I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Naoko Nobutomo, 2022)

Naoko Nobutomo’s documentary feature debut I Go Gaga, My Dear proved an unexpected hit on its 2018 release striking a chord with many middle-aged and younger people facing similar issues to the director while preoccupied about how best to care for their ageing relatives. Her 2022 followup I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Bokemasukara Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu -Okaeri Okasan-) once again follows her parents though this time witnessing her mother’s gradual decline and eventual hospitalisation along with her equally ageing father left alone at home. 

Nobutomo does retread some of the same ground reusing footage from the previous documentary to fill in gaps in her mother’s story giving a brief overview of life and marriage before the first signs of the Alzheimer’s with which she would later be diagnosed would appear. It is however also rawer, including several scenes of Fumiko in extreme distress calling out for a knife in order to end her life in a moment of frightening lucidity or walking around the house asking “what’s wrong with me?” 

The couple had hoped to stay in their home taking care of each other but as Fumiko’s condition declines that becomes increasingly impossible until she finally suffers a stroke and is hospitalised. Naoko frequently talks to her father Yoshinori about returning home to help him care for her but her offer is always refused. They tell her not to worry about them and to do the things she wants to do while she can but Naoko continues to worry. Explaining that her parents had married at a late age by the standards of the time and never expected to have any children, she recounts that she was raised in an extremely loving home and that sense of love and devotion is still very much evident between the elderly couple who continue to love and care for each other deeply. 

But then Yoshinori is also ageing, approaching his 100th birthday, and taking care of his wife takes an obvious physical toll. After Fumiko is hospitalised, he walks for an hour everyday to visit her while even carrying the shopping home from the local store is far from easy. Meanwhile he too undergoes physical therapy hoping to build up his strength for when Fumiko eventually returns home. Though in generally good health, at times he too struggles suffering a nasty fall during heavy rain on his way home from the dentist and later hospitalised with a hernia. His daily visits to Fumiko seem to keep him going, but even these come to an end during the COVID-19 pandemic during which hospital visits are restricted leaving Fumiko, bedridden having suffered a second stroke, all alone with nothing to do. 

The presence of COVD-19 is also reflected in the funeral, an incredibly small affair populated by people wearing masks. Fumiko’s condition caused her to worry about her quality of life while a poignant visit to her home reduces her to tears before she’s transferred to hospital for longterm care. In her voice over Naoko explains that she’s been spending more time in Kure with her father, but evidently does not wish to intrude on his independence as far as she can help it while he becomes an accidental local celebrity given the documentary’s success. Fumiko too had been looking forward to seeing it, a treasured pamphlet lying next to her bed, but was ultimately unable to because of her ill health. 

Like its predecessor, I Go Gaga: Welcome Home, Mom tells a heartwarming study of an elderly couple doing their best to care for each other though later turns in a poignant direction as Naoko and her father begin to process the possibility that Fumiko will not return home something very painful for Yoshinori who is evidently suffering himself extremely worried about the thought of losing his wife. Yet life in a sense goes on, Yoshinori edging his way to his 100th birthday and pledging to live until 120 before heading to a diner for the hamburger steak he’d been craving. He even gets an award from the local mayor in celebration of his centenary. Ending on a poignant note, Nobutomo switches back to older footage of happier days in which her parents go about their ordinary lives filled with precious memories never to return. 


I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mr. Suzuki: A Man In God’s Country (鈴木さん, Omoi Sasaki, 2020)

God is dead, or maybe not in Omoi Sasaki’s deadpan satire of the ills of contemporary Japan, Mr. Suzuki : A Man in God’s Country (鈴木さん, Suzuki-san). Set in a seemingly isolated fascist state, the film lays bear the intergenerational conflict of the ageing society along with the lonely resentment of those in middle-age caught between two stools in a society which seems only to cater for the young and the old while the powers that be, determined to build a “wholly beautiful city”, go to great lengths to cure the falling birthrate. 

