Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2019)

“Things happen to everyone” the hero of Hideyuki Hirayama’s Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Heisa Byoutou: Sorezore no Asa, AKA Closed Ward) explains, not in an accusatory sense or attempt to limit someone else’s trauma response but in a gentle spirit of empathy, a reminder that everyone has their own load to carry and theirs are heavier than most. Empathy is indeed a minor theme of Hirayama’s drama as his wounded protagonists eventually find the strength to allow themselves to live again in the unconditional solidarity of their newly found family in defiance of the internalised shame and external stigma that plagues them in an admittedly conformist society. 

Hirayama opens with a flashback, shot in muted colour, as a man, Hide (Tsurube Shofukutei), is marched slowly towards the execution chamber where he is eventually hanged but, inconveniently for the prison authorities, does not die. Lacking a clear precedent for such an unusual event, they are at a loss as to how to proceed while Hide does not exactly seem overjoyed in his improbable survival. As hanging him again would be cruel and simply letting him off as if reborn to live a new life they feel not in the interests of justice, they opt for a fudge, palming the now wheelchair-using Hide off on the hospitals system by placing him in the secure ward of a psychiatric institution. 

A quiet man keeping himself to himself, Hide patiently crafts ceramics and meditates on his crime keeping others at arm’s length as if believing himself unworthy of human society. He may have been sentenced to death for something truly unforgivable, but he is not mentally ill and does not really belong in the hospital whereas many of the other patients are self-committals who are technically free to leave at a time of their own choosing. Chuya (Go Ayano), a young man with schizophrenia, has more or less learned to live with his condition and exercises a greater degree of personal freedom, often venturing into town and bringing back various items he cynically sells to others on the ward. He could leave if he wanted to, but stays partly out of a sense of internalised shame and partly in fear of the outside world. Yuki (Nana Komatsu), meanwhile, an 18-year-old woman committed by her mother (Reiko Kataoka) after becoming worryingly withdrawn, has little personal agency, first placed on the ward and then removed from it neither with her full consent. 

Though we can see that the hospital is a largely positive, supportive place where the patients are well cared for we do not see a great deal of treatment practices and it is in someways surprising that Yuki is allowed to leave in the company of a man who is quite clearly violent and abusive even if we can also infer that she herself has remained largely silent as regards the nature of her trauma. Her silence is perhaps her means of both defence and resistance with her first words offered to Hide largely because he does not ask her for them, merely sitting by giving her the space to choose to speak or not to. Despite his caution that the longer one stays on the ward the more one begins to think of oneself as a patient, she begins to think of the hospital of her safe place and the other patients as her surrogate family, touched by an old woman’s radiant happiness as she helps her back to her room mistaking her for her granddaughter. 

Yet as much as the hospital works for her, it does not necessarily work for others as in the case of Shigemune (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) whose antisocial and violent tendencies often endanger other patients not least because of lax supervision and questionable decisions made by members of staff. A direct parallel is perhaps being drawn between the jail and the ward, Chuya frightened he may never leave while Hide believes he does not deserve to and Yuki longs to stay only to have her new safe place ruined by another predatory man of violence. Yet there is also a sense that society views the hospital as a place to dump those it feels to be problematic, Hide hidden away in embarrassment, Chuya rejected by his family, and Yuki betrayed by a mother who has come to see her as a rival. Shopkeepers look at them askance, not altogether happy that “even crazy people have rights these days” while the trio struggle to accept themselves as having a right to a happier future even as they begin to bond in a newfound sense of family. While the closing scenes may engage in an uncomfortable ableism, there is an undoubtable sense of warmth and compassion in Hirayama’s egalitarian sense of solidarity as his wounded protagonists find strength in faith reflected in others to shake off their sense of internalised shame and claim their right to life in an often hostile society. 


