Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Hiroshi Ando, 2017)

Moon and Thunder posterThe family is coming in for another round of fierce criticism in Japanese cinema where the “family drama” has long been revered as a representative genre. Hiroshi Ando who has hitherto been more interested in atypical romantic relationships is the latest to reconsider whether family is really all it’s cracked up to be in adapting Mitsuyo Kakuta’s novel, Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Tsuki to Kaminari). Two children from dysfunctional homes now fully grown struggle to adapt themselves to the nature of adult society, unsure if they should remove themselves from it entirely or force themselves into the socially expected roles they fear they don’t know how to play. Yet perhaps what they find in the end is not so much a talent for conventionality as an acceptance of life’s many imperfections.

20-something Yasuko (Eriko Hatsune) lives alone in her family home following the death of her father (Jun Murakami). She has an unsatisfying job in the local supermarket and is in an unsatisfying relationship with a co-worker who wants to get married but she isn’t convinced. Yasuko’s striving for an “ordinary” life is disrupted when Satoru (Kengo Kora), the son of one her father’s former girlfriends who lived with them for a few months 20 years ago, suddenly tracks her down. The reconnection between them is instant and easy but also confused, somewhere between siblings and lovers as they resume the physical intimacy they shared as children but on an adult level.

Satoru, a drifter like his flighty mother (Tamiyo Kusakari), pushes Yasuko towards a consideration of the idea of family which she’d long been resisting. She becomes determined to track down the biological mother who abandoned her when she was just a toddler, hoping to find some kind of answer to the great riddle of her life. Her birth mother, however, fails her once again. Kazuyo, faking tears for the reality show cameras reuniting her with her daughter, is a selfish woman who claims she left her country home because it was boring and that she left her daughter behind because she said she didn’t want to go. Feeling as if she’s being blamed for her own abandonment Yasuko is left with only more confusion and resentment but does at least discover something by accidentally encountering her younger half-sister, Arisa (Takemi Fujii), who shows her that life with her mother might not have been very much different than without.

Yasuko and Satoru revert to their childhood selves because that brief period 20 years ago is the only time either of them ever experienced what they felt to be a “normal” family life as they played together happily and were well fed and cared for by adults acting responsibly. It was however all over too soon – Naoko, Satoru’s drifting mother, upped and left just as she always does. Someone probably left her years ago, and now she makes sure to leave them first before she can be can rejected. Naoko is the only “mother” Yasuko can remember, and her abandonment the most painful in her long memory of abandonments. First came Satoru, and then Arisa her sister, and finally Naoko too returning, filling Yasuko’s home with an instant family that at times seems too perverse and difficult to bear.

Yet she struggles with the idea of “family” itself as something she’s supposed to want but perhaps doesn’t out of fear it will fail her. She considers marrying her workplace boyfriend even though it appears she doesn’t particularly like him and they aren’t suited, solely because his proposal offers her the “normal”, “conventional” kind of life she both fears and longs for. With Satoru she has found a kind of love that is more complicated than most, two lonely children looking for a home and finding it in each other but each fearing that they will not be able to bear the anxiety of its potential end. Yet rather than continue onward along the same dull path she’d walked before, longing for soulless normality, what Yasuko discovers is that she’ll be OK on her own even if things don’t work out in the way that most would consider “normal”. Abandoning past and future, Yasuko begins to accept her presence in the present as a woman with possibilities rather than a passive object clinging onto the life raft of “normality”, accepting that nothing is forever but that once something starts it never really ends.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2005)

hanging gardenIf you wake up one morning and decide you don’t like the world you’re living in, can you simply remake it by imagining it differently? The world of Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Kuchu Teien), based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, is a carefully constructed simulacrum – a place that is founded on total honesty yet is sustained by the willingness of its citizens to support and propagate the lies at its foundation. This is The Family Game 2.0 or, once more with feeling.

The Kobayashis have one rule – they keep no secrets and no subject is taboo. We can see they take this approach to life seriously when daughter Mana asks her mother about the circumstances of her conception and receives an honest and frank reply. However, this “pretence” of honesty is exactly that – a superficial manifestation of an idea intended to maintain control rather than foster liberty. Each of the family keeps their secrets close be it extra marital affairs, past trauma, or just dissatisfaction with the state of current society. The very idea which binds them together also keeps them forever apart, divided by the charade of unity.

Toyoda crafts his metaphors well. The hanging garden of the title belongs to the matriarch, Eriko, who has created an elegant garden space on the cramped balcony of their small flat on a housing estate. Her swinging hanging baskets give the film its odd sense of off kilter sway as the camera swirls and swoops unsteadily like a rudderless ship adrift at sea. Eriko is carefully rebuilding her world in manner more to her liking, pruning her rosebushes with intense precision both metaphorically and literally.

Eriko’s intense control freakery stems back to her childhood and strained relationship with her currently hospitalised mother, Sacchan. Sacchan is one feisty grandma who may not share Eriko’s tenet of total honesty but nevertheless is inclined to tell it like it is. The central tragedy here is of maternal misconnection, a mother and daughter who refuse to be honest with each other. An encounter with Eriko’s older brother who seems to have an equally difficult relationship with Sacchan makes this plain. However, facing a health crisis and aware of reaching the final stages of her life Sacchan is also in a reflective mood and reveals that she’s recently begun dreaming her memories – revising and improving them as she goes to the point that she’s no longer sure how much of her recollection is how she would have liked things to have been rather than how they really were.

Son Ko is also interested in imagined worlds only more of the technological kind where he’s created a virtual version of his real life on his computer. Something of a dreamer, he wonders if the designers of the tower block deliberately made all the windows face south so that they’d get more sunlight and people would feel happier but he’s quickly shot down with the prosaic explanation that it’s all to do with drying laundry. He’s the only one who tries to explain to his mother that her intense need for “honesty” is, ironically, just another way of avoiding reality but then everyone already knew that – it’s the final truth that underpins the value system which has defined each of their lives.

However, where the family at the centre of The Family Game is shown to be hollow, the Kobayashis’ willingness to go along with this crazy self determined cosmology is driven by genuine feeling. Father Takeshi may be having affairs all over the place and even lying to his boss to facilitate them, but he wouldn’t have stayed at all if it truly meant nothing to him. Eriko plays manipulative goddess, micromanaging the fate of this tiny nation state since its inception with a keen and calculating eye but it’s all in the service of creating for herself something which she’d always felt she’d been denied – unconditional familial love, something which she also seeks to pass on to her children as the ultimate revenge on her mother whom she believes to have been cold and unfeeling.

As useful a tool as honesty may be, Sacchan may have a point towards the end when she says you take your most important secrets with you to the grave. Some things lose their power once you speak them aloud, too much honesty only focuses attention on the self and is apt to make those secretive who would seek to be open. Hanging Garden is a rich and nuanced exploration of human relationships, the shifting nature of memory, and the importance of personal privacy coupled with the veneer of authenticity which makes life in a civil society possible. Take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness – hanging gardens never take root, but they bloom all the same.


 

Pale Moon (紙の月, Daihachi Yoshida, 2014)

Pale-Moon_MainDaihachi Yoshida’s last venture into human dynamics, The Kirishima Thing, took the high school environment as a microcosm for society as a whole. In some senses painting on a large canvas by illuminating the inner lives of these teenagers acting as both individuals and as members of a group, The Kirishima Thing was equal parts ensemble character drama and probing social commentary. Pale Moon (紙の月, Kami no Tsuki) is no different in this regard although it focuses more tightly on one individual and shifts age groups from turbulent adolescence to middle aged desperation. Set in 1994 just after the bubble burst, this gleefully cheeky (im)morality tale takes another sideways glance at the social norms of contemporary Japan.

Rika (Rie Miyazawa) is a demure woman in her early forties. A childless former housewife, she’s recently moved from a part time position at a bank to a full time job where she works as a kind of personal banking assistant visiting wealthy clients at home to discuss their financial needs and physically depositing their money in the bank for them. Efficient, reserved, reliable – Rika is the perfect employee, that is until one day she spends some of a client’s money because there isn’t quite enough in her purse. She takes the money straight out of an ATM and replaces it right away, of course, but a line has been crossed. It’s a quick step from a gentle misappropriation of funds to a series of interestingly decorated hotel rooms with a boy half your age, embezzlement on a grand scale, blackmail, bank fraud – the list goes on. How did it ever come to this? Yet, it’s the strangest thing – Rika has never felt more alive.

Money – it’s the life blood of capitalism. It makes the world go round and drives people crazy as they try to amass even more little bits of paper with numbers written on them. It’s fake, an illusion that we’ve all bought into – no more real than a paper moon (to go by the film’s original Japanese title), though we continue to set all of our hopes afloat on its surface. When Rika finally convinces her financially challenged young lover to accept her (stolen) money, she tries to convince him that nothing will change but, of course, it does. The dynamics fluctuate and money gets in the way, the toxicity of debt starts to eat away at any genuine connection that may have existed. The irony is, Rika is one of those people who steals in order to give away. It sounds selfless, even altruistic, but is in fact the most intensely selfish action that can be taken. “It’s better to give than to receive” goes the mantra of the nuns of the Catholic school where young Rika was educated, but they also council that charity should never have anything to do with your own gratification. This is the lesson that Rika finds so hard to learn, it feels so good to give – how can it be wrong to take?

It’s easy to say that the world has changed a lot in the intervening twenty years between now and the time the bulk of the action takes place, but maybe it hasn’t. The first thing that strikes you is how extraordinarily sexist Rika’s world is. It’s not long before she’s being asked questions about her marital status whilst being made to feel uncomfortable, alone in the home of her elderly male client. Then at the office her boss praises her efforts whilst sadly lamenting that women have more “tools” at their disposal than men do, which is both insultingly crude and a put down of her skills and hard work. Rika only gets her permanent position because another woman, an employee of nineteen years standing, has been forced out through a campaign of constructive dismissal because the big wigs don’t like paying higher salaries to older female workers but they won’t promote them past a certain level either. Her younger colleagues make fun of their “spinster” supervisor, Sumi (Satomi Kobayashi), who, only a generation older, had to make a clear cut choice between work and family and having chosen a career now sees the rug being pulled out from under her with the standard “transfer to head office” game plan in place to force her into retirement.

Rika’s home life offers a similar level of hope for the future. Her husband is probably well meaning, but totally insensitive and the marriage is at best unfulfilling. He pooh-poohs his wife’s thriftiness and her new “hobby” at the bank, totally failing to understand her motivation. At one point he announces he’s being transferred abroad so she’ll have to give her notice – it never occurs to him she may not wish to go, let alone that she’d refuse over something so trivial as her own job. It’s little surprise then that she’d so quickly fall for a handsome and attentive stranger. An “amour fou”, an old story but no less potent than it ever was.

Rika knows none of it’s real – that her temporary crime fuelled reprieve can’t go on forever, but that only makes her feel more free. In one telling episode, Rika is talking to a granny she’s in the process of swindling and remarks on her beautiful new necklace. What a shame it’s fake, Rika says, but the old lady replies that she knows it’s only imitation but she doesn’t care – it’s pretty, she likes it and she’s happy. That perhaps is the answer. Rika saw her chance and she took it. That takes some courage and whatever the moral outrage one might feel, there’s something undeniably admirable, even exciting, about Rika’s dramatic escape from the constraints of conventional social behaviour.


Pale Moon is receiving its UK Premier at the Glasgow Film Festival on 19th February so if you’re in the Glasgow area be sure to check it out!