Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

No Longer Human (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Mika Ninagawa, 2019)

Like a character from one of his novels, Osamu Dazai is remembered as a figure of intense romanticism, an image fuelled by his love suicide with a woman who was neither his wife nor the mistress with whom he had conceived a child. A proponent of the “I novel”, Dazai lived as he wrote, but crucially gives the hero of his final book, No Longer Human, a less destructive ending than he eventually gave himself in that he finally accepts his toxicity and chooses self-exile in the belief that he has fallen so far as to lose the right to regard himself as “human”. Mika Ninagawa’s biographical treatment of Dazai borrows the title from his most famous novel (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Ningen Shikkaku: Dazai Osamu to 3-nin no Onnatachi), but gives it a subtitle which pulls focus from the author himself towards the three women who each in their own way made him what he was. 

Yet what he was, in Ninagawa’s characterisation at least, was hollow. Late into the film, she includes a famous literary anecdote in which a young Yukio Mishima (Kengo Kora) turns up to a party where Dazai (Shun Oguri) is holding court following the publication of The Setting Sun and accuses him of being a poseur, a coward who writes endlessly about death but has no real intention of following through. That’s something of which he was often accused, having already failed to die as we see in the film’s opening in a love suicide in which the woman died calling out another man’s name. Intensely insecure, he carps on about being disrespected by the literary establishment, in fact using his final days and one of his last chances to pen an embittered screed against the famous authors who read but apparently did not care for his work. His editor despairs of him, resenting him not only for the debauched lifestyle which interferes with his writing but his essential caddishness that sees him both mistreat his loyal wife and use countless women as fuel for his art never quite caring about what happens to them afterwards. 

Dazai claims that Michiko (Rie Miyazawa), his legal wife and mother of his children, is OK with his affairs because it is “love in the service of art”. There is some truth in that, though as Michiko points out, Dazai himself would have no interest in a woman so passively self-sacrificing as that of Villon’s Wife. When the children catch sight of their father embracing another woman at a festival, she calmly tells them that he is “working” before pulling them on in embarrassment, putting up with it perhaps more because she has no other option than in respect for Dazai the great artist. 

Yet as his new lover Shizuko (Erika Sawajiri) claims, beautiful art comes from broken people, an idea which perhaps enables Dazai’s grandiose vision of himself as an unjustly dismissed literary genius. Just as Villon’s Wife was “inspired” by his relationship with Michiko, The Setting Sun is about Shizuko, only this time Shizuko is more collaborator than muse. He plunders her diaries and the most famous line from his novel, “Men are made for love and revolution” was in fact not written by him but stolen from her (she eventually asks for a co-writing credit but evidently did not get one, penning her own book instead). What she asks him for in return is a child, a strangely common request also made of him by Tomie (Fumi Nikaido), the woman with whom he eventually dies largely, the film suggests, because despite the longing for life that birth represents she pulled him towards death and he was too indifferent to resist. Dazai’s resistance, if you can call it that, is listlessness in which he has no desire to live but equally perhaps no real desire to die. 

Despite the foregrounding of the title, the three women are perhaps three paths he could take – the conventional as a husband and father, the radical as man standing equal with a woman who is not a wife with whom he births “a new art”, and finally the nihilistic “death” which is the route he eventually takes. With or perhaps for Tomie he writes the work he knows will destroy him in which he excoriates himself rather than her but, unlike in life, receives the gift of self-awareness and then lets himself (partially) off the hook. In Ninagawa’s visual complexity he is perhaps to an extent already dead, collapsing in the snow after haemorrhaging blood in the later stages of TB next to a red circle looking oddly like the flag of Japan only for white petals to begin raining down on him as if he were already in his coffin. We see repeated shots of shimmering water reminding us of his death by drowning, and for all of Ninagawa’s characteristically colourful compositions it’s the women who are surrounded by the vibrancy of flowers in full bloom never Dazai himself. On her husband’s death, Michiko can exclaim only (and ironically) that the sun has finally come out as she gets on with her life putting out the washing. Shizuko affirms that Dazai was the love of her life while asserting her own artistic identity in pushing her book which is an inversion of his. Meanwhile, Dazai has consumed himself, a cad to the last, overdosing on romanticism as an artist who fears he has nothing else to say.


