Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2008)

“We’re part of a whole system” the chief mechanic insists with exasperation, irritated with an employee being too thorough, “what if this delays departure?”. Best known for ensemble comedies, of which Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト) is one, Shinobu Yaguchi had originally envisaged a disaster movie only to change tack realising that aircraft accidents really are (thankfully) extremely rare and the backstage workings of an airport might well lead themselves to comedy. Even so, it’s perhaps surprising that sponsor airline ANA who were apparently heavily involved in the project allowed themselves to be seen in a less than perfect light even if their pilots and ground staff do indeed save the day when potential disaster strikes. 

Like any good farce, Yaguchi throws just about every potential problem into one basket beginning with the fact that this flight to Honolulu is the final exam for co-pilot Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) who is hoping to earn a promotion to captain though a disastrous performance in the simulator may have dimmed his expectations. It’s also the first flight for chirpy air hostess Etsuko (Haruka Ayase) still harbouring some delusions about the glamour of the flight attendant life while the plane itself is late in and technically speaking needs a couple of repairs though the airline is already a little jumpy about the number of delays impacting their services recently and the chief mechanic thinks some of them can wait. A junior engineer takes it on himself to change a part and incurs the wrath of his boss for taking to long, but is perhaps privately worried he didn’t do it properly and later alarmed when the plane runs into trouble worried that his missing wrench might be the cause. Aside from the pressing typhoon, the other problem is a flock of annoying seagulls normally taken care of by an old man nicknamed “bird guy” who warns them off with a shotgun only today he’s been accosted by the “bird lovers alliance”, while the airport is also surrounded by a bunch of obsessive aviation enthusiasts recording every detail and uploading them online. 

If something can go wrong then it will, as it does when the backup sensors stop working leaving the pilots flying blind, but even before that consumer aviation is first and foremost a customer facing business with the airline concentrating on ensuring that passengers have a good experience so they don’t lose their business to a rival. That’s one reason they’re so paranoid about avoiding delays, but also find themselves dealing with aggressive passengers each intent on receiving individual attention forgetting for a moment that the plane is full of other people who also have needs and demands. Still learning the ropes, Etsuko struggles to understand her place in the machine only to redeem herself later through a little lateral thinking following a culinary disaster while becoming quietly disillusioned with the unexpectedly stressful side of her otherwise glamorous profession. Meanwhile stern purser Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) gives them all a masterclass in deescalating an entitled customer’s rage by stroking his ego with some well-placed psychology. 

This being a comedy it all turns out alright in the end even if Suzuki has undergone something of a baptism of fire and Etsuko has had her eyes opened to the reality of the flight attendant life. Despite everything going wrong at the same time, it goes right when it needs to thanks to the teamwork and dedication of the disparate team from the guys in the air control weather department to the scrambling ground staff arranging meals and accommodation for passengers unable to reach their destination. There’s even the hint of a happy ending for check in supervisor Natsumi (Tomoko Tabata) who was dead set on quitting her job because it doesn’t afford her any opportunities to meet nice guys, while what it does seem to largely contain is fending off the three teenage aeroplane enthusiasts who hang out in arrivals and dealing with various passenger crises. They are indeed all part of whole system, and that’s good and bad in that they all feel under pressure to get planes in the air on time which perhaps encourages them to overvalue efficiency at the cost of safety, but also makes it easier to spring into action in order to fend off a crisis should one occur so that everyone can have a “happy flight” blissfully ignorant of the minor panic under the bonnet of this not so well oiled machine. 


Happy Flight streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Masked Ward (仮面病棟, Hisashi Kimura, 2020)

“This hospital is…abnormal” according to locum doctor Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi) as he begins to discover dark goings on while trapped in a former psychiatric home after being taken hostage by a man in a clown mask. Based on the medical mystery novel by Mikito Chinen, Masked Ward (仮面病棟, Kamen Byoto) is partly a meditation on guilt and grief and partly an attack on backroom eugenics in an often judgemental and potentially corrupt society, if wrapped up in a wilfully silly B-movie crime thriller. 

Still on a temporary sabbatical following a bereavement, Dr. Hayami is recruited by an old friend, Kosakai (Ryohei Ohtani), to cover a night shift at a long term care hospital mostly catering to patients living with dementia. It has to be said the hospital itself has an instantly creepy aura, the police who later arrive describing it as looking like a prison which is apt because no one ever thought to remove the bars from the interior intended to keep “dangerous” patients from escaping. Even so, Hayami is repeatedly assured that nothing ever happens here and most likely he won’t need to come out of his room. Unfortunately that proves to be bad advice because not long after he settles in, a man in a clown mask turns up with a young woman he apparently himself shot but now wants patched up thereafter taking everyone present hostage while hiding out from police who have instituted a manhunt after he robbed a convenience store at gunpoint. 

