Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1980)

Even in the Japan of 1980, many kinds of love are impossible. Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Kazetachi no gogo), the indie debut from Hitoshi Yazaki follows just one of them as a repressed gay nursery nurse falls hopelessly in love with her straight roommate. Based on a salacious newspaper report of the time, Afternoon Breezes is a textbook examination of obsessive unrequited love as its heroine is drawn ever deeper into a spiral of inescapable despair and incurable loneliness.

Nursery nurse Natsuko (Setsuko Aya) is in love with her hairdresser roommate Mitsu (Naomi Ito), who seems to be completely oblivious of her friend’s feelings. Mitsu has a boyfriend, Hideo (Hiroshi Sugita), and the relationship is becoming serious enough to have Natuko worried. Hideo, unlike Mitsu, is pretty sure Natsuko is a lesbian and in love with his girlfriend but finds the situation amusing more than anything else. Beginning to go out of her mind with frustration, Natsuko tries just about everything she can to break Mitsu and Hideo up including introducing him to another pretty girl from the nursery, Etsuko (Mari Atake). Hideo is not exactly a great guy and shows interest in Etsuko though does not seem as intent on leaving Mitsu as Natsuko had hoped. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so Natsuko steels herself against her revulsion of men and seduces Hideo on the condition that he end things with her beloved Mitsu. He does, but the plan goes awry when Natsuko realises she is pregnant with Hideo’s child.

Less about lesbianism and more about love which can never be returned slowly eroding a mind, Afternoon Breezes perfectly captures the hopeless fate of its heroine as she idly dreams a future for herself which she knows she will never have. Natsuko buys expensive gifts for roommate, returns home with flowers and courts her in all of the various ways a shy lover reveals themselves but if Mitsu ever recognises these overtures for what they are she never acknowledges them. Her boyfriend, Hideo, seems more worldly wise and makes a point of cracking jokes about Natsuko, asking Mitsu directly if her friend has a crush on her but Mitsu always laughs the questioning off. Mitsu may know on some level that Natsuko is in love with her, she seems to be aware of her distaste for men even if she tries to take her out to pick one up, but if she does it’s a truth she does not want to own and when it is finally impossible to ignore she will have nothing to do with it.

Despite Mitsu’s ongoing refusal to confront the situation, Natsuko basks in idealised visions of domesticity as she and Mitsu enjoy a romantic walk in the rain only to have their reverie interrupted by a passing pram containing a newborn baby. What Natsuko wants is a conventional family life with Mitsu, including children. After their walk, the pair adopt a pet mouse which Natsuko comes to think of as their “baby” but like a grim harbinger of her unrealisable dream, the mouse dies leading Mitsu to bundle it into a envelope and leave it on a rubbish heap along with Natsuko’s heart and dreams for the future.

When her colleagues at the nursery get stuck into the girl talk and ask Natsuko about boyfriends, her response is that she would not “degrade” herself yet that is exactly what she finally resorts to in an increasingly desperate effort to get close to Mitsu. After her attempts to get him to fall for another girl fail, Natsuko’s last sacrificial offering is her own body, surrendered on the altar of love as she pleads with the heartless Hideo to leave Mitsu for good. Though her bodily submission is painful to watch in her obvious discomfort her mental degradation has been steadily progressing as Hideo deliberately places himself between the two women, even going so far as to disrupt a seaside holiday planned for two by inviting himself along.

Yazaki perfectly captures Natsuko’s ever fracturing mental state through the inescapable presence of the dripping tap in the girls’ apartment which becomes a dangerous ticking in Natsuko’s time bomb mind. Occasionally gelling with clocks and doors and other oppressive noises, the internal banging inside Natsuko’s head only intensifies as she’s forced to endure the literal banging of Mitsu and Hideo’s lovemaking during her romantic getaway. Just as an earlier scene found Natsuko sitting on the swing outside embracing the flowers she’d brought for Mitsu only to find Hideo already there, Natsuko’s fate is to be perpetually left out in the cold, eventually resorting to rifling through her true love’s rubbish and biting into a half eaten apple in a desperate attempt at contact.

