Another World (半世界, Junji Sakamoto, 2018)

Another World poster 2Director Junji Sakamoto’s career has been more meandering than most. Shuttling between hyper masculine fighting dramas, issue movies, and broad comedies, Sakamoto has always displayed an intense interest in the depth of male friendship which where his latest feature, rural drama Another World (半世界, Hansekai), takes him. A deceptively gentle story of small-town homecoming eventually broadens into a meditation on fathers and sons, frustrated dreams, and middle-aged malaise as its three dejected heroes attempt to bridge the gulf of years between them in order to rekindle the simple, innocent friendship they forged as naive teenagers more than 20 years previously.

The drama begins when Koh (Goro Inagaki) spots childhood friend Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa) unexpectedly hanging around his old home, now sadly abandoned following the death of his mother. Eisuke, unlike his friends, left his hometown to join the self defence forces and see the world. He has not returned home in some years and his sudden appearance is a pleasant, if perhaps concerning, surprise. Koh calls the other leg of the triangle, Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), and the trio of teenage buddies reunite, but Eisuke still seems distant and remains holed up in his family home rarely venturing outside, reluctant to confide in his old friends about whatever it is that he’s going through.

Meanwhile, the small town guys have problems of their own. Koh made the stubborn decision to take over his father’s charcoal business mostly to spite him, but times have changed and not only is demand dwindling but his product is unfavourably compared to his dad’s. Despite a seemingly happy marriage to the supportive Hatsuno (Chizuru Ikewaki), his home environment is also tense with resentment high between father and son as Koh struggles to relate to sullen teen Akira (Rairu Sugita) who is, unbeknownst to him, being bullied by the local delinquents. Unique among the three, Mitsuhiko has never married and still lives at home where he helps out with the family’s struggling car dealership, but remains cheerful in himself and is the most invested in maintaining the relationship between his two best friends in place of forging new relationships of his own.

Eisuke brings a new dynamic back with him as he struggles to readapt to small town life. As Koh suggests, he likely came back because he didn’t know where else to go but to his old friends even if he doesn’t quite want to let them help him. Now divorced and struggling with PTSD from his time in service as well as guilt over the death of a colleague, Eisuke provides an unexpected source of support for the conflicted Akira as he teaches him how to fight in order to defend himself while imparting what he knows of Koh in order to smooth the path between father and son. Koh, he tells him, had a bad relationship with his own violent dad who forbad him from the charcoal business which is exactly why he rebelled and did it anyway. Still fighting the ghost of his father, Koh has not found a way to connect with his son other than to let him be.

In a sense, each of these now middle-aged men is living in their own individual worlds as they push back against the forces of desperation but as Koh tells Eisuke, this small town existence is the “real world” too. Eisuke longs for escape, eventually retreating to a life on the sea after exposing his barely suppressed rage through an ill-advised show of violence which was itself in service of friendship. He superficially rejects the attempts of his friends to bring him back into the intimacy of their younger days as if fearing he no longer belongs in this ordinary world of wholesome small-town pleasures, but continues to search for the time capsule they buried all those years ago as if longing to recover their buried innocence.

Yet there is hope for the younger generation at least. Akira, coming to understand his father, accepts that he has a choice and eventually decides to honour both his father’s legacy and his own desires as he ponders the lonely life of a charcoal maker while putting on the boxing gloves that will allow him to fight for a freer future. Tragedies strike, life doesn’t turn out liked you hoped, but it goes on all the same with or without you. A warm if melancholy tribute to the healing power of friendship and its capacity to endure despite the weight of ages, Another World puts middle-aged malaise in perspective as its three disappointed heroes begin to find accommodation with where their choices, informed by those who came before, have led them, finding both peace and resignation in their in their ordinary small-town existence.


Another World was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blindly in Love (箱入り息子の恋, Masahide Ichii, 2013)

Blindly in love posterPost-war Japanese cinema was intent on investigating whether father really did know best while his children strived to find their place in a changing society. Contemporary Japanese cinema may feel as if the question has been more than well enough answered already but then again Japanese society remains conformist in the extreme and arranged marriage still an option for those who find it difficult to find a match on their own (remaining single, it seems, is still an option requiring intense justification). The protagonists of Blindly in Love (箱入り息子の恋, Hakoiri Musuko no Koi) find themselves in just this position as their well meaning (to a point) parents attempt to railroad them into the futures they feel are most appropriate while perhaps failing to deal with the various ways their own behaviour has adversely affected their children’s ability to function independently.

Kentaro (Gen Hoshino) is 35. He has a steady job as a civil servant and still lives at home with his parents which is hardly an unusual situation in contemporary Japan save for the fact he is not married and seems to have no interest in dating. Rather than eat with his colleagues, Kentaro comes home for lunch every day and returns straight after work, retreating into his bedroom to spend quality time with his pet frog and play video games. His parents, worrying that he may be lonely when they are gone, decide to find him a wife by effectively going speed dating on his behalf with a host of other parents in a similar position.

There they meet the Imais who are keen to marry off their 23-year-old daughter Naoko (Kaho). The elephant in the room is that everyone at this meeting is there because they believe there is something “wrong” with their children that makes them difficult prospects for marriage. Consequently, the Imais have decided not to disclose the fact that Naoko is blind until later in the negotiations.

The Imais’ ambivalent feelings towards their daughter’s disability speak to a persistent social prejudice which views those who have different needs as somehow less. Mr. Imai is a high flying company CEO who puts on a show of only wanting the best for his little girl, but he’s also a snob and a bully. He keeps trying to set Naoko up with “elites” like him, but those elites will also share his own prejudices in feeling that his daughter is “imperfect” and therefore not a prime match in the arranged marriage stakes. Kentaro, who unbeknownst to everyone except Mrs. Imai has already enjoyed a love at first sight meet cute with Naoko, is the only one brave enough to call Mr. Imai out on his hypocrisy when he accuses him of neglecting his daughter’s feelings in favour of asserting his own paternal authority. As you can imagine, Mr. Imai is not happy to have his faults read back to him.

Making the accusation at all is extremely hard for Kentaro who has just spent the last ten minutes getting a dressing down from Mr. Imai who has read out a list of his perceived imperfections from his unbreakable introversion to his lack of career success. Mr. Imai wants to know if a man like Kentaro who has basically been the office coffee boy for the last 13 years can keep his daughter in the manner to which she’s been accustomed. Kentaro has to admit that he probably can’t and that Imai has a point, but unlike Imai he is thinking of Naoko’s happiness. He sees her disability but only as a part of her personality and respects her right to a fully independent life which is something her father seems to want to deny her, not out of a paternalistic (or patronising) worry for her safety but simply as a means of control.

Conversely, Kentaro is attracted to Naoko precisely because he feels as if she might be able to see him in greater clarity in being unable to judge him solely on appearance. In a rare moment of opening up as part of his defence against Mr. Imai, Kentaro reveals the pain and suffering that have led him to withdraw from the world, admitting that after years of being taunted or ignored, branded an oddball and mocked for his rather robotic physicality he simply decided it was easier to be alone. It might be safe to say that Kentaro’s parents are being overly intrusive, that they are trying to impose their idea of a “normal” life on their son who may be perfectly happy playing video games alone for the rest of his days. Kentaro, however, is not quite happy and as is later pointed out to him had merely given up on the idea of any other kind of existence as an unattainable dream.

Giving up has been Kentaro’s problem and one that recurs throughout his awkward courtship. Like his pet frog, Kentaro has been perfectly contained within his own tank and somewhat fearful to crawl outside but is slowly finding the strength thanks to his bond with Naoko who struggles to overcome her conservative patriarchal upbringing and escape her father’s control. Yet it isn’t only the youngsters who have to learn to leave the nest but the parents who have to learn to let them go. Kentaro’s mum and dad have perhaps enabled his sense of disconnectedness by keeping him at home with them as a treasured only son, while the Imais’ problems run deeper and hint at a deeply dysfunctional household with a father who is controlling and eventually violent while Mrs. Imai tries to effect her daughter’s escape from the same patriarchal conservatism which has succeeded in trapping her. Blindly in Love refuses either of the conventional endings to its unconventional romance but edges towards something positive in affirming its protagonists’ continued determination to fight for their own happiness even if opposed at every turn.


Blindly in Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)