Daughters (ドーターズ, Hajime Tsuda, 2020)

What does it mean to be a woman in the modern society? Two 20-somethings are confronted by just that question when one of them suddenly reveals that she is expecting a baby and plans to raise it alone but would be very grateful for the other’s support. Hajime Tsuda’s Daughters (ドーターズ) is the latest in a long line to ask a few questions about the nature of the modern family but does so through the eyes of these typical young women who find themselves perhaps a little more old-fashioned than they’d assumed as they determine to flout patriarchal norms and raise a child together as a platonic unit. 

High school friends Koharu (Ayaka Miyoshi) and Ayano (Junko Abe) have been living together in a tastefully decorated Tokyo flat for the past few years. Ayano works at a fashion magazine, and Koharu in events planning and installations. They have an active social life and enjoy the benefits of living in a big, vibrant city. All of that must necessarily change, however, when Ayano discovers she is pregnant after a meaningless one night stand with an old friend (Yuki Ito) who is about to accept a transfer abroad and had just been joking about reluctantly having to marry his girlfriend who wants to come with him. After thinking it over, Ayano decides she wants to have the baby without saying anything to the father but her decision comes as a shock to Koharu who is at once stunned by her friend’s sudden transition into adulthood. 

These really are just gals being pals, but there is perhaps something of repressed desire in Koharu’s lingering looks whether it’s actually Ayano that she wants or merely lamenting the imminent end of their lives as young women on the town not to mention a closeness she now fears will be diluted rather than perhaps deepened with the introduction of a third party in their relationship. For her this sudden end to the Tokyo high life may have arrived earlier than she expected, but it would have arrived soon enough in any case. Wanting to support her friend she remains conflicted and mildly resentful, partly it seems of the unnamed father but also despite herself carrying outdated ideas of social propriety firstly trying to dissuade Ayano from having the baby believing that raising it as a single-mother will be impossible. 

Ayano is told something similar by her father (Shingo Tsurumi) on a visit home, though he later comes round after a few stern words from her cheerful grandmother (Hisako Okata) who couldn’t be happier, insisting that children are a blessing however they arrive. At work, however, despite being surrounded by other women, she faces a series of similar discouragements, reminded that she can’t expect to return to the same position after giving birth because her priorities will have changed. She can no longer give “everything” to the company, she will need additional time off if her childcare falls through or her child is ill. She may need to leave early or come in late for the school run. Her boss does not intend this as a criticism but an acceptance of what it means to be a mother and an insistence a choice is being made, leaning into patriarchal, capitalist ideas of the employment contract which values an employee most for their availability rather their productivity or talent.  

Both women, meanwhile, harbour a lingering sense of social stigma when it comes to the subject of unmarried mothers. Koharu angrily fires the English phrase at her friend as if to discredit her decision, while Ayano finds herself earnestly asking her doctor (who appears to have seen through her ruse of introducing Koharu as her “sister”) if she sees a lot of women like her, the compassionate, supportive medical practitioner assuring her that 25% of women giving birth in Tokyo are single and though she has no idea what happened to them afterwards as a woman who has never has a child she is herself envious. Having agreed to raise the child together, Koharu still has her doubts that such an arrangement can really work, unsure of herself until heading off on a sulky solo holiday to the island paradise of Okinawa where she meets a woman (Tomoka Kurotani) who moved halfway across the country to raise her son alone. She seems happy and her son seems to have turned out just fine. 

As in Ayano’s rural hometown with its wide-open vistas, the relaxed Okinawan attitude perhaps bears out the maxim that Tokyo is often more conservative than provincial Japan, Ayano even slightly worried that having a caesarean section doesn’t really count and she’d be failing at motherhood before even really starting. In a symbolic act of transition the two women mirror the construction of a bunkbed on their moving in with the completion of the baby’s cot, built together with “faith in the future in this ephemeral city”. Stylistically innovative, filled with poetic monologues, and moving to the rhythm of a zeitgeisty pop score, Tsuda ends with the deceptively traditional as the two women find themselves confronted with a local festival but find in it strength and an acceptance that it is really OK as they embark on a new phase of their life as a family as entitled to the name as any other. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bandage バンデイジ (Takeshi Kobayashi, 2010)

Japan was a strange place in the early ‘90s. The bubble burst and everything changed leaving nothing but confusion and uncertainty in its place. Tokyo, like many cities, however, also had a fairly active indie music scene in part driven by the stringency of the times and representing the last vestiges of an underground art world about to be eclipsed by the resurgence of studio driven idol pop. Bandage (Bandage バンデイジ) is the story of one ordinary girl and her journey of self discovery among the struggling artists and the corporate suits desperate to exploit them. One of the many projects scripted and produced by Shunji Iwai during his lengthy break from the director’s chair, Bandage is also the only film to date directed by well known musician and Iwai collaborator Takeshi Kobayashi who evidently draws inspiration from his mentor but adds his own particular touches to the material.

