Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2018)

Hirobumi Watanabe goes full 8 1/2 with the decidedly meta comedy, Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Futsu wa Hashiridasu). After the joyful celebration of Party ‘Round the Globe, he returns in a noticeably self-reflective mood once again playing a version of himself as a self-involved, childish blocked filmmaker who fears he is falling out of love with film. Unable to come up with ideas, he fobs off producers and ignores phone calls while hanging out with grandma (Misao Hirayama) and making a nuisance of himself at the library but a mini-nervous breakdown and a reconnection with the film-loving little boy he once was perhaps offer him new direction though the jury’s out on whether “Hirobumi” is ever going to grow up. 

Once again locating itself in peaceful Tochigi and shot in crisp black and white with Watanabe’s trademark deadpan static camera, Life Finds a Way opens with Hirobumi fielding a phone call from a producer in which he confesses that he’s supposed to be working on a script created in collaboration with rock band Triple Fire but he’s getting nowhere so he’s hanging out in a cafe to “relax” while playing Dragon Quest. Later he rings his cinematographer, Bang Woohyun, and makes a similar apology, admitting that he’s going to take some time off to watch the World Cup because, after all, it’s a once in every four years opportunity. Meanwhile, he’s mostly snoozing at home with grandma, or driving around with his almost entirely silent and extremely patient strawberry farmer friend Kurosaki (Kurosaki Takanori). 

One of his early rants offered as a monologue to Kurosaki who seems to be used to them, revolves around his sense of inferiority as a creative unfairly maligned as a lazy good-for-nothing by workaholic Japanese society. In Japan, he says, we worship the worker ant who survives because he works away earnestly, while in France they honour the grasshopper because his beautiful music can cheer you up even in the depths of winter. Hirobumi thinks the French have it right, that Japanese people are too obsessed with doing everything “properly”, always worrying about trivial things. According to him, there are far too many worker ant types in the Japanese film industry. He thinks films should be free and unconstrained, not bound by some kind of ideal. 

In any case, while being quite rude to “worker ant” Kurosaki who labours all day long on his strawberry farm, Hirobumi blames all his problems on having been unlucky enough to have been born in Japan rather than somewhere like France where they appreciate people like him. Later, he interviews a few locals and asks them what they think is the problem with the Japanese film industry, only for Kurosaki to repeatedly answer “it’s Hirobumi”, perhaps getting his own back. In fact, Kurosaki, apparently meaning well, shows Hirobumi a piece about of one of his films in a glossy magazine only it’s uncomplimentary in the extreme which sends him into a rage, ranting furiously about ungrateful audiences and how much he hates film critics. Hirobumi seemingly blames everyone but himself for his faults and failures, climbing all the way up to a hilltop shrine to pray that he wins the Palme d’Or while also asking that the gods not give good jobs to successful directors but give them all to him instead, and for bad things to happen to someone who sent him a strongly worded letter. 

Hirobumi’s “fan mail” appears to be from a stuffy old woman who states that she has “kindly” written to him several times already to explain that his work is an insult to cinema yet he keeps “selfishly” making films. She’d liked to have told him this in person, but was apparently “too busy” so has written another letter urging him to reflect on his life choices and either make “good” films like Koreeda and Miyazaki, or find himself another career. Hirobumi wonders what the point of films is if they don’t make people happy or have the capacity to change the world. Asked what films meant to them most of his interview subjects either had no answer or regarded them only as entertainment. An encounter with himself perhaps reminds him what it was he saw in cinema and allows hims him to begin moving forward creatively. 

But even having finished his script, has Hirobumi really changed? He seems permanently to be surrounded by children, hanging out reading the manga in the kids’ section of the library, lining up behind a string of obedient primary school students to check out his DVDs where he sets a bad example by having a series of Tora-san movies already overdue but using grandma’s card to take out more, and hanging out with his niece catching crayfish in the local stream with a bucket and net just like he must have done since he was little. He lies about missing the World Cup, ignores phone calls from the library to snooze while spending time with grandma, and is not really any nicer to the patient Kurosaki than he was before. But life finds its way, Hirobumi escapes his creative malaise by rediscovering the joy of cinema, healing himself body and soul, and feeling more positive about the future even if nothing has really changed. 


Life Finds a Way is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. It was also scheduled to screen as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Festival Trailer (English captions)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Minori, On The Brink (お嬢ちゃん, Ryutaro Ninomiya, 2019)

“Days like this make me feel I’m wasting my life” sighs just another dejected youngster in Ryutaro Ninomiya’s quietly enraged takedown of millennial malaise in a fiercely patriarchal society, Minori, On The Brink (お嬢ちゃん, Ojochan). In a culture which often favours politeness and avoids confrontation, Minori is a rare young woman determined to speak her mind though always with patience and grace and in turn a willingness to apologise if she feels that she has acted less than ideally, but her words often fall on deaf ears while those around her stumble through their lives chasing conventional illusions of happiness to mask a creeping despair. 

We first meet 20-something Minori (Minori Hagiwara) as she challenges a man who tried to force himself on her friend, Rieko, cowering quietly behind her. Minori wants an apology, but predictably he denies everything and quickly becomes angry, held back by his equally skeevy friend who advises him to apologise if only to defuse the situation. In the end Minori doesn’t get her apology and has to settle for having made a stand, retreating to avoid causing her friend more harm, but on exit the third man chases after her to ask for her contact information. Really, you couldn’t make it up. 

Part of Minori’s anger is bound up with being a so-called “cute girl” and everything that comes with it in a society still defined by male desire. Parades of idiotic young men, for some reason always in threes, come through the cafe where she works part-time expressly because a “cute girl” works there, while she’s forever being invited out by female friends who want to bring a “cute girl” to the party. Somewhat insecure, Minori worries that people are only interested in her cuteness and might otherwise reject her if, say, she were badly disfigured in some kind of accident. But what she resents most is that it’s other women who enable this primacy of the cute, the way her bashful, “homely” friend Rieko is always apologising for herself, while the other women who self-identify as “ugly” willingly cede their space to the conventionally attractive. 

In short, they submit themselves totally to pandering to male desire while men feel themselves entitled to female attention whether they want to give it or not. Dining in a local restaurant, Minori and Rieko are invited to a party by the proprietress which neither of them seem keen to go to but Rieko is too shy to refuse even when Minori reminds her of the traumatic incident at the last party with the guy who forced himself into the ladies bathroom and tried to kiss her against her will. The older woman laughs it off, affirming that he “meant no harm”, he was just drunk. This is exactly what Minori can’t stand. She keeps telling people she isn’t angry, but is she is irritated by Rieko’s need to apologise for something that isn’t her fault, seeing it as enabling the culture that allows men to do as they please while women have to obey a set of arbitrary rules of which remaining quiet is only one. 

In her own quiet way, Minori refuses to toe the line but is constantly plagued by unwanted male attention. Getting into an altercation with a creepy guy who waited outside her place of work to find out why she didn’t reply to his texts, she explains that he was just a casual hookup and that she finds his overly possessive behaviour frightening even as he continues not to take no for an answer, eventually branding her a “slut” for daring to embrace her sexuality. She demands an apology, not for what he called her but for the use of such misogynistic language. Earlier, in the trio of friends which contained Rieko’s attacker, another man had claimed he remembered Minori from a previous gathering, branding her as a “pigheaded mood wrecker” for daring to take them to task for their bad behaviour. The men talk about women only in terms of their desirability, the same man insisting that he has no interest in “strong willed women”, probably for obvious reasons. Another recounts having bullied a girl he fancied in middle-school, unable to understand why she avoided him despite bragging about having terrorised her and organising her ostracisation by the other girls (supposedly, he could do this because he was “popular”) until she finally transferred out (whether or not this actually had anything to with him remains uncertain). 

Perhaps to their credit, the other two guys immediately declare him uncool and are mildly horrified that he sold this to them as a funny story from his youth with absolutely no sense of repentance or self awareness. But their response is also problematic and born more of their boredom than their outrage, engaging in a bet over who can make him cry first as they “bully” him so that he’ll develop empathy for people who are “bullied”, never actually explaining to him why he’s being “punished”. Minori questions the problematic attitudes around her with straightforward candour, taking her cafe friend to task for her hypocrisy in taking against older men while expressing an uncomfortable preference for the very young.  

Nevertheless, Minori remains exhausted by the hypocrisies of the world around her. She declares herself “happy” with her ordinary life, a 4-day part-time job, low rent thanks to living with grandma, and spare time spent playing games. To that extent she has no desire to change her life, but the very fact of her “happiness” also depresses her in its banal ordinariness. “It’s all worthless” she suddenly cries, stunned by the inescapability of her ennui. On the brink of despair, Minori finds herself sustained only by rage not only towards an oppressive society but her own inability to resist it.


Minori, On The Brink was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. It will also be available to stream worldwide (excl. Japan) as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

37 Seconds (Hikari, 2019)

37 Seconds poster“We’re just like everybody else” the heroine of Hikari’s debut feature 37 Seconds replies in bemusement when a prospective date confesses he never thought he’d feel comfortable with “someone like” her. Quietly meditating on societal prejudice against disability, 37 Seconds takes its heroine on a journey of self discovery as a series of disappointments pushes her towards embracing a new side of herself as an individual in defiance of those who might feel they know what is best, or perhaps just most “appropriate”, for “someone like” her without bothering to consider how she might feel.

Softly spoken, 23-year-old Yuma (Mei Kayama) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair to get around. Although she has a degree of independence with a job as an assistant to a manga artist, her friend Sayaka now a giant YouTube star, to which she travels alone by train, Yuma otherwise has little life outside the home she shares with her increasingly overprotective mother Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno). Yuma’s dreams of becoming a manga artist in her own right are dealt a blow when she’s told that her style is too close to Sayaka’s, only Sayaka’s style is Yuma’s because Yuma is doing all the work while her friend steals the credit and gleefully gives interviews claiming she is 100% indie and has no assistants. Beginning to realise she’s being exploited, Yuma gets an idea when she spots some erotic manga abandoned in the park and starts ringing up magazines for work. One bites and likes her stuff but worries that her sex scenes lack authenticity because of her lack of experience. 

Though previously unbothered, Yuma decides to embrace her sexuality in the name of art but finds a series of obstacles in her way, not least among them her mother who continues to infantilise her claiming that she is too vulnerable to be allowed out alone because there are too many strange people in the world. Kyoko won’t let Yuma wear pretty dresses, or makeup, or go out in the same way other girls her age might, refusing to accept that her little girl has grown up and has the same desires as any other young woman including that to be independent. Unable to escape her mother’s control, Yuma begins lying to her to meet prospective dates but finds them all unsuitable until finally trying to hire a sex worker only for that to go horribly wrong too. It does however introduce her to the people who will change her life – empathetic sex worker Mai (Makiko Watanabe), and her assistant Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito), whom she meets in a love hotel corridor while waiting for a broken lift.

When Yuma first meets Mai, she’s in the company of another man with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair, Kuma – played by Yoshihiko Kumashiro, a real life activist raising awareness about sexuality in the disabled community whose life inspired Junpei Matsumoto’s 2017 feature Perfect Revolution. Seeing the warm and genuine relationship between Mai and Kuma gives Yuma a new hope that a different kind of life is possible, especially as Mai offers to take her under her wing. Having an older woman to confide in about things she could never discuss with her mother allows Yuma to explore her newfound desires with confidence knowing that there are people looking out for her and always ready to offer advice.

Not everyone, however, is quite so enlightened and Yuma’s problems are largely to do with the persistent social stigma she faces from the world around her as well as a resultant sense of internalised inferiority. Sayaka, her “friend”, views her as a kind of cash cow, taking advantage of her skills but denying her existence while Sayaka’s agent swings in the other direction by telling her she should go public because she’d get a lot of press once people know she employs a disabled woman as an assistant. The first place Yuma gets any kind of respect is the office of the erotic manga magazine where the boss treats her like any other prospective hire and offers her constructive advice. From the awful dates and bad faith friends to her mother’s well-meaning yet problematic attempts to trap her in childhood, Yuma struggles to find a sense of self-worth when everyone is telling her that her life is limited and she must conform to their stereotypical ideas of how “someone like” her should live.

Thanks to Mai and Toshiya, Yuma eventually gains the confidence to assert herself, but also the ability to accept that her mother’s actions, however misguided, came from a place of love tempered by regret and sadness she was unable to understand without engaging with her mother’s history. A beautifully empathetic exploration of a young woman’s gradual blossoming under the light of genuine connection, 37 Seconds is a unsubtle rebuke of a fiercely conformist society unwilling to accommodate difference but also a quiet hymn to defiance as its heroine learns to shake off the labels placed on her and claim her independence no matter what anyone else might have to say about it.


37 Seconds was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

N@NIMONO (何者, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

Nanimono posterGrowing up is a series of battles in Japan. Exam hell soon gives way to the freedom and liberation of university but students know that their carefree days of youth and discovery will be short lived. Job hunting is done en masse and takes place in the final year of study (or even before). The process of securing a work placement is much the same as deciding on which school to apply to – attending job fairs to meet with representatives, getting hold of brochures, talking to anyone and everyone you know about the various reputations of the big firms, and then figuring out what your best bets are. Many companies run written exams which are then followed by group interviews in which the applicants are made to answer humiliating questions in front of their fellow candidates. What this all amounts to is a gradual erasure of the self in order to become the perfect hire, making the same tired phrases sound interesting in an effort to say all the right things whilst trying not too seem calculating or too bland.

The group at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize winning novel by Ryo Asai, N@NIMONO (何者, Nanimono, AKA Somebody / Someone), know this better than most. Protagonist Takuto (Takeru Satoh) used to be interested in theatre but has abandoned his dreams of the stage for the mainstream route into company life while his friend Kotaro (Masaki Suda) has played his last gig as the lead singer of a rock band, died his hair black again, and got a smart haircut in preparation for interviews. The boys are still good friends and roommates despite the fact that Takuto has long been carrying a torch for Kotaro’s former girlfriend, Mizuki (Kasumi Arimura), who has just returned from studying abroad. Mizuki is good friends with another girl, Rica (Fumi Nikaido), who happens to live upstairs from the boys and suggests that the four of them all get together to compare notes on the job hunting process. Rica lives with her boyfriend (still somewhat unusual in Japan), Takayoshi (Masaki Okada), who is working as a freelance journalist and is disdainful of the others’ passage into the regular workaday world but later tries to get into it himself.

There is a kind of sadness involved in this process, even if no one seriously thinks about fighting back. Everyone wants to get their foot onto that corporate ladder to become “someone”, at least in the eyes of society. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and if you miss your footing it’s near impossible to get it back – you’ll wind up one of the many crowded round the bottom staring up at the top even if you don’t want to admit it. University is the last time time there is real scope for indulging one’s personality before the corporate life takes hold – thus Takuto and Kotaro both accept that their artistic pursuits have to go in their quest for a regular middle-class life even if they inwardly struggle with their decisions to “sell-out”.

Takayoshi thinks of himself as above all this. He asks himself what all of this is for, why people put themselves through this humiliating ritual just to be locked into a nine to five that makes them miserable and turns them into soulless drones. There’s an obvious answer to that, and Takayoshi’s refusal to take it into account borders on the offensive, as does his often patronising attitude to those actively engaged in the job hunting process, but his hypocrisy is eventually brought home to him when he turns down a project to work with another artist because he thinks their work isn’t good enough. Maybe there’s courage in just putting something of yourself out there, even if it isn’t very good, rather than sitting at home looking down on everything and critiquing everyone else’s life choices whilst getting nothing done yourself.

It’s this conflict between interior and exterior life in which N@NIMONO is most interested. Main character Takuto begins as the everyman, depressed and stressed by his job hunting odyssey but aloof isolationism soon reveals itself as a kind of cowardice and self-involvement born of insecurity as he takes to a “secret” Twitter account for acerbic comments on his friends’ lives, sarcastically taking cruel potshots safe in the knowledge of his anonymity. Takuto’s entire concept of himself is a construction as his eventual descent into abstraction shows us in recasting his interaction with his friends as an avant-garde theatre show in which he finally begins to see the various ways his resentment of others is really just a way of expressing dissatisfaction with himself. This inability to fully integrate his own personality is offered as the final reason he hasn’t managed to find employment – his insincerity marks him out as a poor prospect. Takuto’s final realisation that he is unable to successfully answer the standard interview question “define your own personality in under one minute” for the perfectly sensible reason that the task is impossible kickstarts his own journey to a more complete life, even if it doesn’t do much to help the countless other “someones” out there hammered into a standard sized holes as mere cogs in the great social machine.


N@NIMONO seems to have been screened under the English titles of both “Somebody” and “Someone” but “N@NIMONO” is the one that features on the title card of the English subtitled Hong Kong blu-ray.

Original trailer (no 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)