#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Weathering with You (天気の子, Makoto Shinkai, 2019)

weathering with you poster 2Some might say much of life is learning to weather the storm, but when the storm is literal as well as metaphorical it’s easier said than done. Following his 2016 mega hit Your Name, Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You (天気の子, Tenki no Ko) opts for much of the same but grafts an additional layer of anxiety onto the lives of his precarious teen heroes who are left largely adrift, betrayed by corrupt adult society and plagued by doubt and despair in a world which, it seems, is trying to drown them in existential hopelessness.

16-year-old Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) has run away from his parochial island home for the bright lights of Tokyo. Beyond disconnection from his parents and small-town ennui, he never gives much of a reason why he’s so determined not to go back, but tries to make a go of it in the city with all the prideful naivety of an adolescent young man. What he discovers is that, because of laws in place to protect him, he can’t support himself honestly as an independent teen, ironically placing him firmly at risk in shady Kabukicho but it turns out that you can’t even get a job as a host in a sleazy bar without proper ID. Just when he’s hit rock bottom, Hodaka is given new hope when a friendly employee at McDonalds decides to gift him a burger just because she can see that he’s hungry.

Hodaka describes the BigMac as the best meal he’s ever tasted, because he’s tasting kindness in an environment which has turned out to be far more hostile than he’d anticipated. He tries to repay that kindness when he spots the girl out in Kabukicho being manhandled by a gangster trying to coax her into a love hotel, threatening him with a gun he picked up from the rubbish bin outside a club. The girl, Hina (Nana Mori), ends up saving him again, but the rescue originally backfires because of Hodaka’s problematic adoption of the gun. He regains Hina’s sympathy by throwing it away, allowing a genuine connection to arise between them, especially when he discovers that Hina has an unusual power – she can stop the rain with the power of prayer.

It’s the height of summer, but it hasn’t stopped raining since Hodaka arrived in Tokyo. In fact, it’s just about time for Obon when the departed souls of long gone relatives are able to return. Hina apparently became linked with the sky after praying at a shrine during her mother’s illness, but if the gloominess of the heavy skies and constant rain is a reflection of her unhappiness, it’s one belied by superficial cheerfulness even though her life is just as hard as Hodaka’s. In addition to trying to support herself on the kind of money you can make as a teenage part-timer, she’s also responsible for her younger brother Nagi (Sakura Kiryu) which is why, perhaps, she was tempted by that gangster’s offer of big bucks to be made in Kabukicho.

Hodaka too looks for familial connections, moving in with a middle-aged man who saved his life during the storm that brought him to Tokyo. Like Hina, Keisuke (Shun Oguri) is also drowning in grief, in his case for a beloved wife killed in an accident, while dealing with separation from his daughter who has been taken in by her grandmother in disapproval of Keisuke’s scrappy lifestyle. It’s working for Keisuke’s occult-themed magazine that leads Hodaka to recognise Hina as a “Sunshine Girl”, but also to learn that such “weather maidens” were once common in ancient Shinto Japan and mostly met a bad end. A fortune teller makes it clear that exercising the kind of power that Hina has is likely to deplete her capacity for life, a mild irony in that it’s the inability to feel alive that these rains seem to symbolise.

Ironically enough, both teens met their destiny because they were chasing the light – Hina drawn to a rooftop shine illuminated by an improbable ray of sunshine in the rain, and Hodaka longing to find his place in the sun and resolving to live inside the light that Hina casts. Eventually, Hodaka is forced to make a decision and comes to the conclusion that he can accept Hina for all that she is, that she doesn’t need to be the “Sunshine Girl”, she can feel what she feels and the world will cope. He will weather the storm along with her.

Meanwhile, the spectre of real world climate change looms in the background. Hodaka’s decision necessarily means he has chosen to drown the world to save his love. Faced with the gradual submergence of the city of Tokyo, an old woman waxes philosophical, remembering that back in Edo most of this land was underwater so perhaps it’s just going back to the way it’s supposed to be. Hodaka is swayed but unconvinced. Still young, he is very invested in the idea that he has changed the world, for good or ill, seizing his agency as path out of his despair. But Shinkai’s messages are mixed. Hina continues to pray, but Hodaka comes to the conclusion that the world has always been messed up so perhaps all you need to do is learn to live in it and the rest will figure itself out. As much as it’s true that the problems of climate change should not rest on the young, who are blameless, it is perhaps irresponsible to advocate cautious indifference. Hodaka remains wedded to the idea that he’s made a choice and his choice has changed the world, while beginning to realise that changing the world is not his responsibility, or at least not his alone and not in that way. He has, however, found a way at least to live with all his choices, undefeated by the rain.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Won Shin-yeon, 2019)

The Battle roar to voctory poster 1Besides seeing the birth of Korean cinema, 1919 was something of a flashpoint in the nation’s 20th century history. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910, thereafter instituting an increasingly brutal colonialist regime. On March 1, 1919 the people rose up in an act of mass protest inspired by the provision for “Self-Determination” included in US president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points speech outlining a path towards enduring peace. Though the protest was peaceful, it was quickly suppressed by Japanese troops resulting in thousands of deaths and mass incarcerations.

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Bongodong Jeontoo) situates itself a year after the protest as the Independence Movement began to intensify, and is inspired by real life events apparently often absent from the textbooks in which several factions eventually came together to wipe out an “elite’ squad of Japanese troops which had been put together to take down guerrilla Resistance fighters. Our heroes have been charged with collecting money from a fundraiser and conveying it to the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai but are drawn into a wider battle against Japanese brutality on their way.

The Japanese colonial forces are indeed brutal, if often cowardly. When we first meet crazed commander Yasukawa (Kazuki Kitamura), he’s butchering a tiger in some kind of symbolic act of intense barbarity. To smoke out the Resistance fundraiser, the Japanese military begin razing villages, killing the men and raping the women, even going so far as to shoot small children for sport. When veteran Resistance fighter Hae-cheol (Yoo Hae-jin) raids a command post, he makes a point of taking a hostage who himself seems to be a teenage recruit. Hae-cheol lets the boy live not only out of a sense of compassion, but also because he wants him to take what he’s seen back to Japan, including the aftermath of a Japanese assault on an ordinary Korean village.

Yukio (Kotaro Daigo), as the boy later gives his name, is, unlike his fellow officers, conflicted and confused. Apparently a member of the elite himself, the son of a prominent military figure, Yukio gave up a bright academic future to join the army and find out what it is that Japan does with its advanced weaponry. Asked what he thinks now that he’s seen for himself, he says that he’s ashamed, that his worst fears have been confirmed. According to Yukio, his nation is suffering from an intense inferiority complex which is leading it to commit acts of extreme barbarity in order convince itself it is equal to any other imperial power.

The Japanese officers veer from the crazed, bloodthirsty Yasukawa who views his mission as some kind of hunting expedition, to the merely weak and cowardly. The Independence fighters, however, come from all over Korea speaking many dialects (some less mutually intelligible than others) and with many different motivations but all with the desire to free their country from Japanese oppression. Ace captain Jang-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) is a born soldier, but those who support him are largely street fighters and “bandits” not always welcomed into the movement by the so-called intellectual “nobles” running the show from a position of social superiority. Then again, as Hae-cheol puts it, no one can be sure how many guerrilla soldiers there are because any farmer is a potential sleeper agent.

In any case, the Resistance fighters pursue their mission selflessly, manipulating the complacent Japanese troops to lure them into a mass ambush while trying to ensure the money still makes its way to Shanghai to preserve the movement. Despite the “Roar to Victory” subtitle, it’s important to note that the Independence Movement was still in a nascent state and would continue opposing Japanese oppression until Korea’s liberation at the end of the war. Covering the legendary battle of Battle of Fengwudong, the film ends with forward motion as the Resistance commander (a late and great cameo from a giant of Korean cinema) points ahead towards the next target, the well known Battle of Cheongsanri, in which the Japanese military reportedly suffered over 1200 casualties at the hands of Independence forces. Overly gory and lacking in subtlety, The Battle: Roar to Victory is unabashedly patriotic but does its best to suggest the costs and compromises of guerrilla warfare as its selfless heroes put aside their differences to fight for a better Korea.


The Battle: Roar to Victory was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)