Will I Be Single Forever? (ずっと独身でいるつもり?, Momoko Fukuda, 2021)

If you can achieve financial independence in the contemporary society, then what is or should be the primary purpose of and motivation for marriage, what does it mean, should you want it at all or is it merely an outdated institution designed to keep women in their place by making them dependent on men? Adapted from the manga by Mari Okazaki, Momoko Fukuda’s Will I Be Single Forever? (ずっと独身でいるつもり?, Zutto Dokushin de Iru Tsumori?) finds a series of young women asking just these questions wondering why it is everyone themselves included is still intent on viewing marriage and motherhood as the only markers of success as if none of their other achievements really matter if they’re going to write spinster of this parish on their headstone. 

10 years previously the now 36-year-old Mami (Jun Hashizume) shot to stardom penning a best-selling book about how it isn’t a sin to be single and the worst thing isn’t to be alone but to settle for less solely to escape loneliness. These days, however, she’s beginning to wonder, growing fearful of what it might mean to spend the rest of her life alone and worrying she’s about to miss the marriage boat witnessing it pass by passively without making a concrete decision of her own. Expressing her views on a talk show where “the troubled women of today are slapped with harsh reality”, Mami disappoints some of her longtime fans who found validation in her book reassured that there was nothing wrong in their desire to live independently rather than get married right after college and become regular housewives. Yet they are also ageing and facing the same dilemma, wondering if their life choices are really OK or if they’re missing out on a family life by refusing to settle for Mr. Almost-Right. 

The film’s English-language title flips the Japanese as if the question is self-directed, the women asking themselves when Mr. Right’s going to come along or worrying about the consequences if he never shows up, while the Japanese is more like the dreaded question every young woman is asked by an invasive female relative at a family gathering reminding her she’s not getting any younger and will end up alone if she’s not careful. Meanwhile, Mami is reminded that women who’ve bought their own apartments seldom marry, men aren’t interested in women who can be financially independent and don’t need to rely on them for economic support as Yukino’s (Miwako Ichikawa) longterm boyfriend explains breaking up with her immediately before moving in together as it turns out right next to Mami though she doesn’t know it as she takes out her frustrations online through an embittered anonymous Twitter account. 

For her, the point of marriage is supposed be escaping loneliness yet as her school friend Ayaka (Eri Tokunaga) will testify marriage can be the loneliest thing of all. Her husband is happy to play with the baby but hands it back every time it cries or needs changing unwilling to engage with the less fun sides of marriage or parenthood. Husbands are emotionally absent and rarely help at home, Ayaka’s trying to be helpful by taking the baby to the park so that she can focus on her chores both leaving her out of their fun and reinforcing the idea the home is all her responsibility and none his. “Don’t end up like me” Mami’s mother (Mariko Tsutsui) advises instantly seeing that her decision to marry casual boyfriend Kohei (Yu Inaba) just because he asked is doomed to end in failure, warning her that you have to “be ready to live alone” even if you marry, “no good comes of being a slave to a husband” she adds uttering the unthinkable in trying to warn her daughter of the realities of a patriarchal marriage. 

And as it turns out though five years younger vacuous rich kid Kohei is a patriarchal man whose friends all praise him for being brave and understanding in marrying an older woman while he pats himself on the back for being progressive in granting her permission to continue using her maiden name professionally after they marry. When they go to meet his conservative parents he criticises her outfit for making her look “old” while he’s worn shorts to a fancy restaurant and then orders a ridiculous green soda drink, forcing Mami to go along with his mother’s prodding that she’ll give up work when they marry to devote herself to childrearing though he’d also refused to attend a fertility/genetic screening session Mami had recommended on the grounds that it’s unnecessary because he’s a man as if childbirth is only a female concern and only women can have fertility issues or potential problems in their medical history. The more she tries to voice her worries the more he overrules her, the final straw coming as he refuses to listen to her anxiety about getting behind the wheel of a car, generally unnecessary in Tokyo, having previously been involved in an accident. She begins to wonder why it’s so important to follow the “correct path” even if it brings you no happiness solely in order to avoid people asking you with barely suppressed pity if you’re going to be single forever. 

The question comes from an older era in which it was it was near impossible for a woman to survive without a husband, but now that she can why should she put up with poor treatment and restrictions on her freedom if she is perfectly capable of supporting herself? Much younger than the others, sugar baby / professional socialite Miho (Sayuri Matsumura) meanwhile has gone the other way in trying live off men without the constraints of marriage only to find herself hamstrung by patriarchal expectations once again in having failed to realise that her lifestyle has an expiration date while she’s painted herself into a corner with no qualifications or work experience at the age of 26. The bulk of her business model is already rooted in the selling of other younger, prettier women as party guests for wealthy men and the consequences of continuing down that path are largely unpalatable to her. 

Touched by a further TV update from Mami, each of the women has a kind of epiphany that allows them to move forward into happier lives reassuring them that it’s alright to ask for more and they don’t have to hold any part of themselves back to meet the outdated expectations of traditional femininity, even Miho finding another way of harnessing the skills she does have to achieve true independence. The answer is not a total rejection of marriage or committed relationships but a reacknowledgment that to marry or not should be their own choice based on their own happiness rather than something you have to get over with to avoid the social stigma of becoming an old maid. A relatable exploration of the lives of young women in the contemporary society Fukuda’s empathetic drama eventually advances that in the end the best cure for loneliness is female solidarity in the face of a still overwhelmingly patriarchal society. 


Will I Be Single Forever? streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema

International trailer (English subtitles)

Between Us (藍に響け, Yasuo Okuaki, 2021)

Hyper-individualism goes to war with collective harmony in Yasuo Okuaki’s taiko-themed coming-of-age manga adaptation, Between Us (藍に響け, Ai ni Hibike, AKA Wadaiko Girls). Reminded that “your sound is everyone’s sound” the closed-off heroine begins to realise you can’t always just do your own thing and expect everyone else to deal with it, but in the end shows remarkably little growth as even her otherwise positive contribution of helping a similarly troubled young woman quite literally find her voice is in itself achieved mainly through abrasive bullying not to mention a persistent ableism which otherwise entirely ignores her feelings. 

Okuaki opens with an intense scene as the heroine, Tamaki (Ayaka Konno), burns her ballet shoes alone on the beach at night before staring pensively out at the ocean. As we discover, Tamaki has a lot going on that she is reluctant to share with others. Something has evidently gone wrong at home, she seems worried about money and the modest house she shares with her mother who appears to work late often is filled with packing boxes suggesting they may only recently have moved. She hasn’t told her mum she’s given up ballet, partly it seems because she’s working part-time at the local supermarket which she has to keep a secret because the elite Catholic school she attends has a rule against part-time jobs. Wandering around alone however while her friends, who each seem to come from extremely wealthy families, assume she’s heading to ballet Tamaki becomes captivated by the sound of taiko drumming, eventually spotted by a young woman practicing, Maria (Sayu Kubota), who happens to be mute. 

Despite the impossibility of direct communication, Maria manages to covey her enthusiasm for the drums presumably picking up on something in Tamaki which, for unexplained reasons, she is extremely reluctant to explore. Fellow drummer Kahoko, however, is dead set against her joining the club even setting her a cruel and impossible challenge as a kind of entrance exam. The irony is that even as the sullen Tamaki stands up against low-level bullying from Kahoko who makes a basic training exercise seem like humiliating punishment, Tamaki becomes far too into perfecting the art of taiko, obsessively honing her craft and displaying natural ability but quickly losing patience with her fellow drummers who are mostly playing for fun and friendship. 

Tamaki is and remains distinctly unpleasant to be around while Kahoko seems to soften, becoming a source of support to the other girls, and poor Maria is rounded on by just about everyone including maternal figure Sister Nitche (Mariko Tsutsui) who was once herself a top taiko coach but for reasons unknown gave up the art, got religion, and became a nun. Sister Nitche was known as a demon coach, and the decision to reassume her role does indeed resurface an element of cruelty in her unseen in her role as high school teacher and carer at the attached children’s centre. Maria first bonds with Tamaki in revealing to her that she was rendered mute in a car accident and has been undergoing rehabilitative therapy in an attempt to regain her speech but that it hasn’t been going as well as she’d hoped. Yet both Sister Nitche and Tamaki eventually set on her, insisting that the reason she’s not making progress is because she’s not trying hard enough instead of, perhaps, reassuring her that even if she not able to improve her speaking it would still be fine and there’s no need to rush. 

The conflict seems to be between the ultra-competitive, deeply wounded Tamaki and the ethos of taiko which demands group harmony. There’s no point being a show off because the group must move as one, yet Tamaki struggles to accommodate herself to the idea of adapting to the collective rhythm insisting everyone attempt to match her speed while suggesting that those who can’t aren’t up to the task and should voluntarily resign rather than bring the group down, echoing the rather harsh survival of the fittest philosophy espoused by a transformed Sister Nitche. Just as she had, Tamaki later turns on Maria in the face of her own failure repeatedly insisting that she is a “loser” who wouldn’t fight for taiko or for her voice in a confrontation that leads first to a physical fight and then to an intense taiko battle that bears out the repeated notion of baring one’s soul through the beating of the drum. 

There is an unmistakable though unresolved homoerotisicm in the conflict between the two young women filled as it is with repressed emotion, frustration, and unspoken desires all of which appear to dissipate through the climax of the physically and emotionally intense taiko session. Nevertheless, there is also something in uncomfortable in the fact of Maria’s path towards finding her literal voice arising because of what is essentially abusive bullying rather than encouragement or positive support especially as it also denies her the right to speak her feelings honestly while no one is making much of an effort to listen to her. Tamaki meanwhile remains somewhat unsympathetic even in her silent concern for Maria betrayed by the unexpected warmth of her smile in seeing her deciding to return to taiko, her own buried troubles otherwise unresolved while her unforgiving hyper-individualism is tacitly condoned even as she learns to submit herself to the collective rhythm and finds through it the sense of connection she was perhaps missing. 


Between Us screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

One Night (ひとよ, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“You can live however you want, you’re totally free. You can be anything” a woman tells her children, believing she is freeing them from a cycle of violence and oppression but unwittingly consigning them to another kind of cage in Kazuya Shiraishi’s raw family drama One Night (ひとよ, Hitoyo). Adapting the stage play by Yuko Kuwabara, Shiraishi is the latest in a long line of directors asking questions about the true nature of family, taking the hahamono or “mother movie” in a new direction but ultimately finding faith at least in the concept as the family unit finally begins to repair itself in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. 

