Japanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Daigo Matsui, 2016)

Japanese Girls Never DieJapanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei) but, like old soldiers, only fade away in Daigo Matsui’s impassioned adaptation of the Mariko Yamauchi novel. Crushed by a misogynistic society, these are women who may well want to disappear if only as an alternative to finally being forced into submission to the predefined paths of womanhood – i.e. marriage and motherhood (and nothing else) that have been carved out for them. The young are, however, fighting back if in less than admirable ways. The best revenge on an oppressive society may be living well in one’s own way, but when that same society is at great pains to frustrate your goal the options are few.

As per the title, 28-year-old admin assistant Haruko Azuma (Yu Aoi) has gone missing. Her face, stolen from her missing poster, has been co-opted by a pair of petty punk idiots trying to come-up with a viral graffiti tag to rival Obey, but there’s no art or intention behind their minor act of social transgression so much as bravado and pithy rebellion. Nevertheless, Haruko’s image, plastered throughout the city, has become a hot topic on Japan’s social networking sites where a hundred trolls wade in with their prognostications and salacious fantasies of her violent death at the hands of a sex maniac.

Meanwhile, in an ironic subversion of the normalities of city life, young men have been urged to avoid walking alone at night following a spate of attacks by a gang of rabid school girls taking revenge on the male sex. No exact motive is given for their crusade save the missing poster that precedes Haruko’s and asks for information on a disappeared school girl, but goodness knows they have enough obvious reasons to have decided on a course of vigilante justice.

Haruko’s world is one defined by entrenched sexism. At 28 she finds herself embarrassed to be a still single woman at a wedding while a chance encounter with a school friend (Huwie Ishizaki) at a supermarket leads to more awkwardness when he pointedly remarks he assumed she’d be a housewife by now, and that she looks “old”. At work, Haruko’s colleague Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada), 37 and still unwed, is the butt of hundred jokes for the two middle-aged men who, for some reason, are their bosses though they hardly seem to do any work and automatically earn seven times Yoshizawa’s salary. The bosses urge Haruko to dress in more feminine fashions, asking invasive questions about her personal life while disparaging single women like Yoshizawa who they blame for Japan’s declining birthrate and a related raise in their taxes, avowing that women over 35 are essentially pointless seeing as their eggs are already “rotten”. Yoshizawa has developed a thick skin for their constant needling, realising that it amounts to an odd combination of sexual harassment and constructive dismissal campaign. Unwilling to pay a “higher” salary to an “older” woman, they are waiting for her to quit so they can hire a young and pretty new girl who will be naive enough to accept the pittance they intend to pay her.

It might be thought that the attitudes of Haruko’s bosses are a reflection of their generation, but the two young punks, Yukio (Taiga) and Manabu (Shono Hayama), are no different. 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a bar girl with ambitions to enter the beauty business, gets swept into their unpleasant orbit after getting into a “relationship” with Yukio, but Yukio thinks of her only as a plaything, even going so far as to encourage the shy Manabu to try his luck because (he claims contemptuously) Aina is the kind of girl who’ll go with anyone. Later she becomes a key part of their mini graffiti movement, but once the pair start to get a little recognition they essentially erase Aina from the story taking all the credit for themselves. Aina, poignantly looking up at the poster advertising the boys’ big moment in the same way she had gazed at Haruko’s missing poster on the police station notice board, realises she’s finally had enough of all their lies and of being made to feel invisible in a society which refuses to recognise her as anything more than an object for exploitation.

Haruko’s face is literally plastered all over town, but she remains essentially faceless, her image stolen and stripped of its identity to be repackaged as soulless symbol for two idiotic boys who not only do not care who she is or might have been but only seek to profit from claiming to be allies in a struggle while simultaneously propping up the opposing side. The image does, however, gain its own independent power, speaking for all the oppressed and belittled women who find themselves essentially disappeared in being forced to abandon their hopes and dreams in the face of extreme social pressure. The school girls are fighting back – the next generation will (perhaps) not be so keen to remain complicit in the social codes which restrict their prospects. Then again, as the image of Haruko tells one of her lost disciples, the best revenge is living well. Choosing to absent oneself from a system of social control, going missing in a more positive sense, may be the best option of all.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Dundee Contemporary Arts – 26 February 2018
  • HOME – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 1 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 3 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 6 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 9 March 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 13 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rent-a-Cat (レンタネコ, Naoko Ogigami, 2012)

©2012レンタネコ製作委員会

rent-a-cat posterPreviously, Ogigami’s heroines (and hero, when one thinks about it) have had to go great distances in order to figure out what it was they were looking for and then finally find it. In Kamome Diner, Sachie went all the way to Helsinki to open up a Japanese cafe only to find herself accidentally attracting a collective of other runaway Japanese people whilst building a community of friendly Finns in her new home. Taeko, in Megane, went on a random holiday that turned out to be much more random than she ever would have expected but she did end up learning to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life which is, presumably, why she ended up on holiday in the first place. Rent-a-Cat’s (レンタネコ, Rent-a-Neko) Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa), by contrast, stubbornly stays put. In fact, she is the pillar around which all else turns as a fixed point for her various “stray cats” each in need of temporary support.

Since her grandmother died a few years ago, Sayoko’s life has been in free fall. A 30-something single woman with no “regular” employment, Sayoko lives in a spacious Japanese-style house with a small garden which is home to the various stray kitties which seem to seek her out when looking for a good place to crash. Sayoko has taken to writing out large banners declaring her immediate goals – getting married being the main one, and pasting them on the walls to encourage herself to keep going. The truth is, though Sayoko is not exactly unhappy she is unfulfilled. Since childhood she’s had the strange talent of attracting friendly cats but secretly longs to attract people too. Combining her strength and her weakness, Sayoko operates an unusual enterprise – cat rental! Walking along with a loud speaker and a trailer full of cats, she looks for lonely people who might want to borrow a fluffy friend for a while to help them out while they’re feeling low.

Of course, Sayoko’s quest to heal the hearts of others is also one to heal her own. Eccentric since childhood during which she was nicknamed “Jamiko” after a strange monster and mostly spent her time snoozing in the nurse’s office along with a kleptomaniac fellow student, Sayoko has never found her feet when it comes to building lasting relationships with people. Her voiceovers all refer back to her grandmother whom she misses deeply and seems slightly lost without. Appearing to have no real friends and spending a lot of time at home looking after her collection of needy cats, Sayoko’s main source of daily interaction comes from the horrible old woman who lives next door and turns up at random intervals to play Greek chorus in neatly reciting Sayoko’s various neuroses back to her over the garden fence.

Sayoko’s neighbour probably has a hole in her heart she fills by being deliberately insensitive to obviously sensitive people, but Sayoko offers her clients another solution in the form of a fluffy little cat who needs someone to look after it. Before lending one of her charges, Sayoko makes sure to vet the prospective cat guardian – after all, not everyone is nice and some people like to project their own suffering onto harmless little creatures. Through the house visits Sayoko gets to find out exactly what kind of hole it is that needs filling from dimples in jellies to holes in socks and even those in donuts, and being the sensitive soul she is, Sayoko usually knows what kind of help her customers need.

Structured around four different clients and bridged with Sayoko’s own neurotic journeys, Rent-a-Cat takes on a charming, fairytale quality in its repeated formulas. Each time someone asks to rent a cat they get the same speech about the inspection and then when it comes to talking money they each express surprise at the extremely good value, making sure to ask if Sayoko will be OK financially when she operates on these oddly beneficial terms. Don’t worry, she tells them – she has other income, a different one each time from stockbroking to fortune telling. The problems run from late life isolation as in a little old lady who loves making jellies for the son she never sees, to dejected fathers forced to work away from home and missing their kids grow up, and young women who feel trapped in a conservative society and would like nothing more than to jet off somewhere to follow their own path, if only they had the courage.

