The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2017)

Third Murder posterJapanese cinema has often put the justice and legal system on trial and found it wanting. From Yoji Yamada’s Flag in the Mist in which a “selfish” lawyer contributes to the death of an innocent man, to Yoshitaro Nomura’s spiralling feverish The Incident, Yoshimitsu Morita’s Kafka-esque Keiho, Gen Takahashi’s pointed Court of Zeus, and Masayuki Suo’s comparatively more straightforward I Just Didn’t Do It, the entire justice system takes on an almost spiritual quality of absurdity, tormenting the accused for the sake of a pantomime of justice, little caring for his or her guilt or innocence and intent only on propping up its own sense of absolute authority.

Like Yoji Yamada in Flag in the Mist, The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Sandome no Satsujin) finds director Hirokazu Koreeda in unfamiliar territory though, at heart, it all comes back to family. A top lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), currently in the middle of a divorce, is asked to represent a man who has freely confessed to murder. As the son of the original judge who sentenced the accused, Misumi (Koji Yakusho), to the 30 year sentence he had not long been released from before (allegedly) committing the crime, Shigemori feels a responsibility to act but is frustrated by his client’s constantly shifting story. Nothing he says adds up, and every new angle Shigemori uncovers provokes only more doubt as to the true nature of the case at hand.

Shigemori, somewhat condescendingly, criticises the junior lawyer in the office for his naivety in wanting to to investigate the crime. Understanding and empathy are “unnecessary” in defending a client. The business of a lawyer, on either side, is to assess the evidence at hand, create an argument that withstands scrutiny, and eventually triumph in debating one’s opponent. In the face of the law, the “truth” is an irrelevance.

Shigemori’s cynicism is however rocked by the eerie presence of Misumi who seems to carry with him a kind of deepening emptiness. Misumi has already served 30 years in prison for the murder of two loansharks, the theft of their money, and an act of arson committed on their property to disguise the crime. Shigemori’s father, now a much older man, laments his youthful naivety in handing down a compassionate judgement which took into account the mitigating circumstances – Misumi’s troubled childhood, his poverty, the dire economic situation in which the closure of the local mines had led to mass unemployment and provided fertile ground for unscrupulous money lenders, and a series of personal tragedies which may have unbalanced his mind, but now he thinks some people are just bad and Misumi’s third murder is, in a sense, also his responsibility in allowing him the freedom to commit it.

Yet, there is also a doubt that Misumi’s first crimes are even his. We are told that, like the current case, Misumi couldn’t stick to one story – a common phenomenon with those who confess under duress, saying yes to everything in order to make the questioning stop but later forgetting what exactly they confessed to. Misumi later says he confessed only because he was told that confessing was the only way to avoid the death penalty which, ironically enough, is what he now faces. He also claims he was intimidated by the (admittedly stern) prosecutors, and when it looks as if a new trial may be necessary, the judge opts for the most “judicially economical’ solution to incorporate the new demands into the current trial for reasons which the lawyers attribute to his personal need to get the case off his docket in good time so as not to muddy his own reputation. Japan’s 99% conviction rate is less an endorsement of judicial efficiency than a worrying indictment of the legal process in which trials are mere formalities held for show, a pantomime intended to reinforce an idea of “justice” which does not quite exist.

The weight of justice itself is called into question. We learn that the victim was guilty of several crimes, some of them more forgivable than others. Yet is his death “justice” or “murder”, was he “killed” or was the act one of “salvation” for his victims? There are no easy answers and the uncomfortable fact remains that one kind of justice may not necessarily be any different from another. Misumi remains a cypher, his motives for committing the crime(s) (if he even did commit them at all) unclear yet there is also something in him that suggests he is merely a reflection of ourselves, a projection of our own primal need to see justice done that our civil selves have tried and failed to codify into a universally recognised system of fairness known as law. Then again perhaps all we really want is a story we can understand and empathise with, perhaps we don’t want justice at all – we want narrative, a strategy for defence against the cruel and arbitrary charges of an unforgiving world. Shigemori stands at a crossroads, cleansed of his cynicism but unsure what to replace it with, as, perhaps, as we.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Academy.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Rent-a-Cat (レンタネコ, Naoko Ogigami, 2012)