It’s this that 44-year-old unmarried care home attendant Yoshiko (Asako Ito) fears especially when randomly informed one day that if she remains without a husband her citizenship will be cancelled and she’ll have to leave the city unless she elects to become a member of the military which is currently exempt. Her friend Ayako chooses to do just this, no longer able to bear the pressure of being unattached, but Yoshiko is unwilling to surrender her way of life on the whim of some government official. She is constantly bombarded with invitations to the “Beautiful Matchmaking” event but is later rejected because it is only for the “young” only to be reprieved by the mayor who tells her to come back in more suitable attire while declaring that God will not abandon those who make the effort. 

This almost forced insistence on national service as mediated through childbirth and the creation of “beautiful families” as an expression of one’s loyalty to “God”, the nation’s mysterious leader who has not been seen in 20 years, is of course disturbing even as other voices echo the words of real life politicians suggesting that those who have not born children are “defective adults” who must serve their country in other ways such as in the military. With God apparently in poor health the government reads out all his statements on his behalf, issuing commands in his name while distributing his image throughout the land as the locals continue to believe blindly in his existence. 

A crunch point comes for Yoshiko when she discovers a dishevelled middle-aged man taking shelter in the “Utopia” care home where she works. Rather than turn him in she decides to let him stay and later abruptly proposes a paper marriage so that she’ll avoid losing her citizenship. Though “Suzuki-sensei” (Norihiko Tsukuda) proves a hit with the ladies once they discover his musical talents, his outsider status later becomes a problem when the government use the pretext of a soldier’s death to claim they’ve started a war and are on the look out for “enemy spies” though they are also as it turns out looking for the absent God whose identity we can guess. Sights of the old ladies running defence drills with broom handles uncomfortably recall those of peasants training with bamboo spears during the war as does one old lady’s reluctance to take part having been led to blame herself for her brother’s wartime death while gossip that spies loot and poison wells is reminiscent of the pogrom against Koreans in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. A gang of thuggish youths with a penchant for happy slapping the homeless insisting that they “do not deserve to live in God’s beautiful country” instantly become spy hunting vigilantes, while rewards are offered for informants reporting anyone whose face they do not recognise. 

The offer presents Yoshiko with a dilemma. Rather than marry him, she could decide to turn Suzuki in and get guaranteed citizenship along with a pension but would it really be worth the price of living with his betrayal? Mr. Suzuki’s true identity will come as no surprise, though his sojourn among the believers exposes the shakiness of the regime when he is mobbed by a militia of angry townspeople out for blood hellbent on rooting out a “spy”, ironically arranged in the form of a cross as they occupy a T-section surrounded by fields. Shuffling between the disturbing and the merely strange, Omoi Sasaki’s deadpan, absurdist drama has its share of poignancy in the frustrated connection between outcasts Yoshiko and Suzuki while satirising the surreal authoritarianism of the world all around them with its mandated hair cuts and bizarre portrait of its absent leader which must be bowed to on all occasions but perhaps does not stray so far from the contemporary realities in all of its discomforting talk of beautifying the nation through the sacred act of childbirth. 


Mr. Suzuki: A Man In God’s Country streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Backlight (逆光, Ren Sudo, 2021)

©2021 『逆光』 FILM
©2021 『逆光』 FILM

An aloof young man brings a friend back from college but struggles to convey to him his true feelings in the Onomichi of the 1970s in actor Ren Sudo’s directorial debut, Backlight (逆光, Gyakko). This may partly be because he himself is uncomfortable in his childhood home while the object of his affection seemingly takes to it though as someone else later hints perhaps in the end he is only toying with him as a pleasant summer diversion that will eventually draw to a close. 

Sudo opens the film with a series of black and white slides of Onomichi in the 70s accompanied by a cheerful voiceover in opposition to the film’s subsequent gloominess describing the area for tourists and in particular its cable car. Finally the slides give way to clumsy shots of Yoshioka (Haya Nakazaki), university friend of Akira (Ren Sudo), and a copy of Yukio Mishima’s College of Unchasteness. Akira has invited Yoshioka to stay with him at his family home in Onomichi for a week over the summer, but it’s fairly odd behaviour to invite someone somewhere and then spend the whole time telling them how awful it is and that you can’t wait to leave. 

