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)

Perfect Revolution (パーフェクト・レボリューション, Junpei Matsumoto, 2017)

Perfect Revolution posterIf there is one group consistently underrepresented in cinema, it surely those living with disability. Even the few films which feature disabled protagonists often focus solely on the nature of their conditions, emphasising their suffering or medical treatment at the expense of telling the story of their lives. Junpei Matsumoto’s Perfect Revolution (パーフェクト・レボリューション) which draws inspiration from the real life experiences of Yoshihiko Kumashino – a Japanese man born with cerebral palsy who operates a not for profit organisation promoting awareness of sexual needs among the disabled community, makes a criticism of the aforementioned approach a central pillar of its narrative. Unlike many on-screen depictions of disabled people, Perfect Revolution attempts to reflect the normality of life with a disability whilst never shying away from some of the difficulties and the often hostile attitude from an undereducated society.

Kumashiro (Lily Franky), a man in his mid-40s, was born with cerebral palsy and has been using a wheelchair for most of his life. An activist for disabled rights, he’s written a book about his experiences and is keen to address the often taboo subject of sexuality among disabled people. Kumashiro has long since given up on the idea of romance or of forming a “normal” relationship leading to marriage and children but his life changes when a strange pink-haired woman barges into his book signing and demands to know why he’s always talking about sex but never about love. Kumashiro thinks about her question and answers fairly (if not quite honestly as he later reveals) that he doesn’t yet know what love is but is just one of many hoping to find out. This impresses the woman who approaches him afterwards and then refuses to leave him alone. Ryoko (Nana Seino), asking to be known as “Mitsu” (which means “honey” in Japanese – a nice paring with “Kuma” which means “bear”), suddenly declares she’s fallen in love with Kumashiro, whom she nicknames Kumapi.

The elephant in the room is that there is clearly something a little different about Mitsu whose brash, loud manner runs from childishly endearing to worryingly reckless. Mitsu is a sex worker at a “soapland” (a brothel disguised as a bathhouse in which the customer is “washed” by an employee) and sees nothing particularly wrong in her choice of occupation though recognises that other people look down on her because of it – something which she doesn’t quite understand and is constantly exasperated by. Perhaps offensively, she sees her own position as a woman (and a sex worker) as akin to being “disabled” in the kind of social stigma she faces but does not identify as being disabled in terms of her undefined mental health problems beyond accepting that she is “different” and has not been able to integrate into “regular” society. Nevertheless, she believes herself to be at one with Kumashiro in his struggle and is determined to foster the “perfect revolution” with him to bring about true happiness for everyone everywhere.

Thankfully Kumashiro is surrounded by supportive friends and family who are keen to help him manage on his own rather than trying to run his life for him but he does regularly encounter less sympathetic people from a drunken couple who decide to lay into him in a restaurant to a well meaning religious woman who runs after Kumashiro to tell him how “inspired” she feels just looking at him before trying to thrust money into his purse. Mitsu’s problems are less immediately obvious but her loud, volatile behaviour is also a problem for many in conformist Japan as is her straightforwardness and inability to understand the rules of her society. Mitsu has no one to look after her save a fortune teller (Kimiko Yo) who has become a surrogate mother figure, but it is a problem that no one has thought to talk to her about seeing a doctor even when her behaviour turns violent or veers towards self-harm.

Despite their struggles to be seen as distinct individuals, both Kumashiro and Mitsu are often reduced simply to their respective “differences”. Kumashiro does a lot of publicity for his book but is exasperated by well-meaning photographers who ask, tentatively, if they can photograph just his hands – literally reducing him to his disability. An “inspirational” TV documentary strand is also interested in interviewing Kumashiro and Mitsu, but only because of the “unusual” quality of their relationship. It quickly becomes apparent to Kumashiro that the documentarians aren’t interested in documenting his life so much as constructing a narrative around “damaged” outsiders that viewers can feel sorry for. Fearing that Kumashiro looks too cheerful, the producers ask him to remove his makeup and colourful clothing whilst explaining to Mitsu that they don’t want her to talk about sex work in a positive manner and would prefer it if she used a more acceptable euphemism rather than calling it what it is. Mitsu doesn’t realise she’s been had, but Kumashiro leaves the shoot feeling humiliated and annoyed.

Matsumoto does his best to present the issues sensitively, never patronising either Kumashiro or Mitsu but depicting them as real people with real faults just living their lives like everybody else. Neatly avoiding the classic Hollywood, happy ever after ending he emphases that there is still a long way to go but it is unfortunate that Mitsu’s situation is treated more lightly than it deserves and that her eventual desire to get treatment is undermined by the film’s liberated ending which is, nevertheless, inspirational as Kumashiro and Mitsu both commit themselves to the “perfect revolution” of a better, happier future both for themselves and for all mankind.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Swaying Mariko (たまゆらのマリ子, Koji Segawa, 2017)

Swaying mariko posterJapanese indie has moved on of late, no longer content with deconstructing the modern family it now wants to take a good look at the modern marriage though Koji Segawa’s Swaying Mariko (たまゆらのマリ子, Tamayura no Mariko), for all of its copious darkness, may be a much more positive vision than might at first be thought. A tale of one woman’s gradual downward spiral into a world of violence, paranoia, and perversion Swaying Mariko’s Tokyo is one of icy silences and magnified spaces between people which seem to defy the otherwise cramped city streets. Loneliness and isolation are the twin forces which drive this spiral of resentment and anger but self-inflicted wounds quickly look for vengeance, usually in all the wrong places.

Mariko (Chise Ushio) is an ordinary middle-aged housewife with a young son, Riku, and an increasingly distant husband, Tomoharu (Keita Yamashina). By day, she works at a batting centre which is less a place for aspiring baseball players to practice their swings than for angry young men who want to hit things very hard. Consequently, her workplace is often unpleasant but aside from the aggressive conduct of the customers, her creepy boss has been making a point of sexually harassing her when not peeping on the girls’ changing rooms or actively having casual sex with one of Mariko’s colleagues in the rec-room. Convinced Tomoharu is having an affair, she takes to stalking him – on foot and online, even deciding to set up CCTV so she can spy on him when he invites an old uni friend to the house when he knows she’ll be out.

Mariko is not the only one, everybody (save perhaps her “babbling” workmate) seems to be gently seething with repressed rage. The batting cages are full of strung out salarymen in suits who are keen to raise their voices and gesture threateningly at timid employees who are very definitely not employed to be substitute softballs for their verbal bats. Mariko’s coping mechanism is her ascerbic interior monologue in which she passes judgement on everyone and everything, making the fair point that her image conscious colleague who won’t date short guys even if they’re rich probably isn’t going to bag a wealthy husband by providing sexual favours to the seedy boss at a rundown batting centre.

Rebuffing the timid colleague’s attempts to connect, Mariko repeatedly telephones a friend from a previous job who refuses all her calls. It seems Mariko has no other friends or family to turn to and is entirely alone with her marital worries which have placed a wedge between herself and her husband. The woman who never answers her calls along with another former colleague becomes a kind of inner chorus voicing Mariko’s own constant thoughts of inadequacy – that her friends don’t like her, that her husband no longer finds her attractive, and that she is a woman with no possible future to look forward to.

Mariko’s fantasy revenge is violent, bloody, and grotesque but possibly not so much as the fact that she actively gets off on savouring its taste. Tellingly, her temporary madness seems to be a common phenomenon as the salesman seems to know when Mariko attempts to buy the sharpest knife he has available and he wonders if he should sell it to her. A violent encounter sends Mariko reeling into a kind of maddening dance in which she decides to throw off all semblance of civility and behaves without restraint – hindering rather than helping an ungrateful woman, joining in with a dance in the street, throwing a bucket over the head of a stranger. When she sees violence being done on a seemingly innocent boy by a pack of thugs she doesn’t intervene but watches, catching up to one of the perpetrators to make him a surprising offer.

Mariko’s madness may be real or imagined but it’s far from an isolated case. Tomoharu’s secrets weren’t the ones she expected and were, in part, caused by her own suspicions and determined silence. Mariko may hate her part-time job (at least this current one) but her husband’s suggestion she give it up to be a full time wife and mother has her inwardly seething, her husband apparently reduced to a shivering coward by the temerity of a woman seeking fulfilment outside as well as inside the home. Ultimately their problems amount to a series of misunderstandings which can only be cleared up by a full and frank discussion the like of which is culturally taboo. Mariko may look like she’s exorcised a demon after dancing through her mad fever dream, but if she did then it perhaps migrated rather than disappeared, eagerly waiting to pounce on the next lonely soul being squeezed in the urban wringer.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!, Atsuko Hirayanagi, 2017)

Oh Lucy! posterDespite its rich dramatic seam, the fate of the lonely, long serving Japanese office lady approaching the end of the career she either sacrificed everything for or ended up with by default has mostly been relegated to a melancholy subplot – usually placing her as the unrequited love interest of her oblivious soon to be retiring bachelor/widower boss. Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon was perhaps the best recent attempt to bring this story centre stage in its neat contrasting of the loyal employee about to be forcibly retired by her unforgiving bosses and the slightly younger woman who decides she’ll have her freedom even if she has to do something crazy to get it, but Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!) is a more straightforward tale of living with disappointment and temporarily deluding oneself into thinking there might be an easier way out than simply facing yourself head on.

Middle-aged office lady Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is the office old bag. Unpopular, she keeps herself aloof from her colleagues, refusing the sweets a lovely older lady (herself somewhat unpopular but for the opposite reasons) regularly brings into the office, and bailing on after hours get togethers. Her life changes one day when the man behind her on a crowded station platform grabs Setsuko’s chest and says goodbye before hurling himself in front of the train. Such is life.

Taking some time off work she gets a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) to meet her in the dodgy maid cafe in which she has been working. Mika has a proposition for her – having recently signed up for a year’s worth of non-refundable English classes, Mika would rather do something else with the money and wonders if she could “transfer” the remainder onto Setsuko. Despite her tough exterior Setsuko is something of a soft touch and agrees but is surprised to find the “English School” seems to be located in room 301 of a very specific brothel. John (Josh Hartnett), her new teacher, who has a strict English only policy, begins by giving Setsuko a large hug before issuing her a blonde wig and rechristening her “Lucy”. Through her English lesson, “Lucy” also meets another man in the same position “Tom” (Koji Yakusho) – a recently widowed, retired detective now working as a security consultant. Setsuko is quite taken with her strange new hobby, and is heartbroken to realise Mika and John are an item and they’ve both run off to America.

Setsuko’s journey takes her all the way to LA with her sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), desperate to sort her wayward daughter out once and for all. As different as they are, Ayako and Setsuko share something of the same spikiness though Setsuko’s cruel streak is one she deeply regrets and only allows out in moments of extreme desperation whereas a prim sort of bossiness appears to be Ayako’s default. Setsuko’s Tokyo life is one of embittered repression, having been disappointed in love she keeps herself isolated, afraid of new connections and contemptuous of her colleagues with their superficial attitudes and insincere commitment to interoffice politeness. Suicide haunts her from that first train station shocker to the all too common “delays caused by an incident on the line” and the sudden impulsive decision caused by unkind words offered at the wrong moment.

“Lucy” the “relaxed” American blonde releases Setsuko’s better nature which had been only glimpsed in her softhearted agreeing to Mika’s proposal and decision to allow Ayako to share her foreign adventure. John’s hug kickstarted something of an addiction, a yearning for connection seemingly severed in Setsuko’s formative years but if “Lucy” sees John as a symbol of American freedoms – big, open, filled with possibilities, his homeland persona turns out to be a disappointment. Just like the maid’s outfit Setsuko finds in John’s wardrobe, John’s smartly bespectacled English teacher is just a persona adopted in a foreign land designed to part fools from their money. Still, Setsuko cannot let her delusion die and continues to see him as something of a saviour, enjoying her American adventure with girlish glee until it all gets a bit a nasty, desperate, and ultimately humiliating.

