A Dobugawa Dream (ドブ川番外地, Asato Watanabe, 2018)

Dobugawa Dream Raindance posterCan you outrun sorrow or should you just accept defeat and remain within a bubble of despair? Forced out of his self-isolation, the hero of Asato Watanabe’s debut feature A Dobugawa Dream (ドブ川番外地, Dobugawa Bangaichi) tries to find out, looking for a home among those who’ve fallen through the cracks. This down and out ditch town maybe where you end up when you don’t know where else to go, but there’s comfort in knowing others got there before you, if not so much in realising that they have all failed to leave, either accepting the imperfect present in rejection of a possible future, or wilfully residing in the past.

Highschooler Tatsumi (Yuwa Kitagaki) is a lost young man filled with pent-up rage and frustration. He hasn’t filled in his career survey because he has no idea what to put in it and no amount of irritated cajoling from a less than well-meaning teacher is likely to change that. His only outlet is the dream of sailing away with his best friend on the makeshift raft they’ve crafted from refuse at a disused boatyard, but that dream dies when he discovers him hanging, barefoot his body swaying in the breeze. Unable to process his loss and the guilt that accompanies it, Tatsumi imprisons himself in his room watching VHS tapes of old TV shows until a series of angry voices from the other side of the door eventually forces him out of his place of safety and into a strange new world.

Running blindly, Tatsumi wanders through a dream until he is eventually engulfed by a cheerful street funeral which turns out to be in honour of a man still alive – Tsuchiro, a middle-aged former shogi champ now a drunken rogue and what passes around here for a guardian spirit. Questioned by the local bobby, Tsuchiro passes Tatsumi off as his own son, a ruse no one believes but one with a grain of truth. In Tsuchiro, an infinitely cool presence all sunshades, yukata, and shit-eating grin, Tatsumi finds both a father figure and a double. Just as he is chasing the ghost of a friend he couldn’t save, Tsuchiro is in flight from himself, uncertain of his own identity now he no longer sees it reflected in the eyes of an opponent.

Trapped in this strange netherland, Tsuchiro has chosen oblivion. He drowns his sorrows but secretly plays shogi alone by nights while Tatsumi listens in silent consternation from the next room as his tiles click down on the bloodied board. Originally reluctant, Tatsumi finds himself becoming the older man, dressing in the cast-off clothes of the street and drinking himself out his sorrow but quickly becomes disillusioned with what he sees as Tsuchiro’s hypocrisy. The older man offers him a home among those who have nowhere else to go, but the wily bar hostess, though trapped herself, cautions him that he might not want to stay here, among the perpetually lost, for evermore.

A climactic argument sees Tsuchiro offer some tough love, telling Tatsumi that if he wants to stay he needs to leave his darkness at the door, but Tatsumi doesn’t want the superficial solution the older man has found. He’s angry, and he’s powerless, and not yet ready to face his pain but there are other people he will fail to save precisely because of his solipsistic rage – a lesson age tried to teach him but he was too impatient to see. Further loss and an altruistic act of sacrifice push him towards a reckoning in a deeper dream which allows him to interrogate the ghosts of the traumatic past and, perhaps, make his peace with them.

Alternating between bleak despair and absurd humour, A Dobugawa Dream takes its broken hero on an oneiric odyssey through grief, despair, and eventual rebirth as he learns to reconnect with the world around him and prepares to sail away from the traumatic past into the dreamed of future. Escaping the Dobugawa dreamscape, he takes its wisdom with him, no longer running but moving forward all the same. A beautifully composed and remarkably assured debut from Asato Watanabe, A Dobugawa Dream is both a tale of marginalised lives and the corrosive effects of unresolved trauma, and a gentle hymn to the sadness of letting go.

A Dobugawa Dream made its international premiere at Raindance 2019 courtesy of Third Window Films.

Teaser trailer

Raindance Returns for 2019 with Selection of East Asian Festival Favs

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London’s Raindance Film Festival returns from 18th to 29th September with a handpicked selection of independent filmmaking from across the globe. This year’s programme features a handful of East Asian indie features with a particular concentration on documentaries.

Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly ai weiwei yours truly

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei holds an exhibition of postcards sent to political prisoners across the world in a documentary filmed by Cheryl Haines.

Demolition Girl (Japan)

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A teenage girl starts earning extra money performing in niche videos in which she wears her school uniform and stomps on things in order to escape from her feckless family members in Genta Matsugami’s exploration of life in small-town, working class Japan. Review.

My Dearest Sister (Japan)

my dear sister

A filmmaker who has lived abroad for many years finds herself at odds with her mother and sister in her relationship to her overbearing father in Kyoka Tsukamoto’s autobiographical documentary.

Night Cruising (Japan)


Documentarian Makoto Sasaki follows blind musician Hideyuki Kato as he tries to achieve his dream of directing a science fiction movie.

A Dobugawa Dream (Japan)

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A young man shuts himself away following the suicide of a friend then escapes to find a substitute family with an eccentric older man, a barmaid, a dancer, and a police officer.

Bombie (Laos)

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Documentary by Tanner Matthews and Shelby Baldock following bomb disposal officers in Laos.

On the President’s Orders (Philippines)

On the President's orders

Documentary by James Jones and Olivier Sarbil exploring the effects of Duterte’s war on drugs on those who carry it out.

Song Lang (Vietnam)

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Beautifully filmed, highly atmospheric tragic romance set in 1980s Saigon in which an embittered thug falls for a Cải lương opera star. Review.

Raindance Film Festival takes place at Vue Piccadilly, 18th to 29th September. Tickets are already on sale via Eventbrite. You can also keep up with all the latest details via the festival’s official Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channels.

Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Ken Nishikawa, 2018)

Matsuchiyo PosterThe figure of the “geisha” looms large in Japanese cinema, but all too often international perceptions of what a geisha is or should be are rooted in old fashioned orientalist ideas of exotic Eastern women somehow both refined and alluring. Most assume geisha is synonymous with high class prostitute and that the life of a geisha is not much different from any other sex worker save for the trappings of elegance which are in fact its USP. These assumptions are, however, not entirely accurate.

In order to tell the story of the modern day geisha, Ken Nishikawa steps in front of the camera to tell that of his own mother which is also in many ways, the story of 20th century Japan. Later known as Matsuchiyo, Nishikawa’s mother spent the pre-war years in Manchuria returning to a land in ruins shortly after the wartime defeat. In order to support her ailing mother, she became a geisha which is, as we will discover, an extraordinarily skilled and arcane profession entailing the mastery of a number of traditional arts from dance to shamisen.

As Matsuchiyo later puts it, it’s difficult for a foolish girl to become a geisha, but for an intelligent one it may be impossible. A flippant remark to be sure, but it hints at the true purpose of a geisha’s training which amounts to a gentle erasure of individual personality in order to play the role of the perfect woman from the point of view of each particular client. Somewhere between bartender and therapist, a geisha must listen patiently to the complaints of each of her companions as they pour out their souls over sake, laying bare the fears and worries with which they could never burden a wife (assuming they might want to). Nodding sympathetically, she must remain cheerful and supportive, never voicing her true feelings but only those the client has paid to hear. The business of a geisha isn’t selling sex but fantasy, an image of unconditional love which is entirely conditional on payment of the bill.

As far as bills go, being a geisha is an expensive business and so each must be careful to hook a patron who will support her ongoing career – paying for training, equipment, elaborate outfits and hairdressing, in return for preferential treatment and loyalty. Matsuchiyo, as young woman, fell in love with a handsome young man but he was poor and her family still had debts. Though they urged her to do what she thought best, Matsuchiyo made a sacrifice and gave up on love to continue her geisha training and provide for her family. She became the mistress of a wealthy elderly man and later the “shadow wife” of a younger one from a wealthy family who fathered her three children but had two more with a legal wife. On his death she received nothing and the children were not even allowed to go to their father’s funeral, such was the taboo nature of their existence from the point of view of their father’s family.

The children were also instructed not to tell people that their mother was a geisha, leaving them with a lingering feeling of shame regarding her profession even if Matsuchiyo herself has absolutely none. Becoming a geisha is hard, it takes skill and application not to mention an investment in time. These days there are few women who want to be one, possibly because of its associations with the sex trade, but also simply because times have changed. Before the war when poverty was at its height, it was “normal” to sell a daughter to a geisha house so she might feed her family. Thankfully, this was no longer (officially at least) possible in the post-war world, but when Matsuchiyo became a geisha there were many young women like her who did so to escape the kind of extreme poverty which is happily absent in the modern Japan. The geisha houses enjoyed a post-war boom in the Showa era but have been in rapid decline ever since, becoming perhaps a rarefied cultural icon while the regular foot traffic trots off to the decidedly more casual world of hostess bars.

Nishikawa narrates much of his mother’s story in English with occasional on screen graphics to aid in explanation before allowing her to tell some of it herself in subtitled Japanese. Though others might have lamented Matsuchiyo’s “hard life” filled with loss and heartbreak, she herself regrets nothing and continues to dedicate herself to the geisha craft as the president of Atami’s geisha guild, fostering the latest generation of younger women keen to carry on the geisha legacy in an ever modernising world. A fascinating insight into the tightly controlled dichotomies of a geisha’s life, Nishikawa’s personal documentary is also voyage through the changing society of post-war Japan through the eyes of those trained to observe and most particularly an old woman who survived it all with a smile.

Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Matsuchiyo Ichidaiki) was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English)

Bad Poetry Tokyo (東京不穏詩, Anshul Chauhan, 2018)

Bad Poetry Tokyo posterRunning towards a dream can help you forget whatever it was you were running away from, but there may come a time when you have to accept that your dream has betrayed you and the sun is already setting. For the heroine of Anshul Chauhan’s debut feature Bad Poetry Tokyo (東京不穏詩, Tokyo Fuon Uta) that moment has arrived all too soon and though she perhaps expected it to come and had actively resisted it, it can no longer be outrun.

30 years old, Jun’s (Shuna Iijima) dream has been a long time coming. At a make or break audition for a Canadian film, she tells the panel that she studied English at a top university in Tokyo and plans to move to LA to work in movies. Meanwhile, she blew out of her country home five years ago and has become estranged from her family. She supports herself working as a hostess in a seedy bar which is more a front for sex work than it is a drinking establishment, but sex work is work and at least pays well allowing her to save money to move to LA.

Unfortunately she plans to move there with her current boyfriend, Taka (Orson Mochizuki), who is a bouncer at the club and was responsible for getting her the job in the first place even if he now can’t quite reconcile himself with the feelings of jealousy and resentment her work causes him. Taka also has issues of his own and when twin crises present themselves in the form of a possessive and intimidating client, and a home invasion that seems like an inside job and leaves her with visible facial scarring, Jun is finally robbed of all hope and left with no other option than to retreat to her hometown and the quiet horrors which have been patiently waiting for her return.

Jun’s life, it would seem, has been one long scream. Returning to a seemingly empty home, she is less than happy to find her slumbering father (Kohei Mashiba) slumped over in the living room. Noticing the wounds on her face he begins to ask her what happened but more out of irritation than concern – he warns her not to bring any trouble to his door. Jun mutters that it might have been a mistake to come back, to which her father cooly retorts that the biggest mistake was her birth, resenting his daughter for her very existence and the taboo desires she arouses in him while insisting that this is all her fault because she is essentially “bad”. Jun’s dad didn’t even bother to tell her that her mother had died, perhaps out of embarrassment or shame for this was not a natural death and though not at his hand he is very much to blame. The first of many men to have wronged her, only now in her somewhat weakened and desperate state is Jun finally ready for a reckoning. After all, there is nothing more to lose.

Men have indeed ruined her life, as has the oppressive patriarchy which continues to define it. The first time we see her, Jun is forced to perform an intense audition scene of a woman being brutally beaten and abused for a dispassionate director. Which is to say, she is forced to humiliate herself and relive very real traumas in the quest to fulfil her dream. This early scene of playacting will be recalled several times, most obviously in the flashforward which opens the film and eventually leads to a moment of both liberation and transgression which ultimately seals her fate.

Unable to gain a foothold in acting, Jun is forced into a life of sex work which she finds degrading and unpleasant, allowing herself to be “violated” in return for money as she later describes it. Again reliving past traumas, her anger only grows and intensifies as she passively permits herself to be misused. A final act of rebellion in refusing the intimidating and entitled attentions of a controlling client leads to a dangerous situation in which he reminds her that women like her belong to men like him and if it pleases him he will destroy her. Jun gives up on her dream and therefore has no more need of the club, but employment in a hostess bar is not always as casual as it seems and one cannot just simply leave. Once again Jun has become someone’s property, not merely as an idea but as flesh.

Jun’s physical wounds are a manifestation of her emotional trauma and the legacy of violence which traps her in an oppressive cycle of abuse and despair. Back in her hometown, filled as it is with unpleasant memories and the shadow of her father’s cruelty, Jun is haunted by the spectre of an innocent childhood. Reuniting with an old friend who, it seems, has always carried a torch for the girl she once was, Jun is forced to confront the gulf between the “innocent” self which escaped with hope, and the defeated self which has returned with none. Even this seemingly positive, innocent romance is eventually tainted by violence offered as an act of love which has its own sense of disquieting poetry. Yet violence is the force which perpetuates despair, creating only fear and rage and pain each time it breeds. Jun is running once again but neither forward nor back, only full pelt towards the setting sun.

Bad Poetry Tokyo was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Festival promo (English subtitles)

The End of Wind (风的另一面, Fog Forest, 2018)

The End of Wind posterDoes beauty still exist in the world or only in the minds of lonely people? Director Fog Forest wants to know if there is anything pushing back against the forces of indifference in his debut feature, The End of Wind (风的另一面, Fēng de Lìngyī Miàn) which follows the melancholy fates of three individuals each looking for connection in an increasingly apathetic society. A salaryman with an existential crisis, a man wrongly imprisoned for a violent crime, and a young woman whose escape from North Korea led her straight into the hands of human traffickers, ponder if life is still worth living when the bonds between people have become so weak and distorted.

