Skeleton Flowers (かそけきサンカヨウ, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2021)

The increasingly prolific Rikiya Imaizumi has become most closely associated with zeitgeisty youth romance accurately capturing the fears and anxieties of 20-somethings in contemporary Japan but brings his characteristically mellow touch to the classic coming-of-age tale in adapting Misumi Kubo’s short story Skeleton Flowers (かそけきサンカヨウ, Kasokeki Sankayo). In contrast to the gloominess of the title, teenage angst is never where you’d expect it to be as the variously pre-occupied pair at the film’s centre strive to deal with their problems with maturity and mutual compassion. 

You might for instance expect Yo (Sara Shida) who has been raised by her father, Nao (Arata Iura), since her mother left the family when she was three to feel jealousy or resentment when he sits her down and tells her that he’s fallen in love and wants to get married, especially as the woman he’s fallen in love with, Yoshiko (Akiko Kikuchi), has a small daughter of her own, Hinako. Attempting to be sensitive, Nao frames the new arrangement in a positive light in that Yo will be have more free time to be a regular teen and hang out with her friends rather than skipping out on after school clubs to take care of the household chores, a spin which could backfire in that Yo has obviously been used to being the lady of the house and might feel as if a responsibility she was proud of carrying is being taken away from her or that she’s being displaced by the new maternal presence of Yoshiko. She may in fact feel a little of this, but rather than lashing out or rebelling against the change in her familial circumstances she does her best to accept it with good grace while simultaneously prompted into a reconsideration of the relationships between parent and child meditating on the absence of her birth mother and wondering how and why she could have come to leave her behind. 

Riku (Oji Suzuka), her sometime love interest, had started a discussion in their friendship group about their earliest memories Yo unable to come up with anything on the spot but later remembering her mother carrying her into the forest and showing her the skeleton flowers of the title which appear bright white when dry but gradually become transparent as they absorb water. Later she remembers something else unsure if it’s a memory or a dream, a feeling of being suspended in mid-air as her parents argued as if everyone had forgotten she existed. Riku too frequently states that he’s “nothing at all”, feeling himself lost and directionless after being diagnosed with a heart condition later forced to accept that his life will never be the same as it was and his choices are now limited in ways they might not have been before. His health anxiety ironically leaves him emotionally numb, unable to identify let alone express his feelings as he becomes close not only to Yo but another, much more direct, girl in his class Saki (Tomo Nakai) who later does him the favour of explaining exactly what his problems are hoping to jolt him out of his emotional inertia while taking him to task for having been unintentionally condescending in his innate kindness. 

It’s this innate kindness that eventually sees both the teens through, each approaching their various worries with a mature compassion. Riku had felt uncomfortable in his familial home and jealous of Yo’s “real family” as she comes to accept her new relationships with Yoshiko and Hinako, but himself comes to understand the complicated relationship between his overbearing grandmother and lonely mother as one of mutual support getting another tip from Yoshiko that even if he feels has no particular talents, also jealous of Yo’s artistic prowess, his ability to support those around him is a talent in itself and an important part of the whole. A robust emotional honesty and the willingness to think things through calmly eventually lead stronger bonds between all concerned, Yo forgiving her birth mother while also embracing a new maternal relationship with Yoshiko, while Riku gains a new perspective of his own and even if he still hasn’t quite learned to identify his feelings is more comfortable with expressing them directly. A gentle, empathetic coming-of-age tale Imaizumi’s teenage drama roots itself in a world of fairness and compassion that allows each of the teens the space to figure themselves out while helping others to do the same no longer transparent in the rain but whole and fully visible not least to themselves. 


Skeleton Flowers streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Kei Kumai, 1974)

Sandakan 8 posterSome might argue that Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to examine the nation’s traumatic 20th century history with the proper rigour, but even if subtle and coming from unexpected angles there have been many and varied attempts to ask questions about the lingering consequences of feudalism. Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo), inspired by a true life account of a woman unwittingly sold into sexual slavery as a child at the turn of the century, is not only a condemnation of socially approved people trafficking and its role in building the short-lived Japanese empire but a mild provocation of the contemporary society which refuses to engage with its traumatic past.

