A Girl Missing (よこがお, Koji Fukada, 2019)

A Girl Missing poster 1In Harmonium, Koji Fukada explored the death of the family unit as a harried father found the foundations of his home eroded by a mysterious “stranger” with whom he shared an unspoken connection. A Girl Missing (よこがお Yokogao) pushes a little deeper in demonstrating how profoundly the foundations of a life can be shaken by frustrated connections, misunderstandings, and unspeakable desire. Probing deeper still, it wants to ask us on what foundations we’ve chosen to build our selfhoods, why it is that we don’t know ourselves without those tiny markers that tell us where we stand, and if it is really possible to rediscover a sense of self if we somehow go missing from our own lives.

Beginning in the mysterious second timeline, Fukada opens with the heroine changing her identity through the time-honoured fashion of a haircut. Calling herself Risa, she brushes off the hairdresser’s suggestion that they’ve met before, but she hasn’t chosen this salon because of its reputation or proximity to her home. Flashing back some months, we see the same woman looking a little softer and apparently working as a homecare nurse known as Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) to an elderly woman dying of stomach cancer. Ichiko’s colleagues worry that she’s becoming too emotionally involved with the Oishi household, helping the two daughters – uni student Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and high schooler Saki (Miyu Ogawa), study in cafes in her off hours, but she enjoys playing mother and does after all like to help. Meanwhile, she’s also happily engaged to a doctor (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) with a young son and looking forward to starting a brand-new family life of her own.

All that is derailed, however, when Saki goes missing in a suspected abduction on her way home from cram school. Thankfully, she’s found alive, unhurt, and apparently relatively well adjusted a few days later and anyone would assume the drama to be over, only it turns out that the suspect is Ichiko’s own nephew whom she briefly introduced to Saki at a cafe on the night in question. Feeling tremendously guilty and confused though she herself had nothing to do with the incident, Ichiko feels she must confess and make a formal apology to the Oishis but Motoko stops her fearing that the family will fire Ichiko and she’ll never see her again. Ichiko decides to trust Motoko and keep quiet, but it will prove to be a bad decision not least because it is in such sharp contrast to her otherwise straightforward and honest character.

The film’s Japanese title, “Yokogao” or “profile” reminds us that it is not possible to see the entirety of any one thing, only a single facet and more often that not the facet that it particularly wants you to see. Ichiko is guileless, innocent, and naive in her innate kindness. She doesn’t see how her relationship with the Oishi girls could eventually become problematic because, as a nurse, she’s used to doing what needs to be done when it needs doing. What we see of her is a woman about to marry “late” by the standards of her society into a readymade family, an intensely maternal figure looking for people who need mothering. Meanwhile, Saki’s disappearance exposes cracks in the Oishi household, Motoko’s grumpy response of “would you rather it was me?’ to her mother’s wails of “why her?” beginning to explain some of her seeming disaffection with her family.

Yet as much as there may be a maternal component in her desperation to keep Ichiko in her life, we can infer from all her plaintive looks that there is another kind of desire in play, one which she seems to regard as unspeakable. Ichiko, oblivious, does not quite realise the depth to which her accidental rejections wound the troubled young woman but equally could not anticipate the casual cruelty of her petty revenge. Upset that Ichiko is not catching her drift, Motoko leaks her connection to the case to the papers, and then tells them a secret shared in confidence to pour salt on the wound. Instantly regretful and caught in the white heat of passion, Motoko fails to realise the extent to which her desire to return the hurt done to her will only wound her more in ensuring Ichiko disappears from her life for good.

Ichiko then does something much the same, reinventing herself as “Risa” she lives in an empty apartment overlooking Motoko’s with the sole aim of taking revenge against the woman who pretended to be her friend and then betrayed her. But Ichiko does not understand why Motoko did what she did, and so her own revenge is also a misplaced act of self harm which causes her to absent herself from herself, assuming another identity better disposed to cruelty but finding it an awkward fit.

