Arc (Arc アーク, Kei Ishikawa, 2021)

Does something have to have an ending to be meaningful or could eternity be the point? Inspired by Ken Liu’s short story, Kei Ishikawa’s near future tale Arc (Arc アーク) envisages a world without death if perhaps not for all in which bodily immortality has been achieved, but what would that mean for humanity no longer faced with mortal anxiety, how should it reorient itself in the absence of sickness or old age while the possibility of endlessness for the self has removed the urge for immortality through childbirth? These are all of course questions which have no one answer, though what the heroine finally discovers is that in the end it may be the choice itself of when to live or when to die that may lend her life at least its meaning. 

Even so, hers is a particular anxiety bound up with frustrated maternity having abandoned a baby she gave birth to at 17, too afraid of the responsibility to accept it. At 19, Rina (Kyoko Yoshine) is spotted at a club by a mysterious middle-aged woman, Ema (Shinobu Terajima), who runs a revolutionary cosmetics company which has pioneered a new way of preserving the bodies of the dead turning them into uncannily lifelike mannequins with a new process known as plasticisation. To Ema’s mind, true liberation comes from accepting transience, that once life has left it the body is just an object which might be repurposed for her art but then at the same time perhaps she is attempting to hold on to something that should be released, interfering in a natural process and while intending to offer comfort to those bereaved preventing them from letting go or moving on with their lives. Her much younger brother Amane, meanwhile, actively wants to stop time while alive utilising a similar technology to halt the ageing process and overcome the tyranny of death. 

In a strange way, Ema’s desire to restore a body which is no longer alive to ideal condition is also an acknowledgement of death which she believes is not the opposite of life but a necessary part of it. In overcoming the fear of death, she claims, a transcendental beauty will reveal itself. Amane meanwhile seeks to overcome death physically, but as Rina is warned his health revolution may not bring happiness to mankind not least because it exposes a persistent inequality in which eternal youth is available only to those with the means to acquire it, creating a new underclass not only of the poor but those whose bodies are not able to accept the treatment. Amane sees his creation as a dividing line in human history which will necessarily divide humanity into two groups, those who choose to join his revolution and those who do not (though interestingly he does not consider a third group who actively opposite it). Even so he sees it as a choice and accepts the right to reject immortality even going so far as to build a dedicated centre where those who choose to live a “natural” lifespan can do so in dignity and comfort. 

The concept of personal choice appears to be key, Ema too replying that her decision to stick with plasticisation rather than Amane’s treatment is her right though she too eventually hits a wall in the imperfection of her craft and the depths of her grief. She tells Rina to live her life freely encouraging her to live fully in the moment, while she too is quick to remind others that the decisions are theirs to make as regards their life and death. It’s not death nor the fear of it that are the problem, but the inability to choose as Rina finally acknowledges in remarking that the ability to decide its end point gives her the means to carve the arc of her life overcoming death through full existential control having in a sense closed a circle in facing her own sense of maternal failure. Shifting from the warmth and natural beauty of a beach in summer to the dark and brutalist environments of the BodyWerks lab, and from the muted colour of Rina’s youth to the black and white of her youthful old age, Ishikawa’s near future sci-fi-inflected tale suggests it’s not so much death that frightens you but helplessness and as in all things the answer lies in autonomous choice. 


Arc screens in Chicago on April 3 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai (峠 最後のサムライ, Takashi Koizumi, 2021)

“Even with 100 plans and 100 ideas, we cannot defeat the march of progress” a progressive samurai admits, well aware that he’s witnessing the end of his era while knowing that the “thrilling future” that lies ahead will have no place for him. Adapted from the novel by Ryotaro Shiba, The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai (峠 最後のサムライ, Toge: Saigo no Samurai) is inspired by the life of Kawai Tsugunosuke, known as the “Last Samurai” for his steadfast embodiment of the samurai ideal during the chaos of the Bakumatsu and subsequent Boshin War

As the opening voiceover from Tsugunosuke’s wife Osuga (Takako Matsu) explains, the Tokugawa Shogunate had ruled Japan for close to 300 years after bringing the warring states era to an end following the Battle of Sekigahara, placing the nation into a period of enforced isolation which by the 1850s was beginning to crack while resentment towards the Tokugawa continued to grow over their handling of access to foreign trade. In 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Masahiro Higashide) effectively relinquished his monopoly on power and restored ultimate authority to the emperor (the “Meiji Restoration”). Yet if he hoped his decision would both restore peace and allow the Tokugawa to maintain political influence he was quite mistaken. In the immediate wake of this political earthquake the nation became polarised between those in favour of imperial rule and those who remained loyal to the Shogunate. 

The chief retainer in Nagaoka, Tsugunosuke (Koji Yakusho) finds himself in an impossible position caught between the forces of East and West and essentially unable to pick a side because of the demands of samurai loyalty. Fearing another war would prove disastrous, he chooses neutrality certain that the present conflict cannot be resolved militarily and requires a political solution. To this effect he attempts to petition a delegation from the Western, pro-emperor, pro-modernisation army but his pleas fall on deaf ears and lead only to a rebuke that he is a coward and a traitor. Like any good leader, however, Tsugunosuke has also been preparing for the worst, buying a gatling gun from foreign dealers in order to boost his meagre man power eventually realising they have no other option than to go war 

The irony is that Tsugunosuke tacitly supports imperial rule but cannot say so because his clan is closely affiliated with the Tokugawa. He is well aware that his era has come to a close and that he will not live to see the new Japan, knowing that he is man of the old world and cannot progress into the classless society he is certain is coming. For all that he seems to be excited by the promises of revolution, encouraging the son of a friend to take advantage of the freedoms of a new era while dreaming of foreign travel and advocating for “liberty and rights” along with universal education in the hope of building of a better society. 

Yet for himself he cannot let go of samurai ideals, knowing he must fight a pointless war in which he does not believe because honour dictates it. “If it shows future generations what we samurai truly stood for then this battle will have been worthwhile” he tells a friend, fearful of a future dominated by the clans of Satsuma and Choshu. “Your samurai spirit will encourage countless others” another retainer tells him, “you are our ideal”, touched by his stoicism and grace even in defeat as he takes sole responsibility for the failure of their military campaign caused in part by the betrayal of a defecting ally. “This warriors’ way shall die with me” he cheerfully tells a servant, advising him to become a merchant and travel abroad to seize the “thrilling future” which lies ahead of him. 

A martyr to his age, Tsugunosuke is the last of the samurai stoically defending a lofty ideal in an acknowledgement that he does not belong in the new society and must sacrifice himself in order to bring it about. An homage to classic samurai cinema from former Akira Kurosawa AD Takashi Koizumi, who even throws in the odd screen wipe, featuring cameos from golden age stars Tatsuya Nakadai and Kyoko Kagawa, The Pass is about the passage from one era to the next taking as its hero a closet revolutionary and walking embodiment of the idealised samurai who chooses unity and shared vision over conflict in the creation of a better world he does not intend to live to see.


The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai screens on Aug. 21 and Sept. 1 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Yuta Murano, 2019)

“Youth is the liberated zone of life” according to the voice of experience in Yuta Murano’s impassioned anime adaptation of the cult novel by Osamu Soda, Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Bokura no Nanoka-kan Senso). Featuring a number of meta references to the ‘80s original and live action movie, Murano’s stylistically conventional adaptation shifts the action to Hokkaido and the present day encompassing such themes as economic strife, systemic political corruption and small town nepotism, migration and exploitation, but is most of all a coming-of-age story as the rebellious teens meditate on the costs of adulthood, resolving not to become the vacuous and resentful adults they see all around them who have traded emotional authenticity for a mistaken ideal of civility. 

Obsessed with 19th century European military history, high schooler Mamoru (Takumi Kitamura) complains that no one takes any interest in him and remains too diffident to confess his feelings to the girl next door, Aya (Kyoko Yoshine), with whom he has been in love for the past six years. Hearing that Aya and her family will soon be moving away because her authoritarian politician father has been offered the opportunity to take over a relative’s seat in Tokyo gives him the boost he needs, nervously suggesting that he and Aya run away together so they can at least celebrate her upcoming birthday the following week. Aya surprises him by agreeing, but rather than a romantic getaway for two she decides to invite several not particularly close friends from school, holing up in a disused coal refinery on the edge of town. Once there, however, they realise someone has beaten them to it. Marret (Makoto Koichi), the child of undocumented migrant workers from Thailand, has been hiding in the building after being separated from their parents when the building they were living in was raided by immigration authorities. 

Though the group is not universally in favour, they quickly find themselves deciding to protect Marret while trying to help find the kid’s family using both their ingenuity in fortifying the coal refinery and their youthful know how in weaponising the internet and social media to win sympathy and fight back against the oppressive ideology of the authorities. Yet Marret finds it difficult to trust them because they occupy a liminal space between the idealism of childhood and the cynicism of maturity. Marret’s family came to Japan on the false promise of finding good employment only to be ruthlessly exploited, convincing the idealistic youngster that all adults lie and can never be trusted. Mamoru, whose name literally means “protect”, does his best to save everyone but temporarily gives in to despair, confessing that he is just an “optimistic child” lacking the power to do any real good, only later coming to a revelation that the problem with the duplicitous adults they’re rebelling against is that they continue to run from their emotions and the pain of not being able to be fully themselves for fear of not fitting in has made them cruel and cynical. 

Honda (Takahiro Sakurai), the conflicted assistant to Aya’s authoritarian father, tacitly approves of the teens, affirming that the young always fight for the things they believe in but then rebels against himself in doxxing them, exposing both their identities (sans Aya’s) and dark secrets online in an attempt both to intimidate and to drive them apart. But the kids run in another direction. They elect to share their truths and in the sharing neutralise the threat while gaining the confidence that comes with deciding not hide anything anymore. The sharing is it seems what matters, a collective unburdening which paves the way for emotional authenticity but sidesteps the need to consider the fallout from the concurrent revelations. A heavily telegraphed confession of same sex love, for example, is accepted by all though there is no explicit indication as to whether or not is reciprocated save that is in no way rejected. 

In any case, the kids decide that being their authentic selves is more important than conformity and make a mutual decision to respect the same in others, something which is eventually mirrored in those like Honda among the duplicitous adults touched by the kids’ pure hearted rebellion. Necessarily, that leaves the weightier themes such as the plight of undocumented migrants, the casual cruelty of the authorities, small-town corruption and persistent nepotism relegated to the background, perhaps superficially considered seen trough an adolescent lens, but nevertheless products of the inauthenticity of the cynical adult world the kids are rebelling against. A heartfelt advocation for the idealism and universal compassion of youth carried into a more open adulthood that comes with emotional authenticity, Seven Days War leaves its heroes with the spirit of resistance, defiantly themselves as they step into an adult world uncorrupted by cynicism or prejudice.


Seven Days War screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bento Harassment (今日も嫌がらせ弁当, Renpei Tsukamoto, 2019)

Bento harrassment posterChildhood’s a funny thing. Obviously lacking life experience and used to being the centre of someone’s universe, children can be curiously self-centred, little knowing the hard work their parents put in to try and make them happy until they suddenly realise years later that their mothers must have toiled through the night just to finish that costume for fancy dress that they didn’t really want to wear. Fed up with her teenage daughter’s sullen indifference, the heroine of Bento Harassment (今日も嫌がらせ弁当, Kyo mo Iyagarase Bento) comes up with an ingenious solution – increasingly elaborate lunchboxes designed to vent her frustration in a way that’s impossible for her daughter to ignore.

12 years previously Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) was blissfully happy with her two little daughters, Wakaba (Rena Matsui) and Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine), but then her husband was killed in an accident and her life was turned upside down. Now she lives alone with her youngest daughter Futaba who has entered something of a rebellious phase, never directly talking to her mother but communicating through pithy, passive aggressive texts. In a bid to get her attention, Kaori decides to play her at her own game – by becoming so annoying that she’s impossible to ignore. From the day that Futaba enters high school she commits herself to making one “annoying” bento every day, eventually adding a message or two into the mix. Much to Futaba’s chagrin, her mother’s bento becomes a cause of daily excitement among her school friends who can’t wait to see how her mother has chosen to troll her on this particular day.

Perhaps tellingly, Kaori and her daughters live on a small island, Hachijojima, which is technically classed as “Tokyo” though in another sense almost as far from the bustling metropolis as it’s possible to get. There are no trains, or shopping malls, or convenience stores, just cows and wholesome wisdom. Caught between one thing and another, Futaba quits her after school athletics club to sit in a field and write angsty poetry about how she’s all alone in the universe. She doesn’t understand why her mum’s so extra and is confused by her attraction to a childhood friend (Kanta Sato) who has now become buff after developing an obsession with taiko drumming. Beginning to figure out why her daughter’s so moody lately, Kaori doubles down on the annoying bento plan but tries to put a little guidance in there too to push the indecisive Futaba towards making concrete decisions about her future.

Unlike the typically self-sacrificing mothers of “hahamono”, Kaori has her spiky side and never particularly looks for thanks or recognition from her daughters only basic civility. She works two jobs (one in a bento shop and another in a pub) and still makes time to devote herself to the petty art of annoying bento which she also posts online on a blog which becomes an instant hit with similarly stressed out parents looking for a little innocent revenge. Through the blog she finds herself bonding with Shunsuke (Ryuta Sato), a widowed father of a five-year-old boy who is struggling to perfect the art of bento though his aim is less revenge than trying to bond with his son who obviously misses his mum. Yet even “annoying” bento comes from a fundamental place of love – after all, you don’t spend all night cooking to send a passive aggressive message to someone you don’t like. Rising to the challenge, Futaba refuses to admit defeat and makes a point of eating all of the annoying bento without a word of complaint, allowing a kind of communication to arise between herself and her extremely patient mother.

Seeing all her dreams crushed on one extremely bad day, however, makes Futaba lose faith in her mother’s gentle wisdom. Kaori tries to convince her that nothing’s ever really “wasted” because even when things don’t work out the way you hoped they still teach you something else but that’s a hard lesson to learn when you’re young and unused to disappointment. Nevertheless, thanks to her mother’s relentless trolling and some careful words from her sister, she comes to realise just how much her mother has sacrificed on her behalf and understand her mother’s love. A warmhearted tale of mother daughter bonding and an ode to persevering through life’s various difficulties, Bento Harassment is a wholesome treat and inspirational tribute to living life without regrets.


Bento Harassment screens in Chicago on Sept. 27 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)