Toilet (トイレット, Naoko Ogigami, 2010)

toilet posterBy accident or design, Naoko Ogigami’s career has existed to one side of Japan’s most representative genre, the family drama, in making a clear choice to embrace unusual or self defined family units. In Kamome Diner, a disparate group of runaway Japanese people became a kind of makeshift family and forged a mini-community with the friendly local Finns. Following the brief holiday sojourn of Megane, Ogigami returns abroad but this time to North America for her first English language feature. Once again it’s a tale of misfits learning how to fit, but it’s also a tale of the true nature of family which extends far further than mere blood relation.

30-something Ray (Alex House) is a hyper rational scientist who rejects all forms of emotion and attachments. Thus, he’s doing pretty OK even though his mother died just over a week ago. His siblings, neurotic poetess Lisa (Tatiana Maslany), and agoraphobic former pianist Maury (David Rendall) are not taking it quite as well. The other problem is that shortly before she died, Ray’s mother spent a lot of money tracking down her own long lost Japanese mother who is still living with them but speaks no English and and is still very affected by the death of the daughter she’d only just reconnected with. Ray resents having to look after “baa-chan” (Masako Motai) – a woman he’s hardly spoken to and has no connection with, but cannot exactly throw her out.

Ray, a rare male protagonist in an Ogigami film, is an emotionally repressed geek who pours all of his love and affection into collecting plastic Gundam models. Ironically enough, Ray, or”Rei” actually means “cold” in Japanese which is what his siblings often brand him. More “adult” than the others, he’d long left the family home and was barely present during his mother’s final days leaving Lisa and Maury to deal with everything alone. A sudden accident forces him to return and reassume his big brother role in trying to take care of the floundering Lisa and the fragile Maury.

After suffering a breakdown during a concert some years previously, Maury has been unable to leave the house. Discovering his mother’s old-fashioned sewing machine, he finds a new lease on life with an additional form of expression on top of his musicality. With Baa-chan’s help, he figures out how to use the machine and begins making skirts just like the ones his mother wears in the family photos, which he later wears for no particular reason other than it pleased him to do so.

Lisa, by contrast, seems set to walk a darker path after falling for a snarky, nihilistic poet from her creative writing class. His violent negativity seems to gel with her ongoing malaise, but all he really offers her is his own insecurities and embittered rigidity. Rediscovering the capacity to choose something else, Lisa finally finds the will to do something real and then asks baa-chan to help her triumph by doing something that’s sort of fake but will take her on the kind of journey she’s been looking for.

Having started out cold, distant, and resentful, Ray is brought back into the familial fold by accidentally bonding with his siblings in trying to understand Baa-chan. Played by Ogigami regular Masako Motai, Baa-chan never speaks but seems to understand what’s going on with her grandchildren on an instinctual level. Ray, half-hoping Baa-chan isn’t their real grandma, weighs up paying for a DNA test but ends up finding out more about himself than his other family members. Baa-chan maybe a kind of unknowable deity, hovering around the edges of the family with a giant wallet and wise smile, but she does seem to know what it is the orphaned siblings need and determines to gently nudge each of them in the right direction.

Deliberately moving away from Ogigami’s trademark style, Toilet adopts an even more heightened, detached approach than that seen in Megane but possibly suffers from hovering on the edges of on an established American-style of ironic comedy rather than striking a unique tone of its own. The toilet of the title refers to the well known Japanese “washlet” which becomes an unlikely point of connection between Ray and Baa-chan as he becomes increasingly intrigued by the strange sigh of disappointment she lets out each time she leaves their bathroom. Where take-away sushi failed, homemade gyoza and patience win out as Baa-chan imparts her silent wisdom in allowing the family to find themselves and each other in an atmosphere of unconditional love and support.


Original trailer (English with Japanese subtitles)

Rent-a-Cat (レンタネコ, Naoko Ogigami, 2012)

©2012レンタネコ製作委員会

rent-a-cat posterPreviously, Ogigami’s heroines (and hero, when one thinks about it) have had to go great distances in order to figure out what it was they were looking for and then finally find it. In Kamome Diner, Sachie went all the way to Helsinki to open up a Japanese cafe only to find herself accidentally attracting a collective of other runaway Japanese people whilst building a community of friendly Finns in her new home. Taeko, in Megane, went on a random holiday that turned out to be much more random than she ever would have expected but she did end up learning to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life which is, presumably, why she ended up on holiday in the first place. Rent-a-Cat’s (レンタネコ, Rent-a-Neko) Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa), by contrast, stubbornly stays put. In fact, she is the pillar around which all else turns as a fixed point for her various “stray cats” each in need of temporary support.

Since her grandmother died a few years ago, Sayoko’s life has been in free fall. A 30-something single woman with no “regular” employment, Sayoko lives in a spacious Japanese-style house with a small garden which is home to the various stray kitties which seem to seek her out when looking for a good place to crash. Sayoko has taken to writing out large banners declaring her immediate goals – getting married being the main one, and pasting them on the walls to encourage herself to keep going. The truth is, though Sayoko is not exactly unhappy she is unfulfilled. Since childhood she’s had the strange talent of attracting friendly cats but secretly longs to attract people too. Combining her strength and her weakness, Sayoko operates an unusual enterprise – cat rental! Walking along with a loud speaker and a trailer full of cats, she looks for lonely people who might want to borrow a fluffy friend for a while to help them out while they’re feeling low.

Of course, Sayoko’s quest to heal the hearts of others is also one to heal her own. Eccentric since childhood during which she was nicknamed “Jamiko” after a strange monster and mostly spent her time snoozing in the nurse’s office along with a kleptomaniac fellow student, Sayoko has never found her feet when it comes to building lasting relationships with people. Her voiceovers all refer back to her grandmother whom she misses deeply and seems slightly lost without. Appearing to have no real friends and spending a lot of time at home looking after her collection of needy cats, Sayoko’s main source of daily interaction comes from the horrible old woman who lives next door and turns up at random intervals to play Greek chorus in neatly reciting Sayoko’s various neuroses back to her over the garden fence.

Sayoko’s neighbour probably has a hole in her heart she fills by being deliberately insensitive to obviously sensitive people, but Sayoko offers her clients another solution in the form of a fluffy little cat who needs someone to look after it. Before lending one of her charges, Sayoko makes sure to vet the prospective cat guardian – after all, not everyone is nice and some people like to project their own suffering onto harmless little creatures. Through the house visits Sayoko gets to find out exactly what kind of hole it is that needs filling from dimples in jellies to holes in socks and even those in donuts, and being the sensitive soul she is, Sayoko usually knows what kind of help her customers need.

Structured around four different clients and bridged with Sayoko’s own neurotic journeys, Rent-a-Cat takes on a charming, fairytale quality in its repeated formulas. Each time someone asks to rent a cat they get the same speech about the inspection and then when it comes to talking money they each express surprise at the extremely good value, making sure to ask if Sayoko will be OK financially when she operates on these oddly beneficial terms. Don’t worry, she tells them – she has other income, a different one each time from stockbroking to fortune telling. The problems run from late life isolation as in a little old lady who loves making jellies for the son she never sees, to dejected fathers forced to work away from home and missing their kids grow up, and young women who feel trapped in a conservative society and would like nothing more than to jet off somewhere to follow their own path, if only they had the courage.

Social conservatism does seem to be something which particularly annoys Sayoko, if perhaps subconsciously. A strange dream sends her off to a Rent-a-Cat corporate clone where clients can rent cats of three different classes priced according to desirability. Sayoko is particularly anxious about the “Class C” cats whom the lady behind the counter disdainfully describes as “crossbreeds”. Sayoko is not having any of that and takes the woman to task for her need to “rank” things before insisting on renting a Class C cat at the Class A price to fully ram home the unpleasantness and absurdity of such a prejudiced world view.

Branded a “crazy cat lady” by the neighbourhood kids, Sayoko’s humanitarian mission of spreading love and kindness eventually does start to reel in a few humans even if they are mostly lonely souls in need of temporary support. Towards the end, when a promising reappearance provokes only disappointment, Sayoko wonders if perhaps there are holes cats cannot fill or sadnesses too great to be borne, but nevertheless she persists. A falling banner a suggests Sayoko may have already found the material to fill her own hole in helping other people fill theirs whilst surrounded by the by warm indifference of her feline brood.


You can catch Rent-a-Cat at the Japanese Embassy in London on 22nd November as the first in a series of events, Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers, which also includes screenings of Bare Essence of Life, Death of a Japanese Salesman, and Wild Berries from 30th November to 2nd December.

 Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)

Kamome Diner (かもめ食堂, Naoko Ogigami, 2006)

wsVs9OWFinland, Finland, Finland. That’s the country for me! Where better could there possibly be to open up a small Japanese cafe than in Helsinki? On second thoughts, don’t answer that but moving to Finland and opening her own diner all alone is exactly what the leading lady, Sachie, has done in this warm hearted comedy drama from Naoko Ogigami, Kamome Diner (かもめ食堂, Kamome Shokudou). As in most of her films, Ogigami has assembled an eclectic cast of eccentric characters who each find themselves turning up at Sachie’s restaurant largely by chance but this time there’s a little added cross cultural pollination too.

Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) has learned fluent Finnish and put together a welcoming space serving coffee and sweet goods as well as full meals in a fairly central location though she’s yet to receive a single customer through her doors. Three middle aged women often stop outside and stare making some sort of derogatory comment before scuttling off when Sachie spots them. Then, one day a teenage boy comes in and unexpectedly tries out some of his Japanese. He turns out to be a bit of a Japanophile and asks Sachie to teach him all the words to the Gatachman theme tune though she can’t remember past the opening. The tune gets stuck in her head and starts to drive her so mad that when she spots another Japanese woman in a bookshop cafe she marches up to ask her if she can remember the whole thing and luckily she can. Sachie then offers to let the woman, Midori (Hairi Katagiri), stay at her place in return and the two become friends. Later another Japanese lady, Masako (Masako Motai), turns up after her luggage goes missing and together the three start to make a success of Sachie’s diner.

Why Sachie chose Finland remains a mystery, though she has taken the time to learn Finnish to a near native level and also seems to know quite a lot about the various local legends. She doesn’t seem particularly rushed though and is fairly content to wait around for the customers to come of their own accord rather than trying to chase them down herself. In fact she gives her very first customer, the Japanese pop culture enthusiast Tommi, free coffee for life which doesn’t seem like the best business decision.

Likewise, we learn how Midori came to choose Finland as a holiday destination but she seems a little sad and the fact that her stay is open ended perhaps hints at having run away from something though once again we aren’t told much about her backstory. Not that that matters very much, quite the contrary in fact. Masako proves the most eccentric of the three though we actually learn quite a bit about what brought her to Finland.

Other than Tommi who seems most interested in the stereotypical aspects of Japanese culture (to the slight consternation of Midori) with his T-shirts bearing non sensical slogans and illustrations of geisha, the restaurant does start to attract a few Finns albeit mostly ones who are in some sort of trouble. One man teaches Sachie how to make better coffee, a middle aged woman simply stares angrily at them from outside until she comes in one day and downs a few of the local spirit before collapsing, and then there are the other three gossips who turn out to be won over with something as simple as sweet smelling pastries.

Simply put, warmth, kindness and patience eventually break down all barriers. The Kamome Diner becomes a refuge for all the lonely misfits from home and abroad watched over by Sachie & co always ready to pour some delicious smelling coffee for the next needy customer through the door. Wonderfully low-key and filled with absurd yet oddly plausible situations, Kamome Diner blends the dual eccentricities of these two stereotypically “wacky” countries beautifully and just goes to prove there’s nowt so queer as folk wherever you land.


The Japanese region A blu-ray release of Kamome Diner includes English subtitles!

Short (unsubtitled) scene from near the beginning of the film:

Megane (めがね, Naoko Ogigami, 2007)

119236783696916311605When considering their next holiday destination, many people like to peruse some brochures, have a read of trip advisor or head to a well known tourist spot that is likely to impress the guests at their next soirée but then there are always others who just simply show up somewhere and hope for the best. The central character of Megane, Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi), perhaps wishes she’d done a little research before heading out to a very strange inn on a very strange island but the longer she stays, the more the ways of the laid-back islanders seem to make sense to her.

The film begins as inn owner Yuji (Ken Mitsuishi) plays with his dog on the beach before suddenly realising “She’s here!” – referring to a favourite, annual guest who operates a shaved ice stand on that very same beach but for the spring only. Sakura (Masako Motai) has, indeed, arrived but unexpectedly there is also a second visitor, Taeko, all the way from the big city. Yuki seems impressed Taeko managed to find the out of the way hotel and points out their tiny sign (if they had a bigger one there would be too many customers).

Taeko might have been looking for an escape but this is a little more than she bargained for. First off, she gets a wake up call every morning in the form of Sakura kneeling next to her bed and commenting on the weather and she’s sort of expected to attend meals at the same time as everyone else, convenient or not. Sakura also leads a strange callisthenics session on the beach each morning which Taeko is encouraged to join as well as constantly being offered Sakura’s shaved ice which she always declines.

There isn’t much to do in this strange place, Yuji, Sakura and another woman who isn’t a guest but hangs round all the time anyway are convinced Taeko has come for the purpose of “twilighting” which Taeko doesn’t quite understand and they refuse to elaborate on but apparently this weird island is very good for it. Getting sick of these strange people and their odd habits Taeko decides to just check out and try another hotel. BIG MISTAKE. The other hotel on the island turns out to be an even more bizarre cult commune which makes Yuji and co seem much more appealing all of a sudden. Returning humbly to the extremely relaxed hotel and sacrificing her suitcase in the process, Taeko finally begins to embrace the odd ways of the island and open herself up to its benign indifference.

However, part way through she’s rudely interrupted by one of her students who’s managed to track her down despite her having chosen this place specifically for its remoteness and lack of cellphone signal. Yomogi (Ryo Kase) takes to the weird ways of the island like a fish to water, in fact his hipsterish adaptability is a little odd in itself, but against expectations his arrival only slightly irritates Taeko and creates no major drama of its own. The mystery of the overly jealous hanger on, Haruna (Mikako Ichikawa), is partially solved towards the end though her gentle possessiveness of the inn bound family and passive aggression to Taeko’s gradual acclimatisation is also more of the comic variety and eventually works itself out in a gentle way.

“Gentle” may well be the best way to describe Megane. Someone should probably market a “calm” mix which consists entirely of the relaxing island sounds of this film. These people take things slow and are all the happier for it. They know the pleasure of a sunset, shaved ice on the beach on a sunny day, drinking beer outside or enjoying a barbecue with friends. Mellow to the core, Megane is the ideal way to find your own spot of serenity at the end of a busy day and is sure to ease even the heaviest of hearts with its subtle, absurd humour.


The Japanese region A blu-ray release of Megane includes English subtitles!