Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Li Yu, 2001)

513cslBr5wLThe first narrative feature from former documentarian and TV presenter Li Yu, Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Jīn Nián Xià Tiān) is touted as the first film from mainland China to explicitly deal with lesbian life in modern Beijing. Necessarily shot under the radar to get around China’s strict censorship requirements, the film almost disappeared after “getting lost” on return from the Venice Film Festival (where a mishap with missing reels apparently led to a less than stellar reception though Li did eventually pick up an award) but went on to feature in a number of international festivals even if not quite welcomed at home. Imperfect and somewhat clumsy in execution, Fish and Elephant is nevertheless as whimsical as its title might suggest if only in its ironically abstracted need for detachment.

Xiaoqun is approaching 30 and unmarried. Despite her mother’s pleas and the needling of relatives Xiaoqun has no desire to marry. She supports herself well enough as an elephant keeper at the zoo and lives alone in a small apartment. A desire for independence is not the only reason Xiaoqun chooses to remain single – she is gay. Unable to state this fact openly, Xiaoqun is often forced to attend various blind dates set up by her mother who emotionally blackmails her by bursting into tears on the phone. Nevertheless, she eventually develops a flirtation with a young woman, Xiaoling, who owns her own clothing store at the market. Before long the women have moved in together and established an easy domesticity only for Xiaoqun’s mother to turn up unannounced determined to see her daughter wed. As if that weren’t enough, Xiaoqun’s long lost ex, Junjun, also arrives without warning apparently on the run from the police for “bank robbing”.

Perhaps because of the need to shoot covertly, Li’s script is structurally threadbare involving several large narrative jumps but the quality of unseen incompleteness plays into the film’s central theme in that the lives of women like Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are often invisible and hidden from view. We observe the two women’s courtship obliquely and in stages as they flirt (tentatively), wait for each other, are frustrated by exes, and finally come to a kind of agreement framed against the turquoise of of Xiaoqun’s bedroom wall which makes the pair look uncomfortably like the goldfish trapped inside her aquarium. Even this is unspoken and uncertain, hands tentatively grasped in trying to confirm that the situation has been read correctly until it is quite literally sealed with a kiss.

Xiaoqun, at least, is not so afraid to tell people what she is, only they never seem to believe her. Her uncle, berating her for turning down all the suitors he finds and reminding her that it’s the “proper thing” for women to marry and bear children, asks her what the problem is, to which Xiaoqun replies that she’s told him plenty of times before – she’s “no interest in men”. The uncle cannot process this information and offers to find a therapist to help with Xiaoqun’s supposed “issues”. Similarly, she decides to tell it straight to one of her dates – “I don’t like men, I like women”, but he refuses to listen. It seems he’s familiar with the concept, but doesn’t really believe in it and assumes Xiaoqun is trying to skip out on the date without giving him a proper chance by saying something outrageous.

Each time Xiaoqun calmly explains her life choices, everyone just ignores her. Either they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept that her sexuality is a good enough “excuse” for refusing to conform to the social order. Not until she finally attempts to come out to her mother does Xiaoqun actually say “I am gay” and then only very quickly followed directly by an explicit explanation of what she means. Unfortunately her mother still can’t quite get it, the language and cultural gap too vast to bridge. Like the young person’s pop song she’s always listening to, it’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s just that the world is moving so fast.   

Eventually Xiaoqun’s mother starts to come round and considers going against the social order by marrying again herself despite her supposedly inappropriate age. Marriage, however, seems an unhappy business all round and none of the men we are introduced to are particularly appealing. The men in Xiaoling’s shop bark at their girlfriends and criticise the slutty clothes, or try to harass Xiaoling into dropping the price while her boyfriend hovers in the background and places a territorial hand on her shoulder almost as if he knew why she just gave a quite massive discount on an expensive shirt to the woman currently trying it on for size. Xiaoqun’s mother is divorced, her father having left the family (and an apparently unhappy marriage) for another woman. Yet everyone seems intent on railroading the two women into this culturally demanded alleyway of misery.

For the most part, Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are content to simply ignore the world around them and live peacefully together like two fish in a bowl. Conspiratorially linking hands under the table as Xiaoqun’s mum reels off her marriage spiel and leaning in close to light one cigarette from another, they perhaps take pleasure in mocking the social order directly under her nose while worrying what the fall out might be should the truth be discovered. The relationship is threatened not particularly by the marriage plots, but by the presence of Junjun who places a wedge between the verbally uncommunicative lovers and another burden of secrecy on the already burdened Xiaoqun.

Li concludes by splitting the narrative into its three component strands, opting for a perhaps unwise slide into absurdity as Junjun embarks on a last stand though it does provide an opportunity for another (accidentally?) misogynistic/homophobic remark from a police officer. The film ends on a wedding, at which Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are conspicuously absent despite being expected and as a couple. Perhaps they are just “busy” having recently recovered from their momentary romantic drama, but their failure to appear also reinforces their committed isolation in which they are content (for good or ill) to hide themselves away, existing only for each other.


US release trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Of Love & Law (愛と法, Hikaru Toda, 2017)

of love and law posterIn Japan the nail which sticks out is hammered down. Conformist societies promise mutual support, but all too often only when it suits the collective – those not deemed part of the club are wilfully left to fend for themselves with the dangled promise of readmission if one promises to reform and abide by the rules. We first met the couple at the centre of Hikaru Toda’s Of Love & Law in her previous documentary, Love Hotel, which documented their struggles with discrimination in frequently being turned away by establishments who did not wish to rent a room to two men. A same sex married couple in Japan’s second city of Osaka, Kazu and Fumi run their own law firm and operate under the mission statement of representing those who often find themselves without a voice in a culture which favours silence.

Opening at a local Pride event, the camera attempts to capture some talking heads but no one will bite. Asked for comments, the visitors each refuse to show their faces, revealing that they aren’t fully out, fearing that it might cause problems for them at work, or just embarrassed to go on the record about something so taboo. Though the law practice is not limited to representing LGBT issues, they are clearly a key concern to Fumi and Kazu who spend their “free” time engaging in outreach projects trying to foster a little more education and understanding of sexual minorities. Kazu brings this home when he tells his own coming out story in which his stunned mother exclaimed that she’d never heard of anything like this and therefore could not understand it. The problem wasn’t prejudice, it was ignorance mixed with fear.

Ignorance mixed with fear could equally well describe most of the cases brought against Kazu and Fumi’s clients. The protagonist of the second strand – artist and mangaka Rokudenashiko whose legal troubles even made the foreign press, attributes many of these issues to an inability to “read the air” or aquedately understand the unspoken rules of society and then silently abide by them. The law firm makes a point of defending those who have chosen to fly in the face of social convention, flying a flag for the freedom of choice in a society which often deliberately suppresses it.

The freedom of choice is certainly a key issue for the teacher suing the Osakan school that fired her for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Arguing that standing when one is forced to stand is hardly a declaration of patriotism and fearing the lurch to the right which has made even implicit indifference to the Imperial family a hot button issue, the teacher puts her foot down but finds that few will listen. Similarly, Rokudenashiko finds herself arrested for obscenity regarding her vagina themed artwork while the court undermines its own argument by accidentally proving that her work has socio-political merit.

Yet Rokudenashiko and the teacher have each, in a sense, made a firm decision to challenge the intransigence of their society, hoping to prevent a further decline even if not overly hopeful of improvement. Other clients on the roster include a fair few who are accidentally undocumented through no fault of their own thanks to Japan’s arcane and idiosyncratic legal system which makes it difficult to register births of children born out of wedlock or in difficult family circumstances meaning that youngsters sometimes grow up without the proper papers leading to problems with accessing education, employment, healthcare and welfare provisions. Getting someone a birth certificate who doesn’t currently “exist” can prove a taxing ordeal, especially as government officials often regard children born to “immoral” women as “unworthy” of care or attention.

Getting a call from the mother of a victim, Fumi is shocked when she makes a point of enquiring about the nationality of the perpetrator. He is unsurprised but disappointed in witnessing the various ways one oppressed person (both the victim and plaintiff are from impoverished, single parent backgrounds) can turn their oppression back on others as an odd kind of social revenge. Luckily, however, there are good people everywhere such as the fine young man Fumi and Kazu end up temporarily fostering after his care home is unexpectedly closed down. Kazuma accepts their relationship without a second thought, enjoys learning to cook from Fumi and blends right into Kazu’s extended family who each seem as warm and accepting as the couple themselves. Family is not about a register, it’s having a place to go where they’ll always take you in. Fumi doesn’t trust society because society shirks its responsibilities, but thankfully there are those who know better and continue on in hope tempered with patience.


Screened at BFI Flare 2018.

Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา, Anucha Boonyawatana, 2017)

Malila posterAnucha Boonyawatana’s second feature, Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา), opens with a quotation from a 19th century poem. The poem laments that even a Baisri painstakingly created to honour the gods will eventually be cast away once it has served its purpose. No longer divine, its soul departed, the ornament is just another thing to be disposed of. Like the beautiful Baisri, two men’s souls will briefly intertwine only for the flowers of their love to wither on the vine, fading away with the great work still incomplete. This incompleteness, the lingering sense of absence and irreconcilable longing, propel the one left behind onto a spiritual journey hoping to discover if the answers to his need lie within or are not to be found at all.

