Fukushima 50 (フクシマ50, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2020)

The “Fukushima 50” (フクシマ50), as the film points out, was a term coined by the international media to refer to the men and women who stayed behind to deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Loosely inspired by Ryusho Kadota’s non-fiction book On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi which featured extensive interviews with those connected to the incident, Setsuro Wakamatsu’s high production value film adaptation arrived to mark the ninth anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which occurred on 11th March, 2011 and closes with a poignant callback to the plant’s role in Japan’s post-war reconstruction as the nation once again prepares to host the (now postponed) Olympics with a torch relay beginning at Fukushima as a beacon of hope as the country continues to rebuild in the wake of the disaster. 

Though inspired by real events Wakamatsu’s dramatisation is heavily fictionalised and while surprisingly frank for a mainstream film in its criticism of the official reaction to the disaster, is also quietly nationalistic while doing its best to pay tribute to the selfless sacrifice of the plant workers who stayed behind to do what they could many of whom had little expectation of surviving. Chief among them would be Izaki (Koichi Sato), an imperfect family man and veteran section chief, and the plant’s superintendent Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) who are both local men and old friends. Local, it seems, is later key with multiple appeals to the furusato spirit as each is at pains to point out that they stay not only to prevent a catastrophic meltdown that would leave most of central Honshu including Tokyo uninhabitable, but because they feel a greater duty to protect their hometown and the people in it. 

Meanwhile, they find themselves burdened rather than assisted by official support as government bodies’ political decision making undermines their attempts to avert disaster while the boardroom of TEPCO who operate the plant reacts with business concerns in mind. A few hours in the prime minister (Shiro Sano) decides to make a visit, in political terms he can’t not national leaders who don’t visit sites of crisis are never forgiven, but his presence actively hinders the recovery efforts. Referred to only as the PM, Wakamatsu’s film presents the man leading the nation as an ignorant bully overly obsessed with his personal image. He has little understanding of nuclear matters or the implications of the disaster, refuses to abide by the regular safety procedures required at the plant, and mostly governs through shouting. Beginning to lose his temper, Yoshida does his best to remain calm but resents the constant interference from those sitting in their offices far away from immediate danger while he does his best to contend with the increasingly adverse conditions on the ground, mindful of his responsibilities firstly to his employees and secondly to those living in the immediate vicinity of the plant who will be most at risk when measures taken to prevent meltdown will lead to an inevitable radiation leak. 

Yoshida’s hero moment comes when he ignores a direct order from the government to stop using seawater to cool the reactors, knowing that he has no other remaining options. Meanwhile, the government refuse offers of help from the Americans, who eventually make a strangely heroic arrival with Operation Tomodachi, discussing plans to move their families to safety while their commander reflects on his post-war childhood on a military base near the site of the nuclear plant. Japan’s SDF also gets an especial nod, granted permission to leave by Yoshida who is beginning to think he’s running out of time but vowing to stay and do their duty in protecting civilians in need. 

In essence, the drama lies in how they coped rather than the various ways in which they didn’t. The conclusion is that the existence of the plant was in itself hubristic, they are paying the price for “underestimating the power of nature” in failing to calculate that such a devastating tsunami was possible. They thought they were safe, but they weren’t. Perhaps uncomfortably, Wakamatsu mimics the imagery of the atomic bomb to imagine a nuclear fallout in Tokyo, harking back to ironic signage which simultaneously declares that the energy of the future is atomic while the plant workers reflect on the sense of wonder they felt as young people blinded by science back in the more hopeful ‘70s as the nation pushed its way towards economic prosperity. Frank for a mainstream film but then again perhaps not frank enough, Fukushima 50 is both an urgent anti-nuclear plea and an earnest thank you letter to those who stayed when all looked hopeless, suggesting that if the sakura still bloom in Fukushima it is because of the sacrifices they made.


Fukushima 50 is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Moon Sung-ho, 2019)

5 Million Dollar Life posterIs it possible to live a life without “debts” of one kind or another or are we all just living on loans? The hero of Moon Sung-ho’s 5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Gooku Yen no Jinsei) wants to find out, not least because he feels himself indebted to those who have helped him in the past and struggles with the pressure of living up to their expectation. An unexpected source provides some helpful advice in pointing out that “value” in one sense at least is not something you’re free to decide for yourself but is defined by others. Then again, not being certain of your own worth makes it impossible to claim your rightful place in society as someone as worthy of love and respect as any other.

When Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki) was six, his family found out he had a congenital heart defect and would need to go abroad for a transplant. His community rallied around him and raised five million dollars so he could go to America for treatment. The heartwarming story also made him the star of an ongoing documentary in which he’s interviewed on television every year so those who contributed to saving his life can find out how he’s getting on. Becoming a local celebrity and an accidental TV star is obviously a lot of pressure for any young man, but Mirai feels acutely burdened by the responsibility of “repaying” the kindness that was offered to him. He doesn’t feel his life was worth five million dollars and knows he is unlikely to repay their “investment”. He is after all just “ordinary”. He won’t win a Nobel prize or cure cancer, all he can do is live his life in the normal way but that’s hard when it feels like everyone is secretly looking over his shoulder and waiting for him to make a mistake.