The “one night” of the title is that of 23rd May, 2004 on which wife and mother Koharu (Yuko Tanaka) backs over her relentlessly abusive husband in one of the taxis operated by their company. At some point, even if only perhaps in those few moments sitting at the steering wheel, Koharu appears to have given this a great deal of thought. Calmly walking back into her familial home where her three children are each sporting prominent facial wounds from a recent beating, she hands each of them a handmade onigiri and explains that she has just killed their father. Planning to hand herself in she reassures them that an uncle will look after them and the company so they’ve no need to worry. She has no idea how long she’ll be in prison for, but cautions that she may not return for 15 years hoping that by then the stigma will have passed. On her way out, she pauses to tell them that she is proud of what she’s done, saving them from their father’s authoritarian abuse and urging them to be free to live their lives in whichever way they choose. 

15 years later, however, the children find themselves burdened by her words. Yuji (Takeru Satoh) who dreamed of being a novelist has become a cynical journalist working for a pornographic magazine. Daiki (Ryohei Suzuki) who has a stammer and wanted to be a mechanic has never been able to hold down a steady job and is on the brink of divorce after showing signs of becoming abusive himself, while Sonoko (Mayu Matsuoka) who wanted to be a hairdresser is now working as a bar hostess drinking herself into oblivion. Living with the legacy of that one night, none of them has been able to live freely or to achieve their dreams but has remained arrested in some way waiting for Koharu’s return. 

While in her mind she freed them, the children find themselves dealing with the secondary sense of abandonment in her decision to exile herself from their lives, essentially leaving them to deal with the fallout of her “crime” all alone. Not only are they now orphaned, they also have to live with the stigma of being related to a notorious murderess with all of the peculiar burdens that entails in Japanese society from harassment and bullying to reduced employment opportunities and an internalised shame. Meanwhile, their mother’s words ring in their ears, urging them to be free, to be who they wanted to be and achieve their dreams, but they find themselves paralysed by the pressure to live up to the sacrifice Koharu has made on their behalf. While Sonoko is the most sympathetic, the boys are consumed by resentment. Koharu sees her 15 years of wandering as an exile undertaken as a kind of atonement and intended to keep the children safe from further social stigma, but her sons feel only the abandonment. 

Still, “mom’s still mom. It’s we who’ve got to change” Daiki tries to convince his brother, “we’re not kids anymore” he later adds as they recreate a thwarted teenage attempt to save their mother but in a very real sense they are. The problem in Daiki’s marriage turns out be rooted in insecurity, a failure of intimacy that saw him reluctant to let his wife and daughter into his traumatic past which finally expressed itself in violence. Meanwhile another driver at the taxi firm finds himself in a parallel struggle as he processes his own troubled relationship with an estranged teenage son and comes to realise his sins are indeed being visited on him despite his best efforts to prevent it. He sympathises with Koharu against the “ungrateful” children who, like the those of the classic hahamono, fail to understand the quality of their parent’s love as expressed in the sacrifices they have made on their behalf. Yet it’s Yuji who had branded his family a mere simulacrum who eventually fights hardest to save it, paving the way for a reconciliation as they finally bring closure to the events of 15 years previously and begin to move on with the rest of their lives. A raw and painful examination of familial trauma, Shiraishi’s bruising drama eventually allows the family to reclaim the night, repairing their fracturing bonds in sharing their emotional burdens freed at last from the oppressive legacies of abuse and resentment.


One Night streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app on Sept. 6 & 11 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Keishi Ohtomo, 2020)

“There’s nothing wrong with leaving it a mystery” the enigmatic presence at the centre of Keishi Ohtomo’s Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Eiri) advises the hero as he vows to look into the unexpected appearance of a fish found swimming in the wrong river. Best known for mainstream blockbusters such as the Rurouni Kenshin series, March Comes in Like a Lion, and Museum, Ohtomo shits towards an arthouse register in adapting the Akutagawa Prize-winning novella by Shinsuke Numata which is in a sense obsessed with the unseen, the hidden details of life and secret sides we all have that are perhaps intended to protect but also leave us vulnerable. 

Konno (Go Ayano), an introverted man in his 30s, has just been transferred to rural Morioka by the pharmaceuticals company at which he works. He keeps himself to himself and largely spends his time caring for a Jasmine plant which appears to have some especial yet unexplained significance. It’s at work that he first encounters the enigmatic Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda), reminding him that theirs is a non-smoking building only to discover that Hiasa isn’t the sort to care very much about rules. For some reason or other, Hiasa takes a liking to Konno, turning up at his house with sake, teaching him how to fish, and going on what to anyone else look like dates. Yet when winter comes Hiasa abruptly quits his job and disappears without a word, resurfacing a few months later with a better haircut and a sharp suit explaining that he’s now a top salesman for a suspicious insurance company designed to help pay for expensive ceremonies such as weddings or more commonly funerals. The two men resume their friendship, but soon enough Hiasa again disappears. Only when he’s contacted by a co-worker (Mariko Tsutsui) after the earthquake hoping to find him because it turns out he owes her a large some of money does Konno begin to reflect on how little he might really have known this man he thought a friend. 

“Right from the start you have to groom it so it’s tantalised” Hiasa later explains, operating on several metaphorical levels but talking quite literally about lighting a fire. Konno has to wonder if that’s all it really was, if Hiasa is just a manipulative sociopath playing a long game, getting him on side in case he’d be useful later. When he resurfaces after his first absence, Hiasa eventually asks Konno to sign for one of his policies claiming that he’s one away from his quota and will be getting the can if he can’t fill it despite having talked a big game in proudly showing off a commendation he’d won as a top salesman when he turned up on Konno’s doorstep. “What you see is where the light hit for an instant, no more than that. When you look at someone you should look at the other side, the part where the shadow is deepest”, Hiasa had pointedly told him during a heated fireside conflagration, seemingly hurt as if in the moment he had wanted to be seen and is disappointed to be met with Konno’s irritated rejection, fed up with his mixed signals and distance both emotional and physical. 

Yet Konno is also himself living half in shadow as a closeted man choosing not to disclose his sexuality to those around him. A meeting with an old friend who has since transitioned presumably having embraced her own essential self raises further questions about the reasons he accepted the transfer to Morioka as if he too, like Hiasa, wanted to disappear from his old life and reinvent himself somewhere new, he’s just done it in a more conventional way. Even in contemporary Japan which is in some ways very old fashioned when it comes to the technology of everyday life and with a strong belief in personal privacy it’s surprisingly easy to just vanish at the best of times, but even his family members who are in no hurry to find him wonder if Hiasa may simply have used the cover of disaster to disappear for good. His conflicted brother (Ken Yasuda) affirms he thinks he’s probably alive because he’s “someone who can survive anywhere” which in the way he’s putting it is not much of a character reference. 

The conclusion Konno seems to come to, in a happier epilogue some years later, is that Hiasa himself was perhaps a fish swimming in the wrong waters, unable to adapt to the world around him. Perhaps it’s alright for him to remain a mystery because a mystery was what he was. Konno, by contrast, sets himself free apparently less gloomy, no longer living half in shadow, even if still hung up on the one that got away. A slow burn affair, Beneath the Shadow eventually refuses conflagration in favour of something cooler in accepting that you never really know anyone, perhaps not even yourself, even when you peer into the darkest part of the shadow. In the end you just have to let it go, “the cycle keeps repeating”. 


Beneath the Shadow streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shell and Joint (Isamu Hirabayashi, 2019)

A capsule hotel is a contradictory space, a hub for compartmentalised pods which are nevertheless joined to form one greater whole. The people who frequent them are usually looking for confined private spaces as if cocooning themselves before emerging as something new, or at least renewed, yet the hotel at the centre of Isamu Hirabayashi’s Shell and Joint is slightly different, a noticeably upscale take on convenience with its stylishly modernist design and well appointed spaces from showering facilities to saunas. It is also, it seems, at the nexus of life and death as its bored receptionists, childhood friends, debate what it is to live and what it is to die. 

Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), the female receptionist, has considered suicide many times but continues to survive. She attributes her death urge not to existential despair but to brain-altering bacteria and is certain that a vaccine will eventually be found for suicidal impulses. While her deskmate Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe) is struck by the miracle of existence, Sakamoto thinks his tendency to adopt a cosmic perspective is a just a way of dealing with his fear of death in rejecting its immediacy. Her suicide attempts are not a way of affirming her existence and she has no desire to become something just to prove she exists, nor does she see the point in needing to achieve. Just as in her bacterial theory, she rejects her own agency and represents a kind of continuous passivity that is, ironically, the quality Nitobe had admired in the accidentally acquired beauty of the pseudoscorpion. 

This essential divide is mirrored in the various conversations between women which recur throughout the film and mostly revolve around their exasperation with the often selfish immediacy of the male sex drive. The creepy “mad scientist” starts inappropriate conversations about sperm counts and his colleague’s impending marriage, offering to loan him some of his apparently prime stock to vicariously father a child with the man’s “cute” fiancée who, in a later conversation with another female researcher, expresses her ambivalence towards the marriage, like Sakamoto passively going with the flow, because men are like caterpillars permanently stuck in the malting phase. Her colleague agrees and offers her “men are idiots” theory which is immediately proved by the male scientists failing to move a box through a doorway. 

A middle-aged woman, meanwhile, recounts the process of breaking up with her five boyfriends who span the acceptable age range from vital, inexperienced teenager to passionate old age through the solipsistic, insecure self-obsessed middle-aged man but her greatest thrill lies in the negation of the physical, remarking that “ultimately eroticism is all mental” while suggesting the ephiphany has made her life worth living. On the other hand, a young man is terrorised in a sauna by a strange guy claiming that he is actually a cicada and simultaneously confiding in him about the strength of his erection along with the obsession it provokes to find a suitable hole in which to insert it. 

