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

Orphan’s Blues (オーファンズ・ブルース, Riho Kudo, 2018)

Orphan's Blues posterThe past becomes an irresistible trap for a collection of variously troubled souls in Riho Kudo’s Pia winning feature Orphan’s Blues (オーファンズ・ブルース). “Things change” the heroine laments, unable to keep up with the relentless passage of time as her memory begins to collapse in on itself, leaving only nostalgia behind. A poetic exploration of grief, rootlessness, and trauma, Kudo’s bold debut sends its fugitive protagonists on a sad road trip into the long buried past as they attempt to dig up their childhood innocence in escape from an intolerable present.

Emma (Yukino Murakami), a middle-aged woman making a living with a tiny book stand at the side of the road in a small town, has been experiencing unexplained moments of memory loss – forgetting to place a customer’s order, leaving taps on, repeating herself having forgotten that she’s asked this question several times before. Losing the present sends her back to thoughts of the past as evidenced by a picture of a pack of elephants drawn by her childhood friend, Yang (Yu Yoshii), with whom she grew up in the same orphanage. Longing for that same closeness, she decides to track him down but a visit to Chinatown proves fruitless, as does an attempt to call in at the last address she had. Determined to find out what happened to Yang, she reconnects with another friend, Van (Takuro Kamikawa), who is in the process of fleeing to Tahiti with his girlfriend Yuri (Nagiko Tsuji) after stealing some gangsters’ money. When that doesn’t work out they end up accompanying Emma to a small inn run by a woman, Luca (Tamaki Kuboso), who was once in a relationship with Yang, and where a mysterious young man, Aki (Shion Sasaki), is currently staying.

All of our protagonists, bar perhaps Yuri, have a prominent burn somewhere on their body. Emma’s is on her left shoulder – a scald mark she keeps rubbing at times of stress. Van has a scar from a cigarette burn on his right arm, while Luca has what looks like a brand where a wedding ring might once have been worn. Even Aki has some kind scar on his right wrist, conveniently hidden by his long-sleeved shirts. Each of these people is in some way connected by the absent Yang, desperately in search of him even if some perhaps are more aware than others what might have befallen their absent friend.

Luca, who has a series of elephant tattoos across the nape of her neck, recounts that Yang once told her that elephants separate from the pack after receiving a premonition of their deaths. To spare the others the suffering of seeing them pass away, they leave before they go. Yang, they posit, may have followed their example but if he has all he has done is provoke additional suffering among his confused friends. Emma struggles to remember, frustrated by her inability to stay in the present while being pulled towards the past, feeling as if she’s missing some vital clue which will explain everything.

Meanwhile, the tensions between the five residents at the inn ebb and flow. Yuri, who never knew Yang and is beginning to fear she and Van will never get to Tahiti after all, feels herself excluded from the ongoing drama. She resents the closeness between Van and Emma, irritated that only Emma knows how to calm him down in the midst of emotional meltdown, while wondering how long he’s going to keep her waiting in this strangely liminal space caught between a past she never knew and a possibly unattainable future.   

Waiting is however where they are. Van wants to go back, return to a happy place the three childhood friends once travelled and dig up something they buried but can no longer remember. Emma, confused, eventually finds herself rooted in a delusion of the past, unable to see the present clearly while Van is left with little choice other than to abandon himself to facilitate her temporary happiness. Scarred, they run from a disappointing future into childhood nostalgia unable to reconcile the adults they’ve become with the children they once were. Literally as well as figuratively orphaned, they remain adrift with no clear place to belong or return to. Subtle and poetic, Kudo’s beautifully lensed debut is an achingly melancholy piece but one which perhaps finds hope in the solidarity of the lost as much as it suggests there is no path forward for those who can only look back.


Orphan’s Blues screens in New York on July 28 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)