Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

over the fence posterNobuhiro Yamashita may be best known for his laid-back slacker comedies, but he’s no stranger to the darker sides of humanity as evidenced in the oddly hopeful Drudgery Train or the heartbreaking exploration of misplaced trust and disillusionment of My Back Page. One of three films inspired by Hakodate native novelist Yasushi Sato (the other two being Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City and Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There), Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス) may be among the less pessimistic adaptations of the author’s work though its cast of lonely lost souls is certainly worthy both of Yamashita’s more melancholy aspects and Sato’s deeply felt despair.

Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) wants nothing to with anything or anyone. His wife has divorced him and he doesn’t see his child but he still wears his wedding ring and feels like a married man, unable to move on from the suspended end of his marriage. Having no place else to go, Shiraiwa has come back to his home town of Hakodate – a run down harbour town on the southern point of Hokkaido. For no particular reason other than it allows him to continue claiming unemployment benefits, he’s enrolled in a back to work scheme at a vocational school which teaches carpentry skills. Keeping himself aloof and explaining to anyone that takes an interest that he’s “human scum” and they’d best keep away, Shiraiwa is eventually convinced to go drinking with fellow student Dajima (Shota Matsuda) at his favourite bar.

Dajima introduces him to a much needed motivating factor in his life, a free spirited hostess girl with the strangely manly name of Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Satoshi argues loudly with customers in the street and dances with wild abandon in the middle of a room of quiet drinkers but on getting to know her better her rapidly changeable moods and occasional fits of violent despair speak of a more serious set of problems which Satoshi herself feels as ill equipped to deal with as Shiraiwa has been with the failure of his marriage.

Failure is something which hangs heavily over the film as the grey dullness and stagnant quality of the harbour town seems to bear out its inescapability. Unsurprisingly, in one sense, everyone at the vocational school is there because they’ve already failed at something else though some of them have more success with carpentry than others. Shiraiwa takes the work seriously even if he doesn’t really see himself heading into a career as a carpenter but there’s an additional reason why the environment is so oppressive and the uniforms not unlike those of a prison. Everyone is here because they have to be and they can’t leave until they’ve completed their re-education. The teacher at the school is always quick to remind everyone how it was when he worked in the field, only he never did, he’s a failure and a prideful fantasist too.

The other men face various problems from age and dwindling possibilities, to intense pressure to succeed leading to eventual mental breakdown, and trying to build a new life after leaving the yakuza, but Shiraiwa is unique among them in the degree to which he has internalised his essential failures. Having convinced himself that he’s “human scum” Shiraiwa wants everyone else to know too as he intentionally refuses any sense of forward motion or progress in his life to reassure himself that there is no possible future for him. Satoshi has convinced herself of something similar though her dissatisfaction and fear of rejection are deeply ingrained elements of her personality which are permanent personal attributes. Pushing Shiraiwa to address the questions he could not bear to face, she helps him towards a more positive position whilst simultaneously refusing any kind of reciprocal self analysis.

There’s an additional cruelty in Satoshi’s manic declaration that Shiraiwa drove his wife insane that’s in part self directed and raises a mutual anxiety between them as Shiraiwa may be falling for a woman who already feels herself to be “mad”. Satoshi’s strange impressions of birds and animals point to her closeness to nature and separation from conventional society but also perhaps of her fear of hurting other people through her periodic descents into self destructive cruelty. As caged as the animals in the zoo where she works, Satoshi decides to try letting them out only to discover that the eagle has no desire to leave his perch.

Hakodate becomes a kind of purgatory for all as they each attempt to conquer their demons and win the right to move on to better and brighter things. Melancholy as it is, Yamashita adds in touches of his trademark surrealist humour but even in its sadness Over the Fence leaves room for hope. Climaxing in an inconsequential yet extremely important softball game the meaning of the film’s title becomes apparent – you’ll never know if you can hit that ball over the fence until you find the courage to take a swing but you may never be able to find it without the help and support of a kindred spirit.


Over the Fence was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

My-Uncle-p1Crazy uncles – the gift that keeps on giving. Following the darker edged Over the Fence as the second of two films released in 2016, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Boku no Ojisan) pushes his subtle humour in a much more overt direction with a comic tale of a self obsessed (not quite) professor as seen seen through the eyes of his exasperated nephew. “Travels with my uncle” of a kind, Yamashita’s latest is a pleasantly old fashioned comedy spiced with oddly poignant moments as a wiser than his years nephew attempts to help his continually befuddled uncle navigate the difficulties of unexpected romance.

Yukio (Riku Ohnishi) has been given one of the most dreaded homework assignments ever – he’s supposed to write an essay about an “interesting” family member. This is a problem because Yukio thinks his family is very boring – dad is a civil servant, mum is a housewife, and his little sister is very frank but fails to generate sufficient interest for a whole essay. At this point, Yukio’s eccentric Uncle (Ryuhei Matsuda) enters the scene to enquire if the next edition of a children’s manga magazine has been released yet. Yukio says it has but he doesn’t buy it anymore because he’s grown out of it. Uncle hasn’t and wants him to buy one as soon as possible, convincing Yukio to pay 30% of the sticker price in the process. Annoyed, Yukio starts chronicling his Uncle’s strange adventures in school essay which proves a hit with his teacher (Erika Toda) who has accidentally become Uncle’s biggest fan.

Uncle lives with the family because he’s “a philosopher” which involves a lot of rejecting capitalist ideals and lying on his futon “thinking” or reading manga to give his brain a rest. Though Uncle’s brother and the father of the family (Kankuro Kudo) is content not to rock the boat, his wife (Shinobu Terajima) is often fed up with Uncle’s behaviour and is trying to set him up with proposals for an arranged marriage to get rid of him. Uncle is having none of it but is instantly smitten after being introduced to Japanese-Hawaiian photographer Eri (Yoko Maki). Eventually chasing her all the way to Hawaii with Yukio in tow, Uncle tries his luck with romance but only seems to get himself mixed up in even more unpredictable mischief.

There’s something so pleasantly innocent about My Uncle with its almost nostalgic tone and embrace of the surreality of everyday life. As seen through the eyes of Yukio, Uncle is not an entirely sympathetic figure at the beginning of the film. A part-time professor, Uncle talks big but spends his life rooting through ashtrays looking for smokable cigarette butts and collecting coupons to use for cheap dinners. Attempts to entertain the children backfire when he gifts them a very realistic plastic toy of a giant millipede though he does sometimes take Yukio out on “thinking expeditions” – usually on weekends and holidays to not be in the house to be shouted at by Yukio’s parents who are rapidly loosing patience with Uncle’s inability to progress in life.

If this were a series (and one could only hope) you could easily call the first instalment “Uncle Falls in Love” as Uncle finds himself finally thinking about settling down with the beautiful and outgoing Eri. Eri does seem to be among the few people who finds Uncle’s unusual qualities charming though he might need to rethink his plan of action if he’s finally to win her heart. Unfortunately, Eri is about to move back to Hawaii but invites Yukio and Uncle to visit. Uncle is desperate to go but as he can’t even afford to buy cigarettes, international travel is out. Undeterred, Uncle comes up with a number of labour intensive schemes to get there rather than actually working for the money but eventually makes it with Yukio’s help. There is, however, a rival on hand in Eri’s former boyfriend Shinsuke (Shigeyuki Totsugi) who is equally determined to win her back.

Life with Uncle may be one of constant exasperation but as Eri points out it’s never boring. Whether he’s getting himself arrested for accidentally buying weed or making up wild stories about himself in a misguided attempt to impress people, Uncle lives on a different plane of existence. Yukio reflects on all of this with a world weariness worthy of a 70 year old man but eventually comes to a kind of grudging affection for his silly old Uncle who is quite clearly setting himself up for a fall even if he has his heart in the right place. Yamashita mixes in poignant moments such as a reflective look over Pearl Harbour which gives rise to a discussion of life as a Hawaiian citizen of Japanese descent during the war, but broadly the tone is a bright one of zany humour and ironic one liners. Hilariously funny in a gentle, old fashioned way, My Uncle is Yamashita in full on comedy mode but all the better for it even as he leaves us desperate to find out what other strange adventures befall Uncle in the continuing saga of his existence.


My Uncle was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hazy Life (どんてん生活, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 1999)

51GlvZf-iiLStarting as he meant to go on, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s debut feature film is the story of two slackers, each aimlessly drifting through life without a sense of purpose or trajectory in sight. His humour here is even drier than in his later films and though the tone is predominantly sardonic, one can’t help feeling a little sorry for his hapless, lonely “heroes” trapped in their vacuous, empty lives.