Meanwhile he’s also become a role model to the suicidal Chiharu (Hikari Kobayashi) who doesn’t “see the value in life”  and feels that “death is glorious” because people can hate you while you’re alive, but they’ll love you when you’re gone. Mirai gets where she’s coming from. He longs for an ending too, if only to reject the responsibility he feels towards those who saved his life. Attacked by a troll online, he takes up the challenge to make the five million dollars back and then kill himself to bring an end to the whole affair but quickly discovers that it’s a lot harder to make five million dollars than he thought.

Neatly taking place during the last summer of high school, Mirai’s odyssey sends him on an odd trek across working class Japan as he finds himself alone and without money or means to support himself. At only 17, he can’t even stay in a hotel on his own and so he winds up becoming homeless but is taken in by a nice old man who claims he decided to help him because he bought an umbrella with his last pennies rather than pinching someone else’s. Though he is often exploited and betrayed by those who take advantage of his goodness, that same quality finds an answer in others who, sometimes despite themselves, want to help him because he seems like the sort of person who needs help.

This idea finds encapsulation in the surprisingly astute words of wisdom Mirai receives from a petty gangster he meets after getting involved with sex work. The gangster, who starts off by telling him that he’s making a mistake selling himself short when it’s the customer who decides what his “value” is, later explains that it’s not so much that the world is divided into people who are nice and people who aren’t, but that some people are “worth” being nice to and Mirai, for one reason or another, is one such person who thrives on kindness.

Mirai’s desire to quantify his life by putting a price on it may be mistaken, as proved by the sad case of a family committing suicide because of monetary debt, but what he realises is that people help because they want to and they don’t necessarily expect anything in return other than kindness. If he wants to find a way to repay them, he’ll have to figure it out on his own terms first, but all they really wanted they wanted from him was that he live his life as happily as possible. 5 Million Dollar Life goes to some pretty dark places, but always maintains a healthy cheerfulness as Mirai goes on his strange odyssey looking for the “value” in being alive and discovering that it largely lies shared kindnesses and unselfish connection.


5 Million Dollar Life screens on 11th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Katsuyuki Motohiro, 2009)

go find a psychic posterHow old is too old to still believe in Santa? Yone Sakurai (Masami Nagasawa), the heroine of Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Magare! Spoon) longs to believe the truth is out there even if everyone else thinks she must be a bit touched in the head. If there really are people with psychic powers, however, they might not feel very comfortable coming forward. After all, who wants to be the go to sofa moving guy when everyone finds out you have telekinesis? That’s not even factoring in the fear of being abducted by the government and experimented on!

In any case, Yone has her work cut out for her when the TV variety show she works for which has a special focus on paranormal abilities sends her out out in search of “true” psychics after a series of on air disasters has their viewer credibility ratings plummeting. Ideally speaking, Yone needs to find some quality superhero action in time for the big Christmas Eve special, but her lengthy quest up and down Japan brings her only the disappointment of fake yetis and charlatan monks. That is until she unwittingly ends up at Cafe Kinesis which holds its very own psychics anonymous meeting every Christmas Eve so the paranormal community can come together in solidarity without fearing the consequences of revealing their abilities.

Based on a comic stage play, Go Find a Psychic! roots its humour in the everyday. The psychics of Cafe Kinesis are a bunch of ordinary middle-aged men of the kind you might find in any small town watering hole anywhere in Japan. The only difference is, they have a collection of almost useless superhuman abilities including the manipulation of electronic waves (useful for getting an extra item out of a vending machine), telekinesis (“useful” for throwing your annoying boss halfway across the room), X-ray vision (which has a number of obvious applications), and mind reading (or more like image transmission). The bar owner is not a psychic himself but was once helped by one which is why he set up the bar, hoping to meet and thank the person who frightened off an angry dog that was trying to bite him. Seeing as all the guests are psychic, no one is afraid to show off their talents but when a newcomer, Mr. Kanda (Hideto Iwai), suddenly shows up it creates a problem when the gang realise his “ability” of being “thin” is just the normal kind of skinniness. Seeing as he’s not a proper psychic, can they really let him leave and risk exposing the secrets of Cafe Kinesis?

Meanwhile, Yone’s quest continues – bringing her into contact with a strange man who claims he can withstand the bite of a poisonous African spider. Needless to say, the spider will be back later when the psychics become convinced Yone’s brought it with her presenting them with a conflict. They don’t want her to find out about their psychic powers and risk getting put on TV, but they can’t very well let her walk off with a poisonous spider trapped about her person. Despite small qualms about letting Kanda leave in one piece, the psychics aren’t bad guys and it is Christmas after all. Realising Yone just really loves all sort of psychic stuff and is becoming depressed after getting her illusions repeatedly shattered, the gang decide to put on a real Christmas show to rekindle her faith in the supernatural.

