Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Yukiko Mishima, 2017)

Dear Etranger posterThe family drama has long been considered the representative genre of Japanese cinema, but with the days of Ozu long gone the family itself has become a subject for reappraisal. Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Osanago Warera ni Umare) is the latest to take a scalpel to the nation’s basic social unit and ask what the word “family” means in an ever changing social landscape. In an Ozu picture, one family must be broken for another to be formed – this is the way of things and in the end must be accepted if with sadness, but does it really need to be this way or is there room for more as connections become less easy to define?

Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) separated from his first wife some time ago and still spends time with his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), though only a few times a year. Four years ago he married another woman, Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who had also been married before and has two children – Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eri (Miu Arai). Nanae has recently discovered she is pregnant and is thrilled to bits to add to their family, but Makoto is conflicted. He liked the family as it was and worries that the new baby will place a wedge between himself and his step-daughters, that they may suddenly feel themselves pushed out and not really part of the new family that is being forged by a child who has a blood relation to both their parents rather than just one.

In truth, family dynamics aren’t all Makoto currently has to worry about. A 40-year-old man, he’s also hitting the scrap heap at work – rather than laying people off, they’re transferring them to unpleasant jobs in the hope they’ll resign. A lifelong salaryman, Makoto has been sent to the packing warehouse where his every move is logged on computer and he’s rated for speed. This is partly his own “fault”. Rather than play the salaryman game, Makoto wanted to be a family man. He doesn’t work weekends or overtime, he takes public holidays off, and never stays out late drinking with colleagues – all things which mark your card as an antisocial shirker in workaholic Japan.

Makoto’s superior, warning him about the imminent transfers, criticises his attitude. He tells him that he doesn’t think spending time with his children is his “job” as a father. He sees his responsibility as one of providing a role model and he thinks the best way to do that is to be seen working hard as a “respectable” member of society. Makoto couldn’t disagree more. He works to rule, but wants to be the sort of father that’s there for his kids, not just an authoritarian figure who comes home late smelling of booze and throws his weight around. He knows that as the children grow up they’ll grow away from him and won’t want to hang out with dad anymore, so he wants to spend time with them now while he still can.

Makoto’s intense desire to be a family man is perhaps unusual in Japan where men channel their ambition into work and women are (still) expected to channel theirs into the home. It is therefore doubly painful for Makoto when his elder step-daughter, Kaoru, heading into a difficult age, suddenly rejects him on hearing about the new baby. Despite the fact that Kaoru’s biological father (Kankuro Kudo) was violent towards both her and her mother, Kaoru begins to insist on seeing him, complaining that it’s unfair to be forced to live with “a stranger”. On one level, Kaoru is at the age at which most young women begin to find their father annoying and embarrassing, but her resentment is also informed by a fear of abandonment and cultural doubt about her place in a still atypical family, unconvinced that it’s possible for a man to become a father to a child that’s not his own by blood.

Blood ties still seem to trump all in most people’s minds, but bureaucracy plays its part too. Makoto still insists on making time to see Saori – something which is sadly unusual in Japan where divorce usually results not only in the children losing contact with the absent parent but also the entirety of an extended family. Kaoru doesn’t quite like it that Makoto does this, she feels almost betrayed as if he’s choosing his biological child over her and that continuing to associate with Saori means he hasn’t fully committed to her family. There seems to be an idea that the family unit is a distinct bubble and one can’t be inside more than one at a time, just as one can’t be listed on more than one “family register”. When an emergency occurs and Saori needs to get a lift from Nanae who has Eri in the back of the car, she isn’t sure if it’s OK for her to get in even with her father with her. She suddenly feels awkward, as if her presence in his car with his new family is inappropriate. None of these people know each other – the existence of a parallel family is so embarrassing as to be “unseen”, buried like a scandalous secret and kept entirely separate to avoid any cross-contamination. When Eri asks who Saori is, awkward silence prevails until she is forced to introduce herself as a “friend” of her father’s – something he doesn’t bother to correct until the drive home when another encounter has pushed him into reconsidering what it means to be a “father”. 

Makoto’s strong desire for acceptance and for forging a “family” that is “his” may perhaps seem selfish and possessive, yet he also tries to react with patience and empathy towards others in his position. He tries to be patient with Kaoru, advising her that he doesn’t think meeting her “real” dad is a good idea but if it’s what she wants he’ll try to make it happen. Likewise, he is grateful to Saori’s stepfather for raising his daughter when he wasn’t able to. Finally the walls begin to dissolve and it stops being about who belongs on which bit of paper and starts being about connections forged through love and understanding. The new baby, rather than forcing everyone apart, begins to bring them together, each joined by a feeling of joy and responsibility towards the new life to which they are all connected. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Akiko Ohku, 2017)

tremble all you want posterShojo manga has a lot to answer for when it comes to defining ideas of romance in the minds of its young and female readers. The heroines of Japanese romantic comedies are almost always shojo manga enthusiasts – the lovelorn lady at the centre of Christmas on July 24th Avenue even magics herself into a fantasy Lisbon to better inhabit the cute and innocent world of a manga she loved in childhood. The heroine of Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Katte ni Furuetero), Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), does something similar in creating an alternate fantasy world filled with intimate acquaintances each encouraging and invested in her ongoing quest to win the heart of a boy she loved in high school who became the hero of her personal interest only manga, The Natural Born Prince.

At 24 Yoshika is still obsessed with “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura) who is forever number “One” in her affections. Working as an office lady in the accounts department, Yoshika’s fingers tip tap over the calculator all day long until she can finally go home and read about her favourite topic, extinct animals, on the internet before it’s time to head back to work. Because of her undying love for Ichi (whom she has not seen or heard from in many years), Yoshika has never had a boyfriend or engaged in “dating” – something which causes her a small amount of anxiety and embarrassment when considering the additional awkwardness of starting out at such a comparatively late age.

Yoshika’s dilemma reaches a crisis point when, much to her surprise, a colleague becomes interested in her. Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she rechristens number “Two”, is, like her, slightly shy and bumbling but also outgoing and with a need to say things out loud. Seeing as this is apparently the first time this has ever happened to Yoshika, she finds it very confusing – not least because she can’t decide if “dating” Kirishima is a betrayal of Ichi or if she is really ready to leave her Natural Born Prince behind.

The dilemma isn’t so much between man one and man two but between fantasy and reality, idealism and practicality. Yoshika, painfully shy, lives in a fantasy world of her own creation as we discover during a tentative, emotionally raw musical number in which she is forced to confront the fact that the reason she doesn’t know the names of any of the people we’ve seen her repeatedly engage with is that, despite her longing and her loneliness, she has never been able to pluck up the courage to actually speak to them. Thus they exist in her head as a series of nicknames, theoretical constructs of “friends” with whom to engage in (one-sided) conversations – a frighteningly relatable (if extreme) concept to the painfully shy. Deprived of her fluffy fantasy, Yoshika arrives home to collapse in tears and finds her world growing colder, riding the bus all alone and eventually cocooning herself in her apartment.

Thus when Kirishima starts to show an interest, Yoshika can’t quite figure out which “reality” she is really in. The idea that he might simply like her doesn’t compute so she assumes the worst and pushes him away in grand style, retreating to the entirely safe world of Ichi worship in which she, in a sense, has already been rejected so there is nothing left to fear. Coming up with a nefarious plan to meet Ichi by stealing the identity of a former classmate and organising a reunion, Yoshika’s fantasy is challenged by the man himself or more specifically his perception of events which differs slightly from her own owing to not placing herself at the centre. Though Yoshika had correctly surmised that Ichi was uncomfortable with the attention he received as the school’s “number one” and decided to ignore him as a token of her love, she remained unaware of the degree to which he suffered in her obsession with her own unrequited desires.

Wondering if she should just “go extinct” like the animals she loves so much who evolved in ways incompatible with life on Earth – literally too weird to live, Yoshika begins to lose her grip on the divisions between fantasy and reality, unable to accept the “real” attention and affection of those who would be her real world friends if she’d only let them while continuing to engage in the wilfully self destructive mourning of her illusions. Tremble All You Want (but do it anyway) seems to become Yoshika’s new mantra as she makes her first active decision to gravitate towards the land of the real despite her fear and the conviction that it will not accept her. Filled with whimsical charm but laced with a particular kind of melancholy darkness, Ohku’s tale of modern love in a disconnected world is a strangely cheerful affair even as our heroine prepares to swap her colourful fantasy for the potential comforts of the everyday.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (hit the subtitle button to turn on English subs)

Japanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Daigo Matsui, 2016)

Japanese Girls Never DieJapanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei) but, like old soldiers, only fade away in Daigo Matsui’s impassioned adaptation of the Mariko Yamauchi novel. Crushed by a misogynistic society, these are women who may well want to disappear if only as an alternative to finally being forced into submission to the predefined paths of womanhood – i.e. marriage and motherhood (and nothing else) that have been carved out for them. The young are, however, fighting back if in less than admirable ways. The best revenge on an oppressive society may be living well in one’s own way, but when that same society is at great pains to frustrate your goal the options are few.

As per the title, 28-year-old admin assistant Haruko Azuma (Yu Aoi) has gone missing. Her face, stolen from her missing poster, has been co-opted by a pair of petty punk idiots trying to come-up with a viral graffiti tag to rival Obey, but there’s no art or intention behind their minor act of social transgression so much as bravado and pithy rebellion. Nevertheless, Haruko’s image, plastered throughout the city, has become a hot topic on Japan’s social networking sites where a hundred trolls wade in with their prognostications and salacious fantasies of her violent death at the hands of a sex maniac.

Meanwhile, in an ironic subversion of the normalities of city life, young men have been urged to avoid walking alone at night following a spate of attacks by a gang of rabid school girls taking revenge on the male sex. No exact motive is given for their crusade save the missing poster that precedes Haruko’s and asks for information on a disappeared school girl, but goodness knows they have enough obvious reasons to have decided on a course of vigilante justice.

Haruko’s world is one defined by entrenched sexism. At 28 she finds herself embarrassed to be a still single woman at a wedding while a chance encounter with a school friend (Huwie Ishizaki) at a supermarket leads to more awkwardness when he pointedly remarks he assumed she’d be a housewife by now, and that she looks “old”. At work, Haruko’s colleague Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada), 37 and still unwed, is the butt of hundred jokes for the two middle-aged men who, for some reason, are their bosses though they hardly seem to do any work and automatically earn seven times Yoshizawa’s salary. The bosses urge Haruko to dress in more feminine fashions, asking invasive questions about her personal life while disparaging single women like Yoshizawa who they blame for Japan’s declining birthrate and a related raise in their taxes, avowing that women over 35 are essentially pointless seeing as their eggs are already “rotten”. Yoshizawa has developed a thick skin for their constant needling, realising that it amounts to an odd combination of sexual harassment and constructive dismissal campaign. Unwilling to pay a “higher” salary to an “older” woman, they are waiting for her to quit so they can hire a young and pretty new girl who will be naive enough to accept the pittance they intend to pay her.

It might be thought that the attitudes of Haruko’s bosses are a reflection of their generation, but the two young punks, Yukio (Taiga) and Manabu (Shono Hayama), are no different. 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a bar girl with ambitions to enter the beauty business, gets swept into their unpleasant orbit after getting into a “relationship” with Yukio, but Yukio thinks of her only as a plaything, even going so far as to encourage the shy Manabu to try his luck because (he claims contemptuously) Aina is the kind of girl who’ll go with anyone. Later she becomes a key part of their mini graffiti movement, but once the pair start to get a little recognition they essentially erase Aina from the story taking all the credit for themselves. Aina, poignantly looking up at the poster advertising the boys’ big moment in the same way she had gazed at Haruko’s missing poster on the police station notice board, realises she’s finally had enough of all their lies and of being made to feel invisible in a society which refuses to recognise her as anything more than an object for exploitation.

Haruko’s face is literally plastered all over town, but she remains essentially faceless, her image stolen and stripped of its identity to be repackaged as a soulless symbol for two idiotic boys who not only do not care who she is or might have been but only seek to profit from claiming to be allies in a struggle while simultaneously propping up the opposing side. The image does, however, gain its own independent power, speaking for all the oppressed and belittled women who find themselves essentially disappeared in being forced to abandon their hopes and dreams in the face of extreme social pressure. The school girls are fighting back – the next generation will (perhaps) not be so keen to remain complicit in the social codes which restrict their prospects. Then again, as the image of Haruko tells one of her lost disciples, the best revenge is living well. Choosing to absent oneself from a system of social control, going missing in a more positive sense, may be the best option of all.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Dundee Contemporary Arts – 26 February 2018
  • HOME – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 1 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 3 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 6 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 9 March 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 13 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Keisuke Yoshida, 2013)

My Little Sweet PeaHow many times were you told as a child, someday you will understand this? There are so many things you don’t see until it’s too late, and children being as they are, are almost programmed to see things from a self directed tunnel vision. Such is the case for Mugiko – a young woman with dreams of becoming an anime voice actress who is suddenly reunited with her estranged mother of whom she has almost no memory.

Mugiko (Maki Horikita) has a part time job in a manga store and is saving money to go to voice actress school. Raised by her father who has since passed on, she lives in a small flat with her older brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) who also has a low wage job in a pachinko parlour. The pair’s lives change entirely when their long absent mother, Saiko (Kimiko Yo), arrives on their doorstep one day and begs to live in with them. Norio is dead against it but eventually Mugiko is persuaded and Saiko moves in. However, right after, Norio moves out to live with his girlfriend leaving Mugiko alone with the virtual stranger who is also her mother. Mugiko has a difficult time adjusting to living with a maternal figure and harsh words follow frequent misunderstandings until Saiko suddenly dies. Mugiko then travels back to Saiko’s hometown to inter her ashes and begins to forge a connection with the mother she barely knew.

The “haha mono” or “mother movie” is a subset of Japanese melodrama which focuses on the pain and heartbreak inherent in being a mother. Making countless sacrifices, the often saintly mothers do everything they can to ensure the best for their children even if their efforts cause nothing but suffering for themselves. My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Mugiko-san to) turns the genre on its side to look at things from the point of view of one of the “ungrateful” children, Mugiko, who is filled with resentment over having been “abandoned” only to have her mother suddenly return as if expecting to forget all the years of absence with one home cooked meal.

On journeying back to her mother’s remote rural town, Mugiko begins realise they weren’t so different from each other after all. Everyone in the village is stunned by Mugiko’s appearance which turns out to be the spitting image of her mother at around the same age. Saiko had also been something of a local celebrity thanks to her beauty, charm and popular presence. She left the town for the city with dreams of becoming a famous singer just like Seiko Matsuda and her rendition of the singer’s famous song Akai Sweet Pea is fondly remembered by the older generation.

Saiko’s dreams of hitting it big in the music business were never fulfilled though we know almost nothing about what happened to her between the end of her marriage and reappearance in her children’s lives save that she obviously had enough financial security to be able to send them money every month. Through meeting her mother’s old friends (and more than a few admirers), Mugiko comes to see something of herself in the distant figure of her mother as a young woman. Even if she couldn’t be there for reasons which are never fully explained, it wasn’t because she didn’t want to be or because she’d forgotten about or rejected her children, she suffered everyday thinking of and missing them and was tragically unable to rebuild that connection even at the very end.

Mugiko has been a little unsettled in her life, floating from one dream to the next and who really knows if voice acting is really the thing that she was meant to do. Saiko may have been more certain in her objective but whatever happened later it seems she found fulfilment in being a mother even if her dream of becoming a singer didn’t work out. Having been able to meet her mother even if vicariously, Mugiko is able to understand something about herself and perhaps repair a relationship that never quite took place. Striding out boldly with her mother in spirit beside her, Mugiko is finally able to step into the adult world and everything that is waiting out there for her with a new found confidence that comes with embracing the beauty of a distant scar.


Trailer (with English subtitles)

and here is the hit song from Seiko Matsuda – Akai Sweet Pea (1982)

Our Family (ぼくたちの家族, Yuya Ishii, 2014)

Our FamilyYuya Ishii’s early work generally took the form of quirky social comedies, but underlying them all was that classic bastion of Japanese cinema, the family drama. If Ishii was in some senses subverting this iconic genre in his youthful exuberance, recent efforts have seen him come around to a more conventional take on the form which is often thought to symbolise his nation’s cinema. In Our Family Ishii is making specific reference to the familial relations of a father and two sons who orbit around the mother but also hints at wider concerns in a state of the nation address as regards the contemporary Japanese family.

Reiko (Mieko Harada) is an ordinary Japanese housewife in late middle age with a husband still working and two grown up children. She’s been worrying lately that she seems to forget things and she also has periodic trances almost like someone pressed the paused button. This all comes to a head when she and her husband Katsuaki attend a family dinner with their in-laws to celebrate the news that their eldest son, Kousuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and his wife are expecting their first child. Having behaved quite strangely all night long, Reiko finally ends by repeatedly addressing her daughter in law by the wrong name and muddling up details about the baby. Reiko’s still young but the natural assumption is perhaps that she’s slipping into senility, dementia or possibly even Alzheimer’s but a visit to the doctor turns up something that no one was expecting as they’re eventually made to understand that Reiko may only have a week left to live.

This devastating news of course sends shock waves through each member of the family and not least Kousuke who’s just learned he’s about to become a father. One of the things Reiko was most distressed about was that she’d wake up one day and her family would have fallen apart. It seems she grew up in an unhappy home and was determined not to replicate the experience for her children. Perhaps she did have cause to worry as there were definite cracks in the foundation of this household even before Reiko’s illness in that youngest son Shunpei (Sosuke Ikematsu) seems to have had a strained relationship with both his father and his older brother. In contrast to the other two men, Shunpei, still a student, is much more laid back and easy going though his father perhaps thinks him feckless and irresponsible. He meets his mother sometimes and she lends him money behind the father’s back but they talk more like friends than a mother and son.

Perhaps this division between the men in her life has been playing on Reiko’s mind but there are other problems too. Part of the bubble generation, Reiko and Katsuaki have been living well beyond their means for years and have amassed considerable personal debt. In fact, Katsuaki remortgaged the house a while back and made Kousuke a guarantor on their loan. Their best option would be to file for bankruptcy but doing that would leave Kosuke liable for the return of the mortgage so Katsuaki is reluctant to pursue that option. Now that Reiko’s in hospital money is at the forefront of everyone’s mind as they contemplate paying not only astronomical medical fees but potentially also paying for a funeral too.

This financial strain spills over into Kousuke’s new family as, when talking to his wife about needing to help out his parents, Kousuke discovers that Miyuki is just about as unsupportive as one could be. She brands Kousuke’s parents as irresponsible dreamers still living in the bubble era and suggests their predicament is both their own fault and their responsibility as, at their age, they should have been saving money for just these kinds of situations. Scornfully she insists that she doesn’t want to be “that kind of parent” and retires to bed in outrage. Having also refused to even accompany Kosuke to visit his mother in hospital (seeming to miss the point that he might be looking for her support rather than asking for appearance’s sake), poor Kousuke is left all alone trying to deal with the impending birth of his child and death of his mother all in a few short weeks.

The crisis does, at least, bring the three men a little closer together as it requires a kind of unilateral action that pushes previous resentments and ill feeling into the background. Reiko’s condition also means that she says some things that she would never have revealed directly to her family which both hint at some of her suffering over the last thirty years but also the deep love she has for her them. Katsuaki is revealed as a fairly ineffectual man who cares deeply but is blindsided by his wife’s condition and unable to face the facts leaving the bulk of responsibility to his oldest son. This kind of family abnegation is anathema in Japan – one would never want to be a burden to one’s children but Katsuaki is now both financially and morally dependent on Kousuke. Kousuke himself is not quite mature enough for this level of responsibility despite his impending fatherhood and his younger brother Shunpei may appear indifferent to everything but is merely putting a brave face on things though he may be the most dependable (and emotionally intelligent) of the three.

By the end, there is a glimmer of hope. The family can be repaired if you’re willing to work at it which means being willing to face the problems together and without any secrecy. Everyone, including the older generation, has in some senses “grown up”, facing the future together having accepted themselves and each other for who they are. Like applying a touch of kintsugi, their glittering wounds have only made them stronger and made each refocus on what’s really important. Neatly moving into a more dramatic arena, Ishii proves he’s still among Japan’s most promising young directors able to marry an idiosyncratic indie spirit with a more mainstream mentality.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release of Our Family includes English Subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: