Small, Slow But Steady (ケイコ 目を澄ませて, Sho Miyake, 2022)

Part way through Sho Miyake’s empathetic character study Small, Slow But Steady (ケイコ 目を澄ませて, Keiko, Me wo Sumasete), an older man visits a doctor and is told that though he may think there is nothing really to worry about at the moment, a tiny drop of water falling steadily can soon make its mark in stone. It’s in one sense the small, slow, but steady stresses of everyday life that have eaten away at the soul of Keiko (Yukino Kishii), an aspiring boxer who is fast losing the will the fight. Yet it is also a small, slow, but steady process that allows her to begin moving again, climbing a new hill towards the next bout no longer so afraid of leaving the safety of the familiar. 

Deaf since birth, Keiko became a professional boxer two years previously and makes ends meet with a part-time job in housekeeping at an upscale hotel. Miyake often positions her as in a way free of the frenetic nature of the noisy city, unaffected by the shouts of rude passersby and unlike the men at her boxing gym never subjected to angry rants from her coaches. Yet it’s also at times as if she feels a kind of loneliness in the minor rejections of an indifferent society which often fails to cater to her difference. Few people are able to sign, even those at her gym haven’t learned, while others are sometimes impatient in her attempts to communicate. The restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic meanwhile only make things worse for her given that constant masking means she can no longer rely on lipreading nor can she hear the public health messages being blasted out in public spaces reminding citizens that there is a state of emergency in place and they should restrict their journeys to the barest of essentials. 

Then again, in the gym, she obviously cannot sign because the gloves her impede her ability to communicate. Nor can she hear the session bell or words of encouragement and advice from her coaches and the crowd. The chairman of the boxing club (Tomokazu Miura) admits in an interview that deafness is potentially fatal for a boxer, but that what Keiko may crave is a kind of internal peace in the surrender to the purely physical which allows her to empty her mind of everyday troubles. She may have taken up boxing as some say after being bullied as a child because of her disability, quite literally fighting back against a conformist society she refuses to beaten by, but has also found something reassuring in its slow and steady rhythms that allows her to reorient herself blow after blow. 

The chairman also says, however, that it’s not a matter of having a preternatural talent so much as a steady work ethic and above all a big a heart, describing her finally as simply “a really nice person”. “Why don’t you have your guard up properly?” another of her coaches asks her, while her brother having noticed there is obviously something bothering her tries to get her to talk, only for her to point out that “talking doesn’t doesn’t make a person any less alone”. With rumours the pandemic, along with the boss’ failing health, will finally take the boxing gym too, Keiko fears losing this final safe space but finds herself unable to stand up and fight for it. Though she had struggled to find a gym who would accommodate her disability, she is ambivalent when a new solution is found in an empathetic female coach (Makiko Watanabe) running a modern training facility who is learning sign language and keen to empower her in her own decision making rather than patronise or railroad her. Afraid of getting hurt, she takes a step back unwilling leave the security of the past for the possibility of the future. 

As Keiko reminds herself in her diary, self-control is the most important thing and the force she struggles with, suddenly losing her concentration in the middle of a match because the thoughtless referee keeps telling her to listen to him when he calls stop. In the end, it’s something quite trivial that sets her back on the path, a kind yet seemingly meaningless moment of acknowledgement from an unexpected source. Shot in a richly textured 16mm, Miyake captures Keiko’s isolated everyday with stunning clarity finding her alone amid the noisy city staring into space and looking for direction. Using intertitles to translate sign language his composition mimics that of a silent movie and lends an almost elegiac quality to the moribund boxing gym as it becomes an accidental victim of its times but ends on a note of quite resilience in the small, slow, but steady rhythms of gentle forward motion. 


Small, Slow But Steady screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Midnight Maiden War (真夜中乙女戦争, Ken Ninomiya, 2022)

An apathetic college student is pulled between nihilistic destruction and the desire for life in Ken Ninomiya’s adaptation of the novel by F, Midnight Maiden War (真夜中乙女戦争, Mayonaka Otome Senso). “Do those who struggle for life deserve to be defeated as evil?” is a question that is put to him while he asks himself if there’s something wrong in his yearning for a “boring”, conventional existence with a good job, house in the suburbs and people to share it. Then again as the forces of darkness point out, those who long for normality usually cannot attain it which only fuels their sense of resentment towards a “rotten” society. 