Just because you invite a UFO to your party and it doesn’t turn up it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Some things can’t be explained by science. Maybe those old guys from the bar really can make miracles if only someone points them in the right direction. Like a good magic trick, perhaps it’s better to keep a few secrets and not ask too many questions about how things really work. For Yone the world is better with a little magic in it, even if you have to admit that people who want to go on TV aren’t usually going to be very “genuine”. That doesn’t mean that “genuine” isn’t out there, but if you find it you might be better to keep it to yourself or risk losing it entirely.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

We Are (青の帰り道, Michihito Fujii, 2018)

We Are horizontalThe youth movie perhaps hit its peak in the immediate post-war period, but poignant coming of age tales have always held a special place in Japanese cinema. We Are (青の帰り道, Ao no Kaerimichi) has a fairly troubled history of its own – the shoot was disrupted when one of its stars was arrested leading to the role being recast, requiring substantial reshoots which took place over a year later. Yet like its protagonists, We Are was finally able to rediscover itself and create something beautiful from admittedly difficult circumstances. Broken hearts, broken dreams, and broken futures conspire to scatter a once close group of high school friends as they each pursue individual dreams with individual success whilst looking alternately for a path both forward and back.

Spanning from 2008 to 2018, We Are follows seven ordinary small town teens from their high school graduation through to a more settled adulthood ten years later. In 2008, Kana (Erina Mano) and Tatsuo (Yuki Morinaga) have musical dreams which she is going to Tokyo to pursue while he is staying behind to study for medical school entrance exams in an attempt to fulfil his doctor father’s wishes. Kana’s best friend, Kiri (Kurumi Shimizu), is going with her, partly out of a want of anything else to do. She has dreams of becoming a photographer but her family are not supportive of her art and she has always struggled through feeling at odds with them. Loud mouth delinquent Ryo (Ryusei Yokohama) doesn’t really have a plan, save bumming around until something turns up and any plans Ko (Junki Tozuka) might have had would have been derailed seeing as he’s got his girlfriend (Mika Akizuki) pregnant and has decided on a shotgun wedding. Only Yuki (Keisuke Tomita) is following a more conventional path in going to Tokyo for university and then planning on finding a regular salaryman job.

The film opens with a scene of joy and freedom as the kids ride their bikes along an otherwise empty stretch of road between the fields, swearing to make the most of the last summer vacation. The road itself becomes a recurrent motif, stretching out into the distance seemingly full of promise but also strangely empty. The kids do indeed make some memories, but for some of them the hope proves too much to bear, soon turning to despair as their lives begin to spiral out of control, their dreams warped and ruined by the muddiness of the adult world.

Kana’s musical career is quickly derailed by an amoral producer who doesn’t believe in the artistic merit of music, only in its commercial capability. Kiri, dropping out of college, gives up on her dreams of photography to make Kana’s a success through acting as her manager but the two naive country girls are no match for the canny executive and Kiri is soon working for the company learning how to market soulless pap to a public desperate only for empty cuteness. While Kana struggles with accidentally becoming the poster girl for a brand of vegetable juice, Kiri embarks on her first love affair but is ill equipped to recognise the potential warning signs in her new boyfriend owing to a lack of emotional awareness brought about by her dysfunctional upbringing.

While Kana and Kiri struggle in the city, Ko has married, settled down and begun building a home for himself back in the country. An ordinary dream, but an achievable one if you’re willing to make it work and Ko takes to fatherhood with natural ease. Sadly, his friends are not so lucky. As their dreams fade, alcoholism, domestic abuse, crime, and finally suicide conspire to ruin their hopes, leaving each with a profound sense of guilt and defeat in finally finding themselves on the road home with not much to show for their travels besides a few fresh scars. Yet somehow, despite the myriad unforgivable things and a shared sadness in a collective failure to save each other, friendship endures, forgiveness is possible and though the days of youth will never return, there is a “way back” for those who’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong in wanting to start over. You can never go “home” again, but some things don’t change even when you do and if you’re very lucky the most important of them will still be there waiting for you no matter how long you’ve stayed away.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Memoirs of a Murderer (22年目の告白―私が殺人犯です―, Yu Irie, 2017)

Memoirs of a MurdererJung Byung-gil’s Confession of Murder may have been a slightly ridiculous revenge drama, but it had at its heart the necessity of dealing with the traumatic past head on in order to bring an end to a cycle of pain and destruction. Yu Irie retools Jung’s tale of a haunted policeman for a wider examination of the legacy of internalised impotence in the face of unavoidable mass violence – in this case the traumatic year of 1995 marked not only by the devastating Kobe earthquake but also by Japan’s only exposure to an act of large scale terrorism. Persistent feelings of powerlessness and nihilistic despair conspire to push fragile minds towards violence as a misguided kind of revenge against their own sense of insignificance but when a killer, safe in the knowledge that they are immune from prosecution after surviving the statute of limitations for their crimes, attempts to profit from their unusual status, what should a society do?

