Inland Sea (港町, Kazuhiro Soda, 2018)

Inland sea posterJapan’s ageing population continues to provoke shifts in the social fabric, not least in small rural towns where the elderly now dominate and have been largely left to fend for themselves as if time had simply left them behind. Following his previous documentary Oyster Factory, documentarian Kazuhiro Soda returns to small town coastal Japan with Inland Sea (港町, Minatomachi). Focussing on the village of Ushimado, he observes those still clinging on to an archaic way of life despite advanced age and increasing hardship.

The first of Soda’s primary subjects, Waichiro, is now 86 years old and hard of hearing yet he still takes his boat out every day to fish in the hope of returning home with a prime catch. His living is, as he explains, precarious given that his equipment is now expensive while the price of fish has severely declined. A later meeting with fishmonger Koso makes plain that not every catch is equal – live(ly) fish fetch the most money, while dead ones bring in in only half and like everything else the price of fish is also dependent on demand.

Koso refuses to tell us her “real” age outside of amusingly describing herself as a “late stage elderly” which sounds like something she probably read on a well meaning but somewhat patronising government leaflet. In any case, she is a sprightly, energetic woman who seems far younger than her years and is something of a neighbourhood hub as she makes her rounds delivering fresh seafood to the mostly elderly residents who eagerly await the next tasty catch.

Most of the other residents are, however, more like Waichiro in advanced old age and mostly left to their own devices now that their children have left for the cities never to return. Kumiko, an 84-year-old widow who still works by the waterside preparing fish is just one such woman with a heartbreaking post-war story she later relates in a typically matter of fact fashion. Becoming a kind of guide for Soda and his producer as they explore the small village, Kumiko often attempts to steal the spotlight – bad mouthing her neighbours live on camera while they stand right behind her as in the case of her apparent bestie whom, she insensitively tells us, has “no friends” and a poor relationship with her family despite having eight children which most of the other lonely older people might consider as something of a luxury.

Relating her sad life story in which she laments a feeling of disconnection from the place in which she lives owing to having lost her family in the war and been adopted at age four by a fisherman and his wife who denied her an education (as was the thinking in those days), Kumiko lays bare a melancholy underside of the post-war boom which seems to have left towns like these (the ones that survived at all) almost untouched as if frozen in time. The world has pulled away, leaving Ushimado behind like a rock pool filled with water long after the tide has gone out.

Soda’s decision to regrade the film in black and white after shooting in colour adds a poignant touch to his casting of Ushimado as a place somewhat out of time. Wandering around, Kumiko begins to point out empty houses, mostly belonging to the recently deceased, which make up the bulk of the town and it’s true that the vast majority of the people we meet are older save perhaps for a younger woman helping at a cafe and a middle-aged one who takes care to feed the many stray cats who are the area’s other main residents with leftover fish offal. There is, however, perhaps fresh hope for towns like Ushimado as evidenced by the mild surprise expressed in discovering the range of dishes on offer at the local coffee shop seeing as technological advances and better transport links may help to draw some of those who left for the city back to the country even if not to fishing. At the very last, colour returns to the screen reminding us that there is life in this place still and that its stillness should not be mistaken for transience.


Streaming almost globally via Mubi until 1st April 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Au revoir l’été ほとりの朔子 (ほとりの朔子 Koji Fukada, 2013)

sakuko_mainReview of this kind of cute French new wave influenced Japanese indie up at UK Anime Network. I kind of liked this one – it’s getting another screening at The Proud Archivist on Tuesday if you couldn’t make it today. Alternatively you can watch it online via FilmDoo!


It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of  “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French – a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances – well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.

Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.

If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely just you started to feel it was getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy – it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.

Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing but – there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said – not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.

Nothing really happens, no grand life changing events but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t  shy away from showing us what might become of them with the unhappy grown ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and is willing to see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.

Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. Which is just as well because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.


Kazuhiro Soda at the Japan Foundation

Today the Japan Foundation played host to an evening with Japanese documentary maker Kazuhiro Soda, author of Campaign and Mental.  Soda gave an informal, interactive talk about his documentary film work beginning with his leaving Japan for New York on a whim and enrolling in film school and then serendipitously seeing an advertisement for a filmmaker who knew Japanese and English which led him into making documentary films for NHK. He came to making his first feature length film on hearing that a friend from university had recently decided to run for public office, this was surprising as his friend has always been quite eccentric – having failed to enter university five times, he never attended classes (despite living on campus) and subsequently was held back three times, he met his wife on the internet and they decided to honeymoon in North Korea(!) – and not only was he standing for office he was doing so with the backing of the staunchly conservative JLPD (the party of  Prime Minister Koizumi, in power at the time). Soda described his alienation from the TV documentary production methods he’d been used to – scripting/narration, shot lists, titles, music etc and his decision to make an observational film, to go in with no research, no preconceptions just to observe with camera and construct the film in the editing room. He then showed a clip from his second film, Mental,  which centered around a very open and moving story from a women who’d suffered some truly terrible things and discussed the ethical difficulties of documentary film making. Although many of the patients at the clinic declined to participate in the film, luckily there were enough who accepted and Soda was very clear about obtaining permission before shooting, taking into account the very sensitive nature of the information. In other cases though it  was possible that permission be sought afterwards where necessary, but permission is always sought and the subjects well being always a very important factor in the filmmaking process. The audience was then treated to a very special preview of Soda’s latest film, Peace, which is screening at the Sheffield documentary festival this weekend. Having intended to make a film about his wife’s grandmother which proved too sensitive and had to be abandoned, Soda was watching his father-in-law feed some stray cats when he noticed a male cat prowling around the circle of others and not being allowed in. The father-in-law explained that this was ‘thief cat’ who would look for an opportunity to steal the food for the others and was thus not very popular, the father-in-law had taken to putting a separate dish of food away from the other cats to stop this happening and thief cat eagerly, if somewhat suspiciously, lapped this up. It struck Soda that this would be a perfect scenario for a film commission he’d recently been offered which needed to reflect the them of peace and acceptance which he’d been unsure whether to accept. Luckily he’d had the camera rolling and decided to include the moment in his next film. The clip shown certainly looked very interesting and we can only hope the film will find an audience after its Sheffield screening.