The Whispering Star (ひそひそ星, Sion Sono, 2015)

The Whispering StarSion Sono has been especially prolific of late, though much of his recent output has leant towards the populist rather than the art house. Having garnered a reputation for vulgar excess over the last twenty years or so, Sono returns to his Tarkovskian roots with The Whispering Star (ひそひそ星, Hiso Hiso Boshi) – a contemplative exercise in stillness which has more in common with The Room or Keiko Desu Kedo than the ironic outrageousness of Love & Peace. Yet, in an odd way love and peace are what it’s all about as a lonely android delivers long love letters from the distant past to a dying world in which humanity itself will soon be little more than a memory.

Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), machine no. 772 , is an employee of Space Parcel Services, delivering packages the old-fashioned way from one human to another all across the universe. Following a series of natural disasters and other errors, humanity is no longer the dominant force amid the stars but makes up only 20% of the population. The other 80% belongs to humanity’s children – the androids or other AI based lifeforms who will soon eclipse their forebears given that humans do not generally live for more than 100 years whereas robots are forever “young”.

Yoko’s only companion aboard her homely spaceship is the dashboard computer, 6-7 M.I.M.E. who seems to have gone quite mad with boredom. Eventually Yoko realises that the problem is that M.I.M.E has descended into literal introspection – all its sensors are pointed inside not out and it’s hopelessly distracted by equally literal “bugs” trapped in the ceiling light. Living out her dull days, Yoko records her thoughts on a reel-to-reel tape hoping to entertain the next “Yoko” who rents this ship (or perhaps she is the next Yoko, listening and continuing the project) while travelling between planets delivering one of the remaining 82 parcels on her docket.

More human than human, Yoko is oddly fascinated by her human customers. An accidental anthropophile, Yoko states that she chose this ship because of its “convenient” features which include a kitchen and a host of other home comforts. Only they’re home comforts an android does not need. Dressing in elegant feminine fashions, Yoko’s other main hobby is housework – dusting the control deck, scrubbing the floors, putting up with the leaking tap, and the ship itself is more like a dainty flying cottage than your average utilitarian space vessel with a pretty porch and tiled roof.

Yoko’s “nostalgia” is for a world she never knew and believes she cannot understand. Space exploration has long since ended, and with it, she tells us, went humanity’s centuries old romance with the outer limits. Teleportation has been mainstream technology for quite some time so why do humans spend vast amounts of money on sending parcels to each other which may take years to arrive when they could just press a button for next second delivery? Yoko doesn’t know, she thinks it must be among the things an android cannot understand and that these things themselves must be the very thing which defines her creators.

Stopping off at various planets, Yoko begins to learn more about humans and the world that they destroyed or was destroyed for them. Shooting once again in the wasteland surrounding Fukushima, Sono explores the ruined landscape, eerily timeless with its broken signs and still stocked stores. Using displaced locals as his extras he has Yoko deliver packages to old ladies still manning tobacco stands on silent beaches, elderly store owners, fathers and sons, or even gum chewing little boys armed with real film cameras sitting on disused station platforms to receive something that was probably dispatched before they were even born. Yoko does not begin to look inside the packages for quite some time but observes that they each seem to provoke a profound emotional reaction in the recipients.

From her first encounter with an eccentric man who invites her out for a drink and tries to stop her space ship leaving by spray painting the window, urging her to come back soon because she may have forever but he will soon be gone, Yoko begins to understand the strange transience of human existence. The old man extols the virtues of bicycles and walks with a tin can stuck to the bottom of his shoe because he likes the sound it makes in this maddeningly silent world. Yoko stores her memories in a more absolute way but for humans the objects are the path to the past. The parcels she delivers have weight because the journey was so arduous. Teleportation may be efficient, but something that takes no time has no meaning.

Absurdly, Yoko’s days are divided by title cards bearing the names of the days of the week. Another human affectation or strange hangover from an obsolete world, this decidedly old-fashioned way of dividing time, something now rendered irrelevant to “immortal” machines who (supposedly) feel no boredom or melancholy, is one of many strange anachronisms from the AA batteries which are Yoko’s main source of power to the cheerful dashboard companion shaped liked a classic 1930s wireless and unused manual control wheel which might have been ripped from a small pirate ship. This timeless world is filled with longing for a forgotten, half made-up past inherited from another, unknowable age.

Yet Yoko does begin to learn what it is to be human, even if the knowledge may bring nothing but the additional burden of melancholy. Humanity destroys itself and leaves nothing to its children other than an inescapable sense of loss for a world they never knew. It sounds oddly familiar, like the echoes of an age-old tragedy but there is a kind of hopefulness in Sono’s black and white wasteland for the things which endure even when everything else has been washed away.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoichi Higashi, 2010)

wandering homeAlcoholism is not a theme which has exactly been absent from the history of cinema. From the booze drenched regret of Days of Wine and Roses to the melancholic inevitability of Leaving Las Vegas and the disdaining irony of Barfly, there has been no shortage of unsympathetic portrayals of drunkenness when it comes to the silver screen. Yoichi Higashi’s Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoi Ga Sametara, Uchi Ni Kaerou) walks something of a middle road here as it embraces the classic “issue drama” mould but also aims for a naturalistic character study in adapting the true life memoirs of photojournalist Yutaka Kamoshida (husband of well known mangaka Reiko Saibara).

The film begins with a touch of magical realism as Tsukahara (Tadanobu Asano) literally falls off his barstool and has a vision of his wife and two children urging him to get up. Of course, they aren’t “real”. Tsukara lives with his mother after his marriage to a successful mangaka broke down due to his alcoholism. Returning home and ignoring his mother’s advice to get something to eat, Tsukarahara has another drink whilst swearing that this time he’ll be sober when he sees his kids but shortly after retreats to the bathroom to vomit where he experiences a massive haemorrhage and is taken to hospital. Things have already gone too far, he’s told he’s lucky to be alive and the next time this happens he will die.

Swearing to finally come off the booze, Tsukahara goes home but is immediately tempted by a side dish in a restaurant which contains alcohol. He makes the wise choice not to buy the vodka in the off-licence but eventually talks himself into buying beer which he drinks right away and then falls over and hits his head on the way home. His ex-wife, Yuki (Hiromi Nagasaku), and his long suffering mother have gone through this too many times before to even be disappointed. Eventually, they ship Tsukahara off to a residential facility in the hope that they can finally help him beat the booze for good.

Wandering Home is inspired by the real life story of a photojournalist which has also inspired a few other films including the following year’s Kaasan which told the same story from the point of view of Kamoshida’s mangaka wife. Therefore, the ending of this story might perhaps be known to you already but needless to say it isn’t an altogether happy one. The film doesn’t go into the reasons Tsukahara started drinking save for emphasising that it’s rarely one root cause that starts someone on the road to alcohol addiction. Tsukahara’s father had been an alcoholic and had also behaved violently in the home – something which Tsukahara despised and yet he ultimately became exactly like his dad. Having started to drink as a young teenager he drifted into an aimless life and then witnessed a number of traumatic events in his career as a photojournalist which also left their mark on him.

Though the film is never shy about the disruption Tsukahara’s drunkeness causes to his family, it mitigates the effects by casting them as surreal episodes such as the only scene in the film where Tsukahara is shown to be violent towards his wife in which another soot covered version of himself emerges from a zipper in his back to shout abuse and trash the place as his children retreat in horror to their bedroom. It’s not Tsukahara, it’s the alcohol, the film tries to say but actually lays the message on a little thick and often neglects the trauma that his behaviour is, in turn, causing to his own son and daughter.

That said, there is remarkably little animosity between Yuki and her ex-husband despite the way that he has behaved. Yes, the pair are divorced but Yuki is called right away when Tsukahara is taken to hospital and when she brings the children to visit him the couple talk warmly with no bitterness or recrimination. The children too are happy to see their father and do not seem afraid of him in any way at all.

Higashi does, however, fall into standard “issue drama” tropes and perhaps spends too much time exploring the rehab facility where Tsukahara is sent for treatment. Though hearing something of the other characters’ paths to alcohol dependency is enlightening, it can’t help but feel more like a public information film at times than the affecting character drama it should be. Small touches like Tsukahara’s longing for something a simple as being able to enjoy curry again like everyone else on the ward or his more frequent difficulties of being able to distinguish a hallucination from something he’s doing for real lend weight to the central story but they can’t quite save it.

Higashi’s tone is generally straightforward and mostly avoids melodrama or sentimentality except during the film’s ending. This sounds like a strength but turns out to be a weakness as something about Tsukahara’s plight never quite grabs the heartstrings in the way it seems to want to. The film’s unsentimental depiction of alcohol dependency and one man’s struggle to try and regain his place within his own family is an admirable one, but Wandering Home ultimately falls far short of its intended destination.


The Japanese dvd/blu-ray release of Wandering Home includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: