Toilet (トイレット, Naoko Ogigami, 2010)

toilet posterBy accident or design, Naoko Ogigami’s career has existed to one side of Japan’s most representative genre, the family drama, in making a clear choice to embrace unusual or self defined family units. In Kamome Diner, a disparate group of runaway Japanese people became a kind of makeshift family and forged a mini-community with the friendly local Finns. Following the brief holiday sojourn of Megane, Ogigami returns abroad but this time to North America for her first English language feature. Once again it’s a tale of misfits learning how to fit, but it’s also a tale of the true nature of family which extends far further than mere blood relation.

30-something Ray (Alex House) is a hyper rational scientist who rejects all forms of emotion and attachments. Thus, he’s doing pretty OK even though his mother died just over a week ago. His siblings, neurotic poetess Lisa (Tatiana Maslany), and agoraphobic former pianist Maury (David Rendall) are not taking it quite as well. The other problem is that shortly before she died, Ray’s mother spent a lot of money tracking down her own long lost Japanese mother who is still living with them but speaks no English and and is still very affected by the death of the daughter she’d only just reconnected with. Ray resents having to look after “baa-chan” (Masako Motai) – a woman he’s hardly spoken to and has no connection with, but cannot exactly throw her out.

Ray, a rare male protagonist in an Ogigami film, is an emotionally repressed geek who pours all of his love and affection into collecting plastic Gundam models. Ironically enough, Ray, or”Rei” actually means “cold” in Japanese which is what his siblings often brand him. More “adult” than the others, he’d long left the family home and was barely present during his mother’s final days leaving Lisa and Maury to deal with everything alone. A sudden accident forces him to return and reassume his big brother role in trying to take care of the floundering Lisa and the fragile Maury.

After suffering a breakdown during a concert some years previously, Maury has been unable to leave the house. Discovering his mother’s old-fashioned sewing machine, he finds a new lease on life with an additional form of expression on top of his musicality. With Baa-chan’s help, he figures out how to use the machine and begins making skirts just like the ones his mother wears in the family photos, which he later wears for no particular reason other than it pleased him to do so.

Lisa, by contrast, seems set to walk a darker path after falling for a snarky, nihilistic poet from her creative writing class. His violent negativity seems to gel with her ongoing malaise, but all he really offers her is his own insecurities and embittered rigidity. Rediscovering the capacity to choose something else, Lisa finally finds the will to do something real and then asks baa-chan to help her triumph by doing something that’s sort of fake but will take her on the kind of journey she’s been looking for.

Having started out cold, distant, and resentful, Ray is brought back into the familial fold by accidentally bonding with his siblings in trying to understand Baa-chan. Played by Ogigami regular Masako Motai, Baa-chan never speaks but seems to understand what’s going on with her grandchildren on an instinctual level. Ray, half-hoping Baa-chan isn’t their real grandma, weighs up paying for a DNA test but ends up finding out more about himself than his other family members. Baa-chan maybe a kind of unknowable deity, hovering around the edges of the family with a giant wallet and wise smile, but she does seem to know what it is the orphaned siblings need and determines to gently nudge each of them in the right direction.

Deliberately moving away from Ogigami’s trademark style, Toilet adopts an even more heightened, detached approach than that seen in Megane but possibly suffers from hovering on the edges of on an established American-style of ironic comedy rather than striking a unique tone of its own. The toilet of the title refers to the well known Japanese “washlet” which becomes an unlikely point of connection between Ray and Baa-chan as he becomes increasingly intrigued by the strange sigh of disappointment she lets out each time she leaves their bathroom. Where take-away sushi failed, homemade gyoza and patience win out as Baa-chan imparts her silent wisdom in allowing the family to find themselves and each other in an atmosphere of unconditional love and support.


Original trailer (English with Japanese subtitles)

The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Shuichi Okita, 2016)

mohican-comes-homeJapan may be famous for its family dramas, but there is a significant substrain of these warm and gentle comedies which sees a prodigal child return to their childhood home either to rediscover some lost aspect of themselves or realise that they no longer belong in the place which raised them. Shuichi Okita’s The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Mohican Kokyo ni Kaeru) includes an obvious reference in its title to Keisuke Kinoshita’s colourful 1954 escapade Carmen Comes Home which cast legendary actress Hideko Takamine somewhat against type as a ditsy airhead show girl eager to show off all her city sophistications to the rural backwater she abruptly ran out of some years before. Like Carmen, the hero of Mohican Comes Home makes an unexpected trip to visit his family in the picturesque Hiroshima island village where he grew up only to find not very much has changed but an equally unexpected tragedy prompts him into a wider consideration of his past and future as he faces life’s two extremes in the very same moment.

Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda) left his island home some years ago for the bright lights of Tokyo where he fronts a punk band by the name of Grim Reapers. The band has some moderate underground success, but the guys are getting old for the punk scene and finding themselves with real world responsibilities from healthcare costs to the prospects of supporting wives and children. Eikichi, sporting a prominent bleached mohawk, feels this more than most as he’s soon to become a father and is intending to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Yuka (Atsuko Maeda), if only he had the money. He’s been promising to take his future wife to meet his parents for some time but so far they’ve never actually made the trip.

This time, things are different and so Eikichi makes a shocking return after seven years only to wander in during an awkward scene as his mother and younger brother try to manoeuvre his drunken father into a more convenient position whilst protecting his precious white suit from alcohol born ruin. Eikichi’s family own the village liquor store but his father’s passion is for music and he also coaches the local middle school band. A devotee of legendary Hiroshima born superstar Eikichi Yazawa, Osamu (Akira Emoto) insists the kids play his favourite tune ad nauseam to much eye rolling from the youngsters forced to associate themselves with such an uncool and old fashioned song.

Eikichi’s homecoming has not got off to the best start, especially after his father begins to sober up and recommends a hair cut and real job, both of which Eikichi resolutely refuses. Things take a more serious turn when Osamu realises his son is being financially supported by his girlfriend whom he has also got pregnant but is not yet married to. Experiencing extreme moral outrage at his responsibility shirking son, Osamu chases him around the table in what appears to be a scene often repeated during Eikichi’s childhood but the situation soon ends in an unexpected way foreshadowing Osamu’s decline into ill health.

Deciding to stay a little longer than intended, Eikichi and Yuka blend into the family home trying to help mother Haruko (Masako Motai) and boomerang younger brother Koji (Yudai Chiba) adjust while Osamu is in the hospital. The contrast between town and country, traditional and modern is never far from view whether in Yuka’s kindhearted decision to finish off preparing the family dinner though she has to consult a youtube video to find out how to gut fish, or in her astonishment at the very ordinary way in which her future in-laws met (i.e. simple propinquity). While the women begin to bond over their shared concern for their men as Haruko decides to teach Yuka some home style tips and tricks, Eikichi and his father spar with each other warmly as Eikichi takes charge of a band rehearsal and allows them to let loose on the much hated song with an energised punk fuelled twist.

Despite a strained relationship with his father, Eikichi is a good person who also wants to offer some kind of comfort to the old man in his final days. Going to great lengths to track down a particular pizza Osamu suddenly requests (the last time he ate pizza was on his 60th birthday) or eventually pretending to be Yazawa himself whom Osamu is very proud to have made eye contact with during a Tokyo concert in 1977, Eikichi comes to a kind of understanding of the man his father was as well as the man he is. Full of warm, naturalistic humour giving way to two elaborately constructed set pieces, The Mohican Comes Home is a typically well observed family drama from Okita which neatly undercuts its essentially melancholy set up with a layer of stoical perseverance.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kamome Diner (かもめ食堂, Naoko Ogigami, 2006)

wsVs9OWFinland, Finland, Finland. That’s the country for me! Where better could there possibly be to open up a small Japanese cafe than in Helsinki? On second thoughts, don’t answer that but moving to Finland and opening her own diner all alone is exactly what the leading lady, Sachie, has done in this warm hearted comedy drama from Naoko Ogigami, Kamome Diner (かもめ食堂, Kamome Shokudou). As in most of her films, Ogigami has assembled an eclectic cast of eccentric characters who each find themselves turning up at Sachie’s restaurant largely by chance but this time there’s a little added cross cultural pollination too.

Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) has learned fluent Finnish and put together a welcoming space serving coffee and sweet goods as well as full meals in a fairly central location though she’s yet to receive a single customer through her doors. Three middle aged women often stop outside and stare making some sort of derogatory comment before scuttling off when Sachie spots them. Then, one day a teenage boy comes in and unexpectedly tries out some of his Japanese. He turns out to be a bit of a Japanophile and asks Sachie to teach him all the words to the Gatachman theme tune though she can’t remember past the opening. The tune gets stuck in her head and starts to drive her so mad that when she spots another Japanese woman in a bookshop cafe she marches up to ask her if she can remember the whole thing and luckily she can. Sachie then offers to let the woman, Midori (Hairi Katagiri), stay at her place in return and the two become friends. Later another Japanese lady, Masako (Masako Motai), turns up after her luggage goes missing and together the three start to make a success of Sachie’s diner.

Why Sachie chose Finland remains a mystery, though she has taken the time to learn Finnish to a near native level and also seems to know quite a lot about the various local legends. She doesn’t seem particularly rushed though and is fairly content to wait around for the customers to come of their own accord rather than trying to chase them down herself. In fact she gives her very first customer, the Japanese pop culture enthusiast Tommi, free coffee for life which doesn’t seem like the best business decision.

Likewise, we learn how Midori came to choose Finland as a holiday destination but she seems a little sad and the fact that her stay is open ended perhaps hints at having run away from something though once again we aren’t told much about her backstory. Not that that matters very much, quite the contrary in fact. Masako proves the most eccentric of the three though we actually learn quite a bit about what brought her to Finland.

Other than Tommi who seems most interested in the stereotypical aspects of Japanese culture (to the slight consternation of Midori) with his T-shirts bearing non sensical slogans and illustrations of geisha, the restaurant does start to attract a few Finns albeit mostly ones who are in some sort of trouble. One man teaches Sachie how to make better coffee, a middle aged woman simply stares angrily at them from outside until she comes in one day and downs a few of the local spirit before collapsing, and then there are the other three gossips who turn out to be won over with something as simple as sweet smelling pastries.

Simply put, warmth, kindness and patience eventually break down all barriers. The Kamome Diner becomes a refuge for all the lonely misfits from home and abroad watched over by Sachie & co always ready to pour some delicious smelling coffee for the next needy customer through the door. Wonderfully low-key and filled with absurd yet oddly plausible situations, Kamome Diner blends the dual eccentricities of these two stereotypically “wacky” countries beautifully and just goes to prove there’s nowt so queer as folk wherever you land.


The Japanese region A blu-ray release of Kamome Diner includes English subtitles!

Short (unsubtitled) scene from near the beginning of the film:

Megane (めがね, Naoko Ogigami, 2007)

119236783696916311605When considering their next holiday destination, many people like to peruse some brochures, have a read of trip advisor or head to a well known tourist spot that is likely to impress the guests at their next soirée but then there are always others who just simply show up somewhere and hope for the best. The central character of Megane, Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi), perhaps wishes she’d done a little research before heading out to a very strange inn on a very strange island but the longer she stays, the more the ways of the laid-back islanders seem to make sense to her.

The film begins as inn owner Yuji (Ken Mitsuishi) plays with his dog on the beach before suddenly realising “She’s here!” – referring to a favourite, annual guest who operates a shaved ice stand on that very same beach but for the spring only. Sakura (Masako Motai) has, indeed, arrived but unexpectedly there is also a second visitor, Taeko, all the way from the big city. Yuki seems impressed Taeko managed to find the out of the way hotel and points out their tiny sign (if they had a bigger one there would be too many customers).

Taeko might have been looking for an escape but this is a little more than she bargained for. First off, she gets a wake up call every morning in the form of Sakura kneeling next to her bed and commenting on the weather and she’s sort of expected to attend meals at the same time as everyone else, convenient or not. Sakura also leads a strange callisthenics session on the beach each morning which Taeko is encouraged to join as well as constantly being offered Sakura’s shaved ice which she always declines.

There isn’t much to do in this strange place, Yuji, Sakura and another woman who isn’t a guest but hangs round all the time anyway are convinced Taeko has come for the purpose of “twilighting” which Taeko doesn’t quite understand and they refuse to elaborate on but apparently this weird island is very good for it. Getting sick of these strange people and their odd habits Taeko decides to just check out and try another hotel. BIG MISTAKE. The other hotel on the island turns out to be an even more bizarre cult commune which makes Yuji and co seem much more appealing all of a sudden. Returning humbly to the extremely relaxed hotel and sacrificing her suitcase in the process, Taeko finally begins to embrace the odd ways of the island and open herself up to its benign indifference.

However, part way through she’s rudely interrupted by one of her students who’s managed to track her down despite her having chosen this place specifically for its remoteness and lack of cellphone signal. Yomogi (Ryo Kase) takes to the weird ways of the island like a fish to water, in fact his hipsterish adaptability is a little odd in itself, but against expectations his arrival only slightly irritates Taeko and creates no major drama of its own. The mystery of the overly jealous hanger on, Haruna (Mikako Ichikawa), is partially solved towards the end though her gentle possessiveness of the inn bound family and passive aggression to Taeko’s gradual acclimatisation is also more of the comic variety and eventually works itself out in a gentle way.

“Gentle” may well be the best way to describe Megane. Someone should probably market a “calm” mix which consists entirely of the relaxing island sounds of this film. These people take things slow and are all the happier for it. They know the pleasure of a sunset, shaved ice on the beach on a sunny day, drinking beer outside or enjoying a barbecue with friends. Mellow to the core, Megane is the ideal way to find your own spot of serenity at the end of a busy day and is sure to ease even the heaviest of hearts with its subtle, absurd humour.


The Japanese region A blu-ray release of Megane includes English subtitles!