Under Your Bed (アンダー・ユア・ベッド, Mari Asato, 2019)

Under Your Bed poster 1Japanese cinema has something of a preoccupation with invisible men, but there’s rarely been as empathetic an exploration of benign alienation as Mari Asato’s Under Your Bed (アンダー・ユア・ベッド). Asato’s lonely stalker is a creep and a voyeur, but his problem is his innate passivity born of defeatism in which he has, despite his tendency to fantasise, already accepted that he lives in a kind of other world unable to touch his fellow humans from whom he remains painfully separated as if by a sheet of invisible glass.

Tropical fish enthusiast Mitsui (Kengo Kora) is one of those people who tend to be forgotten. He doesn’t feature in his high school graduation photo, and nobody, not even his parents, has ever noticed. Harbouring intense feelings of worthlessness linking back to a childhood memory of abandonment after almost dying when his father left him sitting in a hot car, Mitsui has no friends or much of a life to speak of and regards himself as a kind of non-person invisible to others. Longing to be seen, he treasures the precious memory of the only time he has ever heard someone else call his name which occurred 11 years previously when he was a university student.

Mitsui deeply believes that this memory is the only thing that gives his life meaning. Hiring a private eye to track down the woman in question, Chihiro (Kanako Nishikawa), he quits his job and opens a tropical fish store in the town where she lives, apparently now married with a baby. What he discovers, however, is that this Chihiro is quite different from the one of 11 years previously. Hoping to figure out why he begins watching her intensely, swiping a key to the house after she drops into the fish shop by chance and he offers to set her up with a tank full of colourful guppies. What Mitsui eventually discovers is that Chihiro is also living a somewhat invisible life as a victim of domestic violence unable to escape the tyrannical control of her respectable salaryman husband.

Facing a dilemma, Mitsui doesn’t so much want to rescue Chihiro as preserve his peculiar level of access to her even if seeing her subjected to such degrading and inhuman treatment quite obviously disturbs him. Mitsui can’t swoop in and save her because he’d blow his cover and lose the fragile connection to her life he’s convinced himself he has. Never daring to hope he could get her attention through an act of white knight salvation, he nevertheless fantasises about a different version of himself – one that is capable of providing comfort and protection rather than simply sitting and watching while others suffer.

Ironically enough, however, his passive presence seems to make a difference. Shifting to a brief voice over from Chihiro, we discover that the flowers Mitsui has been sending with a card wishing her happiness are the only thing that’s been keeping her going. What some might regard as a cause for concern has given Chihiro strength in proving that there’s someone else out there who cares about her. Yet this change or at least potential restoration also endangers Mitsui’s plan as Chihiro’s growing conviction that she can protect herself, spurred on by the invisible support of the flower sender and others, threatens to dissolve the fragile fantasy world he’s constructed.

Mitsui is forced to wonder if his obsession is equal parts delusion, that perhaps the very events which define his life are part fabrications. His intense conviction that he is a forgettable person is borne out when he realises that Chihiro not only does not recognise him, but apparently does not even remember anything that passed between them 11 years previously. To her, he is probably just a random guy she had coffee with one time, whereas to him she is the woman who changed his life by showing him what true happiness could feel like simply by saying his name. Spotting another invisible person like himself reminds Mitsui what he looks like from the outside and of the potential dangers of those like him when he finds out that the man later went out and stabbed his boss’ wife because she gave everyone except him a holiday souvenir. Yet there is a strange kind of positivity in Matsui’s gentle acceptance of his invisibility. Resenting nothing, it’s not revenge he wants but recognition and though he may eventually figure out that what he really desired was something more, all he needs is the possibility that Chihiro may one day say his name again.

An invisible man, Mitsui longs to “seen” but lives a bug-like existence, hiding in the places no one thinks to look. Proudly telling us that the guppies in his shop are the 34th generation of the guppies his mother once gave him, Mitsui reveals that he flushes the subpar males, with whom he inevitably groups himself, away in order to preserve the beauty of the whole rather than allow it to descend on a path towards mediocre blandness. Like his beloved fish, Mitsui remains trapped within an invisible cage unable to reach beyond the glass, resigned to looking but not touching. Nevertheless, his presence is eventually felt, unseen but recognised and finally rewarded with a single long-awaited word.


Under Your Bed was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shoplifters (万引き家族, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)

Shoplifters poster 2Tolstoy once said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The family drama is the mainstay of Japanese cinema, though to be fair it rarely features families which are noticeably “unhappy” so much as struggling under the weight of social expectations. Nevertheless, since consumerism arrived in force, the concept of “the family” has come in for regular interrogation. That at the centre of Shoplifters (万引き家族, Manbiki Kazoku), Hirokazu Koreeda’s return to the genre with which he is most closely associated, are on one level among the happiest of families ever captured on film, but then again they are not quite like all the others.

The Shibatas live in a small Japanese-style house owned by “grandma” Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) whose pension (or, to be more precise, that of her late husband) makes up a significant portion of the family income. Patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) has a casual job as a day labourer while his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works in a laundry. Her “sister” Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) tells people she works as a kind of hostess but actually dresses up as a schoolgirl and performs sex services behind a two-way mirror in a sleazy club. Meanwhile, Osamu and Nobuyo’s “son”, Shota (Jyo Kairi), alternates his time between homeschooling himself and helping out with the family’s only other source of income – thievery. It’s after one partially successful foray to the local supermarket that Osamu and Shota come across a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), stuck out on a balcony alone in the freezing cold and decide to take her home for something warm to eat.

Of course, this family itself is the very definition of makeshift. Osamu and Nobuyo may be a “real” couple, but no one else is actually related. The Family Game may have attempted to take the family apart and expose it as an artificial mechanism devoid of real feeling in which each is simply playing the role expected of them, but Shoplifters asks the opposite – if a found family can actually be more “real” that the real thing because it has been chosen, is wanted, and continues to function because of an organic bond between individuals which exists in the absence of blood.

In a sense, the family itself has been “shoplifted”. Later, under questioning, Nobuyo is accused of “throwing away” Hatsue but she corrects them – she didn’t and she wouldn’t. Someone else “threw away” Hatsue and she found her. Hatsue was abandoned by her husband who fathered a family with another woman, but seemingly not with her. Alone she longed for a family of her own and most of all to avoid the looming threat of a “lonely death”. Whatever else they might have gained from the “arrangement”, Osamu and Nobuyo are at least able to offer her the thing that would make her life complete as she prepares to meet its end. By the logic of the family drama, one family must be broken in order to forge another and it’s true enough to say that each member of the Shibata clan has been pilfered from somewhere else but in the end perhaps it’s better this way, free of the cold obligation of a blood or legal tie.

Then again, there are cracks in the foundation. Little Shota, growing fast into a young man, is increasingly conflicted about the way the family makes ends meet. Trapped in low paid, casual employment, Osamu and Nobuyo are working but poor, unable to support their family on their wages alone. Injured at work, Osamu is left without compensation because he’s only a day labourer and therefore not entitled to workplace protections while Nobuyo is eventually forced into a “workshare” arrangement and then to resign when her boss cruelly tells her and a friend that they can decide between themselves which of them gets to keep their job. They steal because they’re hungry, but also perhaps because they enjoy this small way of rebelling against the system. Osamu tells Shota that stealing from stores is OK because no one really “owns” anything while it’s still on the shelf, but Shota begins to doubt his logic. It’s not just “taking”, it’s taking “from” and Shota is increasingly worried about who it is their way of life may be harming. He worries that in taking in Yuri the family is corrupting her, indoctrinating her into their morally dubious universe.

