I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Ayako Imamura, 2020)

“I thought we could understand each other because we’re both minorities, but that was wrong”, director Ayako Imamura admits in her revealing, self-reflective documentary I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Tomodachi Yameta) in which she contemplates her sometimes awkward relationship with a friend who has Asperger’s and struggles with communication. Imamura herself was born deaf and so also faces daily communication barriers living in a hearing society but often has difficulty understanding Ma-chan’s sense of anxiety and social rejection becoming increasingly irritated by seemingly trivial examples of what she sees as rudeness or lack of consideration. 

Ayako apparently met Ma-chan a few months before the film began at a screening of her previous film, Start Line, which charted her journey across Japan by bicycle. Ma-chan had become involved with social welfare issues in university, making friends with deaf students and learning sign language. At the event, Ma-chan was supposed to be her interpreter, but as the screening began ahead of schedule she arrived after it started and simply sat in the front row of the audience not knowing what else to do. This seems to have irritated Ayako, put off by her supposed bad attitude. 

It is then a minor irony that part of Ayako’s growing resentment stems from something she did not even notice directly in that Ma-chan never says “itadakimasu” as is customary and polite before eating. Ayako’s grandmother pointed this out to her, taking against Ma-chan thinking her rude or ungrateful while Ayako herself who obviously couldn’t hear if she said it or not tried to defend her if superficially on the grounds of her disability. Later Ma-chan explains that she believes not saying itadakimasu is not (directly) related to her neurodivergence but simply because her family did not say it and so she never learned the habit, while Ayako gradually realises that she has perhaps become fixated on “Asperger’s” to the extent that she stopped seeing Ma-chan as person rather than an embodiment of her “condition”. 

She had perhaps assumed that as two people who experience similar problems with communication they would be on the same wavelength, but finds it increasingly difficult to accept Ma-chan’s atypical behaviour, perhaps irrationally upset by the itadakimasu issue while otherwise put out by her tendency to eat other people’s snacks without asking and smack her on the back of the head when she’s done something silly. For her part, Ma-chan reveals she prefers using sign language because there’s less need for superficial politeness and therefore less chance of causing offence. Ayako consciously affects tolerance, wary of turning into one of those people who ask a deaf person if they haven’t just tried listening harder in railroading Ma-chan into neurotypical behaviour patterns but eventually decides to end their friendship explaining that she’s “done with trying to act like a nice person”. 

While Ayako only obliquely addresses some of the problems she faces in the hearing world, using a relay system to book tickets over the phone for example, she is surprised to realise that Ma-chan has similar problems, too anxious to order food in a restaurant for example and reluctant to use the telephone even if not physically incapable. We’re told that Ma-chan also suffers from depression and see her expressing suicidal thoughts in despair of being constantly told that she needs to change in order to adapt to neurotypical society and knowing that she can’t. What occurs between the two women is perhaps an ironic kind of miscommunication informed by a degree of culturally specific rigidity in which rudeness deliberate or otherwise is an unforgivable sin. 

Despite having elected to end their friendship, Ayako eventually changes her mind and decides to try again, more directly, with a little mutual understanding each stating bluntly what behaviour they find puzzling or hurtful and attempting to explain why it occurs, drawing up something like a set of ground rules and boundaries for their relationship. Attending a meeting in Tokyo in which disabled activists express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community following a politician’s crass remark that “unproductive” (ie those who do not contribute to solving the declining birthrate problem) people do not deserve social support, both women are forced to reconsider their views on and as minorities addressing some uncomfortable thoughts they too may have had about their place in society and that of others. Nevertheless, in the end they each resolve to struggle against any unconscious prejudice they may have, actively striving to forge a friendship based on mutual understanding and brokered by resolute honesty rather than allow pettiness and resentment to drive them apart. 


I Quit, Being “Friends” streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Mankyu, 2019)

Cute characters are ubiquitous in Japan and though many may associate them with merchandising aimed at small children, a more recent trend has expressly targeted dejected adults perhaps longing for an escape into a kinder, more innocent world. San-X has been at the forefront of this trend with its hugely popular merchandising lines often featuring characters who just want to take things easy and enjoy life such as the lazy bear Rilakkuma or the roly-poly Tarepanda. Featuring an entire cast of neurotic characters, Sumikkogurashi has been one of the studio’s most successful collections appearing on everything from stationery items to cookware and clothing. 

