Romance Doll (ロマンスドール, Yuki Tanada, 2020)

According to an assistant at the factory where the hero of Yuki Tanada’s Romance Doll (ロマンスドール) is eventually employed, what were once called “sex dolls” or the euphemistic “Dutch Wives” (apparently named for a kind of bolster used by sailors) are now marketed as “love dolls”. The difference may be largely semantic, subsuming the physical within the emotional, but speaks to a discomforting dehumanisation of the female form something which barely occurs to the sculptor even as he slowly chips away at his patient wife, gradually erasing her as he dedicates himself to crafting the perfect love doll which is, it has to be said, a woman devoid of agency who can never talk back, challenge male authority, or wound the male ego. 

It’s this insecure fear of intimacy which eventually creates distance and loneliness in the marriage of the sculptor Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi) who hides the fact that he sculpts sex dolls for a living from his wife Sonoko (Yu Aoi) for fear that she will reject him. Tetsuo was himself “tricked” into taking the job as an unemployed graduate in need of work. He does so because he needs the money but also feels guilty, not because he finds the work morally objectionable, but because he has no investment in sex dolls as a craft while the man who’s just employed him, Kinji (Kitaro), has made the creation of the perfect model his life’s dream. 

One the one hand, Tetsuo and Kinji are craftsmen and so the fact of what they’re crafting is largely irrelevant, the important thing being the earnest pursuit of artistry in building beautiful devices whether they be sex aids or sewing machines. But others might not see it that way and in fact the dolls can only be sold as novelties with strict regulations in place to prevent “obscenity”. Concerned that the models lack realism, Kinji comes up with the idea of taking a mould of a real woman’s breasts but given all of the above they can hardly advertise what it’s for. Sonoko answers the ad because she thinks it’s for medical prosthetics, that she’ll be helping other women not providing masturbatory aids for lonely men. The moment Tetsuo touches her breasts he’s hit with a kind of epiphany and is moved to confess his real feelings as he says possibly for the first and last time in his life, while Sonoko too recounts that in his touch she could innately feel that he was an awkward but kind person which is why she fell in love with him. They marry and are happy, but he keeps the nature of his work a secret and becomes so consumed with the idea of capturing the perfection of the female form that he never looks beyond the surface of his wife and, ironically, begins to neglect her physically. 

It’s the secret keeping, the miscommunication and the fear of intimacy that eventually begin to drive them apart. She wants to tell him something important, but he doesn’t listen to her, never notices that she is unhappy or suffering and becomes petulant and resentful on realising that she has lied to him about where she was while she was away from home not realising that she felt unable to tell him because he is not and never has been emotionally available to her. He pours his “love” into the doll, and by doing so he depletes her. Sonoko becomes merely fuel for her husband’s artistic fulfilment until her metamorphosis into a doll is finally complete.

Told entirely from Tetsuo’s perspective, Tanada’s screenplay leans unexpectedly hard into a series of outdated patriarchal social codes which it ultimately reinforces rather than critiques. Tetsuo’s marital dilemma is reframed as a workplace conundrum over whether to pursue the new frontiers of elastomer or stick with the tried and tested silicone which is apparently fragile yet beautiful much like life as Tetsuo is forced to reflect on the transience of all things including love and romance. Something can be beautiful even as it rots, cherry trees still blossom even while they’re dying and there’s nothing that lasts “forever” except perhaps loss. Tetsuo tells himself that others saw Sonoko as the “ideal wife” in that she was “beautiful, a good cook, pristine, modest, and respects her husband” but apparently only he knew that she was also “nice and horny” which even if charitably taken as reclaiming her right to sexual agency is still a crass statement in the circumstances given that he has just reduced her to a literal receptacle for male desire. 

