Wild Berries (蛇イチゴ, Miwa Nishikawa, 2003)

wild berries posterThe family drama was once the representative genre of Japanese cinema. In the turbulent post-war world, the one unchanging, unbreakable touchstone was the bonds between parents and their children even if it must also be realised that those bonds will necessarily change over time. Tiny cracks might have been visible even in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the growing disconnection between the old folks in the country and their city kids, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s when Japan’s economic recovery had fully taken hold that the family itself began to come under fire. Yoshimitu Morita’s The Family Game kickstarted a trend of family implosion movies which implied that familial bonds were more social affectation than genuine connection, but post-bubble the tables turned again. These days, Hirokazu Koreeda has picked up the family drama mantle, depicting broadly positive pictures of normal family life. It is then all the stranger that his protege, Miwa Nishikawa, should be the one to ask again if family really is all it’s cracked up to be.

An ordinary breakfast in the Akechi household. Grandpa (Matsunosuke Shofukutei ) is dipping his toast in the coffee again while salaryman dad Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi) reads his paper. Schoolteacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki) barely has time to look at her breakfast before her mother, Akiko (Naoko Otani), reminds her that today is “Wednesday” – not only does she need her PE kit, but it’s also the day that her fiancé, Kamata (Toru Tezuka), is coming round to tea to meet the folks. The atmosphere is pleasant, genial, but why has Yoshiro had his mobile phone cut off and is the bald spot Akiko has just discovered on the top of her head really anything to worry about?

The Akechis are the archetype of a modern middle-class family, living a comfortable life in a nice home while dad goes out to work and mum does everything else. It is not, however, quite as it seems. Yoshiro’s phone has been cut off because he hasn’t paid the bill. He hasn’t paid the bill because he’s lost his job. He hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job because he’s too ashamed, so he’s taken out vast loans from gangsters rather than trying to find a more honest solution. Mum Akiko plays the dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning, putting up with Yoshiro’s imperious behaviour and looking after grandpa who has advanced dementia and thinks he’s still at war. In reality she’s bored and resentful, tired of the burden of looking after her husband’s ungrateful father and longing to have some time for herself. The only uncorrupted member of the family is schoolteacher Tomoko who finds herself giving a strange lesson on the evils of lying to her class of small children. Tomoko is perhaps too uncorrupted, prim as a schoolmarm but dull with it.

When grandpa meets an unfortunate end, the longstanding family secret is revealed – Tomoko is not an only child, she had an older brother, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who had been expelled from the family for his immoral ways – i.e, lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, Shuji’s return was an accident – his main job is stealing the condolence money from funerals and he just happened to be at the one next door. Shuji’s conman credentials might be just what the family needs, but could they and should they let him save them and is “saving” the family that rejected him really a part of Shuji’s grand plan?

Japan’s rapid economic recovery is usually blamed for the collapse of the family, sending sons away from the villages and prizing the commercial over the spiritual. Tomoko’s fiance, Kamata, has a slightly different take on the problem. After his first meal with the Akechis he’s touched by the warm and friendly family atmosphere, comparing them favourably with his own upperclass family which he feels to be cold and austere. The class difference and Kamata’s obvious discomfort surrounding it is one problem as is his problematic characterisation of Tomoko’s family as earnest and hardworking as, perhaps, he thinks people without inherited wealth ought to be is another, but the real irony is reserved for Kamata’s eventual reaction to discovering the truth. Yoshiro didn’t take to Kamata because he thought him “unconventional” with his unkempt hair and pretentious tastes, but Kamata proves himself the most conventional of all in his cruel rejection of his fiancée over what he sees as a betrayal by her family.