Social conservatism does seem to be something which particularly annoys Sayoko, if perhaps subconsciously. A strange dream sends her off to a Rent-a-Cat corporate clone where clients can rent cats of three different classes priced according to desirability. Sayoko is particularly anxious about the “Class C” cats whom the lady behind the counter disdainfully describes as “crossbreeds”. Sayoko is not having any of that and takes the woman to task for her need to “rank” things before insisting on renting a Class C cat at the Class A price to fully ram home the unpleasantness and absurdity of such a prejudiced world view.

Branded a “crazy cat lady” by the neighbourhood kids, Sayoko’s humanitarian mission of spreading love and kindness eventually does start to reel in a few humans even if they are mostly lonely souls in need of temporary support. Towards the end, when a promising reappearance provokes only disappointment, Sayoko wonders if perhaps there are holes cats cannot fill or sadnesses too great to be borne, but nevertheless she persists. A falling banner a suggests Sayoko may have already found the material to fill her own hole in helping other people fill theirs whilst surrounded by the by warm indifference of her feline brood.


You can catch Rent-a-Cat at the Japanese Embassy in London on 22nd November as the first in a series of events, Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers, which also includes screenings of Bare Essence of Life, Death of a Japanese Salesman, and Wild Berries from 30th November to 2nd December.

 Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル, Keisuke Yoshida, 2016)

hime-anole posterSome people are odd, and that’s OK. Then there are the people who are odd, but definitely not OK. Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル) introduces us to both of these kinds of outsiders, attempting to draw a line between the merely awkward and the actively dangerous but ultimately finding that there is no line and perhaps simple acts of kindness offered at the right time could have prevented a mind snapping or a person descending into spiralling homicidal delusion. To go any further is to say too much, but Hime-anole revels in its reversals, switching rapidly between quirky romantic comedy, gritty Japanese indie, and finally grim social horror. Yet it plants its seeds early with two young men struggling to express their true emotions, trapped and lonely, leading unfulfilling lives. Their dissatisfaction is ordinary, but these same repressed emotions taken to an extreme can produce much more harmful results than two guys eating stale donuts everyday just to ask a pretty girl for the bill.

Okada (Gaku Hamada) is a young man lost. He has a dead end construction job he doesn’t like and isn’t particularly good at, but treading cement all over the finished floors at least helps him bond with his mentor, Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), who seems to view him as a friend even if constantly referring to him as “Okamura”. Okada takes the opportunity to explain his malaise to Ando – that he feels his life slipping away from him in its emptiness, going through the motions with no real hobbies or girlfriend to give his existence meaning. Ando does not really understand this, he says dissatisfaction is natural and the driving force of all life but, on the other hand, he is not particularly dissatisfied because he lives for love!

Ando has a crush on a girl at the local cafe, Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), who actually hasn’t noticed him because she’s pre-occupied with the blond guy who got there before Ando and sits outside everyday just staring at her. Luckily or unluckily, the guy in question, Morita (Go Morita), is an old high school acquaintance of Okada’s and so Ando asks him to find out what’s going on with this scary looking guy and his angelic lady love.

So far, so Japanese indie rom-com, but when the title card flashes up about a third of the way in, we’re in very different territory. Suddenly the colour drains from the screen and Yoshida changes his aesthetic and shooting style almost entirely. Gone is the comforting, slightly washed out colour scheme and the static, middle-distance camera of the opening. Now we are the voyeur, held helpless behind Yoshida’s erratic shaky cam, hiding behind the bins as Morita goes about his bloody business. Morita’s world is dark yet realistic, he’s shot and positioned with the arch naturalism familiar to the Japanese indie and the violence he inflicts is not movie violence, it is shocking, sickening, and visceral.

