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)

The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Shiro Tokiwa, 2019)

“Family” – what does it mean? The concept itself has been under examination for some time, at least as far as the “family drama” goes, but Shiro Tokiwa’s The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Saisho no Bansan) has it more positive than most as its somewhat emotionally distant hero begins to piece his back together and rediscover his place within it. He does so largely through the Proustian power of food as his lonely step-mother does her best to unite the family by reviving warm memories of the various meals they shared together. 

Yet, as Rintaro (Junya Maki / Shota Sometani), a Tokyo-based freelance photographer grappling with the art/commerce divide, is insensitively told at his father’s funeral, his is not an “ordinary” family. That would be (partly) because it was a blended one. Rintaro and his sister Miyako (Nana Mori / Erika Toda) were being brought up by their single father, Hitoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), their mother having apparently left the family, before he brought Akiko (Yuki Saito) and her teenage son Shun (Raiku / Yosuke Kubozuka) to live with them. As a grown man, Rintaro still claims not to be able to understand what his father was thinking, why he wanted to start a “new” family by bringing Akiko and Shun into their home, especially as it led to him giving up his lifelong love of mountaineering to get a steady job in a factory. It never seems to occur to him that perhaps his father simply fell in love again and wanted to share his life with a woman who loved him, becoming a father figure to her teenage son in welcoming an expansion to their family. 

There is, perhaps, still a resistance to the entire idea of blended families or even remarriages especially in the more conservative countryside. Dealing with an offensive uncle, Rintaro fires back that this kind of thing is perfectly normal and no kind of issue at all in Tokyo, so he’s not sure what the problem is but it’s clear that there is still a degree of disapproval of Hitoshi and Akiko’s union even 20 years later. Part of that might be to do with the circumstances of their meeting which we later discover had their share of moral ambiguity. That central secret, and the ones which spur off it, is the reason that Rintaro has never quite been able to put his family together, while Miyako, married at a young age and now the mother of two daughters, is experiencing a degree of marital strife with her mild-mannered husband (Shinsuke Kato) who accuses her of cheating with an old classmate at a reunion. 

Akiko stuns them all by abruptly announcing that she’s cancelled the caterers for the wake and is planning to cook herself, serving up a selection of dishes one wouldn’t usually expect at a funeral but which she claims are taken directly from Hitoshi’s will and each reflect a particular memory of their life together as a family. There is a gaping hole, however, in that we don’t see Shun. “Why should he come?” Miyako replies to Rintaro’s questions, “He’s an outsider here”. A rather cold cut-off for a step-brother, even one you haven’t seen in a long time, and a partial negation of the idea of families not bound by blood even if it’s snapped partly out of hurt. 

While Miyako struggles to reconcile herself to her place within her new family and her decision to form it, Rintaro chats on the phone to his sympathetic girlfriend, Rie (Hyunri), who has, perhaps surprisingly, not accompanied him on this emotionally difficult occasion. The problem seems to be, however, that he’s told her not to come even though she’d have liked to be there and it doesn’t seem as if anyone would have objected. An agent ringing him at a spectacularly bad time to tell him he hasn’t won a competition is forced to reveal, in the nicest possible way, that he narrowly lost out because his pictures are “cold”, he has no affection for his subjects and it shows. He remains diffident in his relationship with Rie because he hasn’t worked out this whole family thing for himself and is worried he simply doesn’t know how to fit into one. 

Through re-experiencing his childhood through the meals shared with his father, Rintaro begins to regain a sense of belonging, discovering what it was that lay at the heart of his family drama and why it eventually led to a painful breakup. Before all that, however, they’d been happy. Trying to quell a spat between Miyako and Shun over different kinds of miso soup not long after they moved in, Akiko declares that from now on she’s only making one, “blended”, kind for everyone though the choice is theirs whether or not they choose to eat it. Truths are shared, new understandings are reached, and the family is in some sense restored. Their childhoods explained, Miyako and Rintaro begin see a path forwards towards a happy family life of their own while taking their bittersweet memories with them, no longer burdened by anxious insecurity but strengthened by a new sense of belonging that has nothing to do with blood.


The First Supper screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Snow (赤い雪, Sayaka Kai, 2019)

Red Snow poster 2“We’re just pieces of a puzzle” a temporarily deranged woman exclaims to a gloomy seeker after truth in Sayaka Kai’s eerie debut Red Snow (赤い雪, Akai Yuki). Truth, as it turns out is an elusive concept for these variously troubled souls trapped in a purgatorial tailspin on their gloomy island home. When a stranger comes to town intent on unearthing the long buried past, he stirs up deeply repressed emotion and barely concealed anger but finds himself floundering in the maddening snows of a possibly imaginary coastal village. 

