Town Without Sea (夏、至るころ, Elaiza Ikeda, 2020)

“Happiness is something you don’t notice even if it’s right next to you” the hero of actress Elaiza Ikeda’s directorial debut Town Without Sea (夏、至るころ, Natsu, Itaru Koro) is told by a strangely perceptive small child. The nature of happiness is something that seems to be bothering him while he contends with adolescent anxiety little knowing what to do with the further course of his life while fearful in the knowledge that his relationship with his childhood best friend must necessarily change. 

Approaching the final year of high school, taiko-enthusiast Sho (Yuki Kura) has no dreams or aspirations and has been avoiding thinking about what to do after graduation. Pressed by his teacher, all he can offer is that he’d like to become “air”, which is in its own way slightly alarming though it hints at his sense of emptiness and despair. His childhood best friend, Taiga (Roi Ishiuchi), meanwhile has a clearly defined, extremely sensible life plan which is why he’s abruptly giving up taiko so he can attend cram school and get into uni with the aim of becoming a civil servant. As we discover, Sho has been something of a follower making most of his existing decisions based on whatever Taiga was going to do, but he can’t merely follow him this time and will have to come to some sort of decision about his individual future. 

“I can’t walk alone. I don’t know what to do” he confesses to a surprisingly sympathetic teacher (Kengo Kora), while as it transpires Taiga is having similar thoughts. The two boys are much more co-dependent that they assumed, but that very co-dependency begins to drive them apart when coupled with their adolescent anxiety. Taiga fears that he is simply too “boring”, giving up taiko because his carefully honed technique cannot measure up to Sho’s anarchic power. According to him he took up taiko after spotting Sho playing at a festival thinking he looked so “free and cool”, yet Sho equally thinks he’s not as a good a drummer and cannot match Taiga’s meticulous training. Taiga is shifting away from their friendship because he secretly feels inferior and wants to leave before being around Sho makes him feels miserable, a logic Sho is not fully equipped to understand. 

“Why does everybody quit?” he asks in exasperation, meeting a strange young woman who like them wants to pull away from something before she ends up hating both it and herself. Likened by Taiga to the kind of manic pixie dream girl who frequently turns up during the last summer of high school in manga, Miyako (Nari Saito) does not quite come between the two boys in the expected way but does bring out their contradictory qualities before abruptly disappearing from the narrative, ahead of the pair in suddenly deciding that she’ll figure something out on her own. Having decided all he wants is a future of ordinary happiness, Taiga can’t help resenting his friend feeling that whatever decision he makes, getting a job or going to uni, he’ll wind up happy whereas he presumably will not with his unexciting yet sensible life as a civil servant. 

There is an undeniably homoerotic quality to the boys’ friendship, their brief falling out almost like a lovers’ tiff in its melancholy intensity. Sho necessarily fears the loss of his friend, perhaps instinctively knowing he’s chosen a path he likely cannot follow and feeling rejected because of it. He obsessively meditates on the meaning of “happiness” unable to settle on a means of achieving it while unsure of what exactly it means. He asks his friends and family but discovers that happiness means different things to different people, may change over time or not quite be what you first thought it was, or be as simple as a sunny day in your hometown. He does however begin to accept that even if separated, his relationship with Taiga will not necessarily change they will still be “together” if more in spirit than body. Recalling something Taiga had said about the sea which he has never seen, he makes his choice defiant in its independence. Hailing from Fukuoka herself, Elaiza Ikeda’s remarkably assured directorial debut crafts a warm, empathetic coming-of-age tale centring on the intense friendship between two men but discovering a sense of wonder and contentment in the everyday as its conflicted hero finds a sense of rootedness in the strength of his relationships that grants him the freedom to roam. 


Town Without Sea streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Daihachi Yoshida, 2020)

“Landscapes don’t stay the same” laments a young woman in Daihachi Yoshida’s slick corporate drama, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Damashie No Kiba), though the more things change the more they stay the same and the push and pull of traditionalists and modernisers seems set to be an unending battle. If someone were brave enough to think of it, there may be a third way, but one thing is clear – it’s adapt or die for the printed word and the real war is over who makes it onto the page and how they do it. 

When the CEO of a major family-owned publishing house dies of a heart attack while walking his dog, it throws the entire industry into disarray and even makes it onto the national news where pundits discuss who might be most likely to succeed while pointing out that publishing is already in crisis seeing as most novels are serialised in literary journals and magazine readership is on its way out. Earnest editor Megumi (Mayu Matsuoka) is forever told that old and new is a false dichotomy and in some ways it may be, but century-old literary journal Kunpu Review is quite clearly mired in a traditionalist past woefully out of touch with contemporary society. 

