Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Joji Matsuoka, 1990)

Swimming UpstreamSometimes love makes you do crazy things. Some people find themselves accomplishing previously unattainable feats powered only by the sheer force of romance. Unfortunately for the hero of Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Bataashi Kingyo), Joji’s Matsuoka’s adaptation of Minetaro Mochizuki’s manga, the task he sets for himself is a very lofty one indeed and may actually require him to abandon his love to complete it. Then again, the object of his affections shows little signs of reciprocation in any case.

Love found Kaoru (Michitaka Tsutsui) with a bucket of water. That is, he was hanging around one day when swimsuited beauty Sonoko (Saki Takaoka) soaked him by mistake but far from being annoyed, Kaoru falls in love at first sight and begins to pursue the star of the swim team even if she remains resolutely cold towards him. Kaoru immediately joins up just to be close to her even though he is actually afraid of water and does not know how to swim. Nevertheless he sets himself the task of becoming an olympic swimmer and bringing home a gold medal for his lady love. Needless to day, Sonoko is still not very interested in him.

Assisted by a strange old lady of swimming coach in sporting matters, and with an unlikely ally in Sonoko’s mother when it comes to romance, Kaoru works hard at his twin goals but makes little progress with either. His world is briefly shattered when he spots Sonoko arm in arm with the school’s star swimmer and he also faces a romantic dilemma in the form of his friend Pu whose motorbike he keeps borrowing to try and impress Sonoko despite the fact that Pu obviously has a crush on him. Nevertheless, Kaoru is undeterred until, that is, Sonoko’s actions convince him he may be doing more harm than good.

Matusoka’s film is most clearly concerned with recreating the contemporary high school summer for the presumed target audience of teenagers. Though it loosely adapts a classic sports movie romance format with Kaoru giving it his all in training, it stops short of the triumphant underdog trope as Kaoru never achieves the kind of sporting success one would expect. Though he quickly learns to swim and makes some progress, Kaoru retains a lingering fear of the water and is among the very weakest at the club. Still deluding himself with his Olympian dream, Kaoru even attempts to challenge the champion swimmer of another team (played by a very young Tadanobu Asano in his first film role) in a race for the rights to Kaoru. Needless to say, nothing goes his way.

If duelling over the “rights” to a girl seems like an old fashioned idea, Swimming Upstream is a very old fashioned film in terms of its sexual politics. The film stars popular idol Saki Takaoka as the unattainable Sonoko but is told very much from Kaoru’s point of view in which Sonoko is something to be won rather than another human being with independent will. Sonoko’s behaviour often is hard to categorise but, to borrow a term from the film’s manga roots, could easily be described as tsundere wherein she consistently rejects Kaoru’s advances before warming up to the idea just as he’s beginning to cool off. There may a fine line between persistence and and inappropriate behaviour but Kaoru’s level of devotion is the kind that straddles it. The teenage audience of 1990, however, may have seen things a little differently than that of today.

The audience of 1990 would doubtless also have been shocked by Sonoko’s rebellious lack of compliance with regular social norms. Far from the docile, cute, obedient and polite aura of the traditionally perfect girl next door in which idol movies specialise, Sonoko throws angry looks at everyone and talks back to her mother with extremely harsh words (though her mother wisely refuses to be shocked by them). In fact Sonoko is universally awful to everyone to the extent that it later seems that even one of her closest friends does not actually like her very much, but the worse she gets the more Kaoru refuses to be dissuaded.

Matsuoka mostly chooses to keep things simple with a light hearted, summery atmosphere primed to appeal to his audience of youngsters. Though intended as an innocent romance, contemporary audiences may read more darkness into the relentless war between the icy Sonoko and determined Kaoru but the adolescent intensity of young love does at least ring true. Caught between the quirkiness of its general tone and the heaviness of its themes, Swimming Upstream flounders in making its central connection work, rendering its overworked metaphor of a finale less than successful but does offer strong performances from both of its central stars.