22 years ago, in early 1995, a spate of mysterious stranglings rocked an already anxious Tokyo. In 2010, Japan removed the statute of limitations on capital crimes such as serial killings, mass killings, child killings, and acts of terror, which had previously stood at 15 years, leaving the perpetrator free of the threat of prosecution by only a matter of seconds. Then, all of a sudden, a book is published claiming to be written by the murderer himself as piece of confessional literature. Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara), revealing himself as the book’s author at a high profile media event, becomes a pop-culture phenomenon while the victims’ surviving families, and the detective who was in charge of the original case, Makimura (Hideaki Ito), incur only more suffering.

Unlike Jung’s version, Irie avoids action for tense cerebral drama though he maintains the outrageous nature of the original and even adds an additional layer of intrigue to the already loaded narrative. Whereas police in Korean films are universally corrupt, violent, or bumbling, Japanese cops are usually heroes even if occasionally frustrated by the bureaucracy of their organisation or by prevalent social taboos. Makimura falls into hero cop territory as he becomes a defender of the wronged whilst sticking steadfastly to the letter of the law in insisting that the killer be caught and brought to justice by the proper means rather than sinking to his level with a dose of mob justice.

Justice is, however, hard to come by now that, legally speaking, the killer’s crimes are an irrelevance. Sonezaki can literally go on TV and confess and nothing can be done. The media, however, have other ideas. The Japanese press has often been criticised for its toothlessness and tendency towards self-censorship, but maverick newscaster and former war correspondent Sendo (Toru Nakamura) is determined to make trial by media a more positive move than it sounds. He invites Sonezaki on live TV to discuss his book, claiming that it’s the opportunity to get to the truth rather than the viewing figures which has spurred his decision, but many of his colleagues remain skeptical of allowing a self-confessed murderer to peddle his macabre memoirs on what they would like to believe is a respectable news outlet.

The killer forces the loved ones of his victims to watch while he goes about his bloody business, making them feel as powerless as he once did while he remains ascendent and all powerful. It is these feelings of powerlessness and ever present unseen threats born of extensive personal or national traumas which are responsible for producing such heinous crimes and by turns leave behind them only more dark and destructive emotions in the desire for violence returned as revenge. Focussing in more tightly on the despair and survivors guilt which plagues those left behind, Irie opts for a different kind of darkness to his Korean counterpart but refuses to venture so far into it, avowing that the law deserves respect and will ultimately serve the justice all so desperately need. Irie’s artier approach, shifting to grainier 16:9 for the ‘90s sequences, mixing in soundscapes of confusing distortion and TV news stock footage, often works against the outrageous quality of the convoluted narrative and its increasingly over the top revelations, but nevertheless he manages to add something to the Korean original in his instance on violence as sickness spread by fear which can only be cured through the calm and dispassionate application of the law.


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

Screening again:

  • Showroom Cinema – 22 March 2018
  • Broadway – 23 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 24 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 24 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 25 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録, Kei Ishikawa, 2017)

gukoroku posterGenerally speaking, murder mysteries progress along a clearly defined path at the end of which stands the killer. The path to reach him is his motive, a rational explanation for an irrational act. Yet, looking deeper there’s usually something else going on. It’s easy to blame society, or politics, or the economy but all of these things can be mitigating factors when it comes to considering the motives for a crime. Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録), the debut feature from Kei Ishikawa and an adaptation of a novel by Tokuro Nukui, shows us a world defined by unfairness and injustice, in which there are no good people, only the embittered, the jealous, and the hopelessly broken. Less about the murder of a family than the murder of the family, Gukoroku’s social prognosis is a bleak one which leaves little room for hope in an increasingly unfair society.

When we first meet Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) he’s riding a bus. Ominous music plays as a happy family gets off but the real drama starts when another passenger irritatedly instructs Tanaka to give up his seat so an elderly lady can sit down. He snorts a little but gets up only to fall down next to the steps to the doors and subsequently walk off with a heavy limp. The man who told him to move looks sheepish and embarrassed, but as soon as the bus passes from view Tanaka starts walking normally, an odd kind of smirk on his face in thought of his petty revenge.

In one sense the fact that Tanaka faked a disability is irrelevant, the man did not consider that Tanaka may himself have needed a seat despite looking like a healthy man approaching early middle age. Perhaps, he’ll think twice about making such assumptions next time – then again appearances and assumptions are the lifeblood of this mysteriously complicated case.