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Eiga Sumikkogurashi: Tobidasu Ehon to Himitsu no Ko) is the franchise’s first animated movie and at just over an hour long is aimed squarely not at the regular adult audience but at small children (or perhaps the small children of the same overly anxious adults), taking inspiration from various international fairytales as the guys go on an improbable adventure to help a lost little duckling trapped inside a book. For those not already familiar with the world of Sumikkogurashi, the picture book-style narrators (Yoshihiko Inohara & Manami Honjo) introduce each of the characters who never speak themselves but communicate with each other through onscreen text mimicking that which appears on their character goods later interpreted by the narrators. The central theme of the Sumikkogurashi franchise is that each of the characters is intensely neurotic and has retreated from the world in favour of the relative safety of the corner of the room where they find solidarity with other similarly troubled souls which include a polar bear afraid of the cold, a shy cat, the remnants of a tonkatsu cutlet too oily to finish and his shrimp tail buddy, a bunch of tapioca pearls left in a cup of bubble tea, and a green penguin who is confused about their identity wondering if they are actually a lost kappa. 

It’s to Penguin? that the main drama belongs as he bonds with the lonely duckling who has come loose in a book of fairytales and wants to find out where they belong. Sucked into a pop-up book, the Sumikkogurashi guys find themselves taking on the roles of the main characters with shy cat Neko cast as fierce yet tiny warrior Momotaro, Shirokuma as The Little Match Girl forced to face the cold, Tonkatsu and Ebifurai no Shippo in Little Red Riding Hood, secret dinosaur Tokage as The Little Mermaid, and Penguin? thrown into the world of the Arabian Nights. Together they pledge to help Hiyokko, the lost duckling, find where they belong and hopefully some friends along the way facing their own fears as they go.

The irony is that the guys have to leave the corner and go on an adventure where they do not exactly overcome their fears but perhaps learn that there’s not so much to be afraid of, Neko for instance making friends with the scary demon who chases them to offer some “onigiri” (a minor pun) in return for the gift of dumplings rather than fighting him as in the Momotaro folktale, even if they obviously need to return to the corner in the end. The message is that no one is really alone, even if they’re lonely in the corner lots of other people are too and you can find comfort in all being lonely together. The simple, water colour-inspired animation style is a perfect match for the series’ “healing” aesthetic with its gentle humour and random puns appealing both to small children drawn in by the cuteness of the characters and jaded adults looking for a little comfort who are presumably the targets of the more sophisticated gags. A simple bedtime story, Sumikkogurashi: Good to Be in the Corner is filled with wholesome warmth that belies its neurotic premise as the guys find solace in friendship and kindness while contending with an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile world.


Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

A quiet suburb of Tokyo, Kamata is in someways the birthplace of modern Japanese cinema home to Shochiku’s prewar studio where the “Kamata Style” which aimed to introduce a note of cheerful naturalism to an artform defined by shinpa gloominess was forged. Produced by actress Urara Matsubayashi who hails from the area and stars in three of the four segments, omnibus movie Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Kamata Zensokyoku) asks some tough questions about what it means to be a woman and an actress today in the contemporary capital as the heroine, “Machiko Kamata”, contends with various demands from the economic to the emotional. 

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, the first segment finds Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) introducing herself as she takes part in a strange audition dressed in an inappropriately short cosplay-style nurse’s outfit. After the audition is over, her agent tells her to say “hi” to the director, a theme which will recur in the third chapter as Machiko finds herself feeling uncomfortable, forced to ingratiate herself in order to get ahead. Annoyed after the eccentric director asks her out for dinner, she can’t help asking him why she has to wear the suspiciously skimpy nurse’s outfit provoking him into a worryingly violent outburst. At home, meanwhile, her world is rocked by her younger brother’s revelation that he’s got a girlfriend who is, ironically, a nurse at local hospital. Jealous and resentful, Machiko can’t warm to Setsuko (Kotone Furukawa) who seems improbably sweet and innocent, almost as if she came from another time (the mid-August dating and ornaments for the Bon festival might clue us in as to why). Spending a day bonding with her, however, the two women generate a kind of sisterhood which pushes Machiko into a realisation of the emptiness she feels in her life of constant struggle as an aspiring actress supporting herself mainly with her part-time job at a ramen bar. 

The themes of alienation and insecurity are only depend in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, in which Machiko reunites with a group of high school friends who are each less than honest about the state of their lives and their unfulfilled desires. Machiko gives the impression that she’s just been in a major movie with a big star, but it turns out she only played a corpse while the rest of the group are scandalised by the bombshell that their friend Marippe (Mayuko Fukuda) has got engaged to a guy from work she’s been seeing secretly for only six months. Besides being somewhat hurt not to have known she was seeing someone, the gang have different reactions to the news with hard-nosed career woman Hana (Sairi Ito) put out by Marippe’s traditional view of conventional gender roles in which she intends to let her career slide to concentrate on being a wife. A trip to a hot spring (the same hot spring seen advertised on Machiko’s T-shirt in part one) brings things to a head with a possibly cheating boyfriend eventually offering the excuse that he is merely a hot spring enthusiast sharing his hobby with a friend of the opposite sex rather than a two-bit louse indulging in the patriarchal double standard. 

