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

Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Yukiko Mishima, 2012)

“Plain bread is nice too” a short-term visitor concedes having reached an epiphany after a few days’ stay at Cafe Mani in Yukiko Mishima’s slice of comfort cinema, Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Shiawase no Pan). Perhaps in its own way a reaction to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of the previous year which is referenced in the closing arc, Mishima’s drama is one of a series of films from the 2010s advocating for a simpler life built on empathy and mutual compassion as a bulwark against the increasing disappointments of a relentlessly consumerist society. 

The heroine, Rie (Tomoyo Harada), was a lonely child who buried herself in a fantastical children’s book about a little boy, Mani, who was best friends with the Moon. Touched by Mani’s words when the Moon asked him to take down the sun because its brightness made his life unbearable that “what matters most is that it shines on you and that you shine on others”, Rie resolved to find her own Mani but has long since given up. She and her her husband Mizushima (Yo Oizumi) have recently relocated to a Hokkaido ranch where they run a cafe bakery that has quickly become a community hub tending to the wounded souls of the local area and sometimes even beyond. 

The urban/rural contrast is rammed home by the couple’s first guest, Kaori (Kanna Mori ), a young shop girl from Tokyo who was supposed to be going to Okinawa with her boyfriend but he stood her up and she’s come to Hokkaido instead. Although originally grumpy and sullen, Kaori begins to warm to the charms of rural life complaining that in Tokyo people have to force themselves to smile. Her words accidentally hurt the feelings of local boy Tokio (Yuta Hiraoka), conversely jealous of big city opportunity but lacking the courage to strike out from his small-town life in which ironically enough he works as a points switcher at the local railway. What Kaori learns through her various experiences and the kindness of the Mizushimas isn’t that country life is better just that small happinesses are often all you need, there is pleasure in simplicity, and there’s no need to submit herself to the pretentiousness of city life explaining that she’s going to tell her coworkers the truth about her Okinawan holiday and bring some of the wholesome homemade bread back for them too. 

But then, it isn’t always so easy as the couple discover trying to help a sad little girl in the wake of marital breakdown. In a slightly surprising twist, Maki (Yuki Yagi) has been abandoned by her mother who has left the family and is struggling to accept both her loss and the change in circumstances which goes with it. The dilemma revolves around a bowl of pumpkin soup which Maki refuses to eat despite having previously longed to taste her mother’s signature dish. The realisation she comes to is that something can be different but that doesn’t make it bad, bonding with her equally dejected father (Ken Mitsuishi) thanks to the gentle support of the Mizushimas who seem to have a knack for knowing just what everyone who comes through their door needs. 

That goes double for the elderly couple who turn up late one night in the dead of winter, husband Fumio (Katsuo Nakamura) worryingly explaining that they’ve lived long enough, that while you’re young you still have the possibility of change, of becoming “a different you”, but old age has no further possibility nor the ability to change. Having lost their daughter in the tsunami the old couple are trapped in an inertia of grief from which they are gradually awakened by the gentle care of the Mizushimas and the sight of the beautiful moon that shines down on Cafe Mani. 

Rie meanwhile remains privately dejected, longing for her own Mani but convinced she’ll never find him only to realise he’s been there all along. Just like the words in the picture book, Rie and Mizushima have resolved to be the light, Fumio later sending them a letter claiming that they have discovered the ideal form of happiness in their simple life doing as they please surrounded by friends who have already become family and offering love and support to all who come through their doors through the medium of delicious seasonal food. With a host of quirky side characters including an omniscient glass blower (Kimiko Yo), genial postie (Chikara Honda), farmers with an ever expanding family, and a regular customer who carries a mysterious trunk around, while narrated (seemingly) by a sheep with the voice of a child Mishima’s gentle drama is foodie pure comfort cinema in which good bread and a warm fire may yet save the world.


Bread of Happiness until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Ryota Nakano, 2019)

Contemporary Japanese cinema has gone lukewarm on the idea of family, presenting it more often as a toxic rather than supporting presence. Among the few remaining positive voices, Ryota Nakano’s previous films Capturing Dad and Her Love Boils Bathwater never made any attempt to pretend that families are always perfect or that the family as a concept is one which must always be defended, but ultimately found warmth and solace in the mutual act of pulling together as the sometimes wounded protagonists found strength rather than suffocation in unconditional love. 

