Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

It might be frightening, when you think of it, how much of life is dependent on coincidence. Chance encounters, some sparking lifelong connection others destined only for aching memory, are after all what life is all about. Given a little imagination, the heroes of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s triptych of accidental meetings Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Guzen to Sozo) each begin to work through their personal traumas, easing their loneliness in fleeting yet profound connections with others. “I’m glad I met you” one woman says to another, imagination and reality for a moment blurred as they role-play themselves towards a greater accommodation with the missed opportunities of the past. 

“Could you dare to believe in something less assuring than magic?” the anti-heroine of the first episode asks her former lover, undermining the central thesis in suggesting that sometimes coincidence is just that and everything else mere fantasy an attempt to convince oneself that life is grander than it is. Her friend, Tsugumi (Hyunri), excitedly tells her about the best night of her life born of a serendipitous meeting with a man who might be her soulmate but was also wounded, frightened of falling in love, still carrying the scars of betrayal after being cheated on two years previously.

What Tsugumi didn’t know is that Mieko (Kotone Furukawa) is the cheating girlfriend who broke the heart of her star-crossed lover Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), but now Mieko’s sense of betrayal is two-fold. Tellingly, Mieko refers to her friend as “Gumi”, but to Kazuaki she’s the “Tsu” to his “Ka”, literally torn in two while Mieko both fears the loss of her friend and resents the love she herself discarded being picked up by another. The thought of the two of them, a perfect whole as she later admits, together near destroys her. When Kazuaki unwittingly invades their private space she has a choice, indulging in a moment of destructive fantasy which threatens to torpedo her friendship only for Hamaguchi to pull a Hong Sang-soo, zoom in and rewind, to allow her to make a more mature decision albeit one that leaves her exiled but allows a more positive path towards a freer future having let go of this brief moment of emotional trauma. 

But what if your emotional trauma is longer lasting, leaving you feeling isolated unable to understand why it is you’re not quite like everyone else and for some reason they won’t forgive you for it. Married housewife and mother Nao (Katsuki Mori) has gone back to college and is having an illicit affair with a much younger student but is frustrated not to be included in campus life in part blaming her sense of alienation on being so much older while also internalising a sense of discomfort that tells her it’s always been this way. Her lover, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), suggests it’s all her own fault, that she doesn’t know how to “go with the flow” and “puts up walls”. He meanwhile, is shallow and entitled, resentful towards a stuffy professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who held him back a year because his grades in French, a required subject, weren’t good enough.

To get back at him, he emotionally blackmails Nao into helping him set up a scandal but Segawa has a literal open door policy and their meeting eventually turns into something deeper even if Nao is forced to admit that a part of her craved this kind of seduction fantasy. Only Segawa, a distant, pensive man, meets her as an equal, tells her that he thinks her inability to go with the flow is no bad thing but a strength in that she lives by her own desires rather than those of an overly conformist society. An ironic mistake, however, later cheapens their profound connection spelling disaster for both while Sasaki it seems, as men like him often do, unfairly prospers plunging Nao into an even deeper sense of despair and self-loathing. “My own stupidity makes me want to cry” she confesses, offered hope only by another chance encounter with the unresolved past. 

Then again, do you actually need to meet to find resolution or is fantasy enough to overcome a sense of loss or missed opportunity? In the midst of a freak technological disaster in which the internet has been temporarily disabled, IT systems engineer Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) attends her 20-year high school reunion but the person she wanted to see wasn’t there. She thinks she sees her in fleeting moment passing each other on an escalator. The other woman seems to recognise her too, the pair of them caught in an escalator loop one chasing the other and thereafter visiting the other woman’s home. But as they talk they realise their chance encounter was mutual case of mistaken identity if one that exposes the similarities between them, connected Natsuko later puts it by an unfillable hole in the heart. Aya (Aoba Kawai), a middle-aged housewife, lives comfortably in a well-appointed suburban home but confesses herself wondering why she’s alive at all, feeling as if “time is slowly killing me”.

Not wanting to waste the “dramatic meeting” they role-play the conversation they might have had, Natsuko regretting having given up too easily on her high school love not wanting to cause her further pain but now realising that her care was mistaken, the pain was necessary for them both and its absence has condemned them to kind of limbo of unresolved longing and regret. Aya meanwhile reveals something else, a “boyish” friend for whom her feelings remain unclear though the final moment of connection in which she remembers her long forgotten name which literally translates as “hope” proves profoundly moving in the momentary connection between these two women, strangers but not, meeting by chance and bound by imagination each restoring something to the other if only in fantasy. 

