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)

A Double Life (二重生活 , Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2016)

double-lifeA Double Life (二重生活, Nijyuu Seikatsu ), the debut feature from director Yoshiyuki Kishi adapted from Mariko Koike’s novel, could easily be subtitled “a defence of stalking with indifference”. As a philosophical experiment in itself, it recasts us as the voyeur, watching her watching him, following our oblivious heroine as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the act of observance. Taking into account the constant watchfulness of modern society, A Double Life has some serious questions to ask not only of the nature of existence but of the increasing connectedness and its counterpart of isolation, the disconnect between the image and reality, and how much  the hidden facets of people’s lives define their essential personality.

Tama (Mugi Kadowaki) is an MA philosophy student working on a thesis regarding the nature of existence in contemporary Japan. Discussing her work with her supervisor, Shinohara (Lily Franky), Tama reveals that she was drawn to her subject because she is unable to understand why she herself is alive. Her proposal was largely based on the tried and tested method of a survey but Shinohara is hoping for something more original. Catching sight of a Sophie Calle book on his desk, he suggests that Tama’s project might benefit from examining the life of one subject in depth and so he tasks her with following a random person and observing their daily activities in order to figure out what makes them tick.

Tama is conflicted, but when she catches sight of her neighbour at a book shop she makes an impulsive decision to follow him which will later develop into an all consuming obsession. Ishizaka (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a successful editor at a high profile publishing house with a pretty wife, cute daughter and lovely home just over the way from the apartment Tama lives in with her illustrator and game designer boyfriend, Takuya (Masaki Suda). However, while following Ishizaka to a local coffee shop Tama catches him illicitly meeting another woman. Not quite believing what she sees, Tama’s obsession with her target continues to grow until the fateful day that her cover is finally blown.

Tama, and her supervisor, both regard the exercise as essentially harmless because all Tama is supposed to do is observe. The nature of her experiment means that she must remain unseen so that the subject does not change his or her behaviour but Tama quickly becomes a passive observer to an unpleasant domestic episode when Ishizaka’s wife discovers the affair. Tama is, always, a passive presence. As she says herself, she carries a deep-seated sense of emptiness that prevents her from fully connecting with other people. Her stalking activities, however, reawaken a sense of connectedness that she had been unable to find in her everyday life.

While Tama is watching Ishizaka, she herself is also being watched. Firstly, of course, by us, but also by the busybody landlady whose obsession with the proper way to dispose of rubbish has led to her installing spy cameras to capture the offending tenants on film. Of course, the cameras capture a lot of other stuff too which, when used alongside other forms of evidence, paint a slightly different picture. The old lady is a classic curtain twitcher, albeit one with access to more sophisticated equipment, and looms big brother-like over her tiny domain, the possessor and disseminator of all information. Tama’s rules mean she must not be seen, but someone is always watching, collecting information to be repurposed and repackaged at the convenience of the collector.

Cameras capture images but humans conjure pictures. From the outside, the Ishizakas are the perfect model family – a successful husband, warm and friendly housewife who is quick to get involved in community events, and a lovely, well behaved little daughter. As we find out Ishizaka is not the committed family man which he first seems. After treating all of the women in his life extremely badly, Ishizaka adds Tama to his list after the affair is exposed and his life ruined. Tama was only ever a passive observer whose presence had no effect on the narrative, yet Ishizaka blames his predicament on her rather than address the fact the situation is entirely his own fault. He does, however, have a point when he accuses Tama of exploiting his secrets for her own gain.

Tama’s observations are limited to the public realm and so she’s left with a lot of unknown data making her conclusions less than reliable. The gap between her perception and the reality becomes even more apparent once she begins observing the life of her supervisor, Shinohara. In an elliptical fashion, the film begins with Shinohara’s presumed suicide attempt and for much of the first half we seem him struggle with the grief of his mother’s terminal illness. This again turns out to be not quite as it seems, undermining Tama’s whole research proposal as her conclusions on Shinohara’s reason for living were based on a deliberately constructed scenario.

