It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

SR2_teaserWhere now the dreams of youth? Japanese cinema seems to have been asking that very question since its inception but the answer remains as elusive as ever. The heroine(s) of Ryuichi Hiroki’s adaptation of a series of short stories by Mariko Yamauchi, It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Koko wa Taikutsu Mukae ni Kite), idolise Audrey Hepburn and long for urban sophistication only to find themselves hung up on unfulfilled high school promise and unable escape the wholesome romanticisation of their small-town youth to embrace the demands and possibilities of adulthood.

Hiroki follows his small-town high schoolers from 2004 to 2013, jumping freely between time periods as memories spark one another in emotional rather than chronological order. We begin with the unnamed protagonist, “I” (Ai Hashimoto), who has returned to her hometown after 10 (seemingly disappointing) years in Tokyo and now works as a freelance journalist for the provincial paper writing local culture articles on ramen shops and patisseries. She has contacted only one friend since her return, Satsuki (Yurina Yanagi), who has suggested, rather tongue in cheek, that they reconnect with former high school crush Shiina (Ryo Narita).

Back in high school, Shiina was like some kind of untouchable god. Everyone just wanted to be around him as if he alone made the sun shine. All the girls were in love with him, and the all boys wanted his approval. Asked about his hopes and dreams, Shiina just wants high school to go on forever, perhaps realising that he’ll never have it so good again. “I” meanwhile, claims that she wants to “become someone”. A small town girl who didn’t fit in, she hoped to find herself amid the hustle and bustle of the big the city but has returned with an even deeper sense of alienation than when she left with only the bright memory of her brief time as a chosen member of Shiina’s after school posse to cling to.

Satsuki, meanwhile, stayed behind but seems equally hung up on unfinished high school business. Having never been to Tokyo she is envious of her friend’s experiences and longs for the anonymity of the city. If you mess up in Tokyo, she claims, people will eventually forget whereas if you make a mistake in the country it’s all anyone will talk about for the rest of your life. That certainly seems to be true for another of the girls’ contemporaries (Rio Uchida) who left to become an idol only for it all to go wrong and come home branded as a loose woman. Cynical and calculating, she decides on an arranged marriage only to find herself shackled to an old man she doesn’t like very much while her shy friend (Yukino Kishii) seems to have found love by stealth and apparently won the jackpot without even knowing it.

Continuously travelling, the now almost-middle-aged high schoolers meander without direction as if circling around the locus of their departing youth and the sense of possibility disappearing with it. Running into another classmate, Shinpo (Daichi Watanabe), also connected with Shiina, I and Satsuki get a few more clues about their high school crush who apparently now lives a fairly ordinary life as a driving instructor thanks to Shinpo’s recommendation without which he was set to hit rock bottom after some kind of breakdown while failing to make it in Osaka. Nicknamed “Chinpo” (which means “willy”) in school, Shinpo’s dream for the future was to exist alongside someone that he loved but he seems to have given up even on this depressingly compromised desire and resigned himself to loneliness and lovelorn misery as someone who will never be able to find his place in a conservative and conformist society.

I meanwhile, like a similarly unnamed counterpart (Mugi Kadowaki) who really did date Shiina until he cruelly cast her aside, is finally able to burst her high school bubble by confronting it directly and seeing the reality rather than her romanticised impression of it. Those shining days of fun and friendship with everything still ahead will never come again, and so the memory of them remains bittersweet at best. Adult life is dull and disappointing, but there is perhaps melancholy happiness to be found in learning to embrace the present moment rather than harping on a largely imagined past or idealised future. 


