The Takatsu River (高津川, Yoshinari Nishikori, 2019)

What price modernity? Post-war migration saw a rapid turn towards urbanisation with the young forsaking their countryside hometowns to chase the salaryman dream in the cities. Though there has in recent years been a mild reversal to the prevailing trend as economic fluctuation and technological innovation have a generation of anxious youngsters looking for a simpler life, the effects of rural depopulation have only become starker in light of Japan’s ageing society leaving the elderly isolated in inaccessible communities with few family members or facilities to support them. This push and pull of the traditional and the modern is at the heart of Yoshinari Nishikori’s The Takatsu River (高津川, Takatsugawa), in many ways an elegy for a vanishing Japan but also an ode to the furusato spirit and to continuity in the face of change. 

Set in a small town on the Takatsu River in Japan’s Shimane prefecture on the South West coast of Honshu, the central drama revolves around the middle-aged Manabu (Masahiro Komoto), a widower with a teenage son and a daughter recently returned from university in Osaka. His problem is that his son Tatsuya (Ishikawa Raizo) has been skipping out on rehearsals for the Kagura dance society, something which is obviously close to his father’s heart. About to graduate high school Tatsuya is perhaps at a crossroads, like many of his age trying to decide if his future lies in his hometown staying to take over the family farm, or in the cities as a regular salaryman. 

“Everyone thinks of leaving once” Manabu philosophically laments to the lady at the post office though like most of the other parents he does not try to influence his son’s decision even if he’s additionally grumpy about his lack of commitment to Kagura dance. The dance troupe is not just a precious artefact of traditional culture or a means of entertainment but a social hub for the small community in which the generations mix freely and are equally represented. One older man affectionately known as “Pops” (Choei Takahashi) is over 80 years old but refuses to give up the art of Kagura dancing, not only because he loves to perform but because he enjoys being part of the society especially as he lost his eldest son to a flood in childhood and the other, Makoto (Hiromasa Taguchi), has become a lawyer in the city who rarely visits his hometown claiming that his wife has a dislike of “bugs”. 

Acting as a surrogate son to the old man, Manabu’s other quest is to convince Makoto to visit a little more often, touting the idea of a reunion for some of their old elementary school friends a few of whom are, like Manabu, still living in the village. Unfortunately, however, Makoto’s time in the city has fully converted him into a heartless ultra-capitalist who struggles to understand a more traditional way of thinking. Meeting up to celebrate the successful graduation of another friend’s apprentice as a sushi chef, the guys lament the case of their friend Yoko (Naho Toda) who never married, apparently calling off an engagement to look after her elderly mother who has dementia while acutely feeling the responsibility of taking on her family’s 300-year-old traditional sweet shop. Confused, Makoto wonders why you wouldn’t just stick the parents in a home and get married, much to the consternation of his friends. Similarly, when Manabu asks him for some legal advice about how to stop a resort being built up river he reveals himself to be fully on the side of corporate power. After all, he points out, a resort will bring jobs and foot traffic to the area encouraging modernisation and better transport links which will also draw young people back towards the village. If you want to save the community, perhaps it’s the best and only way. 

Yet as Manabu points out, the Takatsu is the last clean river in Japan. His daughter Nanami (Ito Ono) came back after uni because she missed the taste of sweet fish that you just can’t find anywhere else. If the river is polluted by construction, the fish will disappear and perhaps there’ll be nothing left to “save”. With the local school set to close now there are only a handful of pupils, Manabu and his friends are minded to pick their battles and protect what it is that’s most important, eventually reacquainting Makoto with his furusato spirit by confronting him with the traumatic past which had kept him away. Bar repeated references to the double-edged sword of the Takatsu in the potential for lethal flooding, Nishikori’s gentle drama perhaps provides an overly utopian view of country living which sidesteps the hardships that can often accompany it, but also celebrates community spirit and an atmosphere of mutual support, qualities which have convinced city-raised farmhand Kana (Yurie Midori) that the rural life is the one for her. A gentle elegy for a disappearing way of life, The Takatsu River is ultimately hopeful that something at least will survive as long as the clear stream flows on.


The Takatsu River streams in Poland 25th November to 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Hur Jin-ho, 2016)

last-princessReview of Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess first published by UK Anime Network.


Filmic biopics of real life historical figures are not generally known for their fierce adherence to fact, but The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Deokhyeongjoo) is unusually honest in its approach in the sense that it includes a brief opening statement to the effect that the film pays very little attention to historical veracity. Hur Jin-ho adapts the story of Korea’s last princess, Yi Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin), as recounted in a novel by Kwon Bi-young, whilst indulging the genre he’s best known for – romantic melodrama. Another of the recent spate of films to address Korea’s colonial past, The Last Princess is the story of a woman who was fiercely loyal to her homeland, even in the face of harsh opposition and final rejection by the very people she’d been striving so hard to protect.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Last Princess spans the majority of Deok-hye’s life from her opulent childhood in the royal palace to her eventual repatriation to Korea in the mid 1960s. In 1919, nine years after Korea had been annexed by the Japanese, Deok-hye lives in the palace with her loving father, the former Emperor (Baek Yoon-sik), and her mother, the concubine Lady Yang (Park Joo-mi). Her carefree days soon end when she witnesses her father’s death by poison and comes to understand her precarious position as puppet royalty of a subjugated regime.

Her life, and those of her remaining family members, is largely in the hands of a traitorous civil servant, Han (Yoon Je-moon), whose fierce loyalty to the Japanese emperor knows no bounds. Deok-hye is unwilling to assist him in his desire to use her as a tool to promote the “Japanisation” of the country and so is packed off to the mainland to study with the promise that she can return to live with her mother in Korea after her studies have ended. Needless to say she does not return.

In a touch of cinematic romanticism, the film elides two characters into one in the otherwise fictional character of Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il). The son of a resistance fighter loyal to the emperor, Jang-han was betrothed to Deok-hye when they were both children and later returns to her as an adult in Japan where he is active in the Resistance, before coming back to find her years after the war. Jang-han hatches a plan to help Deok-hye and the other royal family members escape for exile in Shanghai but the the pair are eventually separated.

Recalling other recent Korean Resistance movies Age of Shadows and Assassination, The Last Princess has its share of action as Deok-hye and Jang-han attempt to escape the Japanese occupation and foster the revolution from abroad. The villain of the piece this time around is not so much the Japanese but the Koreans who willingly helped them as as exemplified here by the odious Han. Han is the most typically melodramatic character and only lacks a moustache to twirl to complete the effect. Hellbent on ingratiating himself with the Japanese, Han is determined to harness his princess’ appeal to sell the virtues of the Japanese state. When Deok-hye resolutely refuses to play along, he threatens her family members and friends in an attempt to force her compliance but finds her love for her country too strong to be bent by his egocentric cruelty.

Sent away and kept a virtual prisoner far from home, there is little Deok-hye is able to do in service of her nation. Introduced to the Resistance operating in Japan, she begins to see a way to help and eventually finds herself taking a stand when blackmailed into reading out a propaganda speech in front of a collection of forced labourers. Beginning the speech in Japanese as ordered, Deok-hye finds she cannot continue and eventually makes her real feelings known in Korean as she instructs the people in front of her not to give up, she will be right along side them fighting to regain their homeland. In a touch of Casablanca inspired drama, a chorus of Arirang suddenly springs up among the crowd, much to the consternation of the Japanese officers expecting a show of contrition, as the Princess herself is whisked off to pay a heavy price for her “betrayal”.

The Last Princess forces its heroine through constant loss – of her home, of her position, of her family, of a future, of love, of a child, of happiness, of her mind, and most importantly of her nationality. Deok-hye never wanted to be Japanese, did not travel to Japan of her own volition, and did her best to resist even at great personal cost. Nevertheless she finds eventually finds herself barred from her homeland due to opposing political concerns when the fledgling Republic fears the misuse of a powerful symbol like a royal family to frustrate the democratic future. Played with wonderful sensitivity by leading actress Son Ye-jin, Deok-hye suffers as her nation suffers, longing for independence both personal and national but finding only new cages everywhere she goes. Despite the unconvincing ageing makeup of the latter part of the film and an overly intrusive score, The Last Princess is an impressively produced prestige picture which plays its melodrama credentials to the max but is also undoubtedly moving in recounting the tragic story of its heroine whose constant misuse and lack of agency mirror much of the history of the nation she holds so dear.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2006)

mamiya-brothersEver the populist, Yoshitmitsu Morita returns to the world of quirky comedy during the genre’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century. Adapting a novel by Kaori Ekuni, The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Mamiya Kyodai) centres on the unchanging world of its arrested central duo who, whilst leading perfectly successful, independent adult lives outside the home, seem incapable of leaving their boyhood bond behind in order to create new families of their own.

Older bother Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and younger brother Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji) live together in a small apartment in Tokyo where they enjoy hanging out keeping track of baseball games and watching movies rented from the local store where Akinobu has a crush on the cashier, Naomi (Erika Sawajiri). They are perfectly happy but sometimes frustrated that they don’t have girlfriends so they decide to host a curry party and invite Naomi over in the hopes that she might develop an affection for Akinobu. So that she won’t feel weird about going to the house of two middle-aged guys she doesn’t really know, Tetsunobu invites a reserved teacher, Yoriko (Takako Tokiwa), from the primary school he works at as a caretaker though he “never dates coworkers” and is only really asking her as a backup for Akinobu.

Against expectation the both ladies agree to attend the curry party which actually goes pretty well though neither man is fully capable of following up on the opportunities presented to him. Outside events provide a distraction as Akinobu is swept into his adulterous boss’ divorce crisis and Tetsunobu becomes fixated on a damsel in distress who has no desire to be rescued by him. As much as the boys might want to form independent relationships for female companionship, their brotherly bond is more akin to a marriage in itself leaving both of them unwilling to abandon the status quo for a new kind of happiness.

These kinds of closely interdependent sibling relationships are more often seen between sisters, often as one or both of them has rejected offers of marriage for fear of leaving the other on the shelf. Elderly spinsters and their histories of unhappy romance are almost a genre in themselves though they often present the peaceful co-existence of the two women as a double failure and ongoing tragedy rather than a perfectly legitimate choice each may have made to reject the normal social path and rely solely on each other. The Mamiya Brothers neatly subverts this stereotype, presenting the relationship of the two men as a broadly happy one though perhaps tinged with sadness as it becomes clear that the intense bond they share is holding each of them back in a kind of never ending childhood.

Indeed, though they live alone together and have steady jobs, whilst in each other’s company the brothers regress back to childhood by spending their spare time riding bikes around the neighbourhood and playing on the beach. They are each keenly aware of how they must appear to members of the opposite sex and are always mindful not to appear “creepy”. Accordingly, they’re careful about which DVDs they check out so that Naomi doesn’t get a bad impression of them, and they’re sure to make it clear that both girls can bring other people to their parties so they won’t think there’s anything untoward going on. Throwing quick fire questions back for and constantly making references to private jokes the boys are effectively a manzai duo performing for an audience of two, perpetually suffocating inside their self made bubble.

Though they might not find love, the boys do at least make some new friends. Naomi’s sister, Yumi (Keiko Kitagawa), is exactly the kind of girl they’d usually steer clear of lest she begins to make fun of their old fashioned ways yet she actually becomes an ally and even a friend after spending time hanging out in the brothers’ odd little world. Yumi and Naomi are, in many ways, almost as closely connected as Akinobu and Tetsunobu though they both currently have boyfriends even if they find them equally disappointing.

The teacher, Yoriko, also finds herself unlucky in love as she pursues a relationship with a colleague who doesn’t seem particularly invested in her and is lackadaisical about even the smallest forms of commitment. Tetsunobu seems to have discounted her as a romantic partner under his “no coworkers” rule and is either unaware or deliberately ignoring her growing feelings for him. It may be that he invited Yoriko as a love interest for his brother precisely because he was interested himself and wanted to eliminate the problem, but he may come to regret outwardly rejecting this chance of mutual affection turning into something more solid.

When push comes to shove it might just be that the Mamiya Brothers are happiest in their own company and have no desire to move on and leave their arrested development behind. Though tinged with a degree of lingering sadness as it appears the boys do have a desire to form bonds outside of their mutually dependent bubble, they are after all quite happy and mostly fulfilled in their life together. Cute and quirky, if at times melancholic, The Mamiya Brothers is a strange tale of modern romance in a world where no one really grows up anymore. The brothers are clearly not afraid of broadening their horizons, but might prefer to continue doing so together rather than finding their own, independent, paths.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

COSMIC RESCUE -The moonlight generations- (コスミック・レスキュー ザ・ムーンライト・ジェネレーションズ, Shinsuke Sato, 2003)

Cosmic RescueIt’s often posited that Japan rarely produces “science fiction” literature or movies and some say that’s because, well, they already live there. However, this isn’t quite true, there are just as many science fiction themed projects to be found in Japan as elsewhere you just have to look a little harder to find them. Depending on your point view, if you succeed in tracking down a copy of Cosmic Rescue -The moonlight generations- (コスミック・レスキュー ザ・ムーンライト・ジェネレーションズ), you may feel the quest was not entirely worth the effort.

Starring the younger half of the Johnny’s idol group V6 (referred to as “coming century”), Cosmic Rescue takes place in 2053 when space travel has become easy and commonplace enough to require the presence of galaxy wide emergency services. Cosmic Rescue is the AA of space travel – they float around waiting for disaster to strike whereupon they will swoop in and rescue those in peril among the stars.

However, the three crew members of the rundown rescue ship from the 89th Division of Japanese CR mostly spend their days clearing crash debris and changing batteries. The rookie of the group Sawada (Junichi Okada) longs for a spot of heroism just like in his favourite manga which inspired him to join the CR in the first place, whereas ship’s engineer Eguchi (Ken Miyake) gets on with the day to day work of maintaining the ship while the captain Nanjo (Go Morita) mopes about slumming it with this lowly crew of cleanup artists despite being a CR legend after he was involved in a heroic rescue which cost the life of his best friend. However, when Sawada receives an emergency distress call from a young woman who claims to the be sole survivor of a space crash, the gang find themselves embroiled in a corporate conspiracy.

Directed by a young Shinsuke Sato who would later go on to become one of the most successful directors of mainstream Japanese blockbusters including Gantz and Library Wars among other smash hit franchises, Cosmic Rescue is a very competently made science fiction adventure given its obvious budgetary constraints. It’s fair to say that it’s largely been created as a vehicle for its three (hugely popular) leading men and so falls back on their charisma to plug any holes in the rather generic script and lack of production values but generally acquits itself pretty well.

That said, there are no shoehorned in singing sections and even if a low budget, televisual atmosphere remains there’s still a fun sci-fi adventure underpinning it all. Sawada is the ostensible lead as he longs to prove himself as a real “hero” by saving lives in space just like his captain had done before yet Nanjo’s story becomes equally important as he battles to overcome the guilt and fear he feels after losing his friend in an earlier mission. Engineer Eguchi gets a little sidelined in a technical role but each of the three guys get fairly equal weighting as members of the maverick, underdog space crew who are going to expose this mass conspiracy and save the damsel in distress no matter what the cost.

There is a (fairly trite) message here spelt out in voice over at the end of the film that it’s easy to forget who you are when you’re used to being “tied down” by gravity but if you can’t learn to save yourself you won’t be able to save anyone else. Cosmic Rescue is what it is – it isn’t really pretending to have any kind of deeper message other than showcasing its leading actors in a fun, slightly retro space adventure. Though a fairly low budget, disposable affair aimed squarely at fans of the band, Sato adds some interesting direction plus a vaguely 1960s inspired production design which help to lift the proceedings above the bonus feature category.


The Japanese release of Cosmic Rescue includes English subtitles!

Unsubbed trailer: