Under the Stars (星の子, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“The time of realisation comes and then that person changes” according to the words of a new religion guru. The sentiment is true enough, even if the meaning is slightly different from that which she’d intended. Young Chihiro, however, the heroine of Tatsushi Omori’s adaptation of the novel by Natsuko Imamura Under the Stars (星の子, Hoshi no Ko), is indeed approaching a moment of realisation as she begins to question everything about the world around her as it had been presented throughout the course of her life. 

As a baby, Chichiro (Mana Ashida) had suffered from severe eczema which had left her in terrible pain and her parents suffering with her in witnessing her distress. On the advice of a colleague, Chichiro’s father (Masatoshi Nagase) decides to try using “Venus Blessed Water” which is apparently full of cosmic energy that can cure all ills. Chihiro begins to recover and her parents become devotees of the cult which produces it eventually alienating her older sister, Ma (Aju Makita), who is unable to reconcile herself with the outlandish beliefs they advance and rituals they conduct. 

For Chihiro, however, the cult is all she’s ever known so it is in that way “normal” and it’s never really occurred to her to question it even after her sister’s mysterious “disappearance”. But as she approaches the end of middle-school, a few well placed questions from her classmates give her pause for thought wondering if her parents’ claims about the miracle water could possibly be true or if, as her best friend Watanabe (Ninon) wonders, they are simply being scammed. After all, if water could solve all the world’s problems it would either be ridiculously expensive or completely free and if you could stay healthy by placing a damp towel on your head then everyone would be doing it. Her parents claim they don’t get colds because the water boosts their immune system, but perhaps they’re just lucky enough to be the kind of people who don’t often get that kind of sick or the fact that they obviously spend almost all their time in the bubble of the cult reduces their exposure. 

Her crunch point comes when her handsome maths teacher (Masaki Okada) on whom she has a crush spots her parents doing the ritual in a park and exasperatedly points them out as complete nutcases. When she eventually tells him who they are, he inappropriately calls her out in front of the entire class by telling her to get rid of her “weird” water while subtly undermining her religious beliefs with advice about how to avoid getting colds or other potentially dangerous seasonal viruses. Omori presents the cult neutrally, hinting that the discrimination Chihiro is facing as a member of a “new religion” may be unfair while the beliefs of traditional religions may seem no stranger to the unfamiliar and to criticise them so directly would be deemed unacceptable in any liberal society. In a sense perhaps we all grow up in a kind of cult only latterly questioning the things our parents taught us to be true. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo meanwhile had once tried to use science and experience to undermine her parents’ beliefs, he and Ma swapping out their holy water for the tap variety to prove to them that they are being duped only for them to double down and refuse to accept the “truth”. 

Uncle Yuzo and his family eventually offer Chihiro a place to stay in the hope of getting her out of the cult but are also of course asking her to betray her parents by leaving them. She remains preoccupied by the fate of her sister, particularly hearing rumours about the cult supposedly disappearing those who turn against them, but is torn between her growing doubts and love for her parents while privately suspicious about the fate of a child much like herself kept locked up by his mum and dad who say he’s terribly ill and unable to speak (which doesn’t exactly support the cult’s claims of universal healing), but who knows what might actually be true.

Shoko (Haru Kuroki), the wife of the guru Kairo (Kengo Kora), is fond of reminding the younger members that they are not there of their own free will which is of course true whatever the implications for fate and determinism because they are children whose parents have forced them to attend which might explain their sense of resentment or what she implies is “resistance” to their spiritual messaging in urging them to make an active choice to accept the cult’s teachings. Chihiro is coming to a realisation that she may be on a different path than her parents but delaying her exit while they too are possibly preparing her for more independent life. Lighter than much of Omori’s previous work despite its weighty themes, Under the Stars is also in its way about the end of childhood and the bittersweet compromises that accompany it. 


Under The Stars streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (c) 2020 “Under the Stars” Production Committee

Arc (Arc アーク, Kei Ishikawa, 2021)

Does something have to have an ending to be meaningful or could eternity be the point? Inspired by Ken Liu’s short story, Kei Ishikawa’s near future tale Arc (Arc アーク) envisages a world without death if perhaps not for all in which bodily immortality has been achieved, but what would that mean for humanity no longer faced with mortal anxiety, how should it reorient itself in the absence of sickness or old age while the possibility of endlessness for the self has removed the urge for immortality through childbirth? These are all of course questions which have no one answer, though what the heroine finally discovers is that in the end it may be the choice itself of when to live or when to die that may lend her life at least its meaning. 