Fukada places emotional repression at the heart of all. Ichiko, despite her kindness, keeps others at a distance without entering into true intimacy with anyone, while Motoko apparently struggles to articulate perhaps even to herself the truth of her own feelings, childishly hitting back when slighted and unable to bear the possibility that she is in love with someone who cannot return her feelings. Forever at odds, they see each other only in profile. The desire for revenge destroys them both, but despite the pain and inescapability of regret, they have to find new ways of going on, making little nicks on their identities to help them remember who they really are. A melancholy tale of frustrated desires, A Girl Missing flirts with constructed identities polluted by social toxicity but leaves its heroines on (slightly) firmer ground in having at least taken what control they can over the forces which destabilise them.


A Girl Missing was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Shuichi Okita, 2018)

Mori an Artist's Habitat PosterThe world is vast and incomprehensible, but a lifetime’s study may begin to illuminate its hidden depths. At least it’s been that way for the hero of Shuichi Okita’s latest attempt at painting the joys and perils of a bubble existence. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Mori no Iru Basho) revolves around the real life figure of Morikazu Kumagai (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a well respected Japanese artist best known for his avant-garde depictions of the natural world, as well as for his eccentric personality. When we first meet him the early 1970s, Mori (a neat pun on his given name which uses the character for “protect” but also means “forest”), is 94 years old and has rarely left his beloved garden for the last 30 years. A man out of time, Mori’s world is however threatened by encroaching modernity – a gang of mobbed up property developers is after his land and is already in the process of constructing an apartment block that will rob Mori’s wonderful garden of its rightful sunlight.

Okita introduces us to Mori through an amusing scene which finds the Japanese emperor “admiring” one of his artworks only to turn around in confusion and ask how old the child was that made this painting. Spanning the Meiji and the Showa eras, Mori’s artwork is defined by its bold use of colour and minimalist aesthetic which outlines only the most essential elements of his subjects. As his wife of 52 years, Hideko (Kirin Kiki), explains to the various visitors who turn up at Mori’s studio/home hoping to commission him, Mori only paints what he feels like painting when he feels like painting it. Getting him to do anything else is a losing battle.

Painting mainly at night, Mori spends his days observing the natural world. Wandering around his garden he stops to sit in various places, gazing at the ants, and playing with the fish he put into a small pond dug way down into the earth over a period of 30 years. Despite his distaste for “visitors”, Mori has consented to be the subject of a documentary, followed around by a photojournalist (Ryo Kase) and his assistant (Kaito Yoshimura) keen to capture him in his “natural habitat”. The photographers, natural “shutterbugs”, gaze at Mori in the same way he gazes at his trees and insects. An irony which is not lost on the reticent artist.

Okita neatly symbolises Mori’s world as a place out of time by hovering over his desk on which lies a disassembled pocket watch. Eventually the watch will be repaired and time set back in motion but until now Mori’s garden has been a refuge of natural pleasures which itself contains the world entire. Receiving a surprise visitation from a supernatural being (Hiroshi Mikami), Mori is given an opportunity to explore the universe but turns it down. Firstly he doesn’t want to leave his wife on her own or see her “tired” by his absence, but secondly his garden has always been big enough for him and given thousands of years he fears he may never be able to explore it fully.

The garden, however, may not survive its owner. The 1970s, marked by early turmoil, later became a calm period of rising economic prosperity in which society began to move away from post-war privation towards economic prosperity. Hence our big bad is a property developer set on building apartment blocks – a symbol and symptom of the move away from large multi-generational homes to cramped nuclear family modernity. Unbeknownst to Mori, his garden has become a focal point for the environmental protest movement who have begun to set up signs and slogans around his home attacking the property developers for ruining a national landmark which has important cultural value in appreciating the work of one of Japan’s best known working artists.

Having lived through so much turmoil, Mori takes this in his stride. He knows his garden won’t last forever, and is resigned to the nature of the times. Mori may prefer to spend his days in quiet contemplation resenting the constant interruptions from all his “visitors” but makes time to talk seriously with those who seek his guidance such one of the developers (Munetaka Aoki) who’s brought along one of his son’s drawings, convinced that he must be a “genius”. Mori takes one look and tells him frankly that it’s awful, but adds that that’s a good thing – those with “talent” rarely do anything of note and even if it’s “bad” art is still art. Nevertheless there are those who try to profit from his work for less than altruistic purposes – the  hand-painted nameplate from outside the house is forever being stolen and he’s constantly petitioned to provide his services in service of someone else’s business.

Okita’s characterisation of the later life of a famous artist is another study of genial eccentricity as its hero commits himself fully to living in a way which pleases him, only bristling at those who describe his gnome-like garden presence as resembling a “Chinese Hermit Sage”. Mori himself is, of course, another living thing enjoying the natural world to its fullest and if it’s true that his time is ending there is something inescapably sad in looking up from the shadows of apartment blocks and finding nothing but lifeless concrete.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat will also be screened as the opening gala of the 2018 Nippon Connection Japanese film festival, and will receive its North American premiere at Japan Cuts in July where Kirin Kiki will also receive the 2018 Cut Above Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kabei: Our Mother (母べえ, Yoji Yamada, 2008)

KabeiYoji Yamada’s films have an almost Pavlovian effect in that they send even the most hard hearted of viewers out for tissues even before the title screen has landed. Kabei (母べえ), based on the real life memoirs of script supervisor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, is a scathing indictment of war, militarism and the madness of nationalist fervour masquerading as a “hahamono”. As such it is engineered to break the hearts of the world, both in its tale of a self sacrificing mother slowly losing everything through no fault of her own but still doing her best for her daughters, and in the crushing inevitably of its ever increasing tragedy.

Summer, 1940. The Nogamis are a happy family who each refer to each other by adding the cute suffix of “bei” to their names. The father, Tobei (Bando Mitsugoro X), is a writer and an intellectual opposed to Japan’s increasing militarism and consequently has found himself in both political and financial difficulties as his writing is continually rejected by the censors. Eventually, the secret police come for him, dragging him away from his home in front of his terrified wife and daughters. After Tobei is thrown into jail for his “thought crimes”, the mother, Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is left alone with her two young girls Hatsuko and Teruyo (Hatsubei and Terubei in family parlance).

Though devastated, Kabei does not give up and continues to try and visit her husband, urging his release and defending his reputation but all to no avail. Thankfully, she does receive assistance from some of her neighbours who, at this point at least, are sympathetic to her plight and even help her get a teaching job to support herself and the children in the absence of her husband. She also finds an ally in the bumbling former student, Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), as well as her husband’s sister Hisako (Rei Dan), and her brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) who joins them for a brief spell but ultimately proves a little too earthy for the two young middle class daughters of a dissident professor.

The time passes and life goes on. The war intensifies as do the attitudes of Kabei’s friends and neighbours though the family continues its individual struggle, sticking to their principles but also keeping their heads down. By the war’s end, Kabei has lost almost everything but managed to survive whilst also ensuring her children are fed and healthy. A voice over from the older Teryuo calmly announces the end of the conflict to us in such a matter of fact way that it’s impossible not wonder what all of this was for? All of this suffering, death and loss and what has it led to – even more suffering, death and loss. A senseless waste of lives young and old, futures ruined and families broken.

Yet for all that, and to return to the hahamono, the Nogami girls turned out OK. Successful lives built in the precarious post-war world with careers, husbands and families. Unlike many of the children in the typical mother centric movie, Hatsuko and Teruyo are perfectly aware of the degree to which their mother suffered on their behalf and they are both humbled and grateful for it. Kabei was careful and she kept moving to protect her children in uncertain times. Seen through the eyes of a child, the wartime years are ones of mounting terror as fanatical nationalism takes hold. Bowler hatted men seem to rule everything from the shadows and former friends and neighbours are primed to denounce each other for such crimes as having the audacity to wear lipstick in such austere times. In one notable scene, the neighbourhood committee begins its meeting by bowing at the Imperial Palace, until someone remembers the paper said the Emperor was in a different palace entirely and they all have to bow the other way just in case.

Though the tale is unabashedly sentimental, Yamada mitigates much of the melodrama with his firmly domestic setting. We see the soldiers massing in the background and feel the inevitable march of history but the sense of tragedies both personal and national, overwhelming as it is, is only background to a testament to the strength of ordinary people in trying times. An intense condemnation of the folly of war and the collective madness that is nationalism, Kabei is the story of three women but it’s also the story of a nation which suffered and survived. Now more than ever, the lessons of the past and the sorrow which can only be voiced on the deathbed are the ones which must be heeded, lest more death and loss and suffering will surely follow.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.