A meditation on distance and intimacy, Hamaguchi’s series of empathetic character studies owes an obvious debt to Rohmer with a dash of Hong Sang-soo but is perhaps kinder allowing the randomness of life to provoke a gradual liberation in each of these wounded souls if only temporarily. The question might less be if you can believe in something less assuring than magic, than if you can learn to trust the strange mysticism of serendipity. 


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

A quiet suburb of Tokyo, Kamata is in someways the birthplace of modern Japanese cinema home to Shochiku’s prewar studio where the “Kamata Style” which aimed to introduce a note of cheerful naturalism to an artform defined by shinpa gloominess was forged. Produced by actress Urara Matsubayashi who hails from the area and stars in three of the four segments, omnibus movie Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Kamata Zensokyoku) asks some tough questions about what it means to be a woman and an actress today in the contemporary capital as the heroine, “Machiko Kamata”, contends with various demands from the economic to the emotional. 

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, the first segment finds Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) introducing herself as she takes part in a strange audition dressed in an inappropriately short cosplay-style nurse’s outfit. After the audition is over, her agent tells her to say “hi” to the director, a theme which will recur in the third chapter as Machiko finds herself feeling uncomfortable, forced to ingratiate herself in order to get ahead. Annoyed after the eccentric director asks her out for dinner, she can’t help asking him why she has to wear the suspiciously skimpy nurse’s outfit provoking him into a worryingly violent outburst. At home, meanwhile, her world is rocked by her younger brother’s revelation that he’s got a girlfriend who is, ironically, a nurse at local hospital. Jealous and resentful, Machiko can’t warm to Setsuko (Kotone Furukawa) who seems improbably sweet and innocent, almost as if she came from another time (the mid-August dating and ornaments for the Bon festival might clue us in as to why). Spending a day bonding with her, however, the two women generate a kind of sisterhood which pushes Machiko into a realisation of the emptiness she feels in her life of constant struggle as an aspiring actress supporting herself mainly with her part-time job at a ramen bar. 

The themes of alienation and insecurity are only depend in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, in which Machiko reunites with a group of high school friends who are each less than honest about the state of their lives and their unfulfilled desires. Machiko gives the impression that she’s just been in a major movie with a big star, but it turns out she only played a corpse while the rest of the group are scandalised by the bombshell that their friend Marippe (Mayuko Fukuda) has got engaged to a guy from work she’s been seeing secretly for only six months. Besides being somewhat hurt not to have known she was seeing someone, the gang have different reactions to the news with hard-nosed career woman Hana (Sairi Ito) put out by Marippe’s traditional view of conventional gender roles in which she intends to let her career slide to concentrate on being a wife. A trip to a hot spring (the same hot spring seen advertised on Machiko’s T-shirt in part one) brings things to a head with a possibly cheating boyfriend eventually offering the excuse that he is merely a hot spring enthusiast sharing his hobby with a friend of the opposite sex rather than a two-bit louse indulging in the patriarchal double standard. 

Patriarchal double standards are out in force in part three, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, in which Machiko attends another odd audition where she and the other auditionees are asked to outline an episode of sexual harassment they have personally experienced. In fact, we have already seen her be inappropriately propositioned by a middle-aged producer who ran out on her in a coffee shop after she turned him down leaving her with the bill, but the episode she recounts is darker still. As she feared they might, the men in the room quickly figure out who she might have been talking about but proceed to put the blame on her implying that she sleeps around to get ahead and was only offended by the producer’s actions because he wasn’t powerful enough to be useful. It’s another woman however, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), who kicks things into gear by relating that she was assaulted by a man in a club whom she later reveals to have been the director himself only he doesn’t remember her. The director brings both women back and makes them re-enact Machiko’s tale of being inappropriately propositioned in a producer’s office, increasingly exasperated that the situation seems “too scary” as if he’s entirely missed the point of his own exercise or is actively getting off on the actress’ discomfort. The male cameraman (Ryutaro Ninomiya) is the one who eventually points out that the audition itself has descended into a protracted act of sexual harassment, seemingly conducted solely for the entertainment of the director and his assistant. 