Morally dubious it may be, but life with the Shibatas is warm and safe which is a lot more than can be said for Yuri’s life with her birth parents who don’t even bother to report her missing – social services eventually figure out she isn’t around two months later and come to the conclusion that the parents may have got rid of her in some unspecified way. Which sort of “corruption” is worse – an upbringing filled with abuse and neglect, or one filled with love and habitual criminality? Yet it’s an act of love that finally breaks the family apart and leaves them at the mercy of cold and official forces too obsessed with their own sense of narrative to bother listening to the “truth”. Shoplifters wants to ask if the “natural” laws of society still serve us when little girls fall through the cracks and our definition of “family” is so narrow and rigid that it denies us a way of saving them. Sometimes the found family is stronger than the inherited one, but society is primed to crush it all the same in its relentless and indifferent quest to preserve the social order.


Shoplifters opens in UK cinemas on 23rd November courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Hiroshi Ando, 2017)

Moon and Thunder posterThe family is coming in for another round of fierce criticism in Japanese cinema where the “family drama” has long been revered as a representative genre. Hiroshi Ando who has hitherto been more interested in atypical romantic relationships is the latest to reconsider whether family is really all it’s cracked up to be in adapting Mitsuyo Kakuta’s novel, Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Tsuki to Kaminari). Two children from dysfunctional homes now fully grown struggle to adapt themselves to the nature of adult society, unsure if they should remove themselves from it entirely or force themselves into the socially expected roles they fear they don’t know how to play. Yet perhaps what they find in the end is not so much a talent for conventionality as an acceptance of life’s many imperfections.

20-something Yasuko (Eriko Hatsune) lives alone in her family home following the death of her father (Jun Murakami). She has an unsatisfying job in the local supermarket and is in an unsatisfying relationship with a co-worker who wants to get married but she isn’t convinced. Yasuko’s striving for an “ordinary” life is disrupted when Satoru (Kengo Kora), the son of one her father’s former girlfriends who lived with them for a few months 20 years ago, suddenly tracks her down. The reconnection between them is instant and easy but also confused, somewhere between siblings and lovers as they resume the physical intimacy they shared as children but on an adult level.

Satoru, a drifter like his flighty mother (Tamiyo Kusakari), pushes Yasuko towards a consideration of the idea of family which she’d long been resisting. She becomes determined to track down the biological mother who abandoned her when she was just a toddler, hoping to find some kind of answer to the great riddle of her life. Her birth mother, however, fails her once again. Kazuyo, faking tears for the reality show cameras reuniting her with her daughter, is a selfish woman who claims she left her country home because it was boring and that she left her daughter behind because she said she didn’t want to go. Feeling as if she’s being blamed for her own abandonment Yasuko is left with only more confusion and resentment but does at least discover something by accidentally encountering her younger half-sister, Arisa (Takemi Fujii), who shows her that life with her mother might not have been very much different than without.

Yasuko and Satoru revert to their childhood selves because that brief period 20 years ago is the only time either of them ever experienced what they felt to be a “normal” family life as they played together happily and were well fed and cared for by adults acting responsibly. It was however all over too soon – Naoko, Satoru’s drifting mother, upped and left just as she always does. Someone probably left her years ago, and now she makes sure to leave them first before she can be can rejected. Naoko is the only “mother” Yasuko can remember, and her abandonment the most painful in her long memory of abandonments. First came Satoru, and then Arisa her sister, and finally Naoko too returning, filling Yasuko’s home with an instant family that at times seems too perverse and difficult to bear.

Yet she struggles with the idea of “family” itself as something she’s supposed to want but perhaps doesn’t out of fear it will fail her. She considers marrying her workplace boyfriend even though it appears she doesn’t particularly like him and they aren’t suited, solely because his proposal offers her the “normal”, “conventional” kind of life she both fears and longs for. With Satoru she has found a kind of love that is more complicated than most, two lonely children looking for a home and finding it in each other but each fearing that they will not be able to bear the anxiety of its potential end. Yet rather than continue onward along the same dull path she’d walked before, longing for soulless normality, what Yasuko discovers is that she’ll be OK on her own even if things don’t work out in the way that most would consider “normal”. Abandoning past and future, Yasuko begins to accept her presence in the present as a woman with possibilities rather than a passive object clinging onto the life raft of “normality”, accepting that nothing is forever but that once something starts it never really ends.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Bandage バンデイジ (Takeshi Kobayashi, 2010)