The unnamed protagonist (Ren Nagase) has come to Tokyo from Kobe to attend university and as his family are not wealthy is supposed to be studying for a scholarship exam while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Only as he’s abruptly let go from his side gig, he finds himself unfulfilled by his studies and wondering what the point is in wasting his youth just to lead a dull life of drudgery. In an intense act of self-sabotage which later goes viral, he tells his English professor (Makiko Watanabe) to her face that her classes are pointless while calculating exactly how much they cost per hour which turns out to be the equivalent to three hours of labour for his mother, the price of a new text book, or three months’ Netflix subscription which oddly becomes a kind of currency benchmark. He can’t see that anything he’s learning will be of much use to him in the further course of his life when the only prize is conventionality even if that conventionality might also provide basic comfort. 

After joining a mysterious “hide and seek” club and becoming distracted by a series of minor bombings of public bins on campus, the hero is pulled between a woman only known as “Sempai” (Elaiza Ikeda), and a man only known as “The Man in the Black Suit” (Tasuku Emoto) who sell him conflicting visions of hope and darkness. While Sempai thinks it’s wrong to belittle those who want to live their lives and are genuinely content with the conventional, The Man in the Black Suit quite literally wants to burn it all to the ground. What begins as an awkward friendship between two awkward men, soon develops into a cult-like organisation of, as the hero puts it, “social outcasts”, drawn to the Man in the Black Suit’s desire to destroy the rotten society which has rejected them through blowing up Tokyo on Christmas Day. 

Positing Tokyo Tower as the “root of unhappiness”, the hero claims he wants only to destroy, and most particularly himself along with everything else. Experiencing extreme ennui, he struggles to find meaning in his life yet is also conflicted in the breadth of the The Man in Black’s goals being fairly indifferent to the existence of others and unconvinced that those merely complicit in the system should also be targets of his social revenge. If not quite dragged towards the light, he realises that he must kill the nihilist within himself and in a sense be reborn, as the Man in Black puts it, as the god of a new world. “You’re alive, that’s good enough for me” Sempai echoes as the hero does at least in a sense embrace life even amid so much destruction. 

Ken Ninomiya has become closely identified with a singular style heavily inspired by music video and often taking place in Tokyo clubland. Midnight Maiden War is in many ways a much more conventional film mimicking the aesthetic of other similarly themed manga and light novel adaptations featuring only one real party scene and no extended musical sequences while routing itself in a more recognisably ordinary reality albeit one secretly ruled by a lonely tech genius. It does however feature his characteristic neon-leaning colour palate, focus pulls, and striking composition such as the revolving upside down shot which opens the film and hints at the unnamed protagonist’s sense of dislocation. Quite literally a tale of darkness and light, the film finds its dejected hero struggling to find meaning in a stultifying existence but perhaps finally discovering what it is to live if only at the end of the world. 


The Midnight Maiden War screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Voices in the Wind (風の電話, Nobuhiro Suwa, 2020)

Shortly before the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of Japan in March 2011, a resident of Otsuchi constructed the “wind telephone” as a way of “communicating” with a relative who had recently passed away. As his words would obviously not reach him in the usual way, he hoped they might be carried on the wind though like a letter never intended to be sent, the sentiment is perhaps more important than the delivery. In the years since the disaster, over 30,000 people have picked up the receiver, hoping to reconnect in some way with those they’ve lost. Widely reported in the international media, the story of the Wind Telephone brought director Nobuhiro Suwa back to Japan for the first time in 18 years after a career mostly spent in Europe as a young woman attempts to come to terms with the past in order to find the strength to continue living in the wake of such devastating grief. 

Nine years old when the tsunami struck, 17-year-old Haru (Serena Motola) lost everything in a single moment. Her family home was destroyed, her parents and younger brother swept out to sea their bodies never found. Since then she’s been living in Kure, Hiroshima, with her aunt Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) who suggests making a visit to Otsuchi to attend an event celebrating the town’s rejuvenation but Haru is understandably reluctant. When Hiroko is taken ill suddenly, however, she finds herself making the trip alone, reeling in her sense of abandonment and in search of some kind of answer to her sorrow. 

Throughout the course of her journey she encounters many other griefstricken souls, not all of them in a direct sense at least affected by the earthquake but carrying a heavy burden all the same. A concerned old man who spots Haru lying vacantly in a quarry and takes her home reveals that he did so in part because she had an absent look that reminded him of his sister who took her own life over a decade previously. “Stay alive” he pleads with her as he drops her off at the local station after a good meal and an oddly cathartic conversation with his elderly mother who spoke of her memories of the atom bomb and a relative who went to the city in search of his wife’s family but returned only with a funeral urn which, to her consternation, contained no bones only a button from a student’s jacket. 70 years later she still feels ashamed for her six-year-old curiosity to know what human bones looked like. 

