The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Koji Fukada, 2020)

“It’s hard to see weakness, especially your own” the oblivious hero of Koji Fukada’s perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic romantic melodrama The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Honki no Shirushi) is told, though it’ll be a while before he realises how annoyingly right his rival has read him. Adapted from the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato and first aired as a 10-part TV drama, Fukada’s tale of mutual salvations finds its dissatisfied heroes struggling to define themselves in a conformist culture but finding perhaps the “signpost” towards the real through a process of romantic misadventure in realising that the emotional crash of a failed connection can perhaps bounce you into a moment of self-realisation and the courage to carry it through. 

Last to experience such a moment, the hero 30-year old Tsuji (Win Morisaki) is a thoroughly bored salaryman working at a company which sells fireworks along with cheap plastic toys for children. Entirely passive, he is in two contradictory romances with a pair of diametrically opposed office ladies at his company (which has a strict rule against inter-office dating) but is emotionally invested in neither of them. His life changes one day while he’s idly buying a bottle of water at a convenience store and notices a confused woman has picked up a damaged children’s toy he was trying to get taken off the shelf by the disinterested cashier but she hardly pays attention to him changing it over for her because she’s intensely confused by a map of the local area. After his attempt to help her fails, Tsuji leaves the store but later comes across the woman again when she somehow stalls in the middle of a level crossing and is about to be hit by a train, heroically leaning through an open window to put the car in neutral and push it out of the way with mere seconds to spare. He stays with the woman, Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), until the police arrive but she panics and tries to make out he was driving before thinking better of it and coming clean. 

It’s a pattern than will often be repeated in the earlier parts of their relationship. Having tried to do something good, he finds himself incurring only infinite trouble. Bugged by the rental company who find his business card in the abandoned car, Tsuji is bamboozled into Ukiyo’s very complicated world of lies and broken promises but nevertheless feels oddly compelled to help her. “You’re too kind to everyone”, the first of his office romances Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) tells him with mild contempt, though he offers her a wry smile that suggests he doesn’t quite think of it as kindness implying his capacity for altruism may be masking a deep-seated sense of emptiness and inadequacy. When his affair with Hosokawa is exposed, he expresses consternation that she shouldn’t have to be the one to transfer simply because she’s a woman, describing himself as an average employee going through the motions while she is clearly keeping the place together, though she again accuses him of selling himself short unable to see how many people in the office look up to and depend on him precisely because of his rather dull efficiency and air of confident reliability born of having no real personality. 

In fact he seems to be in flight from the “real”, consciously or otherwise afraid of facing his authentic self and wilfully masking it by putting on the suit of the conventional salaryman. Ms. Hosokawa is much the same, having initiated the relationship on a no strings basis but secretly wanting more. Approaching middle age she finds herself suffocating under her various demands, playing the part of the dependable senior office lady but dreaming of escape through romantic salvation. Only once her relationship with Tsuji begins to implode does she rediscover a new sense of self. The other girlfriend, meanwhile, Minako (Akari Fukunaga) plays the contrasting role of the office cutie irritatingly sweet and simpleminded but after being cruelly dumped suddenly dyes her hair pink and becomes feisty and uncompromising no longer unable to stand up for herself while refusing to conform to idealised visions of youthful femininity. 

Tsuji meanwhile fixates on the idea of “saving” Ukiyo while she battles an internalised victim complex which encourages her to think that all the bad things happening to her are entirely her own fault because she is a bad person, constantly apologising for her own existence. Yet the situation is later reversed, Ukiyo repeating word for word the speech Tsuji had given to Hosokawa as she explains there’s another man she must save because he is incapable of saving himself. Investing their entire worth in the act of saving someone else, the pair attempt to paper over their lack of selfhood, but in essence find their positions reversing in pattern which seems to suggest you have to save yourself before you can find the path towards your romantic destiny. As Tsuji turns fugitive, imploding in a perceived defeat in having failed to take control over the forces of change in his life, Ukiyo finally develops the strength to take care of herself bolstered by the certainty of her love for him. 

Painted alternately as a damsel in distress and a femme fatale who ruins men and drags them to hell, Ukiyo is of course neither just, as an old friend explains, an unlucky woman subject to a series of societal prejudices. There is however something in the pair’s mutual claims that there was someone trapped who couldn’t climb out without their help even if that help is slightly less literal than they’d assumed. Even when relationships fail, or crash and burn as another puts it, they invite the possibility for growth and become perhaps signposts on the way to the “real thing”. Shot with a whimsical realism and filled with a series of twists and reversals, Fukada’s elliptical tale is less one of romantic fulfilment than a search for the true self but finally allows its heroes to find mutual salvation in staking all on love. 