Family of Strangers streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (DESTINY 鎌倉ものがたり, Takashi Yamazaki, 2017)

Destiny tale of kamakura posterJapanese literature has its fair share of eccentric detectives and sometimes they even end up as romantic heroes, only to have seemingly forgotten the current love interest by the time the next case rolls around. This is very much not true of Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (DESTINY 鎌倉ものがたり, Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari) which is an exciting adventure featuring true love, supernatural creatures, and a visit to the afterlife all spinning around a central crime mystery. Blockbuster master Takashi Yamazaki brings his visual expertise to the fore in adapting the popular ‘80s manga by Ryohei Saigan in which the human and supernatural worlds overlap in the quaint little town of Kamakura which itself seems to exist somewhere out of time.

Our hero, Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai), is a best selling author, occasional consulting detective, and befuddled newlywed. He’s just returned from honeymoon with his lovely new wife and former editorial assistant, Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata), but there are a few things he’s neglected to explain to her about her new home. To wit, Kamakura is a place where humans, supernatural creatures, and wandering spirits all mingle freely though those not familiar with the place may assume the tales to be mere legends. To her credit, Akiko is a warm and welcoming person who can’t help being “surprised” by the strange creatures she begins to encounter but does her best to get used to their presence and learn about the ancient culture of the town in which she intends to spend her life. Unfortunately, she still has a lot to learn and an “incident” with a strange mushroom and a naughty monster eventually leads to her soul being accidentally sent off to the afterworld by a very sympathetic death god (Sakura Ando) who is equal parts apologetic about and confused by what seems to be a bizarre clerical error.

Destiny’s Kamakura is a strange place which seems to exist partly in the past. At least, though you can catch a glimpse of people in more modern clothing in the opening credits, the town itself has a distinctly retro feel with ‘60s decor, old fashioned cars, and rotary phones while Masakazu plays with vintage train sets, pens his manuscripts by hand, and delivers them in an envelope to his editor who knows him well enough to understand that deadlines are both Masakazu’s best friend and worst enemy.

The creatures themselves range from the familiar kappa to more outlandish human-sized creatures conjured with a mix of physical and digital effects and lean towards the intersection of cute and creepy. The usual fairytale rules apply – you must be careful of making “deals” with supernatural creatures and be sure to abide by their rules, only Akiko doesn’t know about their rules and Masakazu hasn’t got round to explaining them which leaves her open to various kinds of supernatural manipulation which he is too absent minded to pick up on.

Yet Masakazu will have to wake himself up a bit if he wants to save his wife from an eternity spent as the otherworld wife of a horrible goblin who, as it turns out, has been trying to split the couple up since the Heian era only they always manage to find each other in every single re-incarnation. True love is a universal law, but it might not be strong enough to fend off mishandled bureaucracy all on its own, which is where Akiko’s naivety and essential goodness re-enter the scene when her unexpected kindness to a bad luck god (Min Tanaka), and an officious death god who knew something was fishy with all these irreconcilable numbers, enable the couple to make a speedy escape and pursue their romantic destiny together.

Aimed squarely at family audiences, the film also delves a little into the awkward start of married life as Akiko tries to get used to her eccentric husband’s irregular lifestyle as well as his childlike propensity to try and avoid uncomfortable topics by running off to play trains. Masakazu, orphaned at a young age, is slightly arrested in post-adolescent emotional immaturity and never expected to get married after discovering something that made him question his parents’ relationship. Nevertheless, a visit to the afterlife will do wonders for making you reconsider your earthly goals and Masakazu is finally able to repair both his old family and his new through a bit of communing with the dead. Charming, heartfelt, and boasting some beautifully designed world building, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is the kind of family film you didn’t think they made anymore – genuinely romantic and filled with pure-hearted cheer.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは, Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close knit posterWhile studying in the US, director Naoko Ogigami encountered people from all walks of life but on her return to Japan was immediately struck by the invisibility of the LGBT community and particularly that of transgender people. Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは,  Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa) is her response to a still prevalent social conservatism which sometimes gives rise to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Moving away from the quirkier sides of her previous work, Ogigami nevertheless opts for a gentle, warm approach to this potentially heavy subject matter, preferring to focus on positivity rather than dwell on suffering.

