Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Yukiko Mishima, 2012)

“Plain bread is nice too” a short-term visitor concedes having reached an epiphany after a few days’ stay at Cafe Mani in Yukiko Mishima’s slice of comfort cinema, Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Shiawase no Pan). Perhaps in its own way a reaction to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of the previous year which is referenced in the closing arc, Mishima’s drama is one of a series of films from the 2010s advocating for a simpler life built on empathy and mutual compassion as a bulwark against the increasing disappointments of a relentlessly consumerist society. 

The heroine, Rie (Tomoyo Harada), was a lonely child who buried herself in a fantastical children’s book about a little boy, Mani, who was best friends with the Moon. Touched by Mani’s words when the Moon asked him to take down the sun because its brightness made his life unbearable that “what matters most is that it shines on you and that you shine on others”, Rie resolved to find her own Mani but has long since given up. She and her her husband Mizushima (Yo Oizumi) have recently relocated to a Hokkaido ranch where they run a cafe bakery that has quickly become a community hub tending to the wounded souls of the local area and sometimes even beyond. 

The urban/rural contrast is rammed home by the couple’s first guest, Kaori (Kanna Mori ), a young shop girl from Tokyo who was supposed to be going to Okinawa with her boyfriend but he stood her up and she’s come to Hokkaido instead. Although originally grumpy and sullen, Kaori begins to warm to the charms of rural life complaining that in Tokyo people have to force themselves to smile. Her words accidentally hurt the feelings of local boy Tokio (Yuta Hiraoka), conversely jealous of big city opportunity but lacking the courage to strike out from his small-town life in which ironically enough he works as a points switcher at the local railway. What Kaori learns through her various experiences and the kindness of the Mizushimas isn’t that country life is better just that small happinesses are often all you need, there is pleasure in simplicity, and there’s no need to submit herself to the pretentiousness of city life explaining that she’s going to tell her coworkers the truth about her Okinawan holiday and bring some of the wholesome homemade bread back for them too. 

But then, it isn’t always so easy as the couple discover trying to help a sad little girl in the wake of marital breakdown. In a slightly surprising twist, Maki (Yuki Yagi) has been abandoned by her mother who has left the family and is struggling to accept both her loss and the change in circumstances which goes with it. The dilemma revolves around a bowl of pumpkin soup which Maki refuses to eat despite having previously longed to taste her mother’s signature dish. The realisation she comes to is that something can be different but that doesn’t make it bad, bonding with her equally dejected father (Ken Mitsuishi) thanks to the gentle support of the Mizushimas who seem to have a knack for knowing just what everyone who comes through their door needs. 

That goes double for the elderly couple who turn up late one night in the dead of winter, husband Fumio (Katsuo Nakamura) worryingly explaining that they’ve lived long enough, that while you’re young you still have the possibility of change, of becoming “a different you”, but old age has no further possibility nor the ability to change. Having lost their daughter in the tsunami the old couple are trapped in an inertia of grief from which they are gradually awakened by the gentle care of the Mizushimas and the sight of the beautiful moon that shines down on Cafe Mani. 

Rie meanwhile remains privately dejected, longing for her own Mani but convinced she’ll never find him only to realise he’s been there all along. Just like the words in the picture book, Rie and Mizushima have resolved to be the light, Fumio later sending them a letter claiming that they have discovered the ideal form of happiness in their simple life doing as they please surrounded by friends who have already become family and offering love and support to all who come through their doors through the medium of delicious seasonal food. With a host of quirky side characters including an omniscient glass blower (Kimiko Yo), genial postie (Chikara Honda), farmers with an ever expanding family, and a regular customer who carries a mysterious trunk around, while narrated (seemingly) by a sheep with the voice of a child Mishima’s gentle drama is foodie pure comfort cinema in which good bread and a warm fire may yet save the world.


Bread of Happiness until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Harmful Insect (害虫, Akihiko Shiota, 2001)

“We’re only in seventh grade, why does Sachi have to suffer so much?” a well-meaning friend eventually asks as she comforts the heroine of Akihiko Shiota’s Harmful Insect (害虫, Gaichu), even as her mother turns away from her too fragile herself to be of much use. Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki) does indeed suffer, continually victimised by the world in which she lives and having that victimisation used against her, rejected by her peers and almost blamed for the misfortunes which befall her as if she were the one at fault simply for existing. 

Shortly after the opening scene in which 13-year-old Sachiko’s mother (Ryo) attempts to take her own life, we see the girls at school gossiping about her while she’s still in earshot not entirely sympathetic as they remark on the fact her father left the family while implying that her mother is some kind of broken-hearted love fool driven to suicide over the loss of a man. Sachiko quickly becomes the woman of rumour, but in a motif which will be repeated the teens talk but never listen swapping stories between themselves and embellishing them as they go. It’s uncertain how much truth there is in the legend of Sachiko but it’s clear that they disapprove of her, adopting a puritanical moralising mindset in which they simply shun her for being something other. Only Natsuko (Yu Aoi) tries to stop them, reaching out to Sachiko even as Sachiko rejects her but is ultimately able to offer little help when even Sachiko’s mother is ill-equipped to protect her. 

The truth is that Sachiko is never safe anywhere. Everywhere she goes, she becomes a target for predatory men of all ages. A schoolboy on a bike harasses her by asking childish questions about her period, while sleazy salarymen repeatedly proposition her for sex, and even her mother’s new boyfriend in a doubly destructive act of betrayal cannot be trusted. She says little and keeps to herself, her silence and her isolation a kind of defiance and defence mechanism. After dropping out of school, she starts hanging around with a drop out 20-something (Tetsu Sawaki) and his homeless friend (Koji Ishikawa) who seems to have learning difficulties, discovering that they support themselves through staging accidents for compensation money. She considers doing the same thing, not for the money but craving the thrill of a near death experience only to find herself unable to go through with it. 

Meanwhile, she continues a letter-based correspondence with her former teacher with whom she is rumoured to have had an affair. Mr. Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe) later resigned for obvious reasons and now has a low-grade job at a nuclear plant. He answers her letters when he can, mostly offering paternalistic platitudes but like her absent parents is unable to provide her with the guidance she is seeking. What she seems to be looking for is the kind of parental input that would allow her to feel protected, safe, but no one is really there for her. She resents her mother’s emotional dependency and tendency to involve herself with unsuitable men, but worries she’s becoming the same striking out for an early independence but discovering only danger and futility. 

She asks herself if vice is the essence of human existence, then is goodness only the quality of not being entirely bad? Her view of the world already coloured with nihilistic despair. The men who misuse her feel they have no real need to justify their actions, but simultaneously blame her for tempting them though she does nothing other than exist remaining silent in order to avoid attracting attention. Then again even she doesn’t quite understand, asking her teacher why it is he can’t forgive himself simultaneously accepting that what happened between them, whatever that was, was wrong enough to warrant forgiveness but unable to grasp why he cannot let go of his guilt, continuing with this half-hearted correspondence unable to grant her the care that she is seeking. Wandering between flashbacks and brief vignettes of her life, Shiota captures Sachiko’s sense of total aloneness as even her sole source of sanctuary is taken from her leading to an explosive act of partially self-destructive violence that sends her forever on the run. The choice she makes at the film’s conclusion, be it in submission or defiance, is hers alone but in its own way a tragedy dragging her deeper into dangerous despair with escape an ever distant possibility.


Harmful Insect streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2002 NIKKATSU / TBS / SONY PCL

Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1991)

Shinya Tsukamoto burst onto the scene with indie cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, an avant-garde body horror exploration of dehumanising industrialisation. After performing as a virtual one man band, however, Tsukamoto’s second film, Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Hiruko / Yokai Hunter), was his studio first accepting the opportunity to direct a feature adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter manga. Some have seen this as a huge stylistic departure, shifting from the punk aesthetics of Tetsuo towards warmly nostalgic summer adventure, but it is in fact perfectly in keeping with Tsukamoto’s earlier 8mm work such as Adventures of Electric Rodboy while also reminiscent of the kind of wistful teen adventures Nobuhiko Obayashi among others had been making throughout the Bubble era. 

Nevertheless, Hiruko’s main lessons seem to relate to the dangers of buried history and its corrupted parental legacy. The franchise protagonist, Reijiro Hieda (Kenji Sawada), is a once promising archeologist ostracised by his peers for his determination to prove the existence of yokai or “goblins”. Still grieving the death of his wife Akane (Chika Asamoto), Reijiro is summoned to her hometown by his brother-in-law, high school teacher Mr. Yabe (Naoto Takenaka), who informs him that he’s found something in a burial mound which he believes was built “by the ancients to appease evil spirts”. Yabe insists that he doesn’t believe in yokai, but thinks it might be a good opportunity for Reijiro to further investigate his theory. By the time Reijiro arrives, however, Yabe has already disappeared along with high school girl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) after exploring the tomb alone. 

Though set in the present day, Tsukamoto plays with horror serial gothic motifs such as the creepy tombs, suspicious janitor, and the continually befuddled Reijiro dressed in his old-fashioned white suit while armed with an arsenal of yokai fighting gadgets all contained in the Mary Poppins-like suitcase he continually carries around though at one point he seems to try catching escaped yokai with fly paper and is generally found wielding bug spray. Despite constantly working with dirt, an early joke sees him undone by spotting a creepy crawly in his room. This does not bode well for him, because Hiruko’s end game is convincing its victims to decapitate themselves before attaching their severed heads to weird, spider-like bodies. 

It does this seemingly by locating a pleasant, poignant memory and promising to prolong it forever. Reijiro’s nephew Masao (Masaki Kudou) is almost seduced on seeing an idyllic scene of missing high school girl Tsukishima dressed in white and enjoying a picnic on a summer’s day only to be suddenly brought back by his uncle. The inheritor of a curse, Masao is often struck by fits of furious burning in which his clothes seem to steam while he later displays strange scars on his back which take on the appearance of human faces. His predicament is largely his grandfather’s fault in having kept from his father the truth about the mound, leading him towards an over curious investigation during which it appears he accidentally released a bunch of demons from their eternal imprisonment. Now all Hiruko wants is to find the spell to open the door so they can all escape for good. 

Having been in a sense betrayed by a corrupted parental legacy, Masao nevertheless finds salvation in his history by way of his uncle who has of course memorised the entirety of the “Kojiki”, an ancient chronicle of myth and folklore, and recognises the two passages necessary for opening and closing the stone enclosure one found on a broken stele and the other hidden inside an ancient helmet appropriated by Yabe. Masao can only save himself and lift the curse by learning the truth which had been hidden from him, ironically putting on the helmet while others lose their heads. 

Yet Hiruko itself is also perhaps a manifestation of grief, something which cannot be eliminated but must in a sense be contained. Reijiro is almost tricked by Hiruko on being shown a vision of his late wife, unwittingly revealing the opening spell in return for being able to remain within the memory. Masao is similarly seduced by his vision of Tsukishima, but must then deal with the loss of his father who sacrificed himself trying to save others having realised his mistake in unearthing truths intended to stay buried. The fault lies however with Yabe’s own father whose attempt to keep him safe only endangered him. 

In keeping with much of Tsukamoto’s work, Hiruko’s threat lies in the loss of bodily autonomy and corporeal destruction forcing the victim into an act of mortal self-harm and thereafter repurposing and remaking the physical form in its own image. Tsukamoto’s characteristically elaborate practical effects and use of creepy stop motion add to the sense of the uncanny, horror lurking in dark corners everywhere waiting for the opportunity to strike. Even so, Hiruko is not without its sense of silliness, Tsukamoto playing gleefully with genre archetypes while conforming fully to the summer adventure movie necessarily filled with a sense of wistful nostalgia. Having contained their demons, Masao and Reijiro emerge at summer’s end, but are greeted with another hazy goodbye if each a little more secure in having learned to accommodate their corrupted legacies. 


Hiruko the Goblin streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical, and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also Yuko herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve ever known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  


A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2020)

“If I became the person I wanted to be, would the world have changed?” the conflicted hero of Shunsuke Kariyama’s Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Aokute Itakute Moroi) eventually asks having undergone a kind of awakening but still perhaps struggling with himself caught between the desire to be better and the fear of the vulnerability that may entail. As the title implies, this is a tale of painful youth and bitter revelations but also of the fragile male ego, the damage that can be done by a young man who feels himself scorned, and the various ways an embittered, self-absorbed mind can reorder the world to accommodate its sense of righteousness. 

The hero, Kaede (Ryo Yoshizawa), opens with a voiceover revealing his life philosophy of social isolation afraid both of upsetting others and of getting hurt. Despite himself, however, he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the bright and friendly idealist, Hisano (Hana Sugisaki), whom he first noticed in one of his political science classes when she challenged the teacher advancing her life philosophy that peace is born only of mutual surrender and allows no role for violence. A true cynic, Kaede mocks her internally for her “naivety” but is moved on leaving the room to notice that she looks hurt not to have been taken seriously. Noticing him too, she tracks him down and makes a point of sitting next to him in the cafeteria, badgering him into a friendship he doesn’t resist because of his tenet of not challenging the views of others. Together they found the “Moai’ club which is dedicated to building a better world by helping people to become the people they want to be. 

Or at least, that’s what he tells us. As we slowly discover, Kaede is not a completely reliable narrator. Three years later he recruits a friend, Tosuke (Amane Okayama), to help him take down Moai, which has since become some kind of creepy cult corrupted by corporate interests that many seem to be using as a path towards employment, so that he can rebuild it to reflect the values he and Hisano intended when they founded the organisation she apparently having passed on. Yet the more he tells us, the more we start to wonder if there isn’t something else to it, especially when social welfare grad student Wakisaka (Tasuku Emoto) enters the scene. Is this really about the better world, or petty male romantic jealousy? Shy and introverted, it seems that Kaede never had the courage to tell Hisano how he felt and perhaps took it for granted that she understood, unfairly feeling betrayed when she showed interest in someone else despite her near constant prompts for him to speak up whether it be about her or their movement. Kaede says nothing, then blames Hisano for “rejecting” him as if the only reason she could have had for befriending him in the first place was the eventual breaking of his heart. 

In true “nice guy” fashion, Kaede can’t help but see himself as the wounded party. In the flip book he’s been idly drawing which opens the film, a man runs smack into a rock and bangs his head much in the way he seems to feel he has done in his abortive attempts to enter society. Yet later he begins to gain another understanding, his stick figure getting back up and climbing on top of the head of Moai to behold a new world below him. He starts to realise that to change the world you really do need to start with yourself and that in this he has resolutely failed. His petty act of revenge may in a sense be morally justifiable, exposing Moai for the questionable force it has become, but it’s also sordid and unpleasant intended solely to wound in order to avenge his sense of male pride. Only too late does he realise the consequences of his actions and what they say about the kind of person he is and wanted to be. Consumed by a sense of inadequacy, he is defeated by life, too afraid to become the person he should be lest the world reject him but his brief moment of fantasy of what could have been if only he’d been less cynical and cold is bathed in a kind of golden light he perhaps realises he could feel again if only he change himself in order to change the world in which he lives. A masterclass in male gaslighting, Kariyama’s duplicitous drama refuses to let its hero off the hook but reserves for him the right to start again, become the person he wants to be and lay down his arms in willing vulnerability in the hope that others may do the same. 


Blue, Painful, Fragile is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Shin Adachi, 2019)

Adapting his own autobiographical novel, screenwriter and director Shin Adachi claims that the events and characters of A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Kigeki Aisai Monogatari) are exactly as they are in real life, only the film makes it all look better. Even if true, Adachi can’t be faulted for his honesty. His protagonist stand-in, Gota (Gaku Hamada), has almost no redeeming qualities, while his long-suffering wife receives little sympathy even while giving as good as she gets as a sake-guzzling harridan apparently ready to run her husband down at every opportunity, of which there are many, but Gota is quite simply useless. The Japanese title is careful to include the word “comedy” as a prefix, but this is humour of an extremely cruel variety. 

Married for 10 years with a small daughter, Gota’s chief preoccupation in his life seems to be that his wife, Chika (Asami Mizukawa), no longer finds him sexually desirable and they are rarely intimate. Rather than lament the distance in their marriage, all Gota does is go on a long, misogynistic rant about how he’d get a mistress or visit a sex worker only he has no money while complaining that he has to humiliate himself by helping out with the housework and childcare which he only does to curry favour in the hope that he will eventually be able to have sex with his wife. After some minor success as a screenwriter, his career is on the slide and he’s had no work in months, something which seems to damage his sense of masculinity and in his mind contributes to his wife’s animosity towards him.

He is right in one regard in that Chika is thoroughly fed up being forced to pick up the slack while he sits around watching VR porn, not writing or looking for a job but insisting that the next movie is always just round the corner. She’s tired and overworked, sick of penny pinching and resentful that she has to do everything herself, but it’s not so much the money that bothers her as Gota’s fecklessness while all he seems to care about is sex, meeting his own needs and no one else’s. Even when he takes his daughter, Aki (Chise Niitsu), to the park he ignores her to ogle other women, becoming embarrassed on running into a neighbour we later learn he slept with and then ghosted. He does the same thing again later on a beach, so busy sexting that he doesn’t see her wander off and is roundly chewed out by the lifeguard (an amusing cameo from director Hirobumi Watanabe, giving him the hard stare) who eventually finds her and brings her back. Not content with that, he rounds out the bad dad card by frequently bribing Aki with treats so she won’t spill the beans to her mum about his many questionable parental decisions. 

Really, we have to ask ourselves, why does Chika not leave him? The perspective we’re given is Gota’s and he appears not to understand that any of his behaviour is problematic, which might be why he seems genuinely shocked when Chika reaches the end of her tether and once again suggests divorce. He seems to think some of this at least is performative, part of the act of “marriage”, and she does indeed make a show of her frugality – insisting on sharing a 200 yen bowl of udon with her daughter to save money and climbing up a utility pole to sneak into a hotel after booking only a single occupancy room for the three of them, but is there more in her decision not to leave than habit? Gota seems to think so, especially on noticing her wearing the lucky red pants she bought back when they were young and in love and she believed in his potential. But then perhaps she really is just being economical.  

Nevertheless, she appears to keep supporting him, once again typing up his latest screenplay because he claims not to be able to use a word processor, and laughing off the rather more serious incident in which he is arrested after being discovered by a policeman molesting a drunk woman in the street. Adachi doesn’t appear to have very much to say in favour of the modern marriage, as if this one is no worse than any other (even a friend who married well (Kaho) badmouths her husband and giggles about a young lover), but Gota seems to have learned absolutely nothing even while declaring his love to his sleeping family and vowing to make a success of himself at last. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. 


A Beloved Wife is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival 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)

The Chaplain (教誨師, Dai Sako, 2018)

The Chaplian posterJapan is one of the few developed nations which still maintains the death penalty, though in practice infrequently. The sentence of death is handed down almost exclusively to mass or serial murderers, child killers, or those whose crimes are judged to be of extraordinary barbarity. Unlike other nations, Japan houses those on death row not in prisons but in detention centres, denying them the rights that are afforded to regular prisoners such as visitation, exercise, and entertainment. Execution must be carried out within five days of the judgement being handed down. The prisoner themselves is informed on the morning of their death and given a choice of last meal, but their family members, legal team, and the general public are only informed once it has taken place preventing any last minute attempts for a stay.

In what would be his final screen role (and his first as a producer), Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain, Saeki, attempting to guide a series of Death Row prisoners towards spiritual peace as they prepare to accept their judgement. Though none of the prisoners he visits protests their innocence, some are more repentant than others and not all of them have fully internalised the fact they will never leave the facility even when no further legal attempts to commute their sentences seem to be underway. Some might say there is an element of exploitation in sending a chaplain in at all seeing as this is literally a captive audience. The crimes which lead to being on Death Row are necessarily extreme, many prisoners either have no remaining family members or have been abandoned by them out of shame, leaving them intensely lonely and devoid of human contact (not even televisions or radios are permitted). They are therefore much more interested in conversation than they are in The Bible or accepting Jesus into their hearts.

Then again, Saeki’s first visit is to a man who says nothing at all, allowing him to fill the silence with some of his own backstory which hints at a personal trauma possibly informing his desire to save the souls of these unfortunate people. Another prisoner, by contrast, is all too eager to convert but, as Saeki soon realises, is almost entirely illiterate and therefore struggling to hear the word of God through being unable to read. Saeki does his best to help them, gently listening to their fears and worries but encounters a familiar series of social problems which made their fates inevitable stemming from entrenched poverty and social inequality.

Only six months into the job, he wonders if he’s really getting through and if his efforts are worthwhile. His most challenging prisoner is a young man convicted of a mass killing of those with learning difficulties (inspired by a real life case), whom he deemed to be a drain on national resources. A hyper-rational sociopath, Takamiya (Leo Tamaoki) baits Saeki with unassailable, coldhearted logic which asks why, if he’s happy enough to kill and eat “stupid” animals like cows and pigs, but not “clever” ones like dolphins, his application of the same logic to the human world can be wrong? If all creatures have an equal right to life, then killing for food is as wrong as any other kind of killing and the death penalty nothing more than state sanctioned murder. There is no rational answer for Takamiya’s philosophy and aside from his abhorrent, unfeeling rationality he may have a point when it comes to social hypocrisy. All Saeki can do is ask him to stand with the people that he killed, and acknowledge that God or no God, Saeki too will be with him until the very end.

If Takamiya begins to question the terrifying rationalism which led him to his truly barbaric act, he does so probably not because of Saeki’s ministrations but because of his proximity to death. Meanwhile, another prisoner, Suzuki (Kanji Furutachi), convicted of a stalker murder, seems to have picked up entirely the wrong message in coming to blame just about everyone else for his crime and absolving himself of responsibility. He might have found peace, but it is not the kind of peace he was supposed to find. Noguchi (Setsuko Karasuma), meanwhile, the only female prisoner, continues to talk about the future as if she really thinks she’s getting out. Only Shoichi (Takeo Gozu), an elderly man, seems to truly accept Saeki’s teachings though it is perhaps enough to make him feel as if he really is making a difference.

Sako opts for subtlety in pointing out the inherent hypocritical immorality of the death penalty and particularly in the context of the Japanese legal system which relies heavily on confessions often extracted under duress. Battling his own sense of guilt, Saeki tries to save himself by saving the souls of others but finds his work an uphill battle in a society which prefers not to speak of unpleasant matters and thereby renders itself absolute and unaccountable in the rigidity of its justice.


The Chaplain (教誨師, Kyoukaishi) was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable (ザ・ファブル, Kan Eguchi, 2019)

The Fable poster 2It’s easy to become a victim of your own success when you’re a top assassin. Being the best only makes you target, and over exposure can prove fatal. If you’ve lived by taking the lives of others, can you ever really go back to being just like everyone else? The hero of Kan Eguchi’s The Fable (ザ・ファブル) tries to do just that, but then “back” might not quite be the best way to think about it in his case. Silly slapstick humour meets fast and furious gun fu but always with a soulful heart as our heroes try to figure out how to live “normally” while inhabiting a very abnormal world.

“The Fable” (Junichi Okada) is Tokyo’s top assassin, as he proves effortlessly taking out a room full of yakuza at a wedding reception. He is not, however, heartless, letting the gangster’s pregnant wife alone unlike the next bunch of goons to turn up. In any case, Fable has been far too successful, which is why his handler (Koichi Sato) hands him an unusual new mission – to live as a “normal” person in Osaka for a whole year without killing anyone at all. Along with his assistant posing as his sister under the cover ID “Yuko” (Fumino Kimura), and a pet parrot, Fable becomes “Akira Sato” and begins his new life as a “normal” man nominally under the aegis of the local mob.

The problem is “Sato” never had much of a “normal” life. As a child, he was abandoned in the mountains with only a pocket knife to toughen him up for a life of killing. He didn’t go to school, has never had a job, and struggles with social situations. He is however extremely dedicated and committed to fulfilling his mission which means he is very keen to figure out what “normal” people do so he can do that too, quickly noting that “normal” people don’t usually eat the skin on edamame beans or the rind on watermelon so doing either of those things in public will instantly arouse suspicion. Meanwhile, he takes a minimum wage job at small printshop working alongside the lovely Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) who was nice enough to offer him some tissues when he let himself get beaten up by thugs to prove how “professional” he could be in maintaining his cover.

That’s something that might be easier said than done given the rapidly unfolding yakuza drama all around him. Recently released thug Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is stirring up trouble everywhere he goes, exacerbating a growing division between the big boss (Ken Mitsuishi) and ambitious underling Sunagawa (Osamu Mukai) who is already fed up with Kojima’s antics while two crazed admirers are also hot on Sato’s trail hoping to knock him off the top spot.

Meticulous and efficient, Sato is still in many ways a child trying to learn to live in the “normal” world. Somewhat arrested in having missed out on a normal childhood, his “childish” drawings of zoo animals become an unexpected hit with the print shop crew, while his justice loving heart also has him subtly undermining the office pervert who has a habit of installing illicit spy cams targeting female employees. Despite his icy profession, Sato is a goodnatured guy and deep down just wants to help and protect people. Thus he is very invested in his mission and actively tries to become “normal” while bonding with Misaki and taking care of his pet parrot (a Le Samouraï reference and ironic mentor in mimicry) as he navigates the difficult waters of interpersonal interaction.

Frustrated male relationships are indeed key from Sato’s with his boss who orders him not to die but then says he’ll kill him if he fails his mission, to the homoerotic tension between Sato’s contact Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) and the relentlessly psychotic Kojima. Sato’s boss and Ebihara acknowledge they will have to accept responsibility for their respective charges and if necessary take preventative measures in order to ensure they don’t cause trouble, but they do so with heavy hearts in service of their codes. Silly slapstick humour quickly gives way to slick action set pieces as Sato steps back into his element, ably assisted by his sake-loving “sister” who has committed to her cover ID almost as deeply as Sato. Sweet and affecting, Kan Eguchi’s adaptation of the much loved manga is a charmingly surreal one in which his fish out of water hero figures out how to live in a new pond thanks to unexpected kindnesses and honourable yakuza ethics.


The Fable screens on 2nd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)