A Madder Red (茜色に焼かれる, Yuya Ishii, 2021)

©︎2021 "A Madder Red" Film Partners

A single mother and her son face the myriad injustices of the modern society with dignity and grace in Yuya Ishii’s quietly seething pandemic-era social drama, A Madder Red (茜色に焼かれる, Akaneiro ni Yakareru). The heroine is constantly asked why she isn’t angrier, those around her confused by her stoical attitude and tendency to simply sigh and say “let’s get through this” rather than railing against the persistent unfairness that defines her life but then she doesn’t have a lot of time for being angry nor would it particularly help her situation or bring about change. All she can do is persevere in the hope that it won’t always be this way, her run of bad luck will end, and she will eventually be permitted to rest. 

Ishii opens the film with a 3D model simulation of a traffic accident in which a cyclist is killed by an out of control car on a zebra crossing in an otherwise tranquil residential area. Ryoko’s (Machiko Ono) husband Yoichi (Joe Odagiri) is sent flying and ends up squished like a bug on the windscreen of a vehicle travelling in the other direction. The driver, an elderly man later revealed to have been living with Alzheimer’s, mistook the accelerator for the brake but as he had been a prominent local official the matter was swept under the carpet and he faced no consequences. What people can’t seem to understand is why Ryoko chose to attend the old man’s funeral when he eventually died. It seems attend was all she did, but the man’s son had security throw her out and his lawyer accuse her of “harassment” while expressing anger and resentment that her presence tarnished his father’s lavish ceremony when he had been such a good a man. Her presence perhaps annoys him because he knows on some level he’s in the wrong, while her strength and dignity shame him knowing that they should have just apologised. The lawyer implies she’s being unfair targeting the family who were not themselves responsible for the accident, except that in a sense they were because they failed to protect the old man by continuing to allow him to drive by himself. 

Ryoko refused the compensation money for this reason, that they tried to settle it with cash as if her husband’s life had no meaning. She lives in subsidised government housing, but doesn’t claim any benefits supporting herself after she was forced to close her cafe through a part-time job in a supermarket floristry department and after hours sex work. “Break a rule, break your life” she teaches her 13-year-old son Junpei (Iori Wada) yet constantly falls foul of rules written or otherwise while doing nothing wrong in the eyes of those who rant about benefit scroungers and routinely belittle those without means. She’s taken to task by her manager for taking home flowers that were due to be thrown out and for taking a phone call outside the store after clocking off, but when they fire her on a pretext to hire the daughter of a prominent client who can’t find a part-time job because of the pandemic, they refuse to honour the two month notice clause in her contract. Similarly when bullies from Junpei’s school set fire to some books left outside their apartment, they are the ones who have to move for violating the rule about causing a disturbance to the other residents. 

Given all of this no one can understand why Ryoko isn’t seething mad. She still pays for her father-in-law’s nursing home and even child support for a girl she’s never met fathered by Yoichi with another woman. Struggling herself, the child’s mother later turns to a sleazy friend of Yoichi’s, Ryu (Tateto Serizawa), to petition Ryoko to increase the child support but like her also worries that it “doesn’t seem right” to further burden a woman who is also struggling to raise a child alone just like herself while Ryu, as he had unsuccessfully with Ryoko, attempts to extort sexual favours in return for his assistance. Ryoko does these things when she doesn’t strictly have to and many people wouldn’t less out of pride or stubbornness than because it’s the right thing to do and if she can satisfy herself that she’s done right by others even if they’ve not done right by her then she maintains her dignity and their scorn can’t harm her. 

