Ninja Girl (シュシュシュの娘, Yu Irie, 2021)

What can the ordinary person do when encountering injustice? Saying no is a start, but it might not be enough in the long run. According to the inspirational grandpa in Yu Irie’s Ninja Girl (シュシュシュの娘, Shushushu no Musume), if no one’s coming with you you’ll have to go on your own. Part coming-of-age drama, part political satire, Ninja Girl finds its reserved heroine coming into herself as she agrees to take on her grandfather’s unfinished mission and avenge the death of a family friend who took his own life in shame after being bullied into falsifying government documents in order to help a corrupt local council pass some overtly racist legislation. 

The reticent Miu (Saki Fukuda) takes care of her elderly grandfather (Shohei Uno) and has a steady job at the town hall, yet despite her ordinariness she is also a target for local shunning because of her grandfather’s intense resistance towards the “Immigrant Elimination Ordinance”. Miu isn’t in favour of it either, but is otherwise too shy to do much about it despite being harangued by her extremely unpleasant and intimidating supervisor Ms. Muteda (Mayumi Kanetani). On returning home one evening she overhears her grandfather talking to a family friend, Mano (Arata Iura), who appears depressed and talks of taking his own life after being strong-armed by Muteda among others to illegally alter and/or falsify official documentation in order to help them pass their odious bill. Mano then takes his own life in protest by jumping off the roof of the town hall, leaving Miu and her grandfather intent on avenging him by retrieving the evidence he’d preserved of governmental impropriety and exposing the mayor for what he is. Miu’s grandfather presents this as a “mission” he’s leaving to his granddaughter because he believes he’s not long left, revealing a long hidden family secret to the effect that Miu is actually descended from a long line of ninjas. 

Ms. Muteda tries to talk Miu round by insisting that the legislation is neither “discriminatory” nor “racist” which seems like a stretch when you’re using words like “eliminate”. After accepting her ninja legacy and using the book she’s found to make herself an authentic ninja outfit, Miu tries to do some digging all of which eventually takes her to a scrap yard mostly staffed by migrant workers whom Mano had been trying to help. Miu is originally turned away by the owner because of her association with local government but returns hoping to find the password for Mano’s thumb drive only to discover a weird gang of racist thugs dressed in lime green high visibility jackets beating up the scrap yard’s owner and spouting a lot of rubbish about how his workforce is taking jobs off Japanese people who apparently find themselves in need following the earthquake and coronavirus pandemic. 

For all of their talk about making Japan great again and keeping Japanese traditions in the hands of the Japanese, there’s a strange irony that their nemesis comes in the form of that most quintessentially culturally specific avenger, the ninja, and not only that a young female ninja rising up against oppression all on her own. Despite agreeing that she has no real skills, Miu’s grandfather thinks she’ll make a good a ninja because of her general invisibility while her childhood hobby of making blowpipes will also stand her in good stead. Accepting her “mission” gives Miu the kind of confidence otherwise lacking in her life to seize her own agency and stand up for what she believes in even when victory seems more or less impossible. Meanwhile, Muteda and her cohorts laugh loudly about how they’re only doing what the national government and other prefectures do in illegally altering their documents to make it look like they’re not doing anything wrong while they ride roughshod over the rights of ordinary people and pursue their xenophobic agenda. 

“Never again” Miu’s grandfather insists on recalling the pogroms which occurred after the 1923 Kanto earthquake leading to a massacre of Koreans, while finding himself branded a traitor to his nation. In another touch of irony, the cheerful children’s folksong Hana plays in the background as red balloons are launched to celebrate the Immigrant Elimination Ordinance in a nationalistic incongruity that seems to leave Miu more bemused than ever. Removing herself from this intensely corrupt social order and committing herself to ninja mastery while training alongside her her favourite collection of ‘80s pop hits, she determines to clean up town sending poison darts against the otherwise unopposed voices of disorder. Shot in a strangely comforting 4:3, Yu Irie’s quirky drama is drenched in the absurd but sends a very real message as its shy, reserved heroine steps into the shadows in order to resist societal corruption even while those all around her are content to stand by and watch as their freedoms are taken from them. 


