The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド, Keiichi Hara, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

birthday wonderland poster 1The demands of adulthood are apt to overshadow any young teen’s life, but you can’t shake them off just by lying in bed and refusing to age. So the heroine of Keiichi Hara’s The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド, Birthday Wonderland) discovers as she determines to hideout from emotional complexity, waiting for the storm to pass and cowardly failing to defend a friend in the process. The last thing she wants is the responsibility of being “the chosen one”, but the thing about that is that you don’t get to choose and if the universe has plans for you it would be very irresponsible to refuse.

After (not) getting involved in a minor spat amongst friends about coloured hair clips, Akane (Mayu Matsuoka) decides the best solution is to feign illness, turn off her phone, and avoid going to school. Her kindly mother (Kumiko Aso), seemingly aware she’s not really ill, decides to let her stay home anyway but all she ends up doing is mistreating the cat in frustration and moping about, so her mum despatches her to her aunt Chii’s (Anne Watanabe) place to pick up her birthday gift which she presumably can’t open until the big day tomorrow. Truth be told, Akane doesn’t much like her aunt Chii, she’s far too free spirited and unpredictable for the neurotic teen, but she could stand to learn something from her irrepressible lust for life.

Akane gets the perfect opportunity to do just that when she sticks her hand onto a palm print in her aunt’s shop and is promptly greeted by a dapper-looking man with a fabulous moustache and his tiny minion (Nao Toyama) who crawl up through the hidden basement to explain that she is the “Goddess of the Green Wind” they’ve been searching for and must come with them right away because their nation is in peril! As expected, Akane doesn’t want to go, but is chivvied along by her overexcited aunt and a strange amulet the man, an alchemist named Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura), places around her neck.

The amulet, he tells her, helps you move forward even if you want to go back. That is, in a sense, Akane’s entire dilemma as she finds herself on the cusp of adulthood, afraid to step forward and accept the responsibilities of maturity while longing to return to carefree childhood days when there was nothing much to worry about and always someone around to look after her. Like any good fairytale, she finds her mirror in the other world in a melancholy prince who remains so reluctant to take part in an essential ritual that he is almost willing to burn the world to avoid having to acknowledge his royal responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Akane is slow to adjust to the charms of her new Wonderland, refusing to engage and loudly stating her desire to go home while her aunt tries to encourage her to embrace a sense of adventure. Chii, the film’s best asset who proclaims “no alcohol no life” while thoroughly enjoying sparring with the uptight Hippocrates (who perhaps is also enjoying the challenge though might not want to admit it), might in some senses be a barrier to Akane’s self-actualisation but is also an important source of safety for her in an unsafe world and just irresponsible enough to push her niece towards taking the right kind of risks in order to do the right thing and save the kingdom.

The reasons the kingdom is in peril in the first place are hugely symbolic – an ongoing water crisis caused by governmental negligence is draining the world of colour while literally drying it out. Getting used to her new surroundings, Akane begins to see their charm. This world, near identical to her own in many ways, diverged around the industrial revolution. Where “our” world rocketed into a frenetic lust for convenience, the rhythms of this one stayed the same, a perpetual village society in which cheerful people live laidback lives surrounded by the beauty of nature – something Akane later comes to worry her own world is losing. Gradually letting go of her fear and getting a better idea of the kind of life she might want, Akane gains the courage to embrace responsibility through directly supporting someone else as they learn to do the same.

A whimsical coming of age tale, The Wonderland excels in world building but somehow never quite achieves the level of emotional engagement it seems to be looking for even as its sullen, detached heroine perhaps begins to realise she did a great disservice to her friend when she failed to defend her during the silly hair ornament argument largely because she personally didn’t want to rock the boat and put herself in the firing line. Her horizons suitably expanded, Akane finds she no longer needs an amulet to keep moving forward even when longing to look back and resolves to step into adulthood with an easy, laidback confidence learned from her palls on the other side.


The Wonderland was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Isao Yukisada, 2001)

Luxurious Bone posterIsao Yukisada made his name with the 2004 hit Crying Out Love, in the Centre of the World, but even before becoming a “junai” pioneer his early films were far from strangers to melancholy, impossible romance. The strangely titled Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Zeitakuna Hone, AKA Torch Song) is a case in point in its early, ambiguous treatment of same sex love and emotional repression. Though in some senses very much of its time, Yukisada’s sad chamber drama is a sensitive exploration of the path towards awakening, if ultimately not to happiness.