You’d have to admit it looks a bit suspicious that all of this happened the very night that Hayami is in charge, especially as it’s suggested he may bear a grudge towards head doctor Tadokoro (Masanobu Takashima) as he was the one who refused to admit Hayami’s late girlfriend Yoko (Izumi Fujimoto) who was killed in a car accident in which Hayami was driving. Then again, as Hayami says, what would be the point in that? Suffering frequent flashbacks he subconsciously links the young woman, Hitomi (Mei Nagano), with Yoko determined in a sense to save her instead while trying to figure out what exactly is going on in this very weird medical institution and what the clown is trying to achieve with his random siege. 

The creepiness of the hospital is already well established with its former psychiatric institution vibes, something only enhanced on the discovery of an apparently disused operating theatre which is no grimy basement filled with rusty equipment but appears to have been refurbished recently and is sparklingly clean. It doesn’t really take a genius to figure out what’s been going on in there or why evil head doctor Tadokoro doesn’t want to call the police, but it does call into question not just his own ethics but those of the wider medical profession as he advances a series of eugenicist justifications for his decisions insisting that some lives are not worth saving while those of the elite who “can’t bear to wait” obviously are. Many of those in their beds have no names, taking those only of the area in which they were found supposedly with no identification, and are receiving only basic care otherwise forgotten by an indifferent society while hypocritical politicians offer platitudes about equality, superficially insisting that every citizen should have the right to live, to be protected, and to have a future.  

Even so Kimura can’t quite decide how seriously he wants to treat the darkness at the film’s centre, embracing the outlandishness of the material through a series of B-movie cliches from eerie handheld photography in the creepiness of the of the empty hospital corridors to literal lightning effects and foreshadowing so heavy it almost feels ironic. Yet the tone is at the same time earnest and slightly naive, the police apparently minded to cover the whole thing up due to pressure from above while Hayami is otherwise free to blow the whistle by getting the media involved with a press conference beamed directly onto a big inner-city screen in the middle of a presidential campaign speech all of which seems faintly unlikely given how far they were prepared to go keep the conspiracy secret while one wonders if he’d really be able to get so much attention so quickly even having recovered the secret documents proving his claims are true. In any case, his speech is only really intended for an audience of one as he says pretty much the same thing as the duplicitous politician only he really means it while urging those who’ve been irreparably harmed to give up their hate and try to move on sharing feelings and hopes rather than anger and resentment which is a nice message but perhaps also not especially helpful in holding those who’ve misused their power to account. 


Masked Ward streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English sutbtitles)

My Name is Yours (君が世界のはじまり, Momoko Fukuda, 2020)

A collection of Osaka teens process adolescent angst and generational anxiety but in the end find a gentle solidarity in their shared suffering while resolving to be kind in Momoko Fukuda’s adaptation of her own novel, My Name is Yours (君が世界のはじまり, Kimi ga Sekai no Hajimari). “People are unknowable” they solemnly resolve, admitting that you never really know anyone but later making an effort to share their secrets, if only gently, bonding in a new sense of openness as they begin to move forward into a brighter future. 

Fukuda opens however with a scene of crime as a high school student is arrested for the murder of their father. As we discover, several of the teens could be potential suspects, each in someway resentful of their dads though for very different reasons. Recently transferred Tokyo boy Io (Daichi Kaneko), mocked for his accent, is involved in some kind of hugely inappropriate sexual relationship with his middle-aged step mother as accidentally witnessed by moody classmate Jun (Yuki Katayama) hanging round the shopping mall in order to avoid going home to her overly domesticated dad (Kanji Furutachi ) whom she blames for her mother’s decision to leave the family. Narihira (Pei Omuro), meanwhile, was abandoned by his mother soon after birth and is sole carer to his father who seems to be suffering with early onset dementia. 

Childhood best friends En/Yukari (Honoka Matsumoto) and Kotoko (Seina Nakata) first encounter Narihira in their secret hideout, a disused school library, having a private cry leading Kotoko to fall madly in love publicly dumping her current boyfriend with extreme prejudice seconds later. Meanwhile, En becomes an accidental confidant to nice guy Okada (Shouma Kai) who has received a mysterious love letter he doesn’t quite understand because it’s come in the form of a classical poem only for Okada too to fall for Kotoko while Narihira seems to prefer En. 