Evidently the son of wealthy parents who for whatever reason are not around, Akira is a fairly unsympathetic figure who seems to have been harbouring resentment towards Onomichi ever since his family moved to the area from Tokyo when he as a child. He views it as dull and backward and seems to have only contempt for those who live there such as childhood friend Fumie (Eriko Tomiyama) whom he blanks in the street as like the cable cars of the opening he passes her in the company of Yoshioka. Realising he is back, she arrives at his home to return some books he’d lent her but even on encountering her there Akira treats Fumie disdainfully and is quite embarrassingly rude in front of his new friend explaining that he lent the books so that a simple country girl like her wouldn’t fall behind the times while contemptuously assuming that she won’t actually have read them. 

These misogynistic attitudes seem prevalent in the local community which is in any case unusually obsessed with Mishima. Another local intellectual describes College of Unchasteness, which Akira has not actually read, as “silly prose for women” a phrase Akira later echoes, while making a cynical comment as to its content suggesting that a woman’s ultimate pleasure lies in being murdered by a man she may have been manipulating. Unable to voice their desires directly there may be a degree of manipulation going on, Akira silently courting Yoshioka who may indeed be toying with him in the way that he may have been toying with Fumie who has since come to know of his sexuality. In any case he seems to be uncertain of Yoshioka’s receptiveness, crassly suggesting Fumie invite another girl, Miko (Akira Kikoshi), who seems strange and otherworldly, with the rationale that it would be a problem if she were too pretty and by implication insulting Fumie too in the process. Miko meanwhile is evidently upset by the lewd conversation while later prompted to leave the party after a political debate breaks out about nuclear arms. Perhaps it’s not surprising for a party that seems to be populated by Mishima devotees but even if their support for re-armament is a facet of their anti-Americanism it is curiously at odds with the times again upsetting Miko whose mother is a survivor of the atomic bomb having lost all her family. 

Even so the closing scenes turn back to Mishima and doomed romance in a description of love as a political act in which love that does not transgress, is not considered shameful or taboo, is not really love at all. Akira may have found the courage to overcome his fear of rejection, but it seems has not been altogether successful in love. Playing with the light, the brightness of the beaches, murkiness of the room occupied by Yoshioka, and that of the fire ominously reflected on Akira’s face, Sudo adds a note of wistful nostalgia expressed in the song sung by Miko that perhaps presents this “heartbreaking” summer with a sentimentality it does not quite appear to have even as Akira seems to come to an accommodation with himself, Fumie, and Onomichi amid the confusing summer heat. 


Backlight streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2021 『逆光』 FILM

Target (標的, Shinji Nishijima, 2021)

In the early 1980s, the well respected left-leaning national newspaper the Asahi Shimbun ran a series of articles based on accounts by author Seiji Yoshida of his involvement in wartime atrocities which brought the “comfort woman” issue into the mainstream consciousness for the first time. Unfortunately, however, Yoshida’s reputation was tarnished when it was revealed that much of his “autobiographical” writing had been heavily embellished or simply made up. The discrediting of Yoshida’s testimony handed an easy win to the resurgent right that allowed them to cast doubt on Japan’s history of wartime sex slavery.

In 1991, the truth became much harder to deny when former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun came forward to tell her story publicly. Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura wrote an article based on a taped recording of her testimony shortly before her own press conference but soon found himself the prime target for nationalist trolls who harassed not only the Asahi Shimbun but Uemura himself along with members of his family. In 2014 more than 20 years since the article was published, they once again swarmed when it was revealed that Uemura had accepted a part-time teaching position at woman’s university which was later rescinded because of the continued “bashing” both he and the institution received which included several death threats. 

Shinji Nishijima’s sometimes unfocussed documentary Target (標的, Hyoteki) is concerned less with the comfort woman issue itself than the scandal’s place in an ongoing culture war which has been quietly intensifying since the late 90s with the foundation of ultra-nationalist lobby group Nippon Kaigi in 1997 which is coincidentally the year that Kim Hak-sun passed away without seeing justice. Many other papers had run similar articles based on Kim’s taped testimony using the same terminology which reflects that used by Kim, yet only the Asahi Shimbun and Uemura himself were singled out as “traitors” to Japan and in the view of some more extreme commenters deserving of the death penalty. The article was branded a “fabrication” which is a serious accusation to make of a journalist at a major newspaper though in actuality the charges that are levelled at him concern only potential “inaccuracies” in his writing regarding use of terminology and the omission that Kim had trained as a kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of the geisha) which was revealed during her press conference but not included in the taped testimony while the journalist who later attacks Uemura relies on the same tired arguments insisting that there was no forced recruitment and the women at the comfort stations were established sex workers employed locally or trafficked by family members and middlemen. 

The argument put forward by the documentary suggests that Uemura was a convenient target because his wife was Korean and his mother-in-law was the head of the Association for the Pacific War Victims though the true target was the Asahi Shimbun which had long been a bugbear for nationalists because of its liberal democratic outlook. Part way through the documentary, Uemura visits the grave of a journalist who was murdered after penning an expose of police mistreatment of the Korean community in Osaka who had begun resisting fingerprinting on the grounds that it was discriminatory. The implication is that this is a campaign to silence the press and one which has proved increasingly effective with outlets largely choosing to self censor unwilling to upset the government and lose their access by addressing topics that might be thought taboo such as Japan’s wartime past. Meanwhile under the Abe administration there was a concerted campaign to revise school history textbooks to erase the concept of comfort women altogether along with other mentions of wartime atrocity. 

Suing the journalist who branded him a “fabricator” for defamation Uemura explains that his aim is not so much to vindicate himself and the story but challenge encroachments on free speech in an increasingly authoritarian society. Though the courts agree he has been “defamed” they find no “illegality” while upholding the conservative view that denies the existence of comfort women. As it later transpires the journalist who had attacked him in the press had previously written a similar article herself and had largely based her current views on those of a prominent conservative university professor without bothering to interview either Uemura or any of the surviving Korean comfort women in person ironically including several “inaccuracies” in her own writing owing to some fairly shoddy journalism and lack of familiarity with the source material. In any case, as someone puts it the most important thing is to record an accurate version of the truth so that nothing like this happens again while halting the erosion of democratic freedoms through creeping authoritarianism.


Target streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ring Wandering (リング・ワンダリング, Masakazu Kaneko, 2021)

“Don’t forget me” pleads a mysterious young woman guiding the hero of Masakazu Kaneko’s Ring Wandering (リング・ワンダリング) towards the buried legacy he is unwittingly seeking. In this metaphorical drama, the aspiring manga artist hero is on a quest to discover the true appearance of the long extinct Japanese wolf, but is confronted by a more immediate source of unresolved history while working on a construction site for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. 

The manga Sosuke (Show Kasamatsu) is working on is about a wolf and a hunter, Ginzo (Hatsunori Hasegawa), whose daughter Kozue was killed by one of his own traps. Though praising the general concept, his workplace friend points out that his manga lacks human feeling but Sosuke claims it’s unnecessary in a story that’s about a duel to the death between man and nature while matter of factly admitting that Kozue is merely a plot device designed to demonstrate Ginzo’s manly solitude. Yet Soskue complains that he can’t make progress because the Japanese wolf is extinct and he can’t figure out how to draw it. 

His quest is in one sense for the soul of Japan taking the wolf as a symbol of a prehistoric age of innocence though as it turns out he knows precious little about more recent history. The workers at the construction site have heard rumours about a stoppage at another build and joke amongst themselves that if they should find any kind of cultural artefact they’ll just ignore it rather than risk the project being shut down or any one losing their job. The site itself symbolises a tendency to simply build over the buried past erasing traces of anything unpleasant or inconvenient. When Sosuke comes across an animal’s skull buried in a pit he has recently dug, he is convinced it’s that of a Japanese wolf only later realising it is more likely to be that of a dog killed in the fire bombing of Tokyo during the war along with thousands of others on whose bodies the modern city is said to lie. 

Then again, impassive in expression Sosuke is particularly clueless when it comes to recent history. While searching for more wolf cues he comes across a young woman (Junko Abe) looking for her missing dog but completely fails to spot her unusual dress aside from assuming the old-fashioned sandals she is wearing are for the fireworks show set to take place that day incongruously in the winter. Similarly in accompanying her to her home he is confused by all her references to things like the metal contribution and her brother having been sent to the country. He wonders if she might be a ghost, and she wonders the same of him, but still doesn’t seem to grasp that he’s slipped into another era fraught with danger and anxiety only realising the truth on exiting the dream and doing some present day research. 

