My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Kozue Nomoto, 2020)

A dejected, self-involved TV producer is forced into a moment of introspection when dealing with relationship breakdown and career setback in Kozue Nomoto’s ironic character study My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Ai no Kudaranai). Examining a number of social issues from women in the workplace to attitudes to LGBTQ+ people in contemporary Japan, Nomoto’s unflinching drama never lets its abrasive heroine off the hook even as she begins to realise that her own less than admirable behaviour has contributed to her present sense of despair and impossibility. 

Kei (Maki Fujiwara) has been in a relationship with former comedian Yoshi (Akiyoshi Okayasu) for the last five years, but it’s clear that she is beginning to tire of him. The couple are supposedly trying for a baby, but Kei has been taking contraceptive medicine behind Yoshi’s back while complaining that she doesn’t understand why he insists on getting pregnant before getting married when he hasn’t even met her parents. At work meanwhile she’s beginning to feel left behind, secretly jealous when a slightly younger female colleague reveals she’s been promoted to become the lead producer on a variety show and a little resentful when her idea for a programme focusing on the lives of ordinary people as opposed to celebrities is turned down by her bosses. The idea does however bring her to the attention of indie exec Kinjo (Takuma Nagao) who wants to bring her on board to produce a web series he’s about to launch along the same lines. And then, Yoshi drops the bombshell that he thinks he’s pregnant which is, to say the least, unexpected. 

Yoshi’s surprise announcement signals in a sense a reversal of traditional gender roles within their relationship with the man the nester and woman reluctant commitmentphobe. Kei is also the main financial provider, but on some level both resents and looks down on Yoshi for his lack of conventional masculinity having given up his comedy career to work part-time in a supermarket, obsessing over discount produce like the pettiest of housewives but often indulging in false economies such as reduced price yet still extravagant sake. Strangely, Kei goes along with Yoshi’s delusion taking him to a fertility clinic where she assumes they’ll set him straight but thereafter begins staying with a friend who ironically has an infant child and may be experiencing some difficulties in her marriage to which Kei remains entirely oblivious. 

Despite her journalistic desire to witness everyday stories, Kei is often blind to those around her never stopping to wonder if Yoshi is trying to tell her something through his bizarre pregnancy delusion or if her friend might need someone to talk to. She does something similar on spotting the office courier (Yukino Murakami) whom many of the ladies have a crush on using the ladies’ bathroom. Assuming the delivery guy is a lesbian she asks him about coming on the webshow, becoming even more excited when he explains that he’s a transman after inviting Kei to an LGBTQ+ friendly bar where he works part-time. Kei doesn’t realise that her throwaway comment that “that sort of thing is popular now” hurts Shiori’s feelings and leaves him feeling exploited as much as he would like to appear on the programme to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues. 

For her part, Kei is obviously not homophobic but does undoubtedly treat Shiori and his friends with a degree of exoticism, declaring that she’s never met anyone like them before while staring wide eyed in wonder as if these concepts are entirely new to her. Kinjo, the producer of the web series, is squeamish when Kei raises the idea, introducing her to a male scriptwriter who obviously already has his own concepts in mind, rudely ignoring Kei’s input while dismissively allowing his drink to drip on her proposal. The studio turn the idea down on the grounds that LGBTQ+ topics are “inappropriate” because there may be children watching and parents won’t want to explain words like “gay” or “lesbian” to their kids. Kei is rightly outraged, but she’s also a hypocrite because her intentions were essentially exploitative and self-interested. She wasn’t interested in furthering LGBTQ+ rights, she just wanted to chase ratings. 

Kinjo dresses up his personal distaste as a dictate from above but it’s clear that he doesn’t really value Kei’s input and continues to treat her poorly for the entirety of the project, blaming her for everything that goes wrong and expecting her to fix it on her own. There’s even an awful moment when Kei’s friend Tsubaki (Sayaka Hashimoto) shows up with her baby and one suspects they may be about to rope her in as a replacement guest, but the result is even worse as Kinjo stares into the pushchair and then throws the pair out while embarrassing Kei in the process. 