Love triangles aside, each of the teens has their private sorrows some more secret than others but nevertheless producing chain reactions of their own in their inability to express themselves fully. But as angry and frustrated as they are, they still want to be kind if more to others than themselves. “If I only think about my own freedom how can I be kind to others?” Narihira sadly reflects confessing his occasional resentment in trying to care for his father. Even Io, seemingly realising how inappropriate his relationship with his step mother is, resolves that he wants to be kind to her despite the harm she may be doing him. “Wanting to hurt other people is absurd” he claims, unable to understand the impulse to exorcise his frustration through violence. 

Narihira attributes his salvation to having met En, explaining that in a sense she opened up a new world in giving him the courage to talk about his father sharing the secret with Okada who told the coach on their sports team who told him about a facility that might be able to help. Yet Narihira also begins to disrupt the previously close relationship between En and Kotoko, leaving Kotoko feeling jealous and En confused it seems on more than on level as the unexpectedly perspicacious Okada seems to have figured out forcing her in turn to reckon with and accept her own unspoken feelings. 

Taking refuge in a darkened shopping mall overnight, the teens unexpectedly bond through a musical performance of the classic Blue Hearts track Hito ni Yasashiku with its melancholy yet cheerful chorus encouraging each other to hang in there, remaining kind in a world which often isn’t. “Well, I can’t say for sure. Nobody can.” an amused secretary guard honestly answers asked by one of the teens if the mall will be torn down, his refreshingly direct answer perhaps adding to their new sense of confidence even in the face of the world’s uncertainty. A gentle, quietly nostalgic coming-of-age tale, Fukuda’s Osaka-set lowkey yet stylishly moody drama begins with violent darkness but ends in bright sunlight, the teens each finding a sense of equilibrium having come to new understandings about themselves and those around them bolstered by a youthful solidarity. Some secrets it seems still cannot quite be shared, but friendships resolve themselves all the same if in unexpected ways allowing a melancholy intensity to dissipate into a sad if fervent hope for the future. 


My Name is Yours screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hito ni Yasashiku music video

The Blue Hearts – Hito ni Yasashiku

Soirée (ソワレ, Bunji Sotoyama, 2020)

“You can run but not from yourself” a gruff but sympathetic farmer explains to a fugitive young couple, astutely perhaps understanding the quality of their flight. Less a lovers on the run romantic fantasy than a gentle character study in trauma and insecurity, Bunji Sotoyama’s Soirée (ソワレ) finds its two wounded youngsters struggling to find safety and security in an increasingly indifferent society in which they are perhaps expected to care for an older generation they may feel has long since abandoned them. 

Aspiring actor Shota (Nijiro Murakami) for instance has been participating in a spate of “It’s Me!” scams targeting the older generation in which they are convinced that their grandson has been involved in some sort of trouble and is in desperate need of money. We can see by the ambivalent look on his face that he hates himself for his “role” in this sordid piece of modern day drama but also that it plays into his self-destructive conviction that he is no good and cannot achieve conventional success. His need for slapdash, quick fix solutions is further driven home by the coach at his acting class who gives him a very public dressing down for coming in unprepared, insisting that he’ll never move anyone until he gets some real life experience and engages with the text. 

While Shota takes an envelope from an anxious grey-haired old lady, Takara (Haruka Imou), a withdrawn young woman working at a nursing home, gently brushes another’s hair only for her to suddenly disappear while Takara hums a comforting lullaby. We witness her nervousness at the unexpected ring of the doorbell and the panic attacks when some of the older gentlemen mistakenly grab at her, later realising they are each responses to a deep-seated trauma as revealed by a letter telling her that her estranged father who had been in prison for long term abuse is about to be released. 

The pair eventually meet when Shota returns to his hometown with an acting troupe hired to put on a play at the home though things get off to an ominous start when one of the old ladies suddenly collapses while working with the actors, the head of the troupe rather cynically musing on DNR orders and the desires of some absentee children to keep their parents alive in order to continue receiving their pension. These contradictory impulses, Takara’s warmth and compassion towards the elderly people in her care and Shota’s wilful exploitation of their weakness, is brought home when Takara’s father suddenly returns, barges his way into her home asking for a fresh start claiming to have paid his debt, and then proceeds to rape her all over again. Discovered mid-act by Shota who had come to collect her for the local festival, Takara eventually stabs her father with a pair of dressmaking scissors in order to protect him, the pair thereafter finding themselves on the run. 

Coming to her senses, Takara intends to hand herself in but is convinced by Shota to make a run for it. “Why do the ones who struggle most get hit worst, why do the weakest always lose?” he ironically asks her, “We weren’t born to be hurt”. Yet their contradictory qualities are only further highlighted as they try to chart a new course for themselves. The pair find temporary refuge with a pair of plum farmers who take pity on them thinking they are a young couple eloping as apparently they once were, only Shota later makes a half-hearted attempt to rob them which he quickly gives up on being challenged by the sympathetic husband. In the next town, Takara determines to look for work while Shota tries to make money through bicycle races and pachinko, chastened by her admonishment on finding employment that it’s possible to support oneself without cheating others. 

