Yan (燕, Keisuke Imamura, 2019)

A sense of dislocation plagues the drifting heroes of Keisuke Imamura’s elegantly lensed Yan (燕), a poetic meditation on the legacy of abandonment both cultural and familial. As much about the disintegration of a family as the complexities of identity, Imamura’s nuanced character drama finds its hero looking for himself in the shadow of his long lost brother and rediscovering perhaps a long absent sense of security in reconnecting with his childhood self while learning to let go of his fierce resentment towards the mother he assumed had forgotten him. 

28-year-old Tsubame (Long Mizuma) is a workaholic architect with a successful, settled life in Tokyo. He is also, however, slightly disconnected and harbouring a great deal of anger towards his family, aside it seems from his cheerful step-mother. An awkward meeting with his father following a rare summons to the family home results in some distressing news. His company’s gone under and he’s deep in debt, which is why he wants Tsubame to go to Taiwan to deliver some important papers to his estranged older brother Ryushin (Takashi Yamanaka) whom he hasn’t seen in 23 years since he left with their mother (Yo Hitoto) so he can renounce his rights to an inheritance to avoid being liable for his father’s debts. Tsubame is reluctant, he didn’t even go to Taiwan for his mother’s funeral and has done his best to erase that side of his life from his memory, but after his step-mother guilt trips him by explaining that his father’s in poor health so it might be the last thing he’ll ever ask he finds himself on the next flight to Kaohsiung.

Despite his animosity towards his Taiwanese heritage, Tsubame seems to have maintained his Mandarin which is a definite help in the busy city but finds himself conflicted in being taken at first for a local and then recognised as not. Sitting down at a dumpling stand the proprietress and another customer guess that he is probably Japanese but on hearing that he was born in the area and his mother was from there immediately remind him that he is then also Taiwanese, something that appears to bother him. Flashing back to his childhood we witness both warm scenes of his mother conversing with her children in Mandarin while they mainly reply in Japanese, and a series of xenophobic micro-aggressions from neighbours who accuse her of trying to harm their children with new year dumplings containing lucky coins while Tsubame finds himself a victim of bullying by the local kids after mistakenly using his Chinese name, Yan, or making the usual kinds of language mistakes that all young children make but being made fun of over them as someone not quite Japanese. Like the heroines of What’s For Dinner, Mom? he also remembers a sense of embarrassment on being the only kid with a non-standard bento but sadly never managed to convert any of his classmates to Taiwanese food, internalising a sense of shame over his difference and becoming hyper Japanese in response. In a particularly painful moment, he berates his mother for her poor language skills and lack of cultural awareness, tearing up a drawing he’d made and crying out that he wished he could swap her for a “normal” Japanese mum like everyone else’s. 

Why exactly she chose to leave only him behind, taking her older son with her, is never quite explained but perhaps a part of her felt that Tsubame preferred to stay in Japan. Ryushin meanwhile is carrying his own burden having left with his mother but resentful over her longing for the son she left behind. He appears to have felt dislocated himself as a boy raised Japan struggling to adapt to his new environment and is now a divorced father, it seems living with another man who left the Mainland for the comparatively liberal Taiwan to escape a conservative father and the pain of having to keep his true a identity a secret even from himself. Bonding with Tony (Ryushin Tei), his brother’s partner, Tsubame comes to a realisation that he has been doing something much the same in rejecting his Taiwanese heritage but struggles to accept that a person can be more than one thing and like the sparrow from which he takes his name could be equally at home in both Japan and Taiwan. 

As Tony tells him, somewhat cynically, bitterness is also born of love which is after all what has brought Tsubame all the way to Kaohsiung. Tsubame’s mother had told him the Chinese proverb that a mother’s love is like a flowing river, but a child’s is the like breeze that rustles the leaves. The small Tsubame replied that he’d always love his mother but has spent the majority of his life in silent resentment, only latterly acknowledging it might have been true after all after coming to an understanding of his mother’s choices and realising that in her heart at least she had never abandoned him. 


