What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mitsuhito Shiraha, 2016)

What's for Dinner Mom posterJapanese cinema has a preoccupation with mothers and the nature of motherhood, but the mothers of the typical “hahamono” tend to be either saintly, self sacrificing figures whose selfless love often goes unrecognised, or problematic matriarchs whose fierce love and desire to protect their children has caused them to transgress and perhaps lose their children’s love. The mother at the centre of What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mama, Gohan Mada?) falls into a more realistic category – loving, self sacrificing, imperfect and perhaps sometimes misunderstood but always doing the best for her two daughters even in difficult circumstances. Where What’s For Dinner, Mom? differs from the accepted pattern is in its use of the domestic world to ask questions about culture and identity, and about all the various ways one never quite knows one’s family.

Tae (Haruka Kinami) and Yo (Izumi Fujimoto), sisters and now middle-aged women, are preparing to clear their family home 20 years after the death of their mother (Michiko Kawai). What’s taken them so long to make the decision is never revealed but both are as happy as possible about the idea and it seems Tae and her husband plan to knock the house down and build their own on the same plot – not quite so radical a thing as it might sound, Japan has no real housing market and “modern” houses are often knocked down and rebuilt every 20 to 30 years. Whilst packing things away, Tae finds a small box full of her mother’s keepsakes – chiefly letters and photographs along with a handwritten recipe book she began keeping in 1972.

Though Tae has lived in Japan for all her adult life, she was born in Taiwan and is half Taiwanese. Tae’s father passed away from lung cancer when she was small, but was a depressed, sometimes difficult man with ambivalent feelings towards his home nation. His own family had come from the mainland, but he’d lived in Taiwan under Japanese rule and attended university in Japan. He felt himself to be Japanese and was constantly upset and angry about the turbulent political situation of the post-war nation, facing its own series of identity crises and a protracted period of oppressive martial law.

Nevertheless, after their unpredictable whirlwind romance, Tae’s mother Kazue moved to Taiwan to live with her husband’s family and became determined to adapt to the local culture – chiefly through food. After her husband died in Japan, Kazue kept Taiwan alive for her daughters through continuing to cook the dishes she’d learned from her friends and family in Taiwan (even though her intensely “Japanese” husband only ever wanted to eat yudofu). Though Tae at one point urged to her mother to stop cooking Taiwanese and give her stereotypically cute high school bento, she quickly realised her mistake and Kazue’s unusual Taiwanese cooking became a local hit (even boosting the availability of the previously unobtainable pig’s trotters).

Despite her love of the food, Tae has all but forgotten her Taiwanese roots since her mother’s death and doesn’t know how to cook any of the dishes herself. Tae’s mild identity crisis comes to the fore in the second half of the film, though it’s an oddly under developed plot strand given the centrality of the cuisine. When she eventually makes the decision to visit her father’s remaining family, Tae seems to understand Taiwanese Mandarin but usually replies in Japanese (her uncle, accompanying her, is fluent). Like Kazue’s diary, Tae’s reminiscences are accompanied by on screen intertitles written in Chinese characters drawn childishly (even the characters which are identical to those used in Japanese are somewhat awkwardly rendered), which points to a kind of duality but is never really resolved even if Tae is able to explain a strange childhood memory and bring a piece of her past home with her.

Through her food odyssey and return to source, Tae is able to appreciate her mother’s love and sacrifice from an adult perspective, no longer left with teenage resentment and unfair anger over her early death but reclaiming her happy memories and appreciating the hardship her mother must have faced as a single mother in pre-bubble Japan. Despite its warm and fuzzy tone, What’s For Dinner, Mom? occasionally seems as if it wants to do something bigger by briefly introducing larger themes – Tae’s father’s depression, illness, the difficult political situation of post-war Taiwan, and the complex interplay between the two nations, but is content to settle back into a comforting “hahamono” tale of selfless motherhood finally appreciated only when it’s too late. Nevertheless it does what it set out to do in telling the story of a warm and loving family anchored by a kind yet determined woman and tables full of wholesome home cooking offered with an open, internationalist, heart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Katsuyuki Motohiro, 2009)

go find a psychic posterHow old is too old to still believe in Santa? Yone Sakurai (Masami Nagasawa), the heroine of Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Magare! Spoon) longs to believe the truth is out there even if everyone else thinks she must be a bit touched in the head. If there really are people with psychic powers, however, they might not feel very comfortable coming forward. After all, who wants to be the go to sofa moving guy when everyone finds out you have telekinesis? That’s not even factoring in the fear of being abducted by the government and experimented on!

In any case, Yone has her work cut out for her when the TV variety show she works for which has a special focus on paranormal abilities sends her out out in search of “true” psychics after a series of on air disasters has their viewer credibility ratings plummeting. Ideally speaking, Yone needs to find some quality superhero action in time for the big Christmas Eve special, but her lengthy quest up and down Japan brings her only the disappointment of fake yetis and charlatan monks. That is until she unwittingly ends up at Cafe Kinesis which holds its very own psychics anonymous meeting every Christmas Eve so the paranormal community can come together in solidarity without fearing the consequences of revealing their abilities.

Based on a comic stage play, Go Find a Psychic! roots its humour in the everyday. The psychics of Cafe Kinesis are a bunch of ordinary middle-aged men of the kind you might find in any small town watering hole anywhere in Japan. The only difference is, they have a collection of almost useless superhuman abilities including the manipulation of electronic waves (useful for getting an extra item out of a vending machine), telekinesis (“useful” for throwing your annoying boss halfway across the room), X-ray vision (which has a number of obvious applications), and mind reading (or more like image transmission). The bar owner is not a psychic himself but was once helped by one which is why he set up the bar, hoping to meet and thank the person who frightened off an angry dog that was trying to bite him. Seeing as all the guests are psychic, no one is afraid to show off their talents but when a newcomer, Mr. Kanda (Hideto Iwai), suddenly shows up it creates a problem when the gang realise his “ability” of being “thin” is just the normal kind of skinniness. Seeing as he’s not a proper psychic, can they really let him leave and risk exposing the secrets of Cafe Kinesis?

Meanwhile, Yone’s quest continues – bringing her into contact with a strange man who claims he can withstand the bite of a poisonous African spider. Needless to say, the spider will be back later when the psychics become convinced Yone’s brought it with her presenting them with a conflict. They don’t want her to find out about their psychic powers and risk getting put on TV, but they can’t very well let her walk off with a poisonous spider trapped about her person. Despite small qualms about letting Kanda leave in one piece, the psychics aren’t bad guys and it is Christmas after all. Realising Yone just really loves all sort of psychic stuff and is becoming depressed after getting her illusions repeatedly shattered, the gang decide to put on a real Christmas show to rekindle her faith in the supernatural.

Just because you invite a UFO to your party and it doesn’t turn up it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Some things can’t be explained by science. Maybe those old guys from the bar really can make miracles if only someone points them in the right direction. Like a good magic trick, perhaps it’s better to keep a few secrets and not ask too many questions about how things really work. For Yone the world is better with a little magic in it, even if you have to admit that people who want to go on TV aren’t usually going to be very “genuine”. That doesn’t mean that “genuine” isn’t out there, but if you find it you might be better to keep it to yourself or risk losing it entirely.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍, Naoki Segi, 2011)

Ramen Samurai posterSet in the ‘90s, Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍) is in many ways a post-Showa story or a tale of one man’s reaction to bubble era disillusionment. It’s also in the fine tradition of legacy movies in which a troubled child reflects on a complicated relationship with a late parent and struggles to accept their role as an inheritor of skills and knowledge they’d spent much of their youth attempting to reject. Yet the hero of Ramen Samurai, though he maybe reluctant, is more willing than most to pick up his father’s burden, walking back through family history with his long-suffering mother and rediscovering the heroism which lay behind his sometimes difficult father’s tough guy exterior. Hikaru (Dai Watanabe) does not see himself as a man like his father – he’s no “hero” and bears no natural inclination towards rebellion, but only through addressing his father’s life can he learn to define his own. This is all, of course, a roundabout way to discovering the soul of ramen lies in the confidence of the chef.