The drama begins when Miyako (Kumiko Aso) gets the titular “luxurious bone” lodged in her throat. In this case, it’s an eel bone which is a fish too expensive for either she or her roommate Sakiko (Tsugumi) to eat very often, hence its tinge of luxury even if there’s relatively little difference when it’s tickling your trachea. “Roommate” might not be the best way to describe exactly what Sakiko is to Miyako, though their relationship seems curiously ill-defined. The two women share a bed, and seemingly a life, but perhaps platonically. Sakiko wants to look for a job, but Miyako doesn’t quite want her to because she’s happy to support the pair of them on her wages as a sex worker. Likewise, Sakiko isn’t quite happy with Miyako’s line of work, not because she’s jealous or judgmental, but because she worries the job is unpleasant. Miyako reassures her that it’s fine because she feels nothing at all during sex so mostly it’s just dull.

All that changes however when Miyako meets unusual client Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase) who goes to the trouble of buying her a hamburger bento because he heard that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to do in these situations. Shintani blows Miyako’s mind which isn’t something she was expecting or quite knows what to do with. On hearing the news Sakiko seems mildly worried, but following a strange series of events Shintani ends up becoming a minor part of their lives as the third wheel in their previously stable though somehow awkward relationship.

Miyako’s intense opening voice over makes reference to a secret she cannot bear to speak that will lie closed within her heart for all eternity. The fish bone becomes a symbol of the thing stuck in her throat, the truth she is too afraid to voice. Choking, Miyako gasps for air like a goldfish floundering in shallow water but cannot find the strength to swallow.

As we will later discover, this dark secret is bound up with her complicated feelings for Sakiko of which she seems to feel afraid and ashamed, wanting to possess her love in its entirety but also unable to access it and hating herself for her continuing need for possession and control. Her unexpected connection with Shintani is, after a manner of speaking, simply a more “acceptable” way of accepting her desire for Sakiko as she later reveals when confessing that she only ever thought of Sakiko when making love with Shintani which is presumably why only he was ever able to give her a satisfying experience.

Unable to cope with the intensity of her feelings, Miyako turns self destructive and attempts to lure Shintani into a sexual relationship with Sakiko who, apparently, is afraid of intimacy altogether having been raised in an abusive, neglectful home in which she was convinced that she was “dirty” and unloveable, an obstacle in the way of her father’s new relationship with a much younger step-mother (Makiko Watanabe).

Something of a cliché in itself, Luxurious Bone first attempts to delegitimise the feelings of the two women for each other by introducing the figure of Shintani to suggest that their problems are largely down to not having met a good man. Miyako sleeps with Shintani to feel closer to Sakiko, while Sakiko begins to move past her emotional trauma only thanks to the gentle machinations of Shintani. Their strange ménage à trois brings them together whilst driving them apart as the two women attempt to touch each other through Shintani while he remains detached and conflicted if perhaps wilfully used. Miyako’s self destructive impulses push her towards burning her world before facing what it is that frightens her. Only a strange encounter with another woman in a club shows her that her fear was not so much love as submission, while Sakiko tries to reconnect with her childhood self to move past her emotional trauma.

Despite its motion towards a positive resolution, Luxurious Bone cannot quite find the courage of its convictions and as quickly delegitimises the love as it tried to legitimise it through leaving Sakiko broadly where she started – lost, confused, and afraid, uncertain if unresolved longing is a natural condition of living. Perhaps of its time and overly simplistic in its treatment of complex issues from traumatic childhoods to shame and repressed sexuality, Luxurious Bone nevertheless has its heart (broadly) in the right place even if it leaves its lovelorn youngsters in the same position as many a Yukisada hero still looking for their place in a cruel and arbitrary world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Torch Song by The Humpbacks which features prominently throughout. The song was actually written for the film and is performed by Masatoshi Nagase.

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

Mirai (未来のミライ, Mamoru Hosoda, 2018)

Mirai posterIn Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children, a young woman experiences heartbreak when the love of her life is cruelly cut down, leaving her alone with two small children whose particular needs send her off in search of a new way of living. Hosoda’s filmography is filled with family drama, of how difficult and painful the relationships between parents and children can be. Wolf Children was the story of a mother’s tragedy in that she has to set her children free in order to see them grow. The Boy and the Beast was a young man’s struggle to make peace with his father. Mirai (未来のミライ, Mirai no Mirai) presents an altogether less “complicated” vision of family life, steeped in authentic detail and gentle warmth.

The hero of the tale is Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi) – a train obsessed four year old suddenly presented with a new baby sister later named “Mirai” (Haru Kuroki). Having been an only child used to receiving all of his parents’ attention, Kun is intensely resentful of the various ways his life has changed. Feeling pushed out, he begins to throw tantrums, become argumentative, even threaten to run away from home. Meanwhile the family dog, Yukko, looks on with thinly veiled contempt as Kun gets a little of his own medicine in no longer being the centre of attention.

Taking refuge in the front garden which is a major feature of the family home designed by his architect father, Kun begins to receive a series of visitations – firstly from an anthropomorphised Yukko and then by the teenage incarnation of his little sister on an urgent mission to the past to ensure her absent minded father packs the Hina Matsuri dolls away on time lest she end up an old maid, prevented from marrying her one true love because of ancient superstition (and her father’s forgetfulness). After interacting with the older Mirai, Kun travels off on further flights of fancy to observe his mother at his age and even his late great grandfather – a dashing, motorcycle riding hero who walked with a limp thanks to a lucky wartime escape.

Snatched from vague comments overheard from his parents and grandmother, Kun’s adventures teach him new and valuable ideas about the world. He learns that it’s alright not to understand everything right away because that’s what life is for. As someone later puts it, there’s a first time for everything and once you’ve learned one thing you’re halfway way to knowing everything else. Meeting his mother as a youngster shows him that she was once a messy toddler too and that all things come in time.

Kun still doesn’t quite understand, but comes to a new appreciation of his home and his family as a part of something far larger of which he is merely a mid-point on an ever expanding scale. Mirai shows him his “family tree” as manifested literally in the one in the family garden. Somewhat oddly for a girl from the future, Mirai likens it to a card index like the ones at the library (perhaps one of her old fashioned preoccupations like the Hina Matsuri superstitions) filled with personal stories in which no one is ever really forgotten. Having gotten himself into quite a fix and wound up at a very futuristic looking Tokyo train station, it’s family which eventually sets Kun on his way back home, having remembered who he is in relation to others.

Yet Kun’s family is also intensely modern and going through changes of its own. Kun’s mother will be going back to work soon after Mirai’s birth – something still somewhat unusual in traditional Japan while in an even more seismic leap towards equality Kun’s father, who will be working from home, has committed to sharing responsibility for the domestic realm in looking after the children during the day as well as taking care of the cooking and the cleaning while Kun’s mum works. Kun’s mother might bristle at her husband’s eagerness to accept praise for only doing his fair share while struggling with ordinary day to day tasks, but the couple have soon found a happy equilibrium in embracing the joys and anxieties of building a family. Another beautifully profound tale from Hosoda, Mirai is a lovingly rendered exploration of what it is to live a life among lives with all the rewards and responsibilities that entails.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tale of Nishino (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nami Iguchi, 2014)

tale of nishinoEvery love story is a ghost story, as the aphorism made popular (though not perhaps coined) by David Foster Wallace goes. For The Tale of Nishio (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nishino Yukihiko no Koi to Boken), adapted from the novel by Hiromi Kawakami, this is a literal truth as the hero dies not long after the film begins and then returns to visit an old lover, only to find her gone, having ghosted her own family including a now teenage daughter. The Japanese title, which is identical to Kawakami’s novel, means something more like Yukihiko Nishino’s Adventures in Love which might give more of an indication into his repeated failures to find the “normal” family life he apparently sought, but then his life is a kind of cautionary tale offered up as a fable. What looks like kindness sometimes isn’t, and things done for others can in fact be for the most selfish of reasons.

