Erica 38 (エリカ38, Yuichi Hibi, 2019)

Erica 38 poster“Everybody’s life is in someway unfulfilling”, admits the philosophical victim of a con woman in ripped from the headlines tale Erica 38 (エリカ38). “It’s like a crutch” he adds, without a little fantasy you can’t go on. Like the “Erica” of the title, her victims are also looking for escape from an unsatisfying reality, and unfortunately for them already have what she feels would make her life more bearable – vast wealth. Returning to Japan after three decades abroad, director Yuichi Hibi does his best to humanise the figure of the coldhearted grifter, painting her as just another disappointed, lonely old woman desperately trying to recapture the sense of possibility so cruelly denied her in youth.

Later rebranding herself as “Erica”, a 38-year-old woman of means, our “heroine” is Satoko Watanabe (Miyoko Asada), an ageing bar hostess supplementing her income by peddling a dodgy multi-vitamin pyramid scheme to bored housewives eager to make a few extra bucks. Her sales pitch, however, gets her noticed by a refined old woman sitting close by in an upscale hotel during in one of her sessions. The woman, Mrs. Ito (Midori Kiuchi), introduces her to a “friend”, Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), who cuts in with a sales pitch of his own in branding himself as a paid up member of the global elite who works with the Pentagon on important international matters. Hirasawa heavily implies his business is not quite on the level, but Satoko, captivated by his suave sophistication, fails to realise just how dodgy he really is. Before long, she’s joined him in his “consultation” business, selling fraudulent investment opportunities in the emerging market of Cambodia.

It is surprisingly easy to sympathise with the dejected Satoko as she falls under Hirasawa’s spell. Already well into her 50s when the film begins and clearly over 60 when she rebrands herself as the 38-year-old Erica, Satoko has led an unhappy life beginning with a traumatic childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive, adulterous father. The only memory of joy from her youth is when she and her mother (Kirin Kiki) giggled together after accidentally tipping rat poison into dad’s miso soup. Life since then, it seems, has been one disappointment after another spent in the hostess bars of Kabukicho. What all of that means, however, is that she’s become skilled in the art of selling fantasy. All that time invested in extracting cold hard cash from lonely men has set her in good stead for selling unrealistic investment opportunities to the already comfortably off.

Unrepentant, Satoko tells herself that she bears no responsibility towards those who lost money in her scams because they were chasing exactly the same thing she was – escape, and they both found it at least for a moment. Her victims made the decision themselves, she never forced anyone, and so it’s their own fault that they fell for her patter while she perhaps laments only that she’s been foolish and profligate in not planning better for the eventual implosion of all her schemes.

“There’s a thin line between real and fake”, she tells a party guest admiring one of her paintings, “if someone sees it as real then real it is”. Satoko’s cons are, in essence, an extension of the paradox of the hostess business. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen that the business isn’t legitimate, but like a salaryman in a hostess bar they invest in the semblance of connection while knowing in a sense that isn’t “real”. Ironically enough, Satoko is forced to realise that the first victim of her subterfuge is herself. Chasing a dream of love, she fell hard for Hirasawa without thinking him through. Hirasawa succeeds in his schemes because he’s scrupulously careful in maintaining his persona – he operates out of hotels, has no fixed address, and uses several cellphones. As Satoko later finds out, he is effectively running a harem, romancing several women all like herself bringing in the big bucks while he sits back relatively risk free. She has been used, once again.

The implosion of her dream of romantic escape is what sends her to Thailand where she ponders a reset, rebranding herself as the 38-year-old Erica of the title and beginning an affair with a young and handsome Thai man she rescued from gangsters with her ill-gotten gains. Porche (Woraphop Klaisang) later describes her as “My Angel”, of course realising that she was much older than she claimed but claiming not to care. It may be that he really did love her, but you can’t ignore the corruption of all that money and the power that it buys. In the end, money can’t buy you love, or a path out of loneliness, or a cure for disappointment.

Satoko was, like many, just another lonely, disappointed old lady trying to escape an unsatisfying present through a fantasy of returning to the past, rebooting herself as a successful business woman, loved and in love, as someone with a brighter future to look forward to. Her sales patter worked because it was “true”, the similarly dejected could sense in her the desperation for escape and as they wanted to escape too they let her take them with her. A melancholy tale of delusion and disillusionment, Erica 38 has immense sympathy for the scammer and the scammed painting them both as victims of an often unfair, conformist society in which freedom is the rarest commodity of them all.


Erica 38 screens in New York on July 25 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Takahiro Miki, 2013)

girl in the sunny placeThe “jun-ai” boom might have been well and truly over by the time Takahiro Miki’s Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Hidamari no Kanojo) hit the screen, but tales of true love doomed are unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon. Based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya, Girl in the Sunny Place is another genial romance in which teenage friends are separated, find each other again, become happy and then have that happiness threatened, but it’s also one that hinges on a strange magical realism born of the affinity between humans and cats.

25 year old Kosuke (Jun Matsumoto) is a diffident advertising executive living a dull if not unhappy life. Discovering he’s left it too late to ask out a colleague, Kousuke is feeling depressed but an unexpected meeting with a client brightens his day. The pretty woman standing in the doorway with the afternoon sun neatly lighting her from behind is an old middle school classmate – Mao (Juri Ueno), whom Kosuke has not seen in over ten years since he moved away from his from town and the pair were separated. Eventually the two get to know each other again, fall in love, and get married but Mao is hiding an unusual secret which may bring an end to their fairytale romance.