“Being busy’s no excuse for being unreliable” Tsubaki sympathetically tells her though it takes a few more setbacks before Kei begins to realise that she’s been unfair and to be honest generally unpleasant to those those around her. Feeling inferior, she makes a point of bumping into an elderly male janitor, treating him with contempt even when he stops to try and help her after she collapses in the office. Only through an ironic moment of emotional honesty which allows her to come to an understanding of her relationships does Kei begin to piece things together, reflect on her own mistakes and anxieties, and realise what it is she really wants. A contemplative reconsideration of accepted gender norms, Nomoto’s gently humorous drama never lets its heroine off the hook but does allow her to find new direction if only through confronting herself and the world in which she lives. 


My Sorry Life streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Masashi Yamamoto, 2020)

A moribund Tokyo mansion becomes the scene for an orgy of life, death, love, and rebirth in Masashi Yamamoto’s surrealist party movie Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Noten Paradise). Sometimes you have to learn to say goodbye and move on, other times you have to learn to forgive and let go of past resentment. Of course, sometimes you have to do both of those things at the same time, which is perhaps appropriate for the former home of the Sasayas which seems to exist between the realms of life and death, a perpetual Bon festival where departed spirits and lost souls congregate for one almighty party. 

Dad Shuji (Seiko Ito) has had a run of bad luck and unfortunately lost the family home he inherited from his parents meaning he and his two adult children, son Yuta (Soran Tamoto) and daughter Akane (Mayu Ozawa), are having to move on though who knows where to. Resentful that she’s having her life uprooted by her father’s fecklessness, Akane takes to social media and Tweets that there’s a party at hers and everyone’s invited as kind of goodbye to the house. Meanwhile, a series of strange events occur from a weird old monk (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to pray to the various neoclassical statues on the property going nuts at a belligerent removal man and then apparently dropping dead, to the resurfacing of mother Akiko (Kaho Minami) who apparently left the family some years previously for a man who ran a coffee shop but has since passed away. 

The first people to arrive for the party are a gay couple looking for somewhere to celebrate their marriage, a minor irony in that the event will later descend into an elaborate funeral for two people who may or may not be dead. As more and more guests arrive, along with a series of opportunistic commercial food stands and other businesses, the party begins to get out of hand becoming ever stranger as the night wears on. 

At the heart of it all are the tensions in the family, an unresolved resentment directed at son Yuta who is, according to his brash aunt Yuka (Sonomi Hoshino), overly preoccupied with his family circumstances to the extent that it prevents him from getting a regular job and moving on with his life. Shuji has quite clearly failed both as a son and as a father, eventually betting one of his dad’s precious antiques in a card game run by yakuza loansharks setting up shop in the house. Akane appears exasperated, but is also harbouring an intense resentment towards Akiko for her abandonment that prevents her being able to “move on” from her former family home. 

Moving on is also a problem for a few of the ghosts, the line between the living and the dead becoming increasingly blurred. One random surreal moment to the next, Yamamoto careers between absurdist episodes culminating in a fight between a murderous sentient coffee bean and a statue come to life. What began as a lowkey wedding eventually becomes a bizarre funeral enacted through the medium of Bollywood song and dance transitioning into a traditional enka festival number all of which happens before a couple of hapless crooks who’ve been operating a drug factory on the family’s property for the last two years without them ever knowing turn up with their “super mandala drug of paradise” to send the evening in a psychedelic direction. 

Yet for all the surreality of death, violence, sex, and rebirth when dawn arrives it brings with it a kind of calm brokering a new peace between friends and family members as they learn to accept each other and the past in an unburdened sense of openness. Possibly deceased monks, talking cats, kids who can’t figure out how to stop swinging and mysteriously turn themselves into sticks or dissolve in bath water, scorned lovers, unrepentant thieves, ghosts and family secrets descend on this weird gothic mansion in the middle of a city, creating a “wonderful paradise” for one night only filled with surrealist magic and unforgettable strangeness that nevertheless pushes the family back together through dream logic and a taste of the absurd. A weird, sometimes incomprehensible, journey into an etherial, psychedelic twilight psychodrama rave, Yamamoto’s charmingly bizarre nighttime odyssey is a law unto itself but one filled with wonder for the uncanniness of the everyday. 


Wonderful Paradise streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Melancholic (メランコリック, Seiji Tanaka, 2018)

Melancholic posterJust because you’re smart and graduated from a top university, does that necessarily mean you have to put on the salaryman straitjacket in order to become “a success”? The dejected hero of Seiji Tanaka’s Melancholic (メランコリック) isn’t quite so sure, but then he’s always been the type to amble through life going wherever the wind blows him. The time is about to come, however, when decisions must be made and priorities decided lest someone else decide them for you.

Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) graduated from Tokyo University but he’s never been in full time employment and has no definite career plans. Still living at home with his parents, he floats between part-time jobs with little sense of forward motion while his mum and dad are content to let him find his way, if a little exasperated. On a rare visit to a public bathhouse he ends up running into an old high school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who half-jokingly advises he apply for the open job at the baths seeing as it’s bound to be less stressful than your average salaryman gig. Smitten but too awkward to do much about it, Kazuhiko applies for the job and consents to go to a school reunion as a means of seeing Yuri again. Much to his surprise, however, the bathhouse has a second life as a yakuza kill room with on site body disposal facilities.

Asking questions about what goes on at the bathhouse after dark, Kazuhiko’s boss Azuma (Makoto Hada) tells him that it’s dangerous to know things you aren’t supposed to know, but Kazuhiko is not good with hints and his natural curiosity won’t it let it rest. After he finds out about the secret yakuza backroom deal, Kazuhiko has a “difficult” choice to make – elect to help out with the “night shift”, or die. Kazuhiko chooses to help out (he likes being helpful) and discovers that he actually doesn’t mind it all that much, especially considering the “bonus” package Azuma gave him for being a good boy.

The extra money made Kazuhiko feel as if he could grasp that swanky salaryman life without having to submit himself to the rat race. He uses the money to take Yuri to a fancy French restaurant where he’s flummoxed by the wine list and she’s uncomfortable, but still it goes well even if they both resolve to go somewhere more casual next time. Kazuhiko’s inferiority complex is only enflamed by the lingering presence of Tamura (Yuta Okubo), another old classmate made good, who is also interested in Yuri and is everything Kazuhiko feels himself not to be – handsome, successful, filthy rich, cultured, and confident.

Being allowed in on the after hours business made Kazuhiko feel as if he’d been promoted, that Azuma obviously trusted him and that there might be more overtime coming if he played his cards right. His confidence receives a further knock, however, when he realises that a punkish colleague who joined at the same time as him, Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki), is technically in a more senior position despite being a barely literate drop out with bleach blond hair. In way over his head, Kazuhiko still desperately wants to regain some of that status and approval he felt was his when the cleanup business was their little secret.

An awkward, naive, but sincere man, Kazuhiko marvels on realising how many yakuza seem to be “around” before Azuma and Matsumoto remind him that not everyone involved with crime is a bona fide yakuza. The bathhouse outfit is, more or less, run by freelancers but still at the mercy of mob boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yada) who has an iron hold over Azuma because of outstanding debts. Azuma would like to put a stop to the night shift, but can’t – or so he claims. As is later pointed out, for those getting on in years an unsatisfying status quo is often preferable to a turbulent new. Though Kazuhiko has no real objection to working the night shift as far as the clean up goes, he is not completely comfortable with its wider implications, often asking why it was someone had to die only for Matsumoto and Azuma to shrug and say it doesn’t matter. They had orders and carried them out, anything else is an irrelevance they don’t need to worry about.

Kazuhiko, however, does worry if in a fairly minor way until his gradual descent into the world of crime drags him into a vicious quagmire in which he must accept the seriousness of his situation along with its potential costs. Despite the original animosity and natural sense of distrust, what wins out is a sense of fellow feeling between unlikely allies Matsumoto and Kazuhiko who begin to see a way out of their mutual malaise through seizing their own futures and daring to pin their hopes on things they assumed unattainable, like love and friendship. Rather than chasing the salaryman dream, or climbing to the top of the yakuza tree, they pick an ordinary kind of “good enough” success in which moments of warmth and togetherness become the only things which give life meaning. A surreal ode to just muddling through and learning to be happy in the moment, Melancholic more than lives up to its name but despite all the darkness eventually finds real joy in the easy pleasures of mediocrity and mutual acceptance.


Melancholic was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival where director Seiji Tanaka and actor Yoshitomo Isozaki will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)