Ironically enough, Tama’s attempts to connect eventually ruin her own relationship as she finds herself living “a double life” as a vicarious voyeur. Abandoning her sense of self and living through her subjects, Tama begins to connect with the world around her but it’s more overlapping than a true union of souls in which she becomes a passive receptacle for someone else’s drama. Hers is the life of a double, shadowy and incomplete. Take away a man’s life lie and you take away his happiness, so Ibsen told us. Tama would seem to come a similar conclusion, that the essence of life may lie in these petty secrets and projected images. An intriguing philosophical text in itself, A Double Life is an intense look at modern society and all of its various artifices which marks Kishi out as a promising new cinematic voice.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Daisuke Miura, 2014)

Love's WhirpoolNo names, no strings. That’s the idea at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of his own stage play, Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Koi no Uzu). Love is an odd word here as it’s the one thing that isn’t allowed to exist in this purpose built safe space where like minded people can come together to experience the one thing they all crave – anonymous sex. From midnight to 5am this group of four guys and four girls have total freedom to indulge themselves with total discretion guaranteed.

The four couples are a disparate group which includes a primary school teacher, office lady, shy college student, and a brusque regular who apparently comes to the club five times a week. The male side consists of a slick salaryman, a freeter, a factory worker and an anxious NEET who’s cleaned out his bank account just to be here in this extremely expensive, upscale sex club. After receiving the instructions from the owner (shower first, after sex, after going to the toilet, always use a condom, and respect the women’s right to say no), the group sit awkwardly wearing only their towels waiting for someone else to kick things off.

Everyone is being extremely polite to one another, the women beginning to talk amongst themselves whilst the men do the same. Everyone has come here for the same reason but it’s not as quite as straightforward as they thought it would be. Soon enough, people start to pair up an head downstairs but after the initial ice is broken the edges sharpen, relationships change, and a kind of Bacchanalian harshness begins to take over.

Once inside the split level, trendy club style environment, the guests spend the entirety of the evening naked save for their white bath towels but this is about as far from intimacy as it’s possible to get. They may have all come for one reason, but they each had various different motives for doing so. The office lady and the school teacher are both attractive young women, confident in what they do and don’t want, and would prove a hit in any club or bar (though this is a safer option). The freeter and the salaryman could say the same though the salaryman spends half the evening phoning his wife to explain that he’s been kept out drinking with a boring colleague. College girl and Neet are both too shy to get it on independently, leaving the cynical regular and the overweight factory worker as the odd ones out. It’s not long before they’ve begun to dissect each other, ticking off the check list like remembering to buy washing powder and then discussing the merits of “Ariel” vs “Persil” with your fellow “shoppers” in the checkout line. Utilitarian as it is, as the night goes on the barriers fall away leaving both wild abandon and cruelty lying behind them.

Things are reinvigorated half way through when another couple join, a husband and wife duo who each claim to be 100% OK with how this is going to work but, as it turns out, one of them was more serious than the other. By this point, relationships have begun to solidify themselves and shy Neet has grown attached to the unexpectedly raucous, repressed college girl. Such attachments are unwise in an environment like this, and can become dangerous if everyone does not remain on the same page as to what’s going on. At the end of the evening, the guys are asked to wait so the girls can leave first – to help prevent stalking. This is no strings, remember. No names, no phone numbers, none of this ever happened.

This intense need for secrecy is understandable yet speaks something to the oddly specific conflict between repression and the open expression of erotic desire that is permitted inside the club but only if you follow its rather strict (if very sensible) rules, not to mention the arcane, underground directions needed to find it at all. For some the reason for coming here was loneliness but what they’ll find is only likely to exacerbate the aching lack of connection they already feel. The case of the college student becomes the most interesting as she fights both her own shyness and the intense shame she feels in regards to her own sexual desires. After the fact, she feels as if she’s betrayed herself, as if the “other self” that emerged during the previous night’s proceedings is a shameful doppleganger that must now go back into hiding. She wants to forget this happened, go back to being a lonely college girl but for the NEET, it’s the opposite, he feels unreal now – as if he left his “real” self behind in that unreal space.

A sophisticated take on modern human relationships, Love’s Whirlpool occasionally pulls its punches in opting for a satirical tone and only really skims the surface of why places such as these still need to exist. Stylishly shot and explicit without becoming exploitative or sleazy, Miura’s film proves a refreshingly nuanced, mature take on modern sexual behaviour even if it stops short of probing into some of the darker aspects that flicker around its edges. If Love is a whirlpool, desire is a tornado, but where a whirlpool may drag you under you’ll eventually float to the surface gasping for air. After a tornado burns through, all you’re left with is ashes and emptiness. Modern love, indeed.


English subtitled trailer (NSFW)