Tanaka has a lot on his plate – his younger sister, Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima), has been arrested for neglecting her daughter who remains in intensive care dangerously underweight from starvation. In between meeting with her lawyer and checking on his niece, he’s also working on an in-depth piece of investigative reporting centring on a year old still unsolved case of a brutal family murder. Tanaka begins by interviewing friends of the husband before moving onto the wife who proves much more interesting. Made for each other in many ways, this husband and wife duo had made their share of enemies any of whom might have had good reason for taking bloody vengeance.

The killer’s identity, however, is less important than the light the crime shines on pervasive social inequality. As one character points out, Japan is a hierarchical society, not necessarily a class based one, meaning it is possible to climb the ladder. This proves true in some senses as each of our protagonists manipulates the others, trying to get the best possible outcome for themselves. These are cold and calculating people, always keeping one eye on the way they present themselves and the other on their next move – genuine emotion is a weakness or worse still, a tool to be exploited.

The key lies all the way back in university where rich kids rule the roost and poor ones work themselves to the bone just trying to keep up. There are “insiders” and “outsiders” and whatever anyone might say about it, they all secretly want in to the elite group. Here is where class comes in, no matter how hard you try for acceptance, the snobby rich kids will always look down on those they feel justified in regarding as inferior. They may let you come to their parties, take you out for fancy meals, or invite you to stay over but you’ll never be friends. The irony is that the system only endures because everyone permits it, the elites keep themselves on top by dangling the empty promise that someday you could be an elite too safe in the knowledge that they only hire in-house candidates.

Gradually Tanaka’s twin concerns begin to overlap. The traces of sin extend to his own door as he’s forced to examine the legacy of his own traumatic childhood and fractured family background. The reason the killer targeted the “happy” family is partly vengeance for a series of life ruining wrongs, but also a symbolic gesture stabbing right at the heart of society itself which repeatedly failed to protect them from harm. Betrayed at every turn, there’s only so much someone can take before their rage, pain, and disillusionment send them over the edge.

Despite the predictability of the film’s final twist, Ishikawa maintains tension and intrigue, drip feeding information as Tanaka obtains it though that early bus incident reminds us that even he is not a particularly reliable narrator. Ishikawa breaks with his grim naturalism for a series of expressionistic dream sequences in which hands paw over a woman’s body until they entirely eclipse her, a manifestation of her lifelong misuse which has all but erased her sense of self-worth. There are no good people here, only users and manipulators – even the abused eventually pass their torment on to the next victim whether they mean to or not. Later, Tanaka gets on another bus and gives up his seat willingly in what seems to be the film’s first and only instance of altruism but even this small gesture of resistance can’t shake the all-pervading sense of hopeless loneliness.


Gukoroku – Traces of Sin was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The City Of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

city of betrayalWhat is it that makes one person betray another? Following Love’s Whirlpool, playwright and Be My Baby author Daisuke Miura returns to the world of messy modern love with a tale ridden with infidelity and the impossibility of trust. Despite being in outwardly successful relationships, the central characters find themselves seeking something, trying to eclipse some element of dissatisfaction which is more with themselves than with their partners by burying it in a meaningless affair which only becomes less meaningless as time goes on. Formerly a TV drama now recut for the big screen The City of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Uragiri no Machi) is a melancholy and contemplative piece but one which shares Miura’s rather depressing view of romance with its inherent difficulties and contradictions.

Yuichi (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young man with a part-time job he never bothers to go to and a successful girlfriend, Satomi (Eriko Nakamura), who is content to pay all the bills and even give him pocket money to out drinking with his friends. Bored at home, Yuichi checks porn sites and chats on a meet up board for casual sex. When he sees a message from “Tomo” popup wondering if anyone nearby is up for some no strings fun, he jumps right on it. Yuichi tells “Tomo” that he works in mass communications and reassures her that he’s not all that bad looking so there’s nothing to worry about.

“Tomo” claimed to be 30 and in the fashion business, but really she’s Tomoko Hashimoto (Shinobu Terajima), a 40 year old housewife who is convinced her husband has been having an affair. Tomoko is not unhappy with Koji (Mitsuru Hirata) – a salaryman of a similar age to herself, he’s a good man, considerate and well mannered if a little dull. Like Yuichi and Satomi, Tomoko and Koji enjoy a full relationship and get on pretty well even if there are the usual little niggles hiding beneath the cheery facade.

Despite having met up for casual sex, the start of Yuichi and Tomoko’s affair is a slow one in which Tomoko originally changes her mind, aware of the large age difference between herself and Yuichi and afraid it would put him off. Spending time together just as friends, the pair grow closer before heading into a love hotel for an experience which is not altogether successful. Still, they continue to meet up at regular intervals behind their partners’ backs.