Hime-anole does not shy away from the consequences of its actions. This is, in a way, its point. At one time or another everyone concludes the increasingly surreal events they become engulfed in must be all their fault because they all have at some point acted in a way they do not quite approve of. Guilt is another of the emotions that is hard to express, especially when it’s mixed with humiliation or fear, but left unaddressed it is these corrosive agonies which develop into deep psychoses. Morita, a violent sociopath, was once (or so it would seem) an ordinary young boy who liked video games and had few friends. Perhaps if he hadn’t been the victim of humiliating, sadistic treatment, or if someone had found the courage to stand up for him, none of this might be happening.

Then again, the world is a strange place filled with people who have trouble deciding where the lines are when it comes to appropriate behaviour. Poor Yuka seems to have become something of a nutter magnet, stalked by two guys at the same time and chatted up in the street by persistent suitors who only leave her alone when they realise she’s waiting for another man. Okada is the only man who’s treated her like a regular human being for a very long time so it’s no surprise that she begins to prefer him to his awkward friend. Ando is, it has to be said, odd. Convinced Yuka is the one for him yet completely uninterested in her feelings, he vows to persevere. Yet for all his talk of chainsaws, Ando is basically harmless (to others at least) and just another lonely guy who doesn’t know how to express himself in way in which he will be understood. Morita, by contrast, is instantly creepy and has no interest in connection, he only wants to take and possess in a kind of ongoing vengeance for truly horrific events in his childhood following which something inside him became very broken.

That Hime-anole ends with a Brazil-style fantasy only adds to its strangely melancholy air as it insists on sympathy for the devil even whilst showing each of his sadistic crimes for the ugly, bloody messes they really are. Maybe the reason everybody feels they’re to blame is that in some way they are yet everyone has done things they regret or aren’t proud of, wishing they’d done things differently or managed to find the courage to do what they thought was right rather than choosing to protect themselves or keep their head down when they could have saved someone else pain. Betrayals can be small things, but they fester – like those unspoken emotions which were making our guys so unhappy in the first place. There are no innocents in Hime-anole save perhaps for the ones pushed further than they could endure, but there are those finally facing up to their own flaws and attempting to do things differently now they know better. If that’s not progress, what is?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Miwa Nishikawa, 2016)

long excuse posterSelf disgust is self obsession as the old adage goes. It certainly seems to ring true for the “hero” of Miwa Nishikawa’s latest feature, The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Nagai Iiwake) , in which she adapts her own Naoki Prize nominated novel. In part inspired by the devastating earthquake which struck Japan in March 2011, The Long Excuse is a tale of grief deferred but also one of redemption and self recognition as this same refusal to grieve forces a self-centred novelist to remember that other people also exist in the world and have their own lives, emotions, and broken futures to dwell on.

Sachio Kinugasa (Masahiro Motoki) is a formerly successful novelist turned TV pundit. As his hairstylist wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu), gives his hair a trim he angrily turns off the television on which one of the programmes he appears on is playing and returns to petulantly needle his wife about perceived slights including “deliberately” using his real name in front of important publishers “to embarrass him”. Upset but bearing it, Natsuko takes all of this in her stride though her husband is in a particularly maudlin mood today, reminding her once again about his intense feelings of self loathing. Shortly after finishing Sachio’s haircut, Natsuko throws on a coat and grabs a suitcase – she’s late to meet a friend with whom she is going on a trip. Sachio barely waits for the door to close before picking up his phone and texting his mistress to let her know that his wife is away.

Later, Sachio figures out that at the moment his wife, her friend Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi), and a busload of other people plunged over a guard rail on a mountain road and into a frozen lake, he was rolling around in his marital bed with a much younger woman. Now playing the grieving husband, Sachio seems fairly indifferent to his recent tragedy but writes an improbably literary funeral speech which boils down to wondering who is going to cut his hair, which he also makes a point of checking in the rear view mirror of the funeral car, now that his wife is gone.