Natsuko’s love is an impossible one, not only because Mitsu is unable to return it, but because it is essentially unembraceable. In a society where her love is a taboo, Natsuko is not able to voice her desires clearly or live in an ordinary, straightforward way but is forced to act with clandestine subtly. After Hideo unwittingly deflowers her and laughs about it, stating that she “must really be gay” Natsuko lunges at him with a knife, suddenly overburdened with one degradation too many. Though the prospect of the baby may raise the possibility of a happy family, albeit an unconventional one, the signs point more towards funerals than christenings, so devoid of hope does Natsuko’s world seem to be. Shot in a crisp 16mm black and white, Afternoon Breezes owes an obvious debt to the art films of twenty years before with its long takes, static camera giving way to handheld, and flower filled conclusion, but adds an additional layer of youthful anxiety as its heroines find themselves moving into a more prosperous, socially liberal age only to discover some dreams are still off limits.


 

Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Takashi Miike, 1995)

shinjuku-triad-societyThese days Takashi Miike is known as something of an enfant terrible, whose rate of production is almost impossible to keep up with and regularly defies classification. Pressed to offer some kind of explanation to the uninitiated, most will point to the unsettling horror of Audition or the audacity of the controversial Ichi the Killer whilst looking askance at the totally unexpected craziness of Yatterman or the child friendly Ninja Kids!!!. Before he was the gleefully unpredictable festival favourite, Miike, like many of his contemporaries, had made a name for himself in V-cinema, often with violent tales of modern day yakuza. Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Shinjuku Kuroshakai: China Mafia Senso) was Miike’s first venture into the mainstream theatrical world but retains his V-cinema focus with additional intent.

Set in the shady, sleazy, noir-tinted world of ‘90s Shinjuku, Shinjuku Triad Society opens with a voice-over from one of its central players telling us that this is a love story – sickening and sweet, as real love is. The action kicks off with this same character, a rent boy, Zhou, attempting to evade a police raid, slitting the throat of a regular street cop on his way out. Zhou is the lover of an unpredictable member of the Taiwanese mafia, Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi), who is creating several problems in the underground crime world both within Triad circles and with the local yakuza. Half Chinese policeman, Tatsuhito Kiriya (Kippei Shina), has been landed with the case but things begin to get personal when he discovers that his younger brother, Yoshihito, has been hired as a junior lawyer working directly for Wang’s gang.

Yakuza films often have a very strong homosocial atmosphere, emphasising the fraternal bonds between men but Shinjuku Triad Society is especially notable for its inclusion of explicit male homosexuality within the gangster underworld. If yakuza films are family dramas with funerals instead of weddings, Miike uses this intense male bonding as a comment on the wider nature of the family with an added focus on the place of the foreign in Japanese society. Wang and Tatsuhito are not so far removed in their desire to rebuild their own family unit, partly as a kind of protective measure against the world around them in which their Chinese heritage becomes a perpetual barrier. Wang has done this as the head of his own clan and with his lover Zhou at his side whereas Tatsuhito is intent on restoring his birth family by “rescuing” his brother from the clutches of the “Dragon’s Claw”.

Tatsuhito’s brother is, of course, a grown man who has the right to become a member of the underworld family, rejecting the blood ties to his policeman brother and doting parents if that is what he wants no matter what his brother might feel about it. Tatsuhito is disturbed to discover that Yoshihito has become Wang’s lover, even if he claims to be using him in order to progress his career. Both brothers threaten each other at gun point with Yoshihito exclaiming “if you don’t like the way I am, just kill me” which Tatsuhito refuses to do though it remains unclear if his brother’s sexuality is objectionable to him or merely a facet of his rejection of the values Tatsuhito holds dear.