It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Side JOb posterFukushima has become a focal point for recent Japanese cinema, not just as a literal depiction of an area in crisis but as a symbol for various social concerns chief among them being a loss of faith in governmental responsibility. Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Kanojo no Jinsei wa Machigai ja Nai) has the distinction of being helmed by a Fukushima native in Ryuichi Hiroki who also wrote the original novel from which the film is adapted. Typical of Hiroki’s work, Side Job is less an ode to the power of perseverance than a powerful meditation on grief, inertia, and helplessness. Though he offers no easy answers and refuses to judge his protagonists for the ways they attempt to deal with their situations, Hiroki does allow them to find a kind of peace, at least of the kind that allows them to begin moving forward if not quite away from the past.

Five years after The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Miyuki Kanazawa (Kumi Takiuchi) is still living in a cramped prefab house with her widowed father, Osamu (Ken Mitsuishi). Miyuki’s mother was lost in the storm and her body never found, leaving the pair bereft and with an unanswered question. Having lost his farm to the exclusion zone, Osamu is left with nothing much to do and mostly spends his time idly playing pachinko and drinking much to the consternation of Miyuki who has a regular job with the city council.

Miyuki may well be angry about the way her father fritters away their money, but that doesn’t quite explain why she boards an overnight coach every Friday and spends her weekends in Tokyo engaging in casual sex work. She appears not to like the work very much and it is occasionally dangerous, but she does seem to have built up a kind of friendship with her “manager” as he drives her around the city to her various clients. Miura (Kengo Kora) claims to enjoy his work because it gives him an opportunity to observe human nature in all of its complexity though if he harbours any conflict about his role as a dispatcher of sometimes vulnerable young women, he is slow to voice it.

The “side job” of the title provides a kind of escape from a boring, conventional life in rural Iwaki, equal parts self-harm and quest for sensation. Miyuki, like many of those around her walks around with an air of irritated blankness, angry at so many things she doesn’t quite know where to begin. Yet for all that she’s also emotionally numbed, held in a state of suspended animation, longing to feel something, anything, even if that something is only shame. Through her double life Miyuki is able to find a sense of control and equilibrium that eluded her in grief-stricken Iwaki. Her manager, Miura, promises to “protect” her, though he makes clear that there are many women he feels a duty to protect rather than just Miyuki. Just as it seems Miyuki has come to depend on him, Miura drops a bombshell of his own though it maybe one which spurs Miyuki on towards a new beginning.

Everything in Iwaki is, in a sense, temporary. Miyuki and her father still live in the tiny prefab house in the hope of one day being able to go “home” while Osamu attends occasional meetings with the farming collective to try and find out what’s going on with his fields. Held in a kind of limbo, repeating the same daily tasks with relentless monotony, Miyuki and Osamu are trapped by a sense of helpless dread, forever waiting for something to happen but having lost the faith that it ever will.

While the pair struggle on, others find themselves unable to bear the weight of their tragedies. The spectre of suicide haunts Miyuki and her father from the woman next-door (Tamae Ando) who has become depressed thanks to the stigma surrounding her husband’s job with the decontamination programme, to the window at the agency which no longer opens following the suicide of one of the employees. Pushed to the edge by financial strain, there are also those who find themselves befriending the vulnerable with an intent to defraud, but it is in the end genuine human relationships which light the way for each of our struggling protagonists. Osamu bonds with an orphaned little boy through playing catch, Miyuki finds strength in Miura’s decision to break with his old life and build a new one, and her assistant at the city council, Nitta (Tokio Emoto), grows into the responsibility of being a big brother while attempting to do the best he can for the people of Fukushima.

What each of them finds isn’t an answer or a “cure” for their trauma but a path towards accepting it in such a way as it allows them to begin moving forward. New seeds are planted in the expectation of a coming future, new lives are celebrated, and the past begins to recede. Memory becomes a still frame, bottled and in a sense commodified but held close as a kind of talisman proving nothing is really ever “lost”. Filmed with an eerie sense of listless beauty, Side Job is an unflinching yet not unforgiving exploration of life after tragedy in which the only possible chance for survival lies in empathy and simple human connection.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Greatful Dead (グレイトフルデッド, Eiji Uchida, 2013)

OEO9ONpIf there’s one thing Third Window Films have proved themselves adept at, it’s finding those smaller, off kilter and cultish films that often fall through the cracks. Greatful Dead, the deliberate misspelling the title of which is only the first sign of its oddness, is the latest find in what might be thought of as “weird cinema”. Evoking comparisons with Sion Sono’s Love Exposure thanks to its christianising themes, wry tone and sheer craziness, Greatful Dead is not all together as successful but is likely to find its own fans through its undeniably cultish appeal.

