Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Akihiko Shiota, 2019)

Repressed desire and toxic resentment conspire against a trio of melancholy musicians in Akihiko Shiota’s delicate indie drama, Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Sayonara Kuchibiru). As the title implies, this is a tale of learning to let go, but then again perhaps not. As an over earnest interviewer suggests there are many ways to interpret the title song, but it also carries with it an unmistakable hint of defeatism as the singer songwriter heroine finds herself perpetually preparing to say goodbye, no longer believing in a positive future and unwittingly sabotaging its existence in an intense desire for protective distance. 

As the film opens in the summer of 2018, folk duo Haruleo is about to set off on a “farewell tour” though it’s not been advertised as such. The atmosphere is extremely awkward and emotionally volatile. Something has obviously gone very wrong in the previously close relationship between bandmates Haru (Mugi Kadowaki) and Leo (Nana Komatsu), while roadie Shima (Ryo Narita) seems to be doing his best to stay out of it and keep the peace if only until after they’ve played their final show in Hakodate way up in Hokkaido. 

That might be difficult however because Leo’s self-destructive streak is out in full force, wandering off with a rough-looking man from the petrol station where they stopped to use the facilities. “Aren’t you going to stop her?” Haru asks of Shima, entirely mistaken in the nature of their relationship, “What would be the point?” he replies, open mouthed in exasperation. Sure enough Leo turns up late to the gig and sporting a nasty bruise on her face after another encounter with a dark and violent man. “I don’t want to watch you fall apart”, Haru had told her on a previous occasion in an awkward attempt at comfort that finally backfired, Leo firing back that hearing that from her only made her feel even worse. Haru echoes those words herself when Shima tries something similar with her, only charged with a somewhat inappropriate fervour driven by misplaced desire. 

Desire is indeed circulating, but in an emotionally difficult and seemingly irresolvable love triangle between three people with extremely low self esteem. Struggling to accept love, they act on self-destructive impulse and only wound where they mean to console. Haru strikes up a conversation with Leo because she says that her “eyes wanted to sing”, seemingly captivated and taking the young woman in but still somehow maintaining a distance. Leo, who seems to have no family and is incapable of looking after herself, quickly bonds with Haru but is frustrated by her resistance to connection. When Haru interviews Shima for a position as their roadie, she’s quick to tell him that romance is prohibited, but later claims that she always expected he and Leo to run off together while silently pining for her in a mistaken belief that her love is hopeless. 

Filled with internalised shame, Haru takes Shima home as a beard to show off to her mother at her father’s memorial service, unable to disclose her sexuality and trying not to look hurt when her mother whips out a postcard from her first love who has since married abroad and had a child. Shima, strangely perhaps the most emotionally astute, is drawn to Haru even after learning that she is gay and realising that all of her songs are really about her unrealisable longing for Leo, who claims to be in love with him though it’s not exactly clear if that, like her tendency to disappear with dangerous men, isn’t a misdirected way of connecting with Haru.

Shima may have failed once and resolved to do better in avoiding making the same old mistakes, but is still an awkward third wheel in this increasingly difficult relationship despite his attempts to mitigate the effects of his presence while perhaps biased towards preserving Haru’s happiness in trying to “save” Leo. Learning that a close friend and former bandmate has passed away forces him, and perhaps the girls too, to reflect on what’s lost if you let important relationships fall by the wayside out of pettiness or pride. Shima’s friend apparently told his young son never to become a musician because it will rob you of the things that are most important. Still, Shima, echoing the words of Haruleo’s signature song, affirms that he regrets nothing. If it all ends in tears, Haru’s lyrics imply that she’s happy to live with the thorn in her side as a reminder of past love. The jury’s out on whether the Farewell Song leads to a new beginning or merely more of the same, perpetually trapped in an inescapable cycle of emotional frustration, but Haruleo seems resigned to weathering the storm whatever it is that might emerge on the other side. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell Song music video

Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら, Macoto Tezka, 2019)

The relationship between an artist and his muse (necessarily “his” in all but a few cases) is at the root of all drama, asking us if creation is necessarily a parasitical act of often unwilling transmutation. Osamu Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら), brought to the screen by his son Macoto Tezka, takes this idea to its natural conclusion while painting the act of creation as a madness in itself. The hero, a blocked writer, describes art as a goddess far out of his reach, but also the cause of man’s downfall, framing his creative impotence in terms of sexual conquest that lend his ongoing crisis an increasingly troubling quality. 

Yousuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) was once apparently a well regarded novelist but has hit a creative block. While his friends and contemporaries are winning awards and national acclaim, he’s become one of “those” writers busying himself with potboilers and eroticism to mask a creative decline. Passing a young woman collapsed drunk in a subway, something makes him stop and turn back. Surprisingly, she begins quoting romantic French poetry to him, and actually turns out to be, if not quite a “fan”, familiar with his work which she describes as too inoffensive for her taste. Mikura takes her home and invites her to have a shower, but later throws her out when she dares to criticise an embarrassingly bad sex scene he’s in the middle of writing. Nevertheless, he’s hooked. “Barbara” (Fumi Nikaido) becomes a fixture in his life, popping up whenever he needs a creative boost or perhaps saving from himself. 

Strangely, Barbara is in the habit of referring to herself using a first person pronoun almost exclusively used by men, which might invite us to think that perhaps she is just a manifestation of Mikura’s will to art and symbol of his destructive creative drive. He does indeed seem to be a walking cliché of the hardbitten writer, permanently sporting sunshades, drinking vintage whiskey, and listening to jazz while obsessing over the integrity of his art. We’re told that he’s a best-selling author and previously well regarded by the critics, but also that he has perhaps sold out, engaging in a casual relationship with a politician’s daughter and cosying up to a regime he may or may not actually support. He’s beginning to come to the conclusion that he’s a soulless hack and the sense of shame is driving him out of his mind. 

Mikura’s agent Kanako (Shizuka Ishibashi) certainly seems to think he’s having some kind of breakdown, though the jury’s out on whether her attentions towards him are professional, sisterly, or something more. There isn’t much we can be sure of in Mikura’s ever shifting reality, but it does seem a strange touch that even a rockstar writer of the kind he seems to think he is could inspire such popularity, recognised by giggling women wherever he goes yet seemingly sexually frustrated to quite an alarming degree. His world view is an inherently misogynistic one in which all women seem to want him, but he can’t have them. A weird encounter in a dress shop is a case in point, the assistant catching his eye from the window display turning out to be a devotee of his work because of its “mindlessness”, something which annoys Mikura but only causes him to pause as she abruptly strips off for a quickie in the fitting room. Tellingly, the woman turns out to be an inanimate mannequin, literally an empty vessel onto which Mikura can project his fears and desires, which is, perhaps, what all other women, including Barbara, are to him. 

Yet who, or what, is Barbara? Chasing his new “muse”, Mikura finds himself on a dark path through grungy subculture clubs right through to black magic cults, eventually arrested on suspicion of drug use. There is something essentially uncomfortable in his dependency, that he is both consuming and consumed by his creative impulses. Inside another delusion, he imagines himself bitten by potential love interest Shigako (Minami), as if she meant to suck him dry like some kind of vampire succubus, but finds himself doing something much the same to Barbara, stripping her bare, consuming her essence, and regurgitating it as “art”. Either an unwitting critique of the various ways in which women become mere fodder for a man’s creativity, or a meditation on art as madness, Barbara seems to suggest that true artistry is achieved only through masochistic laceration and the sublimation of desire culminating in a strange act of climax that stains the page with ink.  


Tezuka’s Barbara screens in Amsterdam on March 6/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2018)

Miracle of Crybaby Shottan poster 1Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s with a series of visually stunning expressions of millennial malaise in which the dejected, mostly male, heroes found themselves adrift without hope or purpose in post-bubble Japan. For all their essential nihilism however, Toyoda’s films most often ended with melancholic consolation, or at least a sense of determination in the face of impossibility. Returning after a lengthy hiatus, Toyoda’s adaptation of the autobiography by shogi player Shoji “Shottan” Segawa, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki), finds him in a defiantly hopeful mood as his mild-mannered protagonist discovers that “losing is not the end” and the choice to continue following your dreams even when everything tells you they are no longer achievable is not only legitimate but a moral imperative.

An aspiring Shogi player himself in his youth, Toyoda opens with the young Shoji discovering a love of the game and determining to turn pro. Encouraged by his surprisingly supportive parents who tell him that doing what you love is the most important thing in life, Shoji (Ryuhei Matsuda) devotes himself to mastering his skills forsaking all else. The catch is, that to become a professional shogi player you have to pass through the official association and ascend to the fourth rank before your 26th birthday. Shoji has eight chances to succeed, but in the end he doesn’t make it and is all washed up at 26 with no qualifications or further possibilities seeing as he has essentially “wasted” his adolescence on acquiring skills which are now entirely meaningless.

As his inspirational primary school teacher (Takako Matsu) tells him, however, if you spend time indulging in a passion, no matter what it is, and learn something by it then nothing is ever really wasted. Shoji’s father says the same thing – he wants his son to follow his dreams, though his brother has much more conventional views and often berates him for dedicating himself to shogi when the odds of success are so slim. It may well be “irresponsible”, in one sense at least, to blindly follow a dream to the exclusion of all else, but then again it may also be irresponsible to resentfully throw oneself into the conventionality of salaryman success.

Nevertheless, shogi is a game that drives men mad. Unlike the similarly themed Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, also inspired by a real life shogi star, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan has a classically “happy” ending but is also unafraid to explore the dark sides of the game as young men fail to make the grade, realise they’ve wasted their youths, and retreat into despair and hopelessness. Shoji accepts his fate, internalises his failure, and begins to move on neither hating the game nor loving it, until finally reconnecting with his childhood friend and rediscovering his natural affinity free from ambition or desire.

Another defeated challenger, expressing envy for Shoji’s talent, told him he was quitting because you can’t win if you can’t learn to lose friends and he didn’t want to play that way. Shoji doesn’t really want to play that way either, freely giving up chances to prosper in underhanded ways and genuinely happy for others when they achieve the thing he most wants but cannot get. He does in one sense “give up” in that he accepts he will never play professionally because of the arbitrary rules of the shogi world, but retains his love of the game and eventually achieves “amateur” success at which point he finds himself a figurehead for a campaign targeted squarely at the unfair rigidity of the sport’s governing body.

Shoji’s rebellion finds unexpected support from all quarters as the oppressed masses of Japan rally themselves behind him in protest of the often arcane rules which govern the society. As his teacher told him, just keep doing what you’re doing – it is enough, and it will be OK. Accepting that “losing is not the end” and there are always second chances even after you hit rock bottom and everyone tells you it’s too late, a newly re-energised Shoji is finally able to embrace victory on equal terms carried solely by his pure hearted love of shogi rather than by ambition or resentment. A surprisingly upbeat effort from the usually melancholy director, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is a beautifully pitched reminder that it really is never too late, success comes to those who master failure, and being soft hearted is no failing when you’re prepared to devote yourself body and soul to one particular cause.


The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)