Sasaki in My Mind (佐々木、イン、マイマイン, Takuya Uchiyama, 2020)

A young man is forced to confront his quarter life malaise when presented with unexpected tragedy in Takuya Uchiyama’s heartfelt youth movie, Sasaki in My Mind (佐々木、イン、マイマイン). A study in inertia, Uchiyama’s moody drama finds its melancholy hero defeated by life, looking back to more hopeful high school days and the larger than life friend he has, by his own admission, failed convinced by his own rather solipsistic sense of personal inadequacy that he lacked the capacity to save him. 

An aspiring actor, Yuji (Kisetsu Fujiwara) lives in a small apartment with his ex-girlfriend (Minori Hagiwara) and makes ends meet with a factory job he seems to be embarrassed by. Approached by an actor friend (Nijiro Murakami) apparently doing a little a better with a series of bit parts in TV shows and commercials, Yuji is reluctant to take him up on his offer of a part in a play, while an accidental meeting with an old high school friend, Tada (Yuya Shintaro), pushes him into a defensive mindset after he’s rightly called on his passivity. “Watching life go by in terror” as his character in the play eventually puts it, Yuji is so defeated by life that it has rendered him entirely listless. Ironically taking up boxing, he gets into a random fight with a customer from the the next table at an izakaya, insisting that he doesn’t want to lose but otherwise refusing to fight for anything even the girlfriend he apparently still loves whose refusal to move on perhaps hints at the desire to be given a reason not to. 

His meeting with Tada, now a moderately successful, married salaryman, reminds him of his high school friend, Sasaki (Gaku Hosokawa), a larger than life character who used to strip impromptu and dance in the nude when greeted by chants of his name. It was Sasaki who first convinced him to become an actor as they watched Kirk Douglas in Champion on TV, though after graduation and a move to Tokyo Yuji made no real effort to keep in touch with his friend seeing him only once and discovering he had become a lonely pachinko player equally consumed by a sense of personal hopelessness. As Sasaki once put it, elephants communicate with each other through low frequency sound imperceptible to humans, his own quiet distress call apparently missed by his old friends who perhaps tired of his outlandishness as they outgrew their teenage selves and became bogged down in their own lives leaving him behind as they strove forward alone. 

Left behind is something which Yuji cannot help but feel, further deepening his sense of personal failure in having achieved not much of anything in his Tokyo life. Sasaki aside, his high school friends, Tada and Kimura (Yusaku Mori), have each shifted into a conventional adulthood with regular salaryman jobs, homes, wives, and even children. He didn’t go to his last high school reunion, probably as Tada seems to have realised out of a sense of shame, for the same reason avoiding contact with his old friends while living in an awkward limbo with the ex who apparently grew bored with his lack of drive and continuing air of defeated ennui. Despite his own insecurity, Sasaki had encouraged him to live his life, ensuring him that he’s got this, but when it came to it Yuji failed to do the same abandoning him in their old home town as a relic of the past he can’t quite accept. 

Admitting as much to his theatre director, Yuji is once again told to shine in his own spotlight and that lonely people aren’t necessarily lonely because they’re alone. Everyone keeps telling him to grow up, act like an adult, but Yuji doesn’t seem to know how hung up on high school immaturity and reflecting only too late that perhaps they never really understood their friend and in the end they simply left him behind. Only a confrontation with finality pushes him towards a break with his sense of inertia, acknowledging that what he feared was letting go and the eventual forgetting that comes with loss but the “world is rushing forward. We have to keep up”. Sasaki remains for him at least in his mind as he always was, the first of many goodbyes in an “empty elegy” that eventually becomes one’s own. A touching tale of quarter life crisis, Uchiyama’s moving drama eventually pushes its static hero towards an acceptance of his moral cowardice but finally gives him the courage to move forward taking his memories with him into a freer future. 


Sasaki in My Mind streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

Soirée (ソワレ, Bunji Sotoyama, 2020)

“You can run but not from yourself” a gruff but sympathetic farmer explains to a fugitive young couple, astutely perhaps understanding the quality of their flight. Less a lovers on the run romantic fantasy than a gentle character study in trauma and insecurity, Bunji Sotoyama’s Soirée (ソワレ) finds its two wounded youngsters struggling to find safety and security in an increasingly indifferent society in which they are perhaps expected to care for an older generation they may feel has long since abandoned them. 

Aspiring actor Shota (Nijiro Murakami) for instance has been participating in a spate of “It’s Me!” scams targeting the older generation in which they are convinced that their grandson has been involved in some sort of trouble and is in desperate need of money. We can see by the ambivalent look on his face that he hates himself for his “role” in this sordid piece of modern day drama but also that it plays into his self-destructive conviction that he is no good and cannot achieve conventional success. His need for slapdash, quick fix solutions is further driven home by the coach at his acting class who gives him a very public dressing down for coming in unprepared, insisting that he’ll never move anyone until he gets some real life experience and engages with the text. 

While Shota takes an envelope from an anxious grey-haired old lady, Takara (Haruka Imou), a withdrawn young woman working at a nursing home, gently brushes another’s hair only for her to suddenly disappear while Takara hums a comforting lullaby. We witness her nervousness at the unexpected ring of the doorbell and the panic attacks when some of the older gentlemen mistakenly grab at her, later realising they are each responses to a deep-seated trauma as revealed by a letter telling her that her estranged father who had been in prison for long term abuse is about to be released. 

The pair eventually meet when Shota returns to his hometown with an acting troupe hired to put on a play at the home though things get off to an ominous start when one of the old ladies suddenly collapses while working with the actors, the head of the troupe rather cynically musing on DNR orders and the desires of some absentee children to keep their parents alive in order to continue receiving their pension. These contradictory impulses, Takara’s warmth and compassion towards the elderly people in her care and Shota’s wilful exploitation of their weakness, is brought home when Takara’s father suddenly returns, barges his way into her home asking for a fresh start claiming to have paid his debt, and then proceeds to rape her all over again. Discovered mid-act by Shota who had come to collect her for the local festival, Takara eventually stabs her father with a pair of dressmaking scissors in order to protect him, the pair thereafter finding themselves on the run. 

Coming to her senses, Takara intends to hand herself in but is convinced by Shota to make a run for it. “Why do the ones who struggle most get hit worst, why do the weakest always lose?” he ironically asks her, “We weren’t born to be hurt”. Yet their contradictory qualities are only further highlighted as they try to chart a new course for themselves. The pair find temporary refuge with a pair of plum farmers who take pity on them thinking they are a young couple eloping as apparently they once were, only Shota later makes a half-hearted attempt to rob them which he quickly gives up on being challenged by the sympathetic husband. In the next town, Takara determines to look for work while Shota tries to make money through bicycle races and pachinko, chastened by her admonishment on finding employment that it’s possible to support oneself without cheating others. 

Somewhat tritely, Shota tries to tell her that God never burdens you with more than you can bear, while the older woman at the plum farm also offers that plums are all the sweeter for their suffering during a harsh winter dangerously playing into a notion of internalised shame that told Takara she would blossom into the kindest soul who ever lived once her suffering was over only to leave her feeling empty and despoiled as if she somehow deserved everything that happened to her. Shota’s troubles are by comparison small, his conservative brother irritatedly telling him he should accept he has no talent and get a real job, while he too perhaps thinks he is empty inside and therefore incapable of moving anyone just as his director told him. Finding salvation in mutual acceptance they begin to see the “way out” only for their essential connection to be threatened by its very existence. 

A melancholy character study through the legacy of trauma and toxicity of internalised shame, Sotoyama’s occasionally ethereal drama takes on the qualities of a fable through the repeated allusions to princess Kiyohime and her doomed love for the wandering monk Anchin yet he is careful enough to hold out a ray of hope for each of the wounded lovers in their apparently fated connection even as they struggle to find refuge in an often hostile society.


Soirée streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Ken Ninomiya, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Chiwawa posterFollowing indie drama The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, Ken Ninomiya takes a further step towards the mainstream with Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Chiwawa-chan), inspired by Kyoko Okazaki’s 1996 manga. Updated for the Instagram generation, Ninomiya’s adaptation leans heavily on his trademark clubland style and sheds the sense of nihilism which defined mid-90s pop culture in favour of a world weary exploration of identity in the internet age in which connections are wilfully fleeting and personas easily interchangeable. The party is, however, about to come to an end for the latest generation of bright young things seeking hedonistic release but finding only emptiness in the superficial pleasures of meaningless excess.

The titular “Chiwawa” (Shiori Yoshida) is found dead, floating in pieces in Tokyo Bay. The notice of her demise is, in fact, the first time many of her friends discover her real name, Yoshiko Chiwaki, apparently 20 years old and according to the news a nursing student. She was for a time a big star on Instagram and a popular internet model whose face could be seen all over the city on mile high billboards, but before that she was just a girl looking for fun and friends in the Tokyo club scene which is how she met our heroine, Miki (Mugi Kadowaki). Like Miki herself, Chiwawa was added to the small group of clubland friends as the current squeeze of playboy student Yoshida (Ryo Narita), introducing herself with her enigmatic nickname supposedly a reference to her petite stature. Branding herself as an ultra cute airhead, she quickly worked her way into the disparate group of Bohemians but eventually outgrew them and moved on to more dubious pleasures including an ill-fated love affair with a famous photographer (Tadanobu Asano).

The only one of her friends seemingly preoccupied about what happened to Chiwawa, Miki begins an investigation but her research is less geared towards finding out who killed her – something the police don’t seem to be very invested in, but discovering who she “really” was. Mimicking the structure of Okazaki’s episodic manga, Miki begins interviewing her friends to build up a kaleidoscopic composite of the woman she thought she knew while perhaps discovering something about herself as she reconsiders her own life trajectory and the coming end of her youthful days in the clubland scene while pondering where it is she’s supposed to go next.

Like much of Okazaki’s work, the manga’s mid-90’s setting is soaked post-bubble malaise as her dejected youngsters escape from the sense of crushing disappointment in the wake of the abrupt end of the heady ‘80s heyday of Japan as leading global economy, but for Miki and her friends twenty years later perhaps things aren’t all that different as they fight the onset of adulthood and the relative lack of freedom and possibility they will encounter when their student lives end and the workaday world finally arrives. Aspiring filmmaker Nagai (Nijiro Murakami) captures everything with his video camera while working as a photographer’s assistant by day, allowing Miki and her friends to use the studio at night for their Instagram side gigs which is how Chiwawa winds up in the fashion biz.

Some starving artists, others merely nervous hedonists, the gang have no money but when Chiwawa runs off with the gigantic bribe a group of slimy businessmen were boasting about carrying, the gang manage to blow it in just three days of upscale partying. Miki alone, and perhaps more in hindsight, feels the emptiness of all this senseless excess but it’s Chiwawa herself who seems to fear the party’s end most of all. When you start to think it’ll go on like this forever, that’s when you know it’s about to end she laments, apparently missing her old gang like crazy but knowing you can’t put something back together after it falls apart.

Miki fails to solve the mystery of Chiwawa, perhaps sorry that she didn’t try harder to know her while she was alive but also knowing that’s partly because “Chiwawa” might not have wanted to be known for all that she was chasing love and acceptance in all the wrong places. In the end, she retreats into a past that no one quite remembers, another melancholy ghost of Tokyo’s neon-tinged nightlife. Youth moves on, clubs close down, the world keeps turning. That may be the saddest thing of all, Chiwawa remains unknown, unloved, and finally unremembered. A melancholy exploration of fractured identities, the ethereality of youth, and the impossibility of true connection, Chiwawa is another zeitgeisty piece from Ninomiya which takes the manga’s post-bubble anxiety and reboots for an age of alienation in which the end of the party is always lingering painfully on the horizon.


Chiwawa was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)

The Gun (銃, Masaharu Take, 2018)

The Gun poster 1Much as Haruhiko Oyabu had in the post-war era, Fuminori Nakamura is fast becoming the go to voice for nihilistic noir in Japanese cinema. Several of his famously dark novels have already been adapted for the screen, most recently the grisly mystery Last Winter We Parted, but it’s only now that his lowkey debut The Gun (銃, Ju) is getting a suitably detached adaptation from 100 Yen Love’s Masaharu Take.

Like many of Nakamura’s “heroes”, Toru Nishikawa (Nijiro Murakami) is a disaffected youngster who thinks “it’s completely worthless to live”. His life changes one day when he comes across the body of a middle-aged man with a pistol lying next to it. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Toru picks the gun up and takes it home with him. Gradually its presence begins to obsess him as if he were literally being seduced by it. Believing he can communicate with the gun through touch, he lovingly caresses it, buys it trinkets, and lingers over thoughts of all they could do together.

Even when he takes a casual hookup (Kyoko Hinami) to bed, all Toru can think about is the gun. In the morning he tries to make her hate him by coming on strong, but it backfires because it appears to be what she likes, at least she suggests they hook up again, possibly on a regular but casual basis because she already has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, another prospect walks onto the scene – Yuko (Alice Hirose), a young woman Toru may or may not have forgotten meeting in the past. With Yuko Toru decides to do everything “properly” in a quest to win her heart rather than just her bodily submission.

Detached and very possibly a sociopath, Toru does indeed begin to show something of a more sensitive side in dealing with the similarly depressed Yuko. His gentlemanly act may be just that (and as one might expect, it largely works) but does at least display an acute emotional intelligence even if it’s being wilfully misused. Similarly, his first reaction to hearing alarming sounds suggesting the woman next door is mistreating her child is to turn his stereo up and ignore them, but he later finds himself trying to talk to the little boy in the street and eventually even calling the police only to have his mistrust of authority confirmed when they admit they’re aware of the situation and will send someone but probably not until the next day.

The woman next door, a bar hostess who rolls in late and kicks her kid out of bed to sleep on the porch so she can entertain her gentlemen callers, drags up unwelcome memories of the woman who abandoned him to an orphanage. To be fair, Toru does not seem any more misogynistic than his sleazy friends but has a fairly utilitarian idea of “romance”, viewing it as a game of conquest either fast and loose like with the casual hookup or slow and deep as in his careful pursuit of Yuko. Gradually his separate pursuits of the two women become confused, leading Yuko to confront him over whatever it is that’s so obviously “wrong” with him. Upset as she is, Yuko sees the darkness in Toru but must also see the light, affirming that she has her darkness too but is willing to help him with his if only he gives her a little time and waits for her forgiveness.

Toru, meanwhile, is still fixated on his beloved gun which he has begun to carry about with him in a little bag for added frisson. Living largely without feeling, the thrill of carrying such an illicit object becomes a peculiar kind of drug, as does the intoxicating thought of the act of actually firing it and finally of taking a life. A wily police detective (Lily Franky) cuts straight through Toru’s smug facade to the gaping void beneath, trying to prevent him from jumping straight into the abyss but confident he will fail. As the detective predicted, Toru’s sense of reason continues to fragment leaving him unsure of what is real and what isn’t while he obsesses over the gun and what he might do with it but in a purely intellectual sense without considering the real world consequences of his actions. An exercise in style, The Gun is a noirish tale of existential ennui and dark obsession filled with nihilistic dread as its soulless hero commits to living his “worthless” life only to wilfully rob himself of the possibility of salvation.


The Gun screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2016)

destruction-babiesPost-golden age, Japanese cinema has arguably had a preoccupation with the angry young man. From the ever present tension of the seishun eiga to the frustrations of ‘70s art films and the punk nihilism of the 1980s which only seemed to deepen after the bubble burst, the young men of Japanese cinema have most often gone to war with themselves in violent intensity, prepared to burn the world which they feel holds no place for them. Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ) is a fine addition to this tradition but also an urgent one. Stepping somehow beyond nihilism, Mariko’s vision of his country’s future is a bleak one in which young, fatherless men inherit the traditions of their ancestors all the while desperately trying to destroy them. Devoid of hope, of purpose, and of human connection the youth of the day get their kicks vicariously, so busy sharing their experiences online that reality has become an obsolete concept and the physical sensation of violence the only remaining truth.

The rundown port towns of Shikoku are an apt place to stage this battle. Panning over the depressingly quiet harbour, urgent, thrumming electric guitars bring tension to the air as the younger of two brothers, Shota (Nijiro Murakami), catches sight of his only remaining family member, older brother Taira (Yuya Yagira). Currently in the middle of getting a beating from local thugs, Taira signals his intention to leave town, which he does after his boss breaks up the fight and tells him to get lost.

By the time Shota has crossed the river, his brother is already lost to him. A vengeful, crazed demon with strange, burning eyes, Taira has taken the same path as many an angry young man and headed into town spoiling for a fight. Driven by rage, Taira fights back but only to be fought with – he craves pain, is energised by it, and rises again with every fall stronger but a little less human.

As he says, he has his rules (as mysterious as they may be), but Taira’s violent exploits eventually find a disciple in previously cowardly high school boy Yuya (Masaki Suda) who discovers the potential violence has to create power from fear in witnessing Taira’s one man war of stubbornness with the local yakuza. Yuya, a coward at heart, is without code, fears pain, and seeks only domination to ease his lack of self confidence. Taira, random as his violence is, attacks only other males capable of giving him what he needs but Yuya makes a point of attacking those least likely to offer resistance. Proclaiming that he always wanted to hit a woman, Yuya drop kicks schoolgirls and sends middle aged housewives and their shopping flying.

The sole female voice, Nana (Nana Komatsu) – a kleptomaniac yakuza moll who finds her validation though shoplifting unneeded items selected for the pleasure of stealing them, originally finds the ongoing violence exciting as she watches the viral videos but feels very differently when confronted with its real, physical presence and each of the implied threats to her person it presents. Tough and wily, Nana is a survivor. Where Taira staked his life on violence and Yuya on the threat of it, Nana survives through cunning. The victory is hers, as hollow as it may turn out to be.

Mariko’s chilling vision paints the ongoing crime spree as a natural result of a series of long standing cultural norms in which contradictory notions of masculinity compete with a conformist, constraining society. The entire founding principle of the small town in which the film takes place is that men come of age through violence, though the older man who has (or claims to have) provided the bulk of parental input for these parentless brothers describes Taira as if he were the very demon such festivals are often created to expel. Men of 18 years carry the portable shrines, he repeatedly says, but 18 year old Taira is a “troublemaker” and “troublemakers” must leave the town altogether.

If Taira sought connection through violence, Shota continues to seek it through human emotions – searching for his brother, hanging out with his friends, and drawing closer to his brother’s boss who offers him differing degrees of fatherly input. In contrast to his peers, Shota seems to disapprove of the way his cocksure (false) friend Kenji (Takumi Kitamura) treats women though it is also true that Kenji is actively frustrating his attempts to find his brother whilst dangling a clue right before his eyes. Nevertheless, the harshness of this unforgiving world seems determined to turn Shota into the same rage filled creature of despair as his older brother as injustice piles on injustice with no hope of respite.

Destruction Babies is apt name for the current society – born of chaos, trapped in perpetual childhood, and thriving on violence. Taira and Shota were always outsiders in a world which organises itself entirely around the family unit but the force which drives their world is not love but pain, this world is one underpinned by the physical at the expense of the spiritual. Metaphorically or literally, the lives of the young men of today will entail repeated blows to the face while those of the young women will require ingenious sideward motions to avoid them. Oblique, ambiguous, and soaked in blood, Destruction Babies is a rebel yell for a forlorn hope, as raw as it is disturbing.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017 and set for UK release from Third Window Films later in the year.

Original trailer (English subtitles)