Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

What is love? Is it an accident, cosmic destiny, or something that finally you have to choose? The romantically inclined hero of Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) is convinced that romance is something that happens to you at an unexpected moment, but his friends worry that he’s letting life pass him by because of his bashful passivity. While the city is gripped by the upcoming world heavyweight boxing championship which might finally result in a Japanese underdog raising the belt, its citizens gain the courage to fight for love, but discover that love is less victory than mutual concession. 

Sato (Haruma Miura), a hopelessly romantic salaryman, is forced to stand outside the station in the centre of Sendai conducting public surveys to make up the data that was lost when he accidentally spilt coffee on his colleague’s computer. Naturally shy, he’s not an ideal fit for the job but serendipitously bonds with a young woman, Saki (Mikako Tabe), when they are both captivated by the soulful song of a street musician. She agrees to fill in his form, and he notices she has “shampoo” written on her hand. He thinks it might be a sign, but she’s gone before he can do much about it. 

Sato’s college buddies Yumi (Erika Mori) and Kazuma (Yuma Yamoto), married young in a shotgun wedding but seemingly blissfully happy and parents to two adorable children, are quick to tell him that his romantic desire for serendipitous love is just thinly veiled cowardice and his essential passivity, refusing to put himself out there, is the reason he’ll end up alone. Meanwhile, Yumi is also trying to support her longterm single sister, Minako (Shihori Kanjiya), who is in a strange “relationship” with the younger brother of a client at her hairdressing salon. Despite talking regularly on the phone, he seems reluctant to meet because his job keeps him very busy which leaves her feeling confused and suspicious. 

Yumi and Kazuma think they ended up together out of necessity, but that necessity was in its own way chance. Secretly, Kazuma might wonder what might have happened if he’d been careless with some other girl, but has come to the conclusion that he’s glad it was Yumi and not someone else. Sato’s colleague Fujima (Taizo Harada), meanwhile, thought he had a cheerily romantic origin story for his relationship – a classic dropped wallet meet cute of the kind Kazuma insisted only happens in the movies, but now nearing 40 his wife has left him and the failure of his marriage has provoked a nervous breakdown. Sato asks him if he’s still glad it was his wife who dropped her wallet and not someone else, and if she’s glad that it was him who picked it up. Not only can he not quite answer, he doesn’t quite want to know. 

Meanwhile, Minako discovers that her diffident lover has decided to stake his romantic future on the championship match, that if the Japanese challenger wins he’ll finally have the courage to speak his heart. Minako is angry and disappointed, infuriated that he has so little courage that he has to vicariously channel the power of someone else to confess his feelings, but is as glued to the match as everyone else. 10 years on, the same thing happens again. Yumi and Kazuma’s daughter, Mio (Yuri Tsunematsu), is now a rebellious teen fed up with her father’s perpetually easygoing attitude and infuriated by a school friend, Kurume (Riku Hagiwara), who also pins his romantic hopes on the boxing match while inwardly resenting his overly spineless father (Yurei Yanagi) for becoming a mere cog in the great machine of capitalism. His refreshingly honest mother (Mari Hamada), however, reminds him that everyone thinks that when they’re 17 but really there’s no life without compromise and cogs at least have their place in keeping the wheels turning. Kurume finds this out by chance when his dad is able to save him from a sticky situation using classically meek, salaryman-style strategy. 

Perhaps what Kurume resents is the sense of impending powerlessness that comes of being a teenager squaring off against the salaryman straightjacket even if he’s still too diffident to put up much resistance. Meanwhile, the reverse is also true. The youngsters bond while staking out a bicycle parking garage to look for a thief who stole Mio’s 60 yen parking sticker and put it on his own bike, leaving her with the fine. They discover it’s an old man who wastes no time in yelling at the young whippersnappers while kicking off against his sense of impotence by gaming the system over a measly 60 yen he could have easily paid. The same thing happens again at Mio’s part-time job where a horrible old man decides to take out his frustrations with his place in the world on an innocent teenage girl. 

10 years earlier, Sato had saved a boy with hearing problems from being beaten up by bullying classmates, giving him new strength by introducing him to Japan’s boxing champ. The inevitable, however, happens, and even champion boxers have feet of clay. Things don’t always go to plan, or perhaps they do but that only makes you wonder if you’re really on the right path or merely settling for that of least resistance. The street singer’s song asks if you’re happy where you’ve ended up or if you still want more than ordinary happiness. Sato, still diffident, has to admit that perhaps he isn’t sure, while Saki does something much the same in wondering if they’re only still together out of habit and a misplaced belief in the narrative destiny of their serendipitous meeting. Another championship match sees them all ready for the fight once again, encouraged by the embattled boxer’s refusal to give-up on his fighting dreams, but perhaps still waiting for a “sign”. What Sato learns, however, is that they don’t always arrive quite as serendipitously as one might might think. “It builds up” Fujima warns him, waking up to the fact that his wife likely left him after years of small microagressions that killed their love through taking it for granted. But love can build up too, if only you build up the courage to fight for it with a willingness to be honest with your feelings, and what’s life if not lots of little nights filled with lots of little love, no grand romance but maybe not so bad after all. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The song – Chiisana Yoru by Kazuyoshi Saito

The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

korou_honpos_0220_fin.aiJapanese cinema, like American cinema, is one of the few in which the hero cop is a recognisable trope. Though they may be bumbling, inefficient, obsessed with bureaucracy, or perhaps just lazy, police in Japanese cinema are rarely corrupt or actively engaged in criminality. Even within the realms of the “jitsuroku” gangster movie, the police maintain a fringe presence, permitting the existence of the underground crime world in order to contain it. “Jitsuroku” is, in a fashion, where we find ourselves with Kazuya Shiraishi’s throwback underworld police story, The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Koro no Chi). Set in 1988, the end of the Showa Era which had seen the rebirth of post-war Japan and the ascendency of yakuza thuggery, The Blood of Wolves is based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki rather than a “true account” of life on the frontlines of gangsterdom, but otherwise draws inspiration from the Battles Without Honour series in updating the story of nihilistic yakuza violence to the bubble era.

In 1988, a young accountant “goes missing” sending his sister to ask the police for help in locating him. The case gets passed to sleazy detective Ogami (Koji Yakusho) and his new rookie partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Ogami leers disturbingly at the dame who just walked into his office before dismissing the newbie and extracting a sexual favour from the distressed relative of the missing man. Unfortunately, the accountant turns up dead and the bank he worked for turns out to be a yakuza front caught up in a burgeoning gang war between the Odani with whom Ogami has long standing connections and the gang from the next town over who are looking to increase their territory.

Ogami, a chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising detective of the old school, has one foot in the yakuza world and the other on the side of law enforcement. Hioka, a recent graduate from the local but also elite Hiroshima University (something of a rarity in his current occupation), is not quite sure what to make of his new boss and his decidedly “unorthodox” methods, becoming increasingly concerned about the way the police force operates in a town defined by organised crime. Deciding that Ogami has gone too far, he eventually makes the decision to go to IA with a list of complaints but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Hiroshima and it is possible he may have picked the wrong side.

What he discovers is that the police force is so intrinsically rotten as to have become little more than a yakuza gang itself, only one with the legal right to carry guns and a more impressive uniform. Ogami, for all his faults, apparently has his heart in the right place. His “friendships” with gangsters are more means to an end than they are spiritual corruption, gaining leverage that will help him keep a lid on gang war – after all, no one wants a return to the turbulent days of the 1970s when the streets ran red with the blood of unlucky foot soldiers and that of the civilians who got in their way. Meanwhile Hioka, starting out as the straight-laced rookie, is himself “corrupted” by the corruption he uncovers, developing a complex mix of disgust and admiration for Ogami’s practiced methods of manipulation which, apparently, place public safety above all else.

Ogami, as he tells the conflicted Hioka, knows he walks a tightrope every day, neatly straddling the line between cop and yakuza, and the only way to stay alive is to keep on walking knowing one slip may lead to his doom. He may say cops can do whatever they like in pursuit of “justice” (and he does), but Ogami has his lines that cannot be crossed, unlike others in his organisation who care only for themselves and have long since given up any pretence of working for the public good.

Shiraishi channels classic Fukasaku from the noticeably retro Toei logo at the film’s opening to the voice over narration, garish red on screen text, and frequent use of freeze frames familiar from the Battles Without Honour series and associated “jitsuroku” gangster fare that followed in its wake. Moving the action up to 1988, the gangster world is once again in flux as it tries to corporatise itself to get in on the profits of bubble era prosperity which largely has no need for the thuggish gangster antics of the chaotic post-war years in which the yakuza could paint itself as a defender of the poor and oppressed no matter how ridiculous it might have been in reality. Ogami is a dying breed, a relic of the Showa era meeting its natural end, but perhaps you need to be a wolf to catch a wolf and guardian spirits can come in unexpected forms.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Daishi Matsunaga, 2015)

pieta-in-the-toiletSomewhere near the beginning of Daishi Matsunaga’s debut feature, Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Toire no Pieta), the high rise window washing hero is attempting to school a nervous newbie by “reassuring” him that the worst thing that could happen up here is that you could die. This early attempt at black humour signals Hiroshi’s already aloof and standoffish nature but his fateful remark comes back to haunt him after he is diagnosed with an aggressive and debilitating condition of his own. Noticeably restrained in contrast with the often melodramatic approach of similarly themed mainstream pictures, Pieta in the Toilet is less a contemplation of death than of life, its purpose and its possibilities.

Having left his country home for Tokyo to become a painter, Hiroshi (Yojiro Noda) has become a bitter man, wilfully drowning in his own broken dreams. A chance encounter with an old flame, Satstuki (Saya Ichikawa), further deepens Hiroshi’s sense of inadequacy – she is about to open a solo exhibition in the very building which Hiroshi is currently engaged in washing the windows of. After having so sarcastically made fun of his new colleague’s fear of the rig, it’s Hiroshi who finds himself collapsing on the job and requiring medical treatment.

Seeing as the hospital have requested he bring a family member along with him for the results of the examination, it’s probably not good news. Not wanting to involve his parents, Hiroshi persuades Satsuki to masquerade as his younger sister only to restart an old argument in the waiting room prompting his former love to remember why they aren’t together anymore and hightail it out of there. Spotting a high school girl arguing with a salaryman she says has torn her uniform, Hiroshi decides to offer the job to her. Mai (Hana Sugisaki) plays her part to perfection but the news is even worse than he’d feared – aggressive stomach cancer requiring immediate hospitalisation and sustained chemotherapy if he is to have any chance at all of surviving more than a couple of months at most.

Prior to his illness, Hiroshi is a difficult man, permanently grumpy and irritated as if carrying a great sense of injustice. Despite several different voices reminding him that he had talent, Hiroshi has given up drawing in the belief that his artistic career was always doomed to failure. Intent on punishing himself for just not being good enough to succeed, Hiroshi’s decision to make window washing his career signals his lack of personal ambition, content to simply keep existing while a silent rage bubbles under the surface.

After the original failed reconnection with Satsuki who, we later discover, has moved in another direction using her society connections to advance her career in a way of which Hiroshi does not approve, Hiroshi’s illness brings him into contact with a number of people who each do their bit to reopen his heart. The most important of these is the feisty high school girl, Mai, who refuses to simply disappear from Hiroshi’s life after the awkward bonding experience of being present at the cancer diagnosis of a total stranger. As angry and defeated as Hiroshi, Mai’s difficult homelife has brought her untold suffering but unlike the brooding painter, hers in an externalised rage which sends her reeling into the world, looking for reaction and recognition rather than the introspective craving for disappointment and indifference which marks Hiroshi’s approach to his internalised sense of inadequacy.

Hiroshi’s hospital stay produces twin motivators from both ends of the spectrum in the form of an older man in the next bed, Yokota (Lily Franky), who enjoys taking photographs (especially of pretty girls), and a terminally ill little boy who remains cheerful, polite and friendly despite Hiroshi’s rather rude attempt to shake him off. It’s on a visit to the hospital chapel with the boy, Takuto (Riku Sawada), and his mother (Rie Miyazawa) that Hiroshi first comes across the statue of the pieta which inspires his ultimate, life affirming act which sees him turn the smallest room of the house into a new Sistine Chapel with a large scale installation recasting Mai as Mary, arms outstretched ready to receive her sorrowful burden.

Hiroshi’s life had been mere existence but reaching an acceptance of its end forces him into a process of more positive self reflection and a desire to leave something more permanent behind. Inspired by a few words found on the final page of the diary kept by the godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, himself battling stomach cancer at the time, Pieta in the Toilet puts art at the core of life as Hiroshi picks up his paint brush, Yokota his camera (albeit with slightly less than artful intentions), and Takuto his painstakingly collected colour-in heroes. Necessarily melancholy yet somehow life affirming Pieta in the Toilet offers a nuanced though no less powerful contemplation of life, death and art in which each gives meaning to the other, ensuring the richness of a life fully lived.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)