The fallacy of violence works its way into his manga in the fact that Ginzo’s traps eventually lead to the death of his daughter while he becomes on fixated on besting the wild wolf as a point of male pride though others in the village are mindful to let it live. A pedlar meanwhile explains that the wolf has been forced down towards the village because of the declining economic situation as more people hunt in the mountains for food and fur depriving him of his dinner. He tells Ginzo that the country has been “brainwashed in militarism” and the gunpowder that killed Kozue and will one day be repurposed to create joy and awe is now his most wanted commodity. In the end Ginzo too is saved by a kind of visitation, a ghost from the past offering a hand of both salvation and forgiveness along with an admonishment forcing him to take responsibility for his role in his daughter’s death.

In forging a familial relationship with a lost generation Sosuke comes to a new understanding of more recent history and in a sense discovers the connection he was seeking with his culture, weaving the anxieties of 1940s into an otherwise pre-modern fable about the battle between man and nature in which wolf becomes not aggressor but casualty in a great national folly. Like Kaneko’s previous film Albino’s Trees deeply spiritual in its forest imagery and oneiric atmosphere, Ring Wandering finds its hero transported into the past while unwittingly discovering what it is he’s looking for without ever realising that it has always been right beneath his feet. 


Ring Wandering streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©RWProductionCommittee

One Day, You Will Reach the Sea (やがて海へと届く, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2022)

“We only see one half of this world” according to the absent heroine of Ryutaro Nakagawa’s moving mediation on loss and the eternally unanswered questions we leave behind when we die, One Day You Will Reach the Sea (やがて海へと届く, Yagate umi e to todoku). Taking its name from a plaintive folk song about a wife waiting for the return of a husband lost at sea, Nakagawa’s indie drama finds its melancholy heroine struggling to move on while plagued by a sense of regret in the absence of an ending. 

Mana (Yukino Kishii) first bonded with Sumire (Minami Hamabe) in the early days of university when she helped her navigate the tricky social rituals of freshers week, eventually moving in to her apartment but then moving out again to live with uni boyfriend Tono (Yosuke Sugino). It’s Tono who in one sense brings the reality of Sumire’s absence back to her more than a decade later as he decides it’s time let go. Letting go is however something Mana struggles to do, not least because Sumire disappeared during the 2011 tsunami and as her body was never found there’s still a part of her that refuses to believe she will never be coming back.  

Tono criticises Mana for wanting to keep Sumire stuck in the same place forever yet it is she who is somehow stuck, still living her admittedly stunning apartment as if afraid to move in case Sumire should return and find her gone. She had once told her that she wanted to work for a furniture company in Kyoto but is currently working as a head waiter at an upscale restaurant where she has developed a paternal relationship with the manager, Mr Narahara (Ken Mitsuishi), only to discover that perhaps she didn’t really know him either or that she only knew the part of him he wished for her to see. Her resentment towards Tono is in part that he knew a different side of Sumire that remained unknown to her, though equally neither of them can be said to have known her entirely. 

The relationship between the two women remains frustratingly ill-defined but what’s clear is that they represented something one to the other as two halves of one whole. They made each other feel at ease, but if romance is what it was it remains unresolved. Despite having claimed that she wanted nothing more than to stay in Mana’s apartment, Sumire eventually leaves explaining to Tono that she cannot say cannot stay with her forever giving him a look that perhaps he should know when he quite reasonably asks why. Then again perhaps she just thinks she’s holding her back, that if it were not for her Mana would long ago have moved on finding new and more fulfilling directions in life. She urges Mana to interact more, hoping that she’ll find someone to tease out the “real” her though she of course already has.

A perspective shift late in the film fills in some of those details from the other half of the world that we don’t get to see, laying bare Sumire’s own distress and vulnerability as it becomes clear that she has something she wants to say to Mana but is always frustrated and finally never does. When someone is gone, you can no longer ask them what they meant or solve the riddles of their life even if you can patch back together a vague picture composed of the memories of those who knew them. “I didn’t want her to be found but I felt I had to find her” Mana explains of her early attempts to look for Sumire after the tsunami wanting answers while simultaneously afraid to get them. Burdened by another sudden and unexpected loss, she takes a road trip to Tohoku and witnesses testimony taped by a local woman from tsunami survivors eventually receiving her own epiphany in an animated dream sequence that links back to those which bookend the film. Watching footage from Sumire’s ever present videocamera fills in a few more details, but what she comes to is less a point of moving on that an accommodation with loss that suggests Sumire has in a sense returned and will always be with her as sure as the sea. What we mourn is not only an unresolved past with all its concurrent regrets, but the other half of the world we’ll never see in all the unlived futures that never got to be. 


One Day, You Will Reach the Sea streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Parasite in Love (恋する寄生虫, Kensaku Kakimoto, 2021)

A pair of exiles from mainstream society develop a bond that allows for mutual evolution, but are their feelings genuine or the result of a love bug and does it really matter anyway? Kensaku Kakimoto’s adaptation of the light novel by Sugaru Miaki Parasite in Love (恋する寄生虫, Koi suru kiseichu) finds a germophobic man planning to plant a virus to destroy the world he thinks has rejected him coming to care for a young woman who cannot face the glare of a judgemental society while asking if love were a sickness would you really want to be “cured” and if its sacrifice would be worth the price of living a “normal” life. 

Kosaka (Kento Hayashi) lost his parents to suicide at eight years old and has been alone ever since. He is terrified of the world around him believing that everything and everyone is covered in dangerous pathogens and leaves his apartment, where he is busy writing a virus designed to disrupt communication between devices in an ironic revenge for his own inability to connect, only when necessary. On one such trip, however, he runs into high schooler Hijiri (Nana Komatsu) who cannot bear to see other people’s eyes and wears headphones to block out the interpersonal noise of the mainstream society. Where Kosaka chooses isolation because he fears infection, Hijiri is convinced she has a life-limiting parasite in her brain which is infectious to others and does not want to pass it on. 

Approached by an intimidating middle-aged man, Izumi (Arata Iura), Kosaka is charged with “looking after” Hijiri in part to find out why she’s been skipping school. She too lost her mother to suicide which her grandfather (Ryo Ishibashi), a mad scientist, has told her is down to a parasite in her brain, the same one that Hijiri has, which eventually drove her to take her own life while it seems simultaneously rejecting the role of his own authoritarianism in which he attempted to force her to have the parasite removed against her will refusing to listen when she insisted her feelings were her own whether he chose to recognise them or not. Hijiri’s quest is similarly one for personal autonomy in the face of her grandfather’s attempts to excise what he sees as abnormal in what amounts to a modern day lobotomy. 

Then again, it’s difficult to argue with the thesis that the relationship between Hijiri and Kosaka is inappropriate given that he is a 27-year-old man and she is a high school girl, which would be one thing if the scientists had not originally forced them together after discovering that Kosaka has the same parasite in his brain and the mutual evolution their pairing would produce would allow them to remove the problematic bug more easily. As the pair hang out together doing “normal” things such as riding public transportation and eating in cafes, gradually the masks and earphones disappear as they give each other the strength to face a hostile environment with an open question mark over whether it’s all down to the bugs or they’ve fallen in love for real. Hijiri’s dilemma is just as in the story she tells of a man who was infected with a parasite that made him love his cat to the exclusion of all else, if they really want to be “cured” or if the price of sacrificing their love and the essence of who they are is worth paying for the right to reenter mainstream society. 

As Izumi admits, our bodies are full of bugs and perhaps some of them have more power over us than we’d like think. How much control do you really have over your own biology anyway? Kakimoto’s quirky drama only ever flirts with darkness in Kosaka’s original desire to burn the world out of his intense resentment, and in the mad scientist grandfather’s patriarchal insistence on controlling his granddaughter’s emotional life, removing any hint of what is deemed unconventional to turn her into a perfectly “normal” member of a conservative society. Suggesting that romantic destiny may indeed be akin to a parasitic infection, the film nevertheless comes down on the side of the lovers as they discover solidarity in difference and decide to live their lives the way they see fit parasites or not. 


Parasite in Love streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Riho Kudo, 2021)

“I can touch it if I reach out” one of the heroes of Riho Kudo’s second feature Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Hadashi de Narashite Misero) claims as he narrates a fantasy trip to Iguazu Falls, but his tragedy is that he can not reach out and neither can his friend or really anyone in this suffocating enclave of moribund small-town Japan. As in her debut Orphan’s Blues, Kudo finds her heroes trapped with a space of artificial nostalgia and yearning for escape while in constant dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai’s melancholy romance Happy Together as the two young men process their frustrated desires not only for each other but for an end to the loneliness that defines each of their lives. 

Naomi (Shion Sasaki) is lonely in part because he feels trapped. Having dropped out of university he’s working in his father’s (Masahiro Komoto) recycling depot while his best friend and high school sweetheart Sakuko is about to move to Canada. He first catches sight of the enigmatic Maki (Tamari Suwa) at the local pool after trying to learn to swim to effect change in his life and later bonds with him along with a mysterious old woman, Midori (Jun Fubuki), who has lost her sight and claims to have travelled the world in her youth. What the boys later discover is that Midori had not been entirely honest in that her travels had been vicarious, related to her by a third party long since departed whom she did not want to forget. Following a health scare she tries to give Maki her savings telling him to travel the world in her stead but he soon discovers that she was sadly mistaken about amount she’d put away. Lacking the heart to tell her, Maki decides to use an old tape recorder to fake trips to famous places ironically mirroring her final confession that her friend had never travelled either but made all the stories up for her benefit. 

The tape recorder conceit of course directly recalls Happy Together as does the final destination of the Iguazu Falls while hinting at the unattainable freedom each of the young men yearns for as mediated by their desire to travel the world. “We can go anytime” Maki tries to convince Naomi in his mounting desperation though each of them on some level knows they will never leave nor escape their sense of loneliness. Maki describes himself as feeling as if he is trapped within a magnetic field, surrounded by people but unable to touch them. A man permanently at odds with his environment, Naomi feels the same but their feelings for each other are complex and confusing. In a repeated motif one reaches out to touch the other but suddenly pulls back, their repressed desire expressed only through increasingly intense play fighting until one is finally unable to go on with the subterfuge and unsuccessfully attempts to address their unresolved romantic tension. 

Much of their courtship occurs in Naomi’s converted garage bedsit, a space filled with unwanted relics of the past from countless VHS and discarded books to TVs and radios. The garage is his literal safe space, Naomi explaining to Maki that he feels the urge to collect things out of a sense of security that they are safe here even if they disappear from the outside world. “Memories will stay” Maki reminds him, but that’s not good enough for Naomi who ironically can only trust the things that he can touch. Preoccupied with a sense of loss he is unable to move forward, cannot take hold of himself or his desires wishing to preserve the past at all costs while Maki has learnt to live in the moment able to let go but adrift in the present. 

“We may not even be alive tomorrow” Naomi wails in desperation, feeling as if he’s running out of time while boxed in by his equally lonely, disappointed father as a vision of his future self worn down by small-town life and a persistent sense of futility. The two men are forever divided, literal glass standing between them in the closing scenes in which they can no longer touch even if they wished it. Small-town life is it seems the place dreams go to die as symbolised in Sakuko’s eventual defeated return, Naomi left only with resignation to the life he had rejected in an acceptance of the failure of his unfulfilled desires. “I don’t want to forget” he claims echoing Midori’s explanation for her mysterious tattoo while left only with the ironic words of Maki’s cassette tape in their melancholy echo of the romantic impossibilities of Happy Together, “we need to start over”. 


Let Me Hear It Barefoot streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Images: (c)PFF Partners

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

The Mole Song: Final (土竜の唄 FINAL, Takashi Miike, 2021)

“He’s horny and looks like a fool but you can count on him” according to top mob boss Todoroki and it’s as good a description as any of the hero of Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga by Noboru Takahashi, The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji. Billed as the conclusion of the trilogy each of which is scripted by Kankuro Kudo, The Mole Song: FINAL (土竜の唄 FINAL, Mogura no uta Final) arrives almost 10 years since the series’ first instalment and five years after the second as Reiji (Toma Ikuta) proceeds towards his ultimate target and staves off the next evolution of organised crime.

