My Small Land (マイスモールランド, Emma Kawawada, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Despite the nation’s relative wealth, Japan’s refugee policy is incredibly strict. In 2021, it approved the claims of just 74 asylum seekers which may seem like a small amount but is actually the highest number of people granted asylum since Japan first began recognising refugees in 1982. In fact, only 915 people (as of May 2022) have been granted refugee status in the 40 years since the policy was put in place. For a nation that prides itself on omotenashi, it’s a curiously hostile stance and one which has increasingly come under the spotlight in contemporary cinema with films such as Thomas Ash’s hard-hitting documentary Ushiku exploring the lives of asylum seekers trapped in indefinite detention, Akio Fujimoto’s Passage of Life, and briefly in Nobuhiro Suwa’s Voices in the Wind in which the heroine encounters a welcoming community of Kurdish refugees. 

Director Emma Kawawada is not from a refugee background herself but the daughter of a British father and Japanese mother and in her first feature My Small Land (マイスモールランド) explores the themes of cultural dislocation through the eyes of a young Kurdish woman who came to Japan at five years old after her father was persecuted and tortured for his political beliefs in Turkey. In the film’s opening sequence, Sarya (Lina Arashi) is visibility distressed at a community wedding when a well-meaning older woman tells her it’ll be her turn next, her father (played by Arashi’s real father) chipping in that they still have her late mother’s dress for her to wear. She looks down at the red paint on her hand which, as she later explains to convenience store workmate Sota (Daiken Okudaira), is worn by relatives at a wedding but also closely resembles the red sun of the Japanese flag. She tries to scrub to it off, but it won’t come clean and she’s eventually warned about it at work making an excuse rather than attempting to explain. 

In fact, Sarya has most been telling people that she’s German following an incident in primary school in which she wanted to say she was supporting Japan in the World Cup like everyone else but felt awkward about it and said Germany instead leading her classmates to assume that’s where she was from. When she tries to explain to Sota that she’s actually Kurdish, he hasn’t even heard of Kurds before and is confused later given a small lecture by Sarya’s father Mazlum explaining that the Kurds are an ethnic group divided by irrational borders and have no country of their own. His explanation echoes Sarya’s sense of rootlessness as a young woman with no clear homeland torn between two competing cultures. Though she has become an unofficial translator for the Kurdish community and her father keeps them immersed in Kurdish traditions she does not feel completely comfortable stating that she is a Kurd while on another level bothered by the community’s constant joking that she will one day wed construction worker Welat.

Sarya is bright and on track for a scholarship to university in Tokyo hoping to become a primary school teacher in tribute to the teacher who helped her when she first arrived in Japan with no language skills, but all that goes out of the window when Mazlum’s asylum claim is refused and the family lose their visas. Given a provisional release, they are not permitted to work and cannot leave Saitama, the prefecture where they are registered, without permission from the authorities. Saitama is directly adjacent to Tokyo, its borders as arbitrary as any other as demonstrated by the sign halfway along a bridge demarcating its boundaries. This is quite inconvenient for Sarya as her secret part-time job is technically in Tokyo, while it also means she has to explain to Sota why she can’t accompany him to Osaka where he hopes to look at art schools and is now technically working illegally. When Mazlum is caught working his construction job, he is put into indefinite detention and advised by the family’s sympathetic lawyer to reapply for asylum. If he is sent back to Turkey, he will be immediately arrested and his life will be in danger. 

The family’s situation lays bare how vulnerable asylum seekers are in the contemporary society. They are told they can’t work and can’t leave yet are provided no financial support leaving them with little option other than to break the rules or appeal to friends and family, if they have them, for immediate help. Left in charge of her two younger siblings who barely remember any Kurdish and know only Japan, Sarya finds herself resorting to compensated dating, pushed into potentially dangerous ways to earn money now that her route to legal employment has been taken away. Meanwhile, as her father is detained in a kind of “prison” and she has lost her visa, she is viewed as an “illegal” immigrant leading even those who had otherwise been sympathetic towards her such as Sota’s warmhearted mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) distancing themselves from the stigma of illegality. Sota wants to help, but he’s just a teenage boy and is unable to offer much beyond his savings which Sarya is understandably reluctant to accept. Even so, despite the bureaucratic cruelty at its centre, My Small Land has an otherwise hopeful outlook as Sarya begins to find the strength to define her own borders and boundaries while taking care of her family in a sometimes hostile society. 


