Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Yukiko Sode, 2021)

“Is that still a thing?” a young boy asks incredulously of his rather severe grandmother as she quite insensitively sets up new marriage meetings for her granddaughter seconds after being told that her fiancé has unilaterally ended their engagement earlier that day. The “aristocracy” might seem like something from a bygone age, yet as those of us living in highly stratified societies can attest it continues to place a near invisible stranglehold over the mechanisms which govern our lives. Even so, the system traps all as Yukiko Sode’s sensitive drama Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Ano Ko wa Kizoku), adapted from the novel by Mariko Yamauchi, makes plain as two women involved with the same man, as dejected and unhappy as either of them, eventually find common ground in attempting to seize their own agency from within a fiercely patriarchal society. 

At 27, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is beginning to feel as if her life is slipping away from her. As we first meet her, she’s on her way to a posh New Year meal at a fancy Tokyo hotel. The taxi driver envies her, lamenting that he drives people here all the time but has never set foot inside. The reason she’s running late, however, is a mild sense of embarrassment as evidenced by the empty chair at her side intended for the fiancé who won’t be coming. Explaining that he broke off the engagement because the timing was bad, Hanako attempts to put a brave face on the apparent shame she seems to be feeling while her sisters and mother suggest it might be for the best, he was a little too “flamboyant” and in any case they’re ideally looking for someone suitable to take over the family medical practice. While everyone is busy proposing alternative matches, only Hanako’s brother-in-law (Takashi Yamanaka) bothers to ask her what it is she really wants but all she can muster is that she’d be fine with someone “normal”. 

After a few miserable omiai meetings with dreadful men from an awkward doctor with a photo fetish to a sleazy playboy salaryman who thinks women only say they like jazz because at some point a guy liked it, Hanako begins to lose the will to live thinking perhaps that looking for the “right guy” might be aiming too high and she should just take the best offer on the table. When she meets Koichiro (Kengo Kora), however, it’s love at first sight. Showing up like Prince Charming he’s handsome, poised, softly spoken, and even posher than she is. Hanako is the perfect choice to be his wife essentially because of her innate blandness. She’s everything the society wife is supposed to be, quiet, reserved, and unassuming in her total obedience to the tenets of her “upbringing”.  

Meanwhile, Koichiro has also been in a longterm non-relationship with another woman, Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), a bar hostess from a small town who has had to struggle the whole way to make a life for herself. The pair first met at Keio University, but Miki was forced to drop out before graduating when her father lost his job despite having studied her socks off just to get a place. A member of the “in-crowd”, Koichiro’s acceptance was guaranteed because he attended an affiliated school filled with the children of the rich and powerful. Mirroring Hanako’s lunch date with her society ladies, we see Miki and her friend invited by a couple of upperclass classmates to a fancy afternoon tea only to gorp at the menu and its exorbitant price list at which the “in-crowd” do not even glance. When they meet again 10 years later and Miki explains she didn’t exactly choose her line of work, Koichiro laments it’s exactly the same for him, which it of course isn’t, but he is in a similar way trapped. 

“I just want my family to continue” he later explains to Hanako, “it’s just how I was brought up. The same reason you married me”. In a certain way, Koichiro was no more free than Miki, ironically feminised reduced to his capacity to perpetuate the family line while aware that his whole life has been mapped out for him since the day he was born. He went to Keio, married a suitable woman, and is expected to run for political office. Hanako married him because she was expected to marry someone and it was undoubtedly a good match, yet she’s unhappy because the relationship is devoid of intimacy while her in-laws ironically pressure her about the lack of an heir. She suggests getting a job for something to do, but asking her brother-in-law for advice is reminded she’d need to talk to her husband and family first. 

Hanako’s friend, fellow aristocrat and concert violinist Itsuko (Shizuka Ishibashi), meanwhile has remained quite defiantly single explaining to Miki whom she’d met by chance that she believes a woman should be financially independent partly because her mother had wanted to leave her father who had several affairs and numerous illegitimate children but couldn’t because she had no way to support herself, upperclass women largely being brought up to be the wives of important men. As she tells Miki, she hates society’s tendency to pit women against each other and isn’t here to judge her about her relationship with Koichiro but merely to talk. Rather than a bitter love triangle what arises between the women is a sense of solidarity, each finding common ground in being victims of a patriarchal society even if their “upbringings” and social status are currently very different. While Miki perhaps admires from afar but does not particularly resent the “in-crowd”, Hanako begins to see the various ways her “upbringing” has trapped her, attracted by Miki’s sense of confidence and independence remarking that her life seems “lived in”, struck by the warmth of the photos she has on her wall of various trips with friends. 

Her mother had told her to “close her eyes to some things and try to get along” hearing the sad tale of a woman who managed to escape the golden prison of the aristocracy but only at the cost of her child, a cruelty Hanako had been too naive to consider. As Itsuko had told her, Tokyo is a compartmentalised city where you only meet members of your own social class, yet through her accidental contact with Miki she begins to realise another life is possible even if not quite shaking off her privilege as she rejects the tenets of her upbringing to seize her own agency while Koichiro remains trapped within the feudal legacy unable to free himself of the outdated notions of filial responsibility. A tale of cross-class, female solidarity, Aristocrats takes aim at the ironic equality of a system which damages all, even if some remain wilfully complicit, while affording the ability to its protagonists to sidestep the forces which constrain them to claim their own freedom brokered by mutual support and the aspiration towards a freer society. 


Aristocrats streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Screening again:

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

Original trailer (English subtitles)