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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

My-Uncle-p1Crazy uncles – the gift that keeps on giving. Following the darker edged Over the Fence as the second of two films released in 2016, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Boku no Ojisan) pushes his subtle humour in a much more overt direction with a comic tale of a self obsessed (not quite) professor as seen seen through the eyes of his exasperated nephew. “Travels with my uncle” of a kind, Yamashita’s latest is a pleasantly old fashioned comedy spiced with oddly poignant moments as a wiser than his years nephew attempts to help his continually befuddled uncle navigate the difficulties of unexpected romance.

Yukio (Riku Ohnishi) has been given one of the most dreaded homework assignments ever – he’s supposed to write an essay about an “interesting” family member. This is a problem because Yukio thinks his family is very boring – dad is a civil servant, mum is a housewife, and his little sister is very frank but fails to generate sufficient interest for a whole essay. At this point, Yukio’s eccentric Uncle (Ryuhei Matsuda) enters the scene to enquire if the next edition of a children’s manga magazine has been released yet. Yukio says it has but he doesn’t buy it anymore because he’s grown out of it. Uncle hasn’t and wants him to buy one as soon as possible, convincing Yukio to pay 30% of the sticker price in the process. Annoyed, Yukio starts chronicling his Uncle’s strange adventures in school essay which proves a hit with his teacher (Erika Toda) who has accidentally become Uncle’s biggest fan.

Uncle lives with the family because he’s “a philosopher” which involves a lot of rejecting capitalist ideals and lying on his futon “thinking” or reading manga to give his brain a rest. Though Uncle’s brother and the father of the family (Kankuro Kudo) is content not to rock the boat, his wife (Shinobu Terajima) is often fed up with Uncle’s behaviour and is trying to set him up with proposals for an arranged marriage to get rid of him. Uncle is having none of it but is instantly smitten after being introduced to Japanese-Hawaiian photographer Eri (Yoko Maki). Eventually chasing her all the way to Hawaii with Yukio in tow, Uncle tries his luck with romance but only seems to get himself mixed up in even more unpredictable mischief.

There’s something so pleasantly innocent about My Uncle with its almost nostalgic tone and embrace of the surreality of everyday life. As seen through the eyes of Yukio, Uncle is not an entirely sympathetic figure at the beginning of the film. A part-time professor, Uncle talks big but spends his life rooting through ashtrays looking for smokable cigarette butts and collecting coupons to use for cheap dinners. Attempts to entertain the children backfire when he gifts them a very realistic plastic toy of a giant millipede though he does sometimes take Yukio out on “thinking expeditions” – usually on weekends and holidays to not be in the house to be shouted at by Yukio’s parents who are rapidly loosing patience with Uncle’s inability to progress in life.

If this were a series (and one could only hope) you could easily call the first instalment “Uncle Falls in Love” as Uncle finds himself finally thinking about settling down with the beautiful and outgoing Eri. Eri does seem to be among the few people who finds Uncle’s unusual qualities charming though he might need to rethink his plan of action if he’s finally to win her heart. Unfortunately, Eri is about to move back to Hawaii but invites Yukio and Uncle to visit. Uncle is desperate to go but as he can’t even afford to buy cigarettes, international travel is out. Undeterred, Uncle comes up with a number of labour intensive schemes to get there rather than actually working for the money but eventually makes it with Yukio’s help. There is, however, a rival on hand in Eri’s former boyfriend Shinsuke (Shigeyuki Totsugi) who is equally determined to win her back.

Life with Uncle may be one of constant exasperation but as Eri points out it’s never boring. Whether he’s getting himself arrested for accidentally buying weed or making up wild stories about himself in a misguided attempt to impress people, Uncle lives on a different plane of existence. Yukio reflects on all of this with a world weariness worthy of a 70 year old man but eventually comes to a kind of grudging affection for his silly old Uncle who is quite clearly setting himself up for a fall even if he has his heart in the right place. Yamashita mixes in poignant moments such as a reflective look over Pearl Harbour which gives rise to a discussion of life as a Hawaiian citizen of Japanese descent during the war, but broadly the tone is a bright one of zany humour and ironic one liners. Hilariously funny in a gentle, old fashioned way, My Uncle is Yamashita in full on comedy mode but all the better for it even as he leaves us desperate to find out what other strange adventures befall Uncle in the continuing saga of his existence.


My Uncle was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)