In 1990 Hikaru, a graphic designer, gets a call at work from his mum to let him know his father has had a stroke. Hikaru left town in a hurry some years earlier, rejecting the idea of taking over the ramen restaurant for a life in bubble era Tokyo. On his father’s death he assumes his natural responsibility and comes home but customers say his ramen’s not as good as his dad’s, and he has trouble keeping his staff in line because they simply don’t accept him. Try as he might, Hikaru just can’t seem to find a way to replicate his father’s recipe, in the store or in life.

Yet there’s a nostalgia in him that sees him want to try. Kurume, a small town in Kyushu, is defined by its ramen – a local delicacy that once brought tourists and general prosperity to the area, but during bubble era “modernisation”, the “backward” yatai ramen stands with their colourful tarpaulins were deemed too reminiscent of post-war privation to survive. The carts were shunted away from the new sophisticated city centre while the police started restricting licenses to run them, eventually prohibiting their sale and limiting their inheritance to direct family members. Hikaru is at least his father’s son and so has a natural right to take over the business even if he has hitherto rejected it.

Rather than a cooking tale, Ramen Samurai steps back to tell the story of its vicarious protagonist – the problematic figure of Hikaru’s dad who is, in many ways, the idealised figure of the Showa era “hero”. That’s not to say he was perfect – he drank to the point of financial ruin and frequently caused problems for his family, but his heart was always in the right place and so he was mostly forgiven. A salt of the Earth type and cool with it, Hikaru’s dad was the big man around town and the defacto leader of the yatai owner community. He brooked no injustice, stood up to the yakuza (who only had the profoundest respect for him), and sought to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Seeing a sleazy yakuza molesting a young girl, Hikaru’s dad kicked him out and later offered the girl, who is mute, a job and a place to stay, almost adopting her into his family until another act of random kindness accidentally reunites her with her own long-lost father.

Faced with such an intense legacy, it’s no wonder Hikaru struggled. A sensitive, artistic soul he tried his luck in bubble era Tokyo working in an advertising agency where he found the coolness of his colleagues puzzling and difficult to bear. Hikaru’s boss loudly discusses pub lunches and evenings spent in hostess bars, often throwing away the lovingly made bento provided by his wife. Returning home with an empty lunchbox is, he says, his way of showing love though his refusal to eat it perhaps a reaction against a salaryman’s lack of freedom. Nevertheless, even if they clashed in terms of personal morality, Hikaru’s boss compliments him on his commitment to hard work and growth as an artist even whilst admitting that the work itself is often frivolous and ultimately thankless.

Hikaru eventually learns to channel his artistic inclinations into his ramen, seeing himself as a “ramen artist” incorporating his father’s legacy into a dish which is entirely his own. In a sense, Hikaru retreats into the safety of the Showa era past, or that is the cosy 1970s in which he lived a comfortable, if eventful, childhood under a yatai’s awning while dad made trouble but only for the best of reasons. A samurai’s duty is, after all, to protect and Hikaru has decided to do exactly that in “restoring” his hometown to its former glory, dragging retro yatai culture into the rapidly disintegrating post-bubble world and bringing warmth and community back with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Keishi Ohtomo, 2017)

march comes in like a lion posterShogi seems to have entered the spotlight of late. Not only is there a new teenage challenger hitting the headlines in Japan, but 2017 has even seen two tentpole Japanese pictures dedicated to the cerebral sport. Following the real life biopic Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) adapts the popular manga by Chica Umino in which an orphaned boy attempts to block out his emotional pain through the taxing strategising becoming a top player entails. Shogi, however, turns out to be a dangerous addiction, ruining lives and hearts left, right and centre but, then again, it’s not so much “shogi” which causes problems but the emotional volatility its intense rigidity is often masking.

Rei Kiriyama (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lost his family at a young age when both parents and his little sister were tragically killed in a car accident. Taken in by a family friend, Rei takes up shogi (a game also apparently beloved by his late father) in the hope of being accepted in his new home. A few year’s later, Rei’s plan has worked too well. Better than either of his foster-siblings, Kyoko (Kasumi Arimura) and Ayumu, Rei has become his foster-father’s favourite child causing resentment and disconnection in the family home. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence among those he loves (even if he suspects they still do not love him), Rei removes himself by deciding to live independently, shunning all personal relationships and dedicating his life to the art of shogi.

Everything changes when Rei is taken for a night out by some senior colleagues and is encouraged to drink alcohol for the first time despite being underage. A kindly young woman who lives nearby finds Rei collapsed in the street and takes him home to sleep things off. The oldest of three sisters, Akari (Kana Kurashina) has a habit of picking up strays and determines to welcome the lonely high schooler into her happy home. Suddenly experiencing a positive familial environment, Rei’s views on interpersonal connection begin to shift but people are not like shogi and you can’t you can’t expect them to just fall into place like a well played tile. 

Like Satoshi, the real life subject of which is also echoed in March through the performance of an unrecognisable Shota Sometani who piles on the pounds to play the sickly yet intense shogi enthusiast and Rei supporter Harunobu Nikaido, March dares to suggest that shogi is not an altogether healthy obsession. Koda (Etsushi Toyokawa), Rei’s foster-father, is a shogi master who trained both his children to follow in his footsteps only to pull the rug from under them by ordering the pair to give up the game because they’ll never be as good as Rei. Thinking only of shogi, he thinks nothing of the effect this complete rejection will have on his family, seeming surprised when neither of his children want much more to do with him and have been unable to move forward with their own lives because of the crushing blow to their self confidence and emotional well being that he has dealt them.

Kyoko, Rei’s big sister figure, remains resentful and hurt, embarking on an unwise affair with a married shogi master (Hideaki Ito) who is also emotionally closed off to her because he too is using shogi as a kind of drug to numb the pain of having a wife in a longterm coma. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence who brings ruin to everything he touches, Rei has decided that shogi is his safe place in which he can do no harm to others whilst protecting himself through intense forethought. He is, however, very affected by the results of his victories and failures, feeling guilty about the negative effects of defeat on losing challengers whilst knowing that loss is a part of the game.

Drawing closer to the three Kawamoto sisters, Rei rediscovers the joy of connection but he’s slow to follow that thread to its natural conclusion. His shogi game struggles to progress precisely because of his rigid tunnel vision. Time and again he either fails to see or misreads his opponents, only belatedly coming to realise that strategy and psychology are inextricably linked. Yet in his quest to become more open, he eventually overplays his hand in failing to realise that his viewpoint is essentially self-centred – he learned shogi to fit in with the Kodas, now he’s learning warmth to be a Kawamoto but applying the rules of shogi to interpersonal relationships provokes only more hurt and shame sending Rei right back into the self imposed black hole he’d created for himself immersed in the superficial safety of the shogi world.

As Koda explains to Kyoko (somewhat insensitively) it’s not shogi which ruins lives, but the lack of confidence in oneself that it often exposes. Rei’s problem is less one of intellectual self belief than a continuing refusal to deal with the emotional trauma of losing his birth family followed by the lingering suspicion that he is a toxic presence to everyone he loves. Only in his final battle does the realisation that his relationships with his new found friends are a strength and not a weakness finally allow him to move forward, both personally and in terms of his game. Rei may have come in like a lion, all superficial roar and bluster, but he’s going out like a lamb – softer and happier but also stronger and more secure. Only now is he ready to face his greatest rival, with his various families waiting in his corner silently cheering him on as finally learns to accept that even in shogi one is never truly alone.


Released in two parts – 3月のライオン 前編 (Sangatsu no Lion Zenpen, March Comes in Like a Lion) / 3月のライオン 後編 (Sangatsu no Lion Kouhen, March Goes Out Like a Lamb).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoichi Higashi, 2010)

wandering homeAlcoholism is not a theme which has exactly been absent from the history of cinema. From the booze drenched regret of Days of Wine and Roses to the melancholic inevitability of Leaving Las Vegas and the disdaining irony of Barfly, there has been no shortage of unsympathetic portrayals of drunkenness when it comes to the silver screen. Yoichi Higashi’s Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoi Ga Sametara, Uchi Ni Kaerou) walks something of a middle road here as it embraces the classic “issue drama” mould but also aims for a naturalistic character study in adapting the true life memoirs of photojournalist Yutaka Kamoshida (husband of well known mangaka Reiko Saibara).