©2012レンタネコ製作委員会

rent-a-cat posterPreviously, Ogigami’s heroines (and hero, when one thinks about it) have had to go great distances in order to figure out what it was they were looking for and then finally find it. In Kamome Diner, Sachie went all the way to Helsinki to open up a Japanese cafe only to find herself accidentally attracting a collective of other runaway Japanese people whilst building a community of friendly Finns in her new home. Taeko, in Megane, went on a random holiday that turned out to be much more random than she ever would have expected but she did end up learning to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life which is, presumably, why she ended up on holiday in the first place. Rent-a-Cat’s (レンタネコ, Rent-a-Neko) Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa), by contrast, stubbornly stays put. In fact, she is the pillar around which all else turns as a fixed point for her various “stray cats” each in need of temporary support.

Since her grandmother died a few years ago, Sayoko’s life has been in free fall. A 30-something single woman with no “regular” employment, Sayoko lives in a spacious Japanese-style house with a small garden which is home to the various stray kitties which seem to seek her out when looking for a good place to crash. Sayoko has taken to writing out large banners declaring her immediate goals – getting married being the main one, and pasting them on the walls to encourage herself to keep going. The truth is, though Sayoko is not exactly unhappy she is unfulfilled. Since childhood she’s had the strange talent of attracting friendly cats but secretly longs to attract people too. Combining her strength and her weakness, Sayoko operates an unusual enterprise – cat rental! Walking along with a loud speaker and a trailer full of cats, she looks for lonely people who might want to borrow a fluffy friend for a while to help them out while they’re feeling low.

Of course, Sayoko’s quest to heal the hearts of others is also one to heal her own. Eccentric since childhood during which she was nicknamed “Jamiko” after a strange monster and mostly spent her time snoozing in the nurse’s office along with a kleptomaniac fellow student, Sayoko has never found her feet when it comes to building lasting relationships with people. Her voiceovers all refer back to her grandmother whom she misses deeply and seems slightly lost without. Appearing to have no real friends and spending a lot of time at home looking after her collection of needy cats, Sayoko’s main source of daily interaction comes from the horrible old woman who lives next door and turns up at random intervals to play Greek chorus in neatly reciting Sayoko’s various neuroses back to her over the garden fence.

Sayoko’s neighbour probably has a hole in her heart she fills by being deliberately insensitive to obviously sensitive people, but Sayoko offers her clients another solution in the form of a fluffy little cat who needs someone to look after it. Before lending one of her charges, Sayoko makes sure to vet the prospective cat guardian – after all, not everyone is nice and some people like to project their own suffering onto harmless little creatures. Through the house visits Sayoko gets to find out exactly what kind of hole it is that needs filling from dimples in jellies to holes in socks and even those in donuts, and being the sensitive soul she is, Sayoko usually knows what kind of help her customers need.

Structured around four different clients and bridged with Sayoko’s own neurotic journeys, Rent-a-Cat takes on a charming, fairytale quality in its repeated formulas. Each time someone asks to rent a cat they get the same speech about the inspection and then when it comes to talking money they each express surprise at the extremely good value, making sure to ask if Sayoko will be OK financially when she operates on these oddly beneficial terms. Don’t worry, she tells them – she has other income, a different one each time from stockbroking to fortune telling. The problems run from late life isolation as in a little old lady who loves making jellies for the son she never sees, to dejected fathers forced to work away from home and missing their kids grow up, and young women who feel trapped in a conservative society and would like nothing more than to jet off somewhere to follow their own path, if only they had the courage.

Social conservatism does seem to be something which particularly annoys Sayoko, if perhaps subconsciously. A strange dream sends her off to a Rent-a-Cat corporate clone where clients can rent cats of three different classes priced according to desirability. Sayoko is particularly anxious about the “Class C” cats whom the lady behind the counter disdainfully describes as “crossbreeds”. Sayoko is not having any of that and takes the woman to task for her need to “rank” things before insisting on renting a Class C cat at the Class A price to fully ram home the unpleasantness and absurdity of such a prejudiced world view.

Branded a “crazy cat lady” by the neighbourhood kids, Sayoko’s humanitarian mission of spreading love and kindness eventually does start to reel in a few humans even if they are mostly lonely souls in need of temporary support. Towards the end, when a promising reappearance provokes only disappointment, Sayoko wonders if perhaps there are holes cats cannot fill or sadnesses too great to be borne, but nevertheless she persists. A falling banner a suggests Sayoko may have already found the material to fill her own hole in helping other people fill theirs whilst surrounded by the by warm indifference of her feline brood.


You can catch Rent-a-Cat at the Japanese Embassy in London on 22nd November as the first in a series of events, Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers, which also includes screenings of Bare Essence of Life, Death of a Japanese Salesman, and Wild Berries from 30th November to 2nd December.

 Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yuya Ishii, 2017)

tokyo night sky posterLearning to love Tokyo is a kind of suicide, according to the heroine of Yuya Ishii’s love/hate letter to the Japanese capital, The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da). This city is a mess of contradictions, a huge sprawling metropolis filled with the anonymous masses and at the same time so tiny you can find yourself running into the same people over and over again. Inspired by the poems of Tahi Saihate, The Tokyo Night Sky is at once a meditative contemplation of city life and an awkward love story between two lost souls who somehow find each other in its crowded backstreets.

The heroine, Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), works as a nurse by day and supplements her income by night as a bar tender in a “girls bar” (basically a normal bar where all the bartenders are female and you have to pay an entrance fee on top of your overpriced drinks). Depressed and anxious, she wanders the city with a poetic interior monologue expressing her constant loathing for its indifferent soullessness. Meanwhile, Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a casual day labourer working on various projects in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. He describes himself as odd and is over sensitive about being blind in one eye. Unlike his friends and colleagues, Shinji prefers literature to parties and solitude to company.

The two first catch sight of each other in a crowded bar where Mika is trying to buy time before having to head back to a dull double date with her drunken friend and the lewd guys she’s invited to come along, and Shinji is trying to read away from the noise and chaos of his lodging house. They meet again when one of Shinji’s colleagues suggests going to the girls bar, and then seem to be constantly running into one another for no particular reason.

Though romance would seem to be the natural outcome of the “pointless miracle” of their repeated meetings, the process is a slow one. It’s obvious the pair share a deep, innate understanding of each other but they each have various problems which conspire to keep them apart. Shinji, describing himself as odd and assuming he’s annoying, is prone to nervous babbling which Mika correctly guesses is less down to a love of his own voice than a fear of awkward silence. For her part Mika is anxious all the time, brittle and insecure she instinctively rejects attempts at intimacy but somehow warms to Shinji responding to his confession of oddness with a comforting “well then, you’re just like me.”

The pair advance and retreat as they wander around the city they both claim to hate but as much as they keep each other at a distance their lives begin to overlap and run in parallel. Mika receives a text from an ex (Takahiro Miura) with a confused declaration of love while Shinji receives one from an old high school classmate (Ryo Sato) with much the same effect. Mika insists that love makes you boring, that you’ll never find someone who is prepared to love the most pitiable part of you, and that there is no such thing as love on this planet, but her protestations point more towards a kind of soul-searching and buried hope than they do of active rejection.

Ishii marries the romantic undercurrent with an ambivalent portrait of the stratified city. Mika, a nurse by profession, needs to take a second job to make ends meet while the more traditionally working class Shinji is a sensitive intellectual relegated to dangerous and insecure employment. As a day labourer he gets no employment benefits like sick pay or insurance – hence when he’s injured on the job he avoids letting anyone know for as long as possible because it means both loss of wages and a doctor’s bill. An older friend (Tetsushi Tanaka) has ruined his back through long years of overwork and is now left with nothing while a Filipino migrant worker (Paul Magsign) pines for home and the wife and child waiting for him there.

Shinji’s anxieties are partly economic – trapped in insecure employment which may well, as his older friend points out, dry up once the Olympics rolls around but the greater problem is inertia. During their journeys around the city, Shinji and Mika run into the same busker (Yoshimi Nozaki) who is always singing the same strange song about her underarms sweating which seems to echo their shared anxiety. Yet the song she offers them also provides a note of hope as she enthusiastically reaches the “Ganbare!” chorus, cheering the pair of frightened lovers on and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and desires rather than waiting around for something to happen.