“What’s the deal with leaving offspring?” another of the women asks, seemingly over the idea of reproduction. The constant obsession with crustacea culminates in a butoh dance sequence in which lobsters spill their eggs down the stairs of an empty building (much to the consternation of an OL sitting below and, eventually, the security team) while other strange guests tell stories of women who underwent immaculate conception only to be drawn to the water where hundreds of tiny crab-like creatures made a temporary exit. The urge to reproduce, however, necessarily returns us to death and the idea of composition. The melancholy story of a Finnish woman drawn to the hotel because of its similarity to a beehive meditates on the sorrow of those left behind while a fly and a mite mourn their cockroach friend by wondering what happens to his dream now that he has died only to realise that because he told them about it, it now lives on with them. Nitobe wonders what the corruption of the body in death means for the soul and for human dignity, while the images Hirabayashi leaves us with are of a corpse slowly suppurating until only a scattered skeleton remains. Such is life, he seems to say. Life is itself surreal, something which Hirabayashi captures in his absurdist skits of the variously living as they pass through the strange hotel and then, presumably, make their exits towards who knows what in the great cycle of existence.


Shell and Joint streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. Viewers in the US will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s Japan Cuts!

International trailer (dialogue free)

A Girl Missing (よこがお, Koji Fukada, 2019)

A Girl Missing poster 1In Harmonium, Koji Fukada explored the death of the family unit as a harried father found the foundations of his home eroded by a mysterious “stranger” with whom he shared an unspoken connection. A Girl Missing (よこがお Yokogao) pushes a little deeper in demonstrating how profoundly the foundations of a life can be shaken by frustrated connections, misunderstandings, and unspeakable desire. Probing deeper still, it wants to ask us on what foundations we’ve chosen to build our selfhoods, why it is that we don’t know ourselves without those tiny markers that tell us where we stand, and if it is really possible to rediscover a sense of self if we somehow go missing from our own lives.

Beginning in the mysterious second timeline, Fukada opens with the heroine changing her identity through the time-honoured fashion of a haircut. Calling herself Risa, she brushes off the hairdresser’s suggestion that they’ve met before, but she hasn’t chosen this salon because of its reputation or proximity to her home. Flashing back some months, we see the same woman looking a little softer and apparently working as a homecare nurse known as Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) to an elderly woman dying of stomach cancer. Ichiko’s colleagues worry that she’s becoming too emotionally involved with the Oishi household, helping the two daughters – uni student Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and high schooler Saki (Miyu Ogawa), study in cafes in her off hours, but she enjoys playing mother and does after all like to help. Meanwhile, she’s also happily engaged to a doctor (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) with a young son and looking forward to starting a brand-new family life of her own.

All that is derailed, however, when Saki goes missing in a suspected abduction on her way home from cram school. Thankfully, she’s found alive, unhurt, and apparently relatively well adjusted a few days later and anyone would assume the drama to be over, only it turns out that the suspect is Ichiko’s own nephew whom she briefly introduced to Saki at a cafe on the night in question. Feeling tremendously guilty and confused though she herself had nothing to do with the incident, Ichiko feels she must confess and make a formal apology to the Oishis but Motoko stops her fearing that the family will fire Ichiko and she’ll never see her again. Ichiko decides to trust Motoko and keep quiet, but it will prove to be a bad decision not least because it is in such sharp contrast to her otherwise straightforward and honest character.

The film’s Japanese title, “Yokogao” or “profile” reminds us that it is not possible to see the entirety of any one thing, only a single facet and more often that not the facet that it particularly wants you to see. Ichiko is guileless, innocent, and naive in her innate kindness. She doesn’t see how her relationship with the Oishi girls could eventually become problematic because, as a nurse, she’s used to doing what needs to be done when it needs doing. What we see of her is a woman about to marry “late” by the standards of her society into a readymade family, an intensely maternal figure looking for people who need mothering. Meanwhile, Saki’s disappearance exposes cracks in the Oishi household, Motoko’s grumpy response of “would you rather it was me?’ to her mother’s wails of “why her?” beginning to explain some of her seeming disaffection with her family.

Yet as much as there may be a maternal component in her desperation to keep Ichiko in her life, we can infer from all her plaintive looks that there is another kind of desire in play, one which she seems to regard as unspeakable. Ichiko, oblivious, does not quite realise the depth to which her accidental rejections wound the troubled young woman but equally could not anticipate the casual cruelty of her petty revenge. Upset that Ichiko is not catching her drift, Motoko leaks her connection to the case to the papers, and then tells them a secret shared in confidence to pour salt on the wound. Instantly regretful and caught in the white heat of passion, Motoko fails to realise the extent to which her desire to return the hurt done to her will only wound her more in ensuring Ichiko disappears from her life for good.

Ichiko then does something much the same, reinventing herself as “Risa” she lives in an empty apartment overlooking Motoko’s with the sole aim of taking revenge against the woman who pretended to be her friend and then betrayed her. But Ichiko does not understand why Motoko did what she did, and so her own revenge is also a misplaced act of self harm which causes her to absent herself from herself, assuming another identity better disposed to cruelty but finding it an awkward fit.

Fukada places emotional repression at the heart of all. Ichiko, despite her kindness, keeps others at a distance without entering into true intimacy with anyone, while Motoko apparently struggles to articulate perhaps even to herself the truth of her own feelings, childishly hitting back when slighted and unable to bear the possibility that she is in love with someone who cannot return her feelings. Forever at odds, they see each other only in profile. The desire for revenge destroys them both, but despite the pain and inescapability of regret, they have to find new ways of going on, making little nicks on their identities to help them remember who they really are. A melancholy tale of frustrated desires, A Girl Missing flirts with constructed identities polluted by social toxicity but leaves its heroines on (slightly) firmer ground in having at least taken what control they can over the forces which destabilise them.


A Girl Missing was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン, Bernard Rose, 2019)

Samurai Marathon posterAfter two and a half centuries of peaceful slumber, Japan was jolted out of its isolation by the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. The sudden intrusion proved alarming to most and eventually provoked a new polarisation in feudal society between those who remained loyal to the Shogun and the old ways, and those who thought Japan’s best hope was to modernise as quickly as possible to fend off a foreign invasion if it did eventually arise as many feared it would. Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) has a foot in both camps. He has no desire to move against the Shogun, but fears that centuries of peace have made his men soft and complacent. His solution is to institute a “Samurai Marathon”, forcing his retainers to run 36 miles to prepare for a coming battle.

If you’ve spent your life sitting around and occasionally waving a sword at something just to keep your hand in, suddenly trying to run 36 miles might not be the best idea, as many samurai keen to win favour through racing glory discover. There is, however, an additional problem in that, unbeknownst to anyone, samurai accountant Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is a secret ninja spy for the shogun. Confused by the preparations for the race, he reported that a possible rebellion was in the offing only to bitterly regret his decision on realising Itakura’s anxieties are only related to external, not internal, strife. All of which means, the Shogun’s men are on their way and Itakura’s retainers are sitting ducks.

Helmed by British director Bernard Rose, Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン) plays out much more like a conventional European historical drama than your average jidaigeki. Where samurai movies with an unusual focus tend to be comedic, Rose opts for a strangely arch tone which is somewhere between po-faced Shakespeareanism and post-modern irony. Rather than the stoical elegance which defines samurai warfare, the violence is real and bloody, if somewhat over the top in the manner of a gory Renaissance painting complete with gasping severed heads and gruesome sprays of dark red blood.

A chronicle of bakumatsu anxiety, the film also takes a much more pro-American perspective than might perhaps be expected, taking the view that the arrival of the Americans heralded in a new era of freedom and the origins of democracy rather than the more ambivalent attitude found in most jidaigeki which tend to focus much more strongly on the divisions within samurai society between those who wanted to modernise and those who just wanted to kick all the foreigners back out again so everything would go back to “normal”. Itakura, like many, is suspicious of foreign influence and the gun-toting, yankee doodle humming Shogunate bodyguard is indeed a villain though it’s Itakura himself who will end up firing a gun as if conceding that the future has arrived and the era of the sword has passed. 

Ramming the point home, Itakura is also forced to concede to the desires of his wilful daughter, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), who wanted to travel and see the world while her society (and conventionally minded though doting father) insisted all there was for her was marriage and a life stuck inside castle walls. Managing to escape and disguising herself by cutting her hair and putting on peasant clothes, Yuki is able to evade detection longer than expected precisely because few people have ever seen her face. She also gets to make use of some of the samurai training she’s received by holding her own out on the road, though it seems improbable that her father would let her ride out alone even if he finally allows her free rein to go where she chooses.

Meanwhile, other ambitious retainers try to use the race to their own advantage though there’s poignant melancholy in one lowly foot soldier’s (Shota Sometani) dreams of being made a samurai considering that in just a few short years the samurai will be no more. The final sepia shift into the present day and a modern marathon may be a stretch, as might the unnecessary final piece of onscreen text informing us that we’ve just watched the origin story for the Japanese marathon, but the main thrust of the narrative seems to be that the samurai were running full pelt into an uncertain future, preparing to surrender their swords at the finish line. An unusual take on the jidaigeki, Samurai Marathon perhaps takes an anachronising view of Bakumatsu chaos in which the samurai themselves recognise the end of their era but finds its feet on the road as its self-interested heroes find common purpose in running home.


Samurai Marathon screens as the opening night gala of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 28 where actress Nana Komatsu will be in attendance to collect her Screen International Rising Star Asia Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Jam (SABU, 2018)

PrintSABU began his directorial career with a reputation for shooting on the run. Time may have caught up with him, in that relaxed contemplation has begun to replace frenetic action in the more recent stages of his career, but it’s to his first feature, Dangan Runner, that he (after a fashion) returns in the similarly structured Jam. Random circumstance conspires once again to send three fugitive guys on a zany collision course, but this time the crash offers each of them something a little more positive (to a point, at least) than a grudging acceptance of life’s impossibilities.

The first of our three heroes, Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi), is a cheesy enka singer with an army of middle-aged female fans whom he is perfectly aware of exploiting. Despite his “star status” with the ladies who crowd out his meet and greets, Hiroshi’s big concert is at the Civic Centre in Kitakyushu which is not exactly the Budokan, but it’ll do for the minute. Trouble brews when the wealthiest of his fans, Mrs. Sakata, suggests a change to the setlist only for a backbencher to leap to Hiroshi’s defence with slightly embarrassing fervour. Masako’s (Mariko Tsutsui) crazed fan aesthetic is later brought to its zenith when she gets Hiroshi to chug down some home made soup which is laced with some kind of knock out drug.

Meanwhile, all round good guy Takeru (Keita Machida) is driving around in a not quite classic car and looking for people to help because a Buddha appeared to him and told him if he did three good deeds a day his girlfriend would wake up from her coma, and ex-con Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is patiently pushing his grandma round town in a wheelchair and taking revenge on the gangsters who have betrayed him every time her back is turned.

“Pay back is scary as hell” one of the gangsters affirms as he laments potentially mixing up a thoroughly good guy like Takeru in their nasty yakuza business. As the other had earlier outlined, this is a world very much defined by karma – you do good and good comes back to you, but do something bad and you’re in for more of the same. The logic is sound, and yet it doesn’t quite work the way you’d expect it to. Takeru is nothing but good, too good as it turns out, but constantly suffers precisely because of his goodness. Not only is his girlfriend gunned down in front of him during an act of random street violence, but he eventually finds himself tricked into helping the exact same thugs commit further crime only to attempt heroics and see that massively backfire too. Even so, he keeps on trying to be good and perhaps it really will pay off in the end.

Meanwhile, Hiroshi seems to be leading something of a charmed life though perhaps through a prism of self-loathing. He knows he is a cheesy lounge singer and one step up from gigalo in the way he accommodates himself to these older ladies in whom his only interest is their money. This is perhaps why he finds himself desperately playing along when kidnapped by Masako in the hope he will write a song just for her (that’ll show the snooty Mrs. Sakata), but finally betraying her in the final moment as if attempting to reassert his artistic autonomy. Masako eventually makes a sacrifice of her own which sends Hiroshi running for the hills only to finally acknowledge a sense of responsibility for his willing misuse of her loneliness and disappointment in selling her an impossible dream of connection.

As for Tetsuo, pushing granny round the city by night, the yakuza lurk round every corner proving the past really is impossible to escape. As expected, the paths of the three men eventually intersect in strange and various ways though each is bound for a different destination and an individual epiphany. Another boy band odyssey from SABU, this time in collaboration with studio LDH and the members of EXILE, Jam takes a fairly ironic view of the idol business if thinly disguised in Hiroshi’s depressing business plan of self-debasement and fansploitation while simultaneously asking if you really do reap what you sow when it comes to cosmic karma in an increasingly surreal existence.


Jam was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Born Bone Born (洗骨, Toshiyuki Teruya, 2018)

Bone Born Bone poster“Is this really Japan?!” asks the bemused boyfriend of the protagonist of Born Bone Born (洗骨, Senkotsu), only to be met with the reply “on paper, at least”. Comedian Toshiyuki Teruya, better known as Gori, returns to his native Okinawa for his second feature but to an island culture of which he was completely unaware. Aguni is one of the last on which the ancient ritual of “Senkotsu” or “bone washing” still takes place.

Beloved matriarch Emiko (Mariko Tsutsui) died four years ago. Now the time for her “senkotsu” is approaching. Daughter Yuko (Ayame Misaki) has come home, but with a secret. She is heavily pregnant and as yet unmarried, a fact she knows will scandalise the still conservative island community. Meanwhile, her her father Nobutsuna (Eiji Okuda) has retreated into drunken reverie, unable to accept his wife’s death or the many disappointments of his life. Yuko is waiting for her brother, Tsuyoshi (Michitaka Tsutsui), to arrive before explaining any further about the baby, but he even he is much less supportive than she hoped he might be and seems to be dealing with some troubles of his own which might explain why his wife and daughter have not accompanied him on this very difficult family occasion.

The island of Aguni practices open air burial, which is to say the bodies are enclosed in a wooden coffin and entombed in cave. Four years later the relatives return, retrieve the body and wash the bones before re-enclosing them in a smaller casket which will then be interred on the island’s “other world”. It is, of course, a difficult and frightening prospect to consider seeing one’s loved ones in such an altered state – so much so that many cannot bear to do it without getting roaring drunk which at least ameliorates the solemnity of the occasion. The human terror is in a sense the point as an exercise not only in memento mori but in acceptance of total loss and the finality of the physical.

Before all that, however, you still have to live and the Shinjos are having a fairly hard time of it. A small island somewhat trapped in the past, Aguni is intensely conservative and so the local old ladies can’t get their heads around Yuko’s unwed pregnancy. Yuko of course knew this would be the case but could hardly refuse to come and has braced herself for the worst of it. However, after the initial shock has worn off, she finds an unexpected ally in her stern aunt Nobuko (Yoko Ohshima) who assures her that if she finds it hard to raise the child on her own she can always come back to the island where she and Nobuko’s daughter will help if needed. Her father Nobutsuna, in boozy fog as he is, is also broadly supportive even if her brother shows little sign of coming round, engaging in unexpected small town conservatism as he accuses his little sister not only of shaming the family but of becoming a burden on it too.

In a motif that will be repeated, it’s the men who struggle to cope with loss while the women get on with life with stoicism and fortitude. Nobutsuna has remained unable to come to terms with Emiko’s death, drinking himself into oblivion while blaming himself for placing undue strain on her after their family business went bust. Nevertheless he is a good hearted man who wants the best for everyone even if his mild-mannered deference has Tsuyoshi sniping at the sidelines for his supposed fecklessness. He too blames his father for his mother’s death, but is also struggling with the elders’ expectation that he will return home to the island to take over as head of the family while there is evidently something else going on in his life which has left him irritable and judgemental.

If nothing else the Senkotsu ritual forces each of them to accept the fact of Emiko’s death, but also of her life and their own place within a great chain of humanity stretching both forward and back. In a sense, as Tsuyoshi puts it, it’s their own bones they’re washing in honour of the undying part of Emiko that exists in all of them and something of her kindly spirit certainly seems to be present on the beach that day as the family slowly repairs itself, emerging from their deep seated grief back to the friendly island solidarity as they resolve to treasure what they have in acknowledgement of what is to come.


Born Bone Born was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Takaomi Ogata, 2017)

Hungry lion posterRumour has a strange power. A baseless lie, no matter how innocuous, can quickly derail a life but the power of lie with a tiny grain of, if not truth exactly but circumstantial evidence, can prove ruinous when there are vested interests at play which make belief an attractive prospect. The heroine of Takaomi Ogata’s The Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Ueta Lion) finds herself at the centre of such a storm through no fault of her own, becoming a victim not only of her country’s restrictive social codes, tendency towards victim blaming, and reluctance to deal openly with “unpleasant” topics, but also more directly of the latent jealousy lurking in her closest friends which finds a convenient home in someone else’s scandal. Nobody will come to her rescue, her “disgrace” has exiled her from the group and she finds herself abandoned as a lonely a sacrifice to the hungry lion that feeds on social shame.

High school teacher Mr. Hosono is not exactly popular with his students. He is strict with the boys but less so with the girls, as he proves greeting one tardy student who blames a train accident for his late arrival by berating him about his regulation busting necklace while allowing a female student, Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi), who arrives a couple of minutes later to take her seat unharrassed. Midway through the register, Mr. Hosono is called away and eventually arrested in connection with the viral video all the kids were looking at before he arrived which appears to show him in a compromising position with a student. For one reason or another, a rumour spreads that Hitomi is the girl in the video. She isn’t, but few believe her strenuous denials and her life becomes one of constant strife not only because of the bullying itself, or the injustice of being falsely accused and then disbelieved by those closest to her, but by the way she is made to feel embarrassed and shamed for causing trouble to others even though she herself has done nothing wrong.

A “relationship” between a teacher and a student is never appropriate, and Mr. Hosono has at least been removed from his position at the school, but no one seems very interested in identifying the girl in the video in order to help her, only to spread ruin and rumour. Hitomi is not the girl in the video, but even if she had been there is no support on offer to her as a person who has been abused by someone in a position of power she should have been able to trust, nor are there any measures in place to ensure her academic life will not be unduly damaged by becoming involved in such a traumatic incident. Aware of the rumours, the school accepts Hitomi’s assertion that she is not the girl but still suspends her to avoid “awkwardness” and protect their own reputation. Likewise, her own mother and sister are far from supportive, berating her for bringing shame on the family and creating problems for them in making the family a target rather than standing by her in her ordeal whether she had been the girl or not.

The rumour itself seems to spring from persistent shaming and stigmatisation of atypical families. Hitomi is 18 and she has a boyfriend who is a little older. He has some shady friends and likes to push buttons as he does by causing mild embarrassment to Hitomi by taking her into the curtained off “adult” section of the local video store in an attempt to shock her. Nevertheless the pair eventually make their way to a love hotel (where they are not age checked) and he films her in a compromising position. Girls talk and Hitomi’s friends all know about her relationship which is also plastered all over her social media on which she is something of a star. Some of her friends are jealous but also harbour a degree of disapproval and the mere fact that she is already sexually active ties her to the girl in the video and casts her in an “impure” light in the cute and innocent world of high school girls. Similarly, her boyfriend’s estimation of her drops after she consents to sleep with him while his leering friends make lewd comments and regard her as an “easy” girl who has lost the right to refuse their advances.

Ostracised for essentially becoming a “fallen woman”, Hitomi is left entirely alone with no one to turn to for support. Later, authorities are keen to stress that it’s important to speak out if you’re suffering because adults will always help children but like everything else they are just empty words. The school give out a pamphlet on the importance of prudence when using social media, but refuse to accept their responsibility in failing to protect their students. The news meanwhile becomes obsessed with tearing apart Hitomi’s family, laying the blame at their feet, insisting that Hitomi’s downfall is in someway a result of her parents’ divorce even blaming her mother for having the audacity to find a “boyfriend” before her children were fully grown. The image we had of Hitomi is suddenly reversed. No longer is she a “slutty schoolgirl” involved in an illicit relationship with her teacher, but a neglected child damaged beyond repair by “liberal modern society”.

Reputation is what matters, but reputation is easily manipulated and rewritten, muddy even when objective truth is revealed. Ogata shoots in brief vignettes, each severed from the next by a stark black screen which forces us to examine the objectivity of each scene as distinct from the others, assembling our own versions of “objective” truth which are in fact guided by Ogata’s carefully crafted editing. Fake news has an agenda, truth does not, but it’s often much easier to believe the lie especially if the lie benefits us much more than the truth or enables us to feel superior to someone we secretly think needs taking down a peg or two. Society is a hungry lion which feeds on shame, externalised and internalised, as those who find themselves on the wrong sides of a series of social taboos become unwilling sacrifices to its unkind, unforgiving, and unrelenting hunger for suffering.


Screening at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 30th June, 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)