Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Where I Belong (しゃぼん玉, Shinji Azuma, 2017)

Where I Belong PosterTo the rest of the world Japan often seems as if it exists in the future, all gleaming city scapes and high-tech living, but Japanese cinema has a noticeable ambivalence about urbanisation. Where I Belong (しゃぼん玉, Shabondama) is the latest in a long series of films to lament the coldness and disconnection brokered by the anonymity of life in a metropolis and long for a return to a simpler time in which small communities supported each other in good times and bad, taking care to reinforce positive social values through mutual responsibility. Of course, such pictures of rural life tend towards the optimistic – these communities are accepting rather than judgemental and usually free from extreme hardships, but there is something universally comforting in the solidarity of community providing a home for those otherwise cast out.

Izumi (Kento Hayashi), a young man of indefinite age, was abandoned by his mother after his parents divorced and has lived the majority of his life on the streets. He gets by by bag snatching – mostly targeting the vulnerable, elderly and lone women. To make the job faster he carries a knife to cut the handles, never meaning to hurt anyone with it, but one night an attempted mugging in a rainy underpass ends in tragedy when his target is injured during the struggle. Getting out of town, Izumi finds himself kicked out of a truck in the middle of the mountains where he later finds an apparently abandoned scooter. Just as he’s about to continue his escape, an old woman cries out from the grassy verge. Izumi can’t quite bring himself to just ride off and helps the woman, Suma (Etsuko Ichihara), back to her home, after which he is rewarded by a hearty meal prepared by the warmhearted old ladies of the village and finds himself beginning to fight the urge to run in favour of hiding out in this strange little place where the people are unexpectedly warm.

Izumi’s not a bad guy, but he’s had a lot of bad luck. Let down so badly by family, his life has led him to believe all connections are necessarily suspect and it’s everyman for himself when it comes to surviving on the streets. He wanted to steal Suma’s scooter, but his better nature wouldn’t let him leave a little old lady bleeding on the side of the road where no one else might see her for days. The film’s central message is that kindness repays kindness, but kindness requires mutual trust – something of which the city robs its citizens though its persistent quality of anonymity and abnegation of one’s responsibility for others.

Describing himself as the soap bubble of the Japanese title, Izumi’s sense of loss and restlessness at having no particular place to return to is the root cause of his despair and lack of belief in a credible future. Through meeting Suma who repeatedly tells him that he is “good”, trusts him implicitly, and instils in him a belief in himself that had long been absent, Izumi is at last able to begin moving forward and imagine a future for himself with a place to call home. Taking to the woods with harsh but wise forager Shige (Katsuhiko Watabiki) and then helping the village prepare for a festival, Izumi begins to feel as if he can finally become a part of something bigger but equally that in order to do so he will have to make peace with his life in the city by submitting himself to its justice and paying his debt to society so that he can return and make a fresh start as a man who has finally found his place.

The first feature from TV director Shinji Azuma, Where I Belong is not solely a tale of the importance of community, but also of Japan’s changing social structure as small mountain towns find themselves devoid of youngsters leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. Izumi’s restored hopes are not so much to do with the goodness of country people, benefits of hard work, or the crisp mountain air, but simple human kindness and a consequence of the gradual awakening of his sense of self worth thanks to the often blind faith placed in him by others for nothing other than his kind heart.


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

Screening again:

  • HOME – 19 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 7 March 2018
  • Storyhouse – 11 March 2018
  • Depot – 13 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 17 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2016)

Good Morning Show posterThirty years before Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー), No More Comics showed us that the news is serious business and it seems the intervening three decades have not done much to change that. Good Morning Show is the kind of vacuous TV magazine programme that seems to have become popular the world over but Japan has mastered in its entirety. This is a news programme for people trying to avoid the news – there’s just enough of the essentials to keep the average viewer up to date with the big ticket item of the day, but the rest is horoscopes, cakes, and celebrity gossip. The morning news sets the mood for the rest of the day, and isn’t it in everyone’s interest if it’s blue skies all the way ahead? Perhaps so, but whatever happened to serious journalism?

Good Morning Show’s veteran anchor, Sumida (Kiichi Nakai), used to be a top talent on the evening news but a spot of “inappropriate” reporting from the scene of a disaster has had him relegated to the nonsensical early morning magazine show which involves getting up at 3am everyday and becoming something of an expert on pastries. Sumida’s day starts badly when he gets up to find his wife (Yo Yoshida) and son (Mihiro) still awake. As it turns out, there’s a family crisis. Sumida’s student son has got his girlfriend pregnant and has decided to do the right thing and get married, no matter what his dad might have to say about it. Sumida is definitely not happy but he’s also late for work. On the way, he finds out that his co-anchor, Keiko (Masami Nagasawa), with whom he apparently had some kind of drunken indiscretion, has decided that they’re now a couple and is about to announce as much live on air. Luckily for Sumida, a third crisis enters his life when a gunman (Gaku Hamada) takes a cafe hostage and asks directly for the Good Morning Show host to visit him at the scene.

The Good Morning Show exists entirely to cater to its audience’s baser instincts, but its simple charms are apparently going out of style and the show will be cancelled if they don’t get their numbers up soon. The hostage crisis is a godsend in this regard as is Sumida’s unexpected importance to the case which gets the show on the ground reporting live from the scene with exclusive access. Given this shift in broadcast tastes, it’s strange there’s no reference to social media though Good Morning Show is apparently viewable via the internet with a large portion of the audience tuning in on their smartphones during their morning commute. This sense of “community” seems to be key to the show’s appeal as the interactive poling which usually asks silly questions intended to spark debate such as whether or not to throw out gifts from old lovers, becomes central to the hostage case in deciding whether Sumida and the gunman should live or die live on air.

The gunman, like many, turns out to be just another angry young man frustrated that no one will listen to his complaints. At first it looks like Sumida may be in some way responsible, either because of his botched reporting on an earlier disaster or a connection to an incident in the cafe some years previously, but it turns out the major factor is a kind of hypocritical smugness that’s become the Good Morning Show’s trademark. For all of his frustrations with the format, Sumida is depressingly good at mindless twaddle and his fake “worry” about the future of the nation has got the gunman’s back up. The key issue is still more personal as the gunman feels himself excluded from the community feeling fostered by the show when he tries to make himself heard via its channels and is ignored.

A definite irony when Good Morning Show’s major selling point is “ignoring” the real news. Yes, they run a small item on the important headline of the day which provides Sumida a chance to “worry” about corrupt politicians misappropriating public funds etc, but then the show moves on to more cheerful areas like celebrity affairs and delicious cakes. Sumida ends up committing the newsman’s mortal sin – he becomes the news, much as the reporter at the centre of No More Comics did before him, though like the show itself it’s the personal which wins the day. Saying the things he couldn’t say to directly to his own son, Sumida tries to forge a connection with the gunman who is not a bad person, just another youngster at the end of his tether with an uncaring world. The connections are made through glass, but they are made all the same (even if imperfectly and with less than total honesty). Good Morning Show is, like its namesake, a fairly disposable effort but fun while it lasts. Then again sometimes the most harmless things do the most harm.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Erased (僕だけがいない街, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2016)

erasedErased (僕だけがいない街, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi), a best selling manga by Kai Sanbe, has become this year’s big media spectacle with a 12 episode TV anime adaptation and spin-off novel series all preceding the release of this big budget blockbuster movie. Directed by TV drama stalwart Yuichiro Hirakawa, the live action iteration of the admittedly complicated yet ultimately affecting story of a man who decides to sacrifice himself to ensure his friends’ happiness, acquits itself well enough for the most part but changes two crucial details in its concluding section which unwisely undermine its internal logic and make for an unsatisfying conclusion to the ongoing puzzle.

Beginning in the “present” of 2006, Satoru Fujinuma (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is an aspiring mangaka making ends meet with a part-time job as a pizza delivery guy (a kind of “Hiro Protagonist”, if you will). Aloof and sullen, Satoru has no real friends but does possess an unusual supernatural ability – if a tragedy is about to occur in his general vicinity, he will enter a “Revival” loop in which he temporarily rewinds time, allowing him to figure out the problem and save everyone’s lives. Rescuing a child about to be hit by an out of control lorry, Satoru rides his pizza delivery bike into an oncoming car and winds up in hospital.

