My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Takahiro Miki, 2017)

My Teacher posterJapanese cinema is having a mini moment of shojo crisis in its awkward obsession with student/teacher romance. While similarly themed age-gap “romances” such as After the Rain might have been better able to navigate the difficult seas of misplaced adolescent affection, Narratage and latterly My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Sensei! …Suki ni Natte mo ii Desuka?), seem to have gone in a less palatable direction in accidentally implying that our squeamishness with these obviously inappropriate attachments might not be justified. The latest from romantic melodrama veteran Takahiro Miki, My Teacher is a perfect exemplification of the inherent problems with shojo romance and, in this case somewhat ironically, its inability to process the implications of a necessarily romantically naive perspective.

Our heroine, Hibiki Shimada (Suzu Hirose), is a shy, awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on her handsome, if somewhat aloof, history teacher, Mr. Ito (Toma Ikuta). Unlike her classmates, Hibiki has been slow to a romantic awakening and confused by her friends’ various and rapidly changing crushes. Nevertheless, like her best friend Chigusa (Aoi Morikawa), Hibiki has begun to develop feelings for a teacher – Ito whose gruff exterior hides a considerate heart. Mistaking his general kindness for an extension of personal affection, Hibiki has fallen in love and even whilst knowing that there is something not quite acceptable about her feelings decides to pursue her inappropriate crush in the manner only a naive schoolgirl can.

Ito, as expected, turns down Hibiki’s confession with weary resignation. A kind man who seems to limit his interactions with other humans in order to avoid becoming over involved, he is aware of the delicacy of the situation but also of its dangers as regards his own standing as an educator and responsible adult. He wants to protect his student, emotionally and physically, but is at a loss as to how to handle his dilemma without causing her further distress. Consequently, he fails to definitively shut down a tricky set of circumstances in good time, allowing to Hibiki to bamboozle him into an awkward bargain in which she asks him if her crush will be “OK” if she manages to score over 90% on the upcoming test. Surprised, Ito laughs and reminds her of her woeful results in the previous midterms. Understanding that she’s been turned down, Hibiki nevertheless regards Ito’s awkward laughter as a flicker of possibility and continues on in hope.

Had My Teacher continued in the same vein, with Mr. Ito valiantly attempting to guide Hibiki towards a healthier romantic consciousness while remaining mindful of the tenderness of her feelings and the delicacy of the situation as a whole, it might have entered more interesting and less problematic thematic territory. Unfortunately, it remains firmly rooted in shojo romance in which the heroine’s innocent desires must be recognised and so Mr. Ito’s nobility eventually crumbles as he begins to fall for the “earnest”, “awkward” schoolgirl and forgets his “position as a teacher”, finally giving in to “temptation” even if he then agrees that the responsibility for his transgression must rest entirely with him. Ito attempts to remove himself from the situation in recognition of the harm he may be causing, but the film won’t let him because it needs a resolution that is “romantic” rather than “realistic”.

“Realism” rears its head when the inappropriate relationship between the pair is eventually uncovered and Ito hauled before a staff committee to explain himself but the school’s understandable decision that he must be summarily fired for gross misconduct is undercut by its presentation as an act of unavoidable tragedy that fails to make a distinction between “genuine feeling” and “abuse of position”, conveniently forgetting that in these kinds of cases that is not a distinction that it is useful to make. Chigusa, trying to encourage her friend in her great romance, affirms that there is no one in the world it is not OK to love, which might have some truth in it seeing as love itself is rarely wrong, but there are instances where acting on that love would be and a teacher/student relationship is definitely one of them especially where the student is still a minor.

Indeed, the kids resent the fact that everyone treats them as children but they are, as a similarly exasperated teacher tries to explain to them, not yet adults as exemplified by their consistently self-centred perspectives which prevent them from realising the difficult position in which their decision to air their inappropriate feelings places those whom they claim to love. This dawning realisation is heralded as the pathway to adulthood in finally coming to an acceptance of the individual’s place within a community bound by ethical rules and the responsibility one has towards the feelings of others most particularly when they conflict with one’s own. It is however undercut by the irresponsible decision to push the innocent romance to its “natural” conclusion even if it has the decency to wait until after graduation until it does so. Ethically questionable as it is, Miki’s obvious talents are not in question and his beautifully composed emotionally moving aesthetics are out in force but only serve to emphasise the uncomfortably naive sensibilities of the source material.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Mari Okada, 2018)

maquia poster 1Perhaps because of its often adolescent target audience, the “hahamono” or mother movie is a relatively rare genre in the world of anime despite its importance in other Japanese media. Wolf Children aside, most anime prefer to focus on the problems of young people dealing with an absentee or unreasonable parent who unwittingly enables the teen to undergo the adventures shortly to ensue. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana wo Kazaro), is an exception to the rule in examining the complex nature of motherhood with a sideline in the legacy of familial disconnection, alienation, and the cyclical natures of life and memory. Flawed if ambitious, the first directorial feature from scriptwriter Mari Okada is a sprawling fantasy epic but one with its heart firmly on its sleeve.

Maquia (Manaka Iwami) is a member of the Separated Clan – an Iolf who weaves time and life into being. The life in Iolf is idyllic, if dull, and consists of little other than weaving. Maquia’s tomboyish friend, Leilia (Ai Kayano) rejoices in daring stunts and precocious flirtations that the shy and introverted Maquia can only dream of, while Maquia, an orphan, feels herself alone and remains somehow incapable of bonding with the other children. When Iolf is raided by Mesarte soldiers, Maquia is carried off by one of their great stone dragons. Now forced to explore the world outside of Iolf, Maquia chances on the remains of a ruined camp, stumbling over bodies only to discover a howling baby boy still held in the icy grip of his mother who tried her best to protect him even as she died. Perhaps identifying with another soul so completely alone, Maquia picks the boy up and decides to raise him though she is barely more than a child herself.

As the Iolf age much slower than the average human, Maquia’s quest to find true connection through maternity is destined to end in tragedy. Maquia christens her son Arial (Miyu Irino) and finds a home with a kindly ranch woman raising two sons of her own alone after her husband was killed by a rabid dragon, and begins to bond with her little boy. Meanwhile Leilia has been kidnapped and forced married to the Mesarte prince in the hope that his heir will inherit some Iolf lengevity. While Maquia is beginning to find connection, Leilia now tastes isolation as an imprisoned minority in the imperial court where she is also separated from the daughter born from a non-consensual union but loved all the same.

Though she already feels so alone, Maquia is warned by her Elder that if she wants to experience true loneliness she need only fall in love with a mortal. Maquia falls in love, or rather tries to, but as a mother rather than a lover. Pouring everything into her child Maquia knows the day will come when she must lose him, but for her it is in a more concrete sense than the normal breaking of a mother/son bond. The notion of mortality and differing lifespans is somewhat uncomfortably dramatised by the passing of the aged family dog who reaches the end of his journey long before his master. Though the message is sound is enough it does rather negate Maquia’s insistence that Arial is not a toy, implying that humans are almost like pets to the long-lived Iolf, something to be loved and fussed over in knowledge of its impermanence but something to which a lesser attachment is formed. 

Maquia, however, hurtles in the opposite direction, vowing to sacrifice all of herself in service of her son. Turning down a suitor in order to remain true and pure as an idealised mother figure, Maquia perhaps takes a retrograde step in agreeing to negate her own personality to become “a mother”, but like the classic hahamono, her overwhelming love proves too much for her growing son who grows tired of the burden of a mother’s expectation, longing to be free of her somewhat suffocating need to protect him while belittled by the knowledge that he, a mortal yet still a man, is incapable of protecting her. Maquia must find the strength to let her son go if she is to see him grow, but to do so will require a shift in self-knowledge born of truly learning what it means put another’s interest above one’s own.

Maquia’s struggles play out in parallel with the ongoing political drama surrounding the corrupt and oppressive Mesarte regime which seeks to rule by fear and violence, stealing the gifts of the Iolf only to abuse them. No matter the genesis, Prince Hazel seems to have formed a genuine attachment to his stolen bride (even if it is not returned) and does what he can to “protect” her, while her former love from the Iolf, Krim, has gone half mad through love denied, kidnapping Maquia to rope her into a half-baked rescue plot before threatening to burn the world if he cannot have his love for the price he is willing to pay.

The question is one of whether it is better to connect fully in the knowledge of a coming heartbreak, or hold back in self protection. In this Maquia learns the true meaning of her Elder’s instruction and begins to realise that the fabric that she weaves is spun from love and memory. Nothing is ever truly lost, merely laid down for someone else to pick up, and while parting is inevitable meeting is not and is something to be treasured no matter how painful it may be.


Distributed in the UK by Anime Limited

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Note: there seems to be some variation in the translation of the names of various characters, this review uses Anime Limited‘s list.

The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Saiji Yakumo, 2017)

dark maidens posterThe world of teenage girls is often arcane and impenetrable to those outside of its extremely exclusive bubble, but The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Ankoku Joshi), Saiji Yakumo’s adaptation of the Rikako Akiyoshi novel, takes duplicity to new heights. When the school darling dies by falling (oh so beautifully) off a roof, speculation is rife and a rumour quickly spreads through the otherwise repressive educational environment that her very best friends are somehow to blame. Each implicates the others in turn, indulging their petty grudges and jealousies seemingly falling over themselves to express their closeness to the departed “sun”, but all is not quite as it seems and these collective acts of fantasy perhaps expose a little more than they were first intended to.

Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) is dead. The daughter of the chairman at the elite all girls Catholic high school, Virgin Mary Academy, Itsumi was loved by all as the radiant sun whose innate goodness was the very embodiment of the school’s Christian aims. Immediately before the school holidays, the literature club – the most prestigious and exclusive of school associations of which Itsumi had been founder and president, are to meet one last time presided over by Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu). The girls will each read a story they have written “inspired” by Itsumi’s death, each of which attempts to tell her story from their perspective but ultimately paints themselves in a favourable light whilst casting doubt on the others. 

The sole clue to the mystery is the lily of the valley Itsumi clutched to her breast, Snow White-like, as she lay pale and wan amid the flowers, elegantly arranged as always despite an apparently violent death. Quickly the girls run through a series of possible motives each with a degree of internal consistency but veering off in their own particular directions. Three of the girls awkwardly hint at their (unrequited?) love for their dead friend, insisting on a kind of ownership of her memory and of their rightful place at her side while the fourth descends into a xenophobic horror story casting the half-Bulgarian girl as a “vampire” come to suck the life out of the previously warm and vivacious Itsumi.

Yakumo delights in sending up the ever present girls school trope of repressed lesbianism and passionate friendships, but it remains true enough that the love card was apparently not one which Itsumi was afraid to play. The stories are all, in part at least, fabrications intended to cover up the various skeletons each of the girls has in their closets, but what they reveal is the series of manipulative machinations which underpins this seemingly sweet and elegant collection of conservative young ladies indulging a love for literature and the Christian virtues. Affairs, blackmail, inappropriate sexual relationships, forced abortions (at a Catholic school!), arson, all of these precede the presumed murder of Itsumi in a vast web of deception and illicit activity.

Teenage girls are often desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the “elite”, at the best of times but especially in an environment as otherwise repressive and exacting as an all girls Catholic high school. Adolescence is a time for trying on different personalities, but there can be something inherently plastic about the identity of a high school girl wanting in to the popular club. Hiding their true feelings, their fears and jealousies, the girls play the parts of they’ve been assigned – supporting cast in the tragic history of Itsumi, a girl betrayed who remained beautiful even in death. Then again, there might be some push back from those growing to resent their peripheral status and beginning to wonder if the spotlight was not theirs for the taking all along. A sun, however, will always need its lesser stars to demonstrate how much brighter it can shine.

Adapted from the novel by Rikako Akiyoshi, The Dark Maidens is a perfect mix of European drawing room mystery and gothic melodrama. Yakumo ups the camp fantastically with the girls sitting round a mysterious pot of stew in a room lit only by candlelight while a storm rages outside and each revelation is accompanied by crashing thunder and flashes of light. The setting is oppressive and sinister, but the only horror in the room is entirely human as each of these young women eagerly submits themselves to someone else’s control in fear of being, in some way, exposed, while those who seek to play the lead have to stoop to underhanded methods just to make “friends” who are really just minions rather than true believers. A sad and sorry state of affairs – who knew teenage cliques could be so, well, dark?


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

Screening again:

  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 February 2018
  • Macrobert Arts Centre – 19 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 1 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)