My Father’s Tracks (僕と彼女とラリーと, Renpei Tsukamoto, 2021)

A struggling Tokyo actor begins to re-appreciate small-town wholesomeness after returning home for the first time in many years on learning of his semi-estranged father’s death in Renpei Tsukamoto’s heartwarming drama My Father’s Tracks (僕と彼女とラリーと, Boku to Kanojo to Rally to). As much a celebration of the idyllic countryside villages around the city of Toyota in Aichi, obviously closely associated with the automobile industry, Tsukamoto’s gentle coming-of-age tale sees its hero find his purpose in returning to his roots while gaining a new perspective on his parents’ relationship and the father he’d always resented who became a local hero but was never around when his family needed him. 

At 29 Taiga (Win Morisaki) is still trying to make his mark as an actor in Tokyo, his dejected manager complaining his trouble is that though he’s quick and clever he’s essentially soulless which is why he’s failing to captivate the audition panel. He repeatedly ignores calls from his semi-estranged father Toshio (Masahiko Nishimura) and then answers one on the urging of a friend only to utter some very unkind words before unceremoniously hanging up. The next time he answers his phone, however, the call is from an old friend and neighbour, Miho (Mai Fukagawa), letting him know that his father has passed away suddenly of a heart attack. Though they had not been on good terms, Taiga cannot help feeling guilty that his final words to his father were so harsh especially as he’d called to invite him to visit the following November. 

Though everyone in the town seems to have held Toshio in high regard, he was a frequent fixture on the local TV channel for which Miho works, both Taiga and his older brother Hiroyuki (Ryuta Sato) who has become a cynical and heartless businessman feel only contempt for him for having selfishly neglected his family while travelling all around the world as a mechanic with a champion rally team not even making it home in time to see their mother before she passed away of a longterm illness. Taiga can’t forgive him for leaving his mother lonely, but later comes to reflect that perhaps he wasn’t best placed to fully understand the relationship between his parents and may have misinterpreted something which as he later puts it only a husband and wife can know. Meanwhile, it seems his father had also been a supportive force in the community having given jobs to those who might not ordinarily find them in a mechanic with a criminal record, an old man past retirement age, and a young woman so shy she is largely unable to speak. Taiga can see how important his father was to these people and worries what will happen to them now whereas his coldhearted brother is deaf to their pleas planning to close the business and have it and the family home bulldozed as soon as possible to settle the estate without undue delay. 

Hurt even more deeply that Taiga, Hiroyuki has become cruel and cynical often running his brother down rolling his eyes that no one makes a living from a “hobby” while insisting this isn’t one of his “namby-pamby” plays. He claims that he needs the money to protect his family, something that he feels his father failed to do in spending all his time on a “hobby” of his own even shutting down his own small son’s curiosity and desire to join in with the other kids’ fun. Even so after repeatedly telling him to “man up” and get a real job, Hiroyuki is less than impressed by Taiga’s desire to take over the family business which he admittedly knows nothing about having acquired a driving license solely for a role, only relenting when threatened by a flamboyant human rights lawyer with the name of a legendary samurai (Riki Takeuchi).  

Nevertheless, marshalling the skills he picked up in Tokyo and working alongside the locals Taiga begins to rediscover the sense of purpose he’d been missing while gaining a new understanding of his father and greater sense of future possibility. Despite complaining that there is “nothing here” in comparison to Tokyo only for Miho to remind him of all the things Tokyo doesn’t have or that are freely given in Toyota but need to be paid for in the city, he quickly settles back in to small town rhythms and begins to accept his father’s legacy finally finding his sense of direction and taking his place in the driving seat of his own life. A heartwarming tale of familial reconnection and the power of community, not to mention a celebration of rural small-town Toyota, My Father’s Tracks insists life is a rally, all about the going there and coming back, walking on blazing a trail and never giving up no matter the sharp corners and unexpected turns a life may take. 


My Father’s Tracks streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


International trailer (English subtitles)

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Masato Harada, 2015)

166028_02The world of the classical “jidaigeki” or period film often paints an idealised portrait of Japan’s historical Edo era with its brave samurai who live for nothing outside of their lord and their code. Even when examining something as traumatic as forbidden love and double suicide, the jidaigeki generally presents them in terms of theatrical tragedy rather than naturalistic drama. Whatever the cinematic case may be, life in Edo era Japan could be harsh – especially if you’re a woman. Enjoying relatively few individual rights, a woman was legally the property of her husband or his clan and could not petition for divorce on her own behalf (though a man could simply divorce his wife with little more than words). The Tokeiji Temple exists for just this reason, as a refuge for women who need to escape a dangerous situation and have nowhere else to go.

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko) places this important institution at its centre as it focuses on the stories of a number of women who’ve each ended up at the temple after a series of difficult circumstances. Jogo (Erika Toda) is married to a womanising drunkard who forces her to run his iron smelting business from the front lines (hence the painful looking blisters on her face) while he enjoys his life of debauchery. When the staff complains about his attitude and their subsequent fears for their jobs and Jogo raises their concerns with him he simply beats her before returning to his mistress. She then faces a decision – Tokeiji, death, or endurance. During her flight, she runs into O-Gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a mysterious wealthy woman who’s sprained her ankle after fighting off bandits in the woods. The pair bond on their quest to reach Tokeiji where they hope to find refuge from their turbulent home lives.

Before you can enter Tokeiji you’re held at one of the receiving inns where they hear your story, assess the possibility of being able to reconcile with a husband and, if deemed necessary, allowed to travel to the temple where you’ll live as a Buddhist nun for two years at which time your husband must legally sign the divorce papers. The inn adheres to strict Buddhist principles – no men are allowed near the temple (even the outside helpers wear bells so the ladies can hear them coming), you eat only temple cuisine (no meat or stimulants like garlic and onions), and have to abide by the word of the head nun. There are also three different classes of resident starting with the most expensive court lady lifestyle, then one of sewing and making repairs, and finally the lowest class which does all the day to day cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks.

The other pivot around which the film turns is the one time medical student Shinjiro (Yo Oizumi) who has literary dreams but has had to beat a quick retreat from Edo after defiantly breaking its ridiculous “no singing in the streets” law (amongst other things). At this period Edo and the surrounding area is undergoing its own mini cultural revolution as the current authorities advocate a period of austerity which sees things like literature, music and even sushi outlawed. Perceiving threats everywhere, the powers at be are also looking for a way to close down Tokeiji by any underhanded means necessary.

Shinjiro is a fast talking wise guy who can generally talk his way out of anything though he is also a keen student and a promising young doctor. As a relative of the Tokeiji inn owners, he’s seeking refuge too but also hoping to make use of their extensive archives for his writing career. As a doctor he’s immediately fascinated by the burns on Jogo’s face which he believes he can treat though in her frightened state she’s alarmed by his direct manner and refuses. After hearing his more reasoned arguments she finally submits and in turn becomes interested in his medical knowledge assisting him to gather herbs in the forest before starting her own herb garden in the temple.

Of course, the two develop a growing romantic attachment though frustrated by Jogo’s position as a married woman and the temple’s prohibition against male contact. Their romance is never played for melodrama, more as a simple and natural course of events though it’s well played by both Toda and Oizumi. At heart, Kakekomi is an ensemble drama which encompasses the often sad stories of its female cast who are each at the mercy of the cruel and rigid Edo era social system. O-Gin’s reasons for fleeing to Tokeiji turn out to be a little different from everyone else’s though she too is still suffering for love.

A humorous look at this untold story, Kakekomi proves an engaging ensemble drama anchored by the committed performances of its cast. Toda takes Jogo from a frightened and abused woman to a confident and learned scholar who is perfectly capable of taking charge of things on her own and her transformation is the true heart of the film. Apparently, director Masato Harada shot nearly four hours of footage before cutting the film down to the more manageable two and a half which may explain why it sometimes feels a little abrupt but nevertheless Kakekomi proves one of the most enjoyable mainstream Japanese movies of recent times.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD of Kakekomi includes English subtitles.