Even so, hers is a particular anxiety bound up with frustrated maternity having abandoned a baby she gave birth to at 17, too afraid of the responsibility to accept it. At 19, Rina (Kyoko Yoshine) is spotted at a club by a mysterious middle-aged woman, Ema (Shinobu Terajima), who runs a revolutionary cosmetics company which has pioneered a new way of preserving the bodies of the dead turning them into uncannily lifelike mannequins with a new process known as plasticisation. To Ema’s mind, true liberation comes from accepting transience, that once life has left it the body is just an object which might be repurposed for her art but then at the same time perhaps she is attempting to hold on to something that should be released, interfering in a natural process and while intending to offer comfort to those bereaved preventing them from letting go or moving on with their lives. Her much younger brother Amane, meanwhile, actively wants to stop time while alive utilising a similar technology to halt the ageing process and overcome the tyranny of death. 

In a strange way, Ema’s desire to restore a body which is no longer alive to ideal condition is also an acknowledgement of death which she believes is not the opposite of life but a necessary part of it. In overcoming the fear of death, she claims, a transcendental beauty will reveal itself. Amane meanwhile seeks to overcome death physically, but as Rina is warned his health revolution may not bring happiness to mankind not least because it exposes a persistent inequality in which eternal youth is available only to those with the means to acquire it, creating a new underclass not only of the poor but those whose bodies are not able to accept the treatment. Amane sees his creation as a dividing line in human history which will necessarily divide humanity into two groups, those who choose to join his revolution and those who do not (though interestingly he does not consider a third group who actively opposite it). Even so he sees it as a choice and accepts the right to reject immortality even going so far as to build a dedicated centre where those who choose to live a “natural” lifespan can do so in dignity and comfort. 

The concept of personal choice appears to be key, Ema too replying that her decision to stick with plasticisation rather than Amane’s treatment is her right though she too eventually hits a wall in the imperfection of her craft and the depths of her grief. She tells Rina to live her life freely encouraging her to live fully in the moment, while she too is quick to remind others that the decisions are theirs to make as regards their life and death. It’s not death nor the fear of it that are the problem, but the inability to choose as Rina finally acknowledges in remarking that the ability to decide its end point gives her the means to carve the arc of her life overcoming death through full existential control having in a sense closed a circle in facing her own sense of maternal failure. Shifting from the warmth and natural beauty of a beach in summer to the dark and brutalist environments of the BodyWerks lab, and from the muted colour of Rina’s youth to the black and white of her youthful old age, Ishikawa’s near future sci-fi-inflected tale suggests it’s not so much death that frightens you but helplessness and as in all things the answer lies in autonomous choice. 


Arc screens in Chicago on April 3 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

“What can we do? we must live our lives” comes a constant refrain echoing the closing words of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya offered by the self-sacrificing Sonya resolving to find joy in suffering if only in the promise of a better world to come. Freely adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s profoundly moving Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー) is study in grief, loss, and how you learn to live after the world has ended but also of how we pull each through, finding new ways to communicate when words alone can’t help us. 

Words are, however, where we begin with a woman half in shadow an accidental Scheherazade spinning a bizarre tale of a high school girl’s first love. Oto (Reika Kirishima) claims the story is not about her, but as we’ll later discover in some ways it is if perhaps not literally. A long-married couple, this is part of their marital routine, screenwriter Oto telling stories to her theatre director husband Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) she asks him to remember and repeat back to her in the morning. Only one day, having accidentally stumbled in on his wife and her lover only to leave quietly saying nothing, Yusuke claims not to remember. She tells him she wants to talk, but he is afraid of what she’ll say and delays coming home, finding her collapsed in the hallway on his return having passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage. The story remains incomplete, a perpetual cliffhanger never to be resolved. 

Two years later Yusuke is a haunted man still listening to the cassette tape Oto left for him of her reading all of the other lines of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya save for those of the title character which he was to play himself. This time he’s been selected as an artist in residence at at a theatre in Hiroshima where he’ll once again stage Vanya in his signature multilingual performance style. He’s specifically asked for accommodation an hour’s drive away with the intention of maintaining his usual routine of listening to the tape on his way to rehearsal but, following previous incidents, the theatre has a policy of hiring their own drivers in this case a young woman, Misaki (Toko Miura), who eventually wins him over through her capability and care while, ironically, mimicking the very qualities he demands of his actors in her wounded stoicism. 

The car in a sense represents an inviolable space of intimacy, a space that Yusuke had been reluctant to allow anyone to enter, even Oto remarking on his discomfort with her in the driver’s seat as she took him to a doctor’s appointment where he learned he was losing the sight in his left eye, clarifying with the doctor that for the time being at least he’d be OK to drive himself. Misaki assumes he doesn’t want her to drive his car because she’s a young woman, but thereafter is careful to maintain distance respecting his space for her sake as much as his own mindful of her role as a “driver” until he begins to invite her in if originally more out of politeness or consideration than a desire for company. 

