Ninja Girl (シュシュシュの娘, Yu Irie, 2021)

What can the ordinary person do when encountering injustice? Saying no is a start, but it might not be enough in the long run. According to the inspirational grandpa in Yu Irie’s Ninja Girl (シュシュシュの娘, Shushushu no Musume), if no one’s coming with you you’ll have to go on your own. Part coming-of-age drama, part political satire, Ninja Girl finds its reserved heroine coming into herself as she agrees to take on her grandfather’s unfinished mission and avenge the death of a family friend who took his own life in shame after being bullied into falsifying government documents in order to help a corrupt local council pass some overtly racist legislation. 

The reticent Miu (Saki Fukuda) takes care of her elderly grandfather (Shohei Uno) and has a steady job at the town hall, yet despite her ordinariness she is also a target for local shunning because of her grandfather’s intense resistance towards the “Immigrant Elimination Ordinance”. Miu isn’t in favour of it either, but is otherwise too shy to do much about it despite being harangued by her extremely unpleasant and intimidating supervisor Ms. Muteda (Mayumi Kanetani). On returning home one evening she overhears her grandfather talking to a family friend, Mano (Arata Iura), who appears depressed and talks of taking his own life after being strong-armed by Muteda among others to illegally alter and/or falsify official documentation in order to help them pass their odious bill. Mano then takes his own life in protest by jumping off the roof of the town hall, leaving Miu and her grandfather intent on avenging him by retrieving the evidence he’d preserved of governmental impropriety and exposing the mayor for what he is. Miu’s grandfather presents this as a “mission” he’s leaving to his granddaughter because he believes he’s not long left, revealing a long hidden family secret to the effect that Miu is actually descended from a long line of ninjas. 

Ms. Muteda tries to talk Miu round by insisting that the legislation is neither “discriminatory” nor “racist” which seems like a stretch when you’re using words like “eliminate”. After accepting her ninja legacy and using the book she’s found to make herself an authentic ninja outfit, Miu tries to do some digging all of which eventually takes her to a scrap yard mostly staffed by migrant workers whom Mano had been trying to help. Miu is originally turned away by the owner because of her association with local government but returns hoping to find the password for Mano’s thumb drive only to discover a weird gang of racist thugs dressed in lime green high visibility jackets beating up the scrap yard’s owner and spouting a lot of rubbish about how his workforce is taking jobs off Japanese people who apparently find themselves in need following the earthquake and coronavirus pandemic. 

For all of their talk about making Japan great again and keeping Japanese traditions in the hands of the Japanese, there’s a strange irony that their nemesis comes in the form of that most quintessentially culturally specific avenger, the ninja, and not only that a young female ninja rising up against oppression all on her own. Despite agreeing that she has no real skills, Miu’s grandfather thinks she’ll make a good a ninja because of her general invisibility while her childhood hobby of making blowpipes will also stand her in good stead. Accepting her “mission” gives Miu the kind of confidence otherwise lacking in her life to seize her own agency and stand up for what she believes in even when victory seems more or less impossible. Meanwhile, Muteda and her cohorts laugh loudly about how they’re only doing what the national government and other prefectures do in illegally altering their documents to make it look like they’re not doing anything wrong while they ride roughshod over the rights of ordinary people and pursue their xenophobic agenda. 

“Never again” Miu’s grandfather insists on recalling the pogroms which occurred after the 1923 Kanto earthquake leading to a massacre of Koreans, while finding himself branded a traitor to his nation. In another touch of irony, the cheerful children’s folksong Hana plays in the background as red balloons are launched to celebrate the Immigrant Elimination Ordinance in a nationalistic incongruity that seems to leave Miu more bemused than ever. Removing herself from this intensely corrupt social order and committing herself to ninja mastery while training alongside her her favourite collection of ‘80s pop hits, she determines to clean up town sending poison darts against the otherwise unopposed voices of disorder. Shot in a strangely comforting 4:3, Yu Irie’s quirky drama is drenched in the absurd but sends a very real message as its shy, reserved heroine steps into the shadows in order to resist societal corruption even while those all around her are content to stand by and watch as their freedoms are taken from them. 


Ninja Girl screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Yujiro Harumoto, 2016)

going the distance posterThe “family drama” is often regarded as Japanese cinema’s representative genre, but in the consumerist atmosphere of the late 20th century the family itself became an increasingly discredited concept. Nevertheless, it remains true that discriminating against those who have no family is the last acceptable prejudice with orphans in particular unfairly viewed as somehow untrustworthy, rejected by mainstream society, and denied both work and the possibility of starting a family of their own. The hero of Yujiro Harumoto’s debut feature Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Kazoku e) thinks he has everything finally back on track with a steady job and an engagement to a middle-class secretary, but his good heart coupled with his precarious social status seem set to ensure his new start is a non-starter.

Raised in an orphanage in the Goto Islands, Asahi (Shinichiro Matsuura) now lives in Tokyo with this fiancée Kaori (Yumi Endo) for whom he has given up his boxing career to work as a trainer in a gym. Though Kaori, superficially at least, does not care that Asahi is a man with no family, she is a little preoccupied about how it’s going to look that his “family table”  at the reception will be largely unoccupied because he’s only planning on inviting his “brother” from the orphanage, Hiroto (Masahiro Umeda), and his wife.

Hiroto still lives in Goto and works as a fisherman. Hoping to help him out, Asahi sets him up with a man from his gym, Kita (Nobu Morimoto), who is opening a restaurant specialising in super fresh fish. The meeting goes extremely well and earns Hiroto a hefty contract that convinces him he needs to take out a loan to get a bigger boat. Unfortunately, however, Kita turns out to be a crook and Hiroto ends up well out of pocket, not only for the loan but for all the fish he never gets paid for.

Feeling intensely guilty and somewhat responsible, Asahi wants to do everything he can to put things right for Hiroto, even suggesting to Kaori that they postpone the wedding so that he can give part of the money they’ve saved to help take care of his debts. As predicted, Kaori is not happy about the idea, not least because she’s repeatedly explained to Asahi that she needs to get married as soon as possible because she wants her grandmother, who is suffering with dementia, to be able to attend the wedding while she’s still well enough to know what’s going on.

Unbeknownst to Asahi, one of the reasons Kaori is so keen on her grandmother attending is that her mother almost certainly won’t. Despite telling Asahi that her mother is lukewarm on the idea but coming round, the truth is that she won’t even talk to her, rudely rejecting the invitation and vowing that she’s no interest in seeing her daughter throw her life away on a man with no family and no prospects. In fact, Kaori’s mother crassly makes a point of sending her omiai photos for potential arranged marriages to more “suitable” men – ones from “good families” matching her own class background. Kaori wastes no time in calling her a “bigot”, accusing her of indulging in an outdated and offensive prejudice against the orphaned that regards them as untrustworthy because they have no history and are not anchored to anyone who might be held responsible for their actions.

Yet, despite her anger towards her mother Kaori is not quite free of those same prejudices, snapping back at Asahi that he wouldn’t understand what she’s going through because he had no parents of his own. She keeps the drama a secret from him to avoid having to admit that her family oppose the marriage solely because he is an orphan, partly wanting to spare his feelings and partly aware that Asahi is a good and noble man who might choose to absent himself rather than force her to choose between the man she loves and her family.

Meanwhile, Asahi does something similar in refusing to confide in Kaori about everything that’s going on with Hiroto, partly out of guilt and embarrassment, and partly out of shame in knowing that he is on some level betraying her by choosing to save Hiroto rather than prioritise their marriage. He wants to make things right, put them back to the way they were before, but he has an impossible choice – either reject his responsibility to his brother who is also a good and kind man and would not want to cause him trouble in his relationship, or neglect his new responsibilities to his soon-to-be-wife.

Unfortunately, the couple elect to go on deceiving one another, intending to protect but causing only more harm. It may be the case that they’ve rushed into marriage because of Kaori’s grandmother’s precarious health and Asahi’s hopes for a solid family foundation, but their previously happy relationship is eventually eroded by a gradual disillusionment born of refusing to rely on each other, continuing to fight separate battles rather than combine their efforts to fight them together. Faced with the realisation that he may have ruined his relationship by his own foolishness in trying to help a friend with a problem that was really none of his responsibility, Asahi begins to reject Hiroto, giving up on the idea of “family” in its entirety in mistaken resentment towards his brother for a series of decisions that were entirely his own. Nevertheless, what he discovers is that true family isn’t always about blood ties but about people who will always be there for you no matter what you do. Asahi wasn’t quite as alone as he thought he was, but only by admitting his mistakes, accepting his responsibilities, and finally allowing himself to confide in and rely on others can he truly begin to build a family anchored by something deeper than blood.


Going the Distance was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)