Yan was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Minori, On The Brink (お嬢ちゃん, Ryutaro Ninomiya, 2019)

“Days like this make me feel I’m wasting my life” sighs just another dejected youngster in Ryutaro Ninomiya’s quietly enraged takedown of millennial malaise in a fiercely patriarchal society, Minori, On The Brink (お嬢ちゃん, Ojochan). In a culture which often favours politeness and avoids confrontation, Minori is a rare young woman determined to speak her mind though always with patience and grace and in turn a willingness to apologise if she feels that she has acted less than ideally, but her words often fall on deaf ears while those around her stumble through their lives chasing conventional illusions of happiness to mask a creeping despair. 

We first meet 20-something Minori (Minori Hagiwara) as she challenges a man who tried to force himself on her friend, Rieko, cowering quietly behind her. Minori wants an apology, but predictably he denies everything and quickly becomes angry, held back by his equally skeevy friend who advises him to apologise if only to defuse the situation. In the end Minori doesn’t get her apology and has to settle for having made a stand, retreating to avoid causing her friend more harm, but on exit the third man chases after her to ask for her contact information. Really, you couldn’t make it up. 

Part of Minori’s anger is bound up with being a so-called “cute girl” and everything that comes with it in a society still defined by male desire. Parades of idiotic young men, for some reason always in threes, come through the cafe where she works part-time expressly because a “cute girl” works there, while she’s forever being invited out by female friends who want to bring a “cute girl” to the party. Somewhat insecure, Minori worries that people are only interested in her cuteness and might otherwise reject her if, say, she were badly disfigured in some kind of accident. But what she resents most is that it’s other women who enable this primacy of the cute, the way her bashful, “homely” friend Rieko is always apologising for herself, while the other women who self-identify as “ugly” willingly cede their space to the conventionally attractive. 

In short, they submit themselves totally to pandering to male desire while men feel themselves entitled to female attention whether they want to give it or not. Dining in a local restaurant, Minori and Rieko are invited to a party by the proprietress which neither of them seem keen to go to but Rieko is too shy to refuse even when Minori reminds her of the traumatic incident at the last party with the guy who forced himself into the ladies bathroom and tried to kiss her against her will. The older woman laughs it off, affirming that he “meant no harm”, he was just drunk. This is exactly what Minori can’t stand. She keeps telling people she isn’t angry, but is she is irritated by Rieko’s need to apologise for something that isn’t her fault, seeing it as enabling the culture that allows men to do as they please while women have to obey a set of arbitrary rules of which remaining quiet is only one. 

In her own quiet way, Minori refuses to toe the line but is constantly plagued by unwanted male attention. Getting into an altercation with a creepy guy who waited outside her place of work to find out why she didn’t reply to his texts, she explains that he was just a casual hookup and that she finds his overly possessive behaviour frightening even as he continues not to take no for an answer, eventually branding her a “slut” for daring to embrace her sexuality. She demands an apology, not for what he called her but for the use of such misogynistic language. Earlier, in the trio of friends which contained Rieko’s attacker, another man had claimed he remembered Minori from a previous gathering, branding her as a “pigheaded mood wrecker” for daring to take them to task for their bad behaviour. The men talk about women only in terms of their desirability, the same man insisting that he has no interest in “strong willed women”, probably for obvious reasons. Another recounts having bullied a girl he fancied in middle-school, unable to understand why she avoided him despite bragging about having terrorised her and organising her ostracisation by the other girls (supposedly, he could do this because he was “popular”) until she finally transferred out (whether or not this actually had anything to with him remains uncertain). 

Perhaps to their credit, the other two guys immediately declare him uncool and are mildly horrified that he sold this to them as a funny story from his youth with absolutely no sense of repentance or self awareness. But their response is also problematic and born more of their boredom than their outrage, engaging in a bet over who can make him cry first as they “bully” him so that he’ll develop empathy for people who are “bullied”, never actually explaining to him why he’s being “punished”. Minori questions the problematic attitudes around her with straightforward candour, taking her cafe friend to task for her hypocrisy in taking against older men while expressing an uncomfortable preference for the very young.  

Nevertheless, Minori remains exhausted by the hypocrisies of the world around her. She declares herself “happy” with her ordinary life, a 4-day part-time job, low rent thanks to living with grandma, and spare time spent playing games. To that extent she has no desire to change her life, but the very fact of her “happiness” also depresses her in its banal ordinariness. “It’s all worthless” she suddenly cries, stunned by the inescapability of her ennui. On the brink of despair, Minori finds herself sustained only by rage not only towards an oppressive society but her own inability to resist it.


