Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Akihiko Shiota, 2019)

Repressed desire and toxic resentment conspire against a trio of melancholy musicians in Akihiko Shiota’s delicate indie drama, Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Sayonara Kuchibiru). As the title implies, this is a tale of learning to let go, but then again perhaps not. As an over earnest interviewer suggests there are many ways to interpret the title song, but it also carries with it an unmistakable hint of defeatism as the singer songwriter heroine finds herself perpetually preparing to say goodbye, no longer believing in a positive future and unwittingly sabotaging its existence in an intense desire for protective distance. 

As the film opens in the summer of 2018, folk duo Haruleo is about to set off on a “farewell tour” though it’s not been advertised as such. The atmosphere is extremely awkward and emotionally volatile. Something has obviously gone very wrong in the previously close relationship between bandmates Haru (Mugi Kadowaki) and Leo (Nana Komatsu), while roadie Shima (Ryo Narita) seems to be doing his best to stay out of it and keep the peace if only until after they’ve played their final show in Hakodate way up in Hokkaido. 

That might be difficult however because Leo’s self-destructive streak is out in full force, wandering off with a rough-looking man from the petrol station where they stopped to use the facilities. “Aren’t you going to stop her?” Haru asks of Shima, entirely mistaken in the nature of their relationship, “What would be the point?” he replies, open mouthed in exasperation. Sure enough Leo turns up late to the gig and sporting a nasty bruise on her face after another encounter with a dark and violent man. “I don’t want to watch you fall apart”, Haru had told her on a previous occasion in an awkward attempt at comfort that finally backfired, Leo firing back that hearing that from her only made her feel even worse. Haru echoes those words herself when Shima tries something similar with her, only charged with a somewhat inappropriate fervour driven by misplaced desire. 

Desire is indeed circulating, but in an emotionally difficult and seemingly irresolvable love triangle between three people with extremely low self esteem. Struggling to accept love, they act on self-destructive impulse and only wound where they mean to console. Haru strikes up a conversation with Leo because she says that her “eyes wanted to sing”, seemingly captivated and taking the young woman in but still somehow maintaining a distance. Leo, who seems to have no family and is incapable of looking after herself, quickly bonds with Haru but is frustrated by her resistance to connection. When Haru interviews Shima for a position as their roadie, she’s quick to tell him that romance is prohibited, but later claims that she always expected he and Leo to run off together while silently pining for her in a mistaken belief that her love is hopeless. 

Filled with internalised shame, Haru takes Shima home as a beard to show off to her mother at her father’s memorial service, unable to disclose her sexuality and trying not to look hurt when her mother whips out a postcard from her first love who has since married abroad and had a child. Shima, strangely perhaps the most emotionally astute, is drawn to Haru even after learning that she is gay and realising that all of her songs are really about her unrealisable longing for Leo, who claims to be in love with him though it’s not exactly clear if that, like her tendency to disappear with dangerous men, isn’t a misdirected way of connecting with Haru.

Shima may have failed once and resolved to do better in avoiding making the same old mistakes, but is still an awkward third wheel in this increasingly difficult relationship despite his attempts to mitigate the effects of his presence while perhaps biased towards preserving Haru’s happiness in trying to “save” Leo. Learning that a close friend and former bandmate has passed away forces him, and perhaps the girls too, to reflect on what’s lost if you let important relationships fall by the wayside out of pettiness or pride. Shima’s friend apparently told his young son never to become a musician because it will rob you of the things that are most important. Still, Shima, echoing the words of Haruleo’s signature song, affirms that he regrets nothing. If it all ends in tears, Haru’s lyrics imply that she’s happy to live with the thorn in her side as a reminder of past love. The jury’s out on whether the Farewell Song leads to a new beginning or merely more of the same, perpetually trapped in an inescapable cycle of emotional frustration, but Haruleo seems resigned to weathering the storm whatever it is that might emerge on the other side. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell Song music video

Her Sketchbook (世界は今日から君のもの, Masaya Ozaki, 2017)

Many young people struggle to find their place in the world, but for young Mami who largely just wants to be left alone, the struggle is all the greater. Less a hikikomori drama than a tale of destructive parenting and buried talents, Her Sketchbook (世界は今日から君のもの, Sekai wa Kyou kara Kimi no Mono) charts the gradual blossoming of a young woman who begins to take root after finding the right environment in which to thrive, encouraged by others who take the time to see and appreciate her for who she is rather than all they fear she’s not. 