Japan was a strange place in the early ‘90s. The bubble burst and everything changed leaving nothing but confusion and uncertainty in its place. Tokyo, like many cities, however, also had a fairly active indie music scene in part driven by the stringency of the times and representing the last vestiges of an underground art world about to be eclipsed by the resurgence of studio driven idol pop. Bandage (Bandage バンデイジ) is the story of one ordinary girl and her journey of self discovery among the struggling artists and the corporate suits desperate to exploit them. One of the many projects scripted and produced by Shunji Iwai during his lengthy break from the director’s chair, Bandage is also the only film to date directed by well known musician and Iwai collaborator Takeshi Kobayashi who evidently draws inspiration from his mentor but adds his own particular touches to the material.

High school girl Asako (Kie Kitano) is best friends with Miharu (Anne Watanabe) who likes all the same cool indie bands she does and is therefore upset to learn that she is dropping out of school because her parents have money problems. Luckily the girls run in to each other at a record store where Miharu works and bond again over the new CD of a band Miharu had recommended and Asako had fallen in love with – LANDS. Miharu also manages to get tickets to a LANDS concert and even swipes a couple of backstage badges from some retreating suits.

The girls sneak backstage and are immediately clocked by the band’s wily manager, Yukari (Ayumi Ito), but their adventure is derailed after they literally run into a band member and Asako loses a contact lens. The band’s lead singer, Natsu (Jin Akanishi), places a bandana across Asako’s temporarily blinded eye and rechristens her “Black Jack” before inviting both the girls to the post-show drinking session. Leaving early, Asako ends up arranging to meet Natsu at another bar later, beginning her long journey with the difficult, damaged musician as they navigate the turbulent “indie” record scene with all of its various traps and temptations.

Though Natsu and Asako may not actually be so far apart in age, you have to admit there’s a something not quite right in his sudden desire to befriend a starstruck high school girl. He does indeed seem to be after the obvious but after she resolutely turns him down, he keeps chasing her right until the end of the film. Despite remaining a little distant and afraid of this somehow very intense yet completely chilled out diva of a frontman, Asako becomes something like his only friend yet her presence continues to provoke tension within the group, particularly after she leaves high school and gets a job as a manager working alongside Yukari.

What first drew Asako to the music of LANDS was an identification with their melancholy lyrics echoing the alienation and loneliness she herself felt as a diffident adolescent. Her feelings towards Natsu are also driven by this same identification with his angst ridden lyrics but the qualities which attract him to her are those which she loathes in herself. Natsu, a narcissistic would be rock god, treats the band like his personal little empire, but deep down he knows he’s not its MVP. That would be the striking long haired guitar player, Yukiya (Kengo Kora), who the suits have pegged as the most likely to succeed. Natsu can write and his songs are good, if sometimes “uncommercial”, but he doesn’t quite have “it” in the same was as Yukiya does. Yukiya, by contrast, is (mostly) content to follow Natsu’s lead yet comes to resent his close relationship with Asako, regarding her as a kind of “Yoko” disrupting the band’s carefully crafted unity.

Yukiya’s attempt to destroy Asako is a calculated and cold one, motivated by his belief that she has “destroyed LANDS”. Laying bear his own pain and loneliness, Yukiya uses his internal darkness as an odd kind of seduction technique only to leave Asako on a barren shore sure of nothing other than the fear and confusion inside her heart. A dangerously violent confrontation with a drunken Natsu is the final trigger for Asako’s own moment of self realisation as she sees herself reflected in Natsu’s self destructive meltdown. United in mutual self loathing, the pair cement a melancholy though ultimately unrealisable bond which puts an end to Asako’s musical adventures.

Asasko is given a second opportunity to pursue a musical dream but one which is more on her own terms and reminds her of the potential and possibilities of music as art rather than the market driven mindset her agency job had done its best to instil. Natsu, it seems, has also rediscovered his artistry and may be in a better place to create away from the pressures that come with fronting an up and coming indie band. Defiantly exclaiming that the pain can’t reach him, Natsu might have found the “bandage” he’d been looking for which is, in a sense, his music – the dressing which staunches the weeping wounds of his pain and suffering. Music, like a bandage, is both salve and barrier – its message indirect but none the less deeply felt even if its effects are for internal use only. Asako and Natsu seem destined to walk on parallel paths but each has, at least, begun to discover their true selves as they continue to pursue their artistic dreams if perhaps at the expense of the personal.


Short scene from the film (no subtitles)

The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Shuichi Okita, 2009)

If there’s one thing which unites the universes present in the films of Shuichi Okita, aside from their warm and humorous atmosphere, it’s their tendency to take a generally genial, calm and laid back protagonist and throw them into an inhospitable environment which they don’t quite understand. When it comes to “inhospitable”, the hero of The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Nankyoku Ryourinin) couldn’t have it much worse, unfairly transferred to a polar research station where the air temperature is so cold nothing, not even bacteria, can survive outside. Still, like all of Okita’s laid back guys, he handles his difficult circumstances with a kind of stoical resignation until, of course, the situation can be handled no more!

Separated from his wife and children, Jun Nishimura (Masato Sakai) previously worked for the Japanese coastguard but has now been transferred (not altogether of his own volition) to a polar research station where he is responsible for all the culinary needs of the seven men who will be working together during the expedition which is intended to last one year. Each of the other men has his own part to play in the scientific endeavours but cooped up as they are, the greater issue is downtime as the guys revert to a kind of high school camp, divided into various groups and activities from the “Chinese Research Club” to a bar being run by the doctor who is also training for a triathlon. 365 days in the freezing cold does eventually begin to take its toll but all of the crazy only serves to remind people how important it is that they all get on and make it through this together.

Based on the autobiographical writings of the real Jun Nishimura, Okita’s isolation experiment has a pleasantly authentic feeling as the titular chef laments the difficulties of the conditions but continues to churn out beautifully presented culinary treats despite the hostile environment. Resources are also strictly limited as the original provisions are intended to last the entire expedition – hence why most of the foodstuffs are canned, vacuum packed or frozen but there are a few luxuries on offer including some prize shrimp apparently left behind, uneaten, by a previous team which proves an additional occasion for celebration just as despair is beginning to set it in. Seeing as the men are all here for more than a year, celebratory occasions do present themselves with regularity from birthdays to “mid winter holiday” and even a good go at the Japanese festival of Setsubun with peanuts instead of beans.

Despite these brief moments of respite, being completely cut off from the outside world for such a long time with little natural light and hardly anything to do outside of research places its own kind of pressure on the minds of these top scientists. As their hair gets shaggier and their beards progressively less kempt, sanity also begins to slip. Each of the guys has their own particular marker, something they’re missing that’s playing on their minds until they eventually break completely. For some this could be realising they’ve eaten all of the ramen which exists in their tiny world and now have nothing left to live for, missing their kids, or realising that their girlfriend might have met someone else while they’ve been busy devoting themselves to science, but this being an Okita film even if an axe is raised it rarely falls where intended and the only cure for mass hysteria is guilt ridden kindness and a willingness to work together to put everything right again.

Of course, the other thing the guys have to put up with is the attitude of the outside world as everyone is very keen to ask them about the cute penguins and seals which they are sure must be everywhere at the South Pole, only to have to explain that it’s just too cold for cuteness though it does lead them to the epiphany that they are the only living creatures in this desolate place and so share a special kind of kinship. Filled with Okita’s usual brand of off the wall humour and gentle humanity, The Chef of South Polar is another warm and friendly tale of nice people triumphing over adversity through cooperation, mutual understanding and sustained belief in the healing power of ramen.


Original trailer (no subtitles)