Having believed herself to have only two paths to the future – being “retired” like the office grandma, pitied by the younger women who swear they’ll never end up like her (much as Setsuko might have herself), or making a swift exit from a world which has no place for older single women, Setsuko thought she’d found a way out only to have all of her illusions shattered all at once. “Lucy” showed her who she really was, and it wasn’t very pretty. Still, even at this late stage Setsuko can appreciate the irony of her situation. That first hug that seemed so forced and awkward, an insincere barrier to true connection, suddenly finds its rightful destination and it looks like Setsuko’s train may finally have come in.


Screened at Raindance 2017

Expanded from Atsuko Hirayanagi’s 2014 short which starred Kaori Momoi.

Clip (English subtitles)

Oh Lucy! To Open Raindance 2017

Oh Lucy still oneLondon’s Raindance International Film Festival returns from 20th September to 1st October 2017 with the best of recent independent cinema from across the world. East Asian titles have been thin on the ground for the past few years, but this time around Japan in particular is back with a vengeance.

oh lucy still 3The festival will open with Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Cannes sleeper hit Oh Lucy! which stars Shinobu Terajima as a 55 year old woman trapped in a boring office job who discovers a whole new side to herself after being given a blonde wig and the alternate identity of Lucy by an unorthodox English teacher (played by Josh Hartnett) whom she later becomes obsessed with.


boys for saleThe only feature documentary on the list, Boys for Sale takes a look at the young men who have sex with men for money in Tokyo’s red light district. Produced by frequent Raindance guest Ian Thomas Ash (A2-B-C, -1278), this innovative documentary mixes animation and straight to camera interviews to explore the various reasons why these young men have made a decision to work as “boys” and the nature of their lives in this hidden part of Tokyo nightlife.


ghost roads poster.jpgA haunted guitar amp promises a struggling musician everything he’s ever dreamed of in Ghostroads: A Japanese Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost Story!


junkhead still 1It has been centuries since humanity’s clones rebelled and went to live underground. Now an intrepid band of humans must venture into their world to investigate the the fate of the self exiled creatures in Takahide Hori’s impressive stop motion animation, Junk Head.


love and other cultsEiji Uchida’s Love and Other Cults receives its UK premiere at Raindance. The story of a young girl’s journey through cult devotee to mixed up kid and a life in the adult entertainment industry, Love and Other Cults is the latest Uchida/Third Window Films production. Review.


mukoku horizontal.jpgKazuyoshi Kumakiri (My Man, Sketches of Kaitan City, Antenna) returns with a tale of familial love and kendo in Mukoku as Go Ayano puts down his sword following a traumatic incident and proceeds to waste his life drinking and working as a security guard until a chance meeting with a talented high schooler shakes him out of his malaise.


noise posterYusaku Matsumoto’s Noise takes place eight years after a killing spree as three residents of Akihabara including the daughter of a murdered woman, an underground idol, and a delivery driver attempt to find meaning in their lives.


Perfect Revolution still one.jpgIn Junpei Matsumoto’s Perfect Revolution, Lily Franky plays a man with cerebral palsy who is an activist for the sexual rights of disabled people and falls in love with a sex worker who suffers from a personality disorder.


swaying mariko still 1Ordinary housewife Mariko is married to a younger man with whom she has a son, but Tomoharu is often away from home and she is beginning to believe he is having an affair. Meanwhile, her manager harasses her at work and the customers are constantly rude. Under such strains, Mariko’s perception of reality starts to disintegrate in Koji Segawa’s indie drama Swaying Mariko.


The foolish bird still 1.jpgThe only non-Japanese East Asian film on offer is Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka’s The Foolish Bird – a story of a “left behind child” forced to bring herself up in an unforgiving Chinese village.


The Raindance International Film Festival takes place at Vue West End from 20th September to 1st October and tickets are already on sale via the official website.

A Double Life (二重生活 , Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2016)

double-lifeA Double Life (二重生活, Nijyuu Seikatsu ), the debut feature from director Yoshiyuki Kishi adapted from Mariko Koike’s novel, could easily be subtitled “a defence of stalking with indifference”. As a philosophical experiment in itself, it recasts us as the voyeur, watching her watching him, following our oblivious heroine as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the act of observance. Taking into account the constant watchfulness of modern society, A Double Life has some serious questions to ask not only of the nature of existence but of the increasing connectedness and its counterpart of isolation, the disconnect between the image and reality, and how much  the hidden facets of people’s lives define their essential personality.

Tama (Mugi Kadowaki) is an MA philosophy student working on a thesis regarding the nature of existence in contemporary Japan. Discussing her work with her supervisor, Shinohara (Lily Franky), Tama reveals that she was drawn to her subject because she is unable to understand why she herself is alive. Her proposal was largely based on the tried and tested method of a survey but Shinohara is hoping for something more original. Catching sight of a Sophie Calle book on his desk, he suggests that Tama’s project might benefit from examining the life of one subject in depth and so he tasks her with following a random person and observing their daily activities in order to figure out what makes them tick.

Tama is conflicted, but when she catches sight of her neighbour at a book shop she makes an impulsive decision to follow him which will later develop into an all consuming obsession. Ishizaka (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a successful editor at a high profile publishing house with a pretty wife, cute daughter and lovely home just over the way from the apartment Tama lives in with her illustrator and game designer boyfriend, Takuya (Masaki Suda). However, while following Ishizaka to a local coffee shop Tama catches him illicitly meeting another woman. Not quite believing what she sees, Tama’s obsession with her target continues to grow until the fateful day that her cover is finally blown.

Tama, and her supervisor, both regard the exercise as essentially harmless because all Tama is supposed to do is observe. The nature of her experiment means that she must remain unseen so that the subject does not change his or her behaviour but Tama quickly becomes a passive observer to an unpleasant domestic episode when Ishizaka’s wife discovers the affair. Tama is, always, a passive presence. As she says herself, she carries a deep-seated sense of emptiness that prevents her from fully connecting with other people. Her stalking activities, however, reawaken a sense of connectedness that she had been unable to find in her everyday life.

While Tama is watching Ishizaka, she herself is also being watched. Firstly, of course, by us, but also by the busybody landlady whose obsession with the proper way to dispose of rubbish has led to her installing spy cameras to capture the offending tenants on film. Of course, the cameras capture a lot of other stuff too which, when used alongside other forms of evidence, paint a slightly different picture. The old lady is a classic curtain twitcher, albeit one with access to more sophisticated equipment, and looms big brother-like over her tiny domain, the possessor and disseminator of all information. Tama’s rules mean she must not be seen, but someone is always watching, collecting information to be repurposed and repackaged at the convenience of the collector.

Cameras capture images but humans conjure pictures. From the outside, the Ishizakas are the perfect model family – a successful husband, warm and friendly housewife who is quick to get involved in community events, and a lovely, well behaved little daughter. As we find out Ishizaka is not the committed family man which he first seems. After treating all of the women in his life extremely badly, Ishizaka adds Tama to his list after the affair is exposed and his life ruined. Tama was only ever a passive observer whose presence had no effect on the narrative, yet Ishizaka blames his predicament on her rather than address the fact the situation is entirely his own fault. He does, however, have a point when he accuses Tama of exploiting his secrets for her own gain.

Tama’s observations are limited to the public realm and so she’s left with a lot of unknown data making her conclusions less than reliable. The gap between her perception and the reality becomes even more apparent once she begins observing the life of her supervisor, Shinohara. In an elliptical fashion, the film begins with Shinohara’s presumed suicide attempt and for much of the first half we seem him struggle with the grief of his mother’s terminal illness. This again turns out to be not quite as it seems, undermining Tama’s whole research proposal as her conclusions on Shinohara’s reason for living were based on a deliberately constructed scenario.

Ironically enough, Tama’s attempts to connect eventually ruin her own relationship as she finds herself living “a double life” as a vicarious voyeur. Abandoning her sense of self and living through her subjects, Tama begins to connect with the world around her but it’s more overlapping than a true union of souls in which she becomes a passive receptacle for someone else’s drama. Hers is the life of a double, shadowy and incomplete. Take away a man’s life lie and you take away his happiness, so Ibsen told us. Tama would seem to come a similar conclusion, that the essence of life may lie in these petty secrets and projected images. An intriguing philosophical text in itself, A Double Life is an intense look at modern society and all of its various artifices which marks Kishi out as a promising new cinematic voice.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)