Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

asako I & 2 posterDualities define the perpetually submerged worlds of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour followup Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Netemo Sametemo). Waking and sleeping, fantasy and reality, past and present, presence and absence, love and sadness. Asako (Erika Karata), an ordinary young woman of the contemporary era, finds herself in a similar position to many of the heroines of contemporary Japanese literature in that she has no idea what she really wants out of life and is essentially torn between a series of idealised lives snatched from movies and magazines. Yet she is also haunted by a broken heart, arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence thanks to an early disappointment in love in which remains horribly unresolved.

As a university student in Osaka, Asako attends a photo exhibition dedicated to one of the few books put out by legendary Japanese photographer Shigeo Gocho titled “Self and Others”. Fascinated by an eerie picture of two little girls dressed identically, one slightly taller than the other, Asako’s attention is eventually caught by a striking young man. She leaves the exhibition and follows him until he eventually turns and faces her. Firecrackers some teenagers had been struggling to light suddenly explode around his feet. He strides over to her, asks for her name, and then leans in for a kiss – at least, that’s the way he later tells it to a disbelieving friend who points out that “no one meets like that”. An arty type in dungarees and shaggy hair, the young man’s name is “Baku” (Masahiro Higashide) – he uses the character for wheat (his dad was big into grains) but it’s also a homonym for explosion which a is key indication of the unpredictable excitement he comes to represent for Asako as her uni best friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) attempts to warn her by insisting that Baku is the heartbreaking type and whatever she has with him is destined to end in tears.

Haruyo’s prediction comes to pass when Baku steps out one day to buy some shoes and never returns. A brokenhearted Asako makes her way to Tokyo and begins working a cafe but two and a bit years later, she is stunned to find “Baku” wearing a suit and working in an office. He doesn’t remember her and says his name’s Ryohei, but Asako can’t shake the association which is both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Ryohei is smitten, he felt the connection too, but Asako doesn’t quite know what to do with this unfortunate coincidence.

Events repeat themselves with only mild distortions – Asako and Ryohei attend another Gocho photo exhibition though this time with Asako’s Tokyo best friend, Maya (Rio Yamashita). Rather than a motorcycle accident, Ryohei and Asako find and comfort each other after the 2011 earthquake and eventually become a couple, move in together, and even get a cat. Asako begins to fall for Ryohei, but can’t be sure her love for him isn’t really love for Baku refracted through a different lens. Baku, a man with a wandering heart, once told her he would always return no matter how long it might take. There’s a part of Asako that’s always waiting, held back, afraid to move and unwilling to acknowledge the death of her younger self as immortalised in the image of herself with Baku.

When Haruyo runs into Asako and Ryohei unexpectedly in Tokyo, she gives us our first indication that Ryohei really does look like Baku and the association isn’t just a projection of Asako’s romantic anxieties. Haruyo’s first words to Asako are that she hasn’t changed – they’re intended as a compliment, but Asako bristles. She feels as if she’s moved forward, matured, is preparing to enter a comfortable middle age with Ryohei at her side but deep down she knows she hasn’t. She’s still the naive student pining for a lost love that never cared enough about her to resolve itself. She worries she’s been playacting and that her relationship with Ryohei isn’t “real” even if she cares about him enough to have her feeling guilty for this mild form of betrayal.

Later, offered another possibility, Asako feels as if her life with Ryohei has been like a dream, or perhaps the only waking moment of her life. When Ryohei introduces a work friend to Maya as an excuse to get close to Asako, they watch a video of her performing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a play famously about self delusion in which the fierce belief in an impossible future becomes the only thing which makes life possible. The climactic earthquake hits just as Ryohei is preparing to watch Maya perform in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – the play which lays bare the playwright’s key tenet, that if you take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness. Ryohei’s friend Kushihashi (Koji Seto) might rip into Maya’s “narcissistic” acting, denigrating her for attention seeking rather than baring her soul on stage, but Asako admires her determination and absolute certainty in her chosen goal, things she herself lacks.

Talked down by the soothing tones of practiced de-escalator Ryohei, Kushihashi is prompted to confess that his outburst was mostly out of jealously, that having given up his dreams of the stage for a conventional salaryman life he resented seeing someone else embrace theirs. Asako can’t decide which “dream” she wants – a life of fireworks and unpredictability with Baku for all the heartbreak it might bring, or one of gentle happiness with the good and kind Ryohei. A series of crises prompt her into making a clear choice – seemingly her first, though it may be too late. Real love is messy, painful, and ugly, but it’s beautiful too once you learn to see through the miasma of self delusion and romantic fantasy.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは, Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close knit posterWhile studying in the US, director Naoko Ogigami encountered people from all walks of life but on her return to Japan was immediately struck by the invisibility of the LGBT community and particularly that of transgender people. Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは,  Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa) is her response to a still prevalent social conservatism which sometimes gives rise to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Moving away from the quirkier sides of her previous work, Ogigami nevertheless opts for a gentle, warm approach to this potentially heavy subject matter, preferring to focus on positivity rather than dwell on suffering.