When he comes to he finds cheerful co-worker Airi (Kasumi Arimura), who witnessed the accident, waiting for him as well as his mother (Yuriko Ishida) coming in for visit. Reconnecting with his mother and getting closer to Airi (albeit reluctantly) Satoru’s life appears to be brightening up but the good times are short lived as Satoru’s mother is brutally murdered in his apartment leaving him looking like the prime suspect. This time when Revival kicks in it doesn’t just rewind a few minutes but 18 years, back to the winter of 1988 when Satoru’s small town was rocked by a series of child murders and abductions which resulted in the arrest of a local boy (Kento Hayashi) whom Satoru had always believed to be innocent.

Repossessing his childhood body but with a grown man’s mind, the “younger” Satoru is considerably less jaded than his 2006 counterpart, determined to change the future and save his mother’s life. The root causes of her death, he is sure, rest in this unresolved and traumatic period of his childhood. Swapping back and forth between 2006 and 1988 as Satoru makes the best of his opportunity to investigate from both sides, Erased is a tightly controlled time travel puzzle of trial and error in which Satoru must use all of the evidence he can gather to unmask the criminal in order to save both the lives of his friends in 1988 and that of his mother in 2006.

As in many similarly themed franchises, the plot turns on the bonds formed in childhood as the connections between Satoru and his friends become the binding glue in an otherwise fluid time travel dilemma. Older Satoru is better equipped to recognise the trouble one of his friends is in – Kayo, a sad and lonely girl who, in the original timeline, eventually became one of the victims attributed to the serial murders plaguing the town. Trapped in an abusive home environment, Kayo isolates herself for reasons of self preservation, both too afraid and too ashamed to let anyone know what’s going on at home. Managing to befriend her, Satoru does indeed help to change something for the better but only finds himself becoming more deeply entrenched in the central mystery.

It’s at this point that the film begins to diverge from its source material as Satoru is attacked by the murderer and “wakes up” back in 2006 but rather than having been in a coma for 18 years has apparently been leading a much more successful life than his previous incarnation. Within the peculiar laws of the franchise which don’t always match standard time travel logic, Satoru’s central timeline does not change – only his mind moves between bodies, he retains full knowledge of his original timeline as well as the changes he brings about. However, he now seems to magically receive memories of the life he never lived whilst also retaining his previous ones. Now knowing the identity of the real murderer and the probability that they are still out there, Satoru decides to re-team with his old friends but his showdown with the psychotic killer is entirely contrived to engineer a “tragic” ending, oddly more like something that might have befallen the 11yr old Satoru than his older counterpart, further undermining the already shaken sense of internal consistency.

The film’s Japanese title, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (the town where only I am missing), takes inspiration from the short story which Kayo writes in school. Wishing that she alone could be transported to another life free of abuse and loneliness, Kayo writes herself into a better place. Satoru reimagines a similar scenario with himself in the lead as he makes the decision to sacrifice himself to save his friends. The ending of the original source material both undercuts and reinforces this idea as Satoru’s friends are both extremely proud and grateful for his efforts, but are also keen to point out that the world is a much better place with him in it than without. In removing the opportunity for Satoru’s friends to come to his rescue, the live action version of Erased also removes its most crucial message – that heroes are never “alone”, and Satoru’s salvation lies in that of his friends and family.

Yuichiro Hirakawa mostly opts for a lighter tone than the children investigating a serial killer whilst also trying to rescue their friend from her abusive mother narrative might indicate. There are some nice visual ideas including a switch to POV during the first time skip to 1988, the repeated hero of justice hand gestures, and thoughtful use of manga, but given the obvious problems with internal consistency, the high quality of the performances and cinematography can’t reconcile the various cracks within the film’s structure. Uneven, but strong until its contrived and illogical end point, Erased is a slightly disappointing live action adaptation of its source material in which it might have been (ironically enough) better to have more faith rather than pushing for the predictably melodramatic conclusion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)