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.

Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Side JOb posterFukushima has become a focal point for recent Japanese cinema, not just as a literal depiction of an area in crisis but as a symbol for various social concerns chief among them being a loss of faith in governmental responsibility. Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Kanojo no Jinsei wa Machigai ja Nai) has the distinction of being helmed by a Fukushima native in Ryuichi Hiroki who also wrote the original novel from which the film is adapted. Typical of Hiroki’s work, Side Job is less an ode to the power of perseverance than a powerful meditation on grief, inertia, and helplessness. Though he offers no easy answers and refuses to judge his protagonists for the ways they attempt to deal with their situations, Hiroki does allow them to find a kind of peace, at least of the kind that allows them to begin moving forward if not quite away from the past.

Five years after The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Miyuki Kanazawa (Kumi Takiuchi) is still living in a cramped prefab house with her widowed father, Osamu (Ken Mitsuishi). Miyuki’s mother was lost in the storm and her body never found, leaving the pair bereft and with an unanswered question. Having lost his farm to the exclusion zone, Osamu is left with nothing much to do and mostly spends his time idly playing pachinko and drinking much to the consternation of Miyuki who has a regular job with the city council.

Miyuki may well be angry about the way her father fritters away their money, but that doesn’t quite explain why she boards an overnight coach every Friday and spends her weekends in Tokyo engaging in casual sex work. She appears not to like the work very much and it is occasionally dangerous, but she does seem to have built up a kind of friendship with her “manager” as he drives her around the city to her various clients. Miura (Kengo Kora) claims to enjoy his work because it gives him an opportunity to observe human nature in all of its complexity though if he harbours any conflict about his role as a dispatcher of sometimes vulnerable young women, he is slow to voice it.

The “side job” of the title provides a kind of escape from a boring, conventional life in rural Iwaki, equal parts self-harm and quest for sensation. Miyuki, like many of those around her walks around with an air of irritated blankness, angry at so many things she doesn’t quite know where to begin. Yet for all that she’s also emotionally numbed, held in a state of suspended animation, longing to feel something, anything, even if that something is only shame. Through her double life Miyuki is able to find a sense of control and equilibrium that eluded her in grief-stricken Iwaki. Her manager, Miura, promises to “protect” her, though he makes clear that there are many women he feels a duty to protect rather than just Miyuki. Just as it seems Miyuki has come to depend on him, Miura drops a bombshell of his own though it maybe one which spurs Miyuki on towards a new beginning.

Everything in Iwaki is, in a sense, temporary. Miyuki and her father still live in the tiny prefab house in the hope of one day being able to go “home” while Osamu attends occasional meetings with the farming collective to try and find out what’s going on with his fields. Held in a kind of limbo, repeating the same daily tasks with relentless monotony, Miyuki and Osamu are trapped by a sense of helpless dread, forever waiting for something to happen but having lost the faith that it ever will.

While the pair struggle on, others find themselves unable to bear the weight of their tragedies. The spectre of suicide haunts Miyuki and her father from the woman next-door (Tamae Ando) who has become depressed thanks to the stigma surrounding her husband’s job with the decontamination programme, to the window at the agency which no longer opens following the suicide of one of the employees. Pushed to the edge by financial strain, there are also those who find themselves befriending the vulnerable with an intent to defraud, but it is in the end genuine human relationships which light the way for each of our struggling protagonists. Osamu bonds with an orphaned little boy through playing catch, Miyuki finds strength in Miura’s decision to break with his old life and build a new one, and her assistant at the city council, Nitta (Tokio Emoto), grows into the responsibility of being a big brother while attempting to do the best he can for the people of Fukushima.

What each of them finds isn’t an answer or a “cure” for their trauma but a path towards accepting it in such a way as it allows them to begin moving forward. New seeds are planted in the expectation of a coming future, new lives are celebrated, and the past begins to recede. Memory becomes a still frame, bottled and in a sense commodified but held close as a kind of talisman proving nothing is really ever “lost”. Filmed with an eerie sense of listless beauty, Side Job is an unflinching yet not unforgiving exploration of life after tragedy in which the only possible chance for survival lies in empathy and simple human connection.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック, Kankuro Kudo, 2009)

The Shonen Merikensack posterWhen you spent your youth screaming phrases like “no future” and “fumigate the human race”, how are you supposed to go about being 50-something? A&R girl Kanna is about to find out in Kankuro Kudo’s generation gap comedy The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック) as she accidentally finds herself needing to sign a gang of ageing never were rockers. A nostalgia trip in more ways than one, Kudo is on a journey to find the true spirit of punk in a still conservative world.

25 year old Kanna (Aoi Miyazaki) is an unsuccessful scout at a major Japanese label which mainly deals with commercial bands and folk guitar outfits. As she’s about to quit any way, Kanna makes a last minute pitch for a punk band she’s found on YouTube, fully expecting to be shown the door for the last time. However, what she didn’t know is that her boss, Tokita (Yusuke Santamaria), is a former punk rocker still dreaming of his glory days of youthful rebellion. With her leaving do mere hours away, Kanna’s contract is extended so that she can bring in these new internet stars whose retro punk style looks set to capture the charts.

Unfortunately, the reason Tokita was so impressed with the band’s authentically ‘80s style is because the video was shot in 1983. The Brass Knuckle Boys hit their heyday 25 years ago and are now middle aged men who’ve done different kinds of inconsequential things with their lives since their musical careers ended. Kanna needs to get the band back together, but she may end up wishing she’d never bothered.

Mixing documentary-style talking heads footage with the contemporary narrative, Kudo points towards an examination of tempestuous youth and rueful middle age as he slips back and fore between the early days of the Brass Knuckle Boys and their attempts to patch up old differences and make an improbable comeback. Kanna, only 25, can’t quite understand all of this shared history but becomes responsible for trying to help them all put it behind them. Her job is complicated by the fact that estranged brothers Akio (Koichi Sato) and Haruo (Yuichi Kimura) made their on stage fighting a part of the act until a stupid accident left the band’s vocalist, Jimmy (Tomorowo Taguchi), in wheelchair.

The spirit of punk burns within them, even if their contemporaries are apt to point and laugh. The Brass Knuckle Boys, when it comes down to it, were successful bandwagon jumpers on the punk gravy train. Craving fame, the guys started out marketing themselves as a very early kind of boy band complete with silly outfits and cute personal branding full of jumpsuits, rainbows, and coordinated dance routines. Yet if the punk movement attracted them merely as the next cool thing, it also caught on to some of their youthful anger and teenage resentment. In the end unrestrained passion destroyed what they had as the ongoing war between the brothers escalated from petty sibling bickering to something less kind.

Twenty-five years later the wounds have not yet healed. Akio is a lousy drunk with a bad attitude, Haruo is an angry cow farmer, drummer Young has a range of health problems, and Jimmy’s barely present. Tokita has become a corporate suit, a symbol of everything he once fought against and his former bandmate is his biggest selling artist – eccentric, glam, and very high concept.

The men are looking back (even those of them who aren’t even really that old), whereas Kanna can only look forwards. Before the Brass Knuckle Boys, she was about to be kicked out of her A&R job and planned to go home with her tail between her legs to help her confused father with his very unsuccessful conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Apparently in a solid relationship with a coffee shop guitarist who keeps urging her to put in a good word for him at the record label with his sappy demo tapes, Kanna’s life is the definition of middle of the road. Neither she not her boyfriend could be any less “punk” if they tried but if they truly want to follow their dreams they will have to find it somewhere within themselves.

At over two hours The Shonen Merikensack is pushing the limit for a comedy and does not quite manage to maintain momentum even as its ending is, appropriately enough, an unexpected anticlimax. Kudo’s generally absurd sense of humour occasionally takes a backseat to a more juvenile kind which is much less satisfying than the madcap action of his previous films but still provides enough off beat laughs to compensate for an otherwise inconsequential narrative.


Original trailer (English subtitles)