My Small Land screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Yuichiro Sakashita, 2021)

“I keep choosing a perilous path” the heroine of Yuichiro Sakashita’s political satire The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Kessen wa Nichiyobi) explains, “But that’s where change happens”. Change, famously, is not a common occurrence in Japanese politics where the same party has remained in power for all but a handful of years since its foundation in 1955. Part of the reason for that at least according to the reluctant candidate is the nation’s rigid social attitudes in the unwillingness to question the status quo, just going along with however things have always been done, while the main cause is perhaps corruption at the local level in the interplay between supporters groups staffed by influential local businessmen and their representatives along with the collusion of civil staff who have become too blasé about the murky nature of politics. 

That’s especially true for political secretary Tanimura (Masataka Kubota) who had developed a paternal relationship with former defence minster Kawashima who unfortunately is forced to retire from office due to ill health after suffering a stroke. Unable to agree on a suitable candidate to replace him, the supporters groups throw their weight behind Yumi (Rie Miyazawa), Kawashima’s middle-aged, unmarried daughter. The above lines are spoken during her introduction to her staff who find her strange and unconvincing, mocking her Western-style business speak along with her decision to refer to them as her “crew”. 

If “change” was what Yumi wanted, she’s almost certainly standing for the wrong party. Though not explicitly stated, she’s obviously intended to be standing for an LDP stand in and in the opinion of her staff at least her seat is so safe you could paint a face on a rock and get it elected. Their problem is that they assumed Yumi would be easy to manage, though it quickly becomes clear that despite having grown up in politics she is incredibly naive and something of a loose cannon. As she admits, she tells it like it is and doesn’t consider the consequences. She is not media trained and the secretaries, Tanimura included, do not really bother to brief her in part because they assume the election’s a sure thing so they don’t need to. As we can see from her introductory speech, she is essentially playing the part of a politician as she imagines it to be, saying things she perhaps does mean because she thinks it’s what a politician would say such as her offensive reply to a question about the declining birthrate to the effect that childless couples were “slacking off” and “not functioning as humans” leading to a protest outside her office in large part by those who had found her comments hurtful because they had wanted to have children but for various reasons had not been able to. 

It’s Yumi’s political naivety that makes her the ultimate foil for the secretaries and supporters groups as she gradually comes to realise she was never meant to be anything other than a puppet. After a particularly disastrous conference, one of her older male sponsors exasperatedly asks why they couldn’t have picked a better candidate. “At least choose a man”, he adds while one of the secretaries later snaps at Yumi that she’s way out of her league, should “know her position”, and that the only reason an “amateur woman” like her was approved as a candidate was because of the supporters committee so she’s there to do exactly what they say. Forced to apologise to them, Yumi’s face is framed in the lattice work at a restaurant as if she were in prison, a sentiment echoed by Tanimura when he tells her that she has “no choice” but to continue threatening to plant smear stories in the press if she tries to walk away or blow the whistle on all the corruption she has unwittingly uncovered in the local political office. 

That would include the giving and receiving of bribes in an all too cosy relationship with local business and particularly the construction industry. Part of the problem is that the civil staff will all lose their jobs if Yumi is not elected which makes it in their interest not to act with total transparency. Tanimura hadn’t really cared about that before, each time when questioned replying only “that’s just how it is” but slowing beginning to realise that it doesn’t need to be and really it isn’t OK. Despite her eccentricity and impulsiveness Yumi would as Tanimura can see make a good politician if not one ideally suited to a conservative party. Threatening suicide from the roof of a three storey building she decries political apathy in Japan, explaining that they need to remind the people that this is really about them and that politics is not pointless because change can happen while the jaded secretaries roll their eyes and giggle setting up a crash mat in the event that she is not actually bluffing. 

What she decides to do is try to loose deliberately, but everything she tries just backfires. A series of offensive racist rants far from ruining her reputation pick her up new votes from members of the far right who previously felt unrepresented while even planting false stories in the press that she is a drug user with a criminal record doesn’t seem to dent her approval rating. Just as Yumi’s comments about the birthrate echoed those of other gaffe-prone LDP politicians such as Mio Sugita, Yumi and a reformed Tanimura even film a fake video of her pretending to abuse one of her staff directly echoing that of Mayuko Toyota who was forced to stand down after an embarrassing video of her calling her aide “baldly” while beating him went viral, but her popularity only increases. As a last resort they release video footage of her father accepting bribes and have her deny it so it becomes obvious that she lied, but her dishonesty makes no difference to the average voter. 