Patriarchal double standards are out in force in part three, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, in which Machiko attends another odd audition where she and the other auditionees are asked to outline an episode of sexual harassment they have personally experienced. In fact, we have already seen her be inappropriately propositioned by a middle-aged producer who ran out on her in a coffee shop after she turned him down leaving her with the bill, but the episode she recounts is darker still. As she feared they might, the men in the room quickly figure out who she might have been talking about but proceed to put the blame on her implying that she sleeps around to get ahead and was only offended by the producer’s actions because he wasn’t powerful enough to be useful. It’s another woman however, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), who kicks things into gear by relating that she was assaulted by a man in a club whom she later reveals to have been the director himself only he doesn’t remember her. The director brings both women back and makes them re-enact Machiko’s tale of being inappropriately propositioned in a producer’s office, increasingly exasperated that the situation seems “too scary” as if he’s entirely missed the point of his own exercise or is actively getting off on the actress’ discomfort. The male cameraman (Ryutaro Ninomiya) is the one who eventually points out that the audition itself has descended into a protracted act of sexual harassment, seemingly conducted solely for the entertainment of the director and his assistant. 

Largely disconnected from the other three chapters, the fourth does not feature Urara Matsubayashi and is in fact set not in Kamata but in director Hirobumi Watanabe’s familiar Tochigi. The opening of his segment, characteristically filmed with static camera and in black and white, finds him once again playing a version of himself ranting about not knowing what to do with this unusual project he has taken on for the money even though he doesn’t generally make shorts, has never done an omnibus movie before, and remains suspicious of the concept. He relates all of this to his 10-year-old niece Riko (star of I’m Really Good), who says absolutely nothing while he continues to treat her as if she were the most famous actress in Japan. Somewhat poignantly, a photograph of Watanabe’s late grandmother sits on a stool off to the side, implying perhaps that little Riko has in some senses taken over her role as silent observer. The main thrust of the action follows Watanabe as he attempts to film a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion with local non-actors, but is finally linked back to the omnibus by Riko’s cheerful letter to Machiko in which she states that she wants to become an actress just like her. Ending on such an upbeat moment seems to imbue a sense of hope for the future that was perhaps previously absent, implying that the hopes and dreams of a little girl at least are worth fighting for if only to live up to her sense of expectation for the magic of the movies. 


Kamata Prelude streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nosari: Impermanent Eternity (のさりの島, Tatsuya Yamamoto, 2020)

“This is an illusion” a boatman explains to a lost young man “but sometimes people need it”. Produced by the Kyoto University of the Arts Department of Film Production, Tatsuya Yamamoto’s Nosari: Impermanent Eternity (のさりの島, Nosari no Shima) is the latest in a minor trend of indie dramas which see meandering young men find their feet while hiding out in moribund communities where the people are kind, honest, and willing to lend them space in which to figure themselves out enough to get back on the right path. 

This particular young man (Kisetsu Fujiwara) is an “ore ore” scammer, a popular form of telephone fraud in which the caller rings an elderly person and claims to be their grandson explaining in a panic that they’re in trouble and need money right away. The elderly person on the other end of the phone usually complies, either too estranged to realise that it isn’t their grandson’s voice or too anxious to give it much thought. On this particular occasion, however, the woman that the man rings after arriving on the small island of Amakusa appears not to understand, believing that he really is her grandson, Shota, suddenly arrived for a visit. The young man ends up going along with it, warming to the old woman, Tsuyako (Chisako Hara), and more or less forced to stay after she hides his phone and wallet (which contains money he’d already stolen from the honesty box in her music store). 

In some senses, “Shota’s” previous life as a cruel exploiter of the elderly is painted as a symptom of urban disconnection, that his alienated city life has robbed him both of empathy and basic morality though we know nothing of his wider circumstances save that he seems to be on the run from a series of similar crimes along the rail line out from Tokyo. It’s never exactly clear how much Tsuyako knows at any one time, though the movement of a photograph in the closing moments makes plain that she does indeed on some level realise that the man isn’t Shota no matter how much she’d like him to be. As the opening title card explained, the local people have a habit of simply accepting whatever it is that comes their way which is perhaps what Tsuyako decides to do with Shota, realising that he’s in trouble and wanting to help him by taking him into her home which does at least restore his sense of empathy for the elderly. 