Misaki has her own story, a story she too is originally reluctant to share but in its way echoes his as someone trapped in grief and guilt ironically unable to move forward but driven by the quality of Oto’s voice and the ritualistic call and response implied by its lacunas. Too afraid of its implications to take the role himself, Yusuke casts Oto’s lover, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a young TV actor with impulse control issues whose career has apparently been ruined by scandal, as Vanya a man approaching 50 whose illusions are painfully shattered, forcing him to realise that he’s wasted his life on a futile ideal. The three of them, each eventually entering the confessional space of the car, share more than they might assume but it’s Takatsuki who holds the key revealing another piece of the puzzle with unexpected profundity that in its own way lays bare a truth Yusuke had been unwilling to see about his relationship with his wife, the shared grief that both bound and divided them, and the poetic import of her death. 

Rather than Vanya, the film’s prologue saw Yusuke perform in a multilingual production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the author’s well-known phrase “I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” perhaps equally apt even as Yusuke moves slowly away from the role of Vanya before finally assuming that of Sonya in echoing her words while comforting the filial figure of Misaki even as she explains to him that as in Vanya the fault was not in his convictions but in himself that he couldn’t accept the contradictions of his wife and in that sense had not understood her or himself well enough to know he should have braved the hurt of confrontation. Yet as Takatsuki had said, you can’t ever really know another person, there’s always a part of them forever out of reach all you can do is try to make peace with your own darkness. 

For Yusuke communication occurs indirectly, through allegory or half-truth, and through the unspoken or unintelligible. His multilingual approach in which lines are read coldly at half-speed is intended to draw out the feeling that lies beneath them, the final most profound moment delivered in silence as a former dancer breaking free of her bodily inertia delivers Sonia’s closing monologue with all of its melancholy serenity in Korean sign language her arms draped angelically over Vanya’s shoulders in a gesture of the utmost comfort. Touching in its ambiguities, Hamaguchi’s quietly devastating emotional drama for all of its eerie uncanniness finally places its faith in simple human empathy as its haunted souls learn to live with loss finding in each other the strength to go on living.


Drive My Car screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Many Faces of Ito (伊藤くん A to E, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

Many Faces of Ito posterRyuichi Hiroki’s career has been oddly varied, but he’s never been one to avoid straying into uncomfortable areas. Adapted from the novel by Asako Yuzuki, The Many Faces of Ito (伊藤くん A to E, Ito-kun A to E) explores the risks and rewards of modern existence through the prismatic viewpoint of five women messed around by the same terrible man as he seems to breeze through life buoyed up by the sense of superiority he gains through their unwavering appreciation. Then again perhaps his air of ultra confidence is yet another mask for his insecurity as he paints every failure as a conscious rejection, sneering superciliously at the desires of others while wilfully negating his own. Our guide, a blocked TV drama scriptwriter, may have imagined this entire scenario as she attempts to break through her own sense of painful inertia but it remains true that the world she inhabits is far from kind to women seeking the key to their own destinies.

32-year-old Rio (Fumino Kimura) won a scriptwriting competition which developed into a top TV hit some years previously but has struggled to replicate her success and now makes her living teaching screenwriting and acting as an expert on love for women captivated by the idealised romance of her debut “Tokyo Doll House”. Her longterm editor/producer (and former lover but that’s a problem we’ll get to later) encourages her to mine her romance sessions for possible material through interviewing women with unusual romantic dilemmas on the pretext of helping them find a way out. Rio, now jaded and cynical, is of a mind to make money from other people’s misery and the advice she gives is less in service of her clients and more in that of the story as she tries to engineer “naturalistic” drama but as in all things, her writing becomes increasingly personal and she is in effect in dialogue with herself.

Unbeknownst to Rio, each of the four women she decides to interview is involved with the same man – Ito (Masaki Okada), who is, because coincidence is real, a student in her screenwriting class. With his patterned black and white shirts and handsome yet somehow anonymous appearance, Ito is earnest but superior, shifting from over eager puppy to dangerously possessive stalker. 28-year-old Tomomi (Nozomi Sasaki) has been carrying a torch for him for five years longing for an intimacy that will never develop while Ito insensitively tells her about his crush on a workplace colleague, Shuko (Mirai Shida). Shuko is in no way interested in his advances but Ito refuses to take no for an answer, eventually forcing her to leave the company because of his constant harassment. Wounded, he retreats to university “friend” Miki (Kaho) who he knows has been nursing a long time crush and is shy and naive enough for him to push around without much resistance. Luckily (in one sense) Miki has a devoted roommate, Satoko (Elaiza Ikeda), who is keen to look out for her friend but there is perhaps more to this relationship than meets the eye and Satoko’s jealously eventually pulls her too into Ito’s web of romantic destruction.

