Born Bone Born (洗骨, Toshiyuki Teruya, 2018)

Bone Born Bone poster“Is this really Japan?!” asks the bemused boyfriend of the protagonist of Born Bone Born (洗骨, Senkotsu), only to be met with the reply “on paper, at least”. Comedian Toshiyuki Teruya, better known as Gori, returns to his native Okinawa for his second feature but to an island culture of which he was completely unaware. Aguni is one of the last on which the ancient ritual of “Senkotsu” or “bone washing” still takes place.

Beloved matriarch Emiko (Mariko Tsutsui) died four years ago. Now the time for her “senkotsu” is approaching. Daughter Yuko (Ayame Misaki) has come home, but with a secret. She is heavily pregnant and as yet unmarried, a fact she knows will scandalise the still conservative island community. Meanwhile, her her father Nobutsuna (Eiji Okuda) has retreated into drunken reverie, unable to accept his wife’s death or the many disappointments of his life. Yuko is waiting for her brother, Tsuyoshi (Michitaka Tsutsui), to arrive before explaining any further about the baby, but he even he is much less supportive than she hoped he might be and seems to be dealing with some troubles of his own which might explain why his wife and daughter have not accompanied him on this very difficult family occasion.

The island of Aguni practices open air burial, which is to say the bodies are enclosed in a wooden coffin and entombed in cave. Four years later the relatives return, retrieve the body and wash the bones before re-enclosing them in a smaller casket which will then be interred on the island’s “other world”. It is, of course, a difficult and frightening prospect to consider seeing one’s loved ones in such an altered state – so much so that many cannot bear to do it without getting roaring drunk which at least ameliorates the solemnity of the occasion. The human terror is in a sense the point as an exercise not only in memento mori but in acceptance of total loss and the finality of the physical.

Before all that, however, you still have to live and the Shinjos are having a fairly hard time of it. A small island somewhat trapped in the past, Aguni is intensely conservative and so the local old ladies can’t get their heads around Yuko’s unwed pregnancy. Yuko of course knew this would be the case but could hardly refuse to come and has braced herself for the worst of it. However, after the initial shock has worn off, she finds an unexpected ally in her stern aunt Nobuko (Yoko Ohshima) who assures her that if she finds it hard to raise the child on her own she can always come back to the island where she and Nobuko’s daughter will help if needed. Her father Nobutsuna, in boozy fog as he is, is also broadly supportive even if her brother shows little sign of coming round, engaging in unexpected small town conservatism as he accuses his little sister not only of shaming the family but of becoming a burden on it too.

In a motif that will be repeated, it’s the men who struggle to cope with loss while the women get on with life with stoicism and fortitude. Nobutsuna has remained unable to come to terms with Emiko’s death, drinking himself into oblivion while blaming himself for placing undue strain on her after their family business went bust. Nevertheless he is a good hearted man who wants the best for everyone even if his mild-mannered deference has Tsuyoshi sniping at the sidelines for his supposed fecklessness. He too blames his father for his mother’s death, but is also struggling with the elders’ expectation that he will return home to the island to take over as head of the family while there is evidently something else going on in his life which has left him irritable and judgemental.

If nothing else the Senkotsu ritual forces each of them to accept the fact of Emiko’s death, but also of her life and their own place within a great chain of humanity stretching both forward and back. In a sense, as Tsuyoshi puts it, it’s their own bones they’re washing in honour of the undying part of Emiko that exists in all of them and something of her kindly spirit certainly seems to be present on the beach that day as the family slowly repairs itself, emerging from their deep seated grief back to the friendly island solidarity as they resolve to treasure what they have in acknowledgement of what is to come.


Born Bone Born was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow (聖の青春, Yoshitaka Mori, 2016)

satoshiThere’s a slight irony in the English title of Yoshitaka Mori’s tragic shogi star biopic, Satoshi: A Move For Tomorrow (聖の青春, Satoshi no Seishun). The Japanese title does something similar with the simple “Satoshi’s Youth” but both undercut the fact that Satoshi (Kenichi Matsuyama) was a man who only ever had his youth and knew there was no future for him to consider. The fact that he devoted his short life to a game that’s all about thinking ahead is another wry irony but one it seems the man himself may have enjoyed. Satoshi Murayama, a household name in Japan, died at only 29 years old after denying chemotherapy treatment for bladder cancer in fear that it would interfere with his thought process and set him back on his quest to conquer the world of shogi. Less a story of triumph over adversity than of noble perseverance, Satoshi lacks the classic underdog beats the odds narrative so central to the sports drama but never quite manages to replace it with something deeper.

Diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome as a child, the young Satoshi spent a lot of time alone in hospitals. To ease his boredom his father gave him a shogi set and the boy was hooked. Immersing himself in the world of the game, Satoshi read everything he could about tactics, practiced till his fingers bled and came up with his own unorthodox technique for playing that would eventually take him from his Osaka home to the bright lights of Tokyo. Determined to become the “Meijin”, beat top shogi player Habu (Masahiro Higashide), and get into the coveted 9th Dan ranking Satoshi cares for nothing other than the game, his only other hobbies being drink, junk food, and shojo manga.

Undoubtedly brilliant yet difficult, Satoshi is not an easy man to get along with. Years of medical treatment for nephrosis have left him pudgy and bloated, and an aversion to cutting his hair and nails (poignantly insisting that they have a right to live and grow) already makes him an unusual presence at the edge of a shogi board. He’s not exactly charming either with his overwhelming intensity, aloofness, and fits of angry frustration. Yet the shogi world fell in love with him for his encyclopaedic yet totally original approach to the game. His friends, of which there many, were willing to overlook his eccentricities because of his immense skill and because they knew that his anger and impatience came from forever knowing that his time was limited and much of life was already denied to him.

This insistent devotion to the game and desire to scale its heights before it’s too late is what gives Satoshi its essential drive even if the road does not take us along the usual route. Reckless with his health despite, or perhaps because of, his knowledge of his weakness, Satoshi operates on a self destructive level of excessive drink and poor diet though when he starts experiencing more serious problems which require urgent medical intervention, it’s easy to see why he would be reluctant to get involved with even more doctors. Eventually diagnosed with bladder cancer, Satoshi at first refuses and then delays treatment in fear that it will muddy his mind but the doctors tell him something worse – he should stay away from shogi and the inevitable stress and strain it places both on body and mind. For Satoshi, life without shogi is not so different from death.

Satoshi has his sights set on taking down popular rival Habu whose fame has catapulted him into the Japanese celebrity pantheon, even marrying a one of the most beloved idols of the day. Habu is the exact opposite of Satoshi – well groomed, nervous, and introverted but the two eventually develop a touching friendship based on mutual admiration and love of the game. On realising he may be about to beat Satoshi and crush his lifelong dreams, Habu is visibly pained but it would be a disservice both to the game and to Satoshi not to follow through. Outside of shogi the pair have nothing in common as an attempt to bond over dinner makes clear but Habu becomes the one person Satoshi can really talk to about his sadness in the knowledge that he’ll never marry or have children. As different as they are, Satoshi and Habu are two men who see the world in a similar way and each have an instinctual recognition of the other which gives their rivalry a poignant, affectionate quality.

Despite the game’s stateliness, Mori manages to keep the tension high as elegantly dressed men face each other across tiny tables slapping down little pieces of wood featuring unfamiliar symbols. Japanese viewers will of course be familiar with the game though overseas audiences may struggle with some its nuances even if not strictly necessary to enjoy the ongoing action. Matsuyama gives a standout performance as the tortured, tragic lead even gaining a huge amount of weight to reflect Satoshi’s famously pudgy appearance. Rather than the story of a man beating the odds, Satoshi’s is one of a man who fought a hard battle with improbable chances of success but never gave up, sacrificing all of himself in service of his goal. Genuinely affecting yet perhaps gently melancholy, Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow is a tribute to those who are prepared to give all of themselves yet also a reminder that there is always a price for such reckless disregard of self.


Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Joji Matsuoka, 1990)

Swimming UpstreamSometimes love makes you do crazy things. Some people find themselves accomplishing previously unattainable feats powered only by the sheer force of romance. Unfortunately for the hero of Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Bataashi Kingyo), Joji’s Matsuoka’s adaptation of Minetaro Mochizuki’s manga, the task he sets for himself is a very lofty one indeed and may actually require him to abandon his love to complete it. Then again, the object of his affections shows little signs of reciprocation in any case.

Love found Kaoru (Michitaka Tsutsui) with a bucket of water. That is, he was hanging around one day when swimsuited beauty Sonoko (Saki Takaoka) soaked him by mistake but far from being annoyed, Kaoru falls in love at first sight and begins to pursue the star of the swim team even if she remains resolutely cold towards him. Kaoru immediately joins up just to be close to her even though he is actually afraid of water and does not know how to swim. Nevertheless he sets himself the task of becoming an olympic swimmer and bringing home a gold medal for his lady love. Needless to day, Sonoko is still not very interested in him.

Assisted by a strange old lady of swimming coach in sporting matters, and with an unlikely ally in Sonoko’s mother when it comes to romance, Kaoru works hard at his twin goals but makes little progress with either. His world is briefly shattered when he spots Sonoko arm in arm with the school’s star swimmer and he also faces a romantic dilemma in the form of his friend Pu whose motorbike he keeps borrowing to try and impress Sonoko despite the fact that Pu obviously has a crush on him. Nevertheless, Kaoru is undeterred until, that is, Sonoko’s actions convince him he may be doing more harm than good.

Matusoka’s film is most clearly concerned with recreating the contemporary high school summer for the presumed target audience of teenagers. Though it loosely adapts a classic sports movie romance format with Kaoru giving it his all in training, it stops short of the triumphant underdog trope as Kaoru never achieves the kind of sporting success one would expect. Though he quickly learns to swim and makes some progress, Kaoru retains a lingering fear of the water and is among the very weakest at the club. Still deluding himself with his Olympian dream, Kaoru even attempts to challenge the champion swimmer of another team (played by a very young Tadanobu Asano in his first film role) in a race for the rights to Kaoru. Needless to say, nothing goes his way.

If duelling over the “rights” to a girl seems like an old fashioned idea, Swimming Upstream is a very old fashioned film in terms of its sexual politics. The film stars popular idol Saki Takaoka as the unattainable Sonoko but is told very much from Kaoru’s point of view in which Sonoko is something to be won rather than another human being with independent will. Sonoko’s behaviour often is hard to categorise but, to borrow a term from the film’s manga roots, could easily be described as tsundere wherein she consistently rejects Kaoru’s advances before warming up to the idea just as he’s beginning to cool off. There may a fine line between persistence and and inappropriate behaviour but Kaoru’s level of devotion is the kind that straddles it. The teenage audience of 1990, however, may have seen things a little differently than that of today.

The audience of 1990 would doubtless also have been shocked by Sonoko’s rebellious lack of compliance with regular social norms. Far from the docile, cute, obedient and polite aura of the traditionally perfect girl next door in which idol movies specialise, Sonoko throws angry looks at everyone and talks back to her mother with extremely harsh words (though her mother wisely refuses to be shocked by them). In fact Sonoko is universally awful to everyone to the extent that it later seems that even one of her closest friends does not actually like her very much, but the worse she gets the more Kaoru refuses to be dissuaded.

Matsuoka mostly chooses to keep things simple with a light hearted, summery atmosphere primed to appeal to his audience of youngsters. Though intended as an innocent romance, contemporary audiences may read more darkness into the relentless war between the icy Sonoko and determined Kaoru but the adolescent intensity of young love does at least ring true. Caught between the quirkiness of its general tone and the heaviness of its themes, Swimming Upstream flounders in making its central connection work, rendering its overworked metaphor of a finale less than successful but does offer strong performances from both of its central stars.


Clip (no subtitles)

Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Joji Matsuoka, 1992)

TwinkleThe end of the Bubble Economy created a profound sense of national confusion in Japan, leading to what become known as a “lost generation” left behind in the difficult ‘90s. Yet for all of the cultural trauma it also presented an opportunity and a willingness to investigate hitherto taboo subject matters. In the early ‘90s homosexuality finally began to become mainstream as the “gay boom” saw media embracing homosexual storylines with even ultra independent movies such as A Touch of Fever becoming unexpected box office hits. Based on the book by Kaori Ekuni, Joji Matsuoka’s Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Kira Kira Hikaru) tackles this subject head on in examining the changing nature of the modern family as personal freedom and greater social liberalism conflict with familial duty and centuries old tradition.

We first meet Shoko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) in the office of a doctor who assures her that her “problems” are nothing to worry about and the best thing to do is find “a nice man” and get married after which she’s sure to feel much better. On the taxi ride home, her mother suddenly pulls out an omiai photo she’s apparently been carrying in her bag the whole time and proposes Shoko try meeting this particular prospect just as the doctor suggested.

Her “date” is Mitsuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) – an unmarried middled aged doctor who doesn’t seem very interested in the omiai business either. After a brief period of bickering, Shoko and Mitsuki get some time to themselves at which point Mitsuki reveals that the reason he isn’t married is because he has a boyfriend. Despite this, the pair come to an understanding and decide to get married to finally get their relatives off their backs. However, if they thought the pressure would go away after the wedding, they were mistaken. Though both sets of parents know about their children’s reasons for originally avoiding marriage, they don’t know about those of the spouses and when they find out it’s just going to get even more complicated.

We don’t find out exactly what “problems” Shoko may have had in the past. On the morning of the omiai her family dog dies meaning she has an obvious reason to appear visibly upset, yet she also displays symptoms of ongoing depression right the way through the film, flitting between upbeat cheerfulness to impulsive behaviour and crying fits. She also has a long standing drink problem which can result in dangerous accidents such as an incident where Mitsuki returns home to find her passed out on the floor with the iron in one hand and an empty glass of whiskey apparently fallen out of the other.

Mitsuki is in a relationship with a much younger college student and, though they don’t seem to go out of their way to hide their relationship, they can’t exactly be open about it either. Kon did not approve of Mitsuki’s decision to get married and has been avoiding him but Shoko is keen for the two men’s relationship to continue, eventually befriending the young man and bringing him home as fully fledged member of their family. Mitsuki finds this arrangement quite confusing, trapped between two spouses and feeling a responsibility to both of them. In one notable exchange he’s asked to make the relatively simple choice between strawberry and vanilla ice-cream, but the question has taken on a much wider implication than just tonight’s dessert.

The arrangement starts out well enough, except that the growing affection between the married couple eventually begins to place a wedge between them, each knowing that they can never truly satisfy the demands of the other. Not satisfied with a marriage, the parents also expect children which is going to require medical assistance given the circumstances, but Mitsuki is still unsure about taking this next step. Shoko, though experiencing a intensification of her emotional volatility, now suggests a truly radical solution for the early ‘90s – that she undergo artificial insemination using the mixed sperm of both Mitsuki and Kon to essentially have “their” baby.

Shoko and Mitsuki are both trapped, in a sense, by their societal obligations – particularly that of producing children. Mitsuki’s parents know he’s gay, though they tolerate more than accept, yet they still pressure him into fathering a child for appearance’s sake alone. His father had come to terms with his son’s sexuality, even if Mitsuki refers to himself as a son who has “betrayed” his father, but he was against the marriage viewing it as cruel and irresponsible. Once Shoko’s parents discover the real reasoning they try to take over, ignoring Shoko’s views (and even her first clear stating of her problems with alcohol), acting as if they were the injured party.

Though slightly older, Shoko and Mitsuki have found themselves at the centre of a generational conflict as they fight to free themselves from parental control even in adulthood. The future they propose for themselves is an unusual one and unlikely to be accepted by society, yet it is finally their own decision and only by unshackling themselves from the same social pressures which brought them together can they learn to forge a new future. Ten years later, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Hush! would suggest a similar scenario which, though still not universally accepted, is greeted with much less resistance than the entirely radical arrangement of Shoko, Mitsuki, and Kon. An interesting look at the changing nature of  social bonds in the immediate post-bubble era, Twinkle is a melancholic though ultimately hopeful tale of three individuals who might be able to provide the stability each needs if only they can learn to withstand the overwhelming external pressures.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Miss Hokusai (百日紅, Keiichi Hara, 2015)

MISS_HOKUSAI_teaser_A4_oldpaper_1600When it comes to the great Japanese artworks that everybody knows, the figure of Hokusai looms large. From the ubiquitous The Great Wave off Kanagawa to the infamous Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, the work of Hokusai has come to represent the art of Edo woodblocks almost single handedly in the popular imagination yet there has long been scholarly debate about the true artist behind some of the pieces which are attributed to his name. Hokusai had a daughter – uniquely gifted, perhaps even surpassing the skills of her father, O-Ei was a talented artist in her own right as well as her father’s assistant and caregiver in his old age.

Miss Hokusai, based on the popular 1980s manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, takes up O-Ei’s story towards the beginning of her career before her marriage and subsequent divorce, after which she returned to her father’s side to nurse him as his health declined. Like the manga, the film is a collection of scenes from Edo life loosely tied together by its overarching theme, but broadly follows O-Ei as she lives her life as a young woman with a level of forthrightness and determination which sets her apart from the women of the time. Determined to become an artist, she lives with her father in their studio where neither of them cooks or cleans but each devotes themselves solely to art. Also living with them at the time is an ex-samurai and aspiring artist, Zenjiro, who specialises in erotica which has its own particular qualities even if his skills aren’t on a par with Hokusai or O-Ei.

When not in her father’s studio, O-Ei likes to visit her younger sister who, ironically, was born blind and is being cared for by the local nuns. O-Nao’s blindness is a sore spot for her father who hardly ever visits her, feeling as if her lack of sight is some sort of cosmic slight against him – the master painter with the daughter unable to appreciate his art and therefore his entire life philosophy. O-Ei is not so rigid and delights taking the girl out on trips where she can experience the world through her richly developed other senses. O-Nao particularly likes visiting the bridge with its complicated soundscape from the river below to the vendors above and all the passersby. There’s also a lovely set piece in which a young boy who quickly figures out that O-Nao can’t see tries to entertain her by knocking snow off a tree. Miss Hokusai, though a story of visual art, has an especially intricate sound design which proves that you can paint with materials other than ink and makes a point of calling out the stubbornness inherent in the world view of someone like Hokusai whose singleminded vision has become his entire universe.

O-Ei has her fair share of troubles as a young woman, though living with her father as his assistant she is a relatively free and unsheltered one. Her father doesn’t hide any aspect of his work from her – she even assists him with his erotic pieces and is said to be a particularly fine painter of women though her male figures lack conviction. “Sensation” itself becomes a theme, art is something which must be felt and therefore must have feeling imbued within it. As an unmarried woman O-Ei is ill equipt to complete these kinds of assignments and some say perhaps she should not be given them though her determination would never permit her to turn them down leading to rather a strange interlude in which she tries to gain some “experience” in a presumably “safe” way which won’t have much effect on her later life.

Less successfully, the film also attempts to enter the realm of the supernatural as we learn a painting can have other effects on the viewer particularly if it isn’t completed in the proper fashion. From a possessed geisha to a woman driven mad by O-Ei’s suitably creepy painting which features terrifying scenes from hell, Miss Hokusai most definitely occupies a world where ghosts, spirits and demons are real things which co-exist with real people. Luckily, Hokusai is able to fix the problem with the disturbing painting by closing its symbolic imagery with a suitable addition whilst berating O-Ei for having cut corners and not properly complete her vision so as to leave the onlooker “haunted” in an unintended way. Again, the painter is parent to the painting which attains the kind of immortality impossible for its creator in this transient world.

Clearly bound-up with the notion of transience, Miss Hokusai makes a valiant attempt to bring ordinary Edo living with its geisha houses, dusty rooms and drinking songs to life in vivid detail. However, its message becomes slightly confused with the superimposition of the modern Tokyo in the final frame of the film. At this point, the rather bizarre choice of a modern, electric guitar based soundtrack, begins to make a degree of sense at least on a thematic level but nowhere near enough to mitigate its jarring presence throughout the film.

Animated by animation powerhouse Production I.G who have been responsible for some of the most beautifully made animated movies of recent times, Miss Hokusai is a giant step up from Hara’s previous film, Colorful, in terms of its execution and boasts a number of scenes which are remarkable in their technical proficiency. The sky in particular as well as the background in general takes on a dreamy, woodblock style which is perfectly fitting for the film’s themes. An interesting look at the young O-Ei, an inexperienced female artist still looking for her voice in a world where the only thing that counts is the signature, Miss Hokusai doesn’t quite succeed in breathing life into its disparate collection of tales but makes a valiant attempt all the same.


Miss Hokusai is currently touring the UK with the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 and will be released by All the Anime later in the year.

 

Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo, Joji Matsuoka, 2015)

mainvisualYaro Abe’s manga Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo) was first adapted as 10 episode TV drama back in 2009 with a second series in 2011 and a third in 2014. With a Korean adaptation in between, the series now finds itself back for second helpings in the form of a big screen adaptation.

Midnight Diner is set in a cosy little eatery which only opens between the hours of midnight and 7am. Presided over by the “Master”, a mysterious figure himself with a large unexplained scar running down one side of his face, the restaurant has only one regular dish on its menu but Master is willing to make whatever his customers want provided he has the ingredients. Regulars and newcomers mingle nightly each with their own, sometimes sad, stories while Master offers them a safe place to think things through coupled with his gentle, all knowing advice.

The big screen movie plays just like a series of connected episodes from the television drama yet manages unify its approach into something which feels consistently more cinematic. Keeping the warm, nostalgic tone the film also increases its production values whilst maintaining its trademark style. The movie opens with the same title sequence as its TV version and divides itself neatly into chapters which each carry the title of the key dish that Master will cook for this segment’s star. A little less wilfully melodramatic, Midnight Diner the movie nevertheless offers its gentle commentary on the melancholy elements of modern life and its ordinary moments of sadness.

Fans of the TV drama will be pleased to see their favourite restaurant regulars reappearing if only briefly, but the film also boosts its profile in the form of some big name stars including a manager of another restaurant in town played by Kimiko Yo who seems to have some kind of history with Master as well as a smaller role played by prolific indie star of the moment Kiyohiko Shibukawa and the return of Joe Odagiri whose character seems to have undergone quite a radical change since we last saw him.

The stories this time around feature a serial mistress and her dalliance with another, poorer, client of the diner; a young girl who pulls a dine and dash only to return, apologise and offer to work off her bill; a lovelorn widower who’s come to Tokyo to chase an aid worker who probably just isn’t interested in him; and then there’s strange mystery of a mislaid funerary urn neatly tieing everything together. Just as in the TV series, each character has a special dish that they’ve been longing for and through reconnecting with the past by means of Master’s magic cooking, they manage to unlock their futures too. As usual, Master knows what it is they need long before they do and though he’s a man of few words, always seems to know what to say. One of the charms of the series as a whole which is echoed in the film is that it’s content to let a few mysteries hang while the central tale unfolds naturally almost as if you’re just another customer sitting at the end of Master’s counter.

Shot in more or less the same style as the TV series favouring long, static takes the film still manages to feel cinematic and its slight colour filtering adds to the overall warm and nostalgic tone the series has become known for. Once again offering a series of gentle human stories, Midnight Diner might not be the most groundbreaking of films but it offers its own delicate insights into the human condition and slowly but surely captivates with its intriguing cast of unlikely dining companions.