High school girl Asako (Kie Kitano) is best friends with Miharu (Anne Watanabe) who likes all the same cool indie bands she does and is therefore upset to learn that she is dropping out of school because her parents have money problems. Luckily the girls run in to each other at a record store where Miharu works and bond again over the new CD of a band Miharu had recommended and Asako had fallen in love with – LANDS. Miharu also manages to get tickets to a LANDS concert and even swipes a couple of backstage badges from some retreating suits.

The girls sneak backstage and are immediately clocked by the band’s wily manager, Yukari (Ayumi Ito), but their adventure is derailed after they literally run into a band member and Asako loses a contact lens. The band’s lead singer, Natsu (Jin Akanishi), places a bandana across Asako’s temporarily blinded eye and rechristens her “Black Jack” before inviting both the girls to the post-show drinking session. Leaving early, Asako ends up arranging to meet Natsu at another bar later, beginning her long journey with the difficult, damaged musician as they navigate the turbulent “indie” record scene with all of its various traps and temptations.

Though Natsu and Asako may not actually be so far apart in age, you have to admit there’s a something not quite right in his sudden desire to befriend a starstruck high school girl. He does indeed seem to be after the obvious but after she resolutely turns him down, he keeps chasing her right until the end of the film. Despite remaining a little distant and afraid of this somehow very intense yet completely chilled out diva of a frontman, Asako becomes something like his only friend yet her presence continues to provoke tension within the group, particularly after she leaves high school and gets a job as a manager working alongside Yukari.

What first drew Asako to the music of LANDS was an identification with their melancholy lyrics echoing the alienation and loneliness she herself felt as a diffident adolescent. Her feelings towards Natsu are also driven by this same identification with his angst ridden lyrics but the qualities which attract him to her are those which she loathes in herself. Natsu, a narcissistic would be rock god, treats the band like his personal little empire, but deep down he knows he’s not its MVP. That would be the striking long haired guitar player, Yukiya (Kengo Kora), who the suits have pegged as the most likely to succeed. Natsu can write and his songs are good, if sometimes “uncommercial”, but he doesn’t quite have “it” in the same was as Yukiya does. Yukiya, by contrast, is (mostly) content to follow Natsu’s lead yet comes to resent his close relationship with Asako, regarding her as a kind of “Yoko” disrupting the band’s carefully crafted unity.

Yukiya’s attempt to destroy Asako is a calculated and cold one, motivated by his belief that she has “destroyed LANDS”. Laying bear his own pain and loneliness, Yukiya uses his internal darkness as an odd kind of seduction technique only to leave Asako on a barren shore sure of nothing other than the fear and confusion inside her heart. A dangerously violent confrontation with a drunken Natsu is the final trigger for Asako’s own moment of self realisation as she sees herself reflected in Natsu’s self destructive meltdown. United in mutual self loathing, the pair cement a melancholy though ultimately unrealisable bond which puts an end to Asako’s musical adventures.

Asasko is given a second opportunity to pursue a musical dream but one which is more on her own terms and reminds her of the potential and possibilities of music as art rather than the market driven mindset her agency job had done its best to instil. Natsu, it seems, has also rediscovered his artistry and may be in a better place to create away from the pressures that come with fronting an up and coming indie band. Defiantly exclaiming that the pain can’t reach him, Natsu might have found the “bandage” he’d been looking for which is, in a sense, his music – the dressing which staunches the weeping wounds of his pain and suffering. Music, like a bandage, is both salve and barrier – its message indirect but none the less deeply felt even if its effects are for internal use only. Asako and Natsu seem destined to walk on parallel paths but each has, at least, begun to discover their true selves as they continue to pursue their artistic dreams if perhaps at the expense of the personal.


Short scene from the film (no subtitles)