Midnight Bus (ミッドナイト・バス, Masao Takeshita, 2018)

midnight bus posterYou know how it is, you coast along empty inside for what seems like a millennia until you finally decide to change your life and life says no, not like that. The hero of Masao Takeshita’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize nominated novel by Yuki Ibuki Midnight Bus (ミッドナイト・バス) must be well acquainted with phenomenon as his attempts to move a new relationship to the next level are scuppered by the unexpected arrival of not only boomerang children, but an estranged ex-wife and in-laws to boot. Caught between two places, two families, and a number of possible futures it might be time to head off road but the courage to leave the familiar route behind is a hard thing to find when you’ve been used to the security of travelling in tunnels.

Riichi Takamiya (Taizo Harada) drives the overnight bus from Niigata to Tokyo. In the capital, he has a tentative relationship with a younger woman, Shiho (Manami Konishi), who runs a small cafe/bar but his attempts to introduce her to his home life back in the country run aground when grown-up son, Reiiji (Ko Nanase), picks exactly the wrong moment to come home after having abruptly given up his lucrative IT job and moved out of his Tokyo flat. Meanwhile, Riichi’s daughter, Ayana (Wakana Aoi), has embarked on a wacky cosplay career and is thinking about marrying her longterm boyfriend. At this extremely sensitive time, Riichi spots a familiar face on the bus one day – his estranged former wife, Miyuki (Mirai Yamamoto), who has returned to Niigata to visit her ailing father and take care of “family” business.

All three Takamiyas are in a sense adrift, never having properly dealt with the abrupt exit of Miyuki who left when both the children were small. As a young scrappy couple in post-bubble Tokyo, Riichi and Miyuki had been happy but when Riichi decided to move the family back to Niigata for a “less stressful” existence everything began to go wrong, largely because of Riichi’s unforgiving mother who made her daughter-in-law’s life a misery. Now Reiji is facing a similar dilemma in finding city life too demanding, but unlike his father he can afford the time to take a break and figure things out seeing as he is single and unburdened by the need to support a family. Ayana, meanwhile, is about to find herself in a similar position to her mother as she discovers when she plans to introduce her intended to her father only to have him bring his snooty parents along unannounced and change the venue to an upscale restaurant more in keeping with their tastes. Poking into family details, looking down on Riichi’s job, and finally making a pointed comment about Reiji’s stress-related skin condition and a “concern” regarding her son’s children being “contaminated”, it’s obvious Ayana and her boyfriend’s mother will never get on.

Riichi is a kind and patient man, though sometimes a little insensitive in his far seeing plan to ensure everybody’s happiness. He bears no ill will towards Miyuki and hopes that she will be able to rebuild a relationship with her children, engineering a plan to bring them together while he helps her cope with the events that have brought her back to Niigata. Meanwhile, he also tries to keep things going with Shiho who has been hurt before and understands the reasons for Riichi’s hot and cold attitudes but is increasingly frustrated by the abrupt changes in his feelings and intensions. Riichi will have to make a choice between past and future, but if he chooses to put his family back together again it must be short lived as he prepares to push his children back out into the world with a little more direction and confidence after having addressed their deep seated familial traumas.

The bus journey becomes a point of transition in more ways than one – between city and country but also between two personas and two ways of being. In Niigata Riichi is “dad”, the family lynchpin, while Tokyo affords him the opportunity to be a “man” in relative freedom, free to pursue a second chance at romance with all his baggage safely stored at home. Like his children he will need to find a way to integrate his past self with his future one if he wants to forge a way forward, but in order to do that he’ll have to accept the risks a putative future entails and make peace with his old life in order to start all over again. A sometimes poignant family drama, Midnight Bus is a restrained affair but one filled with empathy and a generosity of spirit as its various protagonists learn to free themselves from familial legacy in order to pursue their individual destinies with kind eyes and clear hearts. 


Midnight Bus screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 11th July at 6pm.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2002)

laughing frog posterEver have a day (or perhaps a lifetime) where you feel so stupid that even the frogs are laughing at you? That’s pretty much how it is for disgraced former bank manager Ippei when he turns up one day at a family holiday home he assumed would be empty but turns out not to be. In Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Warau Kaeru) director Hideyuki Hirayama deftly dissects the modern family, the gradual redundancy of the middle-aged man, and the way society seems to have of anointing the lucky and the unlucky, in a darkly humorous satire in which even mother nature seems to be mocking our petty human concerns.