The truth is however that Tsuyako is one of many elderly people left behind in a rapidly depopulating rural Japan, her son having moved away to the city and her husband presumably already passed away. Hers is the only shop still open in an eerily empty shopping arcade where she sits on a small stool waiting for customers that presumably rarely come, leaving an honesty box on the counter should she need to nip away. A parallel plot strand finds the host of a local radio programme, Kiyora (Ami Sugihara), desperately trying to find footage from back when the area was filled with life and industry but more or less coming up short. On her travels, she interviews an old man (Akira Emoto) who was once a master craftsman of noh masks but has recently turned to making lifelike scarecrows whose eerie presence attempts to make up for the sense of absence in the moribund town where, he points out, the elderly residents once played together as children. 

Kiyora also meets with a series of businessmen who have their own ideas about how to reinvigorate the town but comes up with few solutions to Japan’s ongoing rural depopulation crisis and is perhaps herself also lonely as one of the few youngsters remaining behind. She loves Amakusa for its serenity, often playing the calming soundscape on air for harried Tokyoites trapped on their cramped commuter trains but for her friend Yukari (Manami Nakata) country life seems stifling. She realises that those from the city long for the connection and kindness of the countryside, but she can’t stand the seasonal rhythm of rural life or the feeling of being under constant watch, peer pressured into dull activities she might not have much interest in solely to keep up appearances. 

For Shota, however, country connection seems to be exactly what he needed. “I don’t know what’s real and what’s false” he later complains, perhaps too invested in his temporary existence as Shota to fully appreciate the contradictions of his life. Gently cared for by Tsuyako he begins to realise that the world can also be kind, touched by her generosity as she tells him that on occasion there is more money in her honesty box than there should be but even if there were less it would be alright it just means that someone was in need. Arguing that something has been lost in the fracturing of communities, Nosari longs for a return to a more innocent, connected time in which people knew and supported each other, something of which seems to return in the busier Amakusa streets even if Kiyora finds herself suddenly surrounded by scarecrows in the loneliness of the empty arcade, striking up a friendship with a bashful harmonica player who later finds her way to Tsuyako’s store. For Shota, however, Amakusa has perhaps given him a better sense of himself, ready to head back out into the world with kindness and empathy in place of hardened cynicism. 


Nosari: Impermanent Eternity streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Koki Mitani, 2019)

Imagine if you woke up one day and found out you’re actually the national leader of your country and not only that absolutely everyone, including your wife and son, hates you with furious intensity. The hapless protagonist of Koki Mitani’s lowkey political satire Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Kioku ni Gozaimasen!) finds himself in just this stressful situation having lost all of his memories since he made the fateful decision to enter politics, rendered infinitely naive as he tries to keep up appearances while internally conflicted by the direction both his life and his country under his stewardship seem to have taken. 

Regarded as the “all-time worst prime minister” in Japanese history, Keisuke Kuroda (Kiichi Nakai) is known as a venal bore, a ghastly misogynist and all-round arsehole. To put it bluntly the very fact that a man like Kuroda could ever have become prime minster in the first place hints at a deep-seated rot in the political order. Aside from his gaffe-prone personality, the chief complaints against his administration are a sales tax hike and welfare cuts both of which target those with the least means, not that Kuroda cares very much about them. His big legacy idea is to build a second Diet building right next to the first Diet building only with spa facilities, illicitly teaming up with a childhood friend turned construction magnate who has been supplying him with hefty “donations”. 

After insulting the electorate during an outdoor balcony speech, Kuroda is hit on the head by a rock thrown by a disgruntled voter. Having lost his memory he regresses to a state of innocence from before he was corrupted by the cutthroat world of Japanese politics, now a nice, polite, slightly mild-mannered man who stuns his staff with his newfound consideration for others including a widely televised moment in which he stops to help up a female reporter who trips while chasing him in the lobby. Few believe he’s really changed, assuming this is some sort of bit intended to help rehabilitate his reputation. His new attitude, however, eventually fosters a new sense of hope for political change among his previously jaded, cynical staff who had long since given up hope of building a better Japan. 

Unsurprisingly, Mitani mostly avoids direct allusions to real world politics but adopts a mildly progressive stance as he sends a virtual innocent into the lion’s den of contemporary politics. It’s not long before Kuroda’s asking sensible questions about policy that wouldn’t go down so well with his (presumably) centre-right party including lowering the sales tax and raising the corporate, taking the time to greet constituents including a contingent of cherry farmers which contributes to his later decision to turn down a tariff-free trade deal for American cherries endangering diplomatic relations with the Japanese-American US President. No longer a ruthless political animal but a rueful middle-aged man who actually cares about ordinary people, Kuroda attempts to change the course Japanese politics largely by taking on the king maker, Tsurumaru (Masao Kusakari), his Chief Cabinet Secretary and the true holder of power in this infinitely corrupt political system. 

All sorts of sordid politics is on display from Kuroda’s womanising and a potential blackmail plot involving his wife’s affair to Tsurumaru’s yakuza ties and an even worse secret he would find personally ruinous should it get out. The ironic Japanese title of the film takes its name from that most universal of political get out of jail free cards, “I do not recall”, Kuroda’s standard response when questioned in the Diet about any of his extremely dodgy dealings. Instructing Kuroda that he should drop this “shallow humanism”, Tsurumaru can offer only the motivation that he wants to “remain in politics for as long as possible” while discovering that his old-school methods of political manipulation may no longer work when those around him find the courage to shed their cynicism and embrace a cleaner, kinder politics. 

Throwing in random gags such as a foreign minister who can’t speak English and has large ears with a pot belly that give him the appearance of Buddha while taking minor potshots as the usually toothless TV media through his series of acerbic anchors only too keen to criticise the PM live on air, Mitani’s comedy is characteristically inoffensive with its mix of slapstick and goodnatured farce but nevertheless makes a subtle plea for decent, compassionate politics which puts the interests of the people first rather than those of the governing elite. 


Hit Me Anyone One More Time streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Company Retreat (ある職場, Atsushi Funahashi, 2020)

“You can’t be suspicious of your team” an older woman insists, trying to defuse a rapidly devolving situation of mistrust among co-workers away on a “Company Retreat” ostensibly to cheer up a female employee who has recently become the centre of an online storm after her name and photos were leaked in relation to a report of sexual harassment at a prominent hotel chain. Inspired by true events, director Atsushi Funahashi originally planned to make a documentary exploring the fallout from an accusation of sexual harassment but discovered that few were willing to put themselves on camera opting instead to craft a docudrama in part improvised by his cast of actors. 

Shot documentary style and in black and white save one colour flashback, the action is split between two distinct company getaways four months apart taking place at a coastal town the first in the winter and the second in spring. Saki (Saki Hirai), a young female employee, made an accusation of sexual harassment against her male middle-aged boss, Kumanaka (Makoto Hada), and has been receiving constant online abuse after being outed by an unknown figure for unknown reasons. While her colleagues are largely supportive, they may also be harbouring an unspoken resentment that her decision to speak up has indirectly endangered their jobs as the company continues to suffer a loss of reputation with the public. When another of the employees reveals that he’s tracked the IP address of a persistent troll and discovered they’ve been posting from nearby it invites the suspicion that one of her friends is behind the online hate campaign possibly at the behest of the hotel chain keen to blacken her name and reputation in order to safeguard their own. 

The sexual harassment accusation exposes the gulf between what people say and what they really feel with some of the other employees eventually losing their cool and taking their frustrations out on Saki, partly for spoiling the holiday with her gloominess but also for her tendency to isolate herself from the group now viewing each of them as a potential enemy. She later accuses Noda (Yoshio Taguchi), a placid company man she feels may have chosen to sacrifice her in order to save the company’s reputation and with it his own job. Noda is upset to realise Saki sees him as a heartless corporate drone but later claims to have forgiven her. At the second retreat, however, he begins to voice quite a different opinion, exposing a deeply held set of patriarchal values in playing devil’s advocate wondering if it wasn’t all a misunderstanding and the boss, who has been demoted and transferred but not fired, has had his life “ruined” over something that wasn’t “that big of a deal”. He says this, in part, because his new girlfriend who also happens to be an employee has advised him that he is inappropriately touchy feely in the office and has little understanding of boundaries or personal space. Noda doesn’t see a distinction in the way he interacts with men and women and feels that’s just how he is, laying the blame on the other party if they ever felt uncomfortable while tacitly sympathising with another man who he believes may have had no “bad intentions” and is simply the victim of a “misunderstanding”. 

Perhaps paradoxically, he also blames Saki for her complicity that she may have smiled or laughed and said it was fine on previous occasions giving the boss the green light to think there was nothing inappropriate in his behaviour. In this she finds herself agreeing, that is perhaps the way it works in the workplace. Another older woman in a senior position advises her to transfer to another department, eventually explaining she thinks that might be easier seeing as the bosses are all men unlikely to be sympathetic. Ushihara (Mikoto Yoshikawa) is not unsympathetic herself, but is also willingly complicit, among the contingent of older career women who feel that sexual harassment is something you just have to put up with while simultaneously claiming that nothing will change until there are more women in a position of power. Attempting to take her side, Kinoshita (Megumi Ito), a divorced senior employee, tells Saki to do the “right thing” and refuse the transfer but is shot down by Noda who exposes even more misogyny when he tells her that her “emotional” and “righteous” tone is “unattractive”, insisting that she needs to “win the respect of men” in order for her arguments have weight. 