The 10-episode TV drama edit of The Real Thing streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Feature edit trailer (no subtitles)

Soirée (ソワレ, Bunji Sotoyama, 2020)

“You can run but not from yourself” a gruff but sympathetic farmer explains to a fugitive young couple, astutely perhaps understanding the quality of their flight. Less a lovers on the run romantic fantasy than a gentle character study in trauma and insecurity, Bunji Sotoyama’s Soirée (ソワレ) finds its two wounded youngsters struggling to find safety and security in an increasingly indifferent society in which they are perhaps expected to care for an older generation they may feel has long since abandoned them. 

Aspiring actor Shota (Nijiro Murakami) for instance has been participating in a spate of “It’s Me!” scams targeting the older generation in which they are convinced that their grandson has been involved in some sort of trouble and is in desperate need of money. We can see by the ambivalent look on his face that he hates himself for his “role” in this sordid piece of modern day drama but also that it plays into his self-destructive conviction that he is no good and cannot achieve conventional success. His need for slapdash, quick fix solutions is further driven home by the coach at his acting class who gives him a very public dressing down for coming in unprepared, insisting that he’ll never move anyone until he gets some real life experience and engages with the text. 

While Shota takes an envelope from an anxious grey-haired old lady, Takara (Haruka Imou), a withdrawn young woman working at a nursing home, gently brushes another’s hair only for her to suddenly disappear while Takara hums a comforting lullaby. We witness her nervousness at the unexpected ring of the doorbell and the panic attacks when some of the older gentlemen mistakenly grab at her, later realising they are each responses to a deep-seated trauma as revealed by a letter telling her that her estranged father who had been in prison for long term abuse is about to be released. 

The pair eventually meet when Shota returns to his hometown with an acting troupe hired to put on a play at the home though things get off to an ominous start when one of the old ladies suddenly collapses while working with the actors, the head of the troupe rather cynically musing on DNR orders and the desires of some absentee children to keep their parents alive in order to continue receiving their pension. These contradictory impulses, Takara’s warmth and compassion towards the elderly people in her care and Shota’s wilful exploitation of their weakness, is brought home when Takara’s father suddenly returns, barges his way into her home asking for a fresh start claiming to have paid his debt, and then proceeds to rape her all over again. Discovered mid-act by Shota who had come to collect her for the local festival, Takara eventually stabs her father with a pair of dressmaking scissors in order to protect him, the pair thereafter finding themselves on the run. 

Coming to her senses, Takara intends to hand herself in but is convinced by Shota to make a run for it. “Why do the ones who struggle most get hit worst, why do the weakest always lose?” he ironically asks her, “We weren’t born to be hurt”. Yet their contradictory qualities are only further highlighted as they try to chart a new course for themselves. The pair find temporary refuge with a pair of plum farmers who take pity on them thinking they are a young couple eloping as apparently they once were, only Shota later makes a half-hearted attempt to rob them which he quickly gives up on being challenged by the sympathetic husband. In the next town, Takara determines to look for work while Shota tries to make money through bicycle races and pachinko, chastened by her admonishment on finding employment that it’s possible to support oneself without cheating others. 

Somewhat tritely, Shota tries to tell her that God never burdens you with more than you can bear, while the older woman at the plum farm also offers that plums are all the sweeter for their suffering during a harsh winter dangerously playing into a notion of internalised shame that told Takara she would blossom into the kindest soul who ever lived once her suffering was over only to leave her feeling empty and despoiled as if she somehow deserved everything that happened to her. Shota’s troubles are by comparison small, his conservative brother irritatedly telling him he should accept he has no talent and get a real job, while he too perhaps thinks he is empty inside and therefore incapable of moving anyone just as his director told him. Finding salvation in mutual acceptance they begin to see the “way out” only for their essential connection to be threatened by its very existence. 

A melancholy character study through the legacy of trauma and toxicity of internalised shame, Sotoyama’s occasionally ethereal drama takes on the qualities of a fable through the repeated allusions to princess Kiyohime and her doomed love for the wandering monk Anchin yet he is careful enough to hold out a ray of hope for each of the wounded lovers in their apparently fated connection even as they struggle to find refuge in an often hostile society.