Tetsuo may feel a smattering of conflict when an early model proves successful enough to hit the mainstream media, a happy customer declaring that he’s giving up on real women, but continues to pursue his craft even while reflecting on the poetic symmetry that his wife is disappearing as his creation grows. It’s impossible to avoid the implication that what men want is a sex doll who can cook and clean, a vacant automaton who caters entirely to their desires with no interior life of her own because they are too insecure to want to deal with a real woman who is capable of hurting them emotionally. Straying uncomfortably towards a kind of sublimated necrophilia, Tetsuo only belatedly realises that his wife was more than mere object in the uncomfortable vacancy of the unresponsive silicone. Kinji had wanted to create a doll which looked as if it may come to life, as if it almost had a soul, but the key is in the almost. Rather than a meditation on the destructive effects of miscommunication and emotional insecurity, we’re left with a contemplation of art and the artist in which a man’s artistic fulfilment is valued above a woman’s life, his destruction of her permissible in the perfection of his art. Some things it seems don’t change, women are mere “romance dolls” valued only for their response to male desire be it in art or in “love”.


Romance Doll is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, Kenji Katagiri, 2019)

A dejected young woman finds herself conflicted in her memories of the father who failed her in Kenji Katagiri’s A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai). Drawing inspiration from the webcomic by Mariko Kikuchi, Katagiri’s whimsical drama does its best to put a comical spin on the extended trauma of living with an alcoholic dad while laying the blame squarely at the the feet of a society with an entrenched drinking culture in which refusing to imbibe is all but unthinkable. 

The heroine, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto), begins her tale in the late ‘90s when she is only eight years old and unaware that her family circumstances are not exactly normal. Tadokoro (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her salaryman dad, usually rolls in late and collapses in the hall after staying out all night drinking. This is such a common occurrence that Saki and her younger sister Fumi are completely unfazed by it, marking off dad’s drunken days with a big red X on the calendar and cheerfully helping their mum drag him back into the house. Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), their mother, tries to put a brave face on it, and to the girls it probably still seems a little bit funny, but as she gets older Saki begins to see the toll her father’s drinking has taken on her mother not only in practical terms but emotional in realising that he drinks largely as a means of escaping his responsibility which includes that towards his family. 

Saki asks her mum why dad’s three friends keep coming round to drink while playing mahjong but the only explanation she can offer is that adults need to socialise. Socialisation does it seems revolve around alcohol, and to that extent perpetuates deeply entrenched patriarchal social codes in largely remaining a homosocial activity with the only women present those that run the bar (the wives of Tadokoro’s friends make a point of thanking Saeko for allowing their husbands to drink at her house, they it seems are not invited). Tadokoro’s excuse for his drinking is that it’s a necessary business activity, that you can’t get by as a salaryman without figuring out how to have fun at a nomikai and bond with your clients over sake. His office best friend later discovers this to be true as a teetotaller given the banishment room treatment he attributes to the fact he doesn’t drink which is why his bosses don’t trust him as member of the team. 

Tadokoro might think he’s serving his family through his career, but it’s clear that he neglects them physically and emotionally by refusing to moderate his drinking. He breaks promises to his kids to take them to the pool because he’s still hung over from the night before while his wife finds herself at the end of her tether with his continued indifference later telling the little Saki that she wanted to divorce him even before the kids were born but it’s too late for that now. Saeko escapes from the burden of her life through religion, adhering to a shady Christian-leaning cult which preaches that endurance builds character and character leads to hope, all of which presumably convinces her that she is supposed to just put up with Tadokoro’s problematic behaviour rather than reassuring her that there is no sin in leaving him. 

Saki fears making her mother’s mistake, traumatised by her childhood experiences and drawn into an abusive relationship of her own out of loneliness and low self esteem. She resents her father but also feels bad about it, simultaneously thankful when he takes a temporary break from drinking and mahjong but also aware of how sad it is that she is grateful for things that other families would consider normal. Tadokoro proves unable to quit drinking, and Saki wonders if she’s right to even ask him if, as others say, drinking is his mechanism for escaping loneliness, but also reflects on the sadness she now understands in her mother as stemming from her father’s abnegation of his responsibilities and the loneliness it must have provoked in her. Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), trying to explain why Saki should break up with her abusive boyfriend (Shogo Hama), tells her of an experiment she read about in which a rat was trapped in a box and randomly given electric shocks. At first, it tried to escape, but eventually became resigned to its fate and settled for learning to endure the pain. Saki is perhaps much the same, trapped by filiality in finding herself unable to either forgive or reject the memory of the father who so resolutely failed to live up to the name.


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Masahiro Takada, 2006)

honey and clover blu-rayAh youth! Chica Umino’s phenomenally popular manga Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Hachimitsu to Clover) is, essentially, a coming of age story in which love, requited and otherwise, plays a significant part. Masahiro Takada’s adaptation is no different in this respect as its central group of friends learn to come into themselves through various different kinds of heart break leading to soul searching and eventual self actualisation. The path to adulthood is rocky and strewn with anxieties, but has its own charms as our self branded Mr. Youth seems to have figured out, romanticising his own adolescence even while he lives it.

The action kicks off at an art college in Tokyo where a circle of friends is temporarily shaken by the arrival of a new student – a distant relative of a popular professor, Hanamoto (Masato Sakai). Our youth loving hero, Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), falls instantly in love with Hagu (Yu Aoi) – a genius self-taught painter with a dreamy, ethereal personality and negligible interpersonal skills. Hagu, however, seems to have developed a strange connection with conceited sculptor Morita (Yusuke Iseya) who continues to struggle with his conflicting interests in art and commerce. Meanwhile, geeky design student Mayama (Ryo Kase) has a problematic crush on his boss, Rika (Naomi Nishida), whose husband went missing some years ago, and has begun semi-stalking her. Unbeknownst to him, Mayama is also being semi-stalked by Yamada (Megumi Seki) – a spiky ceramicist who refuses to give up on her unrequited crush despite being fully aware of his one sided love for a brokenhearted middle-aged woman.

In actuality all of our protagonists are a little older than one might assume – all past the regular age for graduating college and either hanging around after being unable to complete their studies or pursuing additional training in the hope of furthering their art. They are all also hopelessly lost in terms of figuring out who they are – perhaps why they haven’t quite got a handle on their art, either. Hagu, younger than the others, seems to have an additional problem in existing outside of the mainstream, experiencing difficulties with communication and needing some additional help to get into the swing of college life. Perhaps for this reason, maverick professor Hanamoto palms her off on the “least arty” (read “most responsible”) of his students, Takemoto, who is tasked with accompanying her for meals – something for which he is quite grateful given his first brush with love on catching sight of her at her easel.

Hagu is also, however, the most sensitive and perceptive of the students even if she can only truly express herself through canvas. Her most instantaneous connection is with Morita, whose instinctive approach perhaps most closely mirrors her own though where Hagu is quiet and soulful, Morita is loud and impetuous. Watching him creating his centrepiece sculpture, Hagu is honest enough to tell Morita that he’s overdone it. Morita agrees but ends up exhibiting the piece anyway and not only that – he sells it for a serious amount of money despite knowing that it lacks artistic integrity. Hagu is unimpressed and her disapproval only adds to Morita’s sense of self loathing in his ambivalence towards to the fleeting rewards of superficial success versus the creation of artistic truth.

A similar sense of ambivalence imbues the romantic difficulties which neatly divide the group into a series of concentric love triangles. Takemoto, the selfless hero, realises the best thing he can do for Hagu is try to help Morita be less of a self-centred idiot while simultaneously dwelling on his fleeting youth and actively pursuing himself while debating whether or not to hit the road and leave his lovelorn friends to it. Mayama and Yamada, by contrast, are content to dance around each other, understanding the irony of their respective unreturned crushes while not quite bonding over them but both determined not to give up on their dreams (romantic and professional).

Despite the central positioning of our shy hero as he walks towards the end goal of being able to state his feelings plainly, the drama revolves around the enigmatic Hagu whose descent into an intense depression after an ill-advised moment on a beach is only eased by the careful attentions of her new friends finally realising that their artistic souls benefit from compassion for others rather than remaining solipsistically obsessed with their own romantic heartbreak. Despite its noble intentions, Honey and Clover misses the mark in charting the heady days of youth though our confused heroes do eventually manage to find themselves and each other along the road to adulthood as they chase down disappointments romantic and professional and discover what is they really want in the process.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

8-year bride posterRomantic melodrama has long been a staple of Japanese cinema which seems to revel in stories of impossible love. The short lived boom in “jun-ai” or “pure love” romances which blossomed at the beginning of the century may have petered out gracefully after plundering every terminal or debilitating illness for traces of heartbreaking tragedy, but the genre has never quite gone away and is unlikely ever to do so. Takahisa Zeze’s The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, 8-nengoshi no Hanayome: Kiseki no Jitsuwa) is, however, a slightly different case in that it is inspired by a true story which became something of a hot topic in the relatively recent past. Romantic in a grand, old fashioned sense, the film shifts away from the melodrama of misery while praising the power of perseverance and the enduring potency of true love in bringing about unexpected miracles.

In 2006, shy and retiring car mechanic Hisashi (Takeru Satoh) tries and fails to get out of a party his chatty colleague is arranging for that very evening. Sullen and resentful at having been roped into a social occasion he was not mentally prepared for, Hisashi says barely anything and then manages to free himself when the others decide to go for karaoke. Just as he’s walking off mildly regretful, one of the other partygoers, Mai (Tao Tsuchiya), comes back to harangue him about his “attitude”. Hisashi explains that he’s sorry but he’s not very good at this sort of thing anyway and the truth is he wanted to go home because he’s got a killer stomach ache which being forced to eat fatty meat and down sake out of politeness has done nothing to help. Mai approves of this excuse, and even loops back after leaving to meet the others at the karaoke to hand him a heat pack she had in her bag in the hope that it might help with the stomach trouble. The pair start dating, become wildly happy, and get engaged. Three months before the wedding, Mai is struck down by a rare illness and winds up in a coma.

The romance itself is tucked up neatly into the first half hour or so and mostly conforms to genre norms – he is shy and extremely sensitive, she is extroverted and extremely kind. The love story proceeds smoothly, though there are signs of trouble to come in Mai’s increasing clumsiness followed by headaches which lead to memory loss and finally a painful hallucinogenic episode resulting in prolonged hospitalisation. Zeze wisely scales back on medical detail and focuses on Hisashi’s devotion and unwavering belief that Mai will one day open her eyes and return to him. Rather than cancel the wedding date, Hisashi decides to keep it open in the hope that Mai will be well enough to attend before booking the same date, the date of their first meeting, in every subsequent year just in case she should wake up and regret missing out on her dream wedding.

As the condition is so rare, no one is sure what the prognosis will be though the doctors admit there is a strong possibility Mai may never awaken or that if she does there may well be extensive brain damage and irreparable memory loss in addition to life long medical needs. Hisashi puts his life on hold and comes to the hospital every day, making short video messages he sends to Mai’s phone so she can catch up on what she’s missed when she wakes up. His devotion does however begin to worry Mai’s doting parents (Hiroko Yakushimaru & Tetta Sugimoto) who eventually decide to explain to him that as he’s “not family” there’s no need for him to feel obliged to stick around. They do this not because they’re territorial over their daughter’s care, or that they don’t like Hisashi, they simply worry that he’s going to waste his life waiting for a woman who will never wake up. As he’s still young and has a chance to start again, they try to push him away in the harshest way possible – through cool politeness, but are secretly pleased when he refuses to be pushed.

People making other people’s decisions for them as a means of reducing their suffering becomes a recurrent theme. Rather than say what they mean, kindhearted people say the things which they believe are for the best and will end someone else’s suffering through a moment of intense pain. Everyone is so keen to spare everyone else’s feelings, that they perhaps suffer themselves when there is no need to. Hisashi’s supportive boss remembers a rather odd comment he made during his interview – after replying that he enjoyed fixing things when asked what made him apply for the job, Hisashi’s boss asked him what he thought about while he did it to which he replied “love”. Love does it seems fix everything, at least when coupled with undying devotion and a refusal give up even when things look grim. A romantic melodrama with a positive ending The 8-year Engagement is a happy tearjerker in which love really does conquer all despite seemingly unsurmountable odds.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種, Kentaro Hagiwara, 2017)

Tokyo Ghoul posterThough the idea has never been far away, Japanese cinema has largely steered clear of the enemy within. Recently however the “they walk among us” phenomenon seems to have gained traction from the horror-leaning Parasyte to the contemplative Before We Vanish. Parasyte would seem to be an appropriate point of departure for Kentaro Hagiwara’s debut feature, an adaptation of Sui Ishida’s hugely popular manga Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種). Like Hitoshi Iwaaki’s ‘80s take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Tokyo Ghoul creates for itself a subsection of “humanity” which is not quite human yet apparently lives alongside “us” keeping its true nature and identity a secret in order to avoid detection. Unlike Parasyte, however, the intentions of the Ghouls are not so much destruction or colonisation as simple survival.

Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), a shy bookworm with only one real friend, is trying to pluck up the courage to talk to another shy bookworm he often notices reading the kind of books he likes in a cafe they both seem to enjoy going to. It would seem that they have quite a lot in common already, but when Ken ends up on a successful date with Rize (Yu Aoi) he gets a little more than he bargained for. Far from the shy and mousy creature of his dreams, Rize is a raging Ghoul hungry for flesh rather than love. Luckily, Rize is killed in a freak accident just as she’s about devour poor Ken. Ken, however, survives but only thanks to a transplant of Rize’s organs meaning he is now part-Ghoul and can only live on human meat.

Neither one thing nor another, Ken struggles to accept his new nature as he craves flesh and has strange visions in which he imagines himself as Rize the crazed and ravenous Ghoul. Starving and alone he finally finds his way to the Anteiku cafe where he first met Rize and now finds a support network led by ethical Ghouls who sustain themselves on ethically sourced meat and high end coffee. These Ghouls do not want to kill, they simply want to survive which also means keeping one step ahead of the CCG which exists specifically in order to hunt down Ghouls with extreme prejudice.

In many a sci-fi tome, the CCG would be the good guys – protecting regular humans from a monstrous threat lurking in the shadows. After all, who would defend a substratum of cannibal serial killers who think nothing of devouring human flesh in front of its horrified offspring, but the CCG have perhaps begun to take too much pleasure in their work. Cold and calculating detective Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) has an idea that the world is “wrong” and it’s his job to put it right by exterminating the Ghouls, whereas creepy silver-haired detective Mado (Yo Oizumi) enjoys toying with his prey as much as Rize did and has even begun to harvest the various “Kagune” protuberances with which the Ghouls are endowed to use in his quest to defeat them.

The CCG may be justified in their fear in but in their methods they are little different than their quarry. The Ghouls too have a right to survive and are, after all, only being what they are. CCG might be better off working with Anteiku to minimise the Ghoul threat rather than engaging in a pointless and internecine war that guarantees only a continuation of violence and fear on both sides.

Having posited such interesting ideas it’s a shame that Tokyo Ghoul reverts to the classic super hero formula of resolving everything through a climactic battle in which Ken is forced to confront himself whilst battling CCG. Neither Ghoul nor human, Ken sees faults on both sides but perhaps learns to come into himself, no longer a diffident young man but one committed to protecting his friends even if it’s themselves they need protecting from.

Hagiwara opts for an artier approach than might expected though his noble intentions are often undercut by poor quality CGI and the inescapably outrageous quality of the source material. Nevertheless he gets impressive performances from his young cast even if some fan favourite characters are relegated to little more than background decoration and others scarcely written at all. Perhaps biting off more than it can chew, Tokyo Ghoul is an uneven experience but one that does its best to find heroism in villainy and villainy in heroism, negating the good/evil dichotomy of superhero morality for something altogether more complex.


Tokyo Ghoul was screened for one night only across the UK and will be released by Anime Limited later in the year.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Real (リアル 完全なる首長竜の日, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)

real posterKiyoshi Kurosawa has taken a turn for the romantic in his later career. Both 2013’s Real (リアル 完全なる首長竜の日, Real: Kanzen Naru Kubinagaryu no Hi) and Journey to the Shore follow an Orpheus into the underworld searching for a lost love stolen by death, but where Journey to the Shore is a tale of letting go, Real is very much the opposite (or so it would seem). Taking on much more of a science-fiction bent than Kurosawa’s previous work, Real adapts the Rokuro Inui novel A Perfect Day for a Pleisiosaur in which the boyfriend of a woman in a coma journeys into her subconscious through a process known as “sensing” in order to help her face up to whatever it is that’s keeping her asleep and lead her back towards the living world (or so we think). Strange and surreal, Real is a meditation on love, trauma, and the nature of consciousness in which “reality” itself is constantly in shift.

Koichi (Takeru Satoh) and Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) are childhood friends now living together as a couple. Despite their apparent happiness, one year after we see them enjoying a cheerful breakfast Atsumi is in a coma following a suicide attempt and Koichi is about to undergo an experimental procedure known as “sensing” to try and venture inside her consciousness to find out why she did it and possibly help her wake up.

Koichi makes contact and finds Atsumi living more or less as she had before, inhabiting their shared apartment and hard at work on a manga series, Roomi, which is now on hiatus following her indisposition. Roomi, like much of Atsumi’s work, is dark and macabre – the story of a serial killer who murders people in increasingly violent and disturbing ways. The brief flashes of bloody victims Koichi begins to notice in his peripheral vision soon give way to “philosophical zombies” or the NPCs of of the subconscious which take the form of badly animated third parties peopling Atsumi’s mind. What Atsumi wants from Koichi is to find a drawing of a Pleisiosaur she drew for him when they were children, because it was “perfect” and will help restore her faith in herself as an artist.

The Pleisiosaur turns out to be a little more significant than it first seems, taking Koichi and Atsumi back to the remote island where they first met. Almost like Stalker’s “The Zone” the island is a place of ruined dreams and frustrated inertia where some kind of accident related to the construction of a resort Koichi’s father was involved in building has permanently destroyed any idea of progress. This frozen, rubble strewn landscape perfectly reflects the lost world of the trapped dreamers as they battle the ghost of a shared yet half forgotten childhood trauma.

Though less obviously disturbing than some of Kurosawa’s previous forays into eerie psychological horror, Real has its share of typically J-horror tropes including a dripping wet ghost albeit this time one of a little boy popping up in unexpected places. Kurosawa opts for a hyperreal aesthetic, filming with harsh digital cameras which make little concession to the obviously cinematic, adding to the appropriately lifeless atmosphere of Koichi’s “real” world life and the surreal dreamworld of Atsumi. Koichi’s oddly pyjama-like clothing adds to the ongoing uncertainty as the two worlds blur into each other, becoming indistinct as the screen texture suddenly changes or the camera rolls to an unusual angle.

Shifting from Tarkovsky’s landscapes of desolation to Antonioni’s fog filled confusion, Kurosawa peels back the layers of repressed trauma to finally get to the core of what’s trapping the protagonist’s psyche within its frozen state. Childhood friends as they are, Koichi and Atsumi are trapped by a sense of guilt for something that they were both witness to all those years ago and so to overcome it, they will need to face it together. This time Orpheus descends but refuses to leave alone, battling literal dinosaurs from the distant past which must be placated with tokens of affection and, finally, heartfelt apologies. The “real” remains obscure, but Kurosawa does, at least, demonstrate his faith in love as salvation in a climax that echoes A Matter of Life and Death even if in a surreal and not altogether successful way.


International trailer (English subtitles)