Wang Ran, a frustrated company man and all round snappy dresser, has long been in a depressive slump. Lamenting the attitudes of those all around him, he resents their all encompassing greed and self-interest. He can’t understand why they are so keen to destroy the “beautiful things” of the world in order to continue their quests towards materialist success. Then again, Wang is no longer sure that the “beautiful things” really exist outside of his own mind and if they do he has no idea how to find them. Meanwhile, Yang Botao has just been released from a ten year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit only to find that his mother passed away while he was inside and his father has spent all their money trying to get him released. To make matters worse, Yang is also suffering from kidney disease thanks to constant beatings from sadistic prison guards. A series of events brings the two men together when they decide to rescue a young woman, Kim Meishan, who escaped from North Korea but fell into the hands of human traffickers when her father was killed during the journey.

Each of the three protagonists is looking for some kind of connection which will restore their will to continue living even when life is so obviously meaningless and depressing. In order to find his purpose, Wang gives up his job and goes wandering, living in bare apartments and trying to make connections with kind people he finds along the way. Yang too decides to set off on a journey when his attempts to restart his life are frustrated by an inability to find a job in his hometown where the spectre of his “crime” haunts him everywhere. Unlike Wang, Yang decides to try rekindling an old connection in looking for a woman he knew before he went away who has apparently moved on, possibly to the North West. A true journeyman, Yang becomes the conduit which delivers the path to destiny that Wang has been seeking when his delivery job brings him into contact with Meishan who is able to pass him an SOS in the form of a cassette tape. Intended for her long lost mother, the message is in Korean and Wang is therefore unable to understand it save for identifying Meishan’s distress and realising that he has received a literal cry for help.

Though helping Meishan, Wang’s sense of purpose beings to return, warmed by her desire for life as evidenced by her ravenous hunger. In her he perhaps comes to believes that the “beautiful things” he dreamed of really do exist, and can be found by building genuine connections with others even if they are not supported by common language. His final answer is, however, not quite so positive and all three of our protagonists realise different destinations in their mutual quests for fulfilment. Having been abandoned by all each exists separately, unable to reconcile themselves either to the compromises of the consumerist world or discover a new one through forging bonds with other similarly lonely people. Wang’s world is one of imperfect destruction, surrounded by ruins and filled with nihilistic emptiness from which there may be no escape. Or perhaps, the only possibility of escape ends in an “end” which is not an end but a release. Poetic, if at times obtuse, Fog Forest’s debut is a noirish exploration of the sadness of being alive but one which offers no sign of hope for a society in terminal decline.

The End of Wind was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (english subtitles)

Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Kosai Sekine, 2018)

love at least posterFor some, it might be impossible grasp just how exhausting it can be merely being alive. For the heroine of Kosai Sekine’s debut feature Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Ikiteru Dake de, Ai) , adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya (Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!, Vengeance Can Wait), life is a draining cycle of waking and sleeping from which she fears she will never be able to free herself. An encounter with an equally atypical though perhaps more destructive young woman who orders her to leave her ordered existence so that she might step into the newly vacant space unwittingly helps her towards a moment of clarity though not the one it might at first seem.

Yasuko (Shuri) has vague memories of her mother dancing when the power went out but she herself is afraid of the dark. Looking back there’s a lot that makes sense to her about her mother’s behaviour and subsequently her own, but she hasn’t yet found a way to come to terms with her psychology. Yasuko has bipolar and is currently unemployed as she suffers with hypersomnia and hasn’t been able to hold down a job. She’s supported by her live-in boyfriend of three years, Tsunaki (Masaki Suda), who once dreamed of being a writer but now has a soul crushing job at a tabloid magazine writing salacious exposés about celebrities.

Yasuko is currently in the middle of a depressive spell and rarely leaves the house, spending most of the day asleep and exchanging texts with her somewhat unsupportive sister but her life is turned upside-down when she receives a surprise visit from a woman calling herself Ando (Riisa Naka) who drags her off to a nearby cafe and explains that she previously dated Tsunaki three years ago and now she wants him back. Viewing Yasuko as some kind of lesser human, Ando thinks she should see sense and leave Tsunaki to which Yasuko quite reasonably points out she has no income and so the request is quite unreasonable. Ando, however, is nothing if not thorough and it’s not long before she’s bamboozled both the cafe and Yasuko into taking her on as a part-time waitress.