To rewind a little, as film frequently does in flashbacks to the earlier movies, Reiji was a useless street cop facing a host of complaints not least for being a bit of a creep upskirting the local ladies until offered the opportunity to go undercover in the yakuza in order to break a drug smuggling ring run by ageing boss Todoroki (Koichi Iwaki). No longer technically a law enforcement officer because undercover operations are apparently illegal in Japan, Reiji has begun to find himself torn between his ultimate mission and the codes of gangsterdom not least in his relationship with sympathetic, old school yakuza Papillon (Shinichi Tsutsumi) so named for his love of butterflies many of which adorn his brightly coloured suits. 

Reiji’s inner conflict may ironically mirror the giri/ninjo push and pull central to the yakuza drama as he begins to realise that in completing his mission of taking down Todoroki he will end up betraying Papillon who once saved his life at the cost of his legs. Papillon meanwhile is presented as the idealised figure of the traditional yakuza in his fierce opposition to the drugs trade in the conviction that all they do is make people’s lives miserable and destroy families. He alone maintains the traditional ideas of brotherhood that underpin the underworld society in which a boss is also a father and betrayal is a spiritual if also in a sense literal act of suicide. His opposite number, meanwhile, Todoroki’s son Leo (Ryohei Suzuki), is the evolution of the post-Bubble yakuza, highly corporatised and essentially amoral. Papillon compares him to a mutant butterfly fed on coca lives that will eventually kill all of those with which it is confined while Leo himself claims that he intends to redefine the concept of the yakuza for the new generation. 

Caught between policeman and gangster, Reiji’s identity confusion is mediated through his relationships with Papillon on the one hand and pure-hearted love interest Junna (Riisa Naka) on the other. Each of them at one point tells Reiji that he is dead to them, thereby exiling him to the other side temporarily or otherwise. His yakuza traits which include the perversity which plagued him before endanger his otherwise innocent love for Junna in his inability to control his impulses, upsetting her by revealing a possible fling with a local woman while working on the drug deal in Italy, while his inclination towards police work that informs his sense of “justice” places him at odds with Papillon even though they are in many ways pursuing the same goal in keeping Japan free of dangerous drugs and the crime at surrounds them while purifying the contemporary yakuza of the pollution they have caused and restoring it to the pure ideal of another kind of “justice” advocated by Papillon which Todoroki has in a sense betrayed. 

As the film makes clear, the traditional yakuza is in any case on its way out with successive law enforcement initiatives that perhaps unfairly in some senses prevent them from living their lives. Todoroki’s guys defend their choices to the more idealistic Papillon under the rationale that they can’t open bank accounts, rent apartments, or even make sure their kids have lunch to take to school, so they have to dirty their hands with these less honourable kinds of work. Leo is simply a turbo charged version of their determination to survive. As eccentric cat-like gangster Nekozawa (Takashi Okamura), making a shock reappearance, explains it isn’t as if they can go straight either because who’s going to hire a former yakuza for a regular job? 

There may be in a sense a sympathy for those caught out by their choices with no real way back, a more liberal view of “justice” leaning either towards that by their own code or a simple rejection of the amoral selfishness of those who think nothing of ruining the lives of others for their own gain. With plenty of call backs to earlier instalments, Reiji once again opening the film buck naked with in this case a vase for modesty, Miike maintains the same slapstick sense of humour frequently employing zany animation and even a puppet show to express Reiji’s sometimes simplistic way of thinking. The film even unexpectedly shifts into tokusatsu in its closing sequence, bearing out the similarity in the titular “mole song” to the classic Mothra refrain, while placing Reiji and Papillon back into their respective roles having perhaps exchanged something between them in continuing to pursue their shared goal of a drug-free society. 


The Mole Song: Final streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Ⓒ2021 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/SHOGAKUKAN/JSTORM/TOHO/OLM ⒸNOBORU TAKAHASHI/SHOGAKUKAN