A shut-in since dropping out of middle school, Mami (Mugi Kadowaki) has recently taken a factory job but is laid off after a little misadventure at the seaside leaves her with an injury that prevents her from strenuous labour. Her father Eisuke (Makita Sports), recently made redundant himself, is worried for her future and wants her get out more so he sets her up with a job that seems ideal, testing games for bugs at a software company. It’s there that she crosses paths with harried project manager Ryotaro (Takahiro Miura) who is getting fed up with the artistic temperament of his usual character designer. He drops a sketch covered in markup notes and she tries to hand it back to him but is too shy and ends up taking it home where she diligently corrects it according to his instructions and mails the revised illustration to the address on the bottom, trying to make up for her failure in being unable to approach him in person. The new drawing is exactly what Ryotaro had envisioned, but he has no idea who the mystery illustrator is. Nevertheless, he decides to start mailing additional requests to the unfamiliar email address. 

Eisuke thinks he’s doing the best for his daughter, but even he in unguarded moments describes her as odd and a failure. He had no idea that she had any kind of “talent”, believing she was just sitting in her room twiddling her thumbs. But for Mami, the discovery of her boxes of illustrations is something of a mixed blessing. She’s glad people seem to be pleased, but partially resents the new attention and quickly realises that they’ve misunderstood her capabilities. She’s good at mimicking the style of others and correcting proofs according to instructions, but struggles when asked to come up with ideas of her own. 

That struggle is essentially a mental block on being able to see herself. Always a little “different”, Mami never fit in at school and while her father fretted that she wasn’t making friends, her mother (You) was content to let her be. Unfortunately that wasn’t because she accepted her daughter for who she was and wanted to support her, but that she knowingly or otherwise used her difference against her as a reason to keep her close. Now having left the family for unclear reasons, Mami’s mother remains possessive and domineering, never missing an opportunity to undermine her daughter’s sense of confidence or to remind her that she doesn’t belong in regular society. Mami’s struggle is, in that sense, to break free of her mother’s toxic parenting and reject her view of her as someone who is entirely unable to lead a normal life as independent adult. 

Essentially infantalised, Mami finds herself learning adult life lessons at an accelerated pace but also battling unhelpful attempts to exploit and misuse her hikikomori past. A sleazy public servant who threatens to assault Mami after bringing home her drunken friend from a bar convinces her to appear at a panel he’s running on the hikikomori phenomenon but completely ignores everything she tells him, trying to twist her words to suit his own hypotheses in presenting her as someone who has successfully reintegrated into mainstream society. He wants her to say that she took the factory job to help out after her dad was laid off, but really she took it because his being home all day was quite annoying so she got a job to avoid him. The public servant simply isn’t listening, but a shy little girl in the back is and finally knows there’s nothing wrong with her and she’s not alone. 

What gives Mami the courage to move forward is the gentle encouragement of her new friends who never treat her as if she’s weird or incapable and are prepared to be patient while she finds her footing. Just like the flower in the flip book she draws while waiting for inspiration, Mami blossoms after finding the right environment in which to thrive, gaining confidence from other people’s confidence in her but resolving to take things one step at a time, harnessing her newfound talent to claim a space for herself in a world opening up before her.  