A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Nagai Owakare) finds something much the same as three women are forced to deal in different ways with their relationships with austere father Shohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), once an authoritarian head master but now suffering from dementia and rapidly losing the ability to read. The first signs of decline are felt in 2007, prompting mum Yoko (Chieko Matsubara) to ring both of her increasingly distant, almost middle-aged daughters, and invite them to their father’s 70th birthday party, 

33-year-old Fumi (Yu Aoi) is in the middle of breaking up with a boyfriend who’s giving up on his dreams of being a novelist to take over the family potato farm. Fumi’s dream is owning her own restaurant, but somehow it seems a long way off. Older sister Mari (Yuko Takeuchi), meanwhile, is a housewife and mother living with her fish scientist husband Shin (Yukiya Kitamura) and son Takashi (Yuito Kamata) in California. Lonely in her marriage, Mari struggles with her English and finds it difficult to make friends with her husband’s colleagues who openly criticise her language skills from across the room while Shin makes no attempt to defend her. 

Meanwhile, Yoko carries the heaviest burden alone in trying to manage her husband’s decline even as he begins to wander off, forever asking to go “home” even when he is already there. The concept of “home” however may be difficult to define in a rapidly changing society. All the way across the sea, Mari frets about her parents and feels guilty that, as the older sister, she should be doing more and has unfairly left everything to Fumi just because she happens to be in closer proximity. She is then slightly perturbed to realise that Fumi hasn’t seen their parents since the previous New Year and is equally shocked at the noticeable change in her father who goes off on random tangents and suddenly loses his temper over trivial things. 

Mari flies back to Japan when crises occur but her husband is not as understanding as one might expect. His research concerns fish which adapt to their environment and it’s clear he’s begun to follow their example, falling wholesale for Western individualism. He criticises Mari’s anxiety for her parents’ health by reminding her that her “family” is her husband and son, bearing no responsibility for additional relatives. Shin now believes strongly in individual responsibility, that Shohei and Yoko need to look after themselves. As such he takes little interest in his family leaving all the childcare duties to Mari in somehow believing that children raise themselves. When the teenage Takashi (Rairu Sugita) goes off the rails and starts skipping school, Mari turns to the time old philosophy that he needs a good talking to from his father, but all Shin can come up with is that his son’s his own man and he’s sure he has his reasons. 

The young Takashi is acclimatising too, getting himself a red-haired Californian girlfriend who’s obsessed with J-pop and kanji, but later replaces him with another Asian guy when he goes back to Japan to spend time with Shohei while he’s still somewhat present. Meanwhile, Fumi works hard to realise her dream but encounters a series of disappointments both romantic and professional as she too reconsiders the idea of family and whether it’s truly possible to slide into one that has already fractured. Becoming responsible for her parents’ care shifts her into a maternal role she might not have expected, maturing in a slightly different direction while Mari remains trapped and lonely, neglected by her newly individualist husband who only cares about his research and shut out by her understandably angsty teenage son. 

Crises are, however, good for bringing people back together. Shohei it seems was a typical father of his times, distant and authoritarian, perhaps not always easy to be around. Fumi worries that she disappointed him, not becoming a teacher as he’d hoped while also failing to achieve her dreams of becoming a restaurateur, while Mari just wants what her parents had in a loving and supportive marriage surrounded by the warmth of  family. Shohei might not always have shown it, but there’s a lot unsaid in his constant desire to go “home” back to the time his kids were small. Home is where the heart is after all, even if you don’t quite remember the way. 