Somewhat tritely, Shota tries to tell her that God never burdens you with more than you can bear, while the older woman at the plum farm also offers that plums are all the sweeter for their suffering during a harsh winter dangerously playing into a notion of internalised shame that told Takara she would blossom into the kindest soul who ever lived once her suffering was over only to leave her feeling empty and despoiled as if she somehow deserved everything that happened to her. Shota’s troubles are by comparison small, his conservative brother irritatedly telling him he should accept he has no talent and get a real job, while he too perhaps thinks he is empty inside and therefore incapable of moving anyone just as his director told him. Finding salvation in mutual acceptance they begin to see the “way out” only for their essential connection to be threatened by its very existence. 

A melancholy character study through the legacy of trauma and toxicity of internalised shame, Sotoyama’s occasionally ethereal drama takes on the qualities of a fable through the repeated allusions to princess Kiyohime and her doomed love for the wandering monk Anchin yet he is careful enough to hold out a ray of hope for each of the wounded lovers in their apparently fated connection even as they struggle to find refuge in an often hostile society.


Soirée streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)

“Music saves the world” according to a hold out record store owner keeping the doors open in the wake of coming disaster. In one way or another and most particularly at the present time, perhaps it always feels as if the world is ending but somehow we seem to carry on. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) is, as it says, a story of how music saves the world, but also of how personal acts of quiet integrity echo through time while art finds its audience and its purpose in the proper moment even if the message is not immediately understood. 

The film opens in the “future” of 2012 during which a fiery comet is headed directly for the Earth resulting in a deadly tsunami set to engulf Mount Fuji, drowning humanity rendered unexpectedly powerless in the face of cosmic destiny. A man in a wheelchair dressed oddly like a cult leader trundles along empty arcades strewn with rubbish, pausing to poke at some trolleys with his walking stick. Eventually he stops outside a record store which is to his surprise open for business despite the coming apocalypse and jumps up, apparently able to walk after all, and heads inside where he takes the boss (Nao Omori) to task for his strange decision to go to work on this day of all days. The shopkeeper however calmly engages in conversation with a customer, sure that “music saves the world”, “this song will save the day”, introducing him to the music of little-known ‘70s punk band Gekirin whose music was too far ahead of its time for the conservative post-war society. 

Their forgotten song, Fish Story, however as we will see does indeed change the world if in small and unexpected ways not least because it’s remembered for an unexpected pause in the middle of a guitar solo, a temporary suspension of living time in which small miracles could occur. “It has a meaning” the shopkeeper insists, though refusing to elaborate. As we discover, it does and it doesn’t, but stays true to the spirit of song, a “fish story” of its own embellished in the telling as curious listeners attempt to explain its existence. For three college students in 1982 who enjoy listening to paranormal tapes, it’s something of a let down seeing as they’d been told that the missing section contained a woman’s scream which is apparently still audible to those with a sixth sense but predictably not to them. Nevertheless, a moment of silence and a woman’s scream eventually result in a timid young man (Gaku Hamada) assuming his destiny, learning to stand up to bullies even if in eventual need of rescue himself. 

Like the young man of 1982, the shopkeeper and his customer are largely passive, sure that someone is coming to save them, idly talking of superheroes in teams of five like classic tokusatsu serial Go-rangers or else Bruce Willis saving the day by heroically sacrificing himself to blow up the asteroid. But the Americans’ “Armageddon” plan soon proves a bust, hinting perhaps at the fallacies of the disaster movie model in which the nation of production saves the world all on its own. The only possible hope now lies in cross-cultural cooperation. “Just as music knows no border, we’ve come together in this emergency” says the team of international experts boarding an Indian rocket as they pursue the only option left for the salvation of humanity no matter that there’s only a one in a million chance it works, because that’s what you do at the end of world, only what you can. 

The old man scoffs at the shopkeeper and his customer, sure the world is going to end even though he previously predicted it would do so 13 years previously in line with Nostradamus. Others concluded it would end in 2009 and took action accordingly, action which almost assures the present destruction in accidentally destroying the mind capable of preventing it. It is all connected, in a cosmic sense, but it’s also all small coincidences that lead to a greater whole. In the post-war chaos of 1953, a struggling father lies about his English skills to get a job as a “translator” only to engage in an avant-garde act of language violence bludgeoning one text into another with the aid of a dictionary. The incomprehensible novel which results is pulped, but survives as a curiosity and eventually finds its way home, inspiring another work of art and becoming a kind of fish story of its own. Gekirin chose to disband rather than compromise their artistic integrity, knowing that no one was going to hear their song. “Does that make everything we’ve done meaningless?” dejected bassist Shigeki (Atsushi Ito) asks, and perhaps it seems that way, but the word is heard in the end. It all matters, we all matter, no matter how insignificant it seems in the moment. 

Adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura’s anarchic voyage through a comfortable and nostalgic post-war Japan albeit one in the shadow of coming disaster is imbued with a quiet sense of hope even as it leaves its protagonists passive participants in a history they are unaware of making. Two teams of five do in their way save the world, and all because of a song that no one heard which was inspired by a book that no one read. Life, it’s all a big fish story, but it makes sense in the end so long as you stick around long enough. 


Fish Story is released on blu-ray & VOD in the UK on 10th August courtesy of Third Window Films. On disc extras are presented in standard definition and include: making of featurette, Gekirin live performances, Gekirin talk show, director and cast Q&A, and deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Lowlife (最低, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

The Lowlife 2017In terms of the mainstream cinema industry, the AV (“adult video”) world is viewed with suspicion and distain. AV is where unlucky women end up after having the misfortune to encounter unscrupulous yakuza or be born to feckless parents whose debts they are forced to pay with their bodies. However, mainstream cinema perhaps has a reason to demonise its rival on top of reflecting persistent social stigmas relating to the expression of sexuality. Takahisa Zeze began his career in “pink film”, which is to say softcore pornography, and casts a non-judgemental eye over the modern hardcore porn scene in The Lowlife (最低, Saitei), adapting a novel by AV actress and gravure model Mana Sakura which explores the lives of three women who each have been impacted by the industry.

The first two of our heroines – college dropout Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), and melancholy housewife Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), have made a free choice to enter the AV industry mostly out of loneliness and insecurity. Ayano, who claims to be the only “ugly” one among her many sisters, is convinced to take part in a porn shoot by an unscrupulous boyfriend but finds herself reassured in being adored by the camera and appreciated on set, if only briefly. Miho, meanwhile, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a man who has begun sleeping in his study and continually puts off the discussion of starting a family despite Miho’s intense desire to become a mother. Checking on her husband one morning she is dismayed to find a porn DVD in the open tray of his laptop which feels like a double betrayal in that he has obviously not been “working” all night and has avoided intimacy with her while finding release somewhere else. Irritated, Miho takes the extreme decision of becoming a porn star herself as a strange kind of revenge and motion towards personal fulfilment.

Our third heroine, Ayako (Aina Yamada), however, is looking at the same problem from a different angle in that she is daughter of a single-mother who had previously worked in the porn industry before returning home to her own single-mother to start again and raise her daughter. Takako (Saki Takaoka) is a difficult, flighty woman who still likes to live the high life drinking with random guys and rolling in late or sometimes not at all to the constant worry of her anxious daughter. A gifted artist, Ayako is a shy, gloomy girl who finds it hard to connect with her peers and resents her mother for her unconventional lifestyle. Her problems intensify when she wins a prominent art prize and irritates a classmate who seems to be stalking her causing him to spread the rumour of Takako’s past all over the school.

Social stigma is indeed one of the main problems each of the women face. Ayano, who seems to be otherwise happy enough with her life AV, gets an unexpected visit from her concerned mother and scornful sister when someone presumably spots her in a video and decides to have a word. As Ayano points out to her annoyingly judgemental sister, that means whoever told them just outed themselves as an AV-watcher so perhaps she should ask her boyfriend about that before making sarky comments. Nevertheless, nobody really says anything about the men who consume pornography, only about the “immoral” women who star in them. Ayano’s mother Izumi (Makiko Watanabe) blames herself, complaining that Ayano was the only one of her daughters she never quite bonded with, by turns angry with her for “shaming” the family and concerned that she has “thrown her life away” by becoming forever tainted with the stigma of having been involved in the sex industry.

Corrupted maternity becomes a somewhat uncomfortable theme as each of the women assesses their relationships with other women in the context of the traditional family. Having given up work and become a housewife as society expects, Miho has done everything right but is intensely unhappy because her husband will not move to the next step by starting a family. At 35, she feels her life stagnating, that everything is already settled and nothing will change from now until the time she dies. Neglected by a husband who seems to have lost interest in her as a woman as well as in their shared endeavour of building a home, she finds herself drawn to AV as a path to sexual fulfilment which isn’t really infidelity while also subverting her image of superficial perfection and embracing another identity outside of the home. She remains, however, conflicted as she gazes jealously at a happy family out on holiday at the pleasant mountain lodge where they’ll shoot the movie away from prying eyes. Her involvement in AV is, in a way, also an act of self harm as she punishes herself for her inability to become a mother, while also getting back at her disinterested husband.

Even so, Zeze is careful to frame the AV industry in a positive light. On arrival at the agency, Miho is greeted by an extremely sensitive and sympathetic manager who does his best to ease her concerns while making her feel safe at her most vulnerable. Having felt so neglected and lonely at home, the AV world provides her with a place that she is appreciated, desired as a woman and treated like a star. Similarly, Ayano who had believed herself “ugly” and unlovable begins to gain confidence in herself thanks to being appreciated by the camera, eventually striking up a relationship with a nice guy journalist in a bar which seems like it might develop into something more. While some might argue that the industry is merely exploiting feminine insecurities, it cannot be denied that both women find in it a path towards self acceptance and actualisation.

Despite the fiercely non-judgemental tone, a late plot twist further casts Miho’s transgression as a fall rather than a rise while an eventual connection with Ayako further deepens the maternal subtext as she completes the circle by mothering the lost young woman trying to come to terms with her atypical family situation. Ayako’s grandmother too seems to prescribe motherhood as the answer to all life’s mysteries even if the answer is often that they can’t be solved and all that remains is the urgency of living. Zeze’s depiction of the porn industry might be a rosy one glossing over the seamier side in favour of presenting a world built on empowerment rather than exploitation, but its infinitely sympathetic eye makes plain that porn is just a job like any other and the women who work in it do not deserve the scorn that society often chooses to heap on them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは, Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close knit posterWhile studying in the US, director Naoko Ogigami encountered people from all walks of life but on her return to Japan was immediately struck by the invisibility of the LGBT community and particularly that of transgender people. Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは,  Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa) is her response to a still prevalent social conservatism which sometimes gives rise to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Moving away from the quirkier sides of her previous work, Ogigami nevertheless opts for a gentle, warm approach to this potentially heavy subject matter, preferring to focus on positivity rather than dwell on suffering.

11 year old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is home alone, again. Her mother rolls in late, dead drunk, and promptly flops down onto the futon next to Tomo’s still in her work clothes. A note left the next day explains that Tomo’s mother has quit her job and won’t be coming home for a while. This is not the first time she’s done this and the money she’s left is at least enough for a train ticket to visit uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). When Tomo slaps a collection of manga down in front of him at the bookstore where he works, Makio immediately realises what’s going on and is both infuriated with his sister and glad to take his niece in for a while until her mother comes to her senses.

There’s one potential problem. Makio now has a live-in girlfriend only she’s not quite what Tomo might be expecting. On meeting Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo is indeed shocked but is soon won over by Rinko’s warm and loving nature. Rinko is a transgender woman who’s experienced her share of hardships in life but finally found fulfilment in her relationship with Makio though she has a lot of love to give and would dearly love a child of her own.

Used to being left to her own devices, Tomo is a tough and resourceful child but also one with a thick protective shell. Unused to being mothered, Tomo finds Rinko’s attempts to reach out to her difficult to bear, cycling back and forth through a pattern of affection and rejection. Where her mother left her only store bought onigiri (which she has come to hate) and cash, Rinko makes beautiful character bentos complete with octopus frankfurters and adorable panda faces. So touched is Tomo by this gesture that she can’t quite bring herself to eat it and eventually makes herself ill by finally deciding to enjoy it long after it’s past its best.

Nevertheless even if Tomo comes to bond with Rinko, there are still those who don’t approve of her existence. Tomo has a, well, not quite friend at school, Kai, who is somewhat ostracised by the other children who call him “gay” and write homophobic slurs on the classroom blackboard. Tomo, whilst sometimes hanging out with Kai who lives near to her outside of school, refuses to have anything to do with him in class lest she be rendered guilty by association. Growing closer to Rinko, Tomo also comes to an acceptance of and willingness to fight for Kai who has confided in her about his crush on another boy in their class. Kai’s mother (Eiko Koike), however, is not so understanding and so when she catches sight of Tomo in the supermarket with Rinko she offers to save her from the “weirdo” and later bans Kai from hanging out with his only friend in case he somehow catches “weirdness” from their atypical family setup. This attitude of hers eventually has potentially tragic consequences for her young son, left with nothing other than the prospect of maternal and later societal rejection eased only by Tomo’s firm insistence that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Unlike Kai’s mother, Rinko’s instantly understood and remained fully supportive of her child even whilst hauled into school for an explanation of why “Rintaro” has been skipping P.E.. Rinko’s mother not only goes out and buys lacy bras for her daughter, but even knits her a pair of fluffy pink breasts so she won’t feel so depressed about not developing in the same way as all the other girls. Tomo’s mother has a lot of problems of her own but many of these stem back to her own upbringing, unintentionally threatening to pass on some of these same qualities to her own daughter as she allows her to feel just as worthless and unloved as her mother did her. Yet, Ogigami’s camera remains resolutely unjudgemental in trying to understand each of these various facets of motherhood from the immense maternal love of Rinko as it finally finds an outlet in Tomo to the far less positive image of Kai’s mother who presumably thinks she’s doing the best for her son in trying to prevent him veering from the norm but only succeeds in making him feel his life is not worth living.

The title of the film, as grandly punned as it is, refers not just to the quickening family bonds among this idealised yet unusual family but also to Rinko’s favourite method of stress relief – knitting. Like the cooking she is often seen providing for the family, Rinko’s knitting is also largely about warmth in making something for a particular person which is tailor made to keep them warm in the cold, but it also works as a multilayered metaphor as she brings people together, binding them tightly with her own wamth and generosity of spirit. Rather than fighting back with angry words (or well aimed dish soap as a provoked Tomo eventually does), Rinko channels her frustrations into her knitting, using them to create something positive rather allowing negativity to overwhelm her. Ogigami’s film seems to want to do the same, arguing for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance as a pathway to a better world even if it’s clear the road is long and we’re not so far along it as we should be.


Close-Knit was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

There’s also an interesting interview with director Naoko Ogigami and producer Kumi Kobata in the Nikkei Asian Review in which they discuss the casting of actor Toma Ikuta.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Akiko Ohku, 2007)

tokyo-serendipityCities are often serendipitous places, prone to improbable coincidences no matter how large or densely populated they may be. Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Koisuru Madori) takes this quality of its stereotypically “quirky” city to the limit as a young art student finds herself caught up in other people’s unfulfilled romance only to fall straight into the same trap herself. Its tale may be an unlikely one, but director Akiko Ohku neatly subverts genre norms whilst resolutely sticking to a mid-2000s indie movie blueprint.

Yui Aoki (Yui Aragaki) is in search of a new apartment. She had been living in an unusual old fashioned building with beautiful stained-glass windows, but her sister’s in line for a shotgun marriage and if that weren’t trouble enough the apartment is set for demolition. Living on her own for the very first time, Yui moves into a smallish modern apartment in a building filled with various eccentric residents.

One in particular catches Yui’s attention – her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Takashi (Ryuhei Matsuda). By coincidence, Yui ends up working with Takashi at his lab where she learns he’s still broken up about a girlfriend that left him flat without even a word of goodbye. Remembering she left something behind at her old place she ends up meeting the new tenant, Atsuko (Rinko Kikuchi), and striking up a friendship with her over a shared interest in homemade furnishings. The coincidences continue as Yui discovers she and Atsuko have accidentally swapped apartments! Through this odd chain of events Yui also figures out that Atsuko is Takashi’s long lost love, but is hopelessly trapped in the middle, unsure of whether she should reveal this information to either party. Of course, her developing feelings for both Atsuko and Takashi place her in a series of difficult positions.

Tokyo Serendipity was sponsored by an interior design company and so it’s no surprise that the film makes quite a lot out of its production design. The fashion choices are very much of the time and favour quirky, individual aesthetics rather than an Ikea-esque off the peg minimalism. The original apartment which is soon to by bulldozed is an artist’s dream with its hidden fireplace, old fashioned furniture, stained glass windows and well lit interior. Broadly inspirational in this regard, it’s a thrifty kind of homestyle which prizes recycled materials and repurposed furnishings as opposed to the trendy high price surroundings of other parts of the city.

Like many other films of its kind from this era, Tokyo Serendipity adopts a natural, if occasionally surreal, approach filmed with a deadpan camera. The film’s one repeated large scale gag – a group of lucha libre wrestlers who work as removal men during the day, is a good example of this as their not improbable existence somehow seems oddly funny. They drop things but only in the ring – so they say, each of them well built men treating Yui’s precious goods as daintily as children using real china at a tea party. The humour could best be described as subtle, yet does succeed in raising a smile here and there.

Smiling turns out to be the film’s main message. In fact Ohku even states that her intention in making the film was solely to leave people with a smile of their faces – something which she broadly achieves. Atsuko, a slightly lost middle aged woman, claims she became an architect as she wanted to build a house with everybody smiling – something Yui echoes as she comes to a few conclusions of her own nearing the end of the film. However, Atsuko’s desire for harmony in all things is one she’s never been able to fulfil as childhood abandonment has left her with lingering commitment issues. Simply put, she always leaves first. Interestingly enough, Yui’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to her growing friendship with Atsuko and a half-formed acknowledgment of middle-aged regrets she’s still to young to fully understand.

Despite amassing almost all of the conventional romantic comedy/drama motifs from a last minute dash to the airport and misdirected letters to an embarrassing scene where a relative is mistaken for a lover, Ohku rejects the romantic model as her central character wisely recognises exactly where she stands in this awkward situation and makes a sensible decision motivated by the best interests of both of her friends. Straightforwardly indie in style, Ohku keeps the quirk on a low simmer but manages to make her heightened reality seem perfectly natural. An unusual coming of age film trapped inside an indie romance, Tokyo Serendipity is like one of the tiny hidden spaces the film seems to like so much, though upon opening the door some will be more impressed with what they find than others.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

all around usRyosuke Hashiguchi returns after an eight year absence with All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。Gururi no Koto) and eschews most of his pressing themes up this by point by opting to depict a few “scenes from a marriage” in post-bubble era Japan. Set against the backdrop of an extremely turbulent decade which was plagued by natural disasters, terrorism, and shocking criminal activity Hashiguchi shows us the enduring love of one ordinary couple who, finding themselves pulled apart by tragedy, gradually grow closer through their shared grief and disappointment.

Tokyo, 1993. Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) have had an “on and off” (but seemingly solid) relationship since their art school days. She works at a publishing house and he’s kind of a slacker with a job in a shoe repair booth. Shoko worries that Kanao plays around too much (but actually doesn’t seem that bothered about it) whilst continuing to attempt to micromanage their entire existence with her clearly marked calendar planning out the most intimate of actions. When Shoko discovers she’s expecting a child, the pair decide to finally get married and begin their lives as a family. Kanao also gets an opportunity on the work side when an old college friend helps him get a job as a courtroom artist for a news agency.

However, their joy is short-lived as an abrupt jump forward in time shows us a tiny shrine underneath the calendar (shorn of its red crosses) dedicated to the memory of their infant daughter. Kanao is the keep calm and carry on sort so he just tries to bluster through but Shoko is distraught and slowly descending into a mental breakdown. If that weren’t enough to contend with, Shoko’s estranged father has been tracked down and is apparently very ill dredging up even more pain an uncertainty from the long buried past.

We follow Shoko and Kanao over a period of nine years. As well as the ever present motif of the calendar, we feel the passage of time through Kanao’s work at the court house which sees him become the artistic recorder of some of the most traumatic moments of the age. Having entered into an era of economic turmoil following the end of the bubble economy, the 1990s saw not only the devastating Kobe Earthquake but also the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground perpetrated by a dangerous religious cult, members of which wind up in court in front of Kanao, tasked with the thankless task of bearing witness to their testimony.

Kanao evidently decided not to discuss his personal tragedy with his work colleagues or, one would assume, his boss would not have reacted so harshly when he made the reasonable request to turn down the opportunity to sit in on yet another child murder trial – either by accident or design, the trials which present themselves to Kanao (and are all real, sensationalised media events of the time) involve the horrific murders of small children with only one of the defendants voicing any kind of regret or remorse.

Meanwhile, Shoko has been trying to get on with life as best she can but finds herself sinking ever deeper into depression. Her uptight, controlling personality cannot cope with this perceived “failure” on her part or of the destruction of all her plans by a truly unforeseen tragedy. Having had her doubts before regarding Kanao’s commitment to her, she finds his lack of reaction puzzling. Mistaking Kanao’s lack of outward emotion for indifference, Shoko finds it hard to continue believing in their shared destiny and wonders if her husband ever really cared for her at all. Kanao is a laid-back soul, someone who’s learned to become used to disappointment by accepting it quickly and then trying to move on. His more grounded approach might be just the one Shoko needs in order to come to terms with what’s happened – never pushing or complaining Kanao is contented simply by her presence and is prepared to give her the space she needs whilst always being around to offer support.

Hashiguchi relies on visual cues to help navigate the shifting dynamics including the repeated use of the calendar as a symbol of Shoko and Kanao’s marital status, the now unneeded pregnancy books bundled to be thrown out, or rice discarded in the sink as a marker of a house proud woman’s slide into crippling depression. Small moments make all the difference from a mother’s bandaged wrists and a cutback to the only person who’s noticed them, to the repeated joke of all the veteran journalists suddenly falling over themselves in an attempt to escape the courtroom and be the first to file their copy. A necessarily sad story, but an oddly warm one as two people worried they may be mismatched grow into each other in the face of their shared tragedy. Anchored by the strong performances of its two leads (particularly Tae Kimura who manages some convincing on screen crying in a difficult role) All Around Us is another beautifully pitched human drama from Hashiguchi who proves himself an adept chronicler of the human condition even whilst stepping away from his trademark themes.


Original trailer (English subtitles)