This Megumi learns to her cost when pulled straight from the CEO’s funeral to a 40th anniversary event marking the debut of their best-selling author Daisaku Nikaido (Jun Kunimura). Encouraged by rival editor Hayami (Yo Oizumi), she gives her honest opinion on Nikaido’s work pulling him up on the latent sexism in his novels by suggesting his sexual politics are at best old-fashioned. This is of course a huge faux pas and a moment of minor embarrassment for all concerned, though it will also become a repeated motif Megumi again trying to bring up a younger author on his subpar portrayal of women but finding her concerns falling on deaf ears. 

Part of the problem is that authors, and particularly well-established ones, rarely undergo a rigorous editing process such as they might outside of Japan. Kunpu is so desperate to keep Nikaido on side that they treat him as a mini god, wasting vast amounts of their budget expensing him for “research” holidays and a healthy interest in fine wines. They simply wouldn’t have the courage to tell him that his drafts are improvable or that elements of his writing may cause offence. 

Hayami, the tricky editor of rival culture mag Trinity, is by contrast deliberately looking for the modern but in other ways is not so different from Kunpu. Poaching an up and coming author Megumi had pitched but was rejected, Hayami embarks on an elaborate PR campaign casting the young and handsome Yajiro (Hio Miyazawa) as a literary idol star. But Yajiro seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, unprepared to deal with demands of being a prominent writer and resenting Hayami’s attempts to manipulate his image by forcing him into photoshoots dressed in outfits he would never wear. Hayami also engineers a publicity stunt implying Yajiro is in a relationship with his other protege, a young model and unexpected firearms enthusiast (Elaiza Ikeda) who is later arrested after shooting a stalker with a homemade pistol. 

What happens to Saki Jojima is either an unintended consequence or direct result of Hayami’s inability to fully control the situation, but it also creates both crisis and opportunity for Trininty when Hayami breaks protocol and decides to run Saki’s issue rather than pulling it entirely with an apology as is usual in Japan when a celebrity is the subject of scandal. This places him in direct opposition to the traditionalist Kunpu, horrified and insistent that his decision stains the integrity of the publishing house. Like Hayami, however, new CEO Tomatsu (Koichi Sato) is determined to do things differently and prepared to take a gamble, secretly working on his own plan to streamline the business and build their own production/distribution facility in Yokohama. 

Everyone is so absorbed in their own plotting that they fail to notice others plotting around them. Megumi, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the survival of her father’s old-fashioned book shop which itself badly needs another literary hit because half the customers are kids who come in to browse the manga and then download the good ones when they get home. One young woman looking for a particular novel even explains that she only wants to read it because there’s no movie or drama adaptation. With all this finagling, it’s easy to think everyone’s forgotten about the books while Megumi desperately tries to get someone to let her do some actual editing because they’re all too busy mollycoddling their authors. Nevertheless there’s more to the Kunpu vs Trinity battle than it first seems as they vie for the future of Japan’s publishing industry little suspecting that there may be another contender with a less acrimonious solution. “If something could be updated it should be” Megumi insists, a sentiment which apparently goes both for dinosaur writers unwilling to reckon with their latent misogyny and the book business itself. 

Once again adapting a literary source, Yoshida’s gentle farce quietly builds the tension with courtly intrigue as the wider society remains rapt over the succession crisis at a publishing firm while its ambitious courtiers plot amongst themselves in order to steal the throne. Casting Yo Oizumi in the role he apparently inspired in the book is another masterstroke of meta commentary as his thrill-seeking manipulator plays the long game but even if the prognosis for Japan’s publishing industry may be bleak there is unexpected glee to be had in the eventual triumph of a righteous underdog over a thoroughbred plotter. 


Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction screens on Aug. 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ainu Mosir (アイヌモシㇼ, Takeshi Fukunaga, 2020)

Despite its continuing preoccupation with the conflict between tradition and modernity, Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to address the nation’s relationship with marginalised communities such as the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido which was in essence the site of Japan’s first colonial expansion at the beginning of the Meiji era. Set very much in the present day, Takeshi Fukunaga’s Ainu Mosir (アイヌモシㇼ) takes its title from the indigenous name for the island and is both coming-of-age tale and exploration of the position of the Ainu people within the context of modern Japan. 

14-year-old Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) lives in the quaint Ainu tourist village of Akan and has not long lost his father. Questioned about his plans for the next stage of his education, Kanto replies that he’s fine with anything as long as it involves leaving Akan, later explaining to his understandably upset mother Emi (Emi Shimokura) that his desire to leave is because the town is “tiny” and “they make you do Ainu stuff”. Emi points out that neither she nor anyone else has ever forced him to participate in Ainu culture, but still the boy insists that he’d prefer to go somewhere more “normal” spending his time playing classic American rock on an electric guitar rather than engaging with his cultural roots. His attitude begins to change, however, when Debo (Debo Akibe), an elder acting as an uncle, begins introducing him to various aspects of Ainu culture such as the remote cave in the Forest of Light which leads to the land of the dead, teaching him how to catch and gut fish, and finally enlisting him in a project to look after a captive bear, Chibi, hidden in a cage in the woods. 

Bears are sacred in Ainu culture, but what Debo has not explained to the boy is that he’s raising Chibi as part of an ancient ritual last performed over forty years previously which involves sacrificing the bear in the belief that his spirit will then return to the land of the gods filled with tales of how wonderful humans are after being so lovingly looked after during his time in the mortal world. In a series of documentary-style sequences, Fukunaga captures the ambivalence present within the community on learning of Debo’s plan to carry out an Iomante ritual, pointing out that they live in different times and bear sacrifice is unlikely to be accepted by the outside world which will undoubtedly view it as primitive and cruel. Aside from a concern as to how the indigenous community is viewed by mainstream society, some of the council are acutely worried because they are economically dependent on the tourist trade. Young Kanto is frustrated by the idea of growing up in a museum, the town of Akan something like a theme park repackaging Ainu culture for curious Japanese tourists. His own mother works in a shop selling traditional crafts as souvenirs while appearing in a stage show adapting ancient ritual as entertainment for visiting audiences. 

A man in Emi’s shop stops to ask her if she herself is Ainu, but seems ambivalent on being told that yes she is while a female customer somewhat crassly compliments her on the quality of her Japanese which is particularly ironic as we’ve just seen her attending evening classes to relearn the Ainu language which is in constant danger of dying out. Warming to Ainu culture, Kanto is more receptive towards the idea of adding traditional instrumentation but his bandmate is, as he was, embarrassed by “Ainu stuff” and wants nothing to do with it. Debo’s betrayal sets Kanto on a collision course with his newly found appreciation for his indigenous roots in presenting him first hand with something dark and cruel that proves difficult for him to understand but perhaps finally allows him to come to terms both with his father’s death and with his own identity as a member of an indigenous community. 

Using a cast of mainly non-professional actors from the local area, Fukunaga switches between documentary-style capture of Ainu life and the cinematic naturalism of Kanto’s path towards self-acceptance filled as it is with the wonder of the natural world. Juxtaposing the reality of the Iomante ritual with the repackaged stage show, he shows us what it costs to preserve traditional culture within a surrounding modernity even as scholars descend to record the songs of the Ainu for prosperity badgering old women to offer up long forgotten lullabies for a lonely tape recorder. Kanto has however perhaps found his path in knowing he is not alone as he steps into a less innocent adulthood having integrated both sides of himself into a more complete whole. 


Ainu Mosir streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. It is also available to stream in the UK (and possibly elsewhere) via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Yuki Tanada, 2016)

Family. It can be surprisingly hard work. The rootless patriarch at the centre of Yuki Tanada’s exploration of the dissolution of the family in contemporary society My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Otosan to Ito-san) is a case in point, “stubborn and difficult” as his daughter describes him to the man she lives with but had never seen the need to introduce to her relatives. He might be impossible, a “ticking time bomb”, but he’s still your dad even if he doesn’t approve of any of your life choices and insists on presiding over your home as if it were a schoolroom and he the headmaster. 

34-year-old Aya (Juri Ueno) is currently living with but not legally married to Mr. Ito (Lily Franky), a 54-year-old school cafeteria assistant she met while they were both working part-time at the same convenience store. Despite the age difference, the couple are very well suited and though they are not exactly wealthy, Aya now working part-time in a bookshop, they have enough for what they need and enjoy a quiet life growing their own produce in the small patch of garden behind their apartment. She is evidently not particularly close with her brother Kiyoshi (Tomoharu Hasegawa) who had no idea she is no longer living alone, otherwise he might not have asked her to take in their widowed 74-year old father for the next six months while his twins cram for exams to get them into an elite middle school. He quickly apologises, but as soon as Aya gets home she realises they have an unexpected visitor. Dad (Tatsuya Fuji) has already arrived carrying a mysterious box and is non-plussed to say the least on having encountered Mr. Ito. Nevertheless, he abruptly declares that he’ll be moving in, announcing that he prefers Japanese-style food, lightly seasoned. 

Dad, as he points out, was a schoolteacher for 40 years and has a distinctly conservative, authoritarian outlook. He’s not been in Aya’s apartment more than a few minutes before he starts criticising her lifestyle choices, though evidently like Kiyoshi he knew almost nothing about her and had no idea that she is not a regular company employee but a laidback part-timer. Obviously, he has issues with Mr. Ito, not least the age gap, but also with his equally laidback approach to life, poking Aya for information by idly remarking on the private lives of baseball players in the paper while she reveals that she knows almost nothing of him save that as far as she can remember he’s from Yokohama and has been married once before. She has no desire to know who he was before he met her and is happy enough to know the man he is now and draw her conclusions from that. 

Mr. Ito does indeed seem to be a very nice man, played by Franky with a characteristically laidback charm. Detecting a degree of hostility between father and daughter he tries to diffuse the situation with patience and kindness, immediately making space for Dad in their lives and trying to accommodate him as best as possible despite his unpleasantness and tendency to correct their “bad habits” such as serving teriyaki sauce with tonkatsu like common people while the civilised settle only for “Wooster”. After an initial period of hostility, Dad eventually warms to Mr. Ito, describing him as “my son-in-law” and bonding with him over manly things like power drills and oversize screws to the extent that he eventually considers moving back to his childhood country home and randomly asks Mr. Ito, but not his daughter, to come too. 

Mr. Ito, however is no Noriko, the child-by-marriage who alone is willing to shoulder the burden of filial responsibility, only someone attempting to mediate a difficult family situation. We realise that the reason Dad has been kicked out of Kiyoshi’s house is because he’s driven his wife Ririko (Sei Ando) into a near nervous breakdown with his tyrannous tendency for “correcting” what he sees as poor behaviour, apparently even criticising the way his late wife held her chopsticks right up until the day she died. His behaviour borders on the abusive and though we have no idea how his wife coped with it, it’s clearly too much for Ririko who is consumed with guilt in having “failed” in her filial responsibilities as daughter-in-law by no longer being able to bear his constant microaggressions, the final straw of which is apparently his attempt to interfere in the kids’ education by demanding they put a stop to the intensive cram schooling and give-up on elitist private tuition.

Aya and Kiyoshi could not be more different, he a wealthy and conservative middle-class salaryman obsessed with money and status, and she a laidback, hippieish part-timer happy to live the simple life. Dad disapproves of them both. After all things were different in his day, but perhaps he’s not quite as rigid as you’d think, quickly getting over his qualms about his daughter living over the brush with a man 20 years her senior while sick of his children’s “pity” and realising that he’s not wanted in either home even if superficially tolerated. Mr. Ito advises him to take some responsibility for himself, but is also keen to help Aya do the same by supporting her desire to take care of her difficult dad even if traditionally speaking the “obligation” is Kiyoshi’s by reassuring her she won’t have to make a choice even if Dad is a definite loose cannon. Capricious to the last, he may surprise them yet again with another unilateral decision but perhaps it’s never really too late to make up for lost time.


My Dad and Mr. Ito streams for free in the US on June 20 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Father’s Day Cheer mini series. Sign up to receive the viewing link (limited to 300 views) and activate it between 2pm and 10pm CDT after which you’ll have 24 hours to complete watching the movie.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“One bad thing leads to another” according to overprotective mother Ayumi (Naomi Nishida) in Kazuya Shirashi’s Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Nagi Machi). She’s not wrong, but breaking the chain proves harder than expected, especially as trouble has a way of following people around and the one thing you can never outrun is yourself. Yet, what might save you in the end is not so much self acceptance as that of others and finding your place along with a sense of belonging as member of a family in the knowledge they have chosen you as one of their own. 

Ikuo (Shingo Katori), the hero, certainly has plenty of demons he’s looking to leave behind. A devotee of the bicycle races, he’s just been laid off from his factory job and is preparing to move to his girlfriend Ayumi’s hometown where she plans to open a hairdressers and care for her ageing father Katsumi (Ken Yoshizawa) who has just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Ayumi left rural Miyagi with her daughter, Minami (Yuri Tsunematsu) whose name is written with the characters for beautiful waves, after the tsunami which devastated the area and took her mother’s life. She hopes that it can be a new start for their family and that Ikuo will finally be able to shape up, knock his gambling habit on the head and ease back on the drinking. 

Things get off to a bad start, however, when Ikuo fails to bond with Katsumi who largely ignores him, while he discovers that Ishinomaki is much more conservative than Kawasaki and not everyone seems to approve of his liminal status in the Konno household. The fact remains that Ayumi and Ikuo, though they’ve been living together for five years, are not legally married and therefore in the eyes of some not a proper family, and more to the point Ikuo is an outsider with relatively little to recommend him. He does however try to make good on his promise, impressing the boss at a printshop where an overly helpful family friend, Onodera (Lily Franky), has found him a job, but quickly succumbs to old habits when a pair of ne’er-do-well colleagues introduce him to an illegal bicycle racing betting club run by local yakuza. 