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Ken Ninomiya, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Chiwawa posterFollowing indie drama The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, Ken Ninomiya takes a further step towards the mainstream with Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Chiwawa-chan), inspired by Kyoko Okazaki’s 1996 manga. Updated for the Instagram generation, Ninomiya’s adaptation leans heavily on his trademark clubland style and sheds the sense of nihilism which defined mid-90s pop culture in favour of a world weary exploration of identity in the internet age in which connections are wilfully fleeting and personas easily interchangeable. The party is, however, about to come to an end for the latest generation of bright young things seeking hedonistic release but finding only emptiness in the superficial pleasures of meaningless excess.

The titular “Chiwawa” (Shiori Yoshida) is found dead, floating in pieces in Tokyo Bay. The notice of her demise is, in fact, the first time many of her friends discover her real name, Yoshiko Chiwaki, apparently 20 years old and according to the news a nursing student. She was for a time a big star on Instagram and a popular internet model whose face could be seen all over the city on mile high billboards, but before that she was just a girl looking for fun and friends in the Tokyo club scene which is how she met our heroine, Miki (Mugi Kadowaki). Like Miki herself, Chiwawa was added to the small group of clubland friends as the current squeeze of playboy student Yoshida (Ryo Narita), introducing herself with her enigmatic nickname supposedly a reference to her petite stature. Branding herself as an ultra cute airhead, she quickly worked her way into the disparate group of Bohemians but eventually outgrew them and moved on to more dubious pleasures including an ill-fated love affair with a famous photographer (Tadanobu Asano).

The only one of her friends seemingly preoccupied about what happened to Chiwawa, Miki begins an investigation but her research is less geared towards finding out who killed her – something the police don’t seem to be very invested in, but discovering who she “really” was. Mimicking the structure of Okazaki’s episodic manga, Miki begins interviewing her friends to build up a kaleidoscopic composite of the woman she thought she knew while perhaps discovering something about herself as she reconsiders her own life trajectory and the coming end of her youthful days in the clubland scene while pondering where it is she’s supposed to go next.

Like much of Okazaki’s work, the manga’s mid-90’s setting is soaked post-bubble malaise as her dejected youngsters escape from the sense of crushing disappointment in the wake of the abrupt end of the heady ‘80s heyday of Japan as leading global economy, but for Miki and her friends twenty years later perhaps things aren’t all that different as they fight the onset of adulthood and the relative lack of freedom and possibility they will encounter when their student lives end and the workaday world finally arrives. Aspiring filmmaker Nagai (Nijiro Murakami) captures everything with his video camera while working as a photographer’s assistant by day, allowing Miki and her friends to use the studio at night for their Instagram side gigs which is how Chiwawa winds up in the fashion biz.

Some starving artists, others merely nervous hedonists, the gang have no money but when Chiwawa runs off with the gigantic bribe a group of slimy businessmen were boasting about carrying, the gang manage to blow it in just three days of upscale partying. Miki alone, and perhaps more in hindsight, feels the emptiness of all this senseless excess but it’s Chiwawa herself who seems to fear the party’s end most of all. When you start to think it’ll go on like this forever, that’s when you know it’s about to end she laments, apparently missing her old gang like crazy but knowing you can’t put something back together after it falls apart.

Miki fails to solve the mystery of Chiwawa, perhaps sorry that she didn’t try harder to know her while she was alive but also knowing that’s partly because “Chiwawa” might not have wanted to be known for all that she was chasing love and acceptance in all the wrong places. In the end, she retreats into a past that no one quite remembers, another melancholy ghost of Tokyo’s neon-tinged nightlife. Youth moves on, clubs close down, the world keeps turning. That may be the saddest thing of all, Chiwawa remains unknown, unloved, and finally unremembered. A melancholy exploration of fractured identities, the ethereality of youth, and the impossibility of true connection, Chiwawa is another zeitgeisty piece from Ninomiya which takes the manga’s post-bubble anxiety and reboots for an age of alienation in which the end of the party is always lingering painfully on the horizon.


Chiwawa was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)

Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン, Bernard Rose, 2019)

Samurai Marathon posterAfter two and a half centuries of peaceful slumber, Japan was jolted out of its isolation by the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. The sudden intrusion proved alarming to most and eventually provoked a new polarisation in feudal society between those who remained loyal to the Shogun and the old ways, and those who thought Japan’s best hope was to modernise as quickly as possible to fend off a foreign invasion if it did eventually arise as many feared it would. Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) has a foot in both camps. He has no desire to move against the Shogun, but fears that centuries of peace have made his men soft and complacent. His solution is to institute a “Samurai Marathon”, forcing his retainers to run 36 miles to prepare for a coming battle.

If you’ve spent your life sitting around and occasionally waving a sword at something just to keep your hand in, suddenly trying to run 36 miles might not be the best idea, as many samurai keen to win favour through racing glory discover. There is, however, an additional problem in that, unbeknownst to anyone, samurai accountant Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is a secret ninja spy for the shogun. Confused by the preparations for the race, he reported that a possible rebellion was in the offing only to bitterly regret his decision on realising Itakura’s anxieties are only related to external, not internal, strife. All of which means, the Shogun’s men are on their way and Itakura’s retainers are sitting ducks.

Helmed by British director Bernard Rose, Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン) plays out much more like a conventional European historical drama than your average jidaigeki. Where samurai movies with an unusual focus tend to be comedic, Rose opts for a strangely arch tone which is somewhere between po-faced Shakespeareanism and post-modern irony. Rather than the stoical elegance which defines samurai warfare, the violence is real and bloody, if somewhat over the top in the manner of a gory Renaissance painting complete with gasping severed heads and gruesome sprays of dark red blood.

A chronicle of bakumatsu anxiety, the film also takes a much more pro-American perspective than might perhaps be expected, taking the view that the arrival of the Americans heralded in a new era of freedom and the origins of democracy rather than the more ambivalent attitude found in most jidaigeki which tend to focus much more strongly on the divisions within samurai society between those who wanted to modernise and those who just wanted to kick all the foreigners back out again so everything would go back to “normal”. Itakura, like many, is suspicious of foreign influence and the gun-toting, yankee doodle humming Shogunate bodyguard is indeed a villain though it’s Itakura himself who will end up firing a gun as if conceding that the future has arrived and the era of the sword has passed. 

Ramming the point home, Itakura is also forced to concede to the desires of his wilful daughter, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), who wanted to travel and see the world while her society (and conventionally minded though doting father) insisted all there was for her was marriage and a life stuck inside castle walls. Managing to escape and disguising herself by cutting her hair and putting on peasant clothes, Yuki is able to evade detection longer than expected precisely because few people have ever seen her face. She also gets to make use of some of the samurai training she’s received by holding her own out on the road, though it seems improbable that her father would let her ride out alone even if he finally allows her free rein to go where she chooses.

Meanwhile, other ambitious retainers try to use the race to their own advantage though there’s poignant melancholy in one lowly foot soldier’s (Shota Sometani) dreams of being made a samurai considering that in just a few short years the samurai will be no more. The final sepia shift into the present day and a modern marathon may be a stretch, as might the unnecessary final piece of onscreen text informing us that we’ve just watched the origin story for the Japanese marathon, but the main thrust of the narrative seems to be that the samurai were running full pelt into an uncertain future, preparing to surrender their swords at the finish line. An unusual take on the jidaigeki, Samurai Marathon perhaps takes an anachronising view of Bakumatsu chaos in which the samurai themselves recognise the end of their era but finds its feet on the road as its self-interested heroes find common purpose in running home.


Samurai Marathon screens as the opening night gala of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 28 where actress Nana Komatsu will be in attendance to collect her Screen International Rising Star Asia Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

SR2_teaserWhere now the dreams of youth? Japanese cinema seems to have been asking that very question since its inception but the answer remains as elusive as ever. The heroine(s) of Ryuichi Hiroki’s adaptation of a series of short stories by Mariko Yamauchi, It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Koko wa Taikutsu Mukae ni Kite), idolise Audrey Hepburn and long for urban sophistication only to find themselves hung up on unfulfilled high school promise and unable escape the wholesome romanticisation of their small-town youth to embrace the demands and possibilities of adulthood.