Original trailer (No subtitles)

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Shuichi Okita, 2018)

Mori an Artist's Habitat PosterThe world is vast and incomprehensible, but a lifetime’s study may begin to illuminate its hidden depths. At least it’s been that way for the hero of Shuichi Okita’s latest attempt at painting the joys and perils of a bubble existence. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Mori no Iru Basho) revolves around the real life figure of Morikazu Kumagai (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a well respected Japanese artist best known for his avant-garde depictions of the natural world, as well as for his eccentric personality. When we first meet him the early 1970s, Mori (a neat pun on his given name which uses the character for “protect” but also means “forest”), is 94 years old and has rarely left his beloved garden for the last 30 years. A man out of time, Mori’s world is however threatened by encroaching modernity – a gang of mobbed up property developers is after his land and is already in the process of constructing an apartment block that will rob Mori’s wonderful garden of its rightful sunlight.

Okita introduces us to Mori through an amusing scene which finds the Japanese emperor “admiring” one of his artworks only to turn around in confusion and ask how old the child was that made this painting. Spanning the Meiji and the Showa eras, Mori’s artwork is defined by its bold use of colour and minimalist aesthetic which outlines only the most essential elements of his subjects. As his wife of 52 years, Hideko (Kirin Kiki), explains to the various visitors who turn up at Mori’s studio/home hoping to commission him, Mori only paints what he feels like painting when he feels like painting it. Getting him to do anything else is a losing battle.

Painting mainly at night, Mori spends his days observing the natural world. Wandering around his garden he stops to sit in various places, gazing at the ants, and playing with the fish he put into a small pond dug way down into the earth over a period of 30 years. Despite his distaste for “visitors”, Mori has consented to be the subject of a documentary, followed around by a photojournalist (Ryo Kase) and his assistant (Kaito Yoshimura) keen to capture him in his “natural habitat”. The photographers, natural “shutterbugs”, gaze at Mori in the same way he gazes at his trees and insects. An irony which is not lost on the reticent artist.

Okita neatly symbolises Mori’s world as a place out of time by hovering over his desk on which lies a disassembled pocket watch. Eventually the watch will be repaired and time set back in motion but until now Mori’s garden has been a refuge of natural pleasures which itself contains the world entire. Receiving a surprise visitation from a supernatural being (Hiroshi Mikami), Mori is given an opportunity to explore the universe but turns it down. Firstly he doesn’t want to leave his wife on her own or see her “tired” by his absence, but secondly his garden has always been big enough for him and given thousands of years he fears he may never be able to explore it fully.

The garden, however, may not survive its owner. The 1970s, marked by early turmoil, later became a calm period of rising economic prosperity in which society began to move away from post-war privation towards economic prosperity. Hence our big bad is a property developer set on building apartment blocks – a symbol and symptom of the move away from large multi-generational homes to cramped nuclear family modernity. Unbeknownst to Mori, his garden has become a focal point for the environmental protest movement who have begun to set up signs and slogans around his home attacking the property developers for ruining a national landmark which has important cultural value in appreciating the work of one of Japan’s best known working artists.

Having lived through so much turmoil, Mori takes this in his stride. He knows his garden won’t last forever, and is resigned to the nature of the times. Mori may prefer to spend his days in quiet contemplation resenting the constant interruptions from all his “visitors” but makes time to talk seriously with those who seek his guidance such one of the developers (Munetaka Aoki) who’s brought along one of his son’s drawings, convinced that he must be a “genius”. Mori takes one look and tells him frankly that it’s awful, but adds that that’s a good thing – those with “talent” rarely do anything of note and even if it’s “bad” art is still art. Nevertheless there are those who try to profit from his work for less than altruistic purposes – the  hand-painted nameplate from outside the house is forever being stolen and he’s constantly petitioned to provide his services in service of someone else’s business.

Okita’s characterisation of the later life of a famous artist is another study of genial eccentricity as its hero commits himself fully to living in a way which pleases him, only bristling at those who describe his gnome-like garden presence as resembling a “Chinese Hermit Sage”. Mori himself is, of course, another living thing enjoying the natural world to its fullest and if it’s true that his time is ending there is something inescapably sad in looking up from the shadows of apartment blocks and finding nothing but lifeless concrete.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat will also be screened as the opening gala of the 2018 Nippon Connection Japanese film festival, and will receive its North American premiere at Japan Cuts in July where Kirin Kiki will also receive the 2018 Cut Above Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)