (Etsuko Ichihara), back to her home, after which he is rewarded by a hearty meal prepared by the warmhearted old ladies of the village and finds himself beginning to fight the urge to run in favour of hiding out in this strange little place where the people are unexpectedly warm.

Izumi’s not a bad guy, but he’s had a lot of bad luck. Let down so badly by family, his life has led him to believe all connections are necessarily suspect and it’s everyman for himself when it comes to surviving on the streets. He wanted to steal Suma’s scooter, but his better nature wouldn’t let him leave a little old lady bleeding on the side of the road where no one else might see her for days. The film’s central message is that kindness repays kindness, but kindness requires mutual trust – something of which the city robs its citizens though its persistent quality of anonymity and abnegation of one’s responsibility for others.

Describing himself as the soap bubble of the Japanese title, Izumi’s sense of loss and restlessness at having no particular place to return to is the root cause of his despair and lack of belief in a credible future. Through meeting Suma who repeatedly tells him that he is “good”, trusts him implicitly, and instils in him a belief in himself that had long been absent, Izumi is at last able to begin moving forward and imagine a future for himself with a place to call home. Taking to the woods with harsh but wise forager Shige (Katsuhiko Watabiki) and then helping the village prepare for a festival, Izumi begins to feel as if he can finally become a part of something bigger but equally that in order to do so he will have to make peace with his life in the city by submitting himself to its justice and paying his debt to society so that he can return and make a fresh start as a man who has finally found his place.

The first feature from TV director Shinji Azuma, Where I Belong is not solely a tale of the importance of community, but also of Japan’s changing social structure as small mountain towns find themselves devoid of youngsters leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. Izumi’s restored hopes are not so much to do with the goodness of country people, benefits of hard work, or the crisp mountain air, but simple human kindness and a consequence of the gradual awakening of his sense of self worth thanks to the often blind faith placed in him by others for nothing other than his kind heart.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • HOME – 19 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 7 March 2018
  • Storyhouse – 11 March 2018
  • Depot – 13 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 17 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Hideo Gosha, 1982)

onimasaWhen AnimEigo decided to release Hideo Gosha’s Taisho/Showa era yakuza epic Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai), they opted to give it a marketable but ill advised tagline – A Japanese Godfather. Misleading and problematic as this is, the Japanese title Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai also has its own mysterious quality in that it means “The Life of Hanako Kiryuin” even though this, admittedly hugely important, character barely appears in the film. We follow instead her adopted older sister, Matsue (Masako Natsume), and her complicated relationship with our title character, Onimasa, a gang boss who doesn’t see himself as a yakuza but as a chivalrous man whose heart and duty often become incompatible. Reteaming with frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai, director Hideo Gosha gives up the fight a little, showing us how sad the “manly way” can be on one who finds himself outplayed by his times. Here, anticipating Gosha’s subsequent direction, it’s the women who survive – in large part because they have to, by virtue of being the only ones to see where they’re headed and act accordingly.

Beginning with its end, Onimasa’s story finishes with the discovery of the body of his only biological child, Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi ), in 1940. Found bled out and alone in the red light district of Kyoto, the suspected cause of death is a miscarriage. Tragically, our heroine, Matsue, arrives only a couple of hours too late after having spent years searching for her younger sister. We then skip back to 1918 when Matsue was adopted by Onimasa and his rather cool wife, alongside another boy who later ran away. An intelligent girl, Matsue earns her adopted father’s respect but neither he nor his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita), are particularly interested in the emotional side of raising children. Things change when one of Onimasa’s mistresses gives birth to his biological child who awakens a sense of paternal interest in the ageing gangster beyond rule and possession.

Onimasa’s behaviour is frequently strange and contradictory. Originally intending to adopt only a boy, he and his wife come away from a poor family with two of their children, only for the son to run away home. Having picked her out like a puppy in a pet store window, Onimasa views Matsue as an inalienable possession. When a man arrives and wants to marry her, he goes crazy assuming the man must have been sleeping with her behind his back (despite the fact that this man, Tanabe (Eitaro Ozawa), has only just been released from prison where Onimasa had himself dispatched Matsue to visit him). Exclaiming that Matsue is “his”, has always been “his”, and no one else’s, he forces Tanabe to cut off his finger yakuza style to swear Matsue’s honour is still intact. However, this need for total control manifests itself in a less than fatherly way when he later tries to rape Matsue and is only brought to his senses when she threatens to cut her own throat with a broken glass. Despite this act of madness which he tries to justify with it somehow being for her own good, Matsue remains a dutiful daughter to both of her adopted parents.

Matsue’s innate refinement and reserve contrast’s strongly with Onimasa’s loose cannon nature. Commenting on the long history of “honourable” cinematic yakuza, Onimasa embraces an odd combination of traditions in believing himself to be the embodiment of chivalry – standing up for the oppressed and acting in the interests of justice, yet also subservient to his lord and walking with a swagger far beyond his true reach. All of this contributes to his ongoing problems which begin with a petty clan dispute over a dogfight which sees a rival leaving town in a hurry only to return and raise hell years later. Similarly, when his boss sends him in to “discourage” strike action, the union leader’s reasonable objections which point out the conflicts with Onimasa’s doctrine of chivalry and imply he’s little more than a lapdog, have a profound effect on his life. Severing his ties with his clan and attempting to go it alone, Onimasa does so in a more “honourable” way – no longer will he engage in harmful practices such as forced prostitution no matter how profitable they may be, but old disagreements never die easy and it’s a stupid ancient argument which threatens to bring his old fashioned world crashing down.

Despite concessions to the bold new Taisho era which saw Western fashions flooding into traditional culture from Onimasa’s trademark hat to the record players and whiskey glasses clashing with his sliding doors and tatami mat floors, Onimasa’s world is a childishly innocent one where honour and justice rule. Despite this he often excludes his own behaviour – one minute turning down the offer of his rival’s woman to pay a debt with her body, but later attempting to rape a young woman who had been his daughter in a drunken bid for a kind of droit du seigneur. The times are changing, it’s just that Onimasa’s traditionalist mind can’t see it. Tragically trying to rescue his daughter from a situation it turns out she had no desire to be rescued from he eventually spies the writing on the wall and puts down his sword, defeated and demoralised. Tragically, it seems Hanako may have needed him still though her rescue arrives too late to be of use.

The Onimasa family line ends here, as does this particular strand of history under the darkening skies of 1940. Out goes Taisho era openness and optimism for the eventual darkness of the militarist defeat. Matsue, now a widow – her left wing intellectual husband another victim of her father’s mistakes rather than political stringency, remains the sole source of light in her shining white kimono and pretty parasol even as she’s forced to identify the body of the sister she failed to save. The life of Hanako was a sad one, trapped by her father’s ideology and finally destroyed by her own attempts to escape it. Fittingly, she barely features in her own tale, a peripheral figure in someone else’s story. Slightly lurid and occasionally sleazy, Onimasa is another workmanlike effort from Gosha but makes the most of his essential themes as its accidental “hero” is forced to confront the fact that his core ideology has robbed him of true happiness, caused nothing but pain to the women in his life, and eventually brought down not only his personal legacy but that of everything that he had tried to build. The “manly way” is a trap, only Matsue with her patience backed up by a newfound steel inspired by her cool mother, Uta, is left behind but is now free to pursue life on her own terms and, presumably, make more of a success of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)