Minori, On The Brink was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. It will also be available to stream worldwide (excl. Japan) as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dancing Mary (ダンシング・マリー, SABU, 2019)

“Don’t any of you have basic empathy for people?” asks a ghost of the living in SABU’s confrontation of the Showa-era legacy and contemporary ennui, Dancing Mary (ダンシング・マリー). As the hero is repeatedly told, there’s a difference between living and being alive and it just might be that the dead are the ones making the most of their time while the rest of us coast along not really paying attention to the things that really matter while life passes us by. 

Take Fujimoto (NAOTO), for instance. He became a civil servant because it’s an easy, steady job with an OK salary where you don’t actually have to do anything very taxing. He didn’t get into this because he wanted to improve the lives of citizens, he just wants to do his 9 to 5 and then go home but even then he doesn’t seem to do much other than skateboarding, literally coasting through his life. All that changes when his desk buddy has some kind of breakdown after being put in charge of the demolition of a disused dancehall which is said to be haunted and has already had a similar effect on half the town’s self-proclaimed spiritual mediums. Stories of all powerful ghost “Dancing Mary” are already plaguing the area leaving the civil servants desperate for a solution and considering turning to the most Showa-era of remedies, a yakuza-backed construction firm. 

Fujimoto, meanwhile, ends up going in another direction after overhearing a teacher complaining about a Carrie-esque student who can read minds and talk to the dead. Mie (Aina Yamada) has problems of her own, seemingly having no family and mercilessly bullied even while desperately trying to blend in and be “normal”. When Fujimoto finds her she appears to have attempted suicide, but while sitting with her at the hospital he finds himself interrogated by nosy old ladies who demand to know what it is he thinks he’s doing with his life. Where your average auntie might be satisfied to hear a young man making the sensible choice to take a steady government paycheque, these two are having none of it. They accuse him of being a hypocrite, soullessly taking money for nothing while ignoring the needs of citizens. Nothing is chance, they insist, everything is inevitable but by living resolutely in the moment the future can be changed. The old ladies each have terminal cancer and are not expecting to leave the hospital but they’re living their best lives while they can. Everyone has their purpose, what’s yours? they ask, but Fujimoto has no answer for them. 

Thanks to Mie, Fujimoto learns that Mary is rooted to the dance hall because she’s waiting for her one true love, Johnny, a missing hillbilly rocker. As the old ladies had tried to tell him, Fujimoto’s problem is that he cannot see the ghosts in the world around him which is as much about choice as it is about ability. Literally taking him by the hand, Mie guides him through a world of abandoned spirits from Edo-era samurai to melancholy post-war suicides but it’s not until he’s rescued from Showa-era thugs by the ghost of a homeless man he himself is partly responsible for that he starts to see the big picture. The dancehall, Mary’s hauntingly romantic relic of a bygone era, is to be torn down to build another soulless shopping and entertainment complex. The homeless man died alone and forgotten after he was moved on from the place he was living so that it could be “redeveloped”. Fujimoto is supposed to be a civil servant, but all he’s ever done is move things on, pass the buck, and refuse his responsibility.  

While Mie is encouraged by the two old ladies to embrace her difference, resolving not to allow herself to be bullied hiding in the shadows but to use her powers for good, Fujimoto remains unconvinced, preferring to be “laidback”. His problem is that he’s never taken anything seriously and in that sense has never really been “alive” in the way that Mary and Johnny are “alive” while dead in the enduring quality of their decades-long, unresolved romance. After a few lessons from a pre-war yakuza (Ryo Ishibashi) about the importance of giri/ninjo and a more careful observation of the world around him Fujimoto is awakened to what it is to live, discovering a new purpose and vitality but nonetheless finding it a little inconvenient. “I don’t get life”, he exclaims walking away from dull conventionality towards something more meaningful and finally perhaps alive. 


Dancing Mary was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Beautiful, Goodbye (ビューティフル、グッバイ, Eiichi Imamura, 2019)

A man on the run hits a woman running out of time, what else could you call it but fate? Winner of the Special Jury Award at the PIA Film Festival, Eiichi Imamura’s Beautiful, Goodbye (ビューティフル、グッバイ) sees its conflicted heroes cast adrift as they flee from past trauma, bonding over their shared sense of hopeless alienation while driving towards some kind of resolution to their respective anxieties but perhaps fearing that there are no real safe spaces for those who find themselves at odds with the world in which they live. 