The question Rio finds herself asking if each of these women, and she herself in her failure to get over the betrayal of her producer Tamura (Kei Tanaka) who eventually broke up with her to marry someone else, is in a sense complicit in their own inability to move forward. It’s almost as if their collective sense of low self-esteem and fear of rejection has conjured up its own mythical monster in the figure of Ito who displays just about every male failing on offer. He uses and abuses and when rejected proudly states that he never wanted that anyway because he’s simply far too good for whatever it is that you might prize. Yet through battling his cruelty and emotional violence, each of the women is able to cut straight through to the origin of all their problems, correctly identifying what it is that ails them and committing to moving forward in spite of it even if the part of themselves they most feared was the one the saw mirrored in Ito’s insecurities.

The “battle” between Ito and Rio comes out as a draw which sees them both lose but only provokes a final confrontation which is as much with Rio herself as it is with the Itos of the world. Ito rejects his failure, sneers at the TV industry and claims to have loftier goals but Rio has figured him out by now and correctly assesses that his life philosophy is to back away from the fight to avoid the humiliation of losing. Pushed by the unexpectedly profound interventions of fellow writer KazuKen (Tomoya Nakamura) who reminds her that she was once a writer unafraid to bare her soul, Rio realises that a life without risk is mere emptiness and the soulless (non)existence of a man like Ito is no way to live. To be alive to is open yourself up to pain, but if you refuse to engage in fear of getting hurt you might as well be dead and if what you want is to make art you’ll have to lift the lid on all that personal suffering or you’ll never be able to connect. Each of our timid ladies finds themselves ready to stand tall, no longer willing to afford the likes of Ito the esteem which allows him to sail on through papering over his lack of self-confidence by sapping all of theirs. The masks are off, and the game is on.


Currently streaming on Netflix in most territories along with the companion TV drama.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

N@NIMONO (何者, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

Nanimono posterGrowing up is a series of battles in Japan. Exam hell soon gives way to the freedom and liberation of university but students know that their carefree days of youth and discovery will be short lived. Job hunting is done en masse and takes place in the final year of study (or even before). The process of securing a work placement is much the same as deciding on which school to apply to – attending job fairs to meet with representatives, getting hold of brochures, talking to anyone and everyone you know about the various reputations of the big firms, and then figuring out what your best bets are. Many companies run written exams which are then followed by group interviews in which the applicants are made to answer humiliating questions in front of their fellow candidates. What this all amounts to is a gradual erasure of the self in order to become the perfect hire, making the same tired phrases sound interesting in an effort to say all the right things whilst trying not too seem calculating or too bland.

The group at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize winning novel by Ryo Asai, N@NIMONO (何者, Nanimono, AKA Somebody / Someone), know this better than most. Protagonist Takuto (Takeru Satoh) used to be interested in theatre but has abandoned his dreams of the stage for the mainstream route into company life while his friend Kotaro (Masaki Suda) has played his last gig as the lead singer of a rock band, died his hair black again, and got a smart haircut in preparation for interviews. The boys are still good friends and roommates despite the fact that Takuto has long been carrying a torch for Kotaro’s former girlfriend, Mizuki (Kasumi Arimura), who has just returned from studying abroad. Mizuki is good friends with another girl, Rica (Fumi Nikaido), who happens to live upstairs from the boys and suggests that the four of them all get together to compare notes on the job hunting process. Rica lives with her boyfriend (still somewhat unusual in Japan), Takayoshi (Masaki Okada), who is working as a freelance journalist and is disdainful of the others’ passage into the regular workaday world but later tries to get into it himself.

There is a kind of sadness involved in this process, even if no one seriously thinks about fighting back. Everyone wants to get their foot onto that corporate ladder to become “someone”, at least in the eyes of society. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and if you miss your footing it’s near impossible to get it back – you’ll wind up one of the many crowded round the bottom staring up at the top even if you don’t want to admit it. University is the last time time there is real scope for indulging one’s personality before the corporate life takes hold – thus Takuto and Kotaro both accept that their artistic pursuits have to go in their quest for a regular middle-class life even if they inwardly struggle with their decisions to “sell-out”.

Takayoshi thinks of himself as above all this. He asks himself what all of this is for, why people put themselves through this humiliating ritual just to be locked into a nine to five that makes them miserable and turns them into soulless drones. There’s an obvious answer to that, and Takayoshi’s refusal to take it into account borders on the offensive, as does his often patronising attitude to those actively engaged in the job hunting process, but his hypocrisy is eventually brought home to him when he turns down a project to work with another artist because he thinks their work isn’t good enough. Maybe there’s courage in just putting something of yourself out there, even if it isn’t very good, rather than sitting at home looking down on everything and critiquing everyone else’s life choices whilst getting nothing done yourself.

It’s this conflict between interior and exterior life in which N@NIMONO is most interested. Main character Takuto begins as the everyman, depressed and stressed by his job hunting odyssey but aloof isolationism soon reveals itself as a kind of cowardice and self-involvement born of insecurity as he takes to a “secret” Twitter account for acerbic comments on his friends’ lives, sarcastically taking cruel potshots safe in the knowledge of his anonymity. Takuto’s entire concept of himself is a construction as his eventual descent into abstraction shows us in recasting his interaction with his friends as an avant-garde theatre show in which he finally begins to see the various ways his resentment of others is really just a way of expressing dissatisfaction with himself. This inability to fully integrate his own personality is offered as the final reason he hasn’t managed to find employment – his insincerity marks him out as a poor prospect. Takuto’s final realisation that he is unable to successfully answer the standard interview question “define your own personality in under one minute” for the perfectly sensible reason that the task is impossible kickstarts his own journey to a more complete life, even if it doesn’t do much to help the countless other “someones” out there hammered into a standard sized holes as mere cogs in the great social machine.


N@NIMONO seems to have been screened under the English titles of both “Somebody” and “Someone” but “N@NIMONO” is the one that features on the title card of the English subtitled Hong Kong blu-ray.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Yuki Tanada, 2013)

mourning-recipeWhen everything goes wrong you go home, but Yuriko, the protagonist of Yuki Tanada’s adaptation of Yuki Ibuki’s novel might feel justified in wondering if she’s made a series of huge mistakes considering the strange situation she now finds herself in. Far from the schmaltzy cooking movie the title might suggest, Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Shijuukunichi no Recipe) is a trail of breadcrumbs left by the recently deceased family matriarch, still thinking of others before herself as she tries to help everyone move on after she is no longer there to guide them. Approaching the often difficult circumstances with her characteristic warmth and compassion, Tanada takes what could have become a trite treatise on the healing power of grief into a nuanced character study as each of the left behind now has to seek their own path in deciding how to live the rest of their lives.

Beginning in pitch darkness, housewife Yuriko (Hiromi Nagasaku) answers the phone to the voice of another woman requesting that she separate from her husband who is apparently the father of her unborn child. This double sting hits Yuriko hardest as the couple had been trying for a baby for quite sometime with little success. Thinking a divorce is for the best, Yuriko packs her bags, leaves the papers and her ring on the table, and heads for her father’s house. When she gets there she finds an oddly bubbly young girl, Imoto (Fumi Nikaido), washing her father’s back. Apparently, Imoto has been charged with looking after the house during the 49 day mourning period for Yuriko’s step-mother, Otomi – the upcoming memorial service something Yuriko had forgotten all about in the midst of her personal crisis. When Imoto presents the pair with a book that Otomi illustrated before she died listing everything they should do to prepare for the big party she wants everyone to enjoy rather than solemnly chanting sutras for her 49th day memorial, it prompts Yuriko and her father into a reconsideration of themselves, their pasts and futures, and who exactly should be making those decisions for them.

Yuriko’s position may seem like a straightforward one, betrayed by her husband her decision to leave seems inevitable but it’s complicated by the intricate web of duties and obligations Yuriko feels herself to be a part of. Reconsidering various turning points of her life, Yuriko makes plain that her marriage to the mild mannered salaryman Hiroyuki (Taizo Harada) had been under considerable strain due to the couple’s difficulty conceiving a child. Owing to the intense pressure placed on women to bear children, Yuriko internalises a sense of shame at having failed in this most basic of wifely tasks, leading her husband (she believes) to replace her with a model more fit for purpose. This point of view is rammed home by Yuriko’s insensitive aunt who continues to interrogate her about her lack of children and encourage her to return home to her husband and fix the problem rather than “giving up” and settling for the “shameful” option of divorce as young people are want to do. Aunt Tamako (Keiko Awaji) also points out that neither of her daughters bothered with university or work or any of that nonsense and now have fulfilled their duties by bearing bright and bonny grandchildren with no trouble at all. Heartbroken and blaming herself, Yuriko has to listen to the ongoing lecture whilst keeping her composure right until its gloomy conclusion.

Motherhood becomes the film’s biggest theme as mothers, non-mothers, and bad mothers swirl around the childless Yuriko, still trying to find her place in the world if the path society seems determined to set her on has been well and truly blocked off. Yuriko’s biological mother died when she was only little but happily her father fell in love with and married Otomi – a truly good woman who, like Yuriko, had no children of her own, but lived her life trying to make a difference and help other people to be happy. Little Yuriko didn’t always see it that way and found it difficult to bond with her new mother, settling for the nickname “Okka” – a combination of Otomi’s name and the word for mother, rather than straightforward “mum”.