So self obsessed is Sachio that he can’t even answer most of the policeman’s simple questions regarding the identification of his wife – what was she wearing, what did she eat for dinner, is there anything at all he can tell them to confirm the identity of his wife’s body? The answer is always no – he doesn’t remember what she wore (he was busy thinking about texting his mistress), ate dinner separately, and didn’t even know the name of the friend Natsuko was going to meet. The policeman tries to comfort him with the rationale that it’s normal enough to have grown apart a little over 20 years, but the truth is that Sachio was never very interested in his wife. As a funeral guest points out, Natsuko had her own life filled with other people who loved her and would have appreciated the chance to pay their respects in the normal fashion rather than becoming mere guests at Sachio’s stage managed memorial service.

Sachio’s lack of sincere reaction to his wife’s passing stands in stark contrast to the husband of her friend, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), who is a wailing, broken man and now a widowed single father to two young children. Yoichi is excited to finally meet Sachio about whom he heard so much from “Nacchan” his wife’s best friend and the children’s favourite auntie. Sachio knew nothing of this important relationship in his wife’s life, or much of anything about her activities outside of their home.

When Natsuko left that last time, she paused in the doorway somewhat finally to remind Sachio to take care of the house in her absence but neither of these two men know how to look after themselves from basic household chores like using the washing machine to cooking and cleaning, having gone from a mother to a wife and left all of the “domestic” tasks to their women. Eventually feeling low, Sachio decides to respond to Yoichi’s suggestion they try to ease their shared grief by taking the family out for dinner, only he invites them to a fancy, upscale place he goes to often which is neither child friendly nor particularly comfortable for them seeing as they aren’t used to such extravagant dining. Yoichi, otherwise a doting father but often absent due to his job as a long distance truck driver, neglects to think about his daughter’s dangerous crab allergy and necessity of carrying epinephrin just in case, never having had to worry about something as basic as feeding her.

Hearing that Yuki’s son Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) is quitting studying for middle school exams because he needs to take care of his sister, Sachio makes the improbable suggestion that he come over and help out while Yoichi is away on the road. Becoming a second father to someone else’s children forces Sachio into a consideration of his new role but his publicist cautions him against it. Whipping out some photos of his own, he tells Sachio that kids are great because they make you forget what a terrible person you are but that it’s just the ultimate act of indulgence, basking in adoration you know you don’t deserve. Sachio frequently reminds people that he’s no good, almost making it their own fault that he’s hurt them through his constant need for external validation and thinly disguised insecurity. Sachio’s personal tragedy is that his attempts at self-deception largely fail, he knows exactly what he is but that only makes it worse.

The Long Excuse, such as it is, is the title of Sachio’s autobiographical story of grief and an attempt to explain all of this through a process of self discovery and acceptance. Though appearing indifferent to his wife’s death, Sachio’s reaction is one informed by his ongoing self delusions in which he tries to convince himself to ignore the issue and attempt to simply forget about it and move on. Yoichi, by contrast, feels differently – he can’t let his wife go and wants to keep her alive by talking about her all the time but his bighearted grief is too much for his sensitive son who has more than a little in common with Sachio and would rather hit the pause button to come back to this later. The best way out is always through, however difficult and painful it may turn out to be. Making The Long Excuse is Sachio’s way of explaining himself and learning to reconcile the person he is with the one he would like to be, and even if he’s still talking to himself he’s at least moving in the right direction.


The Long Excuse was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Yoichi Higashi, 2016)

someones-xylophoneYoichi Higashi has had a long and varied career, deliberately rejecting a particular style or home genre which is one reason he’s never become quite as well known internationally as some of his contemporaries. This slightly anonymous quality serves the veteran director well in his adaptation of Arane Inoue’s novel which takes a long hard look at those living lives of quiet desperation in modern Japan. Though sometimes filled with a strange sense of dread, the world of Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Dareka no Mokkin) is a gentle and forgiving one in which people are basically good though driven to the brink by loneliness and disconnection.