The film begins with a touch of magical realism as Tsukahara (Tadanobu Asano) literally falls off his barstool and has a vision of his wife and two children urging him to get up. Of course, they aren’t “real”. Tsukara lives with his mother after his marriage to a successful mangaka broke down due to his alcoholism. Returning home and ignoring his mother’s advice to get something to eat, Tsukarahara has another drink whilst swearing that this time he’ll be sober when he sees his kids but shortly after retreats to the bathroom to vomit where he experiences a massive haemorrhage and is taken to hospital. Things have already gone too far, he’s told he’s lucky to be alive and the next time this happens he will die.

Swearing to finally come off the booze, Tsukahara goes home but is immediately tempted by a side dish in a restaurant which contains alcohol. He makes the wise choice not to buy the vodka in the off-licence but eventually talks himself into buying beer which he drinks right away and then falls over and hits his head on the way home. His ex-wife, Yuki (Hiromi Nagasaku), and his long suffering mother have gone through this too many times before to even be disappointed. Eventually, they ship Tsukahara off to a residential facility in the hope that they can finally help him beat the booze for good.

Wandering Home is inspired by the real life story of a photojournalist which has also inspired a few other films including the following year’s Kaasan which told the same story from the point of view of Kamoshida’s mangaka wife. Therefore, the ending of this story might perhaps be known to you already but needless to say it isn’t an altogether happy one. The film doesn’t go into the reasons Tsukahara started drinking save for emphasising that it’s rarely one root cause that starts someone on the road to alcohol addiction. Tsukahara’s father had been an alcoholic and had also behaved violently in the home – something which Tsukahara despised and yet he ultimately became exactly like his dad. Having started to drink as a young teenager he drifted into an aimless life and then witnessed a number of traumatic events in his career as a photojournalist which also left their mark on him.

Though the film is never shy about the disruption Tsukahara’s drunkeness causes to his family, it mitigates the effects by casting them as surreal episodes such as the only scene in the film where Tsukahara is shown to be violent towards his wife in which another soot covered version of himself emerges from a zipper in his back to shout abuse and trash the place as his children retreat in horror to their bedroom. It’s not Tsukahara, it’s the alcohol, the film tries to say but actually lays the message on a little thick and often neglects the trauma that his behaviour is, in turn, causing to his own son and daughter.

That said, there is remarkably little animosity between Yuki and her ex-husband despite the way that he has behaved. Yes, the pair are divorced but Yuki is called right away when Tsukahara is taken to hospital and when she brings the children to visit him the couple talk warmly with no bitterness or recrimination. The children too are happy to see their father and do not seem afraid of him in any way at all.

Higashi does, however, fall into standard “issue drama” tropes and perhaps spends too much time exploring the rehab facility where Tsukahara is sent for treatment. Though hearing something of the other characters’ paths to alcohol dependency is enlightening, it can’t help but feel more like a public information film at times than the affecting character drama it should be. Small touches like Tsukahara’s longing for something a simple as being able to enjoy curry again like everyone else on the ward or his more frequent difficulties of being able to distinguish a hallucination from something he’s doing for real lend weight to the central story but they can’t quite save it.

Higashi’s tone is generally straightforward and mostly avoids melodrama or sentimentality except during the film’s ending. This sounds like a strength but turns out to be a weakness as something about Tsukahara’s plight never quite grabs the heartstrings in the way it seems to want to. The film’s unsentimental depiction of alcohol dependency and one man’s struggle to try and regain his place within his own family is an admirable one, but Wandering Home ultimately falls far short of its intended destination.


The Japanese dvd/blu-ray release of Wandering Home includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer:

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.