Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Yojiro Takita, 2018)

Sakura Guardian in the North posterStill a major marquee star and one of the few golden age actresses regularly playing leading roles in box office hits, Sayuri Yoshinaga has for one reason or another become somewhat synonymous with a brand of quietly patriotic tales of wartime endurance and maternal suffering. Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Kita no Sakuramori), apparently the conclusion of a loose trilogy of “Northern” films which began with Year One in the North in 2005 and led on to Junji Sakamoto’s A Chorus of Angels in 2012, sees her once again engage with post-war trauma as a mother eventually driven out of her mind by the inability to come to terms with the weight of tragedy.

The tale begins on Sakhalin in spring 1945. Despite the intense cold of the frozen North, Tetsu (Sayuri Yoshinaga) – mother to two young sons, Seitaro and Shujiro, has carefully nurtured cherry trees grown from seeds brought from the mainland ensuring that they blossom even here. The family’s happiness will however be short lived. Dad Tokujiro (Hiroshi Abe) is sent off to the war while Tetsu and the children are eventually forced to evacuate to escape the Russian invasion, planning to wait for Tokujiro in Abashiri on the north coast of Hokkaido.

Flashing forward to 1971, we find ourselves in Tokyo with Shujiro (Masato Sakai), now a grown man married to the Japanese-American daughter of an LA hot dog entrepreneur, Mari (Ryoko Shinohara). Having made something of himself in the New World, Shujiro has returned to Japan to open the first branch of his father-in-law’s convenience stores. His plans are disrupted when he gets an unexpected call from Abashiri about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since she told him to leave her behind and seek his fortune 15 years previously. The public housing shanty town where Tetsu ran her restaurant is being torn down but she’s showing no signs of leaving, and not only that, she’s begun to act strangely.

This Shujiro finds out for himself by visiting her and witnessing Tetsu talk to her own reflection as if it were a long lost friend. His sudden decision to bring his mother back with him to Tokyo without talking to his wife, who has never even met her mother-in-law, places a strain on his marriage on top of the already heavy burden of the store but Shujiro is determined to make it work. Tetsu, however, finds its hard to adjust. Used to living in small country towns where everyone knows everyone, she doesn’t realise you can’t just walk off from stores shouting “put it on my tab”, and annoys the neighbours by starting a smoky fire outside trying to cook rice the old fashioned way. With Shujiro busy with work, the burden falls disproportionately on the patient but exasperated Mari who is forced to apologise when Tetsu walks off in someone else’s shoes after trying on city-style outfits at a department store, and looks on in horror as her new mother-in-law starts an intense conversation with a cherry blossom tree.

Tetsu’s down home charm does, however, begin to give Shujiro some business inspiration as he ponders why his top American hotdogs aren’t selling now the novelty’s worn off. As his staff tell him, maybe they need to think a little more “Japanese” – more fresh veggies and innovative toppings, less ketchup and mustard. Shujiro has another idea – the original Japanese “convenience” food, onigiri, made with rice cooked in a pot and roughly shaped by a loving mother’s hands.

Rice, however, despite its ubiquity in the comparatively comfortable world of 1971 brings with it traumatic memories. Starving after the war, white rice was something Shujiro and Tetsu could only dream of, getting their first taste of it in many moons only when cooked to place on a funeral altar. Meanwhile, rice was also the only reason they survived after running into a slightly dodgy young man who gave them “jobs” helping him to smuggle it for sale on the black market. Shinji (Koichi Sato) helped them in other ways too, eventually putting up the money for Tetsu’s homely eatery, and would have married her if she were not on the one hand loyal to the memory of her absent husband, and so troubled by survivor’s guilt as to believe that she is “a person who does not deserve happiness”.

To punish herself for perceived failures, Tetsu has lived a life of austerity – working hard in the restaurant, dressing in simple ragged clothes, and eating only enough not to starve. She forced Shujiro away to make something of himself, but never spent any of the money he sent home to her nor answered any of his letters. Shujiro, by contrast, has swung the opposite way – determined to live a life of luxury and becoming unforgiving with it. Mari sees an ugly side to him when he’s visited by one of the boys who used to bully him (Ken Yasuda) for being a refugee and a black-marketeer back in Abashiri now fallen on hard times. Superficially polite, Shujiro humiliates him with undignified zeal while wilfully planning to exploit his workforce, quickly silencing an employee who tries to point out violations to the labour code.

Yet like Tetsu, who is somewhat unstuck in time, he begins to find a softer side of himself as the pair of them journey back into the past and revisit the sites of their shared traumas. Yojiro Takita stages Tetsu’s internal confusion somewhat incongruously as an avant-garde stage play offering occasional background info on the exodus from Sakhalin, an experience Shujiro is seemingly shut out from as he tries to reconnect with his mother only to lose her again but rediscovering a better version of himself before he was hardened by the burden of his memories and the hardships of the post-war era. Tetsu keeps the cherry blossoms in bloom in the North, cultivating beauty as a means to connect with her loss, and eventually finding a kind of resolution in the returned ghosts of her past given life once again by the strength of her devotion.


Singapore trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Aya Igashi, 2018)

A Crimson Star posterFalling in love is, perhaps, like standing too close to the sun and for the young heroine of Aya Igashi’s debut feature A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Makkana Hoshi), it means nothing unless it burns. Set in the otherwise serene environment of a rural Japanese summer, full of blue skies and green fields bursting with life, A Crimson Star is the story of two ostensibly very different women in very different places who nevertheless develop an essential and inescapable bond in their shared sense of loneliness and isolation, but their relationship is also a problematic one in which the familial and the romantic have become inextricably linked.

14-year-old Yo (Miku Komatsu), undergoing a lengthy period of hospitalisation for an undisclosed illness, develops an intense fondness for her kindly nurse, Yayoi (Yuki Sakurai). On her discharge, however, Yo is stunned to learn that Yayoi has abruptly resigned and all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Yo’s family life continues to deteriorate. Her disinterested mother has got a new boyfriend who is often drunk and violent. In order to escape him, Yo takes a trip to the corner shop and makes a surprising discovery in a street of parked cars which turns out to be (as yet unknown to the the naive Yo) the secluded byroad used for secret assignations seeing as this is such a one horse little town that there isn’t even a love hotel. Yayoi has become an embittered sex worker and her lonely degradation breaks Yo’s heart. When her mother’s boyfriend eventually begins molesting her, it’s to Yayoi that Yo turns looking for care and support from a woman who had nursed her but is no longer a nurse.

The “crimson star” of the title most obviously refers to the wings of the paraglider gazed at so often by the earthbound Yo, but it is also echoed in the tiny scars and wounds which define the relationship between the two women. In the first scene of the film, the hospitalised Yo has a prominent bruise on her foot apparently caused by Yayoi nicking a vein when taking a blood sample. Even so, Yo leans in tell her that she is her favourite nurse – words which bring tears to Yayoi’s eyes and perhaps precipitate her decision to leave the hospital. For Yo, who is emotionally neglected by her mother and has never known true care and affection, the bruise becomes an odd kind of proof of love which she has come to associate with pain. Later, Yo spots an odd mark on Yayoi’s neck – she is of course too young to know what it is. Yayoi shows her, literally, by biting her slightly below the shoulder and creating another kind of “crimson star”.

Yo’s early attraction to the 27-year-old Yayoi has a distinctly maternal quality in which she looks for the same kind of compassionate care she experienced in hospital and which her mother refuses to give her. There is also, however, a nascent sexual attraction which provokes intense jealousy as Yo attempts to get closer to Yayoi but finds herself unable to achieve the kind of all encompassing love she is seeking. Given Yo’s extreme youth, the relationship is in many ways extremely inappropriate and infinitely confused, a combination of familial, platonic, and romantic longings which appear to be unbreakable but remain unresolved. Yo, almost becoming the thing she wants to find, begins to take care of the depressed, broken Yayoi – tidying the apartment, folding washing, and repairing external signs of damage, while Yayoi becomes care taker rather than care giver presenting her with an opportunity to reexamine her self-destructive tendencies including a dead end relationship with married paraglider Kengo (Katsuya Maiguma).

Kengo becomes a particular point of contention for Yo, not just for reasons of jealousy but because he causes Yayoi to suffer. Early on she spots him on his bike with his small daughter, every inch the doting dad which is, of course, something she never had. Kengo is also a symbol of familial betrayal as he undermines his seemingly happy family by continuing to string Yayoi along on what is, ironically enough, a no strings basis. Family has betrayed both women who find themselves adrift and alone with no clear anchor except perhaps each other.