Ninja Girl screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

You’re Not Normal, Either! (まともじゃないのは君も一緒, Koji Maeda, 2021)

What’s so great about being “normal” anyway? As the title of Koji Maeda’s quirky screwball comedy You’re Not Normal, Either! (まともじゃないのは君も一緒, Matomo Janai no wa Kimi mo Issho) suggests neither of its heroes is quite in tune with the world around them but then again, is there really such a thing as “normal” or is it more that most people are making themselves unhappy by settling for less simply because they think that’s just how things are and resistance only makes you seem awkward? 

Nerdy cram school maths teacher Yasuomi (Ryo Narita) thought he was OK with being a little different, but just recently he’s begun to feel lonely and fears the possibility of being alone for the rest of his life. Perhaps inappropriately, he looks to one of his students, forthright high schooler Kasumi (Kaya Kiyohara), for romantic and life advice hoping that she will teach him how to be, or at least present as, more “normal”. Unbeknownst to him, however, Kasumi is not quite “normal” herself and is in fact obsessed with a tech entrepreneur, Isao (Kotaro Koizumi), who is all about a new and freer future in which humanity is freed from the burden of labour. Finding out that her crush is already engaged to Minako (Rika Izumi) the daughter of a hotel magnate, Kasumi hatches a plan to break them up while training Yasuomi in the art of seduction. 

Kasumi’s insecurities seem to be down to her failure in her middle school exams, attracted to Isao’s philosophies because they offer a possibility of freedom outside the rigid demands of academic success in Japan. She tells Isao in a not quite by chance meeting that she wants to become a teacher in order to expand children’s minds rather than force them into a fixed perspective as the rather authoritarian, rote learning system of education often does. Yet she also feels out of place among her peers whom she sees as vacuous always gossiping about part-time jobs and boys. She frowns at Yasuomi when he accidentally cuts the conversation dead with an awkward comment while attempting to chat up a pair of bubbly office workers in a bar, but often does the same thing herself while sitting with her high school girl friends who fall silent and then change the subject after she injects a little realism into their mindless chatter. 

Yasuomi had viewed himself as “normal” and never understood why others didn’t, noticing that people often stopped associating with him but not knowing the reason why. Obsessed with pure mathematics, over literal, and overstimulated by the complications of life he takes refuge in the forest and the sensory overload of its nocturnal creatures speaking quite eloquently about the beauty of numbers and actually fairly emotionally intelligent in his understanding of the two women. Resolutely failing at Kasumi’s Cyrano act, he comes into himself only when speaking more honesty much to Kasumi’s annoyance actually hitting it off with Minako who is herself just as lonely and alienated but perhaps wilfully trapped. 

Predictably enough, Isao isn’t exactly “normal” either or perhaps he is but only in the most depressing of ways, his rosy vision of the future delivered with more than a little snake oil and just as much sleaze. Minako may know what sort of man Isao is, that her marriage is largely a dynastic affair set up by her overbearing, authoritarian father, but she too may think this is “normal” and might have preferred not to have to confront her sense of existential disappointment while attempting to fulfil the role of a “normal” woman content with creating a comfortable space in which her husband can thrive.  

Romantically naive, Kasumi wonders how people come to fall in love informed by two relatively mature classmates that for them at least falling in love is a gradual process of increasing intimacy generated through casual conversation. This turns out to be pretty much true for Kasumi too, though in ways she didn’t quite expect watching as Yasuomi opens up to Minako and finding herself unexpectedly jealous while reluctant to let go of the idealised vision she had of Isao as some kind of messiah for a better Japan. There is something a little uncomfortable in the potentially inappropriate relationship between a student and her teacher even as the roles are, on one level at least, reversed but there’s also a kind of innocence in their childish friendship and later determination to start small and let things grow while abandoning the idea of the “normal” altogether to embrace their true selves in a freer future of their own creation. 


You’re Not Normal, Either! screens in Chicago on Oct. 7 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema 

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Atsuro Shimoyashiro, 2019)

Where now the dreams of youth? It may be impossible to escape a regretful middle age, wondering what might have been if only you knew then what you know now, but for the heroes of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Tokyo no Koibito) the pain seems all the more acute. “Today’s the day our youth ends” a brokenhearted woman laments, trying to make peace with her choices but finding that her return to the past may have done more harm than good. 

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a 31-year-old salaryman, married with a baby on the way and living in provincial Gunma. With the anxiety of impending fatherhood on his mind, he’s surprised to receive a message from his university girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), who wants to reconnect. Telling his wife he’s going on a business trip, Tatsuo decides to spend the weekend in Tokyo, staying with another friend from uni before meeting up with Marina for a Sunday in the city reminiscing about old times. 

Like Tatsuo, his old college friend Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura) has long since given up the dream of becoming a filmmaker. A breakdown at 27 has apparently led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaving him unable to hold down a job and dependent on his wife, Seiko (Maki Nishiyama), who supports both him and his step-daughter Shizuko through sex work while Komazawa has become an idle alcoholic. Despite his disappointment, Tatsuo spends the evening bonding with the local bar lady who claims to be able to see the future before leaving early in the morning to meet Marina who suggests revisiting the seaside they went to years before. 

Very much ready to step back into the more innocent past, Tatsuo has brought with him a tape of a song they used to listen to way back when and wastes no time in reassuming the poses of his 20-year-old self, sunshades and all. Marina, by contrast is self-consciously cute but mature, if perhaps sad. Tatsuo starts to tell her that he gave up his filmmaking dreams, married a good woman, and took a regular salaryman job at the family firm, but fails to complete the thought. Marina meanwhile casually remarks that she married a wealthy man but hints that she did so largely for convenience and material comfort rather than love. 

“We never get to marry the woman we love the most” Tatsuo’s strangely boys will be boys brother-in-law (Mutsuo Yoshioka) sighs, commiserating with Tatsuo’s lament for his disappointed youth and failure to make his filmmaking dreams a reality. We discover that an early success in a scriptwriting competition gave him an inflated sense of possibility, and that his desire for success was largely a desire to impress his girlfriend. Wounded male pride in his sense of artistic failure eventually convinced him he had to break things off while she silently cursed him, jokingly sentencing him to 18 years of solitude in a playful reference to a Tai Kato film. Now he realises his foolishness and is filled with regret in having settled for a conventional middle-class life as a husband and father.

Marina, meanwhile, is feeling something much the same in trying to achieve closure on the past before she becomes a mother. After breaking up with Tatsuo, she drifted through nude modelling and ended up the trophy wife of a wealthy man she doesn’t love, pegging her hopes on material comfort and hoping that love will come later. “I’m glad you’re happy now” a bar owner and former Instagram fan tries to congratulate her, but all Marina can do is smile sadly and ask her similarly troubled companion if happy is what she looks.    

“I’m not young anymore, I can’t live for a dream” Tatsuo accepts, but living on a dream is all they’re doing, recalling the time when they were “modern lovers” in Tokyo kidding themselves that they were urban sophisticates when perhaps all they did were the kinds of things unsophisticated suburbanites do like hang out at batting cages and go to barbecue restaurants. It’s too late to turn back now, but the past is a difficult trap to escape and perhaps what they long for is not so much the love cut off in its prime but a return to the possibilities of youth. Meeting again reawakens the desire for something more out of life than life may now have to give them, but this is day that youth ends, hitting the end of the road in a slow car crash of realisation that regret is the price of age.


The Modern Lovers was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Retro hit Love You, Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa (not that one!) & Los Primos which recurs frequently throughout the film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)