As the film opens, 32-year-old Daisuke (Yasuke Takebayashi) is caught in the immediate aftermath of having stabbed a man while a small child curls himself into a ball in the corner. Pausing only to comfort him, Daisuke leaves in a hurry and later steals a pickup truck still laden with the last of someone’s moving boxes. Meanwhile, another man, Shinoda (Koki Nakajima), chases after a woman, Natsu (Yobi), who is later found wounded in an alley before being wrapped in a sheet and toe tagged at the local morgue. That is not, however, the end of her story. Shinoda, having recovered her body, performs some strange ritual which brings her back to life only for her to escape and run directly into the path of Daisuke’s car. Fearing he has made his day even worse, Daisuke puts her in the passenger seat and, unlikely as it seems, the pair end up travelling together pursued both by law enforcement and by the psychopathic Shinoda. 

Daisuke, a shy man nervous about his stammer which sees him exiled from mainstream society, does not immediately seem like the type of person to stab someone but we later find out that he had a good reason (if you can say such a thing) and was acting to protect someone else from longterm abuse. He’s not sure running was best thing to do, but it has at least introduced him to Natsu who doesn’t seem to mind about his stammer and makes a point of calling him by a diminutive in an effort to avoid detection on the road by amping up the couple act. Apparently from Taiwan but with a Japanese mother, Natsu is herself on the run, besides being undead, in trying to keep one step ahead of the violent boyfriend it seems was responsible for her demise and then brought her back after trying a few rituals he found on YouTube so he could terrorise her afterlife too. 

Both outsiders at the mercy of an unforgiving society the two discover a kindred spirit one in the other, retreating from their brush with crime to return the moving boxes to their original address with an apology for having borrowed some of the contents. Regaining her memories and coming to an awareness that her zombiefied state might only be temporary, Natsu wonders why her life has turned out the way it has and if God is punishing her for being a “bad” person. She has a tattoo of a lightbulb on her leg because of a story she was once told about there being two paths in the darkness, one to heaven and one to hell, and that God would always light the way for the good while the bad were left to stumble around on their own, losing their way and ending up in hell, so she decided to make her own light fearing that she was not one of God’s good people. Daisuke just laughs, pointing out that lightbulbs don’t work out of the box, leading her to make a few adjustments which allow him to give her the power to face the darkness.

Daisuke meanwhile remains on the run, in part because he wants to help Natsu move on from her traumatic past by facing her victimisation at the hands of the psychotic Shinoda who has been using social media to try and track them down but later finds himself falling victim to his bullying. Together, the undead woman and the barely living boy give each other the strength to face their respective anxieties, his in his crime and hers in her murder as they contemplate the calm at the end of the world, or at least the road, while the gentle tones of Teresa Teng linger in the breeze behind them like a lullaby as if in echo of a more innocent time.


Beautiful, Goodbye was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s “Toki No Nagare Ni Mi Wo Makase”

Forgiven Children (許された子どもたち, Eisuke Naito, 2020)

“You can’t steal a life and get off the hook” a sheepish young man is told by an unsympathetic police officer pushing him to confess his crime, but the “justice” he will later face will be of a less official kind. Eisuke Naito’s ironically named Forgiven Children (許された子どもたち, Yurusareta Kodomotachi) is, in some ways, a tale of sympathy for the bully in the acknowledgement that a bully can be a victim too, but it’s also a condemnation of a bullying society defined by pent up, misdirected rage in which wounded people take out their hurts for thousands of petty humiliations on those they see as in some way vulnerable in an attempt to prove that they are not. 

The “hero”, Kira (Yu Uemura), was mercilessly bullied in primary school. The first time we meet him he is wandering wounded, bleeding profusely while stumbling home without shoes. Some years later, now 13, Kira has a scar on his cheek and a mean look in his eye. At school he’s an angry young man and petty delinquent while at home a dutiful son cheerfully singing karaoke with his loving parents. Everything changes one day when he bullies another boy into bringing a homemade crossbow to the riverbank. Without really knowing why, Kira fires it and pierces him through the neck. Terrified, the other boys flee leaving Itsuki (Takuya Abe) to die alone by the water undiscovered for hours. 