Shane (Sukollawat Kanarot), the owner of a jasmine plantation, has recently begun to rebuild his life following a period of heavy drinking during which his wife left him and his young daughter was killed by a python in the jungle. Reuniting with his former lover, Pich (Anuchit Sapanpong), Shane is distraught to find out that he is terminally ill with lung cancer and has decided to give up on conventional medicine and devote the rest of his life doing the things that make him happy. Pich’s one form of “treatment” is in his constant making and dispatching of “Baisri” – ornaments constructed from leaves and flowers for ceremonial occasions which, painstakingly created, must be sent away on the river after they have fulfilled their purpose.

Jasmine flowers are, as Pich remarks, too weak – they wither before the Baisri is completed. Though the two men are able to rekindle their romance, their time is limited. Shane contemplates becoming a monk in the hope that his good karma can be transferred to Pich but it is not to be. Alone, he sets out on a spiritual journey guided by another monk hoping to encounter the ghosts of himself and of his loves to absolve himself of his guilt and loneliness.

Set against the beautiful Thai landscape, Malila is a tale of fading flowers and eternal regrets. The art of Baisri requires intense focus and dedication in order to repurpose and reorder nature into something essentially manmade but beautiful. Later, during his quest, Shane will be met with a terrifying though no less intense experience when his guide and fellow monk instructs him in the art of corpse meditation. The sight of the body, putrid and infested with hungry maggots busily going about their business, presents a strong contrast with the otherwise idyllic scenery and forces a more literal contemplation of the process of decay as the human form dissolves leaving only memory and a ghost of past emotion in its place.

Ironically, or perhaps not, a Baisri is intended to mark a new beginning – a “farewell” on an onward journey. Shane sets off on a spiritual quest, suffering nobly in the forests with their frequent rainstorms and learning to be in the moment in the company of the comparatively better experienced monk who guides him, a former soldier now on the spiritual path. His search is internal but illuminated by the world around him and his gradually increasing connection with it.

Eventually transcending this world for another, Shane begins to find his answers and finally cleanses himself of his loss and suffering. Mixing lyrical poetry with beautifully photographed naturalism, Anucha Boonyawatana tells a painful tale of love lost and found, hearts broken and repaired, and finally of acceptance both of one’s self and of the transience of all things. Malila: The Farewell Flower is a parting gift to a departing love, filled with sorrow and regret but also with beauty even in decay.


Screened at BFI Flare 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In Between Seasons (환절기, Lee Dong-eun, 2016)

In Between Seasons posterIt’s a strange thing to say, but no two people can ever know the same person in the same way. We’re all, in a sense, in between each other, only holding some of the pieces in the puzzle of other people’s lives. Lee Dong-eun’s debut feature, In Between Seasons (환절기, Hwanjeolgi), is the story of three people who love each other deeply but find that love tested by secrets, resentments, cultural taboos and a kind of unwilling selfishness.

Beginning at the mid-point, with a violent car crash, Lee then flashes back four years perviously as Soo-hyun (Ji Yun-ho) introduces his new friend, Yong-joon (Lee Won-gun), to his mother, Mi-keyong (Bae Jong-ok). Soo-hyun’s father has been living abroad in the Philippines for some time and so it’s just the two of them, while Yong-joon’s uneasy sadness is easily explained away on learning that his mother recently committed suicide. Thankful that her son has finally made a friend and feeling sorry for Yong-joon, Mi-kyeong practically adopts him, welcoming him into their home where he becomes a more or less permanent fixture until the boys leave high school.

Four years later, Soo-hyun and Yong-joon are both involved in the car crash which opened the film. Yong-joon has only minor injuries, but Soo-hyun is in a deep coma with possibly irreversible brain damage. It’s at this point that Mi-kyeong finally realises the true nature of the relationship between her son and his friend – that they had been close, inseparable lovers, and that she had never known about it.

When Mi-kyeong receives the phone call to tell her that her son has been in an accident, her friends are joking about their own terrible boys. As one puts it, there are three things a son should never tell his mother – the first being that he’s going to become a monk, the second that he’s going to buy a motorcycle, and the third is something so terrible they can’t even say it out loud. Mi-kyeong’s reaction to discovering her son is gay is predictably negative. Despite having cared for Yong-joon as a mother all these years, she can no longer bear to look at him and tells him on no uncertain terms not come visiting again. Yet for all that her reaction is only half informed by prevailing cultural norms, it’s not so much shame or disgust that she feels as resentment. Here is a man who loves her son, only differently than she does, and therefore knows things about him she never will or could hope to. She is forced to realise that the image she had of Soo-hyun is largely self created and the realisation leaves her feeling betrayed, let down, and rejected.

Both Mi-kyeong and Yong-joon ask the question “What have I done wrong?” at several points in the film – Yong-joon most notably when he’s rejected by Mi-kyeong without explanation, and Mi-kyeong when she’s considering why she’s not been included in the wedding plans for a friend’s daughter. Both Mi-kyeong and Yong-joon are made to feel excluded because they make people “uncomfortable” – Yong-joon because of his sexuality (which he continues to keep secret from his colleagues at work), and Mi-kyeong because of her grief-stricken purgatory. No one quite knows what to say to her, or wants to think about the pain and suffering she must be experiencing. They may claim they don’t want to upset her with something as joyous as a wedding but really it’s more that they don’t want her sadness to cast a shadow over the occasion.

Gradually the ice begins to thaw as Mi-kyeong allows Yong-joon back into her life again even if she can’t quite come to terms with his feelings for her son, describing him as a “friend” and embarrassed by his presence in front of her sister and other visitors. Soo-hyun’s illness and subsequent dependency ironically enough push Mi-kyeong towards the kind of independence she had always rejected – finally learning to drive, sorting out her difficult marital circumstances, and starting to live for herself as well as for her son. Yong-joon remains stubborn and in love, refusing to be shut out of Soo-hyun’s life even whilst considering the best way to live his own. Beautifully composed in all senses of the word, Lee’s frames are filled with anxious longing and inexpressible sadness tempered with occasional joy. Too astute to opt for a crowd pleasing victory, Lee ends on a more realistic note of hopeful ambiguity with anxiety seemingly exorcised and replaced with tranquil, easy sleep.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017. In Between Seasons will also be screened at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham on 11th November.

Trailer/behind the scenes EPK (no subtitles)

Interview with director Lee Dong-eun conducted during the film’s screening at the Busan International Film Festival in 2016.

Love/Juice (Kaze Shindo, 2000)

vlcsnap-2017-07-08-23h24m47s422Some situations are destined to end in tears. Kaze Shindo’s Love Juice adopts the popular theme of unrequited love but complicates it with the peculiar circumstances of Tokyo at the turn of the century which requires two young women to be not just housemates but bedmates and workmates too. One is straight, one is gay and in love with her friend who seems to get off on manipulating her emotions and is overly dependent on her more responsible approach to life, but both are trapped in a low rent world of grungy nightclubs and sleazy hostess bars.

Chinatsu (Mika Okuno) and Kyoko (Chika Fujimura) are roommates sharing not just a house but a bed and almost everything else too. Best friends, their relationship is necessarily close and broadly supportive save for a persistent level of tension when it comes to romance. Chinatsu, openly gay, is in love with Kyoko who isn’t interested but somehow keeps stringing her along and makes a point of flirting with every guy she meets. The back and fore continues until the girls are forced to take degrading work as bunny suited hostesses and Kyoko becomes obsessed with the boy working in the local tropical fish shop (Hidetoshi Nishijima).

Though living openly as a gay woman, Chinatsu is far from happy with her life as her constant complaints of “why was I born a girl” bear out. Attending clubs with her live-in non-lover, Chinatsu picks up dates but it never gets anywhere. Her heart belongs to Kyoko and so she tortures herself by continuing to pine after her emotionally manipulative roommate before adopting an unpleasant forcefulness as she tries to persuade her friend to acquiesce. Snapping away at her with her camera (which she refuses to be turned on herself), Chinatsu becomes jealous and possessive, irritated by Kyoko’s various suitors and wishing she and Kyoko could remain cooped up alone together like the two goldfish sitting in their makeshift bowl.

Where Chinatsu is down to earth and restrained, Kyoko is a lively free spirit adrift for reasons of aimlessness rather than the anxious wandering her friend. Living on the fringes of mainstream society, the women are forced into their inconvenient living arrangements thanks to ongoing poverty. This same poverty eventually forces them both into taking a humiliating job as waitresses at a bunny girl themed hostess bar. Much to Chinatsu’s consternation, Kyoko revels in the constant male attention, flirting awkwardly with the owner who seems to prefer her friend. Uncomfortable with the job and more particularly with the uniform, Chinatsu experiences yet more degrading treatment when she’s brutally assaulted by a colleague after work and can’t even turn to her friend and roommate for help and comfort.

Eventually matters come to a head, the situation can’t endure, suicide is considered, choices are made, sadness and regret litter the scene. Shindo creates a claustrophobic world for two into which the outside occasionally pokes its unwelcome nose. The whimsical score lends a quirky, romantic air to the less destructive side of the two women’s relationship even as it progresses further and further towards its inevitable conclusion. Painting an authentic picture of Tokyo as seen by the disillusioned and desperate turn of the century youth, Shindo’s tale of ordinary heartbreak in unusually difficult circumstances is a nuanced look at a toxic (non)relationship in all of its destructive glory.


 

The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)