30 years previously, a young boy, Takumi, went missing on the way to a friend’s house accompanied by his brother Kazuki who claims he simply disappeared from view in the heavy snow. Sometime later, a child’s remains were found in a burned out building. The prime suspect was a strange woman with a young daughter who escaped the fire in the middle of the night in a suspiciously elegant outfit. Nevertheless, the woman was later exonerated and the truth behind Takumi’s disappearance remained shrouded in mystery.

In the present day, a reporter, Kodachi (Arata Iura), arrives in town with the intention of writing some kind of exposé on the case. He interviews the detective involved and makes contact with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), now a broken middle-aged man who has dedicated his life to perfecting the art of lacquerware. A secondary lead takes him to Sayuri (Nahana) – the daughter of the prime suspect now, in a tragic piece of circularity, an outcast herself and possibly a sex worker in a violent relationship with an older man (Koichi Sato) who may or may not be her pimp.

Each of them has tried to move on from the unresolved tragedy of Takumi’s disappearance, but all appear to have failed. Kazuki dreams of the day his brother vanished right in front of his eyes, seeing a little red jumper lost in the snow but unable to remember anything more. He fears he will never know what happened unless his memory somehow returns, though as his mentor tells him what actually happened and the way you remember it are often different. Waxing philosophical, Kodachi muses that memory is what links the past and future but memory, and therefore life itself, is ambiguous. The “truth” may be unknowable and known at the same time to those who refuse to confront its various contradictions. 

Like the young Sayuri watching through a tiny crack in the wardrobe door where her abusive mother has placed her out of the way of all her “fun”, nobody sees the whole of anything. The young Sayuri morphs into the adult Sayuri and into her mother whom she fears she has become. The only witness to the incident, Sayuri refuses to speak of it though perhaps there’s more kindness in her silence than it first seems even if her unwillingness to remember may also be a kind of self preservation. She too is a victim, but is blamed all the same despite being only a small child powerless to intervene or be held complicit in whatever it is her mother might have done or not done in her quest for survival.

Sayuri remains trapped within the orbit of her now absent mother, herself an outcast in another abusive relationship this time with a sociopathic old man, while Kazuki struggles to accommodate his sense of guilt for something he can’t quite remember. Emotions briefly bubble to the surface, petty resentments and jealousies that pass between all small children but might perhaps have had terrible consequences one snowy night. Sayuri may be right when she insists that they are pieces of a puzzle, each holding tiny fragments of truth that might be assembled into a coherent whole, but also aware that if they did so they may not like the picture that they see.

Eerie and ethereal, the snowy coastal town almost may not exist at all haunted as it is by traumatised souls trapped in a purgatorial cycle of guilt and confusion as they try to piece together the past. Sayaka Kai’s dreamlike, poetic debut is a visually impressive existential mystery in which past and present intertwine leaving our troubled heroes lost in a fog of falling snow unable to access the future through the corrupted pathways of memory.


Red Snow was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine poster 1“I see it now, we can’t change anything” a despondent would-be-revolutionary decries in a moment of despair. Almost 100 years later, you might have to concede they have a point when the world finds itself on a tipping point once again and the same old prejudices refuse to disappear. Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Kiku to Guillotine Onna Zumo to Anarchism) casts an unflinching eye back towards the Japan of 1923 caught in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster which followed on from a chaotic era of rapid social change and bewildering modernisation during which a series of battles were being fought for the future direction of a nation still trying to define itself in world dominated by empires.

When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck claiming mass loss of life and extreme damage to infrastructure, the ensuing chaos gave rise to a vicious rumour that Koreans were taking advantage of the situation to foment the independence movement by poisoning wells and committing arson leading to a pogrom against anyone who failed to prove themselves Japanese enough to satisfy the mob. Meanwhile, the same forces also turned on political opponents whose influence they perceived as destructive to their own aims culminating in the murder of prominent anarchist Sanae Osugi along with his feminist wife Noe Ito and their six-year-old nephew.

We begin, however, with a different band of outsiders in the Tamaiwa itinerant female sumo wrestler troupe many of whom have taken refuge in an isolated world of female solidarity in order to escape abusive relationships. Kiku (Mai Kiryu) is one such woman who found the courage to run away from a violent husband on catching sight of the powerful female wrestlers who made her realise that she too could become strong like them. Having accepted that “weak people can’t change anything”, Kiku has vowed to become “strong” in order to claim her own agency and ensure that she can’t be pushed around ever again.

Meanwhile, an anarchist sect known as the Guillotines are fomenting a more general kind of revolution but have not been very successful and are now on the run from the authorities which is how they end up running into the female wrestlers and more or less bringing them into the struggle. Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries. They rob the rich to fund their “activism” but spend most of the money on sex and drink while plotting revenge for the murder of Osugi with various schemes which imply that at heart they aren’t so different from that which they hate.