33 year old Ryoko (Nene Otsuka) is attending the third memorial service for her late father at which her greedy sister-in-law (Kumija Kim) asks for various things in an attempt to get some of the inheritance in advance while Ryoko’s brother (Shuzo Mitamura) wanders off to chat about silkworms in Chinese on his mobile phone. The event ends with Ryoko’s sprightly mother (Izumi Yukimura) and the sister-in-law urging her to sort out some kind of marital difficulties in order to ease the awkwardness surrounding her lack of external connections.

Meanwhile, Ryoko’s missing husband, Ippei (Kyozo Nagatsuka), rocks up at a rural station and climbs into a familiar house through an open window. Wandering around in his pants, he hears a noise and realises someone lives there after all. Ryoko has moved into her father’s old house in the country and started a whole new life for herself. After a brief discussion, Ryoko agrees to let him stay for a while on the condition that he finally sign the divorce papers but Ippei soon finds himself confined to an especial kind of irrelevance as he starts his new life in the hall cupboard observing his wife’s new freedoms by means of a tiny hole in the wall.

No one seems to have much of a good word to say about Ippei, which is fair enough seeing as he apparently became obsessed with a bar hostess and embezzled money from his bank to pay for a lavish affair before running away and leaving his wife to deal with the fallout. He is, however, paying for it now as his own irrelevance is once and truly brought home to him as he lives out his days like an impotent ghost trapped in a storage cupboard undergoing his wife’s strange mix of kindness and revenge.

Ryoko, the goodly wife, is not quite all she seems. Ippei’s mistress makes a surprise appearance to try a spot of extortion on the wealthy wife but she’s no match for Ryoko’s perfectly practiced poise. One of the oddly cruel accusations the mistress has to offer is that Ippei once referred to a kind of boredom with his wife’s properness, branding her a “fancy pet cat” whilst apparently avowing the mistress’ bedroom superiority. If Ippei’s sheepish behind the wall expression is anything to go by he is guilty as charged but then perhaps the uncomfortable statement leads right back to his uncomfortable place within Ryoko’s upperclass family who seem to look down on a mere bank manager, affecting politeness while secretly bemoaning the fact that their daughter has married beneath herself.

The model upperclass family is a simulacrum. Feigning politeness, elegance and dignity they attempt to disguise their otherwise distasteful affectations. Ryoko’s sister-in-law is at least honest in her constant harping on about the inheritance, plan to steal grandma’s house out from under her to knock it down and build a new one, and constant asides to her apparently hopeless (and unseen) son away at a (not great) university. Meanwhile her husband, Ryoko’s brother, pretends to chat silkworms in Chinese on his phone but is really talking to a Chinese mistress and Ryoko’s mum is planning to get married again to a (possibly dodgy) antiques dealer (Mickey Curtis) who is so deeply in debt there won’t even be any inheritance anyway.

Ryoko too has moved on. Ippei is forced to watch as she entertains her new boyfriend (Jun Kunimura), a stonemason whose main line is headstones, while the frogs outside work themselves into some kind of frenzy. Little by little all his manly affectations are worn away – he’s forced to realise how foolish he’s been, how irrelevant he is in Ryoko’s life, and how perfectly pointless his fugitive existence really is. Ryoko meanwhile remains calm and calculating. She “lies” and she wins in a bloodless victory, allowing her opponents to sentence themselves to the punishments they feel themselves to deserve. Ippei, it seems, is just a weak, unlucky man doomed to ruin himself through a series of poetic failures and petty self involved mistakes. Meanwhile the frogs look on and laugh at our human follies. Makes you feel small doesn’t it….


Our Family (ぼくたちの家族, Yuya Ishii, 2014)

Our FamilyYuya Ishii’s early work generally took the form of quirky social comedies, but underlying them all was that classic bastion of Japanese cinema, the family drama. If Ishii was in some senses subverting this iconic genre in his youthful exuberance, recent efforts have seen him come around to a more conventional take on the form which is often thought to symbolise his nation’s cinema. In Our Family Ishii is making specific reference to the familial relations of a father and two sons who orbit around the mother but also hints at wider concerns in a state of the nation address as regards the contemporary Japanese family.