In the contemporary era, graduate student Keiko Mitani (Komaki Kurihara) is engaged in researching the “karayuki-san” – Japanese women who were sold into sexual slavery throughout Asia in the early 20th century. Almost forgotten, the karayuki-san are a taboo subject and even those still living in the areas from which women and girls were sent away are unwilling to speak of them. By chance, however, Keiko runs into an old woman in a cafe who speaks with a standard Tokyo accent and tells them that she spent most of her life “abroad”. Quickly realising she doesn’t mean she was a diplomat’s wife, Keiko wonders if the woman might be have been a karayuki-san and delays her return to Tokyo in order to find out.

There is something, it has to be said, ironically exploitative in Keiko’s determination to get the old woman, Osaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), to open up about a subject on which she so obviously does not want to be drawn. A visit to Osaki’s home reveals her to be living in a run-down hovel on the edge of town which is filled with stray cats whom Osaki feeds because “they’re all abandoned, but still they have to live”. Keiko gets herself brownie points by reacting politely to Osaki’s reduced living situation, eventually staying three weeks during which time she gradually teases out Osaki’s sad life story. Finally asking if there wasn’t anything Osaki might have liked to know about her, Keiko’s hypocrisy is fully brought home to her when Osaki admits that no one was more curious about Keiko than she was but that “people have reasons for not confiding in others” and if it’s something you need to ask about then it’s probably something that the other person may not want to share. In any case, Osaki seems to have known Keiko had an ulterior motive but does not regret sharing her story and has no worries about what Keiko might do with it as long as she makes sure to tell the truth.

The truth, in a sense, seems to be something the villagers feel themselves well acquainted with which is why Osaki lives in a shack on the edge of town. Tricked into sexual slavery as a child by an amoral people trafficker who lured her with promises of money to be made overseas, Osaki found herself in Borneo and a prisoner of “Sandakan No. 8” which was one of 10 numbered brothels on the island largely catering to Japanese travellers overseas, facilitating the expansion of the Japanese empire as accidental emissaries and ports of call. When Osaki was a child, Japan was a poor country and it was considered normal to sell one’s daughter in order to feed a family. Working overseas carried with it a kind of cache though no one, except perhaps her brother, seems to be fully aware of what Osaki is going to and she herself has not in any way chosen or consented to become a sex worker. When she eventually returns to Japan, she finds herself unwelcome in her brother’s house, which her money paid for, because of the shame associated with those who have “worked away”. Even 50 years later, she finds herself living alone, all but disowned by her only son, on the outskirts of her childhood village ostracised by the “respectable” townspeople who don’t for a second believe Osaki’s quick introduction of Keiko as her daughter-in-law.

The daughter-in-law deception is only one heartbreaking aspect of the complex relationship between the two women who are each, in a sense, hiding something from the other but end up forming a genuine connection anyway. Intensely lonely and having lived a life filled with suffering, Osaki is willing to pay for company with her story while Keiko is, not quite deliberately, using her loneliness against her in an attempt to earn her trust and get her to reveal her secrets. Nevertheless, Keiko is able to mine a rich and deep seem of 20th century trauma through the tragic story of just one woman which reaches out to hundreds like her some of whom rest in a graveyard in the forests of Borneo with their backs forever to Japan. The enemy is, once again, poverty more than it is patriarchy or even feudalism, a problem less of the essence in the rapidly improving post-war economy, but as Kumai is keen to point out, this system of state sanctioned people trafficking (finally outlawed only once Japan’s status on the world stage began to rise) had far wider implications than it might be thought which still echo into the present day and perhaps beyond if not for the efforts of women like Keiko who do not wish to forget.


Original trailer (no subtitles)