Largely disconnected from the other three chapters, the fourth does not feature Urara Matsubayashi and is in fact set not in Kamata but in director Hirobumi Watanabe’s familiar Tochigi. The opening of his segment, characteristically filmed with static camera and in black and white, finds him once again playing a version of himself ranting about not knowing what to do with this unusual project he has taken on for the money even though he doesn’t generally make shorts, has never done an omnibus movie before, and remains suspicious of the concept. He relates all of this to his 10-year-old niece Riko (star of I’m Really Good), who says absolutely nothing while he continues to treat her as if she were the most famous actress in Japan. Somewhat poignantly, a photograph of Watanabe’s late grandmother sits on a stool off to the side, implying perhaps that little Riko has in some senses taken over her role as silent observer. The main thrust of the action follows Watanabe as he attempts to film a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion with local non-actors, but is finally linked back to the omnibus by Riko’s cheerful letter to Machiko in which she states that she wants to become an actress just like her. Ending on such an upbeat moment seems to imbue a sense of hope for the future that was perhaps previously absent, implying that the hopes and dreams of a little girl at least are worth fighting for if only to live up to her sense of expectation for the magic of the movies. 


Kamata Prelude streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Over the Town (街の上で, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

Frustrated youngsters chase an unrealisable dream of idealised romance in Rikiya Imaizumi’s ode to Shimokitazawa, Over the Town (街の上で, Machi no Uede). For the moment at least known as the bohemian, avant-garde artists quarter of the contemporary capital beloved for its slightly retro quality replete as it is with narrow lanes and period buildings, Shimokitazawa is also a place of constant change but as the hero later points out even if “parts change and disappear that doesn’t mean they never existed”. Nevertheless, he seems to be marked by a particular anxiety, as do many of his age struggling to make meaningful connections in an ever shifting world. 

Ao’s (Ryuya Wakaba) world begins to crumble when he’s unexpectedly dumped by his beloved girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), on her birthday. Unceremoniously telling him that she’s met someone else, Yuki rationalises that breaking up is the only option but Ao tries to resist only for her to tell him that he can go on deluding himself that he still has a girlfriend but from now on she’ll be hanging out with someone new. From then on, Ao seems to be surrounded by frustrated couples and worryingly outdated ideas of romantic politics such as those of the students who drop into the vintage clothing shop where he works. Ao assumes they’re a couple, but a row slowly brews as the girl, Asako, declares herself bored with helping the guy, Shigeru, try on clothes that turn out to be for the purpose of impressing a different girl altogether despite knowing that Asako fancies him. Eventually Shigeru makes a highly inappropriate suggestion, almost akin to a bet, that if the woman he has a crush on rejects him he’ll deign to dating her even though Asako is “a distant second” in his heart. The shocking thing is that Asako agrees, a slightly mournful look in her eyes as she finally reaffirms that she really hopes it works out with the other girl. 

Throughout the exchange during which Ao looks on as an awkward bystander, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s so great about Shigeru. Meanwhile, not even Ao comes off particularly well, struggling to deal with his breakup and refusing to accept Yuki has moved on. So hung up on her is he that she eventually ends up contacting the barman at his favourite haunt to ask him to have a word, explaining that it’s inappropriate to go on texting your ex even if she doesn’t reply. Meanwhile, he finds himself at the centre of romantic missed connection, captivated by a sad woman at a concert who gives him a menthol cigarette he keeps in his ashtray as a kind of talisman for the rest of the picture. Infinitely awkward, he talks himself out a potential date with the cute girl at his favourite used bookstore (Kotone Furukawa) by asking an inappropriate question, later doing something similar to a woman (Seina Nakata) with whom he makes a more platonic connection as they each reflect that for some strange reason it’s much easier to open up to someone you have no romantic interest in. 