This sense of what remains and what is swept away becomes central to Haru’s ongoing journey. It isn’t just the people who are gone, but the spaces they inhabited and memories contained within them. An elderly gentleman (Toshiyuki Nishida) finds himself reduced to tears while watching an old comedy he must have seen countless times before, overcome with grief on seeing the paddies and fields as they once were while a local folk tune plays in the background. The man who travels with Haru for much of the trip, Morio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), declares himself homeless but does in fact have a home only one he can’t bear to visit, while Haru’s no longer exists at all, reduced to foundations still partially submerged yet overgrown as nature begins to reclaim its territory. 

Meanwhile, she discovers other kinds of grief and displacement in meeting the family of a Kurdish refugee who went to Fukushima to help after the earthquake but is now indefinitely detained by immigration officials while they decide on his case. The man’s daughter, perhaps slightly younger than Haru, explains to her that she’s acted as an interpreter in hospitals for other Kurdish women who are often isolated and speak little Japanese. She’s decided that she’d like to become a nurse to go on helping people, but Haru can find little of her positive forward motion, stuck as she is in the past with no real concept of the future.

But then, there are also signs of life. The first people who pick Haru up hitchhiking are a cheerful heavily pregnant woman and her more serious brother. The woman confesses that she’s having the baby on her own, and that many did not approve of her decision thinking her too old at 43 to become a mother. “Isn’t it amazing how we can just make another person?” she exclaims, “It’s like there’s a whole little universe inside you”. In the midst of all this grief, there is life too, not to mention warmth and kindness such as that found in each of those who help Haru on her way until she finally reaches the telephone. 

Using mostly improvised dialogue, Suwa’s European arthouse aesthetic has an elegiac quality as Haru edges her way towards an accommodation with her grief, resolving to live on even in the wake of tragedy. “Because I’m alive I remember all of you” she adds, acknowledging her place with the grand sweep of history. “It’s OK”, Morio tells her, “you’ll be OK” speaking for himself as much as anyone else, looking towards a possible future if in memory of the irretrievable past.


Voices in the Wind (風の電話, Kaze no Denwa) is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Banana? At This Time of Night? (こんな夜更けにバナナかよ 愛しき実話, Tetsu Maeda, 2018)

Many people will tell you that if you’re having trouble sleeping, a banana is just the thing though if you’ve failed to properly prepare and have left it until 2.30am to try and buy one you might be out of luck. The hero of Tetsu Maeda’s A Banana? At This Time of Night? (こんな夜更けにバナナかよ 愛しき実話, Konna Yofuke ni Banana kayo: Itoshiki jitsuwa) is not proposing to go out and find one himself, but using his sudden desire for the potassium rich fruit as an excuse to dispatch one of his helpers in the hope of being left alone with the pretty young girl who’s just joined the team. Unbeknownst to him, the girl, Misaki (Mitsuki Takahata), is actually the girlfriend of the aspiring doctor, Tanaka (Haruma Miura), he was trying to get rid of, but the plan backfires when she takes the opportunity to go get one herself in order to escape an increasingly awkward situation. 

Inspired by Kazufumi Watanabe’s non-fiction book, A Banana? At This Time of Night? is the latest in a series of recent Japanese films dealing with the issue of disability in a society which often struggles to accommodate difference. The hero, Yasuaki Shikano (Yo Oizumi), has suffered with muscular dystrophy since the age of 12 and has survived to the age of 34 despite being told that he would likely never see 20. Determined to live an “independent” life, he relies on a small team of volunteers who assist him with day to day tasks he can no longer manage, and works as an activist for the rights of disabled people. 

Yasuaki is, however, by his own admission not always an easy person to get along with. He is often selfish and cruel to the volunteers who have given their time to help him out of nothing more than human kindness while deliberately sending them out on random errands to buy burgers  (or bananas) but finding fault when they return. Yet, he largely gets away with it because of his cheeky personality and the fact he is so robustly “honest” about his own behaviour. One of the major tenets of his activism is destigmatising the idea of asking for help so that younger disabled people in particular who might feel awkward about asking others to assist them so they can lead independent lives know that there is nothing wrong in being upfront about their needs. 

Of course, despite his “honesty”, there’s an essential contradiction in Yasuaki’s definition of independence in that he freely admits that he can only live an “independent” life because of the support he receives from the volunteers. Without them, his life would be impossible. In a further contradiction, we eventually realise that he’s only so mean to his mother (Chie Ayado) because he doesn’t want her to sacrifice the entirety of her life to look after him and wants his parents to be able to live their own lives while he lives his. Misaki, only originally volunteering to check up on her boyfriend, is horrified by Yasuaki’s attitude and vows never to return, only to be coaxed back by Tanaka awkwardly forced to take dictation of an apology/declaration of love when Yasuaki finds himself smitten by her boldness in defiantly standing up to him. 