Hiroki follows his small-town high schoolers from 2004 to 2013, jumping freely between time periods as memories spark one another in emotional rather than chronological order. We begin with the unnamed protagonist, “I” (Ai Hashimoto), who has returned to her hometown after 10 (seemingly disappointing) years in Tokyo and now works as a freelance journalist for the provincial paper writing local culture articles on ramen shops and patisseries. She has contacted only one friend since her return, Satsuki (Yurina Yanagi), who has suggested, rather tongue in cheek, that they reconnect with former high school crush Shiina (Ryo Narita).

Back in high school, Shiina was like some kind of untouchable god. Everyone just wanted to be around him as if he alone made the sun shine. All the girls were in love with him, and the all boys wanted his approval. Asked about his hopes and dreams, Shiina just wants high school to go on forever, perhaps realising that he’ll never have it so good again. “I” meanwhile, claims that she wants to “become someone”. A small town girl who didn’t fit in, she hoped to find herself amid the hustle and bustle of the big the city but has returned with an even deeper sense of alienation than when she left with only the bright memory of her brief time as a chosen member of Shiina’s after school posse to cling to.

Satsuki, meanwhile, stayed behind but seems equally hung up on unfinished high school business. Having never been to Tokyo she is envious of her friend’s experiences and longs for the anonymity of the city. If you mess up in Tokyo, she claims, people will eventually forget whereas if you make a mistake in the country it’s all anyone will talk about for the rest of your life. That certainly seems to be true for another of the girls’ contemporaries (Rio Uchida) who left to become an idol only for it all to go wrong and come home branded as a loose woman. Cynical and calculating, she decides on an arranged marriage only to find herself shackled to an old man she doesn’t like very much while her shy friend (Yukino Kishii) seems to have found love by stealth and apparently won the jackpot without even knowing it.

Continuously travelling, the now almost-middle-aged high schoolers meander without direction as if circling around the locus of their departing youth and the sense of possibility disappearing with it. Running into another classmate, Shinpo (Daichi Watanabe), also connected with Shiina, I and Satsuki get a few more clues about their high school crush who apparently now lives a fairly ordinary life as a driving instructor thanks to Shinpo’s recommendation without which he was set to hit rock bottom after some kind of breakdown while failing to make it in Osaka. Nicknamed “Chinpo” (which means “willy”) in school, Shinpo’s dream for the future was to exist alongside someone that he loved but he seems to have given up even on this depressingly compromised desire and resigned himself to loneliness and lovelorn misery as someone who will never be able to find his place in a conservative and conformist society.

I meanwhile, like a similarly unnamed counterpart (Mugi Kadowaki) who really did date Shiina until he cruelly cast her aside, is finally able to burst her high school bubble by confronting it directly and seeing the reality rather than her romanticised impression of it. Those shining days of fun and friendship with everything still ahead will never come again, and so the memory of them remains bittersweet at best. Adult life is dull and disappointing, but there is perhaps melancholy happiness to be found in learning to embrace the present moment rather than harping on a largely imagined past or idealised future. 


It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017)

Hanagatami posterIn time the past becomes a dream. A world in and of itself, conjured from feeling and memory and painted in the imprecise strokes of one attempting to recreate a long forgotten scene. The melancholy heroes of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s long career were each trapped in a sense by nostalgia, a yearning for another time and place, or more precisely another, more innocent, version of themselves only with the benefit of hindsight and the confidence of age. Finally realising a long dreamt of project in dramatising Kazuo Dan’s classic wartime youth novel Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI), Obayashi reunites with another melancholy young man who as he puts it in the opening text wants to tell his story not out of a sense of nostalgia but out of longing for the things which were lost. Those like him who had the misfortune to be young before the war saw their whole world swept away by a kind of madness far beyond their control, losing not only a past but a future too.

When Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns home from Amsterdam where he had been living with his parents, Japan is already at war in China. Though the times are changing, Toshihiko’s life remains relatively untouched by conflict, insulated from the concerns of the day by the pleasant natural surroundings of his old-fashioned country town. Returning to the family estate presided over by his war-widow aunt, Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), Toshihiko strikes up a friendship with her sickly sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), whose proximity to death only seems to enhance her beauty. At school he finds himself caught between two polar opposites – the strong and silent Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the cynical nihilist Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), while his two sets of social circles finally combine with the addition of Mina’s friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who also happens to be Kira’s cousin. The world is on the brink of ruin, but there are dances and picnics and festivals and everywhere everyone is desperate to live even in the midst of such foreboding.

Obayashi opens with a quote from one of Dan’s poems in which he mourns the flowers in full bloom shortly to be cut down in their prime. Hanagatami itself means “flower basket” but is also the title of a noh play about a woman driven mad by love for a man from whom she is separated by the arbitrary rules of her society. Japan itself has become a basket of flowers, offering up its youth on a senseless altar to political hubris while a generation attends its own funeral and becomes obsessed with the idea of permanence in a permanently uncertain world. Chitose carries about her camera, bitterly claiming that she will confer immortality on her subjects while privately longing for an end to her loneliness and suffering.

Like the heroine of the noh play, our protagonists too are driven mad by love as the madness of their times spurs them on and holds them back in equal measure. Mina, in all her etherial beauty, becomes the symbol of an age – innocence about die, drowned in its own blood. All in love with Mina, or perhaps with death itself, the men sink further into petty rivalries and conflicted friendships all the while staving off the inevitabilities of their times – that soon they too will be expected to sacrifice themselves for a cause they don’t believe in or risk being left behind alone.

Toshihiko finds himself torn between his two friends – the light and the dark, the robust Ukai and the gloomy Kira. While Toshihiko’s wide-eyed hero worship of Ukai and his idealised male physique takes on an inescapable homoerotic quality, his relationship with Kira leads him towards a darker path on which everything is “worthless” and all pleasures impossible in a world apparently so close to its end. Kira, having committed a truly heinous act, reminds his friends that they routinely kill and eat animals, and that one day they too will be gobbled up, swallowed whole by the cruelty of their times.

One by one the war takes them, if indirectly, leaving only Toshihiko behind. Describing his youth as like a game of hide and seek in which he suddenly realised it had gotten dark and all his friends had gone home, Toshihiko recasts his tale as a ghost story in which he remains haunted by the visions of his younger self and longs for his long absent friends, robbed of the futures promised to them by right of birth. Free floating through dreams and memory, Obayashi conjures an etherial world overshadowed by tragedy but coloured with wistful melancholy as pale-faced soldiers march off for the land of the dead while youth does its best to live all its tomorrows today in rejecting the senseless cruelty of its age.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Update July 2020: Hanagatami is released on UK blu-ray from Third Window Films on 6th July in a set which also includes a 20-minute making of and 35-minute interview with director Nobuhiko Obayashi.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは, Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close knit posterWhile studying in the US, director Naoko Ogigami encountered people from all walks of life but on her return to Japan was immediately struck by the invisibility of the LGBT community and particularly that of transgender people. Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは,  Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa) is her response to a still prevalent social conservatism which sometimes gives rise to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Moving away from the quirkier sides of her previous work, Ogigami nevertheless opts for a gentle, warm approach to this potentially heavy subject matter, preferring to focus on positivity rather than dwell on suffering.

11 year old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is home alone, again. Her mother rolls in late, dead drunk, and promptly flops down onto the futon next to Tomo’s still in her work clothes. A note left the next day explains that Tomo’s mother has quit her job and won’t be coming home for a while. This is not the first time she’s done this and the money she’s left is at least enough for a train ticket to visit uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). When Tomo slaps a collection of manga down in front of him at the bookstore where he works, Makio immediately realises what’s going on and is both infuriated with his sister and glad to take his niece in for a while until her mother comes to her senses.

There’s one potential problem. Makio now has a live-in girlfriend only she’s not quite what Tomo might be expecting. On meeting Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo is indeed shocked but is soon won over by Rinko’s warm and loving nature. Rinko is a transgender woman who’s experienced her share of hardships in life but finally found fulfilment in her relationship with Makio though she has a lot of love to give and would dearly love a child of her own.

Used to being left to her own devices, Tomo is a tough and resourceful child but also one with a thick protective shell. Unused to being mothered, Tomo finds Rinko’s attempts to reach out to her difficult to bear, cycling back and forth through a pattern of affection and rejection. Where her mother left her only store bought onigiri (which she has come to hate) and cash, Rinko makes beautiful character bentos complete with octopus frankfurters and adorable panda faces. So touched is Tomo by this gesture that she can’t quite bring herself to eat it and eventually makes herself ill by finally deciding to enjoy it long after it’s past its best.

Nevertheless even if Tomo comes to bond with Rinko, there are still those who don’t approve of her existence. Tomo has a, well, not quite friend at school, Kai, who is somewhat ostracised by the other children who call him “gay” and write homophobic slurs on the classroom blackboard. Tomo, whilst sometimes hanging out with Kai who lives near to her outside of school, refuses to have anything to do with him in class lest she be rendered guilty by association. Growing closer to Rinko, Tomo also comes to an acceptance of and willingness to fight for Kai who has confided in her about his crush on another boy in their class. Kai’s mother (Eiko Koike), however, is not so understanding and so when she catches sight of Tomo in the supermarket with Rinko she offers to save her from the “weirdo” and later bans Kai from hanging out with his only friend in case he somehow catches “weirdness” from their atypical family setup. This attitude of hers eventually has potentially tragic consequences for her young son, left with nothing other than the prospect of maternal and later societal rejection eased only by Tomo’s firm insistence that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Unlike Kai’s mother, Rinko’s instantly understood and remained fully supportive of her child even whilst hauled into school for an explanation of why “Rintaro” has been skipping P.E.. Rinko’s mother not only goes out and buys lacy bras for her daughter, but even knits her a pair of fluffy pink breasts so she won’t feel so depressed about not developing in the same way as all the other girls. Tomo’s mother has a lot of problems of her own but many of these stem back to her own upbringing, unintentionally threatening to pass on some of these same qualities to her own daughter as she allows her to feel just as worthless and unloved as her mother did her. Yet, Ogigami’s camera remains resolutely unjudgemental in trying to understand each of these various facets of motherhood from the immense maternal love of Rinko as it finally finds an outlet in Tomo to the far less positive image of Kai’s mother who presumably thinks she’s doing the best for her son in trying to prevent him veering from the norm but only succeeds in making him feel his life is not worth living.

The title of the film, as grandly punned as it is, refers not just to the quickening family bonds among this idealised yet unusual family but also to Rinko’s favourite method of stress relief – knitting. Like the cooking she is often seen providing for the family, Rinko’s knitting is also largely about warmth in making something for a particular person which is tailor made to keep them warm in the cold, but it also works as a multilayered metaphor as she brings people together, binding them tightly with her own wamth and generosity of spirit. Rather than fighting back with angry words (or well aimed dish soap as a provoked Tomo eventually does), Rinko channels her frustrations into her knitting, using them to create something positive rather allowing negativity to overwhelm her. Ogigami’s film seems to want to do the same, arguing for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance as a pathway to a better world even if it’s clear the road is long and we’re not so far along it as we should be.


Close-Knit was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

There’s also an interesting interview with director Naoko Ogigami and producer Kumi Kobata in the Nikkei Asian Review in which they discuss the casting of actor Toma Ikuta.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)