The cheating and the subterfuge doesn’t sit well with either of them, but their secret affair fulfils needs which weren’t being met elsewhere. Neither Yuichi or Tomoko is particularly unhappy in their relationships but each were in their own way deeply unhappy. Yuichi’s masculine pride is hurt by his girlfriend’s status as the breadwinner while he cannot seem to get his act together, find a job, and make a success of himself. Later on he tells Tomoko that part of the reason he liked spending time with her was that she never scolded him for being the way he is, she just accepted him at face value. Tomoko by contrast, was perhaps looking either for revenge against her possibly adulterous, sometimes neglectful husband or a something more straightforward than her slightly strange marital arrangements. Though Koji is generally attentive and a goodhearted, kind person his ministrations sometimes have the whiff of manipulation and Tomoko has reasons to be suspicious of his ongoing friendship with someone called “Tamura” from “work” whom no one else at work seems to know.

In actuality it turns out that there are no faithful relationships, as one character puts it “there are many truths”. A man can love his wife and his mistress and that’s not necessarily a contradiction, much as it might seem so to the accidentally adulterous Yuichi. Despite the bond generated by their shared loneliness, the relationship between Yuichi and Tomoko remains casual, in one sense, though Yuichi eventually contemplates leaving his girlfriend and suggesting Tomoko leave her husband to allow them to start a new life together, probably knowing that it’s impossible. A lengthy post-credits sequence seems to provide a melancholy if reassuring coda as the lovers return to their respective spheres each having achieved a kind of “success”, though perhaps are no more fulfilled in themselves than they had been before. Another despairing look at modern love from Miura, The City of Betrayal is human at heart, rather than moralistic, arguing for the mature view whilst at the same time offering an ambivalent defence of conventionality.


The City of Betrayal was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flowers (フラワーズ, Norihiro Koizumi, 2010)

flowersThe rate of social change in the second half of the twentieth century was extreme throughout much of the world, but given that Japan had only emerged from centuries of isolation a hundred years before it’s almost as if they were riding their own bullet train into the future. Norihiro Koizumi’s Flowers (フラワーズ) attempts to chart these momentous times through examining the lives of three generations of women, from 1936 to 2009, or through Showa to Heisei, as the choices and responsibilities open to each of them grow and change with new freedoms offered in the post-war world. Or, at least, up to a point.

In 1936, oldest sister Rin (Yu Aoi) is to be married off against her will to a man picked by her father and whom she has never actually met. Bold and wilful, Rin finds herself more than usually torn between her intense resentment at being forced into a one time only life changing event simply on her father’s say so, and the guilt of rejecting centuries of tradition in rejecting her father’s authority. Minutes before the ceremony Rin makes a break for it fully done up in her wedding dress and makeup.

Flashing forward to her funeral in 2009, we learn that Rin did marry (someone, at least) and had three daughters. It’s her granddaughters we’re interested in now – happy mother Kei (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerful even at a wake, and the depressed Kanna (Kyoka Suzuki) – an unmarried former concert pianist who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant and is unsure what to do. In order to understand them we have to flashback a little again – to 1969, 1964, and 1977 to find out what happened to Rin’s three daughters – Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka), and Sato (Yukie Nakama).

Koizumi makes the most of his shifts in time periods to experiment with technical effects recreating the look of classic films of the era. Hence, 1936 is a desaturated monotone filled with classic silent movie compositions, seemingly owing a large debt to Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi. The difference between 1964 and 1969 might be thought slight but partly down to the different genre elements in the two vignettes, the contrast is marked with 1964 taking on the classic romantic melodramas of the period, and 1969 embracing bright and colourful salaryman comedy – only this time it’s a salary woman embarking on the era of having it all (though perhaps, tragically, ten too years to early to make the most of it). 1977 brings us back down with bump of realism as Sato lives an ordinary suburban life as a housewife and mother. Imbuing each of his eras with the warmth of nostalgia backed up with rich period detail, Koizumi has indeed framed his passage of womanhood narrative with an impressive degree of grounding.

This has been a period of intense social change, entirely for the better even if there is still a long way to go. Though marriages of 1936 were referred to as semi-arranged, families could and did place intense pressure on their children to consent or refuse to accept their refusal to do so (perhaps as true for sons as daughters, though sons were unlikely to find themselves in such a difficult position when things went wrong). Thus the course of Rin’s life is decided by her rigid, austere father leaving her with no possibility of choice in a world entirely controlled by men. Her daughters have more freedom and opportunities, marrying for love and choosing careers and/or motherhood as they see fit.

Midori, the most headstrong of the three sisters takes a job at a publishing house where she is the only female employee. Receiving a marriage proposal leads her to question her choices once again, wondering if accepting means jumping off the career ladder altogether. Wanting to get ahead, Midori has been behaving like her male colleagues – dressing in less feminine clothes and in subdued colours, heading off the inevitable sexist comments with aggression and violence but, eventually emboldened, she she finds herself blossoming when embracing her femininity within the workplace.

The world has moved on – women cannot be pushed in the same way Rin was pushed even if social mores can still be used to cajole them into conformity. The one big recent social change is in Kanna’s decision to proceed as a single mother. Though the question is still raised, there is broad approval for the idea which is met with no obvious stigma and only love and support from her immediate family. However, some things apparently don’t change as even if not all roads lead to marriage they all point towards motherhood which is still presented as the only marker of success as a woman. In this respect the closing montage accompanied by the odd choice of Olivia Newton John’s Have You Even Felt Mellow feels ill judged as the sister who’s experienced the ultimate heartbreak bounces around recreating the opening of Georgy Girl (only more successfully) with a new haircut and indulging in an ice-cream as a sort of antidote to eternal widowhood.

Nevertheless, Flowers does present a warm and broadly inspirational ode to the healing power of family and unbreakable female resilience even in the midst of such extreme social change. Painted with a keen eye for period detail and a deeply nostalgic longing for comforts long since passed, Koizumi’s exploration of womanhood through the ages is quick to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice experienced by women of all generations but is, in the end, too ready to accept it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Suzuki Matsuo, 2007)

welcome-to-the-quiet-roomEveryone has those little moments in life where you think “how did I get here?”, but thankfully most of them do not occur strapped to a table in an entirely white, windowless room. This is, indeed, where the heroine of Suzuki Matsuo’s adaptation of his own novel Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Quiet Room ni Yokoso) finds herself after a series of events she can’t remember but which seem to have involved pills and booze. A much needed wake up call, Asuka’s spell in the Quiet Room provides a long overdue opportunity to slow down and take a long hard look at herself but self knowledge can be a heavy burden.

After her initial confusion, Asuka (Yuki Uchida) is informed by the no nonsense matron, Eguchi (Ryo), that she’s been brought in after an overdose. Everyone seems to assume it’s a suicide attempt, though Asuka can’t remember a thing. Apparently her roommate found her and called and ambulance and has now signed the committal papers which means Asuka is stuck here until the doctors say she’s fit to leave. Aside from the obvious, this is bad news because Asuka has a series of tight deadlines she’s been busting her gut to meet and is worried about losing her contracts. Whatever she might feel about it, it seems as if Asuka will have to rely on the kindness of strangers a little longer before she can finally get back to her exciting freelance world.

Aspects of Asuka’s previous life are illuminated gradually through flashback accompanied by her post-committal deadpan voiceover. After a brief career as a model, Asuka got married, divorced, and then hooked up with her present roommate, Tetsuo (Kankuro Kudo), who hooked her up with a series of freelance writing gigs which have only contributed to her stress levels with their ever present deadlines. Prior to her hospitalisation, Asuka was a rather silly, perky woman with a self confessed preference for “idiots” when it came to her circle of friends. Slowly and in the absence of her regular methods of self medication, all of Asuka’s illusions about herself and the way she was living her life begin to crumble. Finally able to cut through the noise, Asuka is forced to come to terms with a significant amount of guilt relating to a decision taken during her marriage whilst also acknowledging the effect crippling depression has had on her way of life.

Whilst in the hospital, Asuka comes in to contact with the other residents who have various needs and demands, each exemplifying the problems plaguing modern women. Tellingly, the majority of the women on the ward are younger – some just teenagers or young adults, all suffering with various kinds of eating disorders. One such patient, Miki (Yu Aoi), quickly befriends Asuka and teaches her how to survive in the increasingly surreal hospital environment. Asuka later makes friends with another recovering overdose patient around her own age, Kurita (Yuko Nakamura), but conversely finds herself harassed by the ward’s resident fixer, former adult video actress Nishino (Shinobu Ootake), while other residents make repeated escape attempts or go to great lengths to set their hair on fire.

Asuka’s Wizard of Oz inspired outfit, hair, and the silver Dorothy slippers which play into a repeated motif of Asuka’s memories of a high school culture festival, all reinforce the idea of the hospital as a strange otherworldly place in which Asuka will be residing temporarily until she completes her quest. The temporary nature of the space gives Asuka’s journey a rather melancholy atmosphere as she’s encouraged to forget all about her time there when transitioning back to the “real world” meaning that the fragile bonds and friendships created during in her hospital sojourn will have to be left behind. Finally learning to calm down and take charge of herself, Asuka rediscovers a long absent inner strength and the last image we see of her is in raucous laughter after an catching sight of an improbable event through a car window.

Matsuo opts for a less madcap treatment than the far out comedy of Otakus in Love but carefully balances an absurd sense of humour with dramatic weight as Asuka’s personal discoveries are intercut with increasingly surreal episodes. Yuki Uchida shines in a early comeback role as the two very different Asukas even if she almost has the show stolen out from her by another beautiful performance from Yu Aoi as the sensitive goth Miki. Tackling a weighty subject with warmth and good humour, Welcome to the Quiet Room is another characteristically off the wall character piece from Suzuki, but all the better for it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Actress (映画女優, Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

actressKon Ichikawa was born in 1915, just four years later than the subject of his 1989 film Actress (映画女優, Eiga Joyu) which uses the pre-directorial career of one of Japanese cinema’s most respected actresses, Kinuyo Tanaka, to explore the development of Japanese cinema itself. Tanaka was born in poverty in 1909 and worked as a jobbing film actress before being “discovered” by Hiroshi Shimizu and becoming one of Shochiku’s most bankable stars. The script is co-written by Kaneto Shindo who was fairly close to the action as an assistant under Kenji Mizoguchi at Shochiku in the ‘40s before being drafted into the war. A commemorative exercise marking the tenth anniversary of Tanaka’s death from a brain tumour in 1977, Ichikawa’s film never quite escapes from the biopic straightjacket and only gives a superficial picture of its star but seems content to revel in the nostalgia of a, by then, forgotten golden age.

The film begins with the young Tanaka awaiting a visit from her mentor, Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe), whom her family are keen to thank for bringing them all to Tokyo away from their life of hardship. Although everyone is very happy for Tanaka’s success, there is shadow hanging over the party in the form of missing oldest brother Ryosuke who went on the run to avoid the draft and has not been heard of since.

Shimizu gives Tanaka (Sayuri Yoshinaga) her first roles at Shochiku where she becomes a contract player but is put out when another director, Heinosuke Gosho (Kiichi Nakai), wants to give her a leading role. Overruled by studio bosses, Shimizu becomes increasingly jealous of Tanaka’s career – a situation which is further complicated by the couple’s growing romantic entanglement which sees them living together in an unofficial marriage allowing Tanaka to continue acting. However, Shimizu continues to meddle in Tanaka’s professional life whilst also continuing his hard drinking, womanising playboy lifestyle. The couple eventually divorce but reunite from time to time on the film set.

Vowing never to marry again, the rest of Tanaka’s life is dedicated to acting and sees her working with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) and later Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). It is Tanaka’s professional and personal relationship with Mizoguchi which occupies the second half of the film. Judging by the first experience on the now lost Woman of Osaka in 1940, you wouldn’t think the two would ever wish to work together again though they eventually completed fifteen films together over the next fifteen years.

Mizoguchi’s process is completely different from any other Tanaka had worked with. Rather than meeting to rehearse and discuss the work, Mizoguchi abruptly sends her a lifetime’s supply of books about bunraku and changes the script that she has painstakingly committed to memory with on set rewrites communicated via a large blackboard he expects the actors to read from. Exasperated, Tanaka finally asks him for actual direction but he coldly states that she’s the actress and her acting is not part of his job description. Mizoguchi and Tanaka are very different people but each driven and ambitious so their frequent locking of horns produces a fiercely creative collaboration in which each was able to find worth even if it was frequently difficult.

The film ends around the time of Life of Oharu which would mark the final time the pair would work together. In terms of the film’s narrative, this unspoken development is foreshadowed by the idea that the two artists are heading in different directions but in the real world the reasons are a little less clear. Tanaka became the second woman to direct a feature film with Love Letters in 1953 which was even featured at Cannes, but for reasons unknown Mizoguchi attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan, effectively ending both their friendship and any professional relationship. Ironically enough, Actress seems to imply that Tanaka’s desire to direct may have been inspired by Mizoguchi and his all powerful on set status prompting her to wonder how he does it, and, perhaps how she could do it too.

Ichikawa weaves the history of Japan through its cinema into the narrative to recount the changing tastes of the eras as naturalism came in and out of fashion and Japanese films began to experience international as well as domestic acclaim. Skipping huge portions of time to focus on the two directors – Shimizu and Mizoguchi, Ichikawa avoids mentioning Tanaka’s post-war visit to America which had a profound impact on her later career, not only in what she learned there but also in the extremely hostile reception she received on returning home. The main takeaway from his depiction of Tanaka is a woman ahead of her time, independent and headstrong, willing to work hard to achieve the things she wanted to achieve even if flying in the face of social convention though it makes no particular judgement on her character other than in her success as an actress.

Taking on the conceit of being a film about film, Ichikawa’s sets are theatrical, creating a deliberately artificial, half unreal world. This also extends into the scriptwriting which is extremely talky and more like a stage play than film, offering pointed, long stretches of monologuing which are already far away from the more naturalistic approach of early talking cinema. Characters have improbable, exposition filled conversations in which they each tell each other things they already know for the audience’s benefit – an effect which enhances the overall theatricality, but does draw attention to itself and eventually becomes wearing. Ichikawa’s picture of Tanaka is one of steely determination and of a woman ahead of her time, but even if Actress proves less than enlightening regarding its subject it does help to shed some light on both classic Japanese cinema and that of the late 1980s.


Original trailer (traditional Chinese subs only)