11 year old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is home alone, again. Her mother rolls in late, dead drunk, and promptly flops down onto the futon next to Tomo’s still in her work clothes. A note left the next day explains that Tomo’s mother has quit her job and won’t be coming home for a while. This is not the first time she’s done this and the money she’s left is at least enough for a train ticket to visit uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). When Tomo slaps a collection of manga down in front of him at the bookstore where he works, Makio immediately realises what’s going on and is both infuriated with his sister and glad to take his niece in for a while until her mother comes to her senses.

There’s one potential problem. Makio now has a live-in girlfriend only she’s not quite what Tomo might be expecting. On meeting Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo is indeed shocked but is soon won over by Rinko’s warm and loving nature. Rinko is a transgender woman who’s experienced her share of hardships in life but finally found fulfilment in her relationship with Makio though she has a lot of love to give and would dearly love a child of her own.

Used to being left to her own devices, Tomo is a tough and resourceful child but also one with a thick protective shell. Unused to being mothered, Tomo finds Rinko’s attempts to reach out to her difficult to bear, cycling back and forth through a pattern of affection and rejection. Where her mother left her only store bought onigiri (which she has come to hate) and cash, Rinko makes beautiful character bentos complete with octopus frankfurters and adorable panda faces. So touched is Tomo by this gesture that she can’t quite bring herself to eat it and eventually makes herself ill by finally deciding to enjoy it long after it’s past its best.

Nevertheless even if Tomo comes to bond with Rinko, there are still those who don’t approve of her existence. Tomo has a, well, not quite friend at school, Kai, who is somewhat ostracised by the other children who call him “gay” and write homophobic slurs on the classroom blackboard. Tomo, whilst sometimes hanging out with Kai who lives near to her outside of school, refuses to have anything to do with him in class lest she be rendered guilty by association. Growing closer to Rinko, Tomo also comes to an acceptance of and willingness to fight for Kai who has confided in her about his crush on another boy in their class. Kai’s mother (Eiko Koike), however, is not so understanding and so when she catches sight of Tomo in the supermarket with Rinko she offers to save her from the “weirdo” and later bans Kai from hanging out with his only friend in case he somehow catches “weirdness” from their atypical family setup. This attitude of hers eventually has potentially tragic consequences for her young son, left with nothing other than the prospect of maternal and later societal rejection eased only by Tomo’s firm insistence that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Unlike Kai’s mother, Rinko’s instantly understood and remained fully supportive of her child even whilst hauled into school for an explanation of why “Rintaro” has been skipping P.E.. Rinko’s mother not only goes out and buys lacy bras for her daughter, but even knits her a pair of fluffy pink breasts so she won’t feel so depressed about not developing in the same way as all the other girls. Tomo’s mother has a lot of problems of her own but many of these stem back to her own upbringing, unintentionally threatening to pass on some of these same qualities to her own daughter as she allows her to feel just as worthless and unloved as her mother did her. Yet, Ogigami’s camera remains resolutely unjudgemental in trying to understand each of these various facets of motherhood from the immense maternal love of Rinko as it finally finds an outlet in Tomo to the far less positive image of Kai’s mother who presumably thinks she’s doing the best for her son in trying to prevent him veering from the norm but only succeeds in making him feel his life is not worth living.

The title of the film, as grandly punned as it is, refers not just to the quickening family bonds among this idealised yet unusual family but also to Rinko’s favourite method of stress relief – knitting. Like the cooking she is often seen providing for the family, Rinko’s knitting is also largely about warmth in making something for a particular person which is tailor made to keep them warm in the cold, but it also works as a multilayered metaphor as she brings people together, binding them tightly with her own wamth and generosity of spirit. Rather than fighting back with angry words (or well aimed dish soap as a provoked Tomo eventually does), Rinko channels her frustrations into her knitting, using them to create something positive rather allowing negativity to overwhelm her. Ogigami’s film seems to want to do the same, arguing for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance as a pathway to a better world even if it’s clear the road is long and we’re not so far along it as we should be.


Close-Knit was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

There’s also an interesting interview with director Naoko Ogigami and producer Kumi Kobata in the Nikkei Asian Review in which they discuss the casting of actor Toma Ikuta.

Original trailer (English subtitles)