The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mari and Mari (彼女来来, Tatsuya Yamanishi, 2021)

How well do you really know your significant other, and is it possible that even you can be lulled into a false sense of security by the performative qualities of your relationship? The befuddled hero of Tatsuya Yamanishi’s Mari and Mari (彼女来来, Kanojo Rairai) is forced to reckon with the superficialities of his romantic life when he arrives home one day to discover that his girlfriend is nowhere to be found and in her place is another woman with the same name who seems intent on occupying the space she has just vacated. 

Casting agent Norio (Kou Maehara) is in a longterm, actually rather nauseating in its sweetness, romantic relationship with girlfriend Mari (Nao). Despite being a well established, not yet married but might as well be cohabiting couple, they have their own little song they like to sing about how great their lives are with each other while taking romantic walking dates along the river where they look lovingly into each other’s eyes. “You’ve been together for ages, but you act like it’s a first date” one of Norio’s colleagues unironically remarks, seemingly a little envious. After moaning about a workplace setback, Norio suggests taking a trip while Mari points out that he’s always too busy for holidays but seems pleased just with the thought. 

For all these reasons, Norio is especially confused when he arrives home after a tough day and finds Mari gone, understandably mistaking the figure of a woman sleeping on their sofa for his girlfriend only to realise his error when she gets up and turns around, the low evening light finally hitting her face. The woman, who is apparently also named “Mari” (Hana Amano) claims to have no memory of her life before waking up on the sofa, and declaring herself homeless announces that she’s moving in. Extremely confused, Norio embarks on a quest to try and out what’s happened to Mari but discovers few leads. Even her sister seems relatively unconcerned, certain that she’s just blowing off steam bringing up a childhood incident in which she “ran away” to stay with a friend whose family ran a sweetshop because she had a sweet tooth and they weren’t allowed sweets at home. 

This relatively innocent story perhaps highlights the possibility of cracks in Norio’s “perfect” relationship, that “Mari 1” might have been feeling the lack of something and has gone off to find it. Though we’re told that Norio and Mari had been happily coupled for some years, a surprise visit from Norio’s parents reveals they’d never met his longterm girlfriend which does indeed seem odd if the relationship is as serious and loved up as it seemed to be. The plot thickens further when he visits the bookstore where Mari was working and is told she quit her job a few days previously having said nothing to him. You have to wonder if Mari 2 is actually real or a merely a manifestation of his inability to accept the fact that his relationship has failed and his girlfriend has moved on. 

Could Norio be guilty of treating his romantic life like one of his auditions, simply slotting in a woman who looks the part to play the role of “girlfriend”? Maybe Mari 1 was so wrapped up in her relationship that she didn’t have any friends, but Norio doesn’t contact any outside of her sister and appears not to know very much about her interior life. He also appears oblivious to a sweet intern at the office, his work life beginning to suffer while he remains preoccupied with Mari 1’s disappearance, who seems to have a crush on him until becoming unexpectedly jealous on spotting her in a clinch with another coworker in the darkened break room. Missing Mari 1 he repeatedly rebuffs Mari 2, attempting to throw her out of his apartment and rejecting each of her attempts to get close to him but eventually warms to her presence and finally allows her to take Mari 1’s place as his live-in girlfriend. 

Are Mari 1 and Mari 2 interchangeable to him? His brief comment that Mari 1 looked like another person under different light hints at a slight fluidity in the nature of her identity, as does the repeated motif of the sunlight climbing towards her face in their darkened bedroom. Then again, could the memory of Mari 1 merely be the intrusive ghost of failed love that disrupts his subsequent relationships, suggesting that his relationship with Mari 2 is doomed to failure because of his obsession with the one who literally got away. Or are Mari 1 & Mari 2 actually the same and a reflection of the way people can sometimes change or you learn something new about them and they seem like a completely different person? Perhaps “Mari” is just a signifier for romantic partner, otherwise devoid of an individual identity. What seems clear at least is that Norio does not “see” the woman in his life because he only sees “Mari”, as the slightly melancholy, intensely lonely look on the face of the woman next to him at the film’s conclusion may seem to suggest. 