The cynical secretaries had indicated that ordinarily speaking they’d ride a scandal out because another one will be along before too long to knock it off the front page. Yumi’s whistle blowing plan fails again because of collusion with the local media who despite sniffing around for a story won’t run anything too negative lest they lose their access to the halls of government. The secretaries then get lucky when a possible North Korean missile strike bumps the bribery affair onto the back pages, a video of the staff laughing and cheering their near escape even becoming a meme on social media. Yumi’s resentment is in rooted in her powerless, refusing to be a puppet for local bigwigs, but it may also be true that once she’s elected they have no real power over her and changing the system from the inside may ironically become a real possibility if only she herself can overcome her conviction that nothing is ever going to change. “This is not the world you expected.” Tanimura admits, “accept it and fight”. A throwback to the films of Juzo Itami, Yumi is very much the kind of character Nobuko Miyamoto might have played in one of her “woman” films if perhaps a little more cynical. The Sunday Runoff is decidedly more barbed if at least as pointed in its criticism of incestous local politics, but in the end does believe that real change may indeed be possible if only you’re willing to fight for it. 


The Sunday Runoff streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Takuma Sato, 2020)

“Get your act together” an exasperated new mother exclaims, but it seems even new fatherhood isn’t quite enough to jolt the aimless hero of Takuma Sato’s paternity drama Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Nakuko wa Inega) into accepting his responsibility. Fatherhood is indeed a daunting prospect, however Sato isn’t interested solely in Tasuku’s (Taiga Nakano) attempts to “grow up” and embody the ideals of masculinity in a patriarchal society but also in the nature of fatherhood itself along with its legacies and the effects of male failure on those caught in its wake. 

Everyone in the small town of Oga seems to be aware that Tasuku has undergone a shotgun marriage though it’s more the subject of gentle ribbing than scorn or disdain. Many remark on his relative youth, though he’s perhaps not so much younger than his parents might have been when he was born it’s just that times have changed. In any case, his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka), is beginning to get fed up with him worried that he isn’t ready to be a father and isn’t taking the responsibility seriously enough. As young men do he still drinks like a single man and is vulnerable to peer pressure. Kotone begs him not to participate in the local Namahage festival but he insists they have to keep the tradition alive while apparently feeling an obligation to Mr. Natsui (Toshiro Yanagiba) who ensures it continues. She makes him promise not to drink, and he does his best in the beginning but, paradoxically, the Namahage is a drinking festival. Soon enough, Tasuku has had a little too much and beginning to feel hot takes off all his clothes, running around in the nude save for the large oni mask on his face while local reporters there to cover the traditional festival decide to make him a viral sensation. Unable to bear the shame, Tasuku abandons his wife and child and runs away to anonymity in Tokyo. 

The irony is that introducing the festival to the reporters, Mr. Natsui had flagged it up as a bastion of family values, that it’s not about “scaring” children but teaching them “good ethics” while reassuring them that their fathers will always protect them. According to Mr. Natsui, those children then grow up to become fathers who protect their offspring, Tasuku’s unfortunate streaking somewhat undermining his argument. It’s interesting in a sense that Tasuku is himself fatherless, his father having passed away some years earlier leaving not much of himself behind other than the oni masks he carved for the Namahage. Tasuku’s brother (Takashi Yamanaka), who was supposed to be getting married but apparently did not perhaps because of Tasuku’s scandal, later becomes upset on deciding to sell the family business lamenting that he was able to save “nothing” of his father, rejecting the Namahage mask that Tasuku offers him as “trash” while acknowledging perhaps that the Namahage is all is he left them along with the transitory lessons it imparts. 

Tasuku was clearly not quite ready to be a dad, but having spent some time growing up and hearing that his father-in-law has passed away leaving his ex with little choice than to work as a bar hostess on the fringes of the sex trade, he decides to go home and try to make amends. He swears repeatedly that he won’t run away again and will do whatever it takes until he’s forgiven, but still he flounders failing to find secure employment while periodically visiting his grandmother in a nursing home and helping his mother (Kimiko Yo) out selling traditional ice creams at local tourist attractions. “You’re not the only one who can be Nagi’s father” she reminds him as he perhaps begins to realise that there are some bonds you can’t repair even if you’re eventually forgiven for having broken them. 

Performing the Namahage forces Tasuku uncomfortably into the role of the authoritarian father safe scaring the child in order to instil in them a sense of confidence that encourages them not to be afraid of life, in the way that he may ironically be, because there will always be someone there waiting to catch them. The ability to protect a family is a defining feature of the masculine ideal, and the Namahage in its way perpetuates outdated ideas of gendered social roles while Tasuku’s mother and even grandmother are always there for him with unconditional acceptance, supporting him even in the depths of his “disgrace” and encouraging him to move forward even if that means accepting defeat. Keeping the Namahage alive is also in a sense to preserve the paternal legacy, just as Tasuku’s father may have passed nothing else down to his sons so Tasuku may find he has nothing more to offer, perhaps no longer a “crybaby” but still struggling to shift into the role of the father even while belatedly coming of age in the knowledge that he may have left it too late. 


Any Crybabies Around? streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. For viewers outside of Germany it is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (恋とさよならとハワイ, Shingo Matsumura, 2017)

Love and Goodbye and Hawaii poster 1“To end something requires more courage than anything else” the conflicted heroine of Shingo Matsumura’s Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (恋とさよならとハワイ, Koi to Sayonara to Hawaii) is told by her well-meaning ex, but it’s a lesson she’s struggling to learn. Life may very well be a “road made of decisions”, but Rinko (Aya Ayano) doesn’t know how to make them and is rapidly becoming aware that if you don’t hit the relevant dialogue box fast enough they will largely be made for you. Less a tale of romantic confusion, Love and Goodbye and Hawaii is a young woman’s gradual path towards accepting that her attachment to the status quo is as much about the fear of moving forward as it is the pain of faded love.

Office worker Rinko has been living with her graduate student boyfriend Isamu (Kentaro Tamura) for the last three years. To all of their friends, they seem to have the perfect relationship but what no one knows is that, though they continue to live together, the couple broke up some months previously. Seeing as it was Isamu’s apartment in the first place, Rinko plans to move out as soon as she’s saved enough money to find somewhere new in the precarious Tokyo housing market, but then again now that they’re no longer “together” the arrangement has become so comfortable that there’s really no hurry to make a change. Matters come to a head, however, when Rinko discovers that a fellow student at Isamu’s university has taken a liking to him, and it seems he to her.

Despite having been broken up for almost six months, Rinko hasn’t quite accepted that it’s over. She demurs when her friends ask her if she’ll be getting married soon, only latterly admitting that they’ve technically broken up, and explaining that she really has it good now because it was too “heavy” before which is why they fought all the time. Now that there’s “nothing” to fight over and they’ve gone back to being platonic friends it’s all so much easier. Too easy, in fact, which why she isn’t really ready to move on.

Rinko’s unconventional living arrangements seem extremely strange to her friends. “Break up like normal people and never see him again” her friend tells her, offering her a space on the sofa if it’s money that’s the issue. Not that money’s not a problem, but even when well-meaning people offer financial help to end this “weird” situation, Rinko doesn’t really want to take it. She tells her friend that relationships are like driving and you don’t want to jump on the breaks incase they jam and you end up on the skids, but as her perceptive younger sister points out perhaps she just wants to get back together and doesn’t know how to go about it.

Analogies are something Rinko seems to have a taste for, unable to state her feelings plainly in a way others will understand she wraps them up in a more palatable narrative. So it is that she ends up telling her friend’s drunken younger sister that with Isamu she felt like she was CD no other player had worked out how to play. She figured out she liked the sound inside her when she was with him, but time moves on and it feels like she’s still a CD but Isamu is now an iPod and she doesn’t really know what to do with that. What she’s trying to say is that they’ve grown apart, but what she hasn’t quite admitted to herself is that maybe it’s not Isamu that she’s afraid of leaving but the vision of herself as reflected in him.

“Show your real self, put your real feelings out there” the younger woman tells her, but that’s something that doesn’t necessarily get easier with age. Finally gathering the courage, Rinko makes her way back to Isamu for a “serious talk”, only to run into her romantic rival but contrary to expectation the two women find that they have no interest in competition and only wish each other well. Rather than that “serious talk” however, Rinko ends up trying to sort out her romantic dilemma through the familiar medium of a walking race which does at least allow the diffident Isamu to make his feelings plain without actually having to say anything. Sometimes actions are kinder than words, and easier to understand. What Rinko needs to learn is that you can find self acceptance without needing to see it reflected in someone else, and that fear of moving forward is not a good reason for holding back. A quiet and melancholy look at life after love, Love, Goodbye and Hawaii is a gentle ode to the art of moving on with no hard feelings, looking straight ahead.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sing My Life (あやしい彼女, Nobuo Mizuta, 2016)

Sing my life posterWhen Miss Granny was released in Korea back in 2014, it became an instant smash hit with remake rights quickly bought by a host of Asian countries and Chinese (20 Once Again), and Vietnamese (Sweet 20) versions already proving popular in their respective nations. Sing My Life (あやしい彼女, Ayashii Kanojo) shifts away from the Korean film’s pervasive misery for a more typically Japanese determination to grin and bear one’s troubles. Structured like a classic musical, Sing My Life may only hint at the hardships of life in post-war Japan, but co-opts the classic “hahamono” for a musical tribute to motherhood in all of its complexities and complications.

Katsu Seyama (Mitsuko Baisho) is a 73-year-old woman who likes to sing and dance her way through life while making a point of haggling over her purchases and boasting loudly about how proud she is of her daughter who is the editor-in-chief of a famous fashion magazine. Her daughter Yukie (Satomi Kobayashi) has, however, unbeknownst to her been demoted in favour of a flashy, younger candidate. After getting caught by an ore ore scam and blaming Yukie for preventing her from doing all the things she wanted to do in life, Katsu runs away from home and finds herself at a strange photo studio from which she emerges as her 20-year-old self (Mikako Tabe). Suddenly given the chance to experience the youth she never knew, Katsu ends up joining her grandson’s punk band as the lead vocalist singing a number of her favourite retro hits in new, modern versions.

Unlike the Korean version, Katsu’s story is less one of resentment at a fall in social status than an ongoing struggle born of constant hardships. A war orphan with childhood friend Jiro (Kotaro Shiga) her only “familial” connection, Katsu has had to fight all her life just to survive. A shotgun wedding was followed immediately by widowhood and a serious illness for her child who she was told would not survive past infancy. Yet unlike the granny of Miss Granny, Katsu is not actively mean as much as she is irritating and occasionally petulant. Loving to boast of the successful career woman daughter she managed to raise alone, Katsu is not above playing the martyr in reminding those around her of everything she sacrificed to make it happen.

A single mother in the ‘60s, Katsu had to work day and night to support herself and her daughter leaving her with a lifelong love of thriftiness and a kind of no-nonsense bluntness that is occasionally (if accidentally) hurtful. In the original Korean version, a widowed mother pours all of her ambition and desires into her son who she hopes will become a successful member of society able to return the favour by supporting her in her old age. Katsu’s child is a girl but has also become a successful career woman and later a single mother herself following a brief marriage followed by divorce. There may be tension in the relationship between the two women, but Katsu’s returned youth provides the opportunity for greater intimacy and a return to the less complicated mother-child relationship of early childhood brokered by greater mutual understanding.

Though Katsu had not revealed any great dream of being a singer, her beautiful voice soon gets her noticed by the music biz and producer Takuto Kobayashi (Jun Kaname) who is sick to the back teeth of soulless teenage idols who lack the life experience to truly connect with the material they’ve been given. Encompassing a host of Showa era hits from the Kyu Sakamoto tune Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi wo, to Hibari Misora’s Makkana Taiyo, and the central performance of the depression themed Kanashikute Yarikirenai originated by Folk Crusaders, Sing My Life takes a (slightly) more cheerful run through ‘60s Japan emphasising the fortitude and determination of struggle rather than the misery and hardship of difficult times. Fun and touching, Nobuo Mizuta’s adaptation improves on the Korean version in adding a subtle commentary on the ironic invisibility of the elderly in ageing Japan whilst also refocusing the tale onto a deliberately female perspective, examining how two women from different generations have dealt with a similar problem, and allowing them the opportunity to repair their fractured relationship through a process of mutual understanding.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • ICA – 8 February 2018
  • QUAD – 11 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 20 February 2018
  • Firstsite – 25 February 2018
  • Depot – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 10 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 13 March 2018
  • Broadway – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kyu Sakamoto’s Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi wo

Hibari Misora & The Blue Comets – Makkana Taiyo

Folk Crusaders – Kanashikute Yarikirenai