Ten years prior to his death in a traffic accident, Yukihiko Nishino (Yutaka Takenouchi) has taken a (former?) lover and her little girl out for drinks and parfait at a lovely seaside cafe. The woman, Natsumi (Kumiko Aso), declines the offer of dessert but Nishino orders two anyway – one for himself and one for the little girl, Minami, though it seems neither of them really wanted one anyway. An odd flirtation exists between the adults but Nishino laments his ability to gain exactly what this situation might look like from the outside – a “normal” family. He wants to get married, have a daughter of his own, but his relationships always end in failure. Natsumi tells him why – he always gives women exactly what they want, which sounds good, but really isn’t.

Nishino’s problem is that he’s almost irresistible to women, but sooner or later they all leave him. He believes he has an almost telepathic ability to figure out what it is women want from him coupled with an intense need to satisfy their innermost desires. Ironically enough, it’s this strange kindness that eventually leads to his death when he runs into an old friend at a crowded marketplace. Excited to see him she calls and waves, dropping her shopping and losing one of her crutches in the process. Rushing to help, Nishino does not see an oncoming van and is run over. Quite literally the story of his life.

Reappearing as a ghost he attempts to pay a visit to Natsumi, having jokingly promised to do so while they were dating. Natsumi, however, is nowhere to be found and so Nishino is left to exorcise his demons with the now teenage Minami (Yurika Nakamura) who decides to attend his funeral in case her long absent mother decides to pay her respects. It’s here that she begins to learn a little of Nishino’s sad romantic history courtesy of an older woman who became a friend and confident rather than a lover (and consequently remained in his life a little longer).

The problem is, Nishino’s desire to be eternally helpful means that he’s always pulled in more than one direction. A slow burn affair with shy and retiring superior Manami (Machiko Ono) looks as if it could be the one, but she eventually points out to him that he’s not the sort of man who can have the life he craves because he never fully commits to any one person and never truly loves anyone. His irresistibility apparently even extends to one half of the lesbian couple from next door though, notably, not the half you’d expect.

Nishino first gets to know Tama (Fumino Kimura) and Subaru (Riko Narumi) when their cat, Nau, invites himself over, after which the feline Subaru decides to do the same, flirting away with her uptight girlfriend presumably going crazy in an adjacent room. Subaru is Nishino’s opposing number, the kind of girl that gets everything done for her, but there are obvious cracks in the strained relationship between the two women and it’s the neurotic Tama he finally bonds with after an unusually perceptive conversation over convenience store ice cream. Nishino, as he later puts it, is faithful in mind if not in body but satisfying immediate desires is not always the best idea. Trying to provide comfort, Nishino adds even more confusion to a messy situation and, even if it perhaps works out for the best, Nishino is left alone once again.

A botched proposal leads Nishino to let slip the real reason for his boundless desire to please – it’s because he’s lonely. Desiring to keep these women around him, he gives them whatever it is they want to stay. Just like Tama has effectively relegated Subaru to the same level as their cat – giving in to her every demand in the terror that she will leave, Nishino loses the women he loves by embracing his selfish desire to keep them rather than acting in their best interests and recognising the true depth of love which may not always work out in his favour. The interfering spectre of old girlfriend Kanoko (Tsubasa Honda) who can’t let go even though the relationship is over is a lingering hangover of this tendency as she too cannot seem to commit and wants to keep Nishino as a backup plan, resenting his interest in other women yet not willing to make a permanent decision to stay with him.

A whimsical fable of a man looking for love in all the wrong places, The Tale of Nishino is a long, melancholy journey through modern relationships in which not just romantic but platonic and familial love find themselves under the microscope. As Manami points out, you can’t share loneliness – Nishino’s need to be needed eventually drives a wedge between himself and everything he wanted. Natsumi’s words of wisdom for her injured daughter offer only that romantic love necessarily ends, whereas a mother’s love for her child is ever lasting even if it does not necessarily look that way. Iguchi’s style is typical of the “quirkier” end of Japanese indie, shooting with a deadpan abstraction, but the slight feeling of alienation works well with Nishino’s ultimate refusal to bare his heart in a more “straightforward” manner. A bittersweet story of love lost and found, Nishino may have given up the ghost but perhaps he did find that family after all, in a way, even if it was not his own.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pulse (回路, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

pulse US posterTimes change and then they don’t. 2001 was a strange year, once a byword for the future it soon became the past but rather than ushering us into a new era of space exploration and a utopia born of technological advance, it brought us only new anxieties forged by ongoing political instabilities, changes in the world order, and a discomfort in those same advances we were assured would make us free. Japanese cinema, by this time, had become synonymous with horror defined by dripping wet, longhaired ghosts wreaking vengeance against an uncaring world. The genre was almost played out by the time Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (回路, Kairo) rolled around, but rather than submitting himself to the inevitability of its demise, Kurosawa took the moribund form and pushed it as far as it could possibility go. Much like the film’s protagonists, Kurosawa determines to go as far as he can in the knowledge that standing still or turning back is consenting to your own obsolescence.

The end of the world starts with a young man staring at his computer screen and the strange images it conjures of the only half alive. Michi (Kumiko Aso), a young woman working at a rooftop plant centre, is dispatched to find out what’s happened to a colleague, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), who has some essential information stored on a floppy disk. Arriving at his flat she finds him distracted, informing her that the disk is somewhere in a pile scattered on the desk before disappearing off somewhere else. Having found what she came for, Michi looks for Taguchi to say goodbye but finds him hanged in an adjacent room. Barely reacting, Michi deals with the police before meeting up with her colleagues to relate the news, leaving each of them stunned. Another colleague, Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo), then receives a strange phone call as a distorted voice repeatedly utters the words “help me”.

Meanwhile, economics student Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) is attempting to set up this new fangled internet thing in his dorm but failing miserably. When he finally gets online and is greeted with the message “would you like to meet a real ghost?” he thinks he’s done something very wrong and hurriedly shuts his computer down. Seeking advice in the uni computer club he gets to know IT professor Harue (Koyuki) who tries to help him but may be beyond help herself.

The Japanese title, “Kairo”, literally means “circuit”, a fixed path of connectedness along which something flows continuously. A “pulse” is itself a circuit, or more accurately an observation of a fixed point in motion along it which maybe continuous or finite. Pulse, in its most immediate meaning is the life force by which we live, the thing which defines the states of life and death, but the “circuit” here is bigger than that which exists in one body alone, extending across the great confluence of humanity, or at least of that still regarded as “living”.

When Harue attempts to fix Kawashima’s internet she prompts him about why he wanted it in the first place (it was hardly necessary back in the still largely analogue world of 2001). He seems confused and replies he doesn’t quite know, it’s just that everyone seemed to be into it. Harue thinks she has his number – he thought he could use it to connect with people, but, she says, that is hopeless, people don’t truly connect, we all live in our separate bubbles. Harue is the most classically “disconnected” of our protagonists. Never having felt at home in the world, she talks of a lifelong fascination with the idea of death as a portal to another one in which it might be possible to live happily with others, only to realise as a teenager that it might also be a gateway to a land of perpetual nothingness and isolation. Terrified of being alone yet unwilling to submit herself to the inherent risks of connection, Harue exists in a permanent state of embittered longing and anxiety in which the cold embrace of death may prove the the only companion she will ever allow.

Harue may be an extreme case but she’s not the only example of disconnected youth. Michi, is also aloof and isolated – a child of divorced parents who has a close if imperfect relationship with her mother (Jun Fubuki) and an absent father she has already rejected. She says she’s OK in the city because she has her friends prompting her mother to warn her that she’s too trusting, too blind to the dangers of city life. Michi’s connections may turn out to be shallow, but unlike Harue she remains broadly open, seeking physical connections rather than digital ones. She visits her friend’s apartment, and makes a point of chasing after Yabe even after her boss warns her that friendly words can wound and that wounding a friend is also an act of self harm. Compelled to travel onwards, she resolves to keep on living, continue seeking connections until there are no more left to seek.

Kurosawa’s world is one of essential interconnectedness which finds itself frustrated by a mysterious forces leaking in. Yet the ghosts are not all on the other side, these are people who are spiritually dead while physically alive – isolated, defined by routine and expectation, and endlessly unfilled. “Trapped inside their own loneliness” as one character puts it, the disappeared gain a kind of immortality but it’s one filled with eternal longing and isolation. These “broken connections” are continually in search of vulnerable ports, flooding a system which has already begun to fail, and threatening to destroy that which they seek. The “ghosts” have destroyed the machine, but Kurosawa’s apocalyptic conclusion, melancholy as it seems to be, offers as much a hope for rebirth as it does a condemnation to existential loneliness.


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