Waiting has been Mika’s problem. Saddled with intense abandonment issues stemming from childhood trauma, Mika is always sure something bad is about to happen. Shinji partly shares her anxiety often claiming that he has “a bad feeling” about something or other but conversely, he begins to believe that the “something” could be good as well as bad. Rather than try and argue with her, Shinji concedes most of Mika’s points, nobody knows what will happen in the future, nobody can make any promises, and everything ends someday but that’s OK – it’s only life.

Ishii’s Tokyo is a soulless place filled with the melancholy and the empty but there’s beauty here too, if only people would look up from their smartphones every now and then to see it. Mika is afraid of being swallowed by the city and becoming one of its faceless masses but her listlessness and depression stand for the city itself as she refuses and rejects the process of living with all of its attendant risks. Ishii paints the city in all the colours of the night, but for all of its beautiful sadness it’s also a place of noise and chaos where existence is exhausting and the price of living high. It is, however, also a place of ordinary miracles offering hope to the hopeless if only they are willing to accept it.


The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Nobuhiro Doi, 2004)

be-with-youWhen it comes to tragic romances, no one does them better than Japan. Adapted from a best selling novel by Takuji Ichikawa, Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Ima, ai ni Yukimasu) is very much part of the “Jun-ai” or “pure love” boom kickstarted by Crying Out Love In the Center of the World released the same year but taps into Japan’s long history of supernaturally tinged love stories, filled with the weight of impending tragedy and the essential transience of the human experience.

Like many such tales, Be With You begins with a framing sequence set 12 years after the main events, but unusually it’s directed from the point of view of the soon-to-be 18 year old, Yuji (Yuta Hiraoka). Receiving a birthday cake from a bakery which has apparently only stayed open because of its promise to deliver birthday cakes to him every year until he turns 18, Yuji begins to reflect on the “miracle” which he and his father experienced all those years ago.

Yuji’s mother passed away at the age of 28 when he was only 5 years old. However, before she died, Mio (Yuko Takeuchi) had prepared a special picture book for Yuji to try and help him process what was happening. In the book, Mio has gone to a place called “Archive Star” and will return for the first rainy season a year after her death. Improbable as it is, Yuji and his father Takumi (Shido Nakamura) discover a woman who looks exactly like Mio lost in the forest during the first rains. Stunned the pair take her home but Mio has no knowledge of her former life as a wife and mother. Gradually, Mio begins to fall in love with her husband all over again whilst bonding with her young son, but their happiness is short lived as Mio realises her time with them is limited.

Because Mio can’t remember, we experience the love story between the teenage Takumi and Mio firstly through his eyes as he tells her of his unrequited high school crush when she sat at the desk across from him for two years during in which he was too shy to say anything. Later we hear the same story again from Mio’s perspective through her diary where we learn, not altogether surprisingly, that she felt the same way. The pair mirror each other throughout their courtship, wanting to say something but lacking the courage and looking for excuses to try and push the situation in a better direction. Other than the mutually unresolved attempts at phone calls and an unreturned pen, Mio and Takumi essentially relive their original romance in the brief time they are able to share together from repeated motifs of untied shoelaces and clumsiness with a bicycle, to innocent in pocket hand holding.

Takumi has an ongoing medical condition which interferes with his motor functions, slowing him down and giving him an air of soulful melancholy later compounded by his romantic tragedy. Having been a champion runner on a sports scholarship to college, the diagnosis causes extreme disruption to his life and leads him to the typically jun-ai decision to break up with Mio because he feels as if he’d be a burden to her. A year after Mio passed away, Takumi is doing his best to bring up his son but is a little distant and struggling to take care of the domestic environment. When Mio realises that she can’t take care of them forever, she switches her focus to trying to prepare her husband and son for life alone – teaching Yuji how to fry eggs and do the laundry, whilst renewing her emotional bond with Takumi. There’s no happy ending in store for Mio, the loss cannot be avoided and perhaps it might even be worse to have had this brief respite from the ongoing pain, but the six week rainy season does, at least, provide an opportunity to say those things that might have otherwise gone unsaid.

Nobuhiro Doi films in a typically elegant fashion making great use of the area’s natural beauty to create a fairy tale atmosphere from the mysterious, life giving forest. The poignancy of the tale is all the deeper knowing that Mio eventually understood what would happen to her, but chose a brief life with Takumi and her son over the possibility of a longer one without them. Heartbreakingly sad, yet a testament to the importance of appreciating the present which all too soon becomes the past, Be With You is a genuinely romantic love story, not only between a husband and a wife but an entire family carrying the weight of a tragic loss but easing the burden by treasuring the memory of the intense love shared between them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blue (ブルー, Hiroshi Ando, 2003)

blue03Growing up is hard to do. So it is for the teenage protagonists of Hiroshi Ando’s debut mainstream feature, Blue (ブルー), adapted from the manga by Kiriko Nananan. Like Nananan’s original comic, the cinematic adaptation of Blue is refreshingly angst free in its examination of first love and the burgeoning sexuality of two lonely high school girls. Shot with a chilly stillness which echoes the emptiness of this small town existence, Blue is no nostalgic retreat into cosy teenage dreams but a cold hard look at the messiness and pain of adolescent love.

Kayako’s (Mikako Ichikawa) life changes one day as she sees a fellow pupil at her all girls school being carried into an ambulance and spirited away. Curious yet unknowing, Kayako continues with her day to day existence until she happens to catch sight of another girl from her school, Masami (Manami Konishi), on the local bus. The two become friends after Masami expresses sympathy for Kayako when their teacher humiliates her in class. Masami is repeating the year after completing a long term suspension and has been ostracised by the other girls though no one quite seems to know exactly what happened. Before long Kayako’s feelings for her new acquaintance have transcended friendship but confused and jealous of Masami’s other friends, Kayako is at a loss. Eventually revealing her true feelings she discovers they aren’t unrequited after all, but Masami’s past contains its share of troubles which threaten to place a barrier between the two girls and destroy their growing romance.

Kayako is quiet and a bit of a dreamer. She eats lunch everyday with the same three girls on the rooftop but seems to feel isolated and listless in her small town existence. Masami, by contrast, is chattier and more outgoing but much of the persona she presents to the world is a way of coping with the circumstances which led to her leaving school. Kayako is drawn to Masami because of her outward sophistication – smoking, drinking, listening to foreign music, and reading books about impressionist artists. Later it transpires that at least some of these tastes were acquired from an older man with whom Masami had had an inappropriate relationship and are both a symptom of her desire to import personality traits from others because her own identity is so ill defined, and of wanting to seem much more mature than she really is.

Whilst Kayako is introverted yet solid and growing to be confident in who she really is, Masami, by contrast, appears only half formed but making up for her lack of self esteem with bravado and cheerfulness. It is this lack of certainty which eventually threatens to drive a wedge between the pair as Masami is unable to accept the kind of intimacy that Kayako wants to offer her. Repeating that she is “nothing”, has no future, and is an entirely passive presence simply floating along on the breeze, Masami is unable to make the kind of active choice which Kayako has already made, and may never be in a position to make it entirely of her own volition. Masami is always looking to run away, talking of moving to somewhere like Tokyo with a city’s anonymity, but when it comes down to it she lacks the courage to act.

Ando shoots at a stately pace mostly using static shots and distance takes though his slow pans across empty corridors help to bring out the utter loneliness and emptiness of the girls’ lives. Similarly a mild POV effect takes over panning around school windows as Masami looks for Kayako hoping to make a mends but finds her hurt, conflicted, and unwilling to engage. The two leads each give fantastically nuanced performances despite the plainness of the script and share an intense chemistry lending weight to the emotional resonance of the film. Ando creates a melancholy atmosphere of longing punctuated by fleeting glances and accidental touches, allowing the space and time for the physical performances to come to fruition. A subtly affecting tale of a difficult, yet mutually rewarding, teenage romance Blue has its share of early feature jitters, but makes up for them with an unusual dose of realism perfectly anchored by the strong performances of its leading ladies.


 

Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Naoto Kumazawa, 2009)

otonariSometimes when you live in the city it’s difficult to build meaningful connections with other people. You might find yourself a little lost, caught between the rat race and what it was that brought you to the city in the first place, but if you just close your eyes and listen, you can hear that you’re not alone. Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Oto-na-ri) is the story of two such people who build up a strange connection even though they’ve never really met.

Satoshi (Junichi Okada) and Nanao (Kumiko Aso) are next door neighbours in a small apartment block where the walls are paper thin. They’re both vaguely aware that a person of the opposite sex and around the same age lives next door, but they don’t know each other – in fact, they wouldn’t even recognise each other if they passed in the street. Still, they’re each aware of the other person through their particular soundscapes – Nanao hears Satoshi’s keys jangling on his belt as he leaves each morning and his rice cooker beeping in the evening, where as he thinks of Nanao as the humming girl and enjoys getting a free French lesson as he hears her language tapes through the wall.

Both are beginning to get frustrated with their lives in the city. Satoshi is a professional photographer doing fashion shoots but his real passion is landscape photography. He’s planning to go to Canada for a photo project but keeps getting held back as he only got into the fashion stuff because his childhood friend became a model and the two have now become entirely dependent on each other to keep working. When the friend, Shingo, finds out about Satoshi’s Canada plans, he goes missing causing his pregnant girlfriend Akane to come crashing into Satoshi’s life for a while.

Likewise Nanao is a lonely woman in her early thirties who works in a florist’s shop and plans to go to France to study flower arrangement after she’s passed the highest rank of exams. The guy at the local combini she often shops at seems to have developed a crush on her and Nanao isn’t really sure what to do with that but uses all of her time pursuing her dream of becoming a top florist.

Satoshi and Nanao are both feeling adrift, as if their lives are passing them by and it’s getting too late to not be getting anywhere. Just hearing the familiar sounds coming through the wall provides a comforting presence to not feel so alone. Though they don’t know each other, each has perhaps built up an image in their minds of the other person based on the sounds they create – keys, coffee, cooking vs French, classical music and humming an all too familiar song. Feeling the other person’s presence becomes reassuring and an absence of a familiar sound at its expected hour is unexpectedly disconcerting even if you really have no right to expect it.

Though Nanao is annoyed by the noisy and unprecedented arrival of Akane (who is not a good match for the rather uptight Satoshi) and slightly confused by her friendly greeting from the adjacent balcony, she still continues to derive comfort from the gentle presence of her neighbour. After having undergone a cruel humiliation and in something of a crisis, Nanao breaks down inside her apartment. Hearing her distress, Satoshi places his hand on the wall as if in comfort but rather than going next door to see if everything’s OK, he begins to hum and then sing the song he’s heard Nanao humming all along and eventually she too comes to sit beside the wall singing the song back to him.

As implied in the film’s English title, Romantic Prelude, music, and more particularly the symphony of sound that makes up a city, is the film’s major motif. This is further brought out by the original Japanese title which is a perfectly composed sonata of its own – Oto-na-ri. “Otonari” is Japanese for neighbour but the syllables which make up the word also have their own distinct meanings in that “oto” on its own means “sound” but put together “otona” means adult and then “nari” can also mean “to become”. Satoshi and Nanao are engaged in a blind slow dance where they’re falling in love with a stranger based on nothing other than a feeling of connection coupled with bond created by their shared soundscape.

Less a romance than an urban character study, Romantic Prelude is that rare case of a genuinely intriguing love story in which you’re really not sure which way things are going to go. This could just be another story of a tragic missed connection where Nanao heads off to France and Satoshi to Canada and they never even meet or it could give the audience the satisfying true love ending that it almost certainly wants but could have made either direction work. In the end, the important thing is seeing the pair work through their own difficulties and sort things out for themselves in the absence of each other before they finally begin to live the lives they’ve been yearning to lead.


The Japanese release of Romantic Prelude contains English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s the song they both keep singing – Kaze wo Atsumete by Happy End