Filmed with a breezy sunniness, Girl in the Sunny Place straddles the line between quirky romance and the heartrending tragedy which defines jun-ai, though, more fairytale than melodrama, there is still room for bittersweet happy endings even in the inevitability of tragedy. Following the pattern of many a tragic love story, Miki moves between the present day and the middle school past in which Kosuke became Mao’s only protector when she was mercilessly bullied for being “weird”. Mao’s past is necessarily mysterious – adopted by a policeman (Sansei Shiomi) who found her wandering alone at night, Mao has no memory of her life before the age of 13 and lacks the self awareness of many of the other girls, turning up with messy hair and dressed idiosyncratically. When Kousuke stands up to the popular/delinquent kids making her life a misery, the pair become inseparable and embark on their first romance only to be separated when Kosuke’s family moves away from their hometown of Enoshima.

“Miraculously” meeting again they enjoy a typically cute love story as they work on the ad campaign for a new brassiere collection which everyone else seems to find quite embarrassing. As time moves on it becomes apparent that there’s something more than kookiness in Mao’s strange energy and sure enough, the signs become clear as Mao’s energy fades and her behaviour becomes less and less normal.

The final twist, well signposted as it is, may leave some baffled but is in the best fairytale tradition. Maki films with a well placed warmth, finding the sun wherever it hides and bathing everything in the fuzzy glow of a late summer evening in which all is destined go on pleasantly just as before. Though the (first) ending may seem cruel, the tone is one of happiness and possibility, of partings and reunions, and of the transformative powers of love which endure even if everything else has been forgotten. Beautifully shot and anchored by strong performances from Juri Ueno and Jun Matsumoto, Girl in the Sunny Place neatly sidesteps its melodramatic premise for a cheerfully affecting love story even if it’s the kind that may float away on the breeze.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sting of Death (死の棘, Kohei Oguri, 1990)

Sting of DeathKohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (死の棘, Shi no Toge) won the prestigious jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1990 but has since passed into obscurity. Adapted from the “I Novel” by Toshio Shimao, Sting of Death is an absurdist, caustic look at a collapsing marriage beset by difficulties on all sides as the pair try to navigate the confusing post-war society.

Toshio and Miho are a married couple with two young children. Miho has recently discovered that her husband has been carrying on with a neighbour for quite some time and is uncertain how to deal with this unexpected revelation. The film opens with a serious marital argument which is almost chilling in its calmness. Toshio is sorry, he doesn’t intend to leave his marital home and pledges to stop seeing this other woman – he’ll stay in 24/7 and not even go out without his wife and children if it means he can defend his family. Miho is definitely not happy with this compromise but accepts it and the couple attempt to get back to a kind of normality. However, the peace does not last long as Miho becomes increasingly depressed and paranoid before hurtling headlong into a nervous breakdown.

The “I Novel” is an integral part of Japanese literature and has often provided the basis for many of the country’s prestige films even though its specific style is a necessarily literary one which is hard to dramatise on screen. The genre is centred around the ideas of naturalism and the main tenet is that the writer is recounting real events from the world he sees around him, though perhaps through a thin veil of fictionalisation. That said, it’s never quite “autobiography” and it may sometimes be better to think of them as “hyperreal” rather than just naturalistic.

Oguri attempts to evoke this strange sense of uncanniness by opting for an ethereal, dreamlike tone akin to avant-garde or absurdist theatre. The couple speak to each other in a slightly heightened, deliberate manner, often posed unnaturally facing away from each other literally divided by the film’s framing. Toshio is also haunted by visions from his wartime service somewhere in the pacific where he seems to have received some kind of stomach injury. Emerging from a cave he suddenly sees saluting soldiers, or remembers a passing religious ceremony as if the past is always with him like a Fury tormenting his mind.

The Sting of Death is very close to the experiences of the author who uses his own name for that of the protagonist and that of his own wife for the central female character, Miho. Shimao’s own wife became seriously mentally ill during their marriage eventually having to be admitted to a hospital where Shimao took the unusual step of living with her. Though this uncommon gesture is widely praised as displaying his deep love for his wife, it was in part born of guilt as he believed he had caused her distress through his frequent infidelities, just as Toshio does in the film.

The couple live together in a perpetual nightmare world. Though Miho exclaims at one point that they both need to do their best now for their children they both consider suicide more than once, alternately saving or frustrating one another. They both suffer, they both try to go on but Miho’s position becomes increasingly difficult leading to a period of mental decline which climaxes in a strangely humorous yet violent episode in which she tries to exact revenge on her husband’s mistress only to be offered a lesson in civility – “I don’t know what’s going on here but none of us have the right to act like savages”, says the perfectly genial other woman (the silent casualty in all of this).

Oguri shoots the majority of the film in near darkness, as if the couple are enveloped in a night without end. They haunt each other like living ghosts, emerging from shadows moving slowly like those without hope or purpose. Oguri adds to the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere by sticking to static camera shots filled with strange tableaux and little discernible action. The film paints a bleak picture of marriage and the family unit as the central couple remain locked in an odd game-like battle of suffering while their two innocent children look on helplessly. A strange and beguiling film, The Sting of Death pulls no punches when it comes to describing the way in which adults wound each other with childish games but is also filled with quite beautiful, if sometimes unsettling, iconography.


The Sting of Death is available with English subtitles on R3 Hong Kong DVD as part of Panorama’s Century of Japanese cinema collection.

Opening scene of the film (unsubtitled)