Hong Kong trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)

“Music saves the world” according to a hold out record store owner keeping the doors open in the wake of coming disaster. In one way or another and most particularly at the present time, perhaps it always feels as if the world is ending but somehow we seem to carry on. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) is, as it says, a story of how music saves the world, but also of how personal acts of quiet integrity echo through time while art finds its audience and its purpose in the proper moment even if the message is not immediately understood. 

The film opens in the “future” of 2012 during which a fiery comet is headed directly for the Earth resulting in a deadly tsunami set to engulf Mount Fuji, drowning humanity rendered unexpectedly powerless in the face of cosmic destiny. A man in a wheelchair dressed oddly like a cult leader trundles along empty arcades strewn with rubbish, pausing to poke at some trolleys with his walking stick. Eventually he stops outside a record store which is to his surprise open for business despite the coming apocalypse and jumps up, apparently able to walk after all, and heads inside where he takes the boss (Nao Omori) to task for his strange decision to go to work on this day of all days. The shopkeeper however calmly engages in conversation with a customer, sure that “music saves the world”, “this song will save the day”, introducing him to the music of little-known ‘70s punk band Gekirin whose music was too far ahead of its time for the conservative post-war society. 

Their forgotten song, Fish Story, however as we will see does indeed change the world if in small and unexpected ways not least because it’s remembered for an unexpected pause in the middle of a guitar solo, a temporary suspension of living time in which small miracles could occur. “It has a meaning” the shopkeeper insists, though refusing to elaborate. As we discover, it does and it doesn’t, but stays true to the spirit of song, a “fish story” of its own embellished in the telling as curious listeners attempt to explain its existence. For three college students in 1982 who enjoy listening to paranormal tapes, it’s something of a let down seeing as they’d been told that the missing section contained a woman’s scream which is apparently still audible to those with a sixth sense but predictably not to them. Nevertheless, a moment of silence and a woman’s scream eventually result in a timid young man (Gaku Hamada) assuming his destiny, learning to stand up to bullies even if in eventual need of rescue himself. 

Like the young man of 1982, the shopkeeper and his customer are largely passive, sure that someone is coming to save them, idly talking of superheroes in teams of five like classic tokusatsu serial Go-rangers or else Bruce Willis saving the day by heroically sacrificing himself to blow up the asteroid. But the Americans’ “Armageddon” plan soon proves a bust, hinting perhaps at the fallacies of the disaster movie model in which the nation of production saves the world all on its own. The only possible hope now lies in cross-cultural cooperation. “Just as music knows no border, we’ve come together in this emergency” says the team of international experts boarding an Indian rocket as they pursue the only option left for the salvation of humanity no matter that there’s only a one in a million chance it works, because that’s what you do at the end of world, only what you can. 

The old man scoffs at the shopkeeper and his customer, sure the world is going to end even though he previously predicted it would do so 13 years previously in line with Nostradamus. Others concluded it would end in 2009 and took action accordingly, action which almost assures the present destruction in accidentally destroying the mind capable of preventing it. It is all connected, in a cosmic sense, but it’s also all small coincidences that lead to a greater whole. In the post-war chaos of 1953, a struggling father lies about his English skills to get a job as a “translator” only to engage in an avant-garde act of language violence bludgeoning one text into another with the aid of a dictionary. The incomprehensible novel which results is pulped, but survives as a curiosity and eventually finds its way home, inspiring another work of art and becoming a kind of fish story of its own. Gekirin chose to disband rather than compromise their artistic integrity, knowing that no one was going to hear their song. “Does that make everything we’ve done meaningless?” dejected bassist Shigeki (Atsushi Ito) asks, and perhaps it seems that way, but the word is heard in the end. It all matters, we all matter, no matter how insignificant it seems in the moment. 

Adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura’s anarchic voyage through a comfortable and nostalgic post-war Japan albeit one in the shadow of coming disaster is imbued with a quiet sense of hope even as it leaves its protagonists passive participants in a history they are unaware of making. Two teams of five do in their way save the world, and all because of a song that no one heard which was inspired by a book that no one read. Life, it’s all a big fish story, but it makes sense in the end so long as you stick around long enough. 