Clip (no subtitles)

Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Joji Matsuoka, 1992)

TwinkleThe end of the Bubble Economy created a profound sense of national confusion in Japan, leading to what become known as a “lost generation” left behind in the difficult ‘90s. Yet for all of the cultural trauma it also presented an opportunity and a willingness to investigate hitherto taboo subject matters. In the early ‘90s homosexuality finally began to become mainstream as the “gay boom” saw media embracing homosexual storylines with even ultra independent movies such as A Touch of Fever becoming unexpected box office hits. Based on the book by Kaori Ekuni, Joji Matsuoka’s Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Kira Kira Hikaru) tackles this subject head on in examining the changing nature of the modern family as personal freedom and greater social liberalism conflict with familial duty and centuries old tradition.

We first meet Shoko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) in the office of a doctor who assures her that her “problems” are nothing to worry about and the best thing to do is find “a nice man” and get married after which she’s sure to feel much better. On the taxi ride home, her mother suddenly pulls out an omiai photo she’s apparently been carrying in her bag the whole time and proposes Shoko try meeting this particular prospect just as the doctor suggested.

Her “date” is Mitsuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) – an unmarried middled aged doctor who doesn’t seem very interested in the omiai business either. After a brief period of bickering, Shoko and Mitsuki get some time to themselves at which point Mitsuki reveals that the reason he isn’t married is because he has a boyfriend. Despite this, the pair come to an understanding and decide to get married to finally get their relatives off their backs. However, if they thought the pressure would go away after the wedding, they were mistaken. Though both sets of parents know about their children’s reasons for originally avoiding marriage, they don’t know about those of the spouses and when they find out it’s just going to get even more complicated.

We don’t find out exactly what “problems” Shoko may have had in the past. On the morning of the omiai her family dog dies meaning she has an obvious reason to appear visibly upset, yet she also displays symptoms of ongoing depression right the way through the film, flitting between upbeat cheerfulness to impulsive behaviour and crying fits. She also has a long standing drink problem which can result in dangerous accidents such as an incident where Mitsuki returns home to find her passed out on the floor with the iron in one hand and an empty glass of whiskey apparently fallen out of the other.

Mitsuki is in a relationship with a much younger college student and, though they don’t seem to go out of their way to hide their relationship, they can’t exactly be open about it either. Kon did not approve of Mitsuki’s decision to get married and has been avoiding him but Shoko is keen for the two men’s relationship to continue, eventually befriending the young man and bringing him home as fully fledged member of their family. Mitsuki finds this arrangement quite confusing, trapped between two spouses and feeling a responsibility to both of them. In one notable exchange he’s asked to make the relatively simple choice between strawberry and vanilla ice-cream, but the question has taken on a much wider implication than just tonight’s dessert.

The arrangement starts out well enough, except that the growing affection between the married couple eventually begins to place a wedge between them, each knowing that they can never truly satisfy the demands of the other. Not satisfied with a marriage, the parents also expect children which is going to require medical assistance given the circumstances, but Mitsuki is still unsure about taking this next step. Shoko, though experiencing a intensification of her emotional volatility, now suggests a truly radical solution for the early ‘90s – that she undergo artificial insemination using the mixed sperm of both Mitsuki and Kon to essentially have “their” baby.

Shoko and Mitsuki are both trapped, in a sense, by their societal obligations – particularly that of producing children. Mitsuki’s parents know he’s gay, though they tolerate more than accept, yet they still pressure him into fathering a child for appearance’s sake alone. His father had come to terms with his son’s sexuality, even if Mitsuki refers to himself as a son who has “betrayed” his father, but he was against the marriage viewing it as cruel and irresponsible. Once Shoko’s parents discover the real reasoning they try to take over, ignoring Shoko’s views (and even her first clear stating of her problems with alcohol), acting as if they were the injured party.