Kee (Hiroshi Yamamoto), a rocker with a giant quiff, meets Tsutomu (Teppei Uda) outside a pachinko parlour and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Tsumtomu, a little gormless looking and near silent, ends up moving into Kee’s apartment where his main “job” appears to be copying videotapes of the amateur porn (sorry, “erotic cinema” movies) made by his friend Todokoro and his girlfriend(?) Akiko. In fact, Kee sometimes “stars” in the films too, which is something he might have wanted to tell Tsutomu before showing him the video. Kee also has a four year old child he doesn’t really get to see who lives with his ex-partner and only knows him as “uncle”.

As in many of Yamashita’s other films, nothing much happens as Kee and Tsutomu kill time whilst worrying and not worrying about the future. Neither of the guys has a proper job or any concrete ambitions, they mostly just eat time playing pachinko, drinking and hanging out with Tadokoro and Akiko. Kee is still mooning over his ex-girlfriend and, though it’s not clear why they split up, his own fecklessness may be the reason he’s not more involved in his child’s life even if he clearly would like to be. Tsutomu has developed a bit of a crush on Akiko but he never really tries to do very much about it (though he does have the good grace to turn down Kee’s invitation to become a star in one of the videos).

In constrast to his later work, Yamashita injects a number of fantasy sequences which seem to take place entirely within Tsutomu’s mind. Mostly they’re quite gentle – making a bunch of money at Pachinko and taking Akiko out for a slap-up meal or the poignant final scene of all the characters together as they enjoy a picnic under the cherry blossoms like one big happy family. However, there is one very unexpected scene which occurs after Tsutomu is caught shoplifting (which he does very badly) offering only the excuse that he’s forgotten his wallet and was too lazy to go back and get it. This fairly shocking scene of violence is one that does not typically re-occur in Yamashita’s later work and is notable for its extreme bloodiness and direct contrast to the overall tone. Perhaps intended to show Tsutomu’s inner frustrations (he spends much of the rest of the film asleep), this scene becomes one of the most intriguing in the film.

Hazy Life is a “zero budget” affair and makes no attempt to hide that. Shot on low quality equipment and committed to a “natural” look, it makes no claim to aesthetic prettiness though it does display Yamashita’s gift for interesting compositions this time working within a 4:3 frame. The fantasy sequences themselves are presented as reality bar one use of double exposure which is in general out of keeping with Yamashita’s naturalistic style as is the brief use of time-lapse photography.

Not uninteresting, but perhaps more interesting as a taste of things to come rather than as a feature in its own right. Hazy Life is just that, hazy and somewhat meandering as Kee and Tsutomu muddle through life with an air of mild depression and no particular hope in sight. “what day is it?”, “I don’t know”, “Well never mind – at least we’re alive”. This late conversation more or less sums the entire film and it’s poignantly sweet, fantasy sequence ending adds another layer of pathos to this subtly humorous look at laid-back modern life at the bottom of the heap.


 

Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2004)

ramblers-riarizumu-no-yado.39798

Nobuhiro Yamashita is well known for his low-key, naturalistic style often focusing on the everyday musings of youthful slackers. Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Realism no Yado), his third feature film takes this idea and pushes it to the max as it follows two filmmakers wasting time in the mountains after their ultimate slacker actor friend lets them down at the last minute.

The two guys are Tsuboi, a screenwriter and the younger of the two, and Kinoshita – a director and a little bit older in his late twenties. The trip has been organised by a mutual acquaintance, Funaki, who’s an actor and the other two have met once or twice before but don’t exactly know each other. Funaki has overslept and will be late, or he might just come tomorrow or something. He tells the other two to go ahead without him. With nothing else to do the two guys wander off into the mountains to kill time while they wait for their Godot-like friend where they have various encounters with the strange mountain-folk all while a gentle friendship builds up in the background.

By far the most important episode occurs whilst the pair are sitting on the beach “rambling” on about nothing in particular when a scantily clad young woman, Atsuko, comes running towards them out of the sea. Hilariously, the pair try to run away as if she were some kind of terrifying sea monster but eventually decide to help her after she tells them that all of her belongings, including her wallet with her ID and money, have been washed away to sea. They end up adopting her for two or three days, paying for her new clothes, meals and board each a little taken with her but nothing untoward in mind. Suddenly this episode ends, leaving a curious hole in the young guys’ relationship.

Other than getting to know Atsuko, the guys waste time fishing, chatting with the interesting staff at the various inns they end up staying at and just generally hanging around wondering where the hell Funaki has got to. Having failed to arrange accommodation (slackers!) the pair decide to inn hop a little whilst roaming around the area though it’s definitely the off season. After their adventure with Atsuko the boys’ funds start to run down and they’re reduced to sharing meals which gets them noticed by a shady guy in cafe who insists they stay over with his friend – though it turns out to be not really his friend’s place at all and, feeling awkward, the pair attempt to find somewhere else last minute ending up at every traveller’s worst nightmare. The final “inn” is not even really a B&B, just a freezing room in someone’s house which is filled with children, a father who’s dying in the corner and a bathroom which would definitely not pass any kind of health and safety regulation. Getting a little fed up, the boys spend their final night laughing off the strange and sometimes rotten adventure they’ve been having – wondering first about Atsuko and then feeling annoyed about their “friend” who doesn’t seem to have been very invested in this particular enterprise.

As usual for a Yamashita movie, nothing really happens while quite a lot is happening. We get invested in Tsuboi and Kinoshita’s vacation as their friend pulls a Godot style stunt on them by repeatedly failing to appear but always promising to be there soon. Whilst travelling and killing time the two guys talk about various things and get to know one another better. Their time with Atsuko actually seems to bring them closer together rather forcing them into the roles of rivals, though a late stage revelation about Atsuko’s sudden disappearing act may also give them a collective sense of befuddlement mixed with mild guilt. The Ramblers ramble on for 83 minutes, though it never feels like an over extended stay. Once again Yamashita crafts a low-key, nuanced character piece that allows his naturalistic, humorous eye to shine through.


Suprisingly, you can actually buy this on UK iTunes with English subtitles!

 

La La La at Rock Bottom (AKA Misono Universe, 味園ユニバース, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2015)

プリントNobuhiro Yamashita has made something of a career out of championing the underdog and La La La at Rock Bottom (味園ユニバース, Misono Universe) provides yet another foray into the lives of the disposed and degraded. With a lighter touch than some of his previous work, the once again musically inflected film is another testament to the power of redemption and that you can still turn your life around if you only have the courage to take the chance.

The film begins with a young man being released from prison. The guard apologises about the smell of mothballs emanating from the man’s jacket, usually the family bring clean clothes. No family has come for this inmate though – just a couple of cool seeming characters who profess their gratitude for “what you’ve done for us” but the reunion is anything but warm. A little while later the man is unceremoniously bundled into a car and taken off to a quiet place where he is beaten half to death by thugs using baseball bats. After waking up, he stumbles around and eventually chances on a summer festival with a band playing on the mainstage. Zombified, the man grabs the mic and starts singing before promptly collapsing again.

The band’s manager, a young girl, takes the man home whereupon she discovers he’s lost his memory. Giving him the ironic nickname of “Pooch” (Kasumi also has a habit of picking up stray dogs), the band and local villagers quickly “adopt” the confused stranger and let him work at their karaoke rooms and studio whilst coaching him to become their new lead singer. However, as Pooch’s memories start to return it seems that his former life may not have been as tranquil as his laid-back amnesiac persona might suggest.

Like much of Yamashita’s previous work, music plays a central role with the one thing that Pooch remembers from his former life being the lyrics to a particular song and his innate singing talent. The leading role of Pooch himself is played by real life singing star Subaru Shibutani of Kansai based idol band Kanjani Eight who proves himself more than capable of belting out these hard rock/enka tracks as well as being able to imbue Pooch’s amnesiac blankness with his own specific character. He is ably supported by the popular young actress Fumi Nikaido who turns in yet another impressively nuanced performance as the older than her years Kasumi.

The beginning of the film gives us quite an idea of the man Pooch may have been and the kind of life he’s led. As the revelations pile on and Pooch’s memories inevitably return threatening the new life and personality he’s begun to build with the band and the possibility of fulfilling a long abandoned dream of being a singer, his dark side begins to break through and we’re shown a man lost in rage and violence left with nowhere to turn. At the end of the day, “Pooch” has been given a valuable opportunity to start all over again but it requires him to make the choice to do so. Go back to being “Shigeo”, a self hating thug who’s alienated absolutely everyone in his life or choose to become Pooch and earn a second chance to be the man he always wanted to be.

Like Yamshita’s previous film, Tamako in Moratorium, with which it also shares a lot in terms of style, La La La offers no great revelations or technical bells and whistles but revels in the simple pleasure of a tale told well. Like much of his other work, the central message is that it’s never too late to begin again (even if there are bridges which have been burned beyond repair) only that it requires you to make the sometimes scary choice to take a chance on something new. That choice rests with one person but is greatly aided by the support of others and the unusual bond between the two central characters (which stops short of romance) plus the uncompromising faith which Kasumi places in Pooch are some of the greatest joys of the film.

Perhaps not a career best from this still vastly underrated director, La La La at Rock Bottom is nevertheless another beautifully constructed addition to his filmography. Offering an extreme depth of performance from each of its ensemble cast, the film is rich with detail whilst also reflecting Yamashita’s trademark cinematic naturalism. Once again a musical feast for the ears, La La La at Rock Bottom is destined to become one of the director’s best loved films even in a career which has already offered so many as yet undiscovered gems.


 

Tamako in Moratorium (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2013)

Tamako in Moratorium
We’ve all been here.

Nobuhiro Yamashita is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the best Japanese directors working today. Probably best known for the girl band high school comedy drama Linda, Linda, Linda, Yamashita has made gentle character studies infused with wry humour and occasional social comment a speciality. Tamako in Moratorium is a slight diversion in his career so far as it had a slightly unorthodox genesis beginning as a series of TV shorts intended as a vehicle for ex AKB48 star Atsuko Maeda (who also starred in Yamashita’s previous film, Drudgery Train). Its TV origins bring both an episodic structure plus a slightly different shooting style and aesthetic than we’ve previously seen from Yamashita yet given these constrained circumstances, he’s been able to craft yet another nuanced and charming character drama that is perhaps his quietest yet.

23 year old Tamako has returned home after graduating university but has failed to find a regular job and is content to have returned to the days of blissful adolescence where she rejects all adult responsibilities in favour of hanging out at home reading manga and playing video games while her father cooks, cleans and does her washing for her. We follow her through four seasons as various things change or don’t and really nothing much happens but that’s the beauty of the tale. Tamako has called a moratorium on being herself, as for when or why it might be lifted? Only time will tell.

It would be easy to read Tamako a symptomatic of a larger cultural malaise and a growing class of young people who have, quite literally, lost the will to live were it not for the fact that most of Tamako’s contemporaries seem to be doing OK (“seem” being the operative word seeing as one late scene in the film would suggest it’s not all as hunky-dory as it looks). We’re given plenty of possible reasons for Tamako’s lack of enthusiasm for life though no one great explanation for her refusal to engage. “Japan’s rubbish” she’s fond of shouting at the TV as if to blame her current lack of success on an entire nation, “No it isn’t” counters her dad “You are”. A fact which Tamako doesn’t seek to refute.

Her lack of self esteem also prevents her completing her current CV where she can’t  come up with any personal hobbies or skills and ends by saying that she doesn’t quite feel herself right now, as if everyone’s just expected to play several different roles throughout a lifetime. A realisation which sees her set her sights on a rather improbable career opportunity which nevertheless cheers her father up and leads to her forming a slightly strange friendship with a young teenage boy. Indeed, Tamako avoids most of her old friends in town, preferring to stay at home out of sight, and only really communicates with her father (and then barely).

Her father by contrast, though perturbed and worried about what’s to become of this listless child who’s sinking like a stone, is nevertheless content to try and give her the space to figure out how to get herself out of this mess that seems to be of her own making. However, paradoxically, this may actually be the exact opposite of what she wants and it’s only when the bond with her father looks as if it’s about to be disrupted that something begins to reawaken inside Tamako’s soul. Like an odd subversion of Ozu’s Late Spring, father and daughter must one day part – it is the natural way of things after all, but this time it feels like a much more positive thing.

Tamako in Moratorium began on TV and unsurprisingly has a televisual quality that’s difficult to escape from. Shot with a largely static camera and shallow depth of field, it also feels oddly formalist relying as it does on classical compositions and close-ups with the added effect of making the world seem claustrophobic, as if some invisible pressure is pressing down on Tamako and keeping her sleepily imprisoned within the frame. Aesthetically, the film has a much more HD video look than Yamashita’s other work with a hyperreal sharpness that paradoxically makes everything look unreal  and is occasionally distracting but not detrimentally so.

“The feelings just naturally disappeared”. Sometimes it’s like that, no grand event or epiphany just a gradual process of things working themselves out, almost unseen in the background. Has the moratorium been lifted by the end? Not sure, but something has changed, shifted into gear. Uneventful on the surface, Tamako in Moratorium is a wry and nuanced character study that is full of incidental details begging to be unpacked and reassembled by the attentive viewer and is another well crafted effort from Yamashita.