Fish Story is released on blu-ray & VOD in the UK on 10th August courtesy of Third Window Films. On disc extras are presented in standard definition and include: making of featurette, Gekirin live performances, Gekirin talk show, director and cast Q&A, and deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Sadao Nakajima, 2019)

Sadao Nakajima joined Toei in 1959 and worked for the studio throughout its golden age, mostly associated with jidaigeki and gangster movies which were Toei’s stock in trade well into the 1970s and perhaps beyond. Now in his 80s, Nakajima’s last narrative feature was released over 20 years ago. A kind of last hurrah, Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Tajuro Junai-ki) is a willing throwback to the glory days of chanbara, even bearing a dedication title card to genre giant Daisuke Ito, and doing its best to resurrect the classic Toei programmer magic. 

Appropriately enough, the action takes place at a moment of intense change. As the film opens, the men of Choshu who have left their clan to foster their own brand of revolution in opposing the shogunate in favour of the emperor and a desire to reject Western influence, are hiding out in a shack while bad mouthing soon-to-be-allies Satsuma and the man who seeks to unite them, Sakamoto Ryoma. They are soon discovered by Kyoto’s elite Shogunate police, the Mimawarigumi, and ambushed. Their leader, the famed Katsura Kogoro (Masatoshi Nagase), signals that times have indeed changed by pulling out a pistol and defending himself at distance. 

Meanwhile, Choshu fugitive in hiding Tajuro (Kengo Kora) is trying to make ends meet with his painting, designing patterns for ladies kimonos but seemingly with little success. He has the sunken cheeks, vacant eyes, and slight slowness of someone who drinks too much and hasn’t had a decent meal in a very long time. We learn that he left Choshu with the others on the pretext of revolution, but his real purpose was escape from a restrictive samurai existence and most pertinently from his miserable poverty. Having long since given up the idea of a being a samurai, he’s already sold his sword and is attempting to live under the radar, unaware that similarly troubled bar hostess Otoyo (Mikako Tabe) has fallen in love with him. Otoyo was adopted by the bar’s owner, Omitsu (Yuriko Mishima), a former geisha, who intended to sell her to a geisha house. She eloped with a man she loved instead, but it turned out that he was minded to sell her too so she came back and now runs the bar while taking care of the ageing Omitsu. 

The crisis occurs when men of Choshu arrive in search of Tajuro in the hope that he will rejoin their cause. He doesn’t want to, showing off his samurai skills (and neatly disguising the fact that he has no blade through advanced technique) but pointedly asking for a hefty payment from his former mentor Sanzaemon (Asahi Kurizuka) in belief that it would not be paid. Sanzaemon, however, comes through and leaves a message for Tajuro to meet him behind a nearby shrine. He however spends the entirety of his money getting blind drunk in Otoyo’s bar, during which time Sanzaemon is caught by the Mimawarigumi, breathing his last words to Tajuro’s younger half-brother Kazuma (Ryo Kimura) to the effect that he must reunite with Tajuro and fight for the good of the country. 

On the run and holed up with a patient priest and his beloved wife, Tajuro is asked why it is he’s decided to pick up his sword once again despite his reluctance. Asked if was for country or for money Tajuro shakes his head, leaving the priest to correctly guess that it was for love. Tajuro has fallen in love with Otoyo, the only person who either doesn’t believe he is a failed samurai and drunken fool, or doesn’t care. The world however is still too chaotic for romance, and so their pure love will have to wait. 

Tajuro’s fate is in many ways the direct result of his attempt reject his responsibility as a samurai, daring to live as a common man with all of the freedoms and burdens that entails. The force which constrains him in both worlds is poverty. Whatever else he is, he is too poor for love, unable to feed himself let alone a wife either as a low wage samurai or a ronin. The price he pays is in his desire to cross borders. The samurai world is not done with him yet and while the denizens of this small backwater worry about paying their rent paying little mind to what’s going on in the capital, political intrigue is not something that he can go on ignoring. After all, not picking a side is in a sense also picking a side. The Mimawarigumi pride themselves on not being as savage as the Shinsengumi (which largely consists of ronin, lower ranked samurai, and commoners whereas the Mimawarigumi are elite samurai and direct retainers to the Shogunate), but their job is still to bring in fugitive rebels like Tajuro and his bid for “freedom” may be doomed to failure in a world still constrained by the law of the samurai. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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 mediocrity. Like his beloved fish, Mitsui remains trapped within an invisible tank 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)