Sexuality becomes a weapon as Zhou manoeuvres and manipulates through provoking and satisfying sexual desire. These are, however, consensual relationships even if a part of a wider, transactional game whereas anal rape is actively being employed as a police interrogation tactic (with a somewhat surprising spin). Even Tatsuhito, whose partner mocks him for a supposed dedication to being a “regular” cop, unwilling to take bribes or give in to corruption, himself engages in this behaviour anally raping a female prostitute from whom he wishes to extract information. Playing into the film’s darker themes of the interplay between sex, violence, and transaction, the prostitute instantly falls in love with him. Tatsuhito is clearly no saint even at the film’s beginning, but even so he continues to fall still further, seemingly outraged on discovering the true purpose of Wang’s “philanthropy” in his Taiwanese homeland, but doing relatively little about it other than adding it to the growing list of reasons why Wang must die. Eventually crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker in the most taboo of ways, Tatsuhito finds himself rewarded even if his boss seems to be aware and in approval of what he’s done.

Tatsuhito may succeed in some of his aims, even if he has to exile himself from the family he was trying repair in the process though the closing voice over makes clear that he gains little in the long run and becomes nothing more than marginalia in the long, sad history of Shinjuku’s violent backstreets. Starting as he means to go on, Miike is entirely unafraid to step into some very uncomfortable areas, not least the way non-Japanese and those with partial Japanese heritage are regarded in the society of the time as well as the way these attitudes are filtered through recent Japanese history. Tatsuhito finds himself conflicted, choosing Japan in choosing the police but finding that it often fails to recognise him as its own son, whereas Yoshihito, in a sense, chooses China in associating himself with the Taiwanese gangsters. This central opposition of order and criminality is itself uncomfortable, but then undermined by the unorthodox nature of the local yakuza. Often strange and eerie, Shinjuku Triad Society takes place in a noirish world where there is no guiding morality – one to which Miike would often return though perhaps never with so much biting irony, where the absence of hope continues to imply its possibility.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ashamed (창피해, AKA Life is Peachy, Kim Soo-hyun, 2011)

ashamedOne of the very earliest films to address female same sex love in Korea, Ashamed (yes, really, but not quite – we’ll get to this later, 창피해, Changpihae, retitled Life is Peachy for US release) had a lot riding on it. Perhaps too much, but does at least manage to outline a convincing, refreshingly ordinary failed love romance even if hampered by a heavy handed structuring device and a lack of chemistry between its leading ladies.

Beginning in the film’s “present”, embittered art professor Jung Ji-woo (Kim Sang-hyeon) is auditioning models for an art project, whereupon she bonds with two students currently undergoing some kind of unresolved drama of their own. Hee-jin (Seo Hyun-jin), Jung’s pupil, has roped in her friend also coincidentally named (Youn) Ji-woo (Kim Hyo-jin) who, as she recounts in a lengthy flashback, she met in odd circumstances whilst drinking with layabouts in an alley. Eventually, Youn Ji-woo confessed to her that she’s attracted to people of the same sex, which has left Hee-jin feeling kind of awkward.

Trying to console her student, Jung encourages the younger woman to recount the story of her own great yet failed romance with a pickpocket named, yes, again (Kang) Ji-woo (Kim Kkobbi). Youn had been leading a dull and unfulfilling life as a shopgirl in a department store, baby sitting middle aged housewives. Disillusioned with her disappointing boyfriends, Yoon has entered a dark place where the thing she’s most sorry about in life is that she won’t be able to witness her own suicide. Accordingly she dresses up one of the department store mannequins in her clothes and pushes it off a roof, only it hits a car below and causes an accident.

Not exactly a traditional “meet-cute”, Youn and Kang first encounter each other surrounded by broken glass and are then handcuffed together by the investigating policeman (Choi Min-Yong) who was also just stabbed by one of Kang’s gang members after he spotted her pickpocketing on the metro. The policeman then randomly takes them to his friend’s Chinese restaurant which affords them an opportunity to escape even if they’re still chained at the wrists.

Though this very improbable situation points to a cute and quirky romance, Ashamed takes a non committal stance as regards to tone, throwing in odd details like strange priests living in the woods and Kang’s constantly unreliable self narratives but then retreating to something more straightforwardly melancholy. Love falls slowly as Youn recounts her lack of satisfaction with men only to find herself strangely attracted to her new handcuffs buddy while she, somewhat rudely, has sex with an ex-boyfriend she invited over for help with Youn lying mortified beside them. Suddenly realising why none of her boyfriends ever worked out, Youn feels, understandably, awkward alone with Kang and her ex and but is encouraged by Kang’s tentative but ultimately decisive grasping of her hand during the taxi journey onwards.

Kim’s attempt to avoid prurience whilst also pushing boundaries for sexual content unavoidably feels tame, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the leading actresses and lingering sense of embarrassment in his choice of camera angles. Though painted as a grand and heartbreaking love affair of a lifetime in the opening sequences, Youn and Kang’s romance never takes on the weight of tragedy or moves much beyond the very ordinary tale of two people who couldn’t make it work. This indeed may be the point, but given the melancholy atmosphere of the the three women discussing lost love on a lonely beach, Youn and Kang’s missed opportunity can’t help but feel slighting underwhelming.

Rather than the strongly negative “ashamed” the meaning of the original Korean might be more generously translated as “shy” or “embarrassed”, at any rate the film does not imply any of its characters have reason to feel shame. The title word surfaces a handful of times, most notably when the loosened up professor declares she has no need for it anymore, and in the final showdown with Kang as Youn attempts to challenge her on her problems with intimacy and commitment but fails to push her into a more honest space. Kang’s sense of “shame”, if that would be the right word, seems to be unconnected to sexuality but has deeper roots in the past which she remains unwilling to reveal. This sense of personal inadequacy fuels Kang’s drifting life as she feels the need to move on each time someone gets too close, afraid or perhaps on some level “ashamed” to commit herself fully.

Kim’s multi layered flashback structure mixed with imagined sequences and expressionist scenes inspired by Jung’s artwork proves an unwieldy concept which often detracts more than it gives. With a running time of over two hours and a romance which doesn’t start until many indie films have already ended, Ashamed bites off much more than it can chew but at the same time never fully engages with the most interesting elements of its subject matter. Flawed, if interesting, Ashamed is a bold and worthy effort yet one which falls far short of its target despite the committed performances of its central trio.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Love Story (연애담, Lee Hyun-ju, 2016)

cyaykwjucaav5frThe history of LGBT cinema in Korea is admittedly thin though recent years have seen an increase in big screen representation with an interest in exploring the reality rather than indulging in stereotypes. The debut feature from Lee Hyun-ju, Our Love Story (연애담, Yeonaedam), is among the first to chart the course of an ordinary romance between two women with all of the everyday drama that modern love entails. A beautiful, bittersweet tale of frustrated connection, Our Love Story is a realistic look at messy first love taking place under the snowy skies of Seoul.

Yoon-ju (Lee Sang-hee) is a busy fine arts graduate student working on her final project. Busy as she is, none of Yoon-ju’s friends can get their heads around her lack of interest in dating, but Yoon-ju is happy enough on her own and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Whilst perusing a local junk yard looking for interesting things for her art project, something unexpected catches her eye in the form of a young woman delivering magazines but after the woman completes her business she leaves Yoon-ju’s slightly stunned field of vision, presumably forever.

Because these things happen in a city, Yoon-ju runs into the same woman again in a convenience store where she is having trouble buying cigarettes because she’s forgotten her ID and the cashier is being pedantic about the rules. Coming to the rescue, Yoon-ju buys the cigarettes for her with her ID, which leads to the opportunity of sharing one outside. The mysterious woman is named Ji-soo (Ryu Sun-young) and works part-time at a nearby bar to which she invites Yoon-ju if she happens to fancy a drink of an evening. Yoon-ju doesn’t drink, particularly, but convinces some friends to accompany her to to Ji-soo’s bar – a plan which backfires when they drink too much and argue with each other causing a scene. The two women don’t get much of an opportunity to chat and it all seems like it might end there with Yoon-ju heading home to bed only to receive an unexpected phone call from Ji-soo inviting her over for a late night drinking session.

So begins Yoon-ju’s first romance, and Ji-soo’s 78th as she later jokes. The first night slips into the first day and before long the pair have established a happy domesticity but their original euphoria is short lived as Ji-soo is due to be moving back to her hometown to live with her recently widowed father for a while. The relationship also has adverse effects on Yoon-ju’s life as she begins to neglect her art project and lets her colleagues down by forgetting important meetings, while other events leave her questioning if Ji-soo is really as committed to Yoon-ju as Yoon-ju is to her.

After Ji-soo moves back home, the pair make sure to meet up every so often either in Ji-soo’s hometown of Incheon or in Seoul but there’s an undeniable change in their relationship aside from the distance. In the city, Ji-soo had been outgoing and unafraid but in Incheon she’s a completely different person, closed off and permanently anxious. Ji-soo’s father is a more conservative and religious type who has no idea that his daughter is gay and still expecting her to get married, preferably as soon as possible. Worried that Ji-soo “does not date” he sets her up with a family friend and she has little choice but to play along even if she’s not intending to let it get anywhere. Yoon-ju’s first visit occurs while Ji-soo’s father is away, but even so Ji-soo is uncomfortable with having her in the house. When her father turns up unexpectedly one day while Yoon-ju is there, Ji-soo describes her as “a friend” and makes a point of answering all of Yoon-ju’s questions for her in case she lets something slip.

Hurt and confused, spending time in Incheon becomes a painful experience for Yoon-ju considering the permanently jumpy Ji-soo doesn’t even want her father to know she smokes, let alone anything else he might not approve of. Earlier on the relationship, Yoon-ju made the decision to confide in an old friend from her hometown and found him broadly supportive, once he got over the surprise. Ji-soo, more experienced, warns Yoon-ju that she’ll lose friends if she isn’t careful. This Yoon-ju finds out to her cost when she decides to try talking to her roommate about her troubles with Ji-soo as even someone she felt close to and had trusted suddenly rejects her. Realising you’ve placed your trust in someone who wasn’t worthy of it is a terrible feeling, but it isn’t just familial opposition the two women will be facing if they decide to make a go of things together, even in the big city.

Post Incheon, awkwardness grows and the distance deepens prompting one to fight back and the other to retreat but eventually Ji-soo appears to make her choice in way which seems cuttingly final in its coldness. Later trying to fix what she broke, Ji-soo again goes about things in an inadvisable way, still only superficially committed and unable to fully connect on a deeper level. Ending on an ambiguous, bittersweet note which seems to offer either hope or the despairing vision of an ever repeating cycle of pain, Our Love Story is a beautifully nuanced and interestingly composed addition to the Korean indie scene finally bringing a very ordinary romance to the cinema screen in all of its everyday melodrama.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Clip from halfway through the film (English subtitles)

La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ, Isshin Inudo, 2005)

la-maison-de-himikoIn Japan’s rapidly ageing society, there are many older people who find themselves left alone without the safety net traditionally provided by the extended family. This problem is compounded for those who’ve lived their lives outside of the mainstream which is so deeply rooted in the “traditional” familial system. La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ) is the name of an old people’s home with a difference – it caters exclusively to older gay men who have often become estranged from their families because of their sexuality. The proprietoress, Himiko (Min Tanaka), formerly ran an upscale gay bar in Ginza before retiring to open the home but the future of the Maison is threatened now that Himiko has contracted a terminal illness and their long term patron seems set to withdraw his support.

Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri), Himiko’s much younger lover and the manager of the home, is determined to reunite his boss with his estranged daughter, Saori (Kou Shibasaki), before it’s too late. Saori is a rather sour faced and sullen woman carrying a decades long grudge against the father who abandoned her as a child and consigned her mother to a life of misery and heartbreak, so Haruhiko’s invitations are not warmly received. Haruhiko is not the giving up type and manages to sweet talk Saori’s colleague into revealing her desperate financial situation which has her already working two jobs with a part-time stint in a combini on top of her regular work during which she finds herself looking at lucrative ads for work on sex lines. When Haruhiko offers her a well paying gig helping out at the home, she has no choice but to put her pride aside.

The exclusively male residents of La Maison de Himiko lived their lives during a time when it was almost impossible to be openly gay. Consequently many of them have been married and had children but later left their families to live a more authentic life. Unfortunately, times being what they were, this often meant that they lost contact with their sons or daughters, even if they were able to keep in touch with their ex-wives or other family members for updates. For these reasons, La Maison de Himiko provides an invaluable refuge for older men who have nowhere else to go as they enter the later stages of their lives. The home provides not only a safe space where everybody is free to be themselves but also a sense of community and interdependence.

Though the situation is much improved, it is still imperfect as the home and its residents continue to face prejudice from the outside world. Saori, still carrying the pain of her father’s rejection, views his choice as a selfish one which placed his own desires above the duty he should have felt towards his wife and child. Partly driven by her resentment, Saori has a somewhat negative view of homosexuality on arriving at the home, offering up a selection of homophobic slurs, and is slow to warm to the residents. Gradually getting to know her father again and through her experiences at the home, her attitude slowly changes until she finds herself physically defending her new found friend when he’s set upon by a drunken former colleague who publicly shames him in a nightclub.

The home is also plagued by a gang of bratty kids who often leave homophobic graffiti scrawled across the front wall. One of their early tricks involves throwing a bunch of firecrackers under a parked car to stun Saori so they can hold her captive for a bit because they have really a lot of questions about lesbians and they wondered if she was one, though one wonders what they’d do if someone answered them seriously. Predictably, the leader of the bratty kids may be engaging in these kinds of behaviours because he’s confused himself. Thankfully La Maison de Himiko is an open and forgiving place, welcoming the boy inside to offer support to a young man still trying to figure himself out.

This is not a coming out story, but it is a plea for tolerance and acceptance through which Saori herself begins to blossom, easing her anger and resentment and sending her trademark scowl away with them. One of her closest friends at the home is a shy man who lived most of his life in the closet but makes the most beautiful embroidered clothes and elegant dresses. Sadly, the most lovely of them is reserved for his funeral – he’s too ashamed to wear it alive because he doesn’t like the way he looks in the mirror. Eventually he and Saori end up having an unconventional fancy dress party in which they both break out of their self imposed prisons culminating in a joyous group dance routine in a local nightclub.

Joe Odagiri turns in another nuanced, conflicted performance as the increasingly confused Haruhiko who finds himself oddly drawn to Saori’s sullen charms though the film thankfully avoids “turning” its male lead for an uncomfortable romantic conclusion. A young man among old ones, Haruhiko is somewhat out of place but has his own empty spaces. Revealing to Saori that he lives only for desire he betrays a nagging fear of his own emptiness and journey into a possibly lonely old age. Nevertheless, La Maison de Himiko is generally bright and cheerful despite some of the pain and sadness which also reside there. A warm and friendly tribute to the power of community, La Maison de Himiko is a hymn in praise of tolerance and inclusivity which, as it makes plain, bloom from the inside out.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And the fantastic dance sequence from the film

Plus the original version of the song (Mata Au Hi Made) by Kiyohiko Ozaki

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Shunji Iwai, 2016)

the_bride_of_rip_van_winkle“Being naked in front of people is embarrassing” says the drunken mother of a recently deceased major character in a bizarre yet pivotal scene towards the end of Shunji Iwai’s aptly titled A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Rip Van Winkle no Hanayome) in which the director himself wakes up from an extended cinematic slumber to discover that much is changed. This sequence, in a sense, makes plain one of the film’s essential themes – truth, and the appearance of truth, as mediated by human connection. The film’s timid heroine, Nanami (Haru Kuroki), bares all of herself online, recording each ugly thought and despairing notion before an audience of anonymous strangers, yet can barely look even those she knows well in the eye. Though Namami’s fear and insecurity are painfully obvious to all, not least to herself, she’s not alone in her fear of emotional nakedness as she discovers throughout her strange odyssey in which nothing is quite as it seems.