Wild berries, once they take root, quickly take over, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Secrets, and the need to keep them, have eaten away at the foundations of the Akechi family but which is the best way to repair them – starting all over again and working hard to put things right, as Tomoko would have it, or opting for Shuji’s dishonest quick fix? The youngsters battle it out amongst themselves for the soul of the family unit while mum and dad are just too world weary to even care anymore. Faith in the family may be running at an all time low, but Nishikawa at least manages to mine the situation for all of its bleak irony, laughing along knowingly with each dark revelation or small tragedy.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Kei Kumai, 2002)

The Sea is WatchingAkira Kurosawa’s later career was marred by personal crises related to his inability to obtain the kind of recognition for his films he’d been used to in his heyday during the golden age of Japanese cinema. His greatest dream was to die on the set, but after suffering a nasty accident in 1995 he was no longer able to realise his ambition of directing again. However, shortly after he died, the idea was floated of filming some of the scripts Kurosawa had written but never proceed with to the production stage including The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Umi wa Miteita) which he wrote in 1993. Based on a couple of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, The Sea is Watching would have been quite an interesting entry in Kurosawa’s back catalogue as it’s a rare female led story focussing on the lives of two geisha in Edo era Japan.

Throughout this tale of love bought and love lost, we mainly follow the kindly geisha Oshin (Nagiko Tono) who ends up helping a nervous young man one night when he crashes into her geisha house in an attempt to avoid being picked up by the police. It seems he’s been out drinking with friends for the first time and, after having drunk far too much, may have stabbed another customer (though he can’t quite remember). Oshin comes up with a plan by cutting off his topknot and passing him off as one of her regular customers but Funosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is not a born dissembler and remains sitting bolt upright before heading home at the first light of day.

Something passes between the two in the night and Oshin unwisely begins to fall in love. Though she begs him not too, Funosuke repeatedly visits her claiming to enjoy her company. However, though the other girls at the geisha house are in favour of Oshin’s love across the class divides romance and go to great lengths to help her, Funosuke is just a feckless boy completely unaware of the way he’s been toying with people’s hearts. Later, Oshin meets another damaged man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins to fall in love again but can a put upon geisha ever believe the words of men who think they can trade money for love?

Kurosawa has sometimes had the charge of misogyny thrown at him, somewhat unfairly, as his films are often very masculine in nature. The Sea is Watching, conversely, is the story of two women, Oshin and her fellow geisha Okikuno (Misa Shimizu), who claims to have come from a wealthy samurai background. Oshin is still young, her kindness and softness have not yet been eroded by the often harsh and cruel world in which she lives. She contents herself with romantic dreams of finding a man who will rescue her from this unpleasant way of life. Okikuno, by contrast, is older, harder, more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore more inclined to towards pragmatism. She finds her salvation in self deception about the past whereas Oshin’s fantasies are all focussed on her future. In many ways the women are mirrors of each other but they also have a tight, sisterly bond in which each seems to understand the other perfectly without the need for explanation.

Structurally, the film feels unbalanced as it focusses more heavily on Oshin in the early stages only to gradually shift through to Okikuno by the end. The thematic split between Oshin’s twin tales of love doesn’t quite help, though it does add a degree of pathos to the situation as Okikuno can see that Oshin’s happy ever after is an unlikely prospect, but still somehow wants to make it happen. Oddly, Kumai chooses not to emphasis the relationship between the two women until the very end, preferring to deal with each of their disappointments and dead end romances separately, but the film does finally come together when they are trapped alone in the geisha house following a freak flood.

In many ways, filming the unfinished work of a great director is an entirely thankless task – every fault is because you aren’t him and every success is down to the departed genius, but Kumai does what he can to both honour Kurosawa’s memory and put his own stamp on the material. There are frequent Kurosawa-esque compositions and the final, deliberately unreal scene of the geisha house underwater framed against the starry sky also has a suitably Kurosawan feeling. That said, something about The Sea is Watching never quite catches fire, its symbolism feels underworked and the final, climactic scene lacks the power it seems to want to have despite Misa Shimizu’s impressive performance. Not drowning, but waving, The Sea is Watching is an uneven experience but makes up for its tonal problems through the strong performances of its cast and powerful, expressionist imagery which allow it to successfully ride the waves of the emotional storms at its centre.


The Sea is Watching is available on DVD with English subtitles in the US and UK from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

US release trailer: