Hold Me Back (私をくいとめて, Akiko Ohku, 2020)

“Humans fly solo from the day we are born. You need to make an effort to be with someone” the heroine of Akiko Ohku’s latest chronicle of the contemporary woman’s inner loneliness, Hold Me Back (私をくいとめて, Watashi wo Kuitomete), is reminded. Like the heroine of Ohku’s mega hit Tremble All You Want, 31-year-old office worker Mitsuko (Non) is an introverted lonely soul through unlike the slightly older protagonist of My Sweet Grappa Remedies she is clearly much less happy with her single life than she likes to pretend often talking over her existential worries with an inner voice she refers to as “A” for “Answers”. 

As we first meet Mitsuko she’s taking part in a weekend workshop making fake food samples out of wax, later stopping off to pick up take out tempura on her way home because it saves stinking out her kitchen frying for one. She spends her free time thinking up things to do on her own on the weekends, but always seems to carry a degree of anxiety about her culturally taboo singledom. Having decided to try out a popular sandwich place, she finds herself leaving a nearby park because she feels awkward taking up a picnic table for four surrounded by couples and families on a day out. For similar reasons she nixes an idea to go to the beach, frightened she’d stand out as a lone woman. She finds herself asking A what she could do to make people like her more, clearly hungry for company but also afraid of it admitting it’s much easier to relax when she’s on her own and presumably free from the pressures of potential judgement.  

It’s potentially because of this awkwardness that she ends up in an ill-defined non-relationship with an equally diffident salaryman who often visits her office. The perfectly pleasant Tada (Kento Hayashi) is a young bachelor surviving off cutlets from a food stand in the neighbourhood where they both coincidentally live. Mitsuko tells a few fibs about her gourmet lifestyle but is actually a good cook though her probably made out of politeness invitation to make Tada dinner somewhat backfires as she finds herself cooking him “takeout”, preparing a meal while he waits awkwardly in her hallway before taking it home to eat on his own. A conversation with A reveals she does indeed have a crush on Tada and would like to ask him to stay but is fearful of ruining the non-relationship they already have if he should suddenly mention a girlfriend or refuse her invitation. 

Unrevealed even with her conversations with herself is a potential history of personal trauma, recalling a bad date with middle-aged dentist who told her he didn’t want to date a patient in public but had already booked a hotel room while getting handsy in the bar. On an onsen getaway she’s gifted by a friend who got it at wedding she doesn’t want to spend time thinking about, Mitsuko witnesses a comedian stage rushed by a pair of creepy guys and desperately wants to say something but finds herself unable. Talking it over with A she berates herself for her internal complicity with a patriarchal society, remembering all the times she let it go when a sleazy boss grabbed at her, an older co-worker who tried to convince her that it wasn’t OK eventually forced out of her job. She takes refuge in the fact her supportive female boss has managed to carve out a career for herself, believing she will eventually triumph over sleazy and incompetent men who take credit for the work done by their talented female subordinates but also assumes that Ms. Sawada (Hairi Katagiri) must be a lonely workaholic who sacrificed her personal life for the professional. 

An invitation from uni best friend Satsuki (Ai Hashimoto), meanwhile, who married an Italian and moved to Rome further deepens her sense of early life crisis, especially on discovering that Satsuki had neglected to mention that she was pregnant in any of their correspondence. It’s telling in a sense that A seems to desert her when she has someone “real” to talk to, absenting himself for the entirety of her time in Italy during which she realises that happy as she is Satsuki is also lonely living in an unfamiliar country and understandably anxious about the birth of her first child so far from home. Yet A’s frequent absences only exacerbate her fear of abandonment, after all if even her inner consciousness is jumping ship what possible hope is there for anyone else? 

But then as he tells her “You cannot escape being you”, her inner voice will always be there even if she doesn’t really need him anymore. “It was easier fighting loneliness alone” she exclaims in panic, suddenly getting cold feet about a possible step forward in terms of human intimacy, only later calming down after a final pep talk with A convinces her it’s worth the risk. Less surreal than Tremble All You Want while less rosy than My Sweet Grappa Remedies, Hold Me Back embraces its heroine’s internal vulnerabilities with a relatable realism as she tearfully asks the absent A “I’ll be OK this time, right?” before daring to find out come what may. 


Hold Me Back screens in Brisbane (Nov. 14), Melbourne (Nov. 20/24), and Sydney (Nov. 27 / Dec. 3) as part of this year’s Japanese Film Festival Australia.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 (8日で死んだ怪獣の12日の物語, Shunji Iwai, 2020) [Fantasia 2021]

“We, all of us, can be heroes! Let’s support each other to beat this monster.” the hero of Shunji Iwai’s pandemic dramedy, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 (8日で死んだ怪獣の12日の物語, Yoka de Shinda Kaiju no Juninichi no Monogatari) affirms. Inspired by Shinji Higuchi’s Kaiju Defeat Covid project and originally streamed as a web series, Iwai’s surreal screen drama is replete with the atmosphere of the pandemic’s early days, a mix of boredom and intense anxiety coupled with a determination to protect and support each other through this difficult time. Yet it’s also a tale of uncanny irony taking place in world in which Ultraseven is a documentary while the Earth has apparently been subject to waves of monster aggression, alien visitors, and even apparently an epidemic of ghosts. 

All of this the hero, Takumi Sato (Takumi Saitoh playing a version of himself) finds out from director Shinji Higuchi after contacting him on Zoom for advice about how to raise the “Capsule Kaiju” he bought on the internet in order to do something to help battle corona virus. Sato’s single “egg” soon becomes three, later back down to one again causing him to worry if the other two managed to escape or perhaps were eaten by the sole remaining monster. In any case, while they are three he names each of them after various Covid-fighting drugs and is informed by Higuchi that they currently resemble three kaiju from classic tokusatsu series Ultraseven. 

Nevertheless, Takumi is continually confused and disappointed by the slow progress of his project, confessing to one of his friends online that they were rated only one star on the store he bought them from but he’s sure that’s just because they’re a new product. His friend Non, (also playing a version of herself), meanwhile, has invested in an alien though the alien is, conveniently enough, entirely invisible and inaudible via camera. Non’s alien seems to be making much better progress to the extent that it eventually becomes disillusioned with selfish, apathetic human society and decides to return to outer space. Challenged, Takumi has to admit he hasn’t really done anything to make the world a better place except for raising his capsule kaiju and even that hasn’t gone particularly well. 

Then again, perhaps just getting through is enough to be going along with in the middle of a global pandemic. Takumi’s friend So (So Takei) is separated from his family in Bangkok and is struggling to find work as a chef while all the restaurants are closed only to later confess that he actually has a second family he, understandably, had not mentioned before in Japan that he also needs to support financially. Even so, Takumi is bemused watching the YouTube channel of a young woman (Moeka Hoshi) who broadcasts from her bathtub dressed in a nightgown and has managed to raise a recognisably dragon-like kaiju while his keep shapeshifting without progressing into a final form. He starts to worry, what if his kaiju are actually evil and intend to destroy the world rather than save it? The fact that it eventually takes on the form of a giant coronavirus might suggest he has a point, but kaiju work in mysterious ways and perhaps they are trying to help in their own small ways even if it might not seem like it in the beginning. 

In many ways that might be the primary lesson of the pandemic, everyone is doing their best even if they’re only doing something small like staying at home and wearing their mask. Shot entirely in black and white and mostly as direct to camera YouTube-style monologues or split-screen Zoom calls complete with occasional lag and echoing, Iwai adds in eerie pillow shots from a camera positioned high above the streets of a strangely quiet but not entirely empty Tokyo along with fragmentary dance sequences of young women dressed in black with CGI kaiju heads. A whimsical slice of pandemic life, 12 Day Tale ends as it began, with Takumi once again reminding us that we are all heroes and should support each other to beat the “virus monster” but adds a much needed note of hope as he assures his audience that the the day we beat the virus will certainly come, “let’s do our best together”. 


The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

in this corner of the world J posterDepictions of wartime and the privation of the immediate post-war period in Japanese cinema run the gamut from kind hearted people helping each other through straitened times, to tales of amorality and despair as black-marketeers and unscrupulous crooks take advantage of the vulnerable and the desperate. In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni), adapted from the manga by Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kouno, is very much of the former variety as its dreamy, fantasy-prone heroine is dragged into a very real nightmare with the frontier drawing ever closer and the threat of death from the skies ever more present but manages to preserve something of herself even in such difficult times.

We first meet Suzu (Non) in December 1933 when, due to her brother’s indisposition, she’s sent to deliver the seaweed from the family business to the city. Observing pre-war Hiroshima with the painful tinge of memory, Suzu, her head in the clouds as always, gets herself completely lost and is eventually “rescued” by a strange man who puts her in a basket with another boy he’s “found”. Life goes on for Suzu, the tides of militarism rising in the rest of the country but seemingly not in this tiny rural village where she dreams away her days sketching fantasy stories to entertain her younger sister.

Despite a putative romance with a melancholy local boy, Tetsu (Daisuke Ono), Suzu is soon married off and travels to the harbour town of Kure to be with her new husband, Shusaku (the boy from the basket who carried a torch all those years, tracked her down and sought her hand in marriage on the basis of a single encounter). Always a dreamy girl and still only in her late teens, Suzu struggles with the business of being a wife and, though Shusaku’s family are nice people and welcoming to their new daughter-in-law, she constantly provokes the wrath of her widowed sister-in-law Keiko (Minori Omi) while striking up a friendship with her daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba).

The atmosphere in the cities may have been tense, but here in a traditional rural backwater, politics rarely rears its ugly head. Suzu and her family are just ordinary people living ordinary lives, yet they are literally on the fringes of the battlefield, gazing in wonder at the impressive array of giant battleships in the harbour including, at one point, the Yamato which becomes a kind of symbol of the nation’s hubris in its claims of invincibility. Shusaku, like his father, works as a clerk at the local naval offices which means he’s present (and as safe as anyone else), but this is otherwise a land of women alone, waiting for brothers, husbands and sons to come home or learning to accept that they never will.

Suzu’s troubles are normal ones for a woman of her age and time in learning to adjust to a new life she has not exactly chosen and which has meant cutting herself off almost entirely from everything she’s known. The severed connection with troubled childhood sweetheart Tetsu lingers but Suzu learns to make Kure her home, developing a deep love both for her husband (to whom she was fated, in an odd way, by their fairytale meeting) and for his family. A mildly conservative message is advanced as Suzu learns to become “happy” even in the midst of such anxiety while her sister-in-law Keiko’s attempt to forge her own future by becoming a ‘20s city flapper and marrying a mild mannered man for love has brought her nothing but heartbreak. Keiko pays dearly for her acts of individualism, suffering (the film seems to say) unnecessarily through allowing her sorrow to make her bitter, though hers is undoubtedly the most tragic of fates only offered respite by the growing community and interconnectedness of the little house in Kure.

Time moves on a pace as Suzu climbs ever closer to the climactic event she has no idea is coming, but has been on the viewer’s mind all along. The bombings intensify, the losses mount, and the future recedes but sooner or later it has to become not about what has gone or what could have been but what there is and what there will be. Suzu’s dream world colours her vision and ours as explosions in the sky become beautiful splashes of paint and raining fire bombs fireflies blinking out in the night sky. The more unbearable everything becomes the more her picture-book illustrations take over until one particular event becomes so painful, so difficult visualise that it is only possible to describe in abstract, black and white line drawings. The bomb is almost a peripheral event to Suzu, considering leaving her new home for the old one. A tremor, a flash, and a feeling of unidentifiable dread. Katabuchi’s aim not to show the direct horror of war (though there is plenty of that), but its effect on the lives of ordinary people just trying to survive in difficult circumstances not of their making. Filled with a sense of essential goodness, In This Corner of the World is a tribute to those who endured the unendurable and remained kind, determined to build a better world in which such horrors belong only to the distant past.


UK trailer