We first meet Nanami on an internet blind date with the man who will later become her husband. Looking lost and alone, she passively waits for her online suitor to find her in the busy city streets. Tetsuya (Go Jibiki) does indeed turn up and assume control of the situation, to which Nanami submits just as she has to everything else. Bonding over little more than their shared vocation of teaching the pair drift into a relationship and then later into a marriage, as is the natural order of things.

Though she seems happy enough, Nanami vents her frustrations in her caustic online blog. Isn’t this all just too easy? She asks herself. It’s almost like online shopping, she simply added a boyfriend to her basket and now she’s about to check out. A failure to win over Tetsuya’s mother adds to her sense of unease as does the fact she has no close friends or relatives (aside from her soon to be divorced parents) to invite to the wedding. Her decision to take the advice of an online friend and employ the shady fixer Amuro (Go Ayano) to hire a selection of professional party goers to bulk out her side of the hall will prove to be a disastrous one (though perhaps more in the short term), turning her entire life inside out.

Nanami’s essential personality trait is her passivity. Like Rip Van Winkle, she is largely asleep while things happen all around her. Though she dreamed of being a teacher, Nanami has only been able to find temporary supply roles with an agency but even this seems unlikely to last thanks to her softly spoken nature which makes classroom teaching a poor fit for her shy, attention avoidant personality. Discovered at her part time combini job by an old university friend, Nanami is embarrassed and has even been wearing a (useless but endearing) disguise in case any of her students come by despite the fact she chose a store far away from the school. Her friend now works at a hostess bar which Nanami finds a little bit shocking. That kind of unconventional way of living is not something she would contemplate, and so when offered the extremely dull but comfortable life alongside the dull but comforting Tetsuya, Nanami settles.

After Amuro spectacularly derails her non-happiness, Nanami is cast adrift which eventually leads her straight back into Amuro’s web of morally dubious activities. Taking a job as a maid at the cheap hotel she ends up in after leaving Tetsuya, Nanami also works part time as another of Amuro’s professional guests which is where she meets motivator no. 2 – Mashiro (Cocco), “actress” and all round live wire. Bonding over sad karaoke, Nanami and Mashiro later wind up working together as live in maids in a creepy, isolated mansion filled with poisonous animals. Enforced proximity leads to genuine friendship and then to more than that, but, ironically enough, Mashiro has not been entirely honest about her intentions and Nanami is soon adrift once again.

Undergoing a “fake” wedding that’s sort of real (in contrast with the “real” wedding which was sort of “fake”), at least in sentiment, Nanami looks much happier than in the extremely bizarre ceremony which bound her to Tetsuya. Nanami and Mashiro’s union was “engineered” yet mutually beneficial and ultimately genuine despite its artificial genesis. Making a last, heartbreaking speech, Mashiro attempts to explain herself and her life philosophy in a final act of nakedness. She prefers to pay for connection because, she says, the world is too full of kindness. There is so much happiness out there that it’s completely overwhelming. Sometimes there’s more truth in the lie than there is in the reality.

The resurfaced Iwai is both more cynical and more romantic than he has ever been before. He has serious things to say about constructed identities and disconnectedness, that the increasingly open nature of the anonymous online world only makes the real one seem less reliable and harder to navigate. We’ve all been wearing masks but we turned them round when we went online, and now perhaps we’re forgetting that we made them in the first place. Nanami may be adrift again at the film’s conclusion but she finds herself in a world of infinite possibilities. Emerging with more certainty and firmer sense of self, Nanami has retaken control and even if she doesn’t know where she’s going, the choice is entirely her own. Another beautifully nuanced, endlessly affecting character study from Iwai, A Bride for Rip van Winkle is a gloriously rich experience, filled with both hope and despair, but told with all the ethereal warmth and strangeness of the best of dreams.


This review refers to the 180 minute director’s cut, rather than the shorter international or four hour TV version.

Original trailer (English subtitles)