Ribbon (Non, 2022)

What is the place of art amid a global crisis? A young student finds herself wrestling with her sense of purpose uncertain if art is more necessary than ever before or a completely worthless waste of time that could be better used dealing with the situation on a more practical level. Written, directed, and edited by actress/singer Non, Ribbon is a response to pandemic anxiety but also a meta drama about an artist reclaiming a sense of confidence in their work along with their right to make it even if not widely understood. 

As the film opens, art student Itsuka (Non) is lugging a series of paintings and art equipment back to her university for the upcoming graduation exhibition, only the exhibition has just been cancelled because the university will be closing its doors the following day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Itsuka has to cart all her stuff home again, but she’s luckier than some she witnesses who are left with no choice other than to destroy the precious works of art into which they’ve poured four years of their lives because they can’t store them and neither can the university. 

Watching her fellow students in tears as they crush, tear, and bludgeon their projects Itsuka can’t help but wonder what separates her painting from “trash”, seeing these precious pieces dismembered and left out for the binmen. The feeling is compounded when her mother (Misayo Haruki) pays her a visit, clad in a homemade hazmat suit, and throws the painting out justifying herself that as it had stuff stuck on it she thought it was just something she’d made messing around, more like a child’s collage than a serious piece of “art”. Unable to accept her mistake, Itsuka’s mother defensively doubles down leading to a climactic argument and the visits of other family members including her father (Daikichi Sugawara) who arrives with a social distancing pole and her sister (Karin Ono) who now dresses like an assassin each armed with passive aggressive peace offerings but ultimately seeking validations that her mother was right to dismiss her incomprehensible art. 

While her friend Hirai (Rio Yamashita) is later caught sneaking into uni to work on her much more conventional piece, a large canvas painting featuring a young girl in a forest with giraffes and leopards, Itsuka has been unable to find the desire to paint. The painting, a mixed media portrait of a young woman surrounded by ribbons, sits looking down on her taped to the wall but she can’t get away from the idea that perhaps her work really is “trash” and she’s just been wasting her time on something meaningless that other people don’t understand or care about. The feeling is compounded when she’s informed that the job offer she had from a design firm for after graduation has been rescinded due to COVID uncertainty. Only when she accidentally reconnects with a middle-school classmate (Daichi Watanabe) who had praised her work does she begin to rediscover its value not least in allowing her to vent her frustrations not only with the pandemic-era society and its isolating anxieties, but the conservative ideas embodied by her mother’s constant complaints about her “attitude” reminding her she’ll never get married if she carries on as she is.  

“This is what our frustration looks like” she explains incorporating her friend’s fractured painting to turn her formerly chaotic apartment into an installation covered in the ribbons which had previously swarmed around her. Opening with scenes of the deserted university peopled with broken statues, headless mannequins, and crude drawings on walls, Non captures a sense of the lonely despair of the early days of the pandemic allowing these now empty places to seem almost haunted by an eerie sense of absence. There is an unavoidable absurdity in the constant masking, obsession with social distance, and spraying anything and everything with sanitiser but also a care beneath the anxiety in the concern for others’ safety as well as one’s own. “Heavy” is how Itsuka frequently describes her situation not only the physical weight of her work but its spiritual burden along with her despair and anxiety for her uncertain future, but learning to bear it allows her to rediscover a purpose and value in art not despite but because of the times in which she lives. Quirky and heartwarming, Non’s accomplished directorial debut is not only a snapshot of ordinary life in a pandemic, but a meta tale of a young woman reclaiming her right to create and vent her frustrations towards a sometimes restrictive society. 


Ribbon screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©︎”Ribbon” Film Partners

The Takatsu River (高津川, Yoshinari Nishikori, 2019)

What price modernity? Post-war migration saw a rapid turn towards urbanisation with the young forsaking their countryside hometowns to chase the salaryman dream in the cities. Though there has in recent years been a mild reversal to the prevailing trend as economic fluctuation and technological innovation have a generation of anxious youngsters looking for a simpler life, the effects of rural depopulation have only become starker in light of Japan’s ageing society leaving the elderly isolated in inaccessible communities with few family members or facilities to support them. This push and pull of the traditional and the modern is at the heart of Yoshinari Nishikori’s The Takatsu River (高津川, Takatsugawa), in many ways an elegy for a vanishing Japan but also an ode to the furusato spirit and to continuity in the face of change. 

Set in a small town on the Takatsu River in Japan’s Shimane prefecture on the South West coast of Honshu, the central drama revolves around the middle-aged Manabu (Masahiro Komoto), a widower with a teenage son and a daughter recently returned from university in Osaka. His problem is that his son Tatsuya (Ishikawa Raizo) has been skipping out on rehearsals for the Kagura dance society, something which is obviously close to his father’s heart. About to graduate high school Tatsuya is perhaps at a crossroads, like many of his age trying to decide if his future lies in his hometown staying to take over the family farm, or in the cities as a regular salaryman. 

“Everyone thinks of leaving once” Manabu philosophically laments to the lady at the post office though like most of the other parents he does not try to influence his son’s decision even if he’s additionally grumpy about his lack of commitment to Kagura dance. The dance troupe is not just a precious artefact of traditional culture or a means of entertainment but a social hub for the small community in which the generations mix freely and are equally represented. One older man affectionately known as “Pops” (Choei Takahashi) is over 80 years old but refuses to give up the art of Kagura dancing, not only because he loves to perform but because he enjoys being part of the society especially as he lost his eldest son to a flood in childhood and the other, Makoto (Hiromasa Taguchi), has become a lawyer in the city who rarely visits his hometown claiming that his wife has a dislike of “bugs”. 

Acting as a surrogate son to the old man, Manabu’s other quest is to convince Makoto to visit a little more often, touting the idea of a reunion for some of their old elementary school friends a few of whom are, like Manabu, still living in the village. Unfortunately, however, Makoto’s time in the city has fully converted him into a heartless ultra-capitalist who struggles to understand a more traditional way of thinking. Meeting up to celebrate the successful graduation of another friend’s apprentice as a sushi chef, the guys lament the case of their friend Yoko (Naho Toda) who never married, apparently calling off an engagement to look after her elderly mother who has dementia while acutely feeling the responsibility of taking on her family’s 300-year-old traditional sweet shop. Confused, Makoto wonders why you wouldn’t just stick the parents in a home and get married, much to the consternation of his friends. Similarly, when Manabu asks him for some legal advice about how to stop a resort being built up river he reveals himself to be fully on the side of corporate power. After all, he points out, a resort will bring jobs and foot traffic to the area encouraging modernisation and better transport links which will also draw young people back towards the village. If you want to save the community, perhaps it’s the best and only way. 

Yet as Manabu points out, the Takatsu is the last clean river in Japan. His daughter Nanami (Ito Ono) came back after uni because she missed the taste of sweet fish that you just can’t find anywhere else. If the river is polluted by construction, the fish will disappear and perhaps there’ll be nothing left to “save”. With the local school set to close now there are only a handful of pupils, Manabu and his friends are minded to pick their battles and protect what it is that’s most important, eventually reacquainting Makoto with his furusato spirit by confronting him with the traumatic past which had kept him away. Bar repeated references to the double-edged sword of the Takatsu in the potential for lethal flooding, Nishikori’s gentle drama perhaps provides an overly utopian view of country living which sidesteps the hardships that can often accompany it, but also celebrates community spirit and an atmosphere of mutual support, qualities which have convinced city-raised farmhand Kana (Yurie Midori) that the rural life is the one for her. A gentle elegy for a disappearing way of life, The Takatsu River is ultimately hopeful that something at least will survive as long as the clear stream flows on.


The Takatsu River streams in Poland 25th November to 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

keihoArticle 39 of Japan’s Penal Code states that a person cannot be held responsible for a crime if they are found to be “insane” though a person who commits a crime during a period of “diminished responsibility” can be held accountable and will receive a reduced sentence. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1999 courtroom drama/psychological thriller Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, 39 Keiho Dai Sanjukyu Jo) puts this very aspect of the law on trial. During this period (and still in 2016) Japan does nominally have the death penalty (though rarely practiced) and it is only right in a fair and humane society that those people whom the state deems as incapable of understanding the law should receive its protection and, if necessary, assistance. However, the law itself is also open to abuse and as it’s largely left to the discretion of the psychologists and lawyers, the judgement of sane or insane might be a matter of interpretation.

The case at the centre of the film centres around a young actor, Masaki Shibata, who has confessed to the murder of a pregnant woman and her husband after he argued with the woman at her place of work. Shibata acts strangely and makes a point of asking for the death penalty before spouting off about angels and demons and later displays evidence of a split personality. Everyone seems convinced he’s suffering from MPD and committed the murders during a dissociative episode but the assistant psychologist is convinced he’s faking. At the same time, one of the lead policemen on the case also thinks there’s more to this. On investigating further, he discovers the strange irony that the murdered man himself escaped prosecution by reason of insanity after committing a horrifying crime that lead to the death of a six year old girl.

The film may be about a murder but what’s really on trial here is the law itself. The murdered man, Hatada, committed a heinous crime but was a child himself at the time so received only a brief sentence served in a hospital. He was released, went to university, got a good job and got married – a normal life. The family of the little girl he killed, by contrast, will never be able to return to normality and will continue to live in torment for the rest of their lives knowing the man who so brutally took their child from them is still out there living just like one of us. The film does not go into why Hatada committed the original crime or the reasons he was later declared fit to return to society, but the film wants to question the idea of releasing back into the world someone who has done something as horrifying as the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child.

The case at hand is a complicated one which has so many layers coupled with twists and turns that it becomes unavoidably confusing. Playing with several literary allusions from the frequent quotations from the “mad prince” Hamlet to naming the assistant psychologist “Kafuka”, Keiho also wants to delve deep into human psychology with its questions of identity and self realisation. Both the accused and the psychologist have deeply buried memories of trauma the suppression of which has cast a shadow through the rest of their lives. Both of them are, in a sense (even if not quite in the way it originally appears), haunted by a shadow of themselves.

When it comes to the procedural aspects, the final “twist” is a step too far and perhaps undermines the groundwork which has gone before it. Something which is presented as an elaborate revenge plot against both the state and the original instigator of a crime also appears to originate with a clumsy motion of self preservation. The state’s failure to properly deal with the criminal in the first case has resulted the death of another innocent bystander, all of which might have been avoided if Article 39 had not come into play.

Kafka-esque is, in fact, a good way to describe the circularity of the narrative as the notion of an insanity plea becomes a recurrent plot device. Backstories are constructed and discarded, identities are shed and adopted at will and the past becomes a thorn in the side of the future that has to be removed so everyone can comfortably move on. Morita relies heavily on dissolves to create a floating, dreamlike atmosphere as memories (imaginary or otherwise) segue in and out like tides but he also shows us images reflected in other surfaces such as the Strangers on a Train inspired sequence which literally shows us events through someone else’s eyes as we’re watching them reflected doubly on the lenses of a pair of sunglasses.

Difficult, complicated and ultimately flawed Keiho proves an elusive and intriguing piece that is put together with some truly beautiful cinematography and interesting editing choices. Fascinating and frustrating in equal points Keiho is another characteristically probing effort from the wry pen of Morita which continues to echo in the mind long after the credits have rolled.


Keiho is available with English subtitles via HK R3 DVD as part of Panorama’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema Collection.