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)

Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Joji Matsuoka, 2016)

midnight diner 2 posterThe Midnight Diner is open for business once again. Yaro Abe’s eponymous manga was first adapted as a TV drama in 2009 which then ran for three seasons before heading to the big screen and then again to the smaller one with the Netflix original Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories becoming the de facto season four. Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Zoku Shinya Shokudo) returns with more of the same as Master puts out his sign and opens the shop, welcoming the denizens of Tokyo after dark in search of a little place to call home amid all the chaos and alienation.

To re-cap, the Midnight Diner is a casual eating establishment run by Master which opens only between the hours of midnight and 7am. The restaurant has only a small formal menu but Master’s selling point is that he is prepared to make whatever the customer so desires (assuming the ingredients are available). Regulars and newcomers alike are given a warm welcome and a place to feel at home, free of whatever it was that was bothering them in the outside world.

Like the first film, Midnight Diner 2 is really three TV episodes stitched together. The first begins on an ominous note as each of the regulars arrives in mourning clothes only to be struck by the coincidence that they’ve each been to a different person’s funeral. A woman arrives dressed in black but reveals she hasn’t been bereaved, she simply enjoys dressing like this to destress from the difficult atmosphere at her publishing job. Noriko (Aoba Kawai) is a top editor but often finds herself sidelined – this time by a young author whose book she made a success but has now dumped her owing to all her notes on his second effort. Saddled with an elderly client who doesn’t like taking advice from a woman, Noriko’s fortunes fall still further when she finds him dead. A visit to a real funeral threatens to change her life completely.

Strand two follows the son of a nearby soba shop, Seita (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has fallen in love with a much older woman and wants to marry despite his mother’s reservations. The third segment continues along the familial theme with an old woman travelling all the way from Kyushu to Tokyo after falling victim to an “Ore Ore” scam.

Scams and parental bonds become the central themes tying the episodes together as each of the lovelorn protagonists finds themselves taking advantage of Master’s sturdy shoulders. Noriko and Mrs. Ogawa (Misako Watanabe) fall victim to an obvious conman but do so almost willingly out of their desperate loneliness. Noriko, dissatisfied with her working environment, takes to the streets dressed in black but becomes the target of “funeral fetishists” who are only interested in her “bereaved” state. A chance encounter at a real funeral makes her believe her life can change but she is deceived again when a man she came to care for is unmasked as a serial trickster. Mrs. Ogawa faces a similar problem when she races all the way to Tokyo to pay off a “colleague” of her son’s, so desperate to help that she never suspects that she’s fallen victim to a scam.

Mrs. Ogawa’s deep love for the son she has become estranged from is contrasted with that of the soba noodle seller for the son she can’t let go. Seita cares for nothing other than ping pong, much to his mother’s consternation and has little interest in taking over the family business. A young man, he’s tired of the constraints his lonely widowed mother continues to place on him though his determination to marry an older woman at such a young age bears out his relative maturity.

As usual Master has good advice and a kind word for everyone that helps them get where they need to go, softly nudging them in the right direction through the power of comfort food. By now the cast of familiars is well and truly entrenched but there will always be space at Master’s counter for those in need who will be greeted warmly by those already aware of its charms. True enough, Midnight Diner 2 offers little in the way of innovation (though we do get a little more information about the mysterious Master) but no one comes the Midnight Diner looking to try something new. In here, nostalgia rules and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Liar and His Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Norihiro Koizumi, 2013)

liar and his lover posterDespite the potential raciness of the title, The Liar and his Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Kanojo wa Uso wo Aishisugiteru) is another innocent tale of youthful romance adapted from a shojo manga by Kotomi Aoki. As is customary in the genre, the heroine is cute yet earnest, emotionally honest and fiercely clear cut whereas the hero is a broken hearted artist much in the need of the love of a good woman. Innocent and chaste as it all is, Liar also imports the worst aspects of shojo in its unseemly age gap romance between a 25 year old musician and the 16 year old high school girl he picks up on a whim and then apparently falls for precisely because of her uncomplicated goodness.

Aki (Takeru Satoh) introduces himself through a film noir-style voice over in which he details his ongoing malaise. Now a ghost member of the band Crude Play, Aki feels conflicted over his artistic legacy as his carefully crafted tunes are repurposed as disposable idol pop and performed by the friends who were once his high school bandmates. His idol girlfriend, Mari (Saki Aibu), has also been seeing the band’s manager in an effort to get ahead leaving Aki feeling betrayed and devoid of purpose.

Soon after, Aki runs into grocer’s daughter Riko (Sakurako Ohara) who is captivated by the song he’s been humming whilst staring aimlessly out to sea. Aki, feeling mischievous, picks Riko up on a whim. He goes to great pains to remind us that he had no real feelings for her and was only in it for the kicks but a later meeting sets the pair off on a complicated romance.