Though slightly older, Shoko and Mitsuki have found themselves at the centre of a generational conflict as they fight to free themselves from parental control even in adulthood. The future they propose for themselves is an unusual one and unlikely to be accepted by society, yet it is finally their own decision and only by unshackling themselves from the same social pressures which brought them together can they learn to forge a new future. Ten years later, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Hush! would suggest a similar scenario which, though still not universally accepted, is greeted with much less resistance than the entirely radical arrangement of Shoko, Mitsuki, and Kon. An interesting look at the changing nature of  social bonds in the immediate post-bubble era, Twinkle is a melancholic though ultimately hopeful tale of three individuals who might be able to provide the stability each needs if only they can learn to withstand the overwhelming external pressures.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Kei Kumai, 2002)

The Sea is WatchingAkira Kurosawa’s later career was marred by personal crises related to his inability to obtain the kind of recognition for his films he’d been used to in his heyday during the golden age of Japanese cinema. His greatest dream was to die on the set, but after suffering a nasty accident in 1995 he was no longer able to realise his ambition of directing again. However, shortly after he died, the idea was floated of filming some of the scripts Kurosawa had written but never proceed with to the production stage including The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Umi wa Miteita) which he wrote in 1993. Based on a couple of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, The Sea is Watching would have been quite an interesting entry in Kurosawa’s back catalogue as it’s a rare female led story focussing on the lives of two geisha in Edo era Japan.

Throughout this tale of love bought and love lost, we mainly follow the kindly geisha Oshin (Nagiko Tono) who ends up helping a nervous young man one night when he crashes into her geisha house in an attempt to avoid being picked up by the police. It seems he’s been out drinking with friends for the first time and, after having drunk far too much, may have stabbed another customer (though he can’t quite remember). Oshin comes up with a plan by cutting off his topknot and passing him off as one of her regular customers but Funosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is not a born dissembler and remains sitting bolt upright before heading home at the first light of day.

Something passes between the two in the night and Oshin unwisely begins to fall in love. Though she begs him not too, Funosuke repeatedly visits her claiming to enjoy her company. However, though the other girls at the geisha house are in favour of Oshin’s love across the class divides romance and go to great lengths to help her, Funosuke is just a feckless boy completely unaware of the way he’s been toying with people’s hearts. Later, Oshin meets another damaged man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins to fall in love again but can a put upon geisha ever believe the words of men who think they can trade money for love?

Kurosawa has sometimes had the charge of misogyny thrown at him, somewhat unfairly, as his films are often very masculine in nature. The Sea is Watching, conversely, is the story of two women, Oshin and her fellow geisha Okikuno (Misa Shimizu), who claims to have come from a wealthy samurai background. Oshin is still young, her kindness and softness have not yet been eroded by the often harsh and cruel world in which she lives. She contents herself with romantic dreams of finding a man who will rescue her from this unpleasant way of life. Okikuno, by contrast, is older, harder, more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore more inclined to towards pragmatism. She finds her salvation in self deception about the past whereas Oshin’s fantasies are all focussed on her future. In many ways the women are mirrors of each other but they also have a tight, sisterly bond in which each seems to understand the other perfectly without the need for explanation.

Structurally, the film feels unbalanced as it focusses more heavily on Oshin in the early stages only to gradually shift through to Okikuno by the end. The thematic split between Oshin’s twin tales of love doesn’t quite help, though it does add a degree of pathos to the situation as Okikuno can see that Oshin’s happy ever after is an unlikely prospect, but still somehow wants to make it happen. Oddly, Kumai chooses not to emphasis the relationship between the two women until the very end, preferring to deal with each of their disappointments and dead end romances separately, but the film does finally come together when they are trapped alone in the geisha house following a freak flood.

In many ways, filming the unfinished work of a great director is an entirely thankless task – every fault is because you aren’t him and every success is down to the departed genius, but Kumai does what he can to both honour Kurosawa’s memory and put his own stamp on the material. There are frequent Kurosawa-esque compositions and the final, deliberately unreal scene of the geisha house underwater framed against the starry sky also has a suitably Kurosawan feeling. That said, something about The Sea is Watching never quite catches fire, its symbolism feels underworked and the final, climactic scene lacks the power it seems to want to have despite Misa Shimizu’s impressive performance. Not drowning, but waving, The Sea is Watching is an uneven experience but makes up for its tonal problems through the strong performances of its cast and powerful, expressionist imagery which allow it to successfully ride the waves of the emotional storms at its centre.


The Sea is Watching is available on DVD with English subtitles in the US and UK from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

US release trailer: