Under the Stars (星の子, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“The time of realisation comes and then that person changes” according to the words of a new religion guru. The sentiment is true enough, even if the meaning is slightly different from that which she’d intended. Young Chihiro, however, the heroine of Tatsushi Omori’s adaptation of the novel by Natsuko Imamura Under the Stars (星の子, Hoshi no Ko), is indeed approaching a moment of realisation as she begins to question everything about the world around her as it had been presented throughout the course of her life. 

As a baby, Chichiro (Mana Ashida) had suffered from severe eczema which had left her in terrible pain and her parents suffering with her in witnessing her distress. On the advice of a colleague, Chichiro’s father (Masatoshi Nagase) decides to try using “Venus Blessed Water” which is apparently full of cosmic energy that can cure all ills. Chihiro begins to recover and her parents become devotees of the cult which produces it eventually alienating her older sister, Ma (Aju Makita), who is unable to reconcile herself with the outlandish beliefs they advance and rituals they conduct. 

For Chihiro, however, the cult is all she’s ever known so it is in that way “normal” and it’s never really occurred to her to question it even after her sister’s mysterious “disappearance”. But as she approaches the end of middle-school, a few well placed questions from her classmates give her pause for thought wondering if her parents’ claims about the miracle water could possibly be true or if, as her best friend Watanabe (Ninon) wonders, they are simply being scammed. After all, if water could solve all the world’s problems it would either be ridiculously expensive or completely free and if you could stay healthy by placing a damp towel on your head then everyone would be doing it. Her parents claim they don’t get colds because the water boosts their immune system, but perhaps they’re just lucky enough to be the kind of people who don’t often get that kind of sick or the fact that they obviously spend almost all their time in the bubble of the cult reduces their exposure. 

Her crunch point comes when her handsome maths teacher (Masaki Okada) on whom she has a crush spots her parents doing the ritual in a park and exasperatedly points them out as complete nutcases. When she eventually tells him who they are, he inappropriately calls her out in front of the entire class by telling her to get rid of her “weird” water while subtly undermining her religious beliefs with advice about how to avoid getting colds or other potentially dangerous seasonal viruses. Omori presents the cult neutrally, hinting that the discrimination Chihiro is facing as a member of a “new religion” may be unfair while the beliefs of traditional religions may seem no stranger to the unfamiliar and to criticise them so directly would be deemed unacceptable in any liberal society. In a sense perhaps we all grow up in a kind of cult only latterly questioning the things our parents taught us to be true. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo meanwhile had once tried to use science and experience to undermine her parents’ beliefs, he and Ma swapping out their holy water for the tap variety to prove to them that they are being duped only for them to double down and refuse to accept the “truth”. 

Uncle Yuzo and his family eventually offer Chihiro a place to stay in the hope of getting her out of the cult but are also of course asking her to betray her parents by leaving them. She remains preoccupied by the fate of her sister, particularly hearing rumours about the cult supposedly disappearing those who turn against them, but is torn between her growing doubts and love for her parents while privately suspicious about the fate of a child much like herself kept locked up by his mum and dad who say he’s terribly ill and unable to speak (which doesn’t exactly support the cult’s claims of universal healing), but who knows what might actually be true.

Shoko (Haru Kuroki), the wife of the guru Kairo (Kengo Kora), is fond of reminding the younger members that they are not there of their own free will which is of course true whatever the implications for fate and determinism because they are children whose parents have forced them to attend which might explain their sense of resentment or what she implies is “resistance” to their spiritual messaging in urging them to make an active choice to accept the cult’s teachings. Chihiro is coming to a realisation that she may be on a different path than her parents but delaying her exit while they too are possibly preparing her for more independent life. Lighter than much of Omori’s previous work despite its weighty themes, Under the Stars is also in its way about the end of childhood and the bittersweet compromises that accompany it. 


Under The Stars streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (c) 2020 “Under the Stars” Production Committee

Makuko (まく子, Keiko Tsuruoka, 2019)

“In this world nothing lasts forever” the conflicted hero of Keiko Tsuruoka’s Makuko (まく子) is tearfully told, though it’s a lesson he struggles to learn as he battles the anxiety of leaving the certainties of childhood behind. Adapted from Kanako Nishi’s 2016 novel, Makuko is unafraid of the fantastical but resolutely rooted in the everyday as “aliens” make their descent into regular small-town life to learn what it is to die, or so they say, while the hero discovers what it is to live through the beauty of transience. 

11-year-old Satoshi (Hikaru Yamazaki) is coming to the realisation that he is growing up. Things around him, or more precisely his perception of them, are changing in small but obvious ways and he’s not OK with it. Like the other children he used to enjoy being read manga by Dono (Jun Murakami), a middle-aged man with learning difficulties who hangs around with the local children, but has for some reason begun to find it embarrassing. Meanwhile, he’s also battling a degree of resentment towards his distant father (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) in becoming aware of his parents’ complicated relationship after spotting him with another woman and hearing constant references to his philandering which his mother (Risa Sudou) seems to have accepted. Satoshi doesn’t know much, but he knows he doesn’t want to be like his dad or any of the other duplicitous adults he sees around the town which is one of many reasons that he fears growing up and being forced to enter the world of adult hypocrisy against his will. 

All of these fears are challenged by the unexpected appearance of intergalactic transfer student Kozue (Ninon) who tells him that she and her equally odd mother (Miho Tsumiki) are actually from a distant planet somewhere near Saturn where nothing ever changes and no one gets old. This is, she explains, because their bodies are made of particles which are eternal and unchanging, unlike those of Satoshi’s body which are constantly in flux which is why humans grown old and die. When a meteorite carrying different particles hit the planet’s surface, it caused a population explosion leaving her people with the unprecedented choice to die only no one really knows what “death” means which is why she’s come to Earth. Satoshi is envious of an unchanging world, seeing only futility in his equation of change with death which is what it is that he’s really afraid of. Why grow up only to die? he asks, only for Kozue to point out that like the leaves she’s fond of throwing in the air, if they didn’t fall they wouldn’t be so pretty. 

Satoshi isn’t really sure he believes Kozue’s strange story, only that he’s certain he doesn’t want her to die. It seems he fell out with a friend who stopped coming to school because of stories the other kids thought he was making up about UFOs and ladders in the sky, but if what Kozue says is true then perhaps he owes him an apology. Dono, whom he’d previously looked down on as “the town’s second biggest loser” offers him some valuable advice that perhaps it’s better to believe the things that people tell you and if you find out later that they lied, well you can deal with that then. 

Whether Kozue’s an alien or not, Satoshi is fairly certain he’s falling in love with her which is a whole other set of problems which brings him back to his problematic dad and the awkwardness of puberty. He doesn’t want to be an adult, but his body is changing all on its own and there’s nothing he can do about it. The local festival is all about “rebirth” through creation and destruction, but Satoshi still struggles to accept the necessity of change in order to grow, wishing things could simply remain as they are. What he learns is that we’re all “aliens” in one sense or another, everyone is lost and afraid and different but also the same, keepers of a hundred “tiny eternities” equating to one vast whole.  

“Everything disappears in the end” Satoshi is told during an intense encounter with his father’s mistress, but then again perhaps it doesn’t only remaining in a different form. A cosmic event brings the townspeople together in banal awe that quickly passes into a collective memory, and while some depart others arrive in their place bringing with them their own near identical anxieties and, like meteorites striking home, new opportunities for growth. 


Makuko is available to stream in Germany until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)