Reinvestigating Otomi’s life in order to plan for her 49th day memorial, Yuriko truly gets to know her step-mother for the first time, discovering just how big of a difference she made in the lives of those around her. Imoto is just one of the young people Otomi went out on a limb for volunteering at a local rehabilitation centre for young people experiencing problems with addition. She then introduces them to a young Brazilian/Japanese migrant (Masaki Okada) who found himself feeling all alone in a foreign land until Otomi handed him the keys to her car and insisted he get out and about and meet new people. Otomi might not have had children of her own, but she became a mother to the world, reaching out and helping those who most needed it, becoming the springboard so that they could fly far away from her happier and healthier than before.

In learning from Otomi’s book, Yuriko regains her sense of self and a desire to find her purpose, knowing that the ability to bear children is not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. Indeed even if a woman can give birth to a child, that’s not to say she’ll be a good mother as Imoto points out in reference to the toxic relationship she has with hers which feeds back into the insensitive way Hiroyuki’s mistress talks about her plans in front of her young son.

Given all of these epiphanies and mini realisations, Yuriko’s final decision may seem like an odd one, sending her back into a conservative world bound by all of the same duties and obligations the film spent so long undermining. Nevertheless, Yuriko emerges from her 49 days of mourning with a better understanding of herself and the way she should be living her life. Filled with wit and warm humour, Mourning Recipe neatly skirts its melodramatic nature to present a genuinely moving examination of the true nature of family, motherhood, and the necessity of individual freedom. Otomi’s final springboard action was for the ones she left behind, even if, once again, she won’t be able to see them fly.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Nobuo Mizuta, 2013)

The Apology King.jpgThere are few things in life which cannot at least be improved by a full and frank apology. Sometimes that apology will need to go beyond a simple, if heart felt, “I’m Sorry” to truly make amends but as long as there’s a genuine desire to make things right, it can be done. Some people do, however, need help in navigating this complex series of culturally defined rituals which is where the enterprising hero of Nobuo Mizuta’s The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Shazai no Ousama), Ryoro Kurojima (Sadao Abe), comes in. As head of the Tokyo Apology Centre, Kurojima is on hand to save the needy who find themselves requiring extrication from all kinds of sticky situations such as accidentally getting sold into prostitution by the yakuza or causing small diplomatic incidents with a tiny yet very angry foreign country.

Kurojima promises to know an even more powerful form of apology than the classic Japanese “dogeza” (falling to your knees and placing your head on the ground with hands either side, or OTL in internet lingo), but if you do everything he tells you to, you shouldn’t need it. His first case brings him into contact with Noriko (Mao Inoue) whose awful driving has brought her into contact with the yakuza. Not really paying attention, Noriko has signed an arcane contract in which she’s pledged herself to pay off the extreme debts they’ve placed on her by entering their “employment” at a facility in Osaka. Luckily, she’s turned to Kurojima to help her sort out this mess, which he does by an elaborate process of sucking up to the top brass guys until they forget all about Noriko and the money she owes them in damages. Impressed, Noriko ends up becoming Kurojima’s assistant in all of his subsequent cases, helping people like her settle their disputes amicably rather allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Mizuta begins with a neat meta segment in which Kurojima appears in a cinema ad outlining various situations in which you might need to apologise including allowing your phone to go off during the movie, or attempting to illegally film inside the auditorium etc ending with a catchy jingle and dance routine pointing towards the contact details for his apology school. Kurojima’s instructions are also offered throughout the film in a series of video essays in which he outlines the basic procedures for de-escalating a conflict and eventually getting the outcome you’re looking for.

Of course, all of this might sound a little manipulative, which it is to a degree, but the important thing to Kurojima lies in mutual understanding more than “winning” or “losing” the argument. The second case which comes to him concerns a young man who has some very outdated ideas and has, therefore, been accused of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Numata (Masaki Okada) is a classic sexist who only makes the situation worse for himself and completely fails to understand why he was at fault in the first place. Even following Kurojima’s expertly crafted instructions, Numata further insults his female boss whilst attempting to apologise meaning Kurojima has to come up with an even more elaborate plan to smooth the situation which involves pretending to be the ghost of a man who threw himself under a train after being accused of harassing a young woman at work who did not return his affections. This seems to do the trick and the relationship between Numata and his boss appears to have improved even if Numata still has a long way to go in the person stakes, though it does perhaps make light of a serious workplace problem.

Numata follows all of Kurojima’s instructions but still gets everything wrong because he refuses to understand all of the various social rules he’s broken and therefore why and how the apology process is intended to make amends for them. Understanding and sincerity are the keys to Kurojima’s ideology but Numata, after a quick fix, fails to appreciate either of these central tenets and so is unable to work things out for himself. Similarly, in another case the parents of an actor are required to make a public apology when their son is captured on CCTV getting into a street fight. Only, being actors, they find genuine sincerity hard to pull off on the public stage either resorting to chewing the scenery or overdoing the dignified act, not to mention plugging their latest appearances at the end of the speech. The public apology is an important part of the Japanese entertainment industry though it might seem odd that the famous parents of a “disgraced” celebrity would be expected to apologise to the nation as a whole, but as it turns out all that was needed to settle the matter was a quick chat between the people involved, fully explaining the situation and reaching a degree of mutual understanding.

The innovative structure of Apology King neatly weaves each of the cases together as they occur in slightly overlapping timeframes but each contribute to the final set piece in which Kurojima becomes an advisor during a diplomatic incident caused when a film director unwittingly offends the small nation of Mutan by accidentally turning their crown prince into an extra in his film. Mutan is a nation with many arcane rules including a prohibition on filming royalty as well as on drinking and eating skewered meat, all of which the crown prince is seen doing in the movie. Matters only get worse when the film crew travel to Mutan to apologise but make even more faux pas, especially when it turns out that Japanese dogeza is actually incredibly rude in Mutanese culture. Revisiting elements from each of the previous cases, Kurojima is only able to engineer a peaceful solution by convincing the Japanese authorities to utter a set phrase in Mutanese which means something quite different and very embarrassing in their own language. Apologies are, of course, always a little humiliating, but then that is a part of the process in itself – placing oneself on a lower level to those who’ve been wronged, as symbolised in the dogeza.

Full of zany, madcap humour and culminating in a gloriously unexpected pop video complete with dancing idols of both genders exhorting the benefits of a perfectly constructed (and sincere) apology, The Apology King is a warm and innocent tribute to the importance of mutual understanding and its power to ease even the deepest of wounds and most difficult of situations. Hilarious but also heartfelt, The Apology King is a timely reminder that unresolved conflicts only snowball when left to their own devices, the only path to forgiveness lies in recognising your own faults and learning to see things from another perspective. Kurojima’s powers could be misused by the unscrupulous, but the most important ingredient is sincerity – empty words win no respect.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gravity’s Clowns (重力ピエロ, AKA A Pierrot, Junichi Mori, 2009)

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Based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka (Fish Story; The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker), Gravity’s Clowns is the story of two very different brothers who discover a dark family secret following the death of their mother. Part mystery story part character drama, Gravity’s Clowns takes a look at the themes of nature vs nurture as well as the importance of familial love and acceptance.

Returning home for the first anniversary of his mother’s death, Izumi (Ryo Kase) and his younger brother Haru (Masaki Okada) spend some time with their father Tadashi (Fumiyo Kohinata) reminiscing about the past. Watching a local news broadcast, Haru realises the site of a recent arson attack is not far from where he’s been working. Noticing a pattern in the location of the attacks, Haru decides to investigate and ropes his brother in for the ride. However, the mystery Izumi finds himself embroiled in ends up being far different than the one he imagined.

It’s revealed fairly early on in the movie, but the fact of the matter is that Izumi and Haru may only be half brothers as their mother became pregnant with Haru shortly after being brutally assaulted in her own home by a serial rapist operating in the area. Having decided to have the baby and raise the child together whatever his true parentage, Haru’s parents did their best to give him a normal, loving upbringing alongside his older brother. Though there was some gossip in the town thanks to the incident’s notoriety, neither Haru nor Izumi were aware of their mother’s ordeal until after her death. After discovering the truth, both brothers react in different, though ultimately similar ways.

As a mystery, Gravity’s Clowns tries to pack in a fair few twists and turns though ultimately they are all quite obvious and frequent viewers of crime thrillers or psychological dramas will have guessed the entire plot in the first ten minutes. However, the mystery is definitely of secondary importance to the character drama that is being played out in front of it. The real key to the film is in the relationship between the two brothers, and to a larger extent the family as a whole. What’s important is that the brothers support and and love each other no matter what and as their father told them, their family is the strongest family there is. No matter what past traumas or biological facts may interfere, these guys will always come through for each other.

Having said that, the narrative does meander somewhat and in particular the “comedy stalker” subplot feels a little out of place and under developed. Despite playing a crucial plot role, and providing quite an amusing joke early on in the film and at its end, Yuriko Yoshitaka’s “Natsuko” (this is just a nickname and a fairly amusing pun as Haru’s name means “spring” and she always follows him around so they called her “Natsuko” which means “summer’s child” , she doesn’t even get a proper name) doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do. Likewise, the small but important role played by the boys’ father feels as if it bounces around a little in terms of weight as does that of their mother who is only seen in flashback. Ultimately Gravity’s Clowns over reaches itself as it tries to tackle some more weighty themes like nature vs nurture and the ethics of certain kinds of crimes which are only addressed in a very superficial way, and in fact concluded fairly ambiguously.

A flawed, if pleasant enough character drama, Gravity’s Clowns is generally entertaining but ends up feeling a little insubstantial. High quality and committed performances from the cast and especially from Ryo Kase and Masaki Okada as the two central brothers help to elevate the material but somehow it never quite takes off. Heart warming and actually quite funny at times, Gravity’s Clowns is a noble effort but one that ultimately fails to strike home.

The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker (アヒルと鴨のコインロッカー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2007)

YgoLt - ImgurReview of The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker over at uk-anime.net I really enjoyed this one – great movie!


Director Yoshihiro Nakamura once again returns with another adaptation of a Kotaro Isaka novel, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker (アヒルと鴨のコインロッカー, Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker). Having previously adapted Fish Story (also available from Third Window in the UK and itself a very fine film) and Golden Slumber, Nakamura and Isaka seem to have formed a very effective working relationship and this latest effort is another very welcome instalment from the duo. Elliptical, melancholic and thought provoking The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker is a minor gem and every bit as whimsical as its name would suggest.

Shiina (Gaku Hamada) has just left the small town shoe shop his parents own to study law in Sendai. Moving into his new apartment he attracts the attention of his neighbour, Kawasaki (Eita), who overhears him signing Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind. Kawasaki is himself a great admirer of Dylan remarking that his is ‘the voice of God’. Aloof, cold, at once dominating and indifferent the prospect of developing a friendship with the mild mannered, short and shy Shiina seems an odd one but nevertheless the two seem to develop a bond. Kawasaki therefore proposes Shiina help him with a rather peculiar problem.

Shiina’s other neighbour, who rudely rebuffed Shina’s introduction and moving in present, is apparently a foreigner – Bhutanese to be precise – and although speaks fluent Japanese cannot read. He’s particularly perplexed by the different between ‘ahiru’ – the native duck, and ‘kamo’ – the foreign duck, and is sure that if he had a good dictionary he’d be able to understand the two fully and thus perfect his Japanese. To this end Kawasaki has decided to steal a Kanji Garden Dictionary for him and wants Shiina to help. Understandably confused Shiina originally declines but is soon bamboozled into helping anyway. There’s a lot more to all of this than a simple semantic quandary though and the only thing that’s clear is that Shiina has gone and gotten himself embroiled in someone else’s story.

‘That sounds like something you just made up’ is one of the first things Shiina says to Kawasaki and indeed everything about him seems studied or affected in someway as if he were reciting someone else’s lines – essentially performing the role of himself. Half of the crazy stuff he comes up with, like his warning Shiina to avoid a particular pet shop owner completely out of the blue, sounds as if he’s just invented it on the spot for a laugh were it not for his distant and humourless manner. Without spoiling the plot too much, you start to get the feeling that there’s really something slightly off about everything you’re being told, that crazy as it seems it is the truth in one sense but perhaps not in another. This is where the mystery element of the film begins to kick in – who is Kawasaki really? What is he on about? Is any of this really happening?

Wistful in tone, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker is only partly a mystery, it’s also a bittersweet coming of age tale and an, admittedly light, examination of the Japanese attitude to foreignness. Away from home for the first time Shiina is obviously keen to strike out on his own and be his own his own person but at the same time wants to fit in and be liked by his classmates. A particularly telling incident occurs when a confused Indian woman tries to get some information at a bus stop only to be ignored by those waiting. Shiina seems to feel as if he ought to help her but having just heard two of his classmates complaining about ‘stupid foreigners’ does nothing. Feeling guilty he tries to reach out to his Bhutanese neighbour but is again rebuffed. Kawasaki wants to know the difference between the foreign duck and the native one – is there such a fundamental difference? As one character says ‘you wouldn’t have talked to me if you’d known I was a foreigner’ ‘Of course I would’ Shiina replies ‘no, you wouldn’t have’ his friend responds with resignation. Isn’t it better to just help those who need it, whoever or whatever they happen to be?

The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker maybe a little darker than its title suggests but its tone is definitely to the wistful/whimsical side – this juxtaposition might irritate some who’d rather a more straightforward mystery or a lighter, more conventional comedy but its refusal to conform is precisely what makes it so charming. That it also manages to pack in a decent amount of social commentary in an interesting way is to its credit as is its ability to make the totally bizarre seem perfectly natural. The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin locker is another impressive feature from the creators of Fish Story and fans of that earlier film will certainly not be disappointed by their latest work.


Original trailer (English subtitles)