Kira and the others are not that smart. They’re on CCTV heading to the riverbank, and there are messages on Itsuki’s phone from Kira telling him to meet them there. It is obvious they are involved though in legal terms the evidence is circumstantial. The policeman who visits encourages Kira to confess, implying it was an accident, or risk further punishment if he says he’s innocent and is later found not to be. Kira confesses, but his overprotective mother (Yoshi Kuroiwa) convinces him to recant, hires a fancy lawyer who bullies the only one of the other boys brave enough to tell the truth into straightening his story, and gets him off but the right wing internet trolls have already gone into overdrive and guilty or not Kira will not be allowed forget his crime. 

This is of course ironically another kind of bullying. The constant through-line is that Kira is the way he is because of the bullying he endured in primary school. He is a young man consumed by rage and taking revenge for being made to feel small and vulnerable by making others feel the same. After being forced to move around a few times, Kira ends up in a new school where they’re supposed to discuss how to address the bullying problem but worryingly most of the other kids have no desire to solve it. Rather than ask why people bully others, they universally blame the victims, insisting that it is their own fault simply for being the sort of people who get bullied. That might be because they are in some way different or vulnerable, but oftentimes is just a cosmic quirk of personality. Of course, bullies rarely think of themselves in those terms, which might be why one particularly vindictive young man voices the worrying principle of “justifiable bullying”, branding himself as a hero of justice as he prepares to unmask Kira as a murderer in hiding. 

Kira meanwhile remains conflicted, unable to come to terms with his crime or his internalised rage. Some might feel his bullying is indeed “justifiable” because in this case he is guilty and could make some of it at least stop by engaging in dialogue with Itsuki’s parents even if he cannot expect to be forgiven and must consent to carry the burden of his crime for the rest of his life, but it does not excuse the wholesale hounding of himself and family which prevents any kind of future restitution. Why is this society so angry that people go online to issue death threats against a 13-year-old boy over a crime that has absolutely nothing to do with them, what it is that they are really so outraged about? Kira is merely a product of an inescapable spiral of misdirected rage and emotional austerity. 

The children turn a blind eye to the bullying of others, or are encouraged to join in to avoid becoming victims themselves while adults claim to want to help but only contribute to the stigmatisation of those who are bullied. Kira says he thinks that he had a reason for doing what he did, but no longer remembers, later refocussing his rage on bullies to avoid having to recognise the bully in himself. But society is itself a bully, consumed by misdirected rage and a socially conservative tendency to blame and exclude rather than understand which ensures that there can be no end to the cycle of violence and abuse until society learns to look within itself. 


Forgiven Children was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, Kenji Katagiri, 2019)

A dejected young woman finds herself conflicted in her memories of the father who failed her in Kenji Katagiri’s A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai). Drawing inspiration from the webcomic by Mariko Kikuchi, Katagiri’s whimsical drama does its best to put a comical spin on the extended trauma of living with an alcoholic dad while laying the blame squarely at the the feet of a society with an entrenched drinking culture in which refusing to imbibe is all but unthinkable. 

The heroine, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto), begins her tale in the late ‘90s when she is only eight years old and unaware that her family circumstances are not exactly normal. Tadokoro (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her salaryman dad, usually rolls in late and collapses in the hall after staying out all night drinking. This is such a common occurrence that Saki and her younger sister Fumi are completely unfazed by it, marking off dad’s drunken days with a big red X on the calendar and cheerfully helping their mum drag him back into the house. Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), their mother, tries to put a brave face on it, and to the girls it probably still seems a little bit funny, but as she gets older Saki begins to see the toll her father’s drinking has taken on her mother not only in practical terms but emotional in realising that he drinks largely as a means of escaping his responsibility which includes that towards his family. 

Saki asks her mum why dad’s three friends keep coming round to drink while playing mahjong but the only explanation she can offer is that adults need to socialise. Socialisation does it seems revolve around alcohol, and to that extent perpetuates deeply entrenched patriarchal social codes in largely remaining a homosocial activity with the only women present those that run the bar (the wives of Tadokoro’s friends make a point of thanking Saeko for allowing their husbands to drink at her house, they it seems are not invited). Tadokoro’s excuse for his drinking is that it’s a necessary business activity, that you can’t get by as a salaryman without figuring out how to have fun at a nomikai and bond with your clients over sake. His office best friend later discovers this to be true as a teetotaller given the banishment room treatment he attributes to the fact he doesn’t drink which is why his bosses don’t trust him as member of the team. 

