Another World (半世界, Junji Sakamoto, 2018)

Another World poster 2Director Junji Sakamoto’s career has been more meandering than most. Shuttling between hyper masculine fighting dramas, issue movies, and broad comedies, Sakamoto has always displayed an intense interest in the depth of male friendship which where his latest feature, rural drama Another World (半世界, Hansekai), takes him. A deceptively gentle story of small-town homecoming eventually broadens into a meditation on fathers and sons, frustrated dreams, and middle-aged malaise as its three dejected heroes attempt to bridge the gulf of years between them in order to rekindle the simple, innocent friendship they forged as naive teenagers more than 20 years previously.

The drama begins when Koh (Goro Inagaki) spots childhood friend Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa) unexpectedly hanging around his old home, now sadly abandoned following the death of his mother. Eisuke, unlike his friends, left his hometown to join the self defence forces and see the world. He has not returned home in some years and his sudden appearance is a pleasant, if perhaps concerning, surprise. Koh calls the other leg of the triangle, Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), and the trio of teenage buddies reunite, but Eisuke still seems distant and remains holed up in his family home rarely venturing outside, reluctant to confide in his old friends about whatever it is that he’s going through.

Meanwhile, the small town guys have problems of their own. Koh made the stubborn decision to take over his father’s charcoal business mostly to spite him, but times have changed and not only is demand dwindling but his product is unfavourably compared to his dad’s. Despite a seemingly happy marriage to the supportive Hatsuno (Chizuru Ikewaki), his home environment is also tense with resentment high between father and son as Koh struggles to relate to sullen teen Akira (Rairu Sugita) who is, unbeknownst to him, being bullied by the local delinquents. Unique among the three, Mitsuhiko has never married and still lives at home where he helps out with the family’s struggling car dealership, but remains cheerful in himself and is the most invested in maintaining the relationship between his two best friends in place of forging new relationships of his own.

Eisuke brings a new dynamic back with him as he struggles to readapt to small town life. As Koh suggests, he likely came back because he didn’t know where else to go but to his old friends even if he doesn’t quite want to let them help him. Now divorced and struggling with PTSD from his time in service as well as guilt over the death of a colleague, Eisuke provides an unexpected source of support for the conflicted Akira as he teaches him how to fight in order to defend himself while imparting what he knows of Koh in order to smooth the path between father and son. Koh, he tells him, had a bad relationship with his own violent dad who forbad him from the charcoal business which is exactly why he rebelled and did it anyway. Still fighting the ghost of his father, Koh has not found a way to connect with his son other than to let him be.

In a sense, each of these now middle-aged men is living in their own individual worlds as they push back against the forces of desperation but as Koh tells Eisuke, this small town existence is the “real world” too. Eisuke longs for escape, eventually retreating to a life on the sea after exposing his barely suppressed rage through an ill-advised show of violence which was itself in service of friendship. He superficially rejects the attempts of his friends to bring him back into the intimacy of their younger days as if fearing he no longer belongs in this ordinary world of wholesome small-town pleasures, but continues to search for the time capsule they buried all those years ago as if longing to recover their buried innocence.

Yet there is hope for the younger generation at least. Akira, coming to understand his father, accepts that he has a choice and eventually decides to honour both his father’s legacy and his own desires as he ponders the lonely life of a charcoal maker while putting on the boxing gloves that will allow him to fight for a freer future. Tragedies strike, life doesn’t turn out liked you hoped, but it goes on all the same with or without you. A warm if melancholy tribute to the healing power of friendship and its capacity to endure despite the weight of ages, Another World puts middle-aged malaise in perspective as its three disappointed heroes begin to find accommodation with where their choices, informed by those who came before, have led them, finding both peace and resignation in their in their ordinary small-town existence.


Another World was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー, Ken Ninomiya, 2017)

the limit of sleeping beauty posterCan you escape the past by evading it? The heroine of Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー) does her best to find out as she approaches the point at which she can no longer bear the weight of all her sorrows. A rising star of the Japanese indie scene, Ken Ninomiya had some minor festival exposure with his first film, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk drama Slum-polis, back in 2015 before making a complete about turn in releasing a terse mockumentary about a resilient actor hammering on the door of Japanese show business. Sleeping Beauty was, apparently, originally conceived as a mid-length picture before producers suggested expanding it into a full length feature and in many ways marries the twin concerns of Ninomiya’s earlier films in its high concept examination of a fracturing psyche unable to let the past go and move on from trauma and disappointment.

At 19, Aki (Yuki Sakurai) ran away from a bad family situation and ended up in Tokyo with the hope of becoming an actress. With nowhere else to go she wandered into a random bar which is where she met the love of her life, Kaito (Issey Takahashi) – a melancholy photographer and owner of cabaret club Aurora. Kaito takes her in and she begins working at Aurora as a magician’s assistant but ten years pass and, as a TV presenter later put it, it’s unheard of for a Japanese actress to make it in her 30s.

Her mind fracturing, Aki is often accompanied by “Butch” (Nino Furuhata), a strange clown with a scary white face who appears alternately supportive and enabling. Complaining that she feels unstuck in time, Butch reminds her that the idea of time as linear flow is a misconception and that all moments are indeed one moment which is one reason Aki never quite knows “when” she is. Accepting this fact she asks to be taken to the time at which she was happiest, only to be told that emotional time is not necessarily in sync with one’s perception of temporality. Nevertheless, her mind flies back to her first meeting with Kaito who we later surmise is no longer in her life but continues to define it all the same.

The picture we get of Aki is of a woman attempting to bury herself and her disappointments by revelling in a pleasant memory and then using it as raw material to read herself into an idealised version of her current life only one which is still marred by the tragedy of losing Kaito. Ninomiya opens with an orgy in dingy sex club where everyone is wearing creepy carnival masks and the older Aki is sporting a nasty bruise on her chin. The bruise, we later discover, was earned in a nasty encounter with a lascivious producer engineered by a soulless manager who promised her a career but in effect sold her to a man who assaulted and humiliated her. This final humiliation is only one of many acts of degradation that Aki suffers in her quest to make it as an actress – one of only two things Kaito urged her to do before disappearing from her life forever.

Unable to cope with the weight of lost love, defeated dreams, and a wasted youth Aki’s mind splinters into fragments, creating the strange entity known as Butch whom she seems to want to get rid of but cannot bear to be without. Aki’s quest is one of reintegration in which she must find the strength to put herself back together again and finally set light to the past, waking up from her self imposed slumber.

Kaito wants her to know the world is still wonderful, but his message seems curiously perverse considering his final course of action and Aki’s continuing descent into a spiral of depression, exploitation, and mental instability. Fantasy and reality remain hopelessly blurred, only gradually separating and becoming distinct as Aki begins to put herself back together. Ninomiya improves on Slum-Polis with similarly detailed production design and world building but occasionally allows his taste for music video aesthetics to slide into the indulgent with the success of such sequences depending on the viewer’s taste for the overused main titles song, Hummingbird by Kyla La Grange. Nevertheless there’s no disputing Ninomiya’s ambition and originality even if there is something unsettling in his urgency to inhabit the world he seems to be critiquing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.