Perhaps that’s why a melancholy policeman keeps stopping random people in the street to ask their advice on his peculiar romantic dilemma in having inconveniently fallen in love with his “niece” (by marriage and the same age as he is, so maybe it’s “OK”, he’d like to think). Shimokitazawa, which Ao rarely leaves, is indeed a small world, the various strands of his romantic entanglements strangely connected from a young woman’s unrequited longing for her sumo wrestler childhood sweetheart to a TV actor’s (Ryo Narita) troubled love life and a young film director’s (Minori Hagiwara) attempt to deflect her own sense of romantic disaffection. Just as Yuki used another man as an excuse to break up with Ao, Ao finds himself recruited as a fake boyfriend to help a young woman shake off a controlling ex whose refusal to accept the relationship is over in the absence of another man skews even darker than his own signalling perhaps like that first vintage shop exchange the dangerously outdated sexual politics which continue to underpin modern dating. Perhaps boring love is the real kind of fun, comfortable and balanced marked by true connection and mutual vulnerability rather than a giddy anxiety. A stubborn holdout where everything’s secondhand in a continual circulatory process of exchange and return, Shimokitazawa is the kind of place where love finds you even if it takes a while to wander on its way. A charming ode to this timeless yet ever-changing district, Imaizumi’s quirky dramedy keeps the neurosis of young love on the horizon but suggests that romance, like a well baked cake, keeps much better than you’d think when cooled.


Over the Town screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2019)

12 Suicidal Teens posterJapan has a relatively high suicide rate, but even so the number of people taking their own lives had been steadily decreasing, hitting a 22-year low in 2016. Conversely, youth suicide rates peaked, hitting a 30-year high. Inspired by Tow Ubukata’s novel, 12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Juni-nin no Shinitai Kodomo-tachi), as the title implies, sees a dozen high school students forming a kind of club in which they will take the decision to live or die as a group, ironically undercutting the sense of powerlessness which has led them to the conclusion that they have no other choice other than death.

Ringleader Satoshi (Mahiro Takasugi) has recruited 11 likeminded souls and furnished them with complicated instructions involving a series of secret codes granting them access to a basement meeting room in an abandoned hospital. The 12 dutifully make their way into the building, but a surprise is waiting for them. When the first guest arrives, a young man is already lying in one of the 12 beds arranged around the edges of the room, apparently having jumped the gun, dead or dying after taking a large amount of sleeping pills. Everyone concludes he must be the event’s organiser, only for Satoshi to suddenly arrive and attempt to “open” the meeting at which they’re supposed to discuss the issues thoroughly so they can be sure they’re making the right decision. Because of the unexpected 13th guest, a decision is taken to postpone the discussion until after they figure out what’s going on.

Part of the reason for that is less curiosity than a kind of resentment. The teens are worried that their own deaths maybe misunderstood or misused if they’re discovered with this randomer in their midst. What if he’s the victim of a serial killer and everyone thinks they are too, never getting the message that each of them was desperate to send with their deaths? One young man who is dying to get back at a neglectful mother by denying her a life insurance pay out is worried it might backfire and she’d end up quids in if the police decide he’s a murder victim and not a suicide. He decides to live (for the moment at least) almost all out of spite.

Spite is, it seems, a powerful motivator in one sense or another. What most of our teens want isn’t really death but freedom, an end to pain or suffering. Suicide rates spike in September because bullied students can’t bear the thought of returning to school. Bullying is indeed the reason one of our teens wants to die, only the instigator was a teacher who led his class to victimise an innocent student solely for the crime of being an “annoying” person. Another teen, meanwhile, was bullied until he finally snapped, pushing his aggressor down a flight of stairs. Unable to live with the guilt, he too feels he can’t go on.

For the girls, the lack of control is all the more obvious. One young woman walks around with a surgical mask covering her face, not because she’s hideously burned but because she’s fantastically beautiful. One of Japan’s many celebrity idols, she’s on the cover of a thousand teen magazines but doesn’t recognise herself in the images that she sees and resents the way in which her existence is micromanaged by others. She wants to die as a means of seizing her own agency, to prove that her life and her individuality were valid and mattered as distinct from the fake persona created by her managers. Her fame endangers the mission of the group’s most emo member who declares that the mass suicide should be bomb detonated under an indifferent society, that she’s dying to reject her existence and rebelling against having been born.

Like some of the others, she’s a survivor of abusive parenting and resents having been given a “meaningless” life. A few of the other teens feel the same but for different reasons, they are suffering longterm or terminal health conditions and resent both their fates and being forced to live on without hope. They choose death now to prove they have a choice and are leaving on their own terms, not those of the universe.