Middle aged housewife Sayoko (Takako Tokiwa) has just moved into a new area with her security alarm salesman husband, Kotaro (Masanobu Katsumura), and teenage daughter, Kanna (Mikoto Kimura). By all appearances the home seems to be a happy one, and the atmosphere is pleasant, if ordinary. Even so, stopping into an upscale salon one day Sayoko gets a haircut from the very good looking and warm hearted hairdresser Kaito (Sosuke Ikematsu). Hoping for repeat business Kaito gives her a business card and she reciprocates with one of her own so that she can be added to the mailing list. After some awkward chitchat, she leaves but when she gets a typical “thank you for visiting, please come again” text message, Sayoko makes the unusual decision to reply. Not wanting to seem rude, Kaito continues the strange text correspondence but Sayoko’s growing interest in the good looking young man, and later even in his girlfriend, soon crosses the line from harmless fixation to inappropriate obsession, threatening to derail her otherwise “normal” happy family life.

Higashi begins the film with a naturalistic sequence travelling from early morning light to bright sunshine as Kaito takes his bike out for a ride before returning to make breakfast for his still sleeping girlfriend, Yui (Aimi Satsukawa) – a model/store assistant at the upscale Lolita brand Baby the Stars Shine Bright. Accompanied by a thrumming, modern jazz funk soundtrack, these scenes reflect the film’s baseline reality. Kaito and Yui may live in the real world, to a point at least, whereas Sayoko has her head in the clouds and almost lives there too. A middle aged housewife, her life has begun to lose its purpose now that her daughter is almost grown and needs her much less than she ever has before. Though Sayoko and her husband appear to have a good relationship, she seems to want something more – bored with his caresses and long since past the point where there is nothing left to talk about.

The delivery of a new bed prompts a very particular fantasy of being fondled by both men at the same time though what exactly she wants from Kaito remains unclear. If her original decision to reply to a standard confirmation email could be dismissed as friendly innocence, sending a picture of your new bed to someone you just met is decidedly strange. Nevertheless, Kaito feels the need to keep replying even once it becomes clear that Sayoko has also tracked down his apartment and seems intent on further infiltrating his life. When she takes the decision to visit Yui at her work (the brand is not one which ordinarily caters to women of Sayoko’s age), the younger woman starts to get worried and eventually takes some direct action of her own.

Sayoko remains something of a cypher, a woman who can’t seem to figure herself out. The xylophone of the title refers to a dream or vision she has of a girl in far off window banging away at the instrument but never quite getting the tune – eventually she realises the girl is her, still trying to find her inner rhythm all these years later. Kotaro, by contrast, seems to have more worldly anxieties despite his outwardly calm and kindly manner. When his daughter asks him if they really need the security system they have at home he tells her about a long unsolved family murder before explaining that it just makes him feel safer when he can’t be there in person to protect his wife and daughter. Kanna, a bright child, points out that more threat is posed by accidents in the home than by intruders – to which Kotaro is forced to agree, lamenting that there is no alarm system to prevent a domestic accident. Thus when Kanna calls him to say that there has been an “incident” at home, the metaphor is an apt one – nobody was looking, and now everything’s falling apart.

Despite the expectation for grand scenes or bloody violence, Someone’s Xylophone consistently refuses to follow the signposted direction preferring a more adult resolution born of self reflection and mutual understanding. A subplot involving a very particular young man who comes to the salon solely for female contact hints at a darker path for unresolved loneliness and repressed emotion, but even if Sayoko and Kotaro make ill advised decisions in search of closeness their sojourns in alternate realities ultimately allow them to rediscover their mutual universe (for a time, at least). The xylophone finally plays out a recognisable tune as a more settled Sayoko fantasises about a phantom blanket rather than an illicit ménage à trois but whether this craving for warmth will provoke a similar crisis as the need for passion remains to be seen.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)