For some, however, and particularly the younger men this sort of hypocrisy becomes too much to bear. A company is supposed to be a family, but no one trusts anyone. Several employees from the original retreat resign after a decision is taken to try ringing the troll to prove they aren’t among the group unable to bear the sense of mistrust and suspicion from their close friends and teammates. Another employee, Taku (Taku Tsujii), brings his boyfriend to the first retreat though closeted at work losing confidence to come out to his colleagues in case they reject him and worst case scenario it costs him his job. Eventually he makes the decision to explain, realising he’s placed his boyfriend in a difficult position, and is relieved to discover he is immediately accepted by all, but continues to sympathise with Saki knowing how devastating it can be to be outed while also irritated by her tendency to reject them while they are only trying to help her. Meanwhile, another awkward young man struggles to confess his crush on the increasingly paranoid young woman, overly invested in a patriarchal ideal of masculinity that women are in need of male protectors mistakenly believing that Saki will be impressed by his attempt to safeguard her which ironically becomes a secondary act of harassment even as he, like Kinoshita, attempts to convince her to rebel against her complicity with a relentlessly rigged, conformist and conservative social order. 

The conclusion that she comes to, however, is that she has to “survive in this world” rather than striving for a better one. She has been unfairly demonised as if the real problem is her speaking up rather than her boss’ inappropriate behaviour and is understandably weary with fighting a battle she doesn’t understand, willing to accept a level of complicity in order to end the hate and suspicion. Kinoshita fears she will never see a “safe workplace” while others relentlessly “try to make society work for them” rather than for everyone. A bleak picture of contemporary society ruled by oppressive social pressure and aggressively patriarchal norms, Funahashi’s empathetic drama offers no real answers but advocates for the right to say no in a society where dissent is an untouchable taboo. 


Company Retreat (ある職場, Aru Shokuba) streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

Ushiku (牛久, Thomas Ash, 2021)

Japan has famously tough immigration policy and despite having signed up to various international agreements is unique among developed nations in its reluctance to accept refugees. Making migration easier has often been posited as a potential solution to the nation’s declining birthrate and stagnant economy, but it’s one that has never found favour with those in power. An immigration bill that was due to go through the Diet in May 2021 which would have made deportations easier was in fact halted in part because of public outcry after a young woman sadly passed away in an immigration detention centre after staff allegedly ignored her pleas for medical assistance claiming that she was simply faking her symptoms in an effort to avoid deportation. To add insult to injury, the young woman was detained for overstaying on her visa after having attempted to get help from the police as she was suffering domestic violence. Having learned she had reported him, her boyfriend threatened revenge should she return to her home country.

Filmed mainly with hidden camera, such facilities do not allow photography of any kind, Thomas Ash’s unflinching documentary ventures inside a dentition centre for male refugees awaiting confirmation of their applications in Ushiku. Though some claim they are in a sense better off than they were for having a degree of safety, shelter, and freedom from hunger, the facility is indeed little better than a jail with those inside it treated as prisoners whose movements are heavily restricted and communications monitored. As another points out, at least if you’re in jail they have to tell you how long for whereas immigration detention is indefinite (also the case in the UK). Many of those sharing their stories have been in Ushiku for several years already and have no indication of when they might be released or eventually deported. 

The desperation of their circumstances has pushed some towards suicide, while hunger strikes have become a worryingly common form of protest as authorities often offer a temporary release on the condition the detainee agrees to resume eating only to pick them back up again shortly afterwards. One detainee uses a wheelchair as he is too weak to walk but that does not apparently prevent his rough treatment at the hands of immigration centre staff who attempted to deport him without notice, the attempt only halted when the airline refused to carry him. The central problem is that the government often refuses to recognise their status as refugees, claiming that they have simply declined to return to their birth countries rather than accepting that they cannot return because their lives would be in immediate danger. Many of the detainees recount seeing their friends and relatives murdered or their homes destroyed, knowing that to be sent back is as good as a death sentence. 

This remains the case even for those who have married Japanese women with some recounting that immigration officials have attempted to convince their wives that the relationship is not genuine and encourage them to divorce their foreign-born spouse. In the interests of transparency, actions inside the detention centre are videoed but the officers appear to act with impunity. Ash includes a lengthy and painful sequence of a detainee enduring violence at the hands of guards he claims have assaulted him off-camera, complaining that he can’t breathe while another of the guards argues with him as they insist he is “resisting” even though he is cuffed and motionless. Perhaps it’s surprising that the footage exists and is available, but then again perhaps they simply have no fear of accountability believing that few care about what goes on in this arcane system of which the general public remains largely unaware. 

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, 75% of detainees were granted a temporary release but this too is its own kind of prison as the refugees are still regarded as foreign nationals without the right to work leaving them entirely unable to support themselves if they have no access to a support network such as family, friends, or a charitable organisation willing to help. It goes without saying that neither can they access social support or medical care but remain in a perpetual limbo while they must also pay a deposit amount on leaving the detention centre. As one young man points out, many abscond while on temporary release but he chooses not to because he wants to live free with a legitimate social status and proper visa to build better life. Even so he wonders why he’s worse off for having done the “right” thing, imprisoned by an unforgiving government whose hostility may actually kill him. “Japan is a wonderful country but the government is cruel” the young man laments, left entirely without options other than to wait, indefinitely. An often harrowing account of what one opposition politician brands as a stain on their democracy, Ash’s unflinching humanitarian documentary is an eye-opening exposé of the bureaucratic heartlessness at the centre of a needlessly hostile and inhumane immigration system. 


Ushiku streams worldwide until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Movement to End Indefinite Detention in the UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Yukiko Sode, 2021)

“Is that still a thing?” a young boy asks incredulously of his rather severe grandmother as she quite insensitively sets up new marriage meetings for her granddaughter seconds after being told that her fiancé has unilaterally ended their engagement earlier that day. The “aristocracy” might seem like something from a bygone age, yet as those of us living in highly stratified societies can attest it continues to place a near invisible stranglehold over the mechanisms which govern our lives. Even so, the system traps all as Yukiko Sode’s sensitive drama Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Ano Ko wa Kizoku), adapted from the novel by Mariko Yamauchi, makes plain as two women involved with the same man, as dejected and unhappy as either of them, eventually find common ground in attempting to seize their own agency from within a fiercely patriarchal society. 

At 27, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is beginning to feel as if her life is slipping away from her. As we first meet her, she’s on her way to a posh New Year meal at a fancy Tokyo hotel. The taxi driver envies her, lamenting that he drives people here all the time but has never set foot inside. The reason she’s running late, however, is a mild sense of embarrassment as evidenced by the empty chair at her side intended for the fiancé who won’t be coming. Explaining that he broke off the engagement because the timing was bad, Hanako attempts to put a brave face on the apparent shame she seems to be feeling while her sisters and mother suggest it might be for the best, he was a little too “flamboyant” and in any case they’re ideally looking for someone suitable to take over the family medical practice. While everyone is busy proposing alternative matches, only Hanako’s brother-in-law (Takashi Yamanaka) bothers to ask her what it is she really wants but all she can muster is that she’d be fine with someone “normal”. 

After a few miserable omiai meetings with dreadful men from an awkward doctor with a photo fetish to a sleazy playboy salaryman who thinks women only say they like jazz because at some point a guy liked it, Hanako begins to lose the will to live thinking perhaps that looking for the “right guy” might be aiming too high and she should just take the best offer on the table. When she meets Koichiro (Kengo Kora), however, it’s love at first sight. Showing up like Prince Charming he’s handsome, poised, softly spoken, and even posher than she is. Hanako is the perfect choice to be his wife essentially because of her innate blandness. She’s everything the society wife is supposed to be, quiet, reserved, and unassuming in her total obedience to the tenets of her “upbringing”.  

Meanwhile, Koichiro has also been in a longterm non-relationship with another woman, Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), a bar hostess from a small town who has had to struggle the whole way to make a life for herself. The pair first met at Keio University, but Miki was forced to drop out before graduating when her father lost his job despite having studied her socks off just to get a place. A member of the “in-crowd”, Koichiro’s acceptance was guaranteed because he attended an affiliated school filled with the children of the rich and powerful. Mirroring Hanako’s lunch date with her society ladies, we see Miki and her friend invited by a couple of upperclass classmates to a fancy afternoon tea only to gorp at the menu and its exorbitant price list at which the “in-crowd” do not even glance. When they meet again 10 years later and Miki explains she didn’t exactly choose her line of work, Koichiro laments it’s exactly the same for him, which it of course isn’t, but he is in a similar way trapped. 

“I just want my family to continue” he later explains to Hanako, “it’s just how I was brought up. The same reason you married me”. In a certain way, Koichiro was no more free than Miki, ironically feminised reduced to his capacity to perpetuate the family line while aware that his whole life has been mapped out for him since the day he was born. He went to Keio, married a suitable woman, and is expected to run for political office. Hanako married him because she was expected to marry someone and it was undoubtedly a good match, yet she’s unhappy because the relationship is devoid of intimacy while her in-laws ironically pressure her about the lack of an heir. She suggests getting a job for something to do, but asking her brother-in-law for advice is reminded she’d need to talk to her husband and family first. 

Hanako’s friend, fellow aristocrat and concert violinist Itsuko (Shizuka Ishibashi), meanwhile has remained quite defiantly single explaining to Miki whom she’d met by chance that she believes a woman should be financially independent partly because her mother had wanted to leave her father who had several affairs and numerous illegitimate children but couldn’t because she had no way to support herself, upperclass women largely being brought up to be the wives of important men. As she tells Miki, she hates society’s tendency to pit women against each other and isn’t here to judge her about her relationship with Koichiro but merely to talk. Rather than a bitter love triangle what arises between the women is a sense of solidarity, each finding common ground in being victims of a patriarchal society even if their “upbringings” and social status are currently very different. While Miki perhaps admires from afar but does not particularly resent the “in-crowd”, Hanako begins to see the various ways her “upbringing” has trapped her, attracted by Miki’s sense of confidence and independence remarking that her life seems “lived in”, struck by the warmth of the photos she has on her wall of various trips with friends. 

Her mother had told her to “close her eyes to some things and try to get along” hearing the sad tale of a woman who managed to escape the golden prison of the aristocracy but only at the cost of her child, a cruelty Hanako had been too naive to consider. As Itsuko had told her, Tokyo is a compartmentalised city where you only meet members of your own social class, yet through her accidental contact with Miki she begins to realise another life is possible even if not quite shaking off her privilege as she rejects the tenets of her upbringing to seize her own agency while Koichiro remains trapped within the feudal legacy unable to free himself of the outdated notions of filial responsibility. A tale of cross-class, female solidarity, Aristocrats takes aim at the ironic equality of a system which damages all, even if some remain wilfully complicit, while affording the ability to its protagonists to sidestep the forces which constrain them to claim their own freedom brokered by mutual support and the aspiration towards a freer society. 


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient, Julien Faraut, 2021)

A turning point in Japan’s post-war fortunes, the 1964 Olympics were touted as a return to the world stage and a clear symbol of the nation’s rapid progress towards economic and social recovery. Two new sports were set to be added to the roster that year, judo in which the Japanese entrant would take only Silver in a moment of mild national embarrassment, and volleyball in which the women’s team eventually took Gold. More interesting stylistically than thematically, Julien Faraut’s anarchic documentary Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient) directly ties the women’s success to that of their nation even as they become pop culture heroines immortalised in anime and manga. 

Faraut opens in the present day with surviving members of the team meeting at a Kyoto hotel, a scene he will intermittently return to as the women (briefly) narrate their personal experiences and origins, most of them hailing from Osaka where the team was based and employees of the Nichibo Kaizuka textile factory. Volleyball then being an amateur sport, the Nichibo team came to represent their nation by virtue of winning the national championships and thereafter venturing overseas touring Europe where they triumphed over various Eastern Bloc countries including the USSR whom they would later face in the Olympic final. On their European arrival, the team acquired the nickname of the “Typhoon of the Orient”, perhaps a little problematic in modern terms and slightly irritating to at least one team member who interpreted it to mean that their success would be a short-lived flash in the pan, blowing out by the time they hit Russia. Their victory conferred on them a new title, “Witches of the Orient” which they found even less flattering until they were informed that it referred to a supernatural playing ability rather than a purely pejorative, misogynistic attempt to belittle them. 

As Faraut goes on to outline, the team’s success sparked a new trend in volleyball sports manga including the hugely influential Attack 1 by Chikako Urano, the anime adaptation of which he later directly intercuts with stock footage of the extraordinarily tense final match. A superpower special move is a hallmark of the genre, along with an emphasis on rigorous, body breaking training regimes. The team’s coach, Daimatsu, acquired the nickname of “the demon” for the intensity with which he practiced, a newspaper feature on the girls running under the heading “Driven Beyond Dignity”, yet the older women some of whom are shown still engaging in sporting activity even in advanced age, claim that they did not object to such harsh treatment which often saw them training through the night until the early hours of the morning only to rise at 6.30 for their factory work. In fact, one of them also describes Daimatsu as the sort of man they’d have liked as a father or a husband and that as he had such a calm demeanour they did not feel scolded when he reprimanded them. Daimatsu had apparently managed to survive months stranded in the Burmese jungle at the end of the war and had brought all of his men home safely, perhaps dedicating the same kind of military care and hyper focus to his coaching. 

Nevertheless, Faraut also includes stock footage of the nation in the early ‘60s much of which was still in rubble while later shifting into a more familiar portrait of the headlong economic drive from neon-lit city scapes to factories producing televisions, a new signal of the age many of which will be purchased in order to watch the upcoming Olympics, the women’s volleyball match still among the highest viewed events in the nation’s history. While intercutting scenes from the anime, he does not particularly critique the various ways in which the women’s success was dramatically repurposed and perhaps falls into the same trap implied in the film’s title in a slight fetishisation of certain vision of Japan in neon and electronica while his attempt to interview the surviving Witches often falls oddly flat if not superficial. In any case, he ties the women’s struggle to that of Japan itself, implying that sweat and tears, a spirit of determined endurance, and a certain degree of self-belief powered the nation’s post-war economic miracle culminating in the Olympic gold that seems to have marked the beginning and the end of their story. 


The Witches of the Orient streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)