Yet what Yo wants is to escape – to soar in the quiet skies high above all, free of earthly constraints like the paraglider she so often sees, but paragliders are crafts built for two and Yo wants to go with Yayoi, strapped together enveloped in a private world into which nothing else may enter. The “crimson star” then becomes the unattainable feeling of closeness and total connection that continues to elude her, furthering her view that love is pain and the pain she feels must be love. Backed by a crimson sky, the future is both hopeful and filled with light, but perhaps also tethered and marked by a melancholy resignation. Beautifully composed, Igarashi’s debut is a raw, often uncomfortable examination of an elemental bond forged between two lonely, damaged women each seeking impossible connection as an escape from a loveless existence.


A Crimson Star made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love and Other Cults (獣道, Eiji Uchida, 2017)

love and other cultsEiji Uchida’s career has been marked by the stories of self defined outsiders trying to decide if they want to move towards or further away from the centre, but in his latest film Love and Other Cults ( 獣道, Kemonomichi), he seems content to let them linger on the margins. The title, neatly suggesting that perhaps love itself is little more than a ritualised set of devotional acts, sets us up for a strange odyssey through teenage identity shifting but where it sends us is a little more obscure as a still young man revisits his youthful romance only to find it as wandering and ill-defined as many a first love story and like many such tales, one ultimately belonging to someone else.

Our lovelorn hero and narrator, Ryota (Kenta Suga), observes the heroine from afar as he tells us her story, which is also his story in a sense. Ai (Sairi Itoh), a neglected child, drifts aimlessly in an uncaring world forever seeking a place to belong but finding no safe space to drop anchor. Ai’s mother, as drifting and aimless as her daughter, attempts to find salvation through religion but her quest for self-fulfilment drags her from one spiritual fad to the next all the while pulling little Ai along with her. The pair finally end up in a cult commune where Ai is a favourite of the leader – a Westerner called Lavi (Matthew Chozick) who preaches free love but only for himself.

Eventually, the cult is raided by the police, Lavi flees, and Ai is “rescued” but the next stage in her odyssey is no less disruptive than the last as she finds herself adrift in the mainstream world. Dropped into a regular high school, Ai tries to play the regular high school girl but can’t shake the cult member inside her. Semi-adopted by an ordinary family, her life gains some normalcy but it is short-lived and before long Ai finds herself in another sort of commune altogether before ending up in teenage prostitution followed by the porn industry.

If girls like Ai end up in AV, boys like Ryota end up in gangs. So it is that Ryota gets mixed up with two equally lost wannabe gangsters in Kenta (Antony) – an outsider by virtue of non-Japanese heritage, and the blond-headed Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura) who’s watched too many movies. Kenta is the de facto head of a little band of petty delinquent kids but he’s getting bored with gangster stuff and yearns for something more real while Yuji trails around after the lollipop sucking local chieftain (Denden). Ryota looks on casually without striking out in either direction, pining for Ai but either unwilling or unable to install himself as a permanent part of her reality.

As Ryota puts it, they’re all just looking for a place to belong. They don’t care where or what that place is, but what they long for is a sense of belonging born of owning their own identities. What may be a typical teenage problem of figuring oneself out takes on a larger dimension given the general instability of the world these youngsters find themselves in. Another in the long line of recent films losing faith with the family, Love and Other Cults finds no room for a familial solution to social woes. Ai has been so definitively let down that her very idea of family is so hopelessly warped as to permanently remove the possibility from her future.

Neglected in favour of her mother’s ongoing and inconclusive search for meaning, Ai’s major attachment is to unclear spirituality but even this becomes horribly misused thanks to her involvement with a shady cult. Having become the favourite of cult leader Lavi, Ai is used to trading herself for affection and security and so when she finds herself semi-adopted by the kindly family of a friend she attempts to use these same familial mechanisms to secure her position only to end up ruining the whole thing. Re-encountering Lavi (now an AV producer) again as an adult, Ai is still unable to see the way that she has been used and misused, quickly resuming her childhood role but without the spiritual pretence.

Ryota and Ai meander aimlessly outside of each other’s orbit, neither finding the place they feel they ought to be. Tellingly, the only real story which obeys narrative rules is that of depressed thug, Kenta, who finds an unlikely soul mate in a chance encounter with a photography loving deep-sea diver, Reika (Hanae Kan). Kenta and Reika are kindred spirits whose place to belong presents itself randomly and without warning yet is found all the same. There is no cult in this love, only mutual salvation. Ai and Ryota, however, are each trapped in their respective quests for fulfilment, disconnected, visible to each other only in brief, fragmented episodes and set to drift eternally yet always in search of a place to call home.


Love and Other Cults was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)