Nevertheless, the forces of darkness are rising and history tells us that, temporally at least, they will win. The vigilante militias which carried out the massacres were largely made-up of farmer soldiers who’d served in Russia and experienced terrible hardship. Unable to bear the idea that their traumatic wartime experiences had been a senseless waste, they doubled down on militarist ideology and insisted on their nationalistic superiority. This led them to hate, to regard anything that lay outside of their code as inferior and dangerous. Though the massacres were condemned by the government and the perpetrators prosecuted for their crimes, the convictions were largely quashed a short time later which is why we see our major villains rewarded by the state and our revolutionary “heroes” imprisoned for their resistance towards state oppression and desire to create a fairer, more equal society.

Ironically enough, Nakahama’s big utopian idea is an overly idealistic vision for a future Manchuria which in hindsight proves extremely uncomfortable but is perhaps an indication of the naivety of the times. Even so, the Guillotines for all their romanticism are essentially progressive in their thinking and in full support of sexual equality, insisting on the necessity of the wrestlers to embrace their physical capabilities in order to defend themselves against an oppressive and patriarchal society fuelled by male violence. Though this in itself might be mildly problematic in implying that in order to become “equal” women must learn to be more like men, it also plays into the film’s subtle sense of irony in which the tools of militarism are being subverted in order to oppose it. The “intellectual” Guillotines find their revolutions failing, while fighting fire with fire may be the only surefire way to win even if it legitimises the problematic act of violence in the process. Then again, as another of the Guillotines puts it, the truly strong are those who have no need of killing. 

In any case, the Tamaiwa stable becomes a tiny enclave of progressive values built on female solidarity though they ultimately discover that solidarity is not quite enough and they cannot protect each other from the ravages of the times without external assistance. Even so, they attempt to hold the line, literally pushing back against the fascist incursion while insisting on their right to resist as human beings with will and agency. The prognosis seems bleak. 100 years later the same battles are still being fought and the same tensions rising in the wake of new disasters yet there are also those who will continue to resist and like the Tamaiwa wrestlers refuse to give in to those who threaten to restrict their freedom.


The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Isao Yukisada, 2001)

Luxurious Bone posterIsao Yukisada made his name with the 2004 hit Crying Out Love, in the Centre of the World, but even before becoming a “junai” pioneer his early films were far from strangers to melancholy, impossible romance. The strangely titled Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Zeitakuna Hone, AKA Torch Song) is a case in point in its early, ambiguous treatment of same sex love and emotional repression. Though in some senses very much of its time, Yukisada’s sad chamber drama is a sensitive exploration of the path towards awakening, if ultimately not to happiness.

The drama begins when Miyako (Kumiko Aso) gets the titular “luxurious bone” lodged in her throat. In this case, it’s an eel bone which is a fish too expensive for either she or her roommate Sakiko (Tsugumi) to eat very often, hence its tinge of luxury even if there’s relatively little difference when it’s tickling your trachea. “Roommate” might not be the best way to describe exactly what Sakiko is to Miyako, though their relationship seems curiously ill-defined. The two women share a bed, and seemingly a life, but perhaps platonically. Sakiko wants to look for a job, but Miyako doesn’t quite want her to because she’s happy to support the pair of them on her wages as a sex worker. Likewise, Sakiko isn’t quite happy with Miyako’s line of work, not because she’s jealous or judgmental, but because she worries the job is unpleasant. Miyako reassures her that it’s fine because she feels nothing at all during sex so mostly it’s just dull.

All that changes however when Miyako meets unusual client Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase) who goes to the trouble of buying her a hamburger bento because he heard that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to do in these situations. Shintani blows Miyako’s mind which isn’t something she was expecting or quite knows what to do with. On hearing the news Sakiko seems mildly worried, but following a strange series of events Shintani ends up becoming a minor part of their lives as the third wheel in their previously stable though somehow awkward relationship.

Miyako’s intense opening voice over makes reference to a secret she cannot bear to speak that will lie closed within her heart for all eternity. The fish bone becomes a symbol of the thing stuck in her throat, the truth she is too afraid to voice. Choking, Miyako gasps for air like a goldfish floundering in shallow water but cannot find the strength to swallow.

As we will later discover, this dark secret is bound up with her complicated feelings for Sakiko of which she seems to feel afraid and ashamed, wanting to possess her love in its entirety but also unable to access it and hating herself for her continuing need for possession and control. Her unexpected connection with Shintani is, after a manner of speaking, simply a more “acceptable” way of accepting her desire for Sakiko as she later reveals when confessing that she only ever thought of Sakiko when making love with Shintani which is presumably why only he was ever able to give her a satisfying experience.

Unable to cope with the intensity of her feelings, Miyako turns self destructive and attempts to lure Shintani into a sexual relationship with Sakiko who, apparently, is afraid of intimacy altogether having been raised in an abusive, neglectful home in which she was convinced that she was “dirty” and unloveable, an obstacle in the way of her father’s new relationship with a much younger step-mother (Makiko Watanabe).

Something of a cliché in itself, Luxurious Bone first attempts to delegitimise the feelings of the two women for each other by introducing the figure of Shintani to suggest that their problems are largely down to not having met a good man. Miyako sleeps with Shintani to feel closer to Sakiko, while Sakiko begins to move past her emotional trauma only thanks to the gentle machinations of Shintani. Their strange ménage à trois brings them together whilst driving them apart as the two women attempt to touch each other through Shintani while he remains detached and conflicted if perhaps wilfully used. Miyako’s self destructive impulses push her towards burning her world before facing what it is that frightens her. Only a strange encounter with another woman in a club shows her that her fear was not so much love as submission, while Sakiko tries to reconnect with her childhood self to move past her emotional trauma.

Despite its motion towards a positive resolution, Luxurious Bone cannot quite find the courage of its convictions and as quickly delegitimises the love as it tried to legitimise it through leaving Sakiko broadly where she started – lost, confused, and afraid, uncertain if unresolved longing is a natural condition of living. Perhaps of its time and overly simplistic in its treatment of complex issues from traumatic childhoods to shame and repressed sexuality, Luxurious Bone nevertheless has its heart (broadly) in the right place even if it leaves its lovelorn youngsters in the same position as many a Yukisada hero still looking for their place in a cruel and arbitrary world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Torch Song by The Humpbacks which features prominently throughout. The song was actually written for the film and is performed by Masatoshi Nagase.

Radiance (光, Naomi Kawase, 2017)

radiance posterAs a producer claims part way through Naomi Kawase’s Radiance (光, Hikari), the aim of cinema is to connect with other people’s lives. Yet connection is something each of our conflicted protagonists seem to struggle with and something which continues to elude them as they try and fail to find the meaning in the messages of sound and image. Radiance wants to guide us to the light, but its clearest dialogue is with itself or more practically in discussion of translation as an act of intense connection even as its messages flicker in the breeze, caught in a moment of transition from one soul to another. Yet what Kawase finds is that the message is carried, even if it cannot be “translated” into text, or image, or sound, it is felt all the same.

As the film opens a young woman, Misako (Ayame Misaki), observes the world around her and turns her observations into a poetic monologue. Her actions are a kind of rehearsal for her day job which involves creating the script for an audio description that will enable people with visual impairments to enjoy cinema. In order to improve her practice, Misako and her producer hold a number of focus meetings with a group of visually impaired people who can critique her script and point out any potential weak points or moments of confusion. Most of the members of the group are of a mind to be helpful though perhaps overly polite but one, Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), is particularly critical of Misako’s approach and unforgiving when voicing his concerns.

Unlike most of the other participants, Nakamori is partially sighted but is suffering from a degenerative condition in which he will eventually lose his sight entirely. This fact is particularly difficult for him to come to terms with as he had previously been an award winning photographer and is losing a key part of his identity in having to face the day when he will have to put his camera down for good.

One of the other ladies at the focus session, pointing out that Misako’s script for the audio description of the film is in effect a subjective commentary, elaborates that what she got from Misako’s narration was a sense of ruined of beauty, of sadness, and the inescapable sense of loss for something that can never be recovered. The film itself is, apparently, the story of a lifelong romance approaching its end as a husband prepares to say goodbye to his wife as she slips away from him. The themes, as we later find out, are ones eerily relevant to Misako who is still mourning the loss of her father while she watches her mother fade away as dementia takes its hold.

The beauty of transience, of the sense of loss before loss, becomes the central message of the film within the film – the message that Misako could not seem to see because she was afraid to look. Fed up with Nakamori’s constant criticisms, she accuses him of lacking imagination but her own act of “seeing” is then exposed as superficial, merely a catalogue of actions without meaning or import but delivered with a subjectivity that, as Nakamori cruelly points out, “gets in the way” of his ability to connect fully with the visual world that Misako is trying to create. 

Misako misses the messages because there are things that cannot be directly understood without conscious effort – the elderly film director tells her that her interpretation of the final scenes is too “hopeful”, as a young woman she cannot comprehend the futility of a old man’s desire for life. Age cannot talk to youth, and sound cannot talk to image but still the attempt is made and a message delivered albeit imperfectly. Nakamori, having given his life to the art of photography, is eventually forced to abandon the thing he loves most only to discover something else existing underneath it while Misako is forced to confront the superficiality of her act of “seeing” which makes her attempt to “translate” image into sound a hollow exercise – something which can only be corrected by a willingness to accept that the medium is not the message. Kawase’s messages may be trite, on one level, but there is something beautiful in continuing to chase the light as it dwindles knowing that in the darkness the flame still burns.


International trailer (English subtitles/captions)