11 year old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is home alone, again. Her mother rolls in late, dead drunk, and promptly flops down onto the futon next to Tomo’s still in her work clothes. A note left the next day explains that Tomo’s mother has quit her job and won’t be coming home for a while. This is not the first time she’s done this and the money she’s left is at least enough for a train ticket to visit uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). When Tomo slaps a collection of manga down in front of him at the bookstore where he works, Makio immediately realises what’s going on and is both infuriated with his sister and glad to take his niece in for a while until her mother comes to her senses.

There’s one potential problem. Makio now has a live-in girlfriend only she’s not quite what Tomo might be expecting. On meeting Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo is indeed shocked but is soon won over by Rinko’s warm and loving nature. Rinko is a transgender woman who’s experienced her share of hardships in life but finally found fulfilment in her relationship with Makio though she has a lot of love to give and would dearly love a child of her own.

Used to being left to her own devices, Tomo is a tough and resourceful child but also one with a thick protective shell. Unused to being mothered, Tomo finds Rinko’s attempts to reach out to her difficult to bear, cycling back and forth through a pattern of affection and rejection. Where her mother left her only store bought onigiri (which she has come to hate) and cash, Rinko makes beautiful character bentos complete with octopus frankfurters and adorable panda faces. So touched is Tomo by this gesture that she can’t quite bring herself to eat it and eventually makes herself ill by finally deciding to enjoy it long after it’s past its best.

Nevertheless even if Tomo comes to bond with Rinko, there are still those who don’t approve of her existence. Tomo has a, well, not quite friend at school, Kai, who is somewhat ostracised by the other children who call him “gay” and write homophobic slurs on the classroom blackboard. Tomo, whilst sometimes hanging out with Kai who lives near to her outside of school, refuses to have anything to do with him in class lest she be rendered guilty by association. Growing closer to Rinko, Tomo also comes to an acceptance of and willingness to fight for Kai who has confided in her about his crush on another boy in their class. Kai’s mother (Eiko Koike), however, is not so understanding and so when she catches sight of Tomo in the supermarket with Rinko she offers to save her from the “weirdo” and later bans Kai from hanging out with his only friend in case he somehow catches “weirdness” from their atypical family setup. This attitude of hers eventually has potentially tragic consequences for her young son, left with nothing other than the prospect of maternal and later societal rejection eased only by Tomo’s firm insistence that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Unlike Kai’s mother, Rinko’s instantly understood and remained fully supportive of her child even whilst hauled into school for an explanation of why “Rintaro” has been skipping P.E.. Rinko’s mother not only goes out and buys lacy bras for her daughter, but even knits her a pair of fluffy pink breasts so she won’t feel so depressed about not developing in the same way as all the other girls. Tomo’s mother has a lot of problems of her own but many of these stem back to her own upbringing, unintentionally threatening to pass on some of these same qualities to her own daughter as she allows her to feel just as worthless and unloved as her mother did her. Yet, Ogigami’s camera remains resolutely unjudgemental in trying to understand each of these various facets of motherhood from the immense maternal love of Rinko as it finally finds an outlet in Tomo to the far less positive image of Kai’s mother who presumably thinks she’s doing the best for her son in trying to prevent him veering from the norm but only succeeds in making him feel his life is not worth living.

The title of the film, as grandly punned as it is, refers not just to the quickening family bonds among this idealised yet unusual family but also to Rinko’s favourite method of stress relief – knitting. Like the cooking she is often seen providing for the family, Rinko’s knitting is also largely about warmth in making something for a particular person which is tailor made to keep them warm in the cold, but it also works as a multilayered metaphor as she brings people together, binding them tightly with her own wamth and generosity of spirit. Rather than fighting back with angry words (or well aimed dish soap as a provoked Tomo eventually does), Rinko channels her frustrations into her knitting, using them to create something positive rather allowing negativity to overwhelm her. Ogigami’s film seems to want to do the same, arguing for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance as a pathway to a better world even if it’s clear the road is long and we’re not so far along it as we should be.


Close-Knit was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

There’s also an interesting interview with director Naoko Ogigami and producer Kumi Kobata in the Nikkei Asian Review in which they discuss the casting of actor Toma Ikuta.

Original trailer (English subtitles)