Nami, like many movie heroines, starts by recounting her childhood as a lonely, neglected child. The younger of two sisters, she desperately tries to get the attention of her mother who is only interested in saving disadvantaged children in other countries whilst ignoring the needs of her own two daughters, or her father who is so entirely wrapped up in their mother that he’s barely noticed the two girls either. Eventually after her mother leaves and her father slowly disintegrates, Nami becomes increasingly isolated. After inheriting a sizeable fortune, grown-up Nami wastes her time in idle pursuits before hitting on her favourite hobby – an amateur anthropological study of the “Solitarian” or those who have driven themselves completely mad through loneliness. Her favourite kind of Solitarian is randy old men whom she likes to watch as they spiral deeper into depravity before eventually reaching their end game. Old Mr. Shiomi, who was once something of a big shot but is now an embittered old man, is her perfect specimen but after he receives a visit from a pretty Korean Christian missionary and becomes “reborn” her observational project is ruined! Mr Shiomi’s been stolen by God, what lengths will Nami go to to get him back?

Of course, the irony is Nami is the biggest Solitarian of them all and the one she’ll never be able to identify. In the accompanying DVD interviews, the director states his intention to highlight the increasing numbers of lonely, older people in Japan thanks to the declining birth rate and fracturing of traditional community bonds but in actual fact many of the Solitarians Nami identifies are younger people and some of them even appear to have quite serious mental issues which require more serious intervention. Taking frequent field trips and noting down rare specimens in a little notebook like some deranged “twitcher”, Nami joyfully enjoys the darker side of her hobby as her favourite part seems to be watching lonely people die at the zenith of their craziness. Though in fact both she and Mr. Shiomi have both in some senses chosen their lonely lives as both have rejected the interest of family members – Nami the insistences of her sister that the normal is best and to be strived for and Mr Shiomi those of his son (who may or may not be mainly interested in his money).

There is then, obviously, a veneer of social commentary, though it feels fairly thin at best. The main appeal is in the degree of tonal shifts that occur throughout the film. Starting out in a similar way to many a quirky comedy as young Nami goes to extreme lengths just to get some kind of attention from her indifferent parents, to her carefree adult life the film plunges off a cliff face about two thirds of the way through thanks to Mr. Shiomi’s “betrayal”. Where another film would end with Nami meeting another lonely person and becoming slightly less unhinged, Greatful Dead veers into some seriously dark alleyways filled with blood, murder and pensioner rape among other perversions. The wildest thing is the resurgence of Mr. Shiomi as he decides he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take this anymore! Fighting back in an equally strange way (why does no one ever just call the police? No, sharpening a mop into a spear seems like a more rational solution), the furious battle between subject and observer is quite literally in the lap of the gods.

Greatful Dead is an undeniably enjoyable, wild ride that escalates in a gently expert manner from its black comedy beginnings to exploitation ending but never quite coalesces into something more. Its views on the place of religion in this lonely world seem a little ambiguous – would Mr. Shiomi have opened his door to the male missionary quite as readily as he opened it to a pretty Korean girl and how long would his quite radical conversion really have lasted? Is the church actually helping some of these elderly people who might just want company or exploiting them? The film doesn’t seem sure, not that it’s that much of a problem. In the end, Grateful Dead is a wild ride through crazy town and destined to become another cult classic entry in to the world of wacky Japanese horror.


Review of Greatful Dead up at UK Anime Network – released courtesy of Third Window Films this coming Monday 26th January 2015.