Eventually the conclusion that they come to is that to live is also a choice. Working together to solve the mystery of the unexpected guest, they begin to understand a little of each other’s lives and their own, bonding in a shared sense of futility that slowly drifts into a rejection of the nihilism that had convinced them that their only choice was death. A strangely uplifting experience, 12 Suicidal Teens is a dark celebration of life that makes a virtue of endurance and finally finds meaning in commonality and the simple joy of empathic connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Ken Ninomiya, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Chiwawa posterFollowing indie drama The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, Ken Ninomiya takes a further step towards the mainstream with Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Chiwawa-chan), inspired by Kyoko Okazaki’s 1996 manga. Updated for the Instagram generation, Ninomiya’s adaptation leans heavily on his trademark clubland style and sheds the sense of nihilism which defined mid-90s pop culture in favour of a world weary exploration of identity in the internet age in which connections are wilfully fleeting and personas easily interchangeable. The party is, however, about to come to an end for the latest generation of bright young things seeking hedonistic release but finding only emptiness in the superficial pleasures of meaningless excess.

The titular “Chiwawa” (Shiori Yoshida) is found dead, floating in pieces in Tokyo Bay. The notice of her demise is, in fact, the first time many of her friends discover her real name, Yoshiko Chiwaki, apparently 20 years old and according to the news a nursing student. She was for a time a big star on Instagram and a popular internet model whose face could be seen all over the city on mile high billboards, but before that she was just a girl looking for fun and friends in the Tokyo club scene which is how she met our heroine, Miki (Mugi Kadowaki). Like Miki herself, Chiwawa was added to the small group of clubland friends as the current squeeze of playboy student Yoshida (Ryo Narita), introducing herself with her enigmatic nickname supposedly a reference to her petite stature. Branding herself as an ultra cute airhead, she quickly worked her way into the disparate group of Bohemians but eventually outgrew them and moved on to more dubious pleasures including an ill-fated love affair with a famous photographer (Tadanobu Asano).

The only one of her friends seemingly preoccupied about what happened to Chiwawa, Miki begins an investigation but her research is less geared towards finding out who killed her – something the police don’t seem to be very invested in, but discovering who she “really” was. Mimicking the structure of Okazaki’s episodic manga, Miki begins interviewing her friends to build up a kaleidoscopic composite of the woman she thought she knew while perhaps discovering something about herself as she reconsiders her own life trajectory and the coming end of her youthful days in the clubland scene while pondering where it is she’s supposed to go next.

Like much of Okazaki’s work, the manga’s mid-90’s setting is soaked post-bubble malaise as her dejected youngsters escape from the sense of crushing disappointment in the wake of the abrupt end of the heady ‘80s heyday of Japan as leading global economy, but for Miki and her friends twenty years later perhaps things aren’t all that different as they fight the onset of adulthood and the relative lack of freedom and possibility they will encounter when their student lives end and the workaday world finally arrives. Aspiring filmmaker Nagai (Nijiro Murakami) captures everything with his video camera while working as a photographer’s assistant by day, allowing Miki and her friends to use the studio at night for their Instagram side gigs which is how Chiwawa winds up in the fashion biz.

Some starving artists, others merely nervous hedonists, the gang have no money but when Chiwawa runs off with the gigantic bribe a group of slimy businessmen were boasting about carrying, the gang manage to blow it in just three days of upscale partying. Miki alone, and perhaps more in hindsight, feels the emptiness of all this senseless excess but it’s Chiwawa herself who seems to fear the party’s end most of all. When you start to think it’ll go on like this forever, that’s when you know it’s about to end she laments, apparently missing her old gang like crazy but knowing you can’t put something back together after it falls apart.

Miki fails to solve the mystery of Chiwawa, perhaps sorry that she didn’t try harder to know her while she was alive but also knowing that’s partly because “Chiwawa” might not have wanted to be known for all that she was chasing love and acceptance in all the wrong places. In the end, she retreats into a past that no one quite remembers, another melancholy ghost of Tokyo’s neon-tinged nightlife. Youth moves on, clubs close down, the world keeps turning. That may be the saddest thing of all, Chiwawa remains unknown, unloved, and finally unremembered. A melancholy exploration of fractured identities, the ethereality of youth, and the impossibility of true connection, Chiwawa is another zeitgeisty piece from Ninomiya which takes the manga’s post-bubble anxiety and reboots for an age of alienation in which the end of the party is always lingering painfully on the horizon.


Chiwawa was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)