Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

A quiet suburb of Tokyo, Kamata is in someways the birthplace of modern Japanese cinema home to Shochiku’s prewar studio where the “Kamata Style” which aimed to introduce a note of cheerful naturalism to an artform defined by shinpa gloominess was forged. Produced by actress Urara Matsubayashi who hails from the area and stars in three of the four segments, omnibus movie Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Kamata Zensokyoku) asks some tough questions about what it means to be a woman and an actress today in the contemporary capital as the heroine, “Machiko Kamata”, contends with various demands from the economic to the emotional. 

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, the first segment finds Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) introducing herself as she takes part in a strange audition dressed in an inappropriately short cosplay-style nurse’s outfit. After the audition is over, her agent tells her to say “hi” to the director, a theme which will recur in the third chapter as Machiko finds herself feeling uncomfortable, forced to ingratiate herself in order to get ahead. Annoyed after the eccentric director asks her out for dinner, she can’t help asking him why she has to wear the suspiciously skimpy nurse’s outfit provoking him into a worryingly violent outburst. At home, meanwhile, her world is rocked by her younger brother’s revelation that he’s got a girlfriend who is, ironically, a nurse at local hospital. Jealous and resentful, Machiko can’t warm to Setsuko (Kotone Furukawa) who seems improbably sweet and innocent, almost as if she came from another time (the mid-August dating and ornaments for the Bon festival might clue us in as to why). Spending a day bonding with her, however, the two women generate a kind of sisterhood which pushes Machiko into a realisation of the emptiness she feels in her life of constant struggle as an aspiring actress supporting herself mainly with her part-time job at a ramen bar. 

The themes of alienation and insecurity are only depend in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, in which Machiko reunites with a group of high school friends who are each less than honest about the state of their lives and their unfulfilled desires. Machiko gives the impression that she’s just been in a major movie with a big star, but it turns out she only played a corpse while the rest of the group are scandalised by the bombshell that their friend Marippe (Mayuko Fukuda) has got engaged to a guy from work she’s been seeing secretly for only six months. Besides being somewhat hurt not to have known she was seeing someone, the gang have different reactions to the news with hard-nosed career woman Hana (Sairi Ito) put out by Marippe’s traditional view of conventional gender roles in which she intends to let her career slide to concentrate on being a wife. A trip to a hot spring (the same hot spring seen advertised on Machiko’s T-shirt in part one) brings things to a head with a possibly cheating boyfriend eventually offering the excuse that he is merely a hot spring enthusiast sharing his hobby with a friend of the opposite sex rather than a two-bit louse indulging in the patriarchal double standard. 

Patriarchal double standards are out in force in part three, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, in which Machiko attends another odd audition where she and the other auditionees are asked to outline an episode of sexual harassment they have personally experienced. In fact, we have already seen her be inappropriately propositioned by a middle-aged producer who ran out on her in a coffee shop after she turned him down leaving her with the bill, but the episode she recounts is darker still. As she feared they might, the men in the room quickly figure out who she might have been talking about but proceed to put the blame on her implying that she sleeps around to get ahead and was only offended by the producer’s actions because he wasn’t powerful enough to be useful. It’s another woman however, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), who kicks things into gear by relating that she was assaulted by a man in a club whom she later reveals to have been the director himself only he doesn’t remember her. The director brings both women back and makes them re-enact Machiko’s tale of being inappropriately propositioned in a producer’s office, increasingly exasperated that the situation seems “too scary” as if he’s entirely missed the point of his own exercise or is actively getting off on the actress’ discomfort. The male cameraman (Ryutaro Ninomiya) is the one who eventually points out that the audition itself has descended into a protracted act of sexual harassment, seemingly conducted solely for the entertainment of the director and his assistant. 

Largely disconnected from the other three chapters, the fourth does not feature Urara Matsubayashi and is in fact set not in Kamata but in director Hirobumi Watanabe’s familiar Tochigi. The opening of his segment, characteristically filmed with static camera and in black and white, finds him once again playing a version of himself ranting about not knowing what to do with this unusual project he has taken on for the money even though he doesn’t generally make shorts, has never done an omnibus movie before, and remains suspicious of the concept. He relates all of this to his 10-year-old niece Riko (star of I’m Really Good), who says absolutely nothing while he continues to treat her as if she were the most famous actress in Japan. Somewhat poignantly, a photograph of Watanabe’s late grandmother sits on a stool off to the side, implying perhaps that little Riko has in some senses taken over her role as silent observer. The main thrust of the action follows Watanabe as he attempts to film a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion with local non-actors, but is finally linked back to the omnibus by Riko’s cheerful letter to Machiko in which she states that she wants to become an actress just like her. Ending on such an upbeat moment seems to imbue a sense of hope for the future that was perhaps previously absent, implying that the hopes and dreams of a little girl at least are worth fighting for if only to live up to her sense of expectation for the magic of the movies. 


Kamata Prelude streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Good-bye (グッドバイ, Aya Miyazaki, 2020)

“The things you learn as a child stay with you” admits a melancholy nursery teacher, lamenting that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if only her parents hadn’t been so easy going. Most people probably wind up wondering something similar, who they might have been if their parents had or hadn’t made the choices that they made on their behalf, but sooner or later you have to leave childhood behind and take responsibility for yourself. 

That’s the part that the heroine of Aya Miyazaki’s Good-bye (グッドバイ), 20-something Sakura (Mayuko Fukuda), is currently having trouble with, struggling to find a way forward largely because in one sense everything comes too easy for her and life is no kind of challenge. Privately, however, she’s caught in an adolescent dilemma pining for the father who, it seems, has been largely absent from her life since leaving the family when she was small. 

The crunch comes when Sakura abruptly quits yet another boring office job just because it didn’t light her fire. Her mystified friend who can’t really believe someone would just quit their job on a whim in Japan’s competitive employment environment just because it was dull (let alone make a habit of it), suggests she fill in at a daycare centre that another friend has just vacated leaving them in the lurch and with a temporary contract available. Sakura is unconvinced seeing as she has no childcare qualifications, but is persuaded on hearing the facility is “unlicensed” and therefore not fussy. She doesn’t exactly take to it right away, but beginning to bond with the children reminds her of her more innocent self, especially once she encounters the father of one little girl, Ai, who is often the last to get picked up. 

Sakura is taken with Mr. Shindo (Kohei Ikeue) because he looks a little like her dad and also smells of the same brand of cherry-scented cigars that he used to smoke. It also doesn’t help that his family situation closely resembles a mildly traumatic incident from her own childhood in that Ai’s mum seems to be temporarily absent from the family home for unclear reasons. Sakura finds herself playing mother, brushing Ai’s hair and tying it up in pigtails the way her father couldn’t quite master on his own. Running into the pair in the street, she even finds herself cooking dinner for them, giving Ai a few lessons in peeling carrots, while accidentally stepping into the space vacated by another woman and perhaps crossing a line with the extremely awkward Mr. Shindo. 

The encounter does, however, prompt her into a long delayed conversation with her sympathetic mother (Asako Kobayashi) who offers no explanation for why she did what she did, or sees any need to apologise, but is perhaps touched by some of her words which convince her that her daughter needs a final push to help find her place in the world. Prompted by the other teacher at the nursery, Sakura asks her mother why she sent her to all those after school clubs etc, only to be told that she did it because she wanted Sakura to find her passion but though she was good at everything, Sakura always quit after only a few weeks. Her mother wonders if that’s because when everything is easy for you you have no incentive to stick with it and never get the opportunity to become invested. 

That has perhaps been Sakura’s problem, she says goodbye too early before there’s any possibility of getting attached. Bonding with the kids reminds her of the little girl she once was, processing the sudden absence of her mother and the possibility of her familiar world ending. Her mother eventually returned, but perhaps gave her an incomplete sense of security in the feeling that she would never leave her or the house, while her father is of the opinion that the family photo was something best left behind in the family home which was no longer his. In learning to say “good-bye” to Ai, Sakura learns to bid farewell to the little girl she once was, insecure and afraid of rejection. As her mum tries to hint, it’s time for her to find a place of her own, no longer so afraid to stick around past the part where everything seems too easy.


Good-bye screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.