Aki becomes the “liar” of the title when he gives Riko a false name – Shinya, the name of the bassist who has replaced him in his own band. Despite the supposed purity of music as a means of communication, it is, in many ways, another lie. When Aki and his bandmates were offered a contract straight after high school they were overjoyed but it was short lived. Listening to their demo tape, Aki spots the problem right away – it’s not them playing, they’ve been replaced by polished studio session musicians. Saddened, Aki quits the band and is replaced by a ringer but continues to write songs both for Crude Play and other artists while the band’s manager gets the credit.

Music conveys and complicates the romance as it brings the two together but also threatens to keep them apart. Riko, a Crude Play fan, does not know Aki’s true identity and is disappointed when he says he hates girls who sing because she herself is in a high school band. Sure enough, the band get scouted by odious producer Takagi (Takashi Sorimachi) and handed to the villainous Shinya (Masataka Kubota) who threatens to do the same thing to them as they did to Crude Play. Riko, like Aki, is a musical purist but also wants to make her rock star dreams come true.

Like many a shojo heroine, Riko is convinced only she sees the “real” Aki, pushing past his angry, distant persona to a deeper layer of sensitive vulnerability. This being shojo she is more or less right, as Aki tells us in his voice over detailing just how irritating it seems to be for him that he’s falling for this unusually perceptive young woman. Despite realising that almost everything Aki has told her has been a lie (intentional or otherwise), Riko ignores his duplicity precisely because she thinks she already knows the “real” Aki through the “truth” of his music.

Takagi, the band’s unscrupulous manager, prattles on about music not mattering if it doesn’t sell, avowing that it’s all a matter or marketing anyway. Aki’s central concern is the misuse of his artistic legacy, that his art form has been stripped of its meaning and repackaged for mass market consumption. The band is “fake”, a manufactured image based on the ruins of the truth. Aki believes himself to be the same – an empty vessel, devoid of meaning or purpose. His love of music is only reawakened by Riko’s innocent enthusiasm and her surprising promise of “protection”.

The conflict is one of essential truth betrayed by music in all senses of the word as it is used and misused by the various forces in play. Unlike most shojo adaptations, Aki leads the way with Riko a vaguer figure ready to absorb the projected personalities of the target audience but the central dynamic is still one of goodhearted girl and broody boy. The unseemly age gap issue is entirely ignored, as the troubling undercurrent of Riko’s most attractive quality being her all encompassing pureness, undermining the otherwise charming, wistful comedy of the innocent musical romance.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

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

Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo, Joji Matsuoka, 2015)

mainvisualYaro Abe’s manga Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo) was first adapted as 10 episode TV drama back in 2009 with a second series in 2011 and a third in 2014. With a Korean adaptation in between, the series now finds itself back for second helpings in the form of a big screen adaptation.

Midnight Diner is set in a cosy little eatery which only opens between the hours of midnight and 7am. Presided over by the “Master”, a mysterious figure himself with a large unexplained scar running down one side of his face, the restaurant has only one regular dish on its menu but Master is willing to make whatever his customers want provided he has the ingredients. Regulars and newcomers mingle nightly each with their own, sometimes sad, stories while Master offers them a safe place to think things through coupled with his gentle, all knowing advice.

The big screen movie plays just like a series of connected episodes from the television drama yet manages unify its approach into something which feels consistently more cinematic. Keeping the warm, nostalgic tone the film also increases its production values whilst maintaining its trademark style. The movie opens with the same title sequence as its TV version and divides itself neatly into chapters which each carry the title of the key dish that Master will cook for this segment’s star. A little less wilfully melodramatic, Midnight Diner the movie nevertheless offers its gentle commentary on the melancholy elements of modern life and its ordinary moments of sadness.

Fans of the TV drama will be pleased to see their favourite restaurant regulars reappearing if only briefly, but the film also boosts its profile in the form of some big name stars including a manager of another restaurant in town played by Kimiko Yo who seems to have some kind of history with Master as well as a smaller role played by prolific indie star of the moment Kiyohiko Shibukawa and the return of Joe Odagiri whose character seems to have undergone quite a radical change since we last saw him.

The stories this time around feature a serial mistress and her dalliance with another, poorer, client of the diner; a young girl who pulls a dine and dash only to return, apologise and offer to work off her bill; a lovelorn widower who’s come to Tokyo to chase an aid worker who probably just isn’t interested in him; and then there’s strange mystery of a mislaid funerary urn neatly tieing everything together. Just as in the TV series, each character has a special dish that they’ve been longing for and through reconnecting with the past by means of Master’s magic cooking, they manage to unlock their futures too. As usual, Master knows what it is they need long before they do and though he’s a man of few words, always seems to know what to say. One of the charms of the series as a whole which is echoed in the film is that it’s content to let a few mysteries hang while the central tale unfolds naturally almost as if you’re just another customer sitting at the end of Master’s counter.

Shot in more or less the same style as the TV series favouring long, static takes the film still manages to feel cinematic and its slight colour filtering adds to the overall warm and nostalgic tone the series has become known for. Once again offering a series of gentle human stories, Midnight Diner might not be the most groundbreaking of films but it offers its own delicate insights into the human condition and slowly but surely captivates with its intriguing cast of unlikely dining companions.