Reiko (Mieko Harada) is an ordinary Japanese housewife in late middle age with a husband still working and two grown up children. She’s been worrying lately that she seems to forget things and she also has periodic trances almost like someone pressed the paused button. This all comes to a head when she and her husband Katsuaki attend a family dinner with their in-laws to celebrate the news that their eldest son, Kousuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and his wife are expecting their first child. Having behaved quite strangely all night long, Reiko finally ends by repeatedly addressing her daughter in law by the wrong name and muddling up details about the baby. Reiko’s still young but the natural assumption is perhaps that she’s slipping into senility, dementia or possibly even Alzheimer’s but a visit to the doctor turns up something that no one was expecting as they’re eventually made to understand that Reiko may only have a week left to live.

This devastating news of course sends shock waves through each member of the family and not least Kousuke who’s just learned he’s about to become a father. One of the things Reiko was most distressed about was that she’d wake up one day and her family would have fallen apart. It seems she grew up in an unhappy home and was determined not to replicate the experience for her children. Perhaps she did have cause to worry as there were definite cracks in the foundation of this household even before Reiko’s illness in that youngest son Shunpei (Sosuke Ikematsu) seems to have had a strained relationship with both his father and his older brother. In contrast to the other two men, Shunpei, still a student, is much more laid back and easy going though his father perhaps thinks him feckless and irresponsible. He meets his mother sometimes and she lends him money behind the father’s back but they talk more like friends than a mother and son.

Perhaps this division between the men in her life has been playing on Reiko’s mind but there are other problems too. Part of the bubble generation, Reiko and Katsuaki have been living well beyond their means for years and have amassed considerable personal debt. In fact, Katsuaki remortgaged the house a while back and made Kousuke a guarantor on their loan. Their best option would be to file for bankruptcy but doing that would leave Kosuke liable for the return of the mortgage so Katsuaki is reluctant to pursue that option. Now that Reiko’s in hospital money is at the forefront of everyone’s mind as they contemplate paying not only astronomical medical fees but potentially also paying for a funeral too.

This financial strain spills over into Kousuke’s new family as, when talking to his wife about needing to help out his parents, Kousuke discovers that Miyuki is just about as unsupportive as one could be. She brands Kousuke’s parents as irresponsible dreamers still living in the bubble era and suggests their predicament is both their own fault and their responsibility as, at their age, they should have been saving money for just these kinds of situations. Scornfully she insists that she doesn’t want to be “that kind of parent” and retires to bed in outrage. Having also refused to even accompany Kosuke to visit his mother in hospital (seeming to miss the point that he might be looking for her support rather than asking for appearance’s sake), poor Kousuke is left all alone trying to deal with the impending birth of his child and death of his mother all in a few short weeks.

The crisis does, at least, bring the three men a little closer together as it requires a kind of unilateral action that pushes previous resentments and ill feeling into the background. Reiko’s condition also means that she says some things that she would never have revealed directly to her family which both hint at some of her suffering over the last thirty years but also the deep love she has for her them. Katsuaki is revealed as a fairly ineffectual man who cares deeply but is blindsided by his wife’s condition and unable to face the facts leaving the bulk of responsibility to his oldest son. This kind of family abnegation is anathema in Japan – one would never want to be a burden to one’s children but Katsuaki is now both financially and morally dependent on Kousuke. Kousuke himself is not quite mature enough for this level of responsibility despite his impending fatherhood and his younger brother Shunpei may appear indifferent to everything but is merely putting a brave face on things though he may be the most dependable (and emotionally intelligent) of the three.

By the end, there is a glimmer of hope. The family can be repaired if you’re willing to work at it which means being willing to face the problems together and without any secrecy. Everyone, including the older generation, has in some senses “grown up”, facing the future together having accepted themselves and each other for who they are. Like applying a touch of kintsugi, their glittering wounds have only made them stronger and made each refocus on what’s really important. Neatly moving into a more dramatic arena, Ishii proves he’s still among Japan’s most promising young directors able to marry an idiosyncratic indie spirit with a more mainstream mentality.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release of Our Family includes English Subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: