The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Masakazu Kaneko, 2016)

A young man is forced to face up to the nature of existential struggle when tasked with killing a god in Masakazu Kaneko’s meditation on land, modernity, and the taking of a life, The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Albino no Ki). Filled with a sense of unease, Kaneko’s parabolic drama asks if it’s right to force others to live in the way you think is best, if it’s right to take the life of an animal simply because it’s inconvenient to you, and if it’s right to assume ownership over the natural landscape as if it’s yours to do with as you wish. To the young man at the film’s centre, these questions are ones he thinks he can’t afford to ask but is eventually confronted with in committing what to some may be an unforgivable transgression. 

Yuku (Ryohei Matsuoka) used to work in removals but times being what they are, his boss has taken a left turn accepting lucrative contracts working as animal control agents on behalf of local councils carrying out culls of wildlife deemed out of control. His colleague Imamori (Shuichiro Masuda) remains conflicted. He isn’t completely happy with this kind of work but has been persuaded that it’s necessary though it still seems cruel to him if not morally wrong to hunt and kill healthy animals solely for existing. Nemoto (Hiroyuki Matsukage), their boss, is keen for them to take on a well paid “confidential” job but with so little information the guys are reluctant, something about it seems shady. Nevertheless, with his mother seriously ill and needing money for medical treatment Yuku agrees as does Imamori only to discover that not even the local councillor who hired them wants to explain what the job is. 

The councillor does, however, begin to outline the economic history of the town once dependent on coal mining now pivoting towards innovative farming. With barely concealed disdain, he replies to Yuku’s inquiry as to whether the mountain in question is inhabited by briefly remarking on a traditional village on the other side the existence of which seems to fill him with such disgust one half wonders if Yuku’s contract job is even darker than it seems. He laments that they have “no desire to develop”, continuing to live a traditional rural existence rather than succumbing to the dubious conveniences of modernity. On meeting up with their contact (Hatsunori Hasegawa), another hunter living on the ridge, the pair discover that their assignment is to eliminate an albino deer because, according to the hunter, the council is nervous that some may assume its mutation hints at corruption in the soil endangering the stability of their eco farming project. The problem is that the villagers believe the albino deer to be an embodiment of the White Deer God that protects the mountain as part of their Shinto animist beliefs and have been protecting it by dismantling all his traps. Imamori declines to go through with the job, feeling that it’s wrong to kill the deer just because it was born different but thinking only of his mother Yuku is determined to do whatever it takes.  

His dilemma is in a sense mirrored by that of Nagi (Kanako Higashi), a young woman from the village he rescues from an animal trap who tells him that she remains torn between the allure of modernity and a traditional rural existence. Yoichi (Yusuke Fukuchi), a young man making a living carving traditional wooden bowls, is determined to preserve ancient beliefs Yuku regards as backwards and superstitious convincing himself that killing the deer is also an act of liberation that will bring enlightenment to the villagers so that they won’t “need” to live in such an archaic and primitive way. But as Yoichi tries to explain to him, you can’t force people to conform to your own way of thinking, it’s not as if anyone is a prisoner here if they didn’t like it they’d leave as all of the other young people have already done. He asks him if a world in which you simply eliminate things which are “inconvenient” to you is one you really want to live in but Yuku isn’t here for such philosophical questions only baffled by what he sees as primitive superstition that stands in the way of progress. 

Yet, the village is largely untouched by the corruptions of the modern society. The water in its rivers is clean and sweet, the wood in its trees strong and beautiful. As Nagi explains to him, the White Deer God has given them permission to drink from these springs, and permission to harvest the trees. By contrast, there’s an unpleasant look of triumph in Yuku’s eyes as he shoots deer from a distance killing for no reason at all, man overcoming nature. He thinks only of his own survival, taking the lives of other living things in order to preserve his own, determined to save his mother but indifferent to the fates of others. When it comes to killing the white deer his hands shake, struck for the first time by the enormity of what he’s doing while literally preparing to kill a god. While Yoichi venerates and protects the natural environment in a process of symbiotic living, Yuku sides with those willing to exploit it for economic gain brainwashed into believing that living with the land is “backward” and that it’s only “natural” to eliminate “inconveniences” such as “vermin” which impede “modern life” in a capitalistic society. Capturing the natural beauty of the Japanese countryside Kaneko’s existential fable is filled with a quiet unease in the ambivalent relationship between man and landscape but also in the solipsistic struggle for survival that all too often defines human relationships. 


The Albino’s Trees streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea (海辺の金魚, Sara Ogawa, 2021)

A young woman begins to come to terms with a painful maternal legacy while bonding with a neglected little girl in Sara Ogawa’s gentle coming-of-age drama, The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea (海辺の金魚, Umibe no Kingyo). As the title suggests, the heroine struggles with ambivalent feelings towards her future partly in the unresolved relationship with her mother but also in an unwillingness to move on without the firm anchoring of family, anxious about leaving the safety of her current life behind for the uncertainties of adulthood. 

About to turn 18, Hana (Miyu Ozawa) has been living in a children’s home for the past 10 years while her mother, Kyoko (Kinuo Yamada), has been in prison convicted of mass poisoning at a summer festival though she continues to protest her innocence. Part of Hana’s anxiety about the future stems from the fact that in order to apply for a scholarship to university she would need her mother’s signature, but she is reluctant to get back in contact with her and is even considering not going despite having studied hard with just that goal in mind. Perhaps surprisingly, Hana has kept her original surname and though seemingly living in a different area is largely shunned by her classmates, either because they know of her mother’s conviction or simply because she lives in a children’s home. 

Meanwhile, Hana finds herself bonding with a withdrawn little girl, Harumi (Runa Hanada), brought into the home for unclear reasons while remaining largely silent and keeping herself separate from the other children. Perhaps recognising something of herself in her, Hana takes the young girl under her wing and attempts help her adjust to life in care but is alarmed to notice scars on the back of her neck which may suggest she has been the victim of physical abuse. Of course, Hana has no way of knowing her family circumstances or if her mother was the one was harming her but is confused by Harumi’s obvious longing to return to a place in which she has been subjected to violence. As the sympathetic man running the home, Taka (Tateto Serizawa), reminds her, however, Harumi’s mother is the only one she’s ever known so of course like all children she wants to return to a familiar environment and continues to long for maternal love even if that love is also abusive. 

In her desire to protect Harumi Hana avoids reflecting on the similarities with her own life or relationship with her mother. Though many things remain unclear about her early years, Hana perhaps resents Kyoko for burdening her with a criminal legacy and essentially abandoning her into the foster system though it has to be said the children’s home is a warm and welcoming place where the children are each loved and well cared for. Nevertheless she fixates on her mother’s parting words to “be a good girl”, in a way like Harumi thinking that her separation from her mother is somehow her fault for being “bad” and if only she were good enough her mother would come back. Looking after Harumi she finds herself saying the same thing, fearful that she’s turning into her mother and that her maternity is necessarily corrupted beyond repair.  

Like the goldfish in her fishbowl, she longs for freedom and independence but is also afraid of it. Through the gentle bond they begin to build the two young women save each other and themselves, Hana giving herself permission to fail, to not always be “good” and to live her life in the way she wants unburdened by the stigma of her mother’s crime while Harumi discovers a kind of maternal love that is positive and supportive without the threat of violence. Nevertheless, the release she chooses despite its metaphorical qualities is also potentially destructive in that goldfish are freshwater creatures unlikely to survive in the highly salinated environment of the ocean. Even so in letting go of her trauma she begins to move forward into a more certain adult world, determined to take Harumi with her in providing the care and protection her mother was unable to give her. A gentle coming-of-tale, Ogawa’s subtle, empathetic direction lends a touch of melancholy but also a lyrical, hopeful sensibility as the young women discover in each other the means to overcome their trauma. 


The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2005)

It's Only Talk poster“I’m scared of wanting to die” the heroine of Ryuichi Hiroki’s It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Yawarakai Seikatsu) confesses during an awkward car ride with a childhood friend, perhaps one of the only absolute truths she offers in her infinite quest to escape existential loneliness through the false connection of mass tragedy. Yuko (Shinobu Terajima) tells people that her parents died in the Kobe Earthquake, but they actually died in a house fire a few years later. She tells people that her best friend died in 9/11 (she died in New York in the early 2000s but in a car accident), and that her former lover died during the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway (this one might even be true, but who really can say). She lies, not about facts only details, in the belief that her private pain is somehow not relatable enough and if she ties herself into a wider sense of national or global tragedies then others can share in her grief and she won’t be so alone in her sadness.

Following the deaths of her parents when she was 29, Yuko was diagnosed with bipolar and has been in and out of hospitals for the past six years. Now 35, single, and unemployed, Yuko has found herself cast out from mainstream society and fulfils her (minimal) needs for human connection through meeting “perverts” on specialist message-boards. Through one of these illicit connections she meets K. (Tomorowo Taguchi) – a 50-year-old husband and father who drives her all the way out to provincial suburb Kamata to ensure the liaison (which extends only to watching a porn film together in a public cinema and a cup of tea afterwards) remains secret. Taken with the suburb’s retro charm and unassuming air of faded grandeur, she decides to move and starts life over again in the somewhat nostalgic past which brings her into contact with two men from her youth and another still battling his own.

A portrait of inescapable loneliness, Yuko’s life is both as frozen as the photographs she takes of local landmarks to post on her fledgling blog and permanently in flux as she tries to navigate the constantly shifting tides of her condition. After moving to Kamata she unexpectedly reencounters an old university friend who recalls their spirited discussions of world politics from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square when they were both bright and engaged students. Like Yuko, Honma (Shunsuke Matsuoka) has wound up in Kamata as a kind of retreat from the harshness of life in Tokyo. Unwilling to embrace life in the public eye, he’s decided to concentrate on a career in local politics instead hoping to work his way into the ministry of education as a civil servant. He is also unmarried – partly as a result of debts accrued during unsuccessful electoral campaigns, and, as we later find out, erectile dysfunction. Honma reintroduces Yuko to another old friend, “Bach” (Nao Omori) who has gone the opposite way and become a venture capitalist but apparently still holds a torch for the young Yuko all these years later. Meanwhile, she’s been meeting up with a lonely yakuza, Noboru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who also has bipolar and longs for the world of childhood safety and innocence he associates with the strange Godzilla tyre park Yuko photographed and put on her blog.

The most significant relationship in her short-lived period of connection is in fact with her childhood friend and cousin, Shoichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), who abruptly turns up at her flat unannounced. Shoichi, also depressed but perhaps in a less extreme way and hiding it much better, left his marriage because he felt pushed out when the baby was born and then ran after a younger woman who went to Tokyo but ultimately did not want him. The two share a strange sort of intimacy born of their long history which is almost fraternal but laced with minor awkwardness and ancient resentments. Though his wife berated him for his refusal to help out at home, Shoichi tenderly cares for Yuko just as she is at her most vulnerable having entered an extreme depressive episode – washing her hair, doing her laundry, and picking up her medication while trying to remain patient even when Yuko rejects his gestures of help. The giving and receiving of care provides each with a new sense of purpose and connection but their paths are perhaps set on different courses in the immediacy of the need to deal with the unresolved past.

Waking up from her depression, Yuko discovers life has delivered her yet another cruel blow, witnessing others moving on in one way or another and leaving her once again all alone marooned on the sidelines. Yet she lives on, “scared of wanting to die” but daring to remove the towel which hides an ugly scar from a previous suicide attempt to revisit a public bath which holds a memory perhaps both happy and sad. Melancholy in the extreme, It’s Only Talk is not a tragedy but an aching portrait of spiritual loneliness in a society only too happy to exclude.


Original trailer (no subtitles)