Matters come to a head when Minami gets fed up with her mother’s overprotective conservatism and decides to pay her back by staying out late with new friends Ayumi doesn’t approve of. Flagging up their differing parenting styles, Ikuo tells Ayumi that she’s overreacting and should be happy for her daughter who is finally living something like a normal teenage life rather than shutting herself up in her room playing games like she did in Kawasaki where the other kids made her life a misery, calling her a “radioactive” transfer student from Fukushima. Ayumi fires back that Ikuo obviously isn’t very invested in Minami because, after all, he’s not her real dad and has no idea what family is. An extraordinarily hurtful thing to say in any circumstances, Ayumi’s words strike a nerve as Ikuo struggles to claim his place as a non-husband who has nevertheless become a father figure but is not recognised as a legitimate member of the family. 

Claim his place he does however when tragedy strikes, rushing into a police cordon shouting “I’m family” but being held back by the forces of social order while Minami cleverly evades them to see something no one should ever have to see. Old Katsumi meanwhile, apparently much like Ikuo in his youth, a fiery scrapper with a self-destructive streak, struggles to accept his failure either to save his wife or die by her side. Recognising something of himself in the younger man, he finally warms up to Ikuo, literally “redeeming” him from vengeful yakuza, offering only the explanation that he does so because “he’s my son”. 

Others such as the weirdly ever present Onodera may think it proper that Ikuo leave the Konno household because he has no more reason to be there, that his presence is now even more inappropriate than it was before. Minami is advised to move in with her birth father (Takuma Otoo) despite the fact Ayumi described him as abusive and that he has remarried and is currently expecting another child. Ikuo’s five years as her father count for nothing, because he was not married to her mother. During the car journey to their new home, Minami had playfully suggested to Ikuo that he should propose but he claimed he had no right to do so as an irresponsible man unable to contribute meaningfully to the household. Ayumi dreamed of the sea and of beautiful Caribbean islands to which Ikuo had promised but failed to take her. She ironically hoped to rebuild their lives in the ruined landscape of Ishinomaki where they’ve put up walls so tall you can no longer see the sea, still beautiful despite all its terrible ferocity. 

“A good wife makes a decent man” Ayumi’s ex bitterly fires back at her though others have found it to be true, Katsumi not least among them, but Ikuo’s problem is an internalised sense of masculine failure which keeps him on the edges of a family which is otherwise his by right. In a strange way, a piece of paper can make all the difference and no difference at all, both legitimate and not, in making it plain who is and is not accepted as “family”. Accepted by others, Ikuo learns to accept himself, still burdened by guilt and regret but also bound by it as he joins his chosen family on new a journey powered by those same beautiful yet destructive forces which have engendered so much grief and hope.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

A Beautiful Star poster 1Given life’s anxieties, it can sometimes be hard to remember that the world is a beautiful place. If only we humans could learn to stop and smell the flowers every so often, we wouldn’t be so eager to destroy the place that gave us life. Loosely adapting a novel by Yukio Mishima, Daihachi Yoshida’s A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Utsukushii Hoshi) swaps Cold War nuclear paranoia for climate change anxiety as a collection of extra-terrestrials consider differing strategies to save the Earth, the most radical of them being the eradication of the human race.

Yoshida opens with the Osugi family, minus son Kazuo (Kazuya Kamenashi), “enjoying” a birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant. The tension between them is obvious as patriarch Juichiro (Lily Franky) bad mouths his absent son, daughter Akiko (Ai Hashimoto) sits sullenly not touching her food, and mum Iyoko (Tomoko Nakajima) tries to keep the peace. Juichiro, as we later realise, is a minor celebrity – a much loved TV weatherman whose predictions are not terribly good but he does have a very personable manner. Unfortunately, he’s not so nice offscreen and has been cheating on his wife with a much younger woman who is after his job. After a tryst at a love hotel, the pair get into some kind of bizarre car accident and Juichiro wakes up on his own in a field feeling not quite right. After a colleague suggests he might have been abducted by aliens, he develops an interest in UFOs and, after being moved to tears on air, comes to the conclusion that he is a Martian emissary from the League of Solar Planets come to enlighten the Earth to the dangers of global warming before it’s too late.

In fact, Juichiro is not the only member of the Osugis to believe he is not of this Earth. Except for mum Iyoko, everyone eventually realises they are actually from another planet but their feelings of “alienation” are perfectly Earthbound and born of extremely normal anxieties the like of which can cause discord in any family. Complaining about his son’s lateness to the birthday dinner, Juichiro runs down Kazuo’s lack of full-time employment and writes him off as “just an errand boy”. Kazuo, resentful of his father, feels an intense insecurity about his failure to forge a successful life for himself – something that is thrown into stark relief when he meets an old college buddy now a salaryman who seems to take pleasure in the fact that the captain of the basketball team has made a mess of things where he is now on the road to career success. So when Kazuo meets shady fixer Kuroki (Kuranosuke Sasaki), currently running the campaign for conservative politician and climate change denier Takamori (Jyunichi Haruta), and finds out he is actually from Mercury, it restores his sense of purpose even if it pushes him towards becoming a slightly dangerous right-wing manipulator.

His sister, meanwhile, is a lonely, depressed university student with a complex about her appearance. Approached by a creepy guy running some kind of campus beauty pageant, she can’t get away fast enough but is captivated by the song of a street busker who eventually tells her she likes his music because it’s inspired by their shared roots as Venusians and that the reason she “despises” her own beauty is that Venusians used to set the beauty standards on Earth but now they’ve been usurped. Feeling not quite so alone and more confident in her skin, Akiko decides to enter the pageant to “correct” the perception of beauty in human society.

“Beauty” seems to be the key. Iyoko finds herself sucked into a pyramid scheme selling “beautiful” water mostly out of a sense of lonely purposelessness. Apparently from power spot deep within the Earth, the water is supposed to be its rejuvenating life blood but like so much else, humanity has misused and commodified it. Juichiro’s Martians have a conventional solution to the present problem in that they want humanity to wake up and slow down. The Mercurians, however, have more radical ideas. Seeing as humanity is toxic to this planet that we all love, the obvious answer is simply to eliminate it, engineer a reset in which the Earth could heal itself after which point a new, more responsible humanity could be permitted to return. The problem, they say, is that humans do not think of themselves as a part of nature or realise that extinction is a perfectly natural part of the ecological life cycle. If they did, they might not be in this mess, but now they need to accept their responsibility and agree to a mass cull to save the planet.

Each of the Osugis has their insecurities wielded against them, and in the end each of them is in some way deceived. Kazuo’s resentful ambition is exposed by Kuroki, but he eventually realises he’s not much more than a patsy, while Akiko has to face up to the possibility that she’s been spun a yarn by an unscrupulous man who was only after the usual thing from a naive and vulnerable young woman. Iyoko’s deception is of the more usual kind as she figures out that “beautiful water” is an obvious scam she only bought into because of the false sense of belonging and achievement it afforded her, and Juichiro has to wonder if his Martian “delusion” has a medical explanation, but through their various deceptions the family is eventually forced back together again springing into action as a unit. The Mercurians dismissed humanity as unable to see the world’s beauty, remaining wilfully ignorant of the gift they had been given. The Osugis have at least been awakened to a kind of beauty in the world and in themselves as they face their alien qualities and integrate them with those of others. Yoshida may not have a clear answer for the problems of climate change (who does?), but he is at least clear on one thing – you lose that which you take for granted. Smell the flowers while the flowers last.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Gun (銃, Masaharu Take, 2018)

The Gun poster 1Much as Haruhiko Oyabu had in the post-war era, Fuminori Nakamura is fast becoming the go to voice for nihilistic noir in Japanese cinema. Several of his famously dark novels have already been adapted for the screen, most recently the grisly mystery Last Winter We Parted, but it’s only now that his lowkey debut The Gun (銃, Ju) is getting a suitably detached adaptation from 100 Yen Love’s Masaharu Take.

Like many of Nakamura’s “heroes”, Toru Nishikawa (Nijiro Murakami) is a disaffected youngster who thinks “it’s completely worthless to live”. His life changes one day when he comes across the body of a middle-aged man with a pistol lying next to it. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Toru picks the gun up and takes it home with him. Gradually its presence begins to obsess him as if he were literally being seduced by it. Believing he can communicate with the gun through touch, he lovingly caresses it, buys it trinkets, and lingers over thoughts of all they could do together.

Even when he takes a casual hookup (Kyoko Hinami) to bed, all Toru can think about is the gun. In the morning he tries to make her hate him by coming on strong, but it backfires because it appears to be what she likes, at least she suggests they hook up again, possibly on a regular but casual basis because she already has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, another prospect walks onto the scene – Yuko (Alice Hirose), a young woman Toru may or may not have forgotten meeting in the past. With Yuko Toru decides to do everything “properly” in a quest to win her heart rather than just her bodily submission.

Detached and very possibly a sociopath, Toru does indeed begin to show something of a more sensitive side in dealing with the similarly depressed Yuko. His gentlemanly act may be just that (and as one might expect, it largely works) but does at least display an acute emotional intelligence even if it’s being wilfully misused. Similarly, his first reaction to hearing alarming sounds suggesting the woman next door is mistreating her child is to turn his stereo up and ignore them, but he later finds himself trying to talk to the little boy in the street and eventually even calling the police only to have his mistrust of authority confirmed when they admit they’re aware of the situation and will send someone but probably not until the next day.

The woman next door, a bar hostess who rolls in late and kicks her kid out of bed to sleep on the porch so she can entertain her gentlemen callers, drags up unwelcome memories of the woman who abandoned him to an orphanage. To be fair, Toru does not seem any more misogynistic than his sleazy friends but has a fairly utilitarian idea of “romance”, viewing it as a game of conquest either fast and loose like with the casual hookup or slow and deep as in his careful pursuit of Yuko. Gradually his separate pursuits of the two women become confused, leading Yuko to confront him over whatever it is that’s so obviously “wrong” with him. Upset as she is, Yuko sees the darkness in Toru but must also see the light, affirming that she has her darkness too but is willing to help him with his if only he gives her a little time and waits for her forgiveness.

Toru, meanwhile, is still fixated on his beloved gun which he has begun to carry about with him in a little bag for added frisson. Living largely without feeling, the thrill of carrying such an illicit object becomes a peculiar kind of drug, as does the intoxicating thought of the act of actually firing it and finally of taking a life. A wily police detective (Lily Franky) cuts straight through Toru’s smug facade to the gaping void beneath, trying to prevent him from jumping straight into the abyss but confident he will fail. As the detective predicted, Toru’s sense of reason continues to fragment leaving him unsure of what is real and what isn’t while he obsesses over the gun and what he might do with it but in a purely intellectual sense without considering the real world consequences of his actions. An exercise in style, The Gun is a noirish tale of existential ennui and dark obsession filled with nihilistic dread as its soulless hero commits to living his “worthless” life only to wilfully rob himself of the possibility of salvation.


The Gun screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Takashi Miike, 2018)

Laplace's Witch poster 2Takashi Miike, among Japan’s most prolific of directors, teams up with one of the nation’s most prolific authors, the often adapted Keigo Higashino, for a dose of scientific mystery in Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Laplace no Majo). Responsible for the international smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X and the Galileo series, Higashino too has worked across several genres ranging from the detective novels for which he is best known to children’s books and fantasy. Perhaps in contrast to the director, however, Higashino’s novels tend towards the socially conservative, occasionally cynical if at times perverse. Nevertheless, there is something a little ironic in Miike choosing to adapt this particular title which revolves around the idea of authenticity in art and meaningful legacy.

The unlikely hero of the tale, climate scientist Shusuke Aoe (Sho Sakurai), is called in to investigate the mysterious deaths of a film producer and an out of work actor who appear to have died of hydrogen sulphide poisoning at separate hot springs resorts. Dying of hydrogen sulphide poisoning outdoors is considered a scientific impossibility and Aoe has no real explanation for how it might have occurred but is stunned by policeman Nakaoka’s (Hiroshi Tamaki) assertions that foul play may have been involved.

Nakaoka is not exactly a bumbling policeman, but his certainties – born of policeman’s instinct, are held up for ridicule as he rapidly switches suspects, knee-jerk accusing the film producer’s widow of conspiracy to murder before deciding there must be more involved than a simple attempt at financial gain. He is however eventually correct, quickly figuring out the surprising connection between the two dead men is a famous film producer, Amakasu (Etsushi Toyokawa), who lost his own family in ironically similar tragic circumstances some years earlier and seems to have dropped off the radar ever since.

All of which means, Aoe’s scientific knowledge is increasingly irrelevant. His major contribution to the case at hand is in his strange friendship with a mysterious teenage girl who is engaged in her own missing persons case which may have some overlap with the murders. Aoe quickly notices that Madoka (Suzu Hirose) appears to have preternatural powers which she later alludes to in branding herself the “Laplace Demon” in honour of a scientific theory which suggests that if someone were to know the exact location of each and every atom in the universe then it would be perfectly possible to calculate their courses and trajectories with mathematical certainty and thereby possess absolute knowledge of the future.

Whether one might want such all encompassing knowledge is a bigger question. As one character later puts it, the ability to discern the future may impede one’s ability to dream and therefore hinder the progress of human society. The central message is, however, somewhat banal in pointing out that we are each of us connected, essential parts of a cosmic machine in which each has a specific role to play. By such logic, murder is then not so much a moral failing as one of over engineering in which attempts to tweak the system may lead to its destruction.

Then again, we hear from the depressed Amakazu that what he fears is that life is essentially meaningless and that many go to their deaths without leaving a mark. His central theory is that objective truth is a matter of record, that whatever is shot is “real” because that is what will be “remembered” long after the fact. Through his films, which are amusingly described in a piece of meta irony as dealing with edgy themes which don’t pander to audiences, he attempts to reorder his world by recreating it, improving on its many disappointments by envisioning it differently. Yet he still yearns for authenticity in his work and may have gone to great lengths to get it in a seemingly pointless piece of behind the scenes theatre.

Perhaps it is this sense of fatalistic ennui that Miike is attempting to capture through Laplace’s continually listless aesthetics but it has to be said that the central mystery, filled with plot holes and contradictions as it is, is particularly unengaging and despite the cheerful we’re all one narrative also carries some decidedly unpleasant undertones. Never quite finding the register to unlock its central philosophy, Laplace’s Witch proves a curiously flat outing for the famously out there director which may very well be the point but then again perhaps it’s a strange point to be making. 


Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2015)

Three Stories of Love posterRyosuke Hashiguchi began his career with a collection of sometimes melancholy but ultimately hopeful tales of gay life in contemporary Japan. In 2008 he branched out with the finely tuned emotional drama All Around Us which followed an ordinary couple’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of a child. Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Koibitotachi) finds him in much the same territory as he takes three very different yet equally burdened romantics and sets them on a path towards a kind of acceptance while suffering inside a system where everyone seems to be intent on exploiting other people’s unhappiness.

The first of our heroes, Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara), is a bridge inspector whose wife was murdered in a random street attack three years previously. Ever since then he’s suffered with depression and found it difficult to hold down a job or a life and has become obsessed with getting personal revenge on the killer who pleaded the insanity defence and was committed to psychiatric care rather than to prison. Meanwhile, across town, listless housewife Toko (Toko Narushima) is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering husband and living with her snooty mother-in-law. Toko’s only outlet is compulsively rewatching a shaky video of the time she and her friends witnessed Princess Masako briefly exit a building. The third of our heroes, Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda), is a self involved lawyer with a longstanding crush on his straight best friend from college who has since married and had a young son.

The three strands are only loosely interconnected, occurring as they do in the same city at the same time, though they do each share a sense of defeat and impossibility as each of our heroes struggles either to escape from or come to terms with their difficult circumstances. Atsushi’s case is perhaps the most extreme as he deals not only with his grief and anger but with the persistent stigma of being involved with violent crime. Visited by his bubbly sister-in-law he idly remembers to ask after the man she was about to marry last time they met only to be told that he abruptly dumped her after her sister’s death and not only that, all her friends abandoned her too. Getting revenge has become Atsushi’s only reason for living – he stopped paying his health insurance to get money together for fancy lawyers like Shinomiya who convinced him he could lodge a civil case but were only ever stringing him along to fleece him of money he never really had.

Shinomiya is, in a sense, our villain. He listens dispassionately to his wealthy clients – including one woman seeking a divorce (Chika Uchida) because her husband forgot to tell her he was burakumin until after they were married, but privately mocks them and is so unpleasant to his colleagues that someone eventually pushes him down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. Intensely self-involved, he cares little for other people’s feelings save for those of his forlorn love Satoshi (So Yamanaka). Satoshi’s wife Etsuko, originally friendly and understanding, eventually takes against Shinomiya either because she doesn’t like the way he fiddled with her son’s ears or resents the two men cooing over the child and accidentally making her feel like an unwelcome outsider. Introducing his much younger boyfriend only seems to make matters worse, though the relationship does seem to have its problematic dimensions even if not in the way Etsuko decides to interpret them as Shinomiya takes pains to run down his partner in public and berate him at home. It’s difficult to resist the interpretation that Shinomiya prefers younger lovers because he can boss them around and, in truth, he doesn’t even seem very attached to this one, but he’s about to get a very rude awakening when it comes to learning that he’s not as permanent a part of everyone else’s lives as he seems to think.

Atsushi is fleeced by the Shinomiyas of the world and his heartless health insurers, but he’s wily enough to spot the obvious scam in the lovelorn office boy’s sudden enthusiasm for magical beautifying water which turns out to be part of a bar lady’s (Tamae Ando) nefarious scheme to resell the tapped variety with some of her own glamour shots attached to the front. Toko is wily enough to see it too, though she eventually succumbs when would-be-chicken-farmer Fujita (Ken Mitsuishi), whom she met at work during a difficult moment with her boss, delivers her some on spec. Lonely and insecure, Toko appreciates the unexpected interest but Fujita is not the white knight she first assumes him to be and is eventually exposed as yet another scam artist gunning for the little money she might have been able to hide away in her rabidly penny pinching home.

Shinomiya might feel himself proud to be among the fleecers rather than the fleeced, but he soon gets a comeuppance in realising he has wilfully pulled the wool over his own eyes, blinded in a sense by love. Toko, meanwhile, has learned to accept the latent feudalism of the modern society in her obsession with royalty though a brief attempt to transcend her feelings of innate inferiority seems destined to end in failure if perhaps engineering a mild improvement in her familial circumstances. Atsushi alone, a man whose job it is to assess the foundations, begins to find a degree of equilibrium thanks largely to nothing more than a good friend willing to listen and share his own suffering. Exploitation of others’ misfortunes and a series of social prejudices conspire against our three lovers but perhaps there is something to be said for learning to find the blue sky from whichever vantage point you happen to be occupying no matter how small and distant it may be.


Three Stories of Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)