Ando, an extremely unpleasant and manipulative woman, may be as Yasuko points out even “sicker” than she is but somehow she seems to make all around her do her bidding. Oddly enough, working at the cafe might actually be good for Yasuko – the cafe owner and his wife are kind and sympathetic people who seem to want to help and the other waitress was once a hikikomori so they might truly have some idea of what is involved in trying to help those in need. Ando, however, doesn’t quite seem to want her to succeed – she turns up at the cafe on a regular basis to feed Yasuko’s insecurities, pointedly asking her if she’s considered whether the problem might not just be that she’s “useless”, telling her that it’s pointless to try because she’ll inevitably fail, all of which seems quite counterproductive to her nefarious plan.

Then again, kindness and sympathy are not always quite as helpful as they seem. The cafe owner’s wife is nice, to be sure, but is fond of repeating the mantra that depression is caused by loneliness and that therefore making friends with the people at the cafe will make everything better. There might be something in her way of thinking, but it’s also a superficial approach to a more complicated problem and mild refusal to face some of the more serious aspects of Yasuko’s condition. When she’s started to feel as if the cafe is a safe space, told to think of herself as “family”, Yasuko lets down her guard and reveals one subject of her obsessive anxieties which just happens to be the washlet and the possibility of its sudden explosion should the water pressure go haywire. All of a sudden it’s as if the air changes, they look at her like she’s “mad” and the facade of their patronising desire to help is suddenly ripped away. Yasuko’s worst fear has been realised, they “see through” her and she feels as if there’s no hope any more.

Being seen through is perhaps something which Yasuko both fears and craves. Tsunaki, meanwhile, is suffering something similar only in a less extreme way. He also feared being seen through, but unlike Yasuko chose to isolate himself, rarely speaking and maintaining a healthy distance to the world. For this reason he’s been able to put up with his awful tabloid job, even excusing himself when an actress whose affair they’d exposed committed suicide because after all it was “nothing to do with” him despite the fact he was so obviously complicit. Increasingly conflicted, he begins to pull away from Yasuko, unwilling to overburden her with his own worries or perhaps more accurately equally afraid to expose them. Yasuko’s cruel barb that she wished Tsunaki’s “lack of character” would infect her hints at her mild frustration with his passivity, that his refusal to engage and habit of pussyfooting around her illness to avoid creating a scene are also contributing to her ongoing lethargy. The passive aggressive texts from her sister which seemed so unsupportive are perhaps less so as she is the only person willing to go toe to go with her and suddenly Yasuko’s meanness towards her outwardly patient and caring boyfriend reads more like provocation, as if she’s trying to make him respond rather than allow him to continue enabling her inertia.

Being driven apart by their parallel crises eventually brings the pair back together again, closer to an emotional centre and reaching a brief moment of understanding. As Yasuko says, the connection may have been only momentary, but within that infinitesimal space she can perhaps find a life. The dark is not so scary after all. Anchored by an extraordinary performance from Shuri, Love at Least is a beautifully composed examination of the costs of modern living in which fragmentary moments of absolute connection become the only source of salvation in a world of broken dreams and hopeless futures.

Love At Least made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Aya Igashi, 2018)

A Crimson Star posterFalling in love is, perhaps, like standing too close to the sun and for the young heroine of Aya Igashi’s debut feature A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Makkana Hoshi), it means nothing unless it burns. Set in the otherwise serene environment of a rural Japanese summer, full of blue skies and green fields bursting with life, A Crimson Star is the story of two ostensibly very different women in very different places who nevertheless develop an essential and inescapable bond in their shared sense of loneliness and isolation, but their relationship is also a problematic one in which the familial and the romantic have become inextricably linked.

14-year-old Yo (Miku Komatsu), undergoing a lengthy period of hospitalisation for an undisclosed illness, develops an intense fondness for her kindly nurse, Yayoi (Yuki Sakurai). On her discharge, however, Yo is stunned to learn that Yayoi has abruptly resigned and all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Yo’s family life continues to deteriorate. Her disinterested mother has got a new boyfriend who is often drunk and violent. In order to escape him, Yo takes a trip to the corner shop and makes a surprising discovery in a street of parked cars which turns out to be (as yet unknown to the the naive Yo) the secluded byroad used for secret assignations seeing as this is such a one horse little town that there isn’t even a love hotel. Yayoi has become an embittered sex worker and her lonely degradation breaks Yo’s heart. When her mother’s boyfriend eventually begins molesting her, it’s to Yayoi that Yo turns looking for care and support from a woman who had nursed her but is no longer a nurse.

The “crimson star” of the title most obviously refers to the wings of the paraglider gazed at so often by the earthbound Yo, but it is also echoed in the tiny scars and wounds which define the relationship between the two women. In the first scene of the film, the hospitalised Yo has a prominent bruise on her foot apparently caused by Yayoi nicking a vein when taking a blood sample. Even so, Yo leans in tell her that she is her favourite nurse – words which bring tears to Yayoi’s eyes and perhaps precipitate her decision to leave the hospital. For Yo, who is emotionally neglected by her mother and has never known true care and affection, the bruise becomes an odd kind of proof of love which she has come to associate with pain. Later, Yo spots an odd mark on Yayoi’s neck – she is of course too young to know what it is. Yayoi shows her, literally, by biting her slightly below the shoulder and creating another kind of “crimson star”.

Yo’s early attraction to the 27-year-old Yayoi has a distinctly maternal quality in which she looks for the same kind of compassionate care she experienced in hospital and which her mother refuses to give her. There is also, however, a nascent sexual attraction which provokes intense jealousy as Yo attempts to get closer to Yayoi but finds herself unable to achieve the kind of all encompassing love she is seeking. Given Yo’s extreme youth, the relationship is in many ways extremely inappropriate and infinitely confused, a combination of familial, platonic, and romantic longings which appear to be unbreakable but remain unresolved. Yo, almost becoming the thing she wants to find, begins to take care of the depressed, broken Yayoi – tidying the apartment, folding washing, and repairing external signs of damage, while Yayoi becomes care taker rather than care giver presenting her with an opportunity to reexamine her self-destructive tendencies including a dead end relationship with married paraglider Kengo (Katsuya Maiguma).

Kengo becomes a particular point of contention for Yo, not just for reasons of jealousy but because he causes Yayoi to suffer. Early on she spots him on his bike with his small daughter, every inch the doting dad which is, of course, something she never had. Kengo is also a symbol of familial betrayal as he undermines his seemingly happy family by continuing to string Yayoi along on what is, ironically enough, a no strings basis. Family has betrayed both women who find themselves adrift and alone with no clear anchor except perhaps each other.

Yet what Yo wants is to escape – to soar in the quiet skies high above all, free of earthly constraints like the paraglider she so often sees, but paragliders are crafts built for two and Yo wants to go with Yayoi, strapped together enveloped in a private world into which nothing else may enter. The “crimson star” then becomes the unattainable feeling of closeness and total connection that continues to elude her, furthering her view that love is pain and the pain she feels must be love. Backed by a crimson sky, the future is both hopeful and filled with light, but perhaps also tethered and marked by a melancholy resignation. Beautifully composed, Igarashi’s debut is a raw, often uncomfortable examination of an elemental bond forged between two lonely, damaged women each seeking impossible connection as an escape from a loveless existence.

A Crimson Star made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Raindance Film Festival to Host Four East Asian World Premieres

Bad Poetry Tokyo 2London’s Raindance Film Festival returns from 26th September to 7th October with a handpicked selection of independent filmmaking from across the globe. This year is a fairly thin one for East Asian cinema, but there are a number of films from Japan, many of which are making their world premiere at the festival, as well as two from China.

A Crimson Star  (Japan, World Premiere)

Crimson Star still 1Shy schoolgirl Yo bonds with nurse Yayoi during a hospital stay. When she runs into her again some time later it’s under very different circumstances – Yayoi has become a sex worker. Trapped in an abusive home, Yo eventually decamps to Yayoi’s and demands to stay the summer, but Yayoi’s burgeoning romance threatens to destroy their fragile bond…

Bad Poetry Tokyo  (Japan) 

Bad Poetry Tokyo still 1Jun works in a hostess bar to save money to move to LA and pursue her dreams of becoming an actress, but having suffered violence from a customer and a romantic betrayal she decides to abandon the capital for her peaceful hometown. However, there are troubles to be found everywhere, not just in Tokyo….

Feelings to Tell  (China, World Premiere)

Screenshot 2018-08-22 16.48.10A painter journeys into the mountains and falls in love with a local girl destined to become a mountain goddess.

Love at Least (Japan, World Premiere) 

love at least still 1Yasuko suffers with a sleep disorder as well as manic depression and is looked after by her boyfriend Tsunaki (Masaki Suda) but their relationship is threatened by the resurfacing of Tsunaki’s ex.

Matsuchiyo – Life Of a Geisha (Japan, World Premiere)

Matsuchiyo - Life Of a Geisha still 1Ghostroads director Ken Nishikawa returns to Raindance with an extremely personal documentary as he examines the life of his mother – a geisha.

Room Laundering (Japan)

Room Laundering still 1A Japanese real estate law requires landlords to inform prospective tenants if something unpleasant has previously happened in the property, but it doesn’t specify how long you need to keep that up. Thus some unscrupulous types have come up with a “room laundering” scheme in which they get people who don’t mind a little unpleasantness to move in for a short period of time to “purify” the living space. Miko is just such a woman and the arrangement suits her well enough, until, that is, she develops the ability to see ghosts. Review.

The End of Wind (China)

end of wind still 1A white collar worker in the middle of an existential crisis, an ex-con recently released from prison after being convicted of a crime he did not commit, and a refugee from North Korea seek release but find only more emptiness in the debut feature from Fog Forest.

Raindance Film Festival takes place at Vue Piccadilly, 26th September to 7th October. Tickets are already on sale via the official website. You can also keep up with all the latest details via the festival’s official Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channels.

Ghostroads – a Japanese Rock’n’Roll Ghost Story (ゴーストロード, Enrico Ciccu, 2017)

ghost roads posterWhat price would you pay for fame? A down on his luck rockabilly guitarist asks himself just this question when faced with the offer of fantastic success beyond all his wildest dreams at the small cost of sacrificing some friends to the musical gods. Rest assured, Ghostroads: A Japanese Rock’n’Roll Ghost Story (ゴーストロード) isn’t waxing metaphorical on the price of success or the pitfalls of the music business so much as it is riffing on B-movie rock and roll horror. Everything about Ghostroads is retro from the rockabilly scene setting to the shooting style and musical cues but it’s all done with such charm and good humour that it’s near impossible to resist the film’s old fashioned appeal.

The Screaming Telstars are, as the narrator tells us, a bit “crap” and their lead singer, Tony (Mr. Pan), is perhaps not as committed to the band as he once was. Fellow band members remain exasperated by Tony’s often hilariously late arrival at rehearsal sessions while the producer and tech guy cringe at his terrible, lazy playing. Nevertheless, Tony vows to pull it together in time for the gig and, to be fair, he usually does. This time, however, things take a turn for the worse when Tony’s absent minded guitar frenzy proves too much for his ancient amp. The venue they’re supposed to play the next day doesn’t have house amps so Tony will need to sort himself out with a new one or risk cancelling.

Tony also has no money so makes the decision to stop into a tiny old fashioned second hand musical equipment store in a back alley to look for a vintage amp to add to his collection. Despite the warnings of the shop assistant (Taka Shin-Okubo) who acts more like the wise monk in a kung fu film than a serious businessman, Tony is strangely drawn to one amp in particular. Seeing Tony won’t be dissuaded, the man behind the counter lets him have it for free on the condition that it’s his responsibility now and whatever happens with it, he can’t bring it back.

This is largely because the amp comes with a lodger or as he calls himself, an “amperition”. Peanut Butter (Darrell Harris) is a smooth American blues singer who has been imprisoned in his amp so long he’s quite desperate to impart some musical wisdom to a struggling rock star like Tony, but his advice comes at a price.

Tony’s playing improves under the tutelage of Peanut Butter, but Tony has another problem in the return of a longterm nemesis from his student days, Shinzo (Tatsuji Nobuhara) – lead singer of The Mad Reader, and the man who possibly stole Tony’s girl, Shinobu (Tomomi Hiraiwa). Thus Tony’s journey begins from useless loserdom to big time star, besting his rival and finally having a shot with the beautiful Shinobu, but all the while everyone is worrying about him. Peanut Butter is not a positive influence in Tony’s life, and the fact that he keeps talking to someone no one else can see is a definite cause for concern, but then again Peanut Butter says he can make Tony a star, if only he’ll ditch all his friends…

In short, Ghostroads is a vehicle for The Neatbeats – the kind of band movie they just don’t make anymore. Set firmly within the world of rockabilly subculture, the film also features a number of other underground bands including 50 Kaitenz and The Privates whose lead singer, Tatsuji Nobuhara, plays the part of Tony’s arch rival Shinzo. Peanut Butter assures Tony that all he needs is to find the one perfect song (something he can help him with, for a price), but every song featured is a hit with the soundtrack proving the film’s most essential asset.

Ghostroads commits absolutely to its retro aims, aping the classically kooky effects of the down and dirty silly rock horror movies of ages past. The effects are spot on with Peanut Butter permanently surrounded by a blueish haze which seems to intensify whenever he’s doing something not quite right. Peanut Butter also has a strange little hologram device featuring a tiny burlesque dancer (played by The Tassels’ Miwa Rock) which is never explained but adds to the increasingly surreal atmosphere. Surreal and quirky it most definitely is but Ghostroads has real love both for its subculture setting and for the long forgotten classics it’s trying to resurrect. Good, clean, unpretentious fun, Ghostroads is proof enough that the rock and roll spirit is alive and well and living in Japan.

Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)


Noise (Yusaku Matsumoto, 2017)

noise posterWhat makes someone take off on a homicidal rampage? First time director Yusaku Matsumoto attempts to find out by examining the down and dirty backstreets of Akihabara eight years after a mass killing shook the nation. Dealing with trauma, the death of the family, the precarious position of vulnerable young women pulled into an industry they don’t quite understand, economic insecurity, underground idols, and general nihilistic hopelessness Matsumoto has certainly conjured enough noise to drive even the most level of heads to distraction but once again, it is the city itself which eats its young in the indifferent frenzy of modern life.

Eight years ago, Misa’s mother was one of several people murdered by a lone assailant who drove a truck into a busy pedestrian intersection in Akihabara before getting out and stabbing random passersby. Misa is now making a go of it as an “underground idol” – young girls who sing and dance in clubs in Akihabara but don’t have recording contracts or big studios behind them. When not performing on stage she makes ends meet by working in the “massage parlour’ attached to the studio where she provides sexualised services but not actual sex to met who pay a flat rate on the door and then pick their particular activities off the menu inside.

Meanwhile, delivery driver Ken lives a lonely and miserable existence with his hedonistic mother who rolls in drunk early in the morning and constantly badgers her son for money. Ken would like to better himself and escape his dreadful living conditions, but his mother disagrees and disapproves of him spending his money on online courses rather than giving it all to her. Ken’s mother is also in trouble with the same loanshark gangsters which (secretly) run Misa’s club.

The third plot strand follows high school girl Rie and her lonely father who looks after grandpa at home and tries to reconnect with his daughter but can’t seem to get through to her. Rie chases a delinquent boyfriend she fantasises about trapping through pregnancy before getting herself mixed up with gangsters and embroiled in the same world as Misa but with no one looking out for her.

The strongest theme which runs through the film is that of familial breakdown. All of the protagonists come from one parent families in which the remaining parent has largely failed in their responsibilities. Though this seemingly deliberate approach is unfortunate in playing into the stigma surrounding atypical families, it is certainly true that none of the young people has any access to support from the older generation. Misa’s father had long been abusive even before her mother died, gambling the family money away betting on the horses and spending his life at home drinking. Now seemingly reformed (though not perhaps free of gambling), he wants to try again but it may already be too late.

Similarly, Rie’s father does his best – coming home from work on time, cooking proper meals, and trying to take an interest but he can’t get through to his angry teenage daughter and is also preoccupied by the need to care for his aged, bedridden father. In a strange coincidence he ends up visiting Misa’s underground idol bar where he takes a liking to Misa precisely because she looks a little bit like Rie. Nicknamed Yama-chan by the girls, Rie’s father’s attempts to forge a connection with a look-a-like of his own daughter take on a painfully tender quality of muddled, misdirected affection but a quick look around the rest of the club makes plain it’s not so far removed from the massage parlour as one might think. One of the other regular patrons is a colleague of Ken’s who seems to have little else in his life apart from underground idols, spending his life in the club buying false connection through Polaroid photos and handshakes. What the girls are selling isn’t sex but (false) kindness, providing a facsimile of the love each of these disconnected men is seeking but either thinks themselves unworthy of or is unable to find out in the “real” world.

Ken looks down on these men, he doesn’t understand why they waste their lives in vacuous pursuits of empty pleasure, but his own life, which has been more or less ruined by his irresponsible mother, holds little pleasure of its own. Reading books about mass killings and inspired by the 2008 mass murder, Ken repeatedly makes nuisance phone calls to the police station which arrested the killer threatening to commit a similar crime himself. Flat broke, abandoned, evicted, and with no future possibilities it’s little wonder he feels as backed into a corner as he does but Ken’s final, raw phone call in which the policeman on the other end tries to reassure him that hope does exist proves the last straw in his ever fracturing mental state.

In trying to answer the question why someone might want to kill others, Matsumoto does indeed blame noise. Misa, in giving a painful to camera interview looking back on the massacre reveals that she took all of her anger and internalised it, hurting herself rather than others. Ken, by contrast, seems to burn with rage permanently on the brink of explosion. Rie tries to find the peace she couldn’t find in her own family by starting a new one but is extremely deluded by her choice of mate and then deluded once again by a man faking kindness but thinking only of commerce. All of this desperation – the exploitation, the gangsters, the dire economic prospects of neglected children, conspire to push the already strained closer to the edge, believing that harming others will make them feel better through a strange kind of social revenge. Matsumoto’s Akihabara pulses to beat of synth strings and idol pop, though its soundscape is not one of freedom and joy but anxiety and depression as the city’s disenfranchised youth marches towards its dead end future with no hope in sight.

Screened at Raindance 2017

Original trailer (no subtitles)