Even so, sick of being treated like a bug Ryoko’s rage eventually begins to boil over her subdued outfits giving way to a fiery red as her hopes of escape are once again dashed on realising a potential romantic suitor only ever viewed as a plaything. Everyone is always telling Ryoko’s that she’s “strange”, “weird”, “crazy”, in her passive resistance living by her own rules while constantly betrayed by those of others which they only enforce when it suits them. Ishii flags up all of her various expenses on the screen making it clear just how much it costs for Ryoko to be this poor while she seemingly grins and bears it. Then again as the film’s only title card tells us Ryoko is a good actress, and perhaps she has to be to get by in this indifferent society filled hidden suffering and an almost sadistic lust for self-preservation. “Mom, it’s all too much” Junpei sighs as he comes to an appreciation of his mother’s fortitude and her desire to simply “get through this” as they ride a mamachari towards a glowing technicolour sunset which ironically enough refuses to end trapping in them in this space of grief and unfairness but carrying with it a far off hope perhaps cruel in its elusiveness.


A Madder Red streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©︎2021 “A Madder Red” Film Partners

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

Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ, Daihachi Yoshida, 2007)

“We’re family, I’m sure we’ll understand each other” a conciliatory big brother tries to console, but family is it seems a much more complicated matter than one might assume it to be in Daihachi Yoshida’s debut feature, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ Funukedomo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero), adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya. Released in 2007, Yoshida’s film is one among a series of cynical reevaluations of the meaning of “family” in the contemporary society but eventually skews towards the uncomfortably conservative in its implicit suggestion that a family which is not bound by blood cannot succeed while even blood connection may prove inherently toxic. 

Fittingly the film opens with a freak yet largely offscreen accident as Mrs & Mrs Wago are killed by a runaway bus while attempting to save a stray cat, an event witnessed by their 18-year-old daughter Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa). The Wagos were a blended household, Kazuko and Shutaro having married later in life and bringing with them their children from previous marriages in Kazuko’s daughters Sumika (Eriko Sato) and Kiyomi, and Shutaro’s son Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase). Four years previously, Sumika left home after a traumatic family incident with the aim of becoming an actress in Tokyo, while her place has perhaps been taken by Shinji’s new wife Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku) whom he has only recently married. Yet Kiyomi seems more perturbed by the possibility of her sister’s return than she is grief-stricken by her parents’ death, while Sumika barely glances at the altar on her arrival immediately treating Machiko as a servant sent out to pay the taxi and collect her bags. 

As we quickly gather, Sumika is an intensely narcissistic, self-absorbed sociopath intent on manipulating everyone around her in order to assume a position of dominance yet her resentment is perhaps the only thing glueing the family together. Her grudge against Kiyomi apparently stems back to her having used her for inspiration for a manga about a young woman driven to psychotic violence in her ambition to become an actress which later won a prize and was printed under her real name with the consequence that everyone in town quickly realised it was about her. Sumika repeatedly uses this excuse as to why she hasn’t been successful, that the manga forced her into a moment of introspection that destroyed her self-confidence, later saying something similar to an unresponsive audition panel bearing out her tendency to blame her failures on others. Yet Kiyomi apparently feels intensely guilty. “I never thought of myself as the kind of person who’d turn her family into manga for money” she laments shortly after Sumika attempted to boil her to death in the bath, “I want to transform into the kind of person who can sympathise with family members’ pain”. 

“Family means supporting each other at times like this” the relentlessly cheerful Machiko had tried to comfort Kiyomi at the funeral, yet she is constantly reminded that she is not quite included as a family member. Shinji tells her to keep out of family business and later to avoid getting between the sisters, denying her an equal status within the home despite the reality of their marriage. Ironically enough, Machiko was abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage apparently so desperate to belong to a family that she willingly puts up with Shinji’s abusive treatment while making creepy dolls as a hobby. Yet at the end of the film it’s she who is left on her own, inheriting the family home, while the two blood sisters are eventually forced out but bound to each other if only in unresolved and continual resentment. 

Nevertheless there is also a degree of pathos in the series of frustrated dreams which prevent each of the siblings from escaping the otherwise perfectly nice if dull rural hometown where they were born. Sumika’s tragedy is her refusal to accept she has no talent and is unlikely to find career success because she is an unpleasant person, a meta plot strand seeing her writing letters to a director whose new movie is apparently about whether you can love someone you’ve only communicated with remotely and never met. Sumika seeks only dominance, manipulating her siblings through guilt and shame in order to encourage a sense of dependence while also dependent on them for financial support. Her need prevents either Kiyomi or Shinji finding happiness, their attempts to escape her control eventually leading in very different directions. 

Unlike similarly themed familial dramas, Funuke situates the fault line in its dysfunctional family not in the changing society but in its lack of blood relation while eventually suggesting that even the blood bond between the two sisters is more grimly toxic than it is supportive. In an odd way, it leaves Machiko as the winner while uncomfortably implying that her orphanhood prevents her from becoming part of a conventional family, literally left home alone. A more literal translation of the title might be “show some miserable love, you cowards”, suggesting that these anxious siblings are too afraid of themselves and each other to embrace familial affection Kiyomi eventually affirming “In the end I couldn’t change either, sorry”. While the limitations of early digital photography may not stand up a decade and change later, Yoshida’s occasionally experimental flair including an entire sequence playing out as manga panels helps to overcome the unfortunate lifelessness of a typically 2000s low budget aesthetic while the universally strong performances do their best to gain our sympathy in an otherwise cruelly cynical, if darkly humorous, take on post-millennial family dynamics. 


Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! is available on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Just the Two of Us (二人ノ世界, Keita Fujimoto, 2020)

“We’re just ordinary people” the heroine of Just the Two of Us (二人ノ世界, Futari no Sekai) eventually exclaims in exasperation with the often hostile world around her. Produced by Kaizo Hayashi as a project for students at the Kyoto University of the arts, Keita Fujimoto’s sometimes bleak social drama offers a less rosy view on disability in the contemporary society than has perhaps been seen in recent Japanese cinema as the twin protagonists each struggle against prejudice and preconceived notions of how disabled people should live while internalising a sense of shame and impossibility that leaves them with little hope for the future. 

Opening in darkness, the scene then shifts to bright sun light as a young woman, Hanae (Shiori Doi), is woken by a phone call informing her she has been unsuccessful in a recent job application. Meanwhile, Gohei (Motomi Makiguchi), an old man caring for his son Shunsaku (Masatoshi Nagase) who has been paralysed from the neck down since a motorbike accident some years previously, finds his latest attempt to hire a carer ending in failure, Shunsaku deliberately making obscene comments towards the earnest young woman leaving her so upset that she leaves in tears and does not return. After hearing Gohei discussing his problem on a local radio show, Hanae decides to apply for the job the only thing being that she herself is blind which is why she’s been having so much trouble trying to find employment. 

Gohei has his doubts, but after talking to the young woman and witnessing her take no notice of Shunsaku’s attempts to make her uncomfortable, he decides to take her on in part because she reminds him of his late wife and he instinctively feels that he can trust her. As we discover, that’s something all the more pressing to Gohei because not only is he finding it increasingly difficult to care for his son as he himself ages but is also suffering with a serious medical condition and worrying who will look after him once he’s gone. For all these reasons he places a heavier responsibility on Hanae than she had expected, showing her where the spare key is in case she needs to get in when he’s out and even handing over their passbooks and bank cards. A little shocked, Hanae asks him if that’s really necessary, how does he know she won’t just run off with them but he simply tells her that he knows she’s not the sort of person who would do something like that and indeed she isn’t. 

As she later reveals, Hanae has no family of her own repeatedly reminding Shunsaku that he was lucky to have parents that loved and cared for him as much as they did. She becomes in a sense a member of the family, Gohei telling hospital staff she is his daughter while later even Shunsaku claims to be her husband in order to make a point. Yet the arrangement is not one that all find suitable, Shunsaku’s snooty aunts instantly taking against Hanae on the grounds that they cannot believe a blind woman could care for a paralysed man while simultaneously attempting to chase Shunsaku out of his home he fears disguising their desire to get their hands on the inheritance as concern for his wellbeing. They continue to infantilise him, refusing his right to make his own decisions over his life even though he is a man in his 40s of entirely sound mind insisting he should be put away in a nursing home rather than allowed to live as independently as possible in a house which he owns. 

Tellingly Shunsaku had been reluctant to leave the house afraid of the stigma and judgement he may receive from others in an ableist society, a fear later borne out by their encounter with an extremely rude man while trying to enjoy a summer a festival. Hanae who had been partially sighted since birth and lost her sight entirely five years previously reassures him that she feels people staring at her all the time but has had to become used to it in order to carry on with her life, her courage and support beginning to give him the desire to begin living again yet the world continues to place various barriers in their way eventually removing all sense of hope and possibility that the decisions they’ve made for themselves will be accepted or that they could become a conventional family supporting each other. 

“How can we live without bothering others?” Hanae eventually snaps back at the snooty aunts, signalling perhaps a slightly problematic framing that leans into the idea that Hanae and Shunsaku are burdens and that their presence is never anything other than a nuisance to those around them rather than taking others to task for their refusal to accept disabled people as equals or to treat them with basic human empathy. The conclusion is further reinforced by the bittersweet ending which echoes the film’s title implying that the pair can stay together but only by accepting exile from mainstream society and retreating into a world of two. Nevertheless, Fujimoto’s often sensitive, elegantly shot drama has genuine poignancy even in its melancholy conclusion as the marginalised heroes find solace in each other in defiance of a hostile society.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Vision (ビジョン, Naomi Kawase, 2018)

In her most recent work, Naomi Kawase has been moving further towards the mainstream, shooting in a more conventional arthouse register and mainly casting established professional actors in contrast to the amateurs who often took centre stage in her earlier career. Vision (ビジョン) however returns her to her familiar Nara Prefecture with its verdant forests and rolling mists and to more obscure realms of poetic ambiguity and new age philosophy.

French scientist/travel writer Jeanne (Juliette Binoche) has come to Japan in search of a herb so rare it apparently only spores once a millennium but has the capability to “dispel human weakness, agony, and pain”. Tomo (Masatoshi Nagase), a mountain man she ends up lodging with along with her interpreter Hana (Minami), answers only that “happiness exists in each of our hearts”, a somewhat hollow and ironic reply given his general grumpiness and stern expression. He tells them that he’s only lived in the cabin for 20 years having moved to the country because he was “tired” and that his purpose is to save the mountain. Despite his seeming reluctance, he eventually introduces the pair to a blind shamaness who claims to be 1000 years old and was born when the last plant (or as she points out fungus) spored. 

Lost in the beauty of nature, Jeanne begins to wonder if she is really in the present, losing the certainty of the moment. We get occasional snippets of what seems to be memory bathed in a golden light and presented as flashback which might hint at the “pain” Jeanne is trying to cure through finding the “vision” herb even as she engages in a halfhearted though apparently passionate affair with the indifferent Tomo. She sees him as “starving” for something, not knowing what it is he’s longing for, though her friend describes him as “happy” as if silent like the mountain he claims to be saving though all we see him do is destroy it by carving up trees even if he does point again to the transience of things in explaining that the lumber he produces is the work of several generations who planted and grew so he could cut down, perhaps hinting back at Jeanne’s claim that when life develops too far it begins to destroy itself. 

Tomo doesn’t quite seem to buy her new age philosophies, explaining only that “you see, and hear, touch, you feel, that is everything”, rooting his sense of reality firmly within the realms of the sensual. “Sometimes because we have language we can’t understand each other” Jeanne later says, echoing him though perhaps accidentally while expounding on the human condition to a mysterious young man, Rin (Takanori Iwata), discovered injured in the forest. Aki (Mari Natsuki), the shamaness, advances that there are changes in the forest, that it has become unbalanced, and that it will soon be time for the “vision” to present itself though it seems to take a while for Jeanne to understand what form that may take. Aki dances furiously amid the trees as if bending them to her will, her ritualistic dance later echoed in the climatic final sequence that sets a fire in the mountain but causes Tomo to suddenly declare that it is after all alive. 

Jeanne finds her “vision” in an alignment of past and future, a familial, generational reunion which allows her ease her pain just as it was said vision would do. All moments are perhaps one moment. On the train Hana had described a feeling of long forgetten happiness that Jeanne’s travel essay had provoked in her as akin to “nostalgia”, instantly amusing Jeanne who is overcome by the incongruity of this young woman already romanticising a sense of nostalgia for an unlived past. Tomo had declared that it was enough simply to remember that he too was a part of this world, but is suddenly reminded that he is not alone. Literally setting fire to the past they buy themselves the possibility of being reborn, making space for new growth in the knowledge that the mountain is “alive” as indeed are they. Tomo has saved the mountain, and Jeanne has perhaps saved herself. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she exclaims embracing a new vision of a bright and shining future no longer burdened by pain or despair.


Vision streams in the US until Dec. 23 alongside Naomi Kawase’s 1997 debut Suzaku as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Trailer (English subtitles)

BOLT (Kaizo Hayashi, 2019)

“We have to trust the bonds that tie us” intones a voice from the control room, “if you can’t tighten that bolt the water will pollute the future”. A series of post-Fukushima tales, Kaizo Hayashi’s tripartite portmanteau movie BOLT is less about the radiating effects of a nuclear disaster than their legacy, insisting that if you can’t pull together you can’t move forward but then in the end the bolt cannot be tightened or the deluge stemmed. It is perhaps too late, but still you have to live. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the first of the three tales follows a series of selfless engineers sent in to tighten a bolt on a leaking tank. They are informed their suits will protect them but not completely, they have only half an hour of oxygen, and should work in pairs for no longer than a minute before changing over. The older men tell the younger to wait behind, hoping to spare them from harm while the young men bristle wanting to do their bit. In any case, one of the young men later freezes, his feet rooted to the spot as if under some kind of spell while his friend begins to go quietly mad when a second bolt works it way out seconds after he’s fixed the first. The unnamed chief (Masatoshi Nagase) refuses to return with his team, staying to ensure he’s done all that can be done but in the end they cannot stop what is already in motion. 

A few years later the chief has apparently moved on, now working as a house clearer in the exclusion zone. His job is to tidy up and sanitise the home of a man who refused the evacuation order and has since passed away alone. As he’s been told, he carefully saves important documents and personal items such as photo albums for the family only to be told there is no family to take them, they were all taken by the tsunami. His cynical partner asks him why he got into this kind of work. He doesn’t have much of an answer for him save that someone’s got to do it and can offer only the declaration that he has to go on living for further direction of his life. 

On Christmas Eve 2014 however he’s still alone, living in an auto garage making some kind of metal device while a pair of children outside set the scene for a ghost story claiming there’s a mermaid living in the tank inside. Like the deceased man, the chief also seems to have lost someone, a black and white photograph sitting on the desk behind him, while apparently attempting to return to his former life as a nuclear technician only to be told he’s taken too much radiation already though the plant is short staffed seeing as many prefer to work on the Olympics, forging the future while neglecting the past. His Christmas gets off to a strange start when a beautiful woman in a red convertible bedecked with festive lights literally crashes into his life. An echo of someone else her arrival and subsequent departure hint at the strange and ethereal impermanence of post-disaster life in the continuing impossibility of moving on from irresolvable trauma. 

Beginning in science fiction with the high concept opener and its cyber punk design, Hayashi posits the nuclear threat as a kind of supernatural curse which can perhaps never be undone. Crackles of electricity take on a spiritual air while the permanent pinking of the sky seems to hint at a world forever changed as if something has been unleashed and can never again be caged. Tormented by cosmological unease, the chief chooses action, trying to his best to live even when action fails. The bolt can’t be tightened, the water pollutes the future, and all he can do is continue to stem the tide, tightening the bolts wherever they fray. With occasional flashes of psychedelic surrealism, Hayashi’s three tales offer a bleak and melancholy vision of life in the shadow of an almost supernatural disaster, but find finally a determination to live no matter how futile it may turn out to be. 


BOLT streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©L’espace Vision, Dream Kid, Kaizo Production

Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fancy (ファンシー, Masaoki Hirota, 2020)

“Every minute of life is yours to make use of” according to the ultra cool hero of Masaoki Hirota’s Fancy (ファンシー), a laconic postman with a penchant for sunshades and a resigned attitude to transience. Adapted from the manga short story by Naoki Yamamoto, Fancy is indeed a transitory tale, a minor episode in the life of a poet who thinks he’s a penguin, his best friend the postman, and his penpal seeking her own kind of escape in an impromptu and probably unwise proposal of marriage. 

The postman, Takasu (Masatoshi Nagase), is also a tattooist, a former yakuza now reformed and living quietly in an old-fashioned hot springs town which seems to be stuck in the Showa era. As Takasu’s colleague Tanaka (Tomorowo Taguchi) puts it, it’s pretty “standard” now for everyone to have two jobs, his side hustle being a shooting gallery which is a front for the sex trade. Even the local Buddhist priest is intent on trying to sell everyone he meets a funerary monument, while Southern Cross Penguin (Masataka Kubota) is a best-selling poet particularly popular with high school girls in addition to being a flightless aquatic bird in human form. Penguin doesn’t expect us to believe him, but tells us that a penguin is just what he is and there’s no particular reason for it. So completely does he take his penguinhood that he opens the door in a full penguin mask, dresses only in black and white, mainly eats raw fish, and keeps his home ice cold with the aid of several industrial-size air conditioners. Penguin prides himself on answering the many fan letters he gets, explaining that they’re not so much “fans” as “comrades” who are also looking for the “shining country”. In any case, his fan mail is how he met the postman, his only friend, who is content to shiver in his home putting whisky in his tea to stave off the cold. 

Penguin’s life begins to change, however, when he gets a letter from “Moon Night Star” (Sakurako Konishi), a fan with whom he’d been corresponding. Moon Night Star pretty much insists on becoming his “wife”, failing to take Penguin’s hints that she might not be very happy “married” to an aquatic animal who can’t go outside. As we will later discover, Moon Night Star is in her own way rebelling against her fate, taking refuge in Penguin’s igloo and engaging in a delusion that she loves him in order to make it work. For his part, Penguin perhaps comes to like her too, but he can also see that she’s quite “depressed” stuck in the cold with him, pushing her towards the outside and into the arms of the postman. 

Takasu, meanwhile, finds himself on a series of borders as he begins to confront his past in the form of his absent father and the family he seems to have lost, sympathetically telling his pained former wife that her life is hers to do with as she wishes, perhaps in a sense cuttingly refusing her apology but also accepting her right to seize the present. Another man with two jobs, Takasu’s childhood friend is both yakuza gang boss and hotelier, confiding that the gangster stuff is too stressful and he wishes he could just focus on the hotel in the same way the Takasu has now become a postman. It’s his strange relationship with a yakuza drifter, however, that threatens to drag him back into gangsterdom as he learns that there’s been a schism in his former clan. With a turf war brewing, the loyalists have taken over his friend’s hotel, unreconstructed Showa-era yakuza on the streets of a pleasant hot springs resort. 

“We’re doomed anyway, do what you like” one of the goons intones, in one sense subverting Takasu’s mantra but in another perhaps embracing it. A memory of his father reminds him to “make very second count” while also catching him in an endless moment of gaze, unable to forget the back of the woman his father was tattooing at the time. Takasu looks and does eventually touch, but admits his jealousy obsessed with skin as canvas only latterly taking off his shades in a willingness to see and be seen. Penguin, meanwhile, who wanted to swim in a sea of words, finds himself floating free, braving but eventually succumbing to the heat before exclaiming that he’s going to close his eyes to allow a new story to start. The love of a poet is fleeting, Takasu reflects as each of the various protagonists shifts towards their “main” identity, edging back towards conventionality in abandoning the “fancifulness” of their sometimes strange existences. There will, however, be more strange adventures because even if it falls apart beneath your feet, life’s what you make it, be you a postman or a penguin. 


Fancy screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Sadao Nakajima, 2019)

Sadao Nakajima joined Toei in 1959 and worked for the studio throughout its golden age, mostly associated with jidaigeki and gangster movies which were Toei’s stock in trade well into the 1970s and perhaps beyond. Now in his 80s, Nakajima’s last narrative feature was released over 20 years ago. A kind of last hurrah, Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Tajuro Junai-ki) is a willing throwback to the glory days of chanbara, even bearing a dedication title card to genre giant Daisuke Ito, and doing its best to resurrect the classic Toei programmer magic. 

Appropriately enough, the action takes place at a moment of intense change. As the film opens, the men of Choshu who have left their clan to foster their own brand of revolution in opposing the shogunate in favour of the emperor and a desire to reject Western influence, are hiding out in a shack while bad mouthing soon-to-be-allies Satsuma and the man who seeks to unite them, Sakamoto Ryoma. They are soon discovered by Kyoto’s elite Shogunate police, the Mimawarigumi, and ambushed. Their leader, the famed Katsura Kogoro (Masatoshi Nagase), signals that times have indeed changed by pulling out a pistol and defending himself at distance. 

Meanwhile, Choshu fugitive in hiding Tajuro (Kengo Kora) is trying to make ends meet with his painting, designing patterns for ladies kimonos but seemingly with little success. He has the sunken cheeks, vacant eyes, and slight slowness of someone who drinks too much and hasn’t had a decent meal in a very long time. We learn that he left Choshu with the others on the pretext of revolution, but his real purpose was escape from a restrictive samurai existence and most pertinently from his miserable poverty. Having long since given up the idea of a being a samurai, he’s already sold his sword and is attempting to live under the radar, unaware that similarly troubled bar hostess Otoyo (Mikako Tabe) has fallen in love with him. Otoyo was adopted by the bar’s owner, Omitsu (Yuriko Mishima), a former geisha, who intended to sell her to a geisha house. She eloped with a man she loved instead, but it turned out that he was minded to sell her too so she came back and now runs the bar while taking care of the ageing Omitsu. 

The crisis occurs when men of Choshu arrive in search of Tajuro in the hope that he will rejoin their cause. He doesn’t want to, showing off his samurai skills (and neatly disguising the fact that he has no blade through advanced technique) but pointedly asking for a hefty payment from his former mentor Sanzaemon (Asahi Kurizuka) in belief that it would not be paid. Sanzaemon, however, comes through and leaves a message for Tajuro to meet him behind a nearby shrine. He however spends the entirety of his money getting blind drunk in Otoyo’s bar, during which time Sanzaemon is caught by the Mimawarigumi, breathing his last words to Tajuro’s younger half-brother Kazuma (Ryo Kimura) to the effect that he must reunite with Tajuro and fight for the good of the country. 

On the run and holed up with a patient priest and his beloved wife, Tajuro is asked why it is he’s decided to pick up his sword once again despite his reluctance. Asked if was for country or for money Tajuro shakes his head, leaving the priest to correctly guess that it was for love. Tajuro has fallen in love with Otoyo, the only person who either doesn’t believe he is a failed samurai and drunken fool, or doesn’t care. The world however is still too chaotic for romance, and so their pure love will have to wait. 

Tajuro’s fate is in many ways the direct result of his attempt reject his responsibility as a samurai, daring to live as a common man with all of the freedoms and burdens that entails. The force which constrains him in both worlds is poverty. Whatever else he is, he is too poor for love, unable to feed himself let alone a wife either as a low wage samurai or a ronin. The price he pays is in his desire to cross borders. The samurai world is not done with him yet and while the denizens of this small backwater worry about paying their rent paying little mind to what’s going on in the capital, political intrigue is not something that he can go on ignoring. After all, not picking a side is in a sense also picking a side. The Mimawarigumi pride themselves on not being as savage as the Shinsengumi (which largely consists of ronin, lower ranked samurai, and commoners whereas the Mimawarigumi are elite samurai and direct retainers to the Shogunate), but their job is still to bring in fugitive rebels like Tajuro and his bid for “freedom” may be doomed to failure in a world still constrained by the law of the samurai. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)