Red Snow (赤い雪, Sayaka Kai, 2019)

Red Snow poster 2“We’re just pieces of a puzzle” a temporarily deranged woman exclaims to a gloomy seeker after truth in Sayaka Kai’s eerie debut Red Snow (赤い雪, Akai Yuki). Truth, as it turns out is an elusive concept for these variously troubled souls trapped in a purgatorial tailspin on their gloomy island home. When a stranger comes to town intent on unearthing the long buried past, he stirs up deeply repressed emotion and barely concealed anger but finds himself floundering in the maddening snows of a possibly imaginary coastal village. 

30 years previously, a young boy, Takumi, went missing on the way to a friend’s house accompanied by his brother Kazuki who claims he simply disappeared from view in the heavy snow. Sometime later, a child’s remains were found in a burned out building. The prime suspect was a strange woman with a young daughter who escaped the fire in the middle of the night in a suspiciously elegant outfit. Nevertheless, the woman was later exonerated and the truth behind Takumi’s disappearance remained shrouded in mystery.

In the present day, a reporter, Kodachi (Arata Iura), arrives in town with the intention of writing some kind of exposé on the case. He interviews the detective involved and makes contact with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), now a broken middle-aged man who has dedicated his life to perfecting the art of lacquerware. A secondary lead takes him to Sayuri (Nahana) – the daughter of the prime suspect now, in a tragic piece of circularity, an outcast herself and possibly a sex worker in a violent relationship with an older man (Koichi Sato) who may or may not be her pimp.

Each of them has tried to move on from the unresolved tragedy of Takumi’s disappearance, but all appear to have failed. Kazuki dreams of the day his brother vanished right in front of his eyes, seeing a little red jumper lost in the snow but unable to remember anything more. He fears he will never know what happened unless his memory somehow returns, though as his mentor tells him what actually happened and the way you remember it are often different. Waxing philosophical, Kodachi muses that memory is what links the past and future but memory, and therefore life itself, is ambiguous. The “truth” may be unknowable and known at the same time to those who refuse to confront its various contradictions. 

Like the young Sayuri watching through a tiny crack in the wardrobe door where her abusive mother has placed her out of the way of all her “fun”, nobody sees the whole of anything. The young Sayuri morphs into the adult Sayuri and into her mother whom she fears she has become. The only witness to the incident, Sayuri refuses to speak of it though perhaps there’s more kindness in her silence than it first seems even if her unwillingness to remember may also be a kind of self preservation. She too is a victim, but is blamed all the same despite being only a small child powerless to intervene or be held complicit in whatever it is her mother might have done or not done in her quest for survival.

Sayuri remains trapped within the orbit of her now absent mother, herself an outcast in another abusive relationship this time with a sociopathic old man, while Kazuki struggles to accommodate his sense of guilt for something he can’t quite remember. Emotions briefly bubble to the surface, petty resentments and jealousies that pass between all small children but might perhaps have had terrible consequences one snowy night. Sayuri may be right when she insists that they are pieces of a puzzle, each holding tiny fragments of truth that might be assembled into a coherent whole, but also aware that if they did so they may not like the picture that they see.

Eerie and ethereal, the snowy coastal town almost may not exist at all haunted as it is by traumatised souls trapped in a purgatorial cycle of guilt and confusion as they try to piece together the past. Sayaka Kai’s dreamlike, poetic debut is a visually impressive existential mystery in which past and present intertwine leaving our troubled heroes lost in a fog of falling snow unable to access the future through the corrupted pathways of memory.


Red Snow was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Erica 38 (エリカ38, Yuichi Hibi, 2019)

Erica 38 poster“Everybody’s life is in someway unfulfilling”, admits the philosophical victim of a con woman in ripped from the headlines tale Erica 38 (エリカ38). “It’s like a crutch” he adds, without a little fantasy you can’t go on. Like the “Erica” of the title, her victims are also looking for escape from an unsatisfying reality, and unfortunately for them already have what she feels would make her life more bearable – vast wealth. Returning to Japan after three decades abroad, director Yuichi Hibi does his best to humanise the figure of the coldhearted grifter, painting her as just another disappointed, lonely old woman desperately trying to recapture the sense of possibility so cruelly denied her in youth.

Later rebranding herself as “Erica”, a 38-year-old woman of means, our “heroine” is Satoko Watanabe (Miyoko Asada), an ageing bar hostess supplementing her income by peddling a dodgy multi-vitamin pyramid scheme to bored housewives eager to make a few extra bucks. Her sales pitch, however, gets her noticed by a refined old woman sitting close by in an upscale hotel during in one of her sessions. The woman, Mrs. Ito (Midori Kiuchi), introduces her to a “friend”, Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), who cuts in with a sales pitch of his own in branding himself as a paid up member of the global elite who works with the Pentagon on important international matters. Hirasawa heavily implies his business is not quite on the level, but Satoko, captivated by his suave sophistication, fails to realise just how dodgy he really is. Before long, she’s joined him in his “consultation” business, selling fraudulent investment opportunities in the emerging market of Cambodia.

It is surprisingly easy to sympathise with the dejected Satoko as she falls under Hirasawa’s spell. Already well into her 50s when the film begins and clearly over 60 when she rebrands herself as the 38-year-old Erica, Satoko has led an unhappy life beginning with a traumatic childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive, adulterous father. The only memory of joy from her youth is when she and her mother (Kirin Kiki) giggled together after accidentally tipping rat poison into dad’s miso soup. Life since then, it seems, has been one disappointment after another spent in the hostess bars of Kabukicho. What all of that means, however, is that she’s become skilled in the art of selling fantasy. All that time invested in extracting cold hard cash from lonely men has set her in good stead for selling unrealistic investment opportunities to the already comfortably off.

Unrepentant, Satoko tells herself that she bears no responsibility towards those who lost money in her scams because they were chasing exactly the same thing she was – escape, and they both found it at least for a moment. Her victims made the decision themselves, she never forced anyone, and so it’s their own fault that they fell for her patter while she perhaps laments only that she’s been foolish and profligate in not planning better for the eventual implosion of all her schemes.

“There’s a thin line between real and fake”, she tells a party guest admiring one of her paintings, “if someone sees it as real then real it is”. Satoko’s cons are, in essence, an extension of the paradox of the hostess business. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen that the business isn’t legitimate, but like a salaryman in a hostess bar they invest in the semblance of connection while knowing in a sense that isn’t “real”. Ironically enough, Satoko is forced to realise that the first victim of her subterfuge is herself. Chasing a dream of love, she fell hard for Hirasawa without thinking him through. Hirasawa succeeds in his schemes because he’s scrupulously careful in maintaining his persona – he operates out of hotels, has no fixed address, and uses several cellphones. As Satoko later finds out, he is effectively running a harem, romancing several women all like herself bringing in the big bucks while he sits back relatively risk free. She has been used, once again.

The implosion of her dream of romantic escape is what sends her to Thailand where she ponders a reset, rebranding herself as the 38-year-old Erica of the title and beginning an affair with a young and handsome Thai man she rescued from gangsters with her ill-gotten gains. Porche (Woraphop Klaisang) later describes her as “My Angel”, of course realising that she was much older than she claimed but claiming not to care. It may be that he really did love her, but you can’t ignore the corruption of all that money and the power that it buys. In the end, money can’t buy you love, or a path out of loneliness, or a cure for disappointment.

Satoko was, like many, just another lonely, disappointed old lady trying to escape an unsatisfying present through a fantasy of returning to the past, rebooting herself as a successful business woman, loved and in love, as someone with a brighter future to look forward to. Her sales patter worked because it was “true”, the similarly dejected could sense in her the desperation for escape and as they wanted to escape too they let her take them with her. A melancholy tale of delusion and disillusionment, Erica 38 has immense sympathy for the scammer and the scammed painting them both as victims of an often unfair, conformist society in which freedom is the rarest commodity of them all.


Erica 38 screens in New York on July 25 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)