Soirée streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Hard-Core (ハード・コア, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2018)

Hard-Core retro poster“The world will always be corrupt”, the cynical brother of the angry young man at the centre of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Hard-Core (ハード・コア) advises him, “you just have to work around it”. Unfortunately, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) just wants to do “the right thing”, but it is constantly unsure of the best way to do it while remaining resentful and conflicted in his conviction that the world has already rejected him. Yamashita has made a career out of chronicling the struggles of disenfranchised young men but Ukon and his pals are less genial slackers than potentially dangerous idealists looking for a way back to a simpler time in which the world was not quite so rotten.

An opening bar scene in which Ukon gets slowly drunk and then lays into a rowdy bunch of guys bothering a middle-aged woman (Takako Matsu) just trying to enjoy a drink showcases his propensity to abruptly lose his temper and fall into a self destructive cycle while also subtly pointing out his entitlement issues in his taking the guy to task by praising himself for leaving the lady alone while he presumably had exactly the same desire not to. In any case, after getting banned from the bar, he ends up joining an ultranationalist political cell, the Crimson Hearts, which aims to teach the youth of Japan to re-embrace its traditional culture. In order to facilitate his goals, the elderly and eccentric leader, Kaneshiro (Kubikukuri Takuzo), has enlisted Ukon, along with a friend, Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) who is almost entirely mute, to dig out a mysterious cavern where he is convinced there is buried Edo-era treasure.

It’s easy to see why Ukon might fall for the rather insane ramblings of Kaneshiro. They reinforce his sense of moral decline while giving him a banner to follow and a place to belong. His loyalty to Kaneshiro is as absolute as a retainer’s to his lord, though he is perhaps conflicted in his commitment to the core ideology even as he sees obvious merit in wanting to reclaim something of the old Japan. Meanwhile, his relationship with his family appears strained. His younger brother Sakon (Takeru Satoh) has become a cynical salaryman out for nothing other than greed and self interest, staring into his own empty eyes in the reflection of the full glass panelling of his high rise office as he has meaningless sex with anonymous office ladies. Ukon just wants to do the right thing, but Sakon wants to make the smart choice and doesn’t particularly care about the wider implications of his choices.

Meanwhile, Ukon is fiercely loyal to his friends and fellow outsiders in solidarity with all those who feel the world will never be willing to accept them. Ushiyama, a man laid low by familial expectation and societal pressure, lives in an abandoned factory where he has made “friends” with a broken robot that Ukon manages to repair and names “Robo-o”. Believing that Robo-o is just like them in that he would be ostracised if people discovered his true nature, Ukon and Ushiyama set about disguising him and even get him in on their gold hunting gig (where he gets paid!) at which he proves adept considering his considerable technical superiority. Ukon’s first instinct is to protect his friend, while Sakon’s is how best to exploit him.

Nevertheless, events at the Crimson Hearts begin to escalate as unpleasant underling Mizunuma (Suon Kan) considers taking the battle to the next stage to “overthrow the corrupt totalitarianism masquerading as democracy” through actions others will regard as terrorist. Meanwhile, Ukon has also begun to fall for Mizunuma’s damaged daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) whom he met by chance after being inappropriately charged with spying on Mizunuma’s new girlfriend to make sure she wasn’t sleeping around (as women do, according to Mizunuma). Ukon, as the first scene implied, is not in favour of all this obvious misogyny but can only find the strength for passive resistance. What he chooses, in the end, is his friends and his precious group of outsiders, albeit with his hopes pinned on his cynical brother and the illusionary lustre of historical treasure. The power of friendship eventually enables even Robo-o to break his programming, though it’s Sakon’s cynicism that, in one sense at least, seems to triumph. Yamashita takes his troubled young heroes on a rocky, noirish path through the “rotten” world which they are increasingly convinced holds no place for them but finally finds hope in human compassion even if that compassion may be the long buried treasure of an archaic civilisation.


Hard-Core was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 31st May at 22.30pm and 1st June, 22.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

At the Terrace (テラスにて, Kenji Yamauchi, 2016)

At the TerraceEvery keen dramatist knows the most exciting things which happen at a party are always those which occur away from the main action. Lonely cigarette breaks and kitchen conversations give rise to the most unexpected of events as those desperately trying to escape the party atmosphere accidentally let their guard down in their sudden relief. Adapting his own stage play titled Trois Grotesque, Kenji Yamauchi takes this idea to its natural conclusion in At the Terrace (テラスにて, Terrace Nite) setting the entirety of the action on the rear terraced area of an elegant European-style villa shortly after the majority of guests have departed following a business themed dinner party. This farcical comedy of manners neatly sends up the various layers of propriety and the difficulty of maintaining strict social codes amongst a group of intimate strangers, lending a Japanese twist to a well honed European tradition.

Haruko (Kami Hiraiwa), a youngish middle-aged woman has stepped out onto the terrace to check her phone with a degree of privacy but she is shortly joined by a late arrival to the party, Tanoura (Hiroaki Morooka), who lets out a long sad sigh right alongside her. The party’s hostess, Kazumi (Kei Ishibashi), hears his small howl of exasperation and decides to make something of it. Embarking on a strange line of questioning, she gets Tanoura to admit not only to a fondness for the woman who was just on the terrace, but particularly for her shapely white arms. Tanoura fusses and backpedals but is pushed into a corner of defeat with relative ease by his more experienced host. Unfortunately he did not know that Haruko is the wife of a fellow guest – in fact, the guest of honour who has just delivered a speech at the dinner party (which he missed because he was late). Kicking off a late night challenge, Kazumi’s brazen questioning and subsequent decision to announce the results to the group at large proves the catalyst for visible crumbling of the bourgeoisie which is about to take place.

Even though everybody ought to be getting home, the guests linger and the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense and awkward. Insecure hostess Kazumi quickly begins a war with her attractive rival, Haruko, using the bizarre obsession everyone seems to have with her arms as the first round of fire. Haruko counters that she disagrees and thinks Kazumi is the more attractive because of her low cut dress designed to show off her ample bosom. This line of conversation makes the men feel very awkward, especially when asked for their opinion but someone then attempts to move to a higher level by discussing similar themes in the works of Kawabata and Tanizaki, though this flies over the heads of some of the guests prompting a return to the slightly unpleasant atmosphere of the earlier part of the evening.

If Kazumi is attempting to remain the dominant female at her own party, the men have various other concerns mostly bound up with their working relationships. Business and pleasure rarely mix, at least not at parties, and so there’s an immense amount of politeness and de-escalation involved in the way in which they talk to each other. Mr. Soejima (Kenji Iwaya) – Kazumi’s husband, the host, and the owner of this fine villa has organised the party as a networking event at which Haruko’s husband, Taro (Ryuta Furuta), delivered the keynote speech. Another company guest, Masato (Takashi Okabe), is known and not known as he’s recently lost an awful lot of weight thanks to gastric surgery which means no one quite recognises him and despite having been quite a drinker in the past he is now supposed to be avoiding alcohol altogether. While Masato spends most of the evening sitting quietly to the side, Tanoura seems to get dragged into arguments despite his attempts to remain neutral and polite, eventually bursting into tears as he thinks about the horrors of Syria – not a side of him this hard-nosed, business focused gathering is likely to find endearing.

Alcohol flows, secrets are revealed and flirting is embarked upon as pretty much everyone is after Haruko who is dismayed to find her husband either hardly notices or is actively allowing other men to flirt with her to increase his networking potential. The arrival of the Soejima’s son, Teruo, throws another kind of energy into the room as he reveals juicy details about his parents’ marriage and becomes the subject of a few barbed comments from his father. Teruo is young and handsome, becoming something of a mirror for the ways that Haruko has dominated the conversation despite his mother’s best efforts to remain in charge, even matching her in the beauty of his arms. As the evening finally draws to a close sex and death mingle across the crowded terrace filled with onlookers not sure in which direction to cast their gaze.

Yamauchi sticks to his one set conceit but shoots it from various angles to best capture the drama erupting amongst this group of not quite friends. The two women face off against each other while their husbands do the same only with tales of their masculine exploits. No one quite knows how to behave now that they’ve moved away from the business table, who they’re supposed to be and what their proper place is, leading to a dangerous destabilising of the established social order. Haruko, at least, is striking out to prove she’s more than her husband’s wife even if she was made to come to this party against her will and has wanted to go home for ages.

Opting for an appropriately surreal, retro edge, Yamauchi closes with a series of “you have been watching” portraits and the sight of an adorable small furry squirrel captured in the garden to remind you that not everything here is ugly and attempting to misrepresent itself to get the best out of a difficult social situation. Hilarious, if excruciating, At the Terrace neatly sends up the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie as they lie, deflect, and sometimes spar in order to conform to their expected social roles only to inadvertently destroy them through improper application.


At the Terrace was screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)