Tadokoro might think he’s serving his family through his career, but it’s clear that he neglects them physically and emotionally by refusing to moderate his drinking. He breaks promises to his kids to take them to the pool because he’s still hung over from the night before while his wife finds herself at the end of her tether with his continued indifference later telling the little Saki that she wanted to divorce him even before the kids were born but it’s too late for that now. Saeko escapes from the burden of her life through religion, adhering to a shady Christian-leaning cult which preaches that endurance builds character and character leads to hope, all of which presumably convinces her that she is supposed to just put up with Tadokoro’s problematic behaviour rather than reassuring her that there is no sin in leaving him. 

Saki fears making her mother’s mistake, traumatised by her childhood experiences and drawn into an abusive relationship of her own out of loneliness and low self esteem. She resents her father but also feels bad about it, simultaneously thankful when he takes a temporary break from drinking and mahjong but also aware of how sad it is that she is grateful for things that other families would consider normal. Tadokoro proves unable to quit drinking, and Saki wonders if she’s right to even ask him if, as others say, drinking is his mechanism for escaping loneliness, but also reflects on the sadness she now understands in her mother as stemming from her father’s abnegation of his responsibilities and the loneliness it must have provoked in her. Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), trying to explain why Saki should break up with her abusive boyfriend (Shogo Hama), tells her of an experiment she read about in which a rat was trapped in a box and randomly given electric shocks. At first, it tried to escape, but eventually became resigned to its fate and settled for learning to endure the pain. Saki is perhaps much the same, trapped by filiality in finding herself unable to either forgive or reject the memory of the father who so resolutely failed to live up to the name.


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

An Ant Strikes Back (アリ地獄天国, Tokachi Tsuchiya, 2019)

During Japan’s post-war economic miracle, death from overwork became such a prevalent phenomenon that it generated its own grim buzzword, “karoshi”. Sadly, karoshi is still with us today as evidenced by the death of a young woman back in 2015 which hit the headlines when it was revealed that she had taken her own life after being forced to log over 100 hours of overtime at top advertising firm Dentsu in the months before she died. Despite comparatively advanced labour law, a culture of shame and entrenched corporate loyalty often prevent employees from speaking out about exploitative workplace practices, allowing unscrupulous bosses to flout the rules with impunity. So-called “Black Companies” bully and manipulate employees into accepting poor pay and conditions rather than risk dismissal or defacto blacklisting. 

Following the suicide of a close friend who took his own life because of workplace bullying, director Tokachi Tsuchiya documents the case of another young man who decided to fight back after being awakened to the fact that the practices at his company were not fair, normal, or acceptable but cynical and exploitative. Nishimura, known for the moment under an alias, left a job as a systems engineer to work at one of Japan’s best known moving companies because it promised a good, stable salary and he wanted to get married. What he discovered, however, was that the advertising was somewhat disingenuous. After working hard and getting a promotion to the sales department and subsequently into management, he was expected to work 19-hour days. His relationship with his wife suffered to the degree that she eventually left him. They later reconciled, but it became clear that his working life was not healthy or sustainable. He took a demotion back to sales and remained a top employee. 

Disaster struck, however, when he was involved in a fatigue-induced traffic accident while driving a company car. The moving company, like many other corporate entities, is run like a shady cult with its own idiosyncratic corporate policies that are often in contravention of standard employment law. After damaging the company car, Nishimura is liable for paying compensation with a significant sum of money due to be docked from his pay. Thoroughly brainwashed, he signed for the debt without thinking, only questioning his liability when his wife handed him an article about another employee in much the same position who’d turned to an external union for help. Hearing the patient explanations from the union advisors who tell him he doesn’t need to pay, Nishimura is suddenly awakened to the fact he’s been exploited and decides to stand his ground. The company, however, fight fire with fire. After finding out he’s involved with the union, they demote him to another department with a far lower salary before going further and forcing him to shred documents all day long while wearing an orange polo shirt that marks him out as a special employee. 

This kind of treatment is a common method of constructive dismissal practiced by Japanese companies in which they force “difficult” employees to perform boring, menial, or degrading tasks while separating them from the group in the hope that they will eventually quit of their own accord so the company won’t be liable for any severance benefits they would otherwise be entitled to. Nishimura, however, does not quit. He throws himself into union activities and views sticking it out as a way of sticking it to the man. What he wants is his sales job back, but he also wants to prove to other employees that the way they’re being treated isn’t normal and that they can resist by joining a union and presenting a united front against exploitative employers. 