Slightly embarrassed, Tanaka never explains that Misaki is his girlfriend, perhaps a little patronisingly allowing Yasuaki to play at romance he feels is impossible so that his feelings won’t be hurt. The central problem is, however, that both Misaki and Tanaka have their own failures of honesty which place their relationship at risk. Tanaka was under the impression that Misaki was studying to become a teacher, but her friends just said that to get her into a party with med students and she never bothered to correct him. When the relationship gets more serious, she comes clean, but he takes it badly, half-convinced she just wanted to meet a doctor and the whole relationship has been a lie. Meanwhile, he’s only studying medicine because his authoritarian father wants him to take over the family hospital and he’s beginning to wonder if it’s really what he wants to do with his life. Unlike either of them Yasuaki knows exactly what he wants – to go America and meet his idol which is why he’s been working hard learning English. 

Through their shared friendship with Yasuaki, both of the lost youngsters begin to find direction and the courage to follow it. Despite the many setbacks and difficulties he faces, Yasuaki never gives up on his dreams and boldly insists on the right to pursue them while living his life to the fullest. Which isn’t to say that his own story is merely inspirational fodder for his friends, but it does make the case for a better, more inclusive society built on mutual support in which all are free to live the way they choose spreading love and joy wherever they go. 


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

37 Seconds (Hikari, 2019)

37 Seconds poster“We’re just like everybody else” the heroine of Hikari’s debut feature 37 Seconds replies in bemusement when a prospective date confesses he never thought he’d feel comfortable with “someone like” her. Quietly meditating on societal prejudice against disability, 37 Seconds takes its heroine on a journey of self discovery as a series of disappointments pushes her towards embracing a new side of herself as an individual in defiance of those who might feel they know what is best, or perhaps just most “appropriate”, for “someone like” her without bothering to consider how she might feel.

Softly spoken, 23-year-old Yuma (Mei Kayama) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair to get around. Although she has a degree of independence with a job as an assistant to a manga artist, her friend Sayaka now a giant YouTube star, to which she travels alone by train, Yuma otherwise has little life outside the home she shares with her increasingly overprotective mother Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno). Yuma’s dreams of becoming a manga artist in her own right are dealt a blow when she’s told that her style is too close to Sayaka’s, only Sayaka’s style is Yuma’s because Yuma is doing all the work while her friend steals the credit and gleefully gives interviews claiming she is 100% indie and has no assistants. Beginning to realise she’s being exploited, Yuma gets an idea when she spots some erotic manga abandoned in the park and starts ringing up magazines for work. One bites and likes her stuff but worries that her sex scenes lack authenticity because of her lack of experience. 

Though previously unbothered, Yuma decides to embrace her sexuality in the name of art but finds a series of obstacles in her way, not least among them her mother who continues to infantilise her claiming that she is too vulnerable to be allowed out alone because there are too many strange people in the world. Kyoko won’t let Yuma wear pretty dresses, or makeup, or go out in the same way other girls her age might, refusing to accept that her little girl has grown up and has the same desires as any other young woman including that to be independent. Unable to escape her mother’s control, Yuma begins lying to her to meet prospective dates but finds them all unsuitable until finally trying to hire a sex worker only for that to go horribly wrong too. It does however introduce her to the people who will change her life – empathetic sex worker Mai (Makiko Watanabe), and her assistant Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito), whom she meets in a love hotel corridor while waiting for a broken lift.

When Yuma first meets Mai, she’s in the company of another man with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair, Kuma – played by Yoshihiko Kumashiro, a real life activist raising awareness about sexuality in the disabled community whose life inspired Junpei Matsumoto’s 2017 feature Perfect Revolution. Seeing the warm and genuine relationship between Mai and Kuma gives Yuma a new hope that a different kind of life is possible, especially as Mai offers to take her under her wing. Having an older woman to confide in about things she could never discuss with her mother allows Yuma to explore her newfound desires with confidence knowing that there are people looking out for her and always ready to offer advice.

Not everyone, however, is quite so enlightened and Yuma’s problems are largely to do with the persistent social stigma she faces from the world around her as well as a resultant sense of internalised inferiority. Sayaka, her “friend”, views her as a kind of cash cow, taking advantage of her skills but denying her existence while Sayaka’s agent swings in the other direction by telling her she should go public because she’d get a lot of press once people know she employs a disabled woman as an assistant. The first place Yuma gets any kind of respect is the office of the erotic manga magazine where the boss treats her like any other prospective hire and offers her constructive advice. From the awful dates and bad faith friends to her mother’s well-meaning yet problematic attempts to trap her in childhood, Yuma struggles to find a sense of self-worth when everyone is telling her that her life is limited and she must conform to their stereotypical ideas of how “someone like” her should live.

Thanks to Mai and Toshiya, Yuma eventually gains the confidence to assert herself, but also the ability to accept that her mother’s actions, however misguided, came from a place of love tempered by regret and sadness she was unable to understand without engaging with her mother’s history. A beautifully empathetic exploration of a young woman’s gradual blossoming under the light of genuine connection, 37 Seconds is a unsubtle rebuke of a fiercely conformist society unwilling to accommodate difference but also a quiet hymn to defiance as its heroine learns to shake off the labels placed on her and claim her independence no matter what anyone else might have to say about it.


37 Seconds was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

And Your Bird Can Sing (きみの鳥はうたえる, Sho Miyake, 2018)

And Your Bird Can Sing poster 1Yasushi Sato, an author closely associated with the port town of Hakodate who took his own life in 1990, has been enjoying something of a cinematic renaissance in the last few years with adaptations of some of his best known works in The Light Shines Only There, Over the Fence, and Sketches of Kaitan City. And Your Bird Can Sing (きみの鳥はうたえる, Kimi no Tori wa Utaeru), taking its title from the classic Beatles song, was his literary debut and won him a nomination for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1981. Unlike the majority of his output, And Your Bird Can Sing was set in pre-bubble Tokyo but perhaps signals something of a recurring theme in its positioning of awkward romance as a potential way out of urban ennui and existential confusion.

Sho Miyake’s adaptation shifts the action back to Hakodate and the into present day but maintains the awkward triangularity of Sato’s book. The unnamed narrator (Tasuku Emoto), the “Boku” of this “I Novel”, is an apathetic slacker with a part-time job in a book store he can’t really be bothered to go to. After not showing up all day, he wanders past the store at closing time which brings him into contact with co-worker Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi) who appears to be leaving with the boss (Masato Hagiwara) but blows him off to come back and flirt with Boku who makes a date with her at a cute bar but falls asleep after getting home and (accidentally) stands her up, drinking all night with his unemployed roommate Shizuo (Shota Sometani) instead. Luckily for Boku, Sachiko forgives him and an awkward romance develops but their relationship becomes still more complicated when Boku introduces Sachiko to Shizuo with whom she proves an instant hit.

This is not, however, the story of an awkward love triangle but the easy fluidity of youth in which unselfishness can prove accidentally destructive. Boku, for all his rejection of conventionality, is more smitten with Sachiko than he’s willing to admit. He counts to 120 waiting for her return, refusing to make a move himself but somehow believing she is choosing him with an odd kind of synchronised telepathy. She pushes forward, he holds back. Boku encourages Shizuo to pursue Sachiko, insisting that she is free to make her choices, and if jealous does his best to hide it. Shizuo, meanwhile, is uncertain. Attracted to Sachiko he sees she prefers Boku but weighs the positivities of being second choice to a man dressing up his fear of intimacy as egalitarianism.

Boku tells us that he wanted the summer to last forever, but in truth his youth is fading. Like Sachiko and Shizuo, he is drifting aimlessly without direction – much to the annoyance of an earnest employee at the store (Tomomitsu Adachi) who prizes rules and order above all else and finds the existence of a man like Boku extremely offensive. Sachiko, meanwhile, has drifted into an affair with her boss who, against the odds, actually seems like a decent guy if one who is perhaps just as lost as our trio and living with no more clarity despite his greater experience. Like Boku, Shizuo too is largely living on alienation as he strenuously resists the fierce love of his admittedly problematic mother (Makiko Watanabe).

“What is love?” one of Sachiko’s seemingly less complicated friends (Ai Yamamoto) asks, “why does everybody lie?”. Everybody is indeed lying, but more to themselves than to others. Fearing rejection they deny their true feelings and bury themselves in temporary, hedonistic pleasures. Boku reveals that he hoped Sachiko and Shizuo would fall in love so that he would get to know a different side to Sachiko through his friend, as if he could hover around them like transparent air. The problem is Boku doesn’t quite want to exist, and what is loving and being loved other than a proof of existence? Sachiko prompts, and she waits, and then she wonders if she should take Boku at his word and settle for Shizuo only for Boku to reach his sudden moment of clarity at summer’s end. A melancholy exploration of youthful ennui and existential anxiety, And Your Bird Can Sing is a beautifully pitched evocation of the eternal summer and the awkward, tentative bonds which finally give it meaning.


And Your Bird Can Sing was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Isao Yukisada, 2001)

Luxurious Bone posterIsao Yukisada made his name with the 2004 hit Crying Out Love, in the Centre of the World, but even before becoming a “junai” pioneer his early films were far from strangers to melancholy, impossible romance. The strangely titled Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Zeitakuna Hone, AKA Torch Song) is a case in point in its early, ambiguous treatment of same sex love and emotional repression. Though in some senses very much of its time, Yukisada’s sad chamber drama is a sensitive exploration of the path towards awakening, if ultimately not to happiness.

The drama begins when Miyako (Kumiko Aso) gets the titular “luxurious bone” lodged in her throat. In this case, it’s an eel bone which is a fish too expensive for either she or her roommate Sakiko (Tsugumi) to eat very often, hence its tinge of luxury even if there’s relatively little difference when it’s tickling your trachea. “Roommate” might not be the best way to describe exactly what Sakiko is to Miyako, though their relationship seems curiously ill-defined. The two women share a bed, and seemingly a life, but perhaps platonically. Sakiko wants to look for a job, but Miyako doesn’t quite want her to because she’s happy to support the pair of them on her wages as a sex worker. Likewise, Sakiko isn’t quite happy with Miyako’s line of work, not because she’s jealous or judgmental, but because she worries the job is unpleasant. Miyako reassures her that it’s fine because she feels nothing at all during sex so mostly it’s just dull.

All that changes however when Miyako meets unusual client Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase) who goes to the trouble of buying her a hamburger bento because he heard that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to do in these situations. Shintani blows Miyako’s mind which isn’t something she was expecting or quite knows what to do with. On hearing the news Sakiko seems mildly worried, but following a strange series of events Shintani ends up becoming a minor part of their lives as the third wheel in their previously stable though somehow awkward relationship.

Miyako’s intense opening voice over makes reference to a secret she cannot bear to speak that will lie closed within her heart for all eternity. The fish bone becomes a symbol of the thing stuck in her throat, the truth she is too afraid to voice. Choking, Miyako gasps for air like a goldfish floundering in shallow water but cannot find the strength to swallow.

As we will later discover, this dark secret is bound up with her complicated feelings for Sakiko of which she seems to feel afraid and ashamed, wanting to possess her love in its entirety but also unable to access it and hating herself for her continuing need for possession and control. Her unexpected connection with Shintani is, after a manner of speaking, simply a more “acceptable” way of accepting her desire for Sakiko as she later reveals when confessing that she only ever thought of Sakiko when making love with Shintani which is presumably why only he was ever able to give her a satisfying experience.

Unable to cope with the intensity of her feelings, Miyako turns self destructive and attempts to lure Shintani into a sexual relationship with Sakiko who, apparently, is afraid of intimacy altogether having been raised in an abusive, neglectful home in which she was convinced that she was “dirty” and unloveable, an obstacle in the way of her father’s new relationship with a much younger step-mother (Makiko Watanabe).

Something of a cliché in itself, Luxurious Bone first attempts to delegitimise the feelings of the two women for each other by introducing the figure of Shintani to suggest that their problems are largely down to not having met a good man. Miyako sleeps with Shintani to feel closer to Sakiko, while Sakiko begins to move past her emotional trauma only thanks to the gentle machinations of Shintani. Their strange ménage à trois brings them together whilst driving them apart as the two women attempt to touch each other through Shintani while he remains detached and conflicted if perhaps wilfully used. Miyako’s self destructive impulses push her towards burning her world before facing what it is that frightens her. Only a strange encounter with another woman in a club shows her that her fear was not so much love as submission, while Sakiko tries to reconnect with her childhood self to move past her emotional trauma.

Despite its motion towards a positive resolution, Luxurious Bone cannot quite find the courage of its convictions and as quickly delegitimises the love as it tried to legitimise it through leaving Sakiko broadly where she started – lost, confused, and afraid, uncertain if unresolved longing is a natural condition of living. Perhaps of its time and overly simplistic in its treatment of complex issues from traumatic childhoods to shame and repressed sexuality, Luxurious Bone nevertheless has its heart (broadly) in the right place even if it leaves its lovelorn youngsters in the same position as many a Yukisada hero still looking for their place in a cruel and arbitrary world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Torch Song by The Humpbacks which features prominently throughout. The song was actually written for the film and is performed by Masatoshi Nagase.

The Lowlife (最低, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

The Lowlife 2017In terms of the mainstream cinema industry, the AV (“adult video”) world is viewed with suspicion and distain. AV is where unlucky women end up after having the misfortune to encounter unscrupulous yakuza or be born to feckless parents whose debts they are forced to pay with their bodies. However, mainstream cinema perhaps has a reason to demonise its rival on top of reflecting persistent social stigmas relating to the expression of sexuality. Takahisa Zeze began his career in “pink film”, which is to say softcore pornography, and casts a non-judgemental eye over the modern hardcore porn scene in The Lowlife (最低, Saitei), adapting a novel by AV actress and gravure model Mana Sakura which explores the lives of three women who each have been impacted by the industry.

The first two of our heroines – college dropout Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), and melancholy housewife Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), have made a free choice to enter the AV industry mostly out of loneliness and insecurity. Ayano, who claims to be the only “ugly” one among her many sisters, is convinced to take part in a porn shoot by an unscrupulous boyfriend but finds herself reassured in being adored by the camera and appreciated on set, if only briefly. Miho, meanwhile, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a man who has begun sleeping in his study and continually puts off the discussion of starting a family despite Miho’s intense desire to become a mother. Checking on her husband one morning she is dismayed to find a porn DVD in the open tray of his laptop which feels like a double betrayal in that he has obviously not been “working” all night and has avoided intimacy with her while finding release somewhere else. Irritated, Miho takes the extreme decision of becoming a porn star herself as a strange kind of revenge and motion towards personal fulfilment.

Our third heroine, Ayako (Aina Yamada), however, is looking at the same problem from a different angle in that she is daughter of a single-mother who had previously worked in the porn industry before returning home to her own single-mother to start again and raise her daughter. Takako (Saki Takaoka) is a difficult, flighty woman who still likes to live the high life drinking with random guys and rolling in late or sometimes not at all to the constant worry of her anxious daughter. A gifted artist, Ayako is a shy, gloomy girl who finds it hard to connect with her peers and resents her mother for her unconventional lifestyle. Her problems intensify when she wins a prominent art prize and irritates a classmate who seems to be stalking her causing him to spread the rumour of Takako’s past all over the school.

Social stigma is indeed one of the main problems each of the women face. Ayano, who seems to be otherwise happy enough with her life AV, gets an unexpected visit from her concerned mother and scornful sister when someone presumably spots her in a video and decides to have a word. As Ayano points out to her annoyingly judgemental sister, that means whoever told them just outed themselves as an AV-watcher so perhaps she should ask her boyfriend about that before making sarky comments. Nevertheless, nobody really says anything about the men who consume pornography, only about the “immoral” women who star in them. Ayano’s mother Izumi (Makiko Watanabe) blames herself, complaining that Ayano was the only one of her daughters she never quite bonded with, by turns angry with her for “shaming” the family and concerned that she has “thrown her life away” by becoming forever tainted with the stigma of having been involved in the sex industry.

Corrupted maternity becomes a somewhat uncomfortable theme as each of the women assesses their relationships with other women in the context of the traditional family. Having given up work and become a housewife as society expects, Miho has done everything right but is intensely unhappy because her husband will not move to the next step by starting a family. At 35, she feels her life stagnating, that everything is already settled and nothing will change from now until the time she dies. Neglected by a husband who seems to have lost interest in her as a woman as well as in their shared endeavour of building a home, she finds herself drawn to AV as a path to sexual fulfilment which isn’t really infidelity while also subverting her image of superficial perfection and embracing another identity outside of the home. She remains, however, conflicted as she gazes jealously at a happy family out on holiday at the pleasant mountain lodge where they’ll shoot the movie away from prying eyes. Her involvement in AV is, in a way, also an act of self harm as she punishes herself for her inability to become a mother, while also getting back at her disinterested husband.

Even so, Zeze is careful to frame the AV industry in a positive light. On arrival at the agency, Miho is greeted by an extremely sensitive and sympathetic manager who does his best to ease her concerns while making her feel safe at her most vulnerable. Having felt so neglected and lonely at home, the AV world provides her with a place that she is appreciated, desired as a woman and treated like a star. Similarly, Ayano who had believed herself “ugly” and unlovable begins to gain confidence in herself thanks to being appreciated by the camera, eventually striking up a relationship with a nice guy journalist in a bar which seems like it might develop into something more. While some might argue that the industry is merely exploiting feminine insecurities, it cannot be denied that both women find in it a path towards self acceptance and actualisation.

Despite the fiercely non-judgemental tone, a late plot twist further casts Miho’s transgression as a fall rather than a rise while an eventual connection with Ayako further deepens the maternal subtext as she completes the circle by mothering the lost young woman trying to come to terms with her atypical family situation. Ayako’s grandmother too seems to prescribe motherhood as the answer to all life’s mysteries even if the answer is often that they can’t be solved and all that remains is the urgency of living. Zeze’s depiction of the porn industry might be a rosy one glossing over the seamier side in favour of presenting a world built on empowerment rather than exploitation, but its infinitely sympathetic eye makes plain that porn is just a job like any other and the women who work in it do not deserve the scorn that society often chooses to heap on them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.


My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Isshin Inudo, 2014)

Miarcle devil claus posterChristmas is a time for romance, at least in Japan, but thanks to the magic of the season it can also be confusing. For one nerdy aspiring mangaka at the centre of Isshin Inudo’s Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Miracle Devil Claus-kun no Koi to Maho) it’s about to become very confusing indeed as he becomes convinced a prophecy he himself made up when he was a child is actually coming true. Cross-cultural love, lifelong longing, frustrated dreams, and misconstrued realities threaten to derail fated romance but never fear – it is Christmas after all, and even evil Santa has his heart in the right in place as long as anyone is prepared to really listen to him.

Hikaru (Masaki Aiba) and Anna (Nana Eikura) have lived across the street from one another all their lives and been friends as long as either of them can remember. These days, Hikaru is chasing dreams of manga success while working in a bookstore, and Anna is an aspiring artist specialising in large scale metal work. 20 years ago, Hikaru made up the figure of Devil Claus who is the embodiment of Santa’s emotional pain on being forgotten and abandoned for 364 days of the year. Seeing as no darkness can be permitted in the heart of Santa, Devil Claus evolved into his own pixie-like creature and now mostly stars in the cute, inspirational posters Hikaru illegally pastes all over town.

Devil Claus is also a big part of a prophecy Hikaru revealed to himself in which he believed Devil Claus would eventually lead him to the “Goddess of Destiny” who will appear dressed in red with the moon at her back, carrying knowledge of the future and accompanied by a leopard! It is quite a list and so when Hikaru bumps into an extraordinarily beautiful woman wearing a red coat, carrying a wooden leopard in one hand, and a collection of books about “the future” in the other, he comes to the obvious conclusion. In a coincidence worthy of the movies, it just so happens that the woman is Seo-yon (Han Hyo-Joo), a Korean artist in charge of organising a large scale Christmas display which is also the project Anna has been working on.

Predictably enough, Anna has long been in love with the completely clueless yet pure hearted Hikaru. Ironically, Hikaru thinks of Anna as a big sister who has always protected him when he is so obviously unable to stand up for himself, but though she berates him for his lack of backbone she is the one too embarrassed to confess her real feelings and has been patiently waiting for him to finally notice her all her life.

Nevertheless, this particular plot strand takes a strange turn when Anna figures out that Hikaru’s “Goddess of Destiny” is almost certainly Seo-yon. Despite her own feelings she does her best to fulfil Hikaru’s dreams but Inudo frames her behaviour strangely – Anna acts coldly towards Hikaru, while gazing somewhat longingly at Seo-yon who seems to literally sparkle as the sun shines ever behind her. It would be easy to come to the seemingly obvious conclusion that Anna has a different reason for being irritated with Hikaru and his current romantic pre-occupation (why exactly does she already have the book Seo-yon has been wanting before she decides to give it Hikaru to give her?), but the dilemma is later reframed as an inner conflict about her lack of traditional femininity. Yes, Anna’s “manly” dungarees and love of welding might easily play into a stereotype supporting the first conclusion but are actually offered as reasons for feeling underconfident in romance. Just as Hikaru thinks he isn’t good enough for someone so glamorous and accomplished, Anna thinks she isn’t good enough for Hikaru because she can’t measure up to a woman like Seo-yon.

All of that aside, the refreshing message behind Devil Claus is less one of conforming to a social ideal than of learning to regain your self confidence in order to open yourself up to the vulnerability of exposing your true feelings. Hikaru’s romantic and professional rival (not that Hikaru would ever really think of anyone else as an enemy), Kitayama (Toma Ikuta), was one a top rated city trader and now apparently successful mangaka but in a depressive slump over a conflict of artistic integrity. Only by remembering the importance of sincerity and emotional connection can he unlock his creative block by remembering what it is that’s really important. Frothy fun and proud of it, Devil Claus mixes infinitely cute if slightly subversive animation with innocent and pure hearted romance in which the main messages are embracing your authentic self and accepting other people’s. In other words, a perfect Christmas story.


Original trailer (no subtitles)