Jeux de plage (浜辺のゲーム, Aimi Natsuto, 2019)

105104a28dul1sw021sqjl“Listen, men are nice to all women, because sex is the only thing they think of” a young woman warns her friend as she recounts a casual encounter on the beach with a man they seem to have collectively decided to declare a bad idea. It’s not all fun and games by the sea for the romantically confused heroes of Jeux a plage (浜辺のゲーム, Hamabe no Game) which owes a fair bit to the French New Wave in its easy, breezy exploration of young love and an intensely sexist society. Produced by Kiki Sugino’s Wa Entertainment, Aimi Natsuto’s Rohmer-esque debut continues the internationalist vibe the studio is fast becoming known for in bringing together a disparate group of travellers each “invited” to a small seaside guest house by the mysterious Miwako.

The central psychodrama plays out between three young women, not quite friends, who are apparently engaged in some sort of revolving love triangle. Yui (Juri Fukushima) has brought her uni friend Sayaka (Haruna Hori) on a trip to her hometown where they’ve hooked up with her high school friend Momoko (Nanaho Otsuka), but the atmosphere is beginning to sour. Sayaka increasingly feels like a third wheel while secretly pining for Yui who seems to have regressed into a more vacuous version of her teenage self while obsessing over Momoko who only talks about guys despite later claiming to be pansexual.

Meanwhile, the three women find themselves constantly bombarded by (largely) unwanted male attention – firstly from another guest at the hotel, Akihiro (Shinsuke Kato), who seems to have completely messed up his personal and professional lives with an ill-advised love affair. Akihiro’s eyes are out on stalks when he spots the three pretty women though they, while admitting that he’s “cool”, declare him a little sleazy, maybe even creepy seeing as he’s probably “as old as 35” and giving the eye to a bunch of college girls. Even so, Akihiro is not the only lothario on the prowl. Korean student Min-jun (Koo Hyunmin) has brought a Korean girl, Yona (Li Taun), who’s come to visit him, to stay in the hotel after getting a recommendation from Miwako. It seems Yona is just a friend who came to find out about studying film, but Min-jun keeps making awkward passes and intermittently reminding her about an introduction to his professor which occasionally seems like a creepy sort of pleading.

All that’s aside from the randy professor (Kentaro Kanbara) who might as well be a escapee from a Hong Sang-soo film, having started the picture without his trousers in the empty hotel swimming pool after apparently being seduced by the ever absent Miwako the night before. Despite being profoundly sorry, he turns up the next day to return the clothes he had to borrow and makes a worryingly aggressive play for the previously sympathetic manageress all while his suspicious wife (Kiki Sugino) watches from behind a nearby hedge, presumably following him after doubting whatever story he told her to explain not having arrived home the previous evening. Meanwhile, Sayaka, sick of feeling like a spare part, takes off for the beach where she’s quickly hit on by two different creepy guys, one of whom turns out to be a film director (A cameo from Edmund Yeo) who wanted to hire her for a movie though she wasn’t particularly interested.

Matters come to a head right there on the beach where the women collectively take out their frustrations with the male sex on the cocksure Akihiro, who is not really at fault in this instance save insensitively mocking other people’s romantic distress. Unfortunately, however, the incident does not seem to have relieved the pressure on the central trio who continue to dance around their romantic confusion without talking about anything “real”. While Sayaka looks for advice in asking random strangers if they’ve ever had a same sex crush, Yui becomes increasingly stressed and as irritated by Momoko’s gravitating towards the guys as Sayaka is by her intimacy with Momoko. Meanwhile, the only “nice guy” – a sympathetic Thai filmmaker (Donsaron Kovitvanitcha) observing from the sidelines, fails to add to the drama when attempting to make his own romantic confession (a sweet and innocent one with flowers and poetry) at an extremely inopportune moment. Bookended by time cards with chapter headings taken from classics of the French New Wave, Natsuto’s approach is one of detached playfulness tinged with farce as she observes this collection of flawed but very human protagonists fail to plainly express their desires, becoming ever more frustrated and confused as they struggle to orientate themselves around each other in a repressive and infinitely sexist environment. 


Jeux de plage was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hospitalité (歓待, Koji Fukada, 2010)

hospitaliteFrom the Ozu-esque, classic calligraphy of its elegant title sequence, you might expecting a rather different kind of family drama than the one you find in Koji Fukada’s Hospitalité (歓待, Kantai). Though his compositions lean more towards the conventional, Fukada aims somewhere between a more restrained The Family Game and a much less explosive Theorem as he uses the family as a microcosmic analogy for his country’s attitudes towards “outside intrusion”. An absurdist tale of dysfunctional families and hypocritical social standards, Hospitalité takes a long hard look at whom exactly you regard as “guest” and how much you’re really prepared to take care of them.

The Kobayashis run a small printers shop in a rundown suburban backwater. Son Mikio has inherited the business and lives above it with his second wife, Natsuki, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Eriko. Older sister Seiko has recently moved back in following a divorce though she also has a vague idea of wanting to study abroad. Things start to go haywire when little Eriko’s pet parakeet absconds from the family home. Heartbroken, she designs a special flyer to try and find it which brings them to the attention of “old friend” Kagawa who claims to have seen the bird somewhere near the station.

Kagawa hangs round a little longer than necessary chatting to the couple when their assistant suddenly keels over. This allows a convenient opening for Kagawa to volunteer his services at the print shop – luckily he knows how to handle the machines. He quickly moves into their spare upstairs room before also moving in his “foreign wife”, Annabelle, and a bunch of other non-Japanese people by which time he’s well and truly wrested control of the mini printshop empire away from the mild mannered Mikio and caused a degree of local panic in the process.

The Kobayashis are “hospitable” people. To begin with they don’t mind having this “old friend” hanging around and helping him out by letting him stay and work in the shop. When he suddenly introduces his wife without warning they may feel he’s taking advantage but anyway they go along with it. Annabelle, from “Brazil”, or was it “Bosnia”, gives the impression of someone who is always pretending their language skills aren’t as good as they really are so people let their guard down around her. She teaches “salsa”, apparently, and starts to get on Natsuki’s nerves by usurping her position as resident English speaker.

The town itself is not quite as charitable as the Kobayashis as evidenced by the older lady who keeps dropping by with petitions for the neighbourhood watch to which she’d also like to recruit the ladies of the house. She’s worried about the increasing number of “foreigners” in the area which she now feels is becoming “dangerous” as a consequence. That’s not to mention the proposed “beautification” plan for the park (which really means getting rid of all those people who sleep there in cardboard boxes). That said, though neither of the women is particularly interested in joining the neighbourhood watch or against the idea of non-Japanese people coming to live in their town, they go along with the woman and her plans not to rock the boat. They run a business here after all so they have an interest in keeping the town stable and in maintaining good social relations with their neighbours, so it makes sense to just put up with whatever bigoted nonsense they’re spouting, right?

For all their “lascivious dancing”, topless sunbathing, and “promiscuous immorality”…the foreigners are quite clearly not as much of a problem as the underlying hypocrisy which runs through the Kobayashis’ world. When Kagawa asks about Mikio’s previous wife, he says “she got sick” leading him to think Mikio is a widower which isn’t quite true but is a less embarrassing for explanation for Mikio to offer than what really happened. There’s an obvious tension between Mikio and Natsuki as well as with the recently returned older sister. As soon as Kagawa begins to work his magic, driving a pneumatic drill right into all of those tiny cracks and fractures which exist between a husband and a wife, everything begins to fall apart though in an equally quiet and subtle fashion. However, people have need of their fantasies and even after Kagawa has exposed the holes in their marriage, Mikio and Natsuki seem content to simply paper over their differences and go back to pretending everything’s fine just like before.

A surrealist’s meditation on xenophobia, social mores, and what happens when a caged bird decides to be free, Hospitalité is a suitably nuanced, not to mention frequently amusing, look at contemporary small town mentality. Everyone is so invested in maintaining a particular quality of personal truth, be it in a hospitable place which thinks the answer to people cluttering up the park with their cardboard boxes is to “beautify” the area by throwing them out, or a neighbourhood watch group that’s all egos with a local place for local people mentality, that maintaining the lies is much more important than solving the underlying problem. Koji Fukada’s farcical approach to the absurdity of everyday life is a good natured and humorous one, but the problems at its core are all too real.


Hospitalité was released on DVD in the US by Filmmovement and still appears to be in print though the distributor’s website is constant 403.

English subtitled trailer:

Au revoir l’été ほとりの朔子 (ほとりの朔子 Koji Fukada, 2013)

sakuko_mainReview of this kind of cute French new wave influenced Japanese indie up at UK Anime Network. I kind of liked this one – it’s getting another screening at The Proud Archivist on Tuesday if you couldn’t make it today. Alternatively you can watch it online via FilmDoo!


It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of  “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French – a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances – well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.

Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.

If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely just you started to feel it was getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy – it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.

Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing but – there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said – not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.

Nothing really happens, no grand life changing events but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t  shy away from showing us what might become of them with the unhappy grown ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and is willing to see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.

Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. Which is just as well because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.