Mari and Mari streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  


A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2017)

wilderness posterWhen Shuji Terayama published his only novel in 1966, Japan was riding high – the 1964 Olympics had put the nation back on the global map and post-war desperation was beginning shift towards economic prosperity. In adapting Terayama’s jazz-inspired avant-garde prose experiment for the screen, Yoshiyuki Kishi updates the action to 2021 and a slightly futuristic Tokyo once again feeling a mild sense of post-Olympic malaise. Terayama, like the twin heroes of Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Ah, Koya), got his “education” on the streets of Shinjuku, claiming that more could be learned from boxing and horse races than any course of study. Both damaged young men, these lonely souls begin to find a place for themselves within the ring but discover only emptiness in place of the freedom they so desperately long for.

Shinji (Masaki Suda), abandoned to an orphanage by his mother after his father committed suicide, has just been released from juvie after being involved in a street fight which left one of his best friends paralysed. Discovering that his old gang won’t take him back he’s at a loss for what to do. Meanwhile, shy barber Kenji (Yang Ik-june) who stammers so badly that he barely speaks at all, is battling the possessive stranglehold his drunken, violent ex-military father weilds over him. Raised in Korea until his mother died and his father brought him back to Japan, Kenji has always struggled to feel a part of the world he inhabits. The two meet by chance when Shinji decides to confront the man who attacked his gang, Yuji (Yuki Yamada) – now an up and coming prize fighter. Shinji is badly injured by the professional boxer while Kenji comes to his rescue, bringing them to the attention of rival boxing manager Horiguchi (Yusuke Santamaria) who manages to recruit them both for his fledgling studio.

The Tokyo of 2021 is, perhaps like its 1966 counterpart, one of intense confusion and anxiety. Plagued by mysterious terrorist attacks, the nation is also facing an extension of very real social problems exacerbated by a tail off from the temporary Olympic economic bump. As the economy continues to decline with unemployment on the rise, crime and suicides increase while social attitudes harden. In an ageing society, love hotels are being turned into care homes and wedding halls into funeral parlours. The elder care industry is in crisis, necessitating a controversial law which promises certain benefits to those who commit to dedicating themselves either to the caring professions or to the self defence forces.

Yet nothing much of this matters to a man like Shinji who ignores the crowds fleeing in terror from the latest attack in favour of “free” ramen left behind by the man who recently vacated the seat next to him out of a prudent desire to make a speedy escape. Shinji takes up boxing as way of getting public revenge on Yuji but also finds that suits him, not just as an outlet for his youthful frustrations but in the discipline and rigour of the training hall as well as the camaraderie among the small team at the gym. Kenji, by contrast, is kind hearted and so shy he can barely look his opponent in the eye. He comes to boxing as a way of finally learning to stand up for himself against his bullying father, but eventually discovers that it might be a way for him achieve what he has always dreamed of – connection.

Asked why he thinks it is we’re born at all if all we do if suffer and long for death, Kenji replies that must be “to connect” though he has no answer when asked if he ever has. For Kenji boxing is a spiritual as well as physical “contact sport” through which he hopes to finally build the kind of bridges to others that Shinji perhaps builds in a more usual way. Shinji tells himself that the only way to win is to hate, that in boxing the man who hates the hardest becomes the champion but all Kenji wants from the violence of the ring is love and acceptance. Shinji’s friend, Ryuki (Katsuya Kobayashi), has forgiven the man who crippled him and moved on with his life while Shinji is consumed by rage, warped beyond recognition in his need to prove himself superior to the forces which have already defeated him – his father’s suicide, his mother’s abandonment, and his friend’s betrayal.

While Shinji blusters, shows off, and throws it all away, Kenji patiently hones his craft hoping to meet him again in the boxing ring and “connect” in the way they never could before. There’s something essentially sad in Kenji’s deep sense of loneliness, the sketches in his notebook and strange relationship with an equally sad-eyed gangster/promoter (Satoru Kawaguchi) suggesting a hankering for something more than brotherhood. Nevertheless what each of the men responds to is the positive familial environment they have never previously known, anchored by the paternalism of coach Horiguchi and cemented by unconditional brotherly love.

Caught at cross purposes, the two young men battle each other looking for the same thing – a sense of freedom and of being connected to the world, but emerge with little more than scars and broken hearts, finding release only in a final transcendent moment of poetic tragedy. Kishi’s vision of the immediate future is bleak in the extreme, a nihilistic society in which hope has become a poison and death its only antidote. A tragedy of those who want to live but don’t know how, Wilderness is a minor miracle which proves infinitely affecting even in the depths of its despair.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Yoshiyuki Kishi conducted at the Busan International Film Festival (Japanese with English subtitles)

N@NIMONO (何者, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

Nanimono posterGrowing up is a series of battles in Japan. Exam hell soon gives way to the freedom and liberation of university but students know that their carefree days of youth and discovery will be short lived. Job hunting is done en masse and takes place in the final year of study (or even before). The process of securing a work placement is much the same as deciding on which school to apply to – attending job fairs to meet with representatives, getting hold of brochures, talking to anyone and everyone you know about the various reputations of the big firms, and then figuring out what your best bets are. Many companies run written exams which are then followed by group interviews in which the applicants are made to answer humiliating questions in front of their fellow candidates. What this all amounts to is a gradual erasure of the self in order to become the perfect hire, making the same tired phrases sound interesting in an effort to say all the right things whilst trying not too seem calculating or too bland.

The group at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize winning novel by Ryo Asai, N@NIMONO (何者, Nanimono, AKA Somebody / Someone), know this better than most. Protagonist Takuto (Takeru Satoh) used to be interested in theatre but has abandoned his dreams of the stage for the mainstream route into company life while his friend Kotaro (Masaki Suda) has played his last gig as the lead singer of a rock band, died his hair black again, and got a smart haircut in preparation for interviews. The boys are still good friends and roommates despite the fact that Takuto has long been carrying a torch for Kotaro’s former girlfriend, Mizuki (Kasumi Arimura), who has just returned from studying abroad. Mizuki is good friends with another girl, Rica (Fumi Nikaido), who happens to live upstairs from the boys and suggests that the four of them all get together to compare notes on the job hunting process. Rica lives with her boyfriend (still somewhat unusual in Japan), Takayoshi (Masaki Okada), who is working as a freelance journalist and is disdainful of the others’ passage into the regular workaday world but later tries to get into it himself.

There is a kind of sadness involved in this process, even if no one seriously thinks about fighting back. Everyone wants to get their foot onto that corporate ladder to become “someone”, at least in the eyes of society. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and if you miss your footing it’s near impossible to get it back – you’ll wind up one of the many crowded round the bottom staring up at the top even if you don’t want to admit it. University is the last time time there is real scope for indulging one’s personality before the corporate life takes hold – thus Takuto and Kotaro both accept that their artistic pursuits have to go in their quest for a regular middle-class life even if they inwardly struggle with their decisions to “sell-out”.

Takayoshi thinks of himself as above all this. He asks himself what all of this is for, why people put themselves through this humiliating ritual just to be locked into a nine to five that makes them miserable and turns them into soulless drones. There’s an obvious answer to that, and Takayoshi’s refusal to take it into account borders on the offensive, as does his often patronising attitude to those actively engaged in the job hunting process, but his hypocrisy is eventually brought home to him when he turns down a project to work with another artist because he thinks their work isn’t good enough. Maybe there’s courage in just putting something of yourself out there, even if it isn’t very good, rather than sitting at home looking down on everything and critiquing everyone else’s life choices whilst getting nothing done yourself.

It’s this conflict between interior and exterior life in which N@NIMONO is most interested. Main character Takuto begins as the everyman, depressed and stressed by his job hunting odyssey but aloof isolationism soon reveals itself as a kind of cowardice and self-involvement born of insecurity as he takes to a “secret” Twitter account for acerbic comments on his friends’ lives, sarcastically taking cruel potshots safe in the knowledge of his anonymity. Takuto’s entire concept of himself is a construction as his eventual descent into abstraction shows us in recasting his interaction with his friends as an avant-garde theatre show in which he finally begins to see the various ways his resentment of others is really just a way of expressing dissatisfaction with himself. This inability to fully integrate his own personality is offered as the final reason he hasn’t managed to find employment – his insincerity marks him out as a poor prospect. Takuto’s final realisation that he is unable to successfully answer the standard interview question “define your own personality in under one minute” for the perfectly sensible reason that the task is impossible kickstarts his own journey to a more complete life, even if it doesn’t do much to help the countless other “someones” out there hammered into a standard sized holes as mere cogs in the great social machine.


N@NIMONO seems to have been screened under the English titles of both “Somebody” and “Someone” but “N@NIMONO” is the one that features on the title card of the English subtitled Hong Kong blu-ray.

Original trailer (no subtitles)