Looking back on his recruitment process, Nishimura notices several red flags he did not pick up on at the time.The kinds of people the company never hire include those who are familiar with labour law, people who’ve run businesses, people who’ve worked in law enforcement, and “communist” lawyers. Along with that, they apparently don’t hire “third country nationals” which seems to be a euphemism for Zainichi Koreans, illegal discrimination from a managerial team former employees describe as being vehemently racist as well as prejudiced against burakumin and other groups considered undesirable under a decidedly outdated idea of feudal social hierarchy. Nishimura feels his demotion was not so much to do with the accident, but with his decision to join the union in another breach of conventional employment law. 

The managers attempt to silence the female union negotiator by screaming misogynistic slurs, caught on camera harassing a union rep handing out fliers while using a loudspeaker outside the building. They add Nishimura’s photo to a newsletter as an example not to be followed and even go so far as to send threatening letters to his family members while he is on leave to attend his mother’s funeral. Yet Nishimura bravely refuses to give up, doggedly doing his shredding job as an act of resistance while holding their feet to the fire in the courts. Nishimura’s wife had described him as “brainwashed” in his early devotion to the company which he had earnestly served, wanting to get on and be successful, forcing other employees to pay the onerous fines that he eventually refused to pay because it never occurred to him to question the company line. That questioning is precisely why he continues to resist, so that others will know that collective action really works and that they don’t have to be complicit in their own exploitation. One tiny worker ant said no and the company trembled, think what a thousand tiny worker ants could do together.


An Ant Strikes Back is available to stream worldwide until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)

After the Sunset (夕陽のあと, Michio Koshikawa, 2019)

Two women find themselves caught up in an impossible situation in Michio Koshikawa’s sensitive maternal drama After the Sunset (夕陽のあと, Yuhi No Ato). Though both want the best for the child, they have to acknowledge that someone is going to end up desperately hurt while perhaps no one is at fault other than the insensitive and austere society which saw fit to punish a young woman already in the depths of despair rather than come to her aid. 

7-year-old Towa (Towa Matsubara) lives in a cheerful island village with his mother Satsuki (Maho Yamada), fisherman father Yuichi (Masaru Nagai), and compassionate grandma Mie (Midori Kiuchi). What he doesn’t know is that Satsuki and Yuichi are not his birth parents. Unable to have children of their own they decided to pursue adoption after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments and now that they have everything else sorted are hoping to finalise Towa’s legal status as a member of their family. What they don’t know is that Towa’s birth mother, Akane (Shihori Kanjiya), has been living on the island for the past year to be close to her son but is conflicted and at something of a loss as to what to do. Matters come to a head when they need the birth mother’s signature on the adoption forms to confirm her renunciation of parental rights and Akane’s true identity is exposed. 

The first and most obvious problem is that both women believe themselves to be the rightful mother. Satsuki has been raising Towa since he was a baby and her feelings for him are no different than if she had given birth to him herself. Akane meanwhile gave birth to Towa in difficult circumstances and was then separated from him. She has spent the past four years searching and wants nothing more than to be reunited with her son. Though she can see that he is very happy with with Satsuki and Yuichi and is grateful that he has found such a loving family in such a beautiful place, she cannot bear the thought of losing Towa while Satsuki cannot help but fear that this other woman who was able to do what she was not in giving birth has come to take her child away. 

It is of course an impossible situation with no good or right answers. Satsuki begins by resenting Akane, discovering that Towa was abandoned as an infant in an internet cafe and regarding her as having lost the right to call herself his mother but on investigating more begins to understand the kind of despair she must have been in to have taken such a drastic step. A victim of domestic violence left all alone with an infant child and no means of support, she considered suicide but rather than help her the authorities criminalised her actions and took her child away, dangling the false hope of a reunion in return for “rehabilitation” while Satsuki and Yuichi gave him a happy family home she knew nothing about. Towa has lived all his life on the island, he thinks Satsuki and Yuichi are his mother and father, how could you explain to him that he has to leave his second mother to return to the first that he never really knew?

Where one might expect there to be fear and anger, the two women eventually come to an understanding of one another as mothers who each want the best for the child even if that means they may end up hurt. As grandma puts it, the island is a welcoming place. It accepts all those who come, and does not pursue those who choose to leave but is always willing receive them when they return. Towa points out that that it takes a village, to him everyone on the island, including Akane, is his mother because they all raised him together though his father holds that the best mother of all is the sea. There is perhaps room for more than one if only in an ideological sense, no true mothers and no false only people who love their children and struggle against themselves to do what they know in their hearts is best. A gentle exploration of everyday life on a tranquil island, Michio Koshikawa’s sensitive drama finds people at their best in the extremities of emotional difficulty, finding their way through mutual compassion and understanding in an acknowledgement that there is no right answer only an acceptable best that leaves the door open for a future reconciliation.


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

Original trailer (No subtitles)

Book-Paper-Scissors (つつんで、ひらいて, Nanako Hirose, 2019)

Particularly at the present moment, it’s near impossible to ignore the fact that we live in an increasingly digital world. We value speed and convenience, and perhaps we’ve begun to lose a sense of aesthetic pleasure in the objects which we consume and then all too often discard. When we think of a book, then we think of the words and words do not necessarily have to be attached to any one thing to have meaning. But a book is also an object, it can have weight and import entirely separate from the words which it contains and, indeed, perhaps some of us are guilty buying them especially for their aesthetic qualities with little to no intention of ever opening the covers. 

The subject of Nanako Hirose’s documentary Book-Paper-Scissors (つつんで、ひらいて, Tsutsunde, Hiraite), Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, is now in his 70s and over the last 40 years been one of Japan’s premier book designers. You could say that his is a dying art, at least we’re always hearing that traditional bookshops are struggling and e-books are on the rise (though the trend seems to have reversed in the last few years), but Kikuchi finds himself still very much in demand working with some of Japan’s biggest publishing houses as well as smaller indie endeavours producing more esoteric affairs such as poetry, philosophy, and religion. 

An old soul, Kikuchi frequents the same Showa-era kissaten he’s patronised for most of his working life the advent of which coincided with its opening, joking that he treats it almost as an extention of his office. He favours pour over coffee even at home where he pays close attention to the quality of the cup to enahance the flavour while playing records on a vintage windup gramophone. Which is all to say, he values the totality of experience above that of the essence. For him, words are living things which exist outside of human beings and the book is their physical body. 

His approach is as much tactile as it is visual. He describes the feeling of the book in the hand, reminding us that this is an object intended to be held and read and that the design must contribute to the experience. In this case and others, the intention is sensual, Kikuchi wants the cover to mimic the texture of human skin. He selects his paper with the utmost care not only for its quality but its effect. When technology limits his first choice he finds another, but we are reminded once again that this is a dying medium in the need to conserve materials because this kind of paper is about to be discontinued by its manufacturer. 

Kikuchi offers the fact that he has no successor as one reason he has no intention of retiring, but there are those coming up behind him such as a young man, Mitobe, who was inspired by one of Kikuchi’s books to become a book designer himself. Kikuchi’s own editor on a collected edition of his writings for magazines suggests that his aestheticism is in itself a kind of reaction to the death of print, whereas Mitobe suggests his generation is also operating in opposition. Design should be simple he admits, but his generation favours the elaborate. To contradict himself, he pulls out a book which has no jacket at all, its design is fused to the endpapers, prompting Hirose to ask from behind the camera what the point of the jacket is at all. And as for that, what about the ubiquitous obi which is attached to every book. Isn’t the band there for the soulless purposes of advertising and marketing? Does it too serve an aesthetic purpose or will the reader simply dispose of it as part of the wrapping?  

Even after so much success and a decades-long career, Kikuchi claims he has no real sense of accomplishment. He thought of literature as a tool for nurturing the mind but after so many books is more aware than ever of a sense of emptiness. In any case, he prefers to think of himself not as a “creator”, but as someone who “prepares” because his is an art which necessitates interraction. His design is for others, not for himself. He has no desire to retire, but is preparing to simply fade away, feeling a responsibility to create a space for the next generation while insisting that his is a connected existence, that it’s all about the people rather than the art. Will books survive? Who can say, but they are more than just words on a page and have their own vitality thanks in no short order to Kikuchi and his expansive artistry.


Book-Paper-Scissors is available to stream in Europe until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)