Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rakugo Monogatari (落語物語, Shinpei Hayashiya, 2011)

program_rakugoWhen it comes to the classic Japanese art forms, kabuki, noh and maybe even bunraku are not so uncommon overseas. Rakugo, however, has not been as lucky. Famously impenetrable for non-native speakers even if their language skills are otherwise top notch, rakugo is the art of traditional comic story telling in which the “rakugo-ka” recites a standard monologue with the aim of mining it for laughs in their own individual fashion. These stories date back to the Edo-era and rely heavily on classic Japanese puns, stock characters and cultural assumptions, consequently, their appeal has been on the wane in Japan for sometime. That’s not to say the art form is quite dead yet though, as real life rakugo-ka Shinpei Hayashiya’s Rakugo Monogatari attempts to prove.

The film begins as youngster Masato catches a Rakugo act and becomes immediately smitten. Hoping to become the disciple of a top master, he parks himself outside the house of Kozaru but is too shy to actually knock on the door. Luckily, Kozaru’s wife arrives home and spots Masato waiting outside. She’s a sharp woman and immediately guesses what Masato’s after so she invites him inside to meet her husband. Kozaru is a bit of a strange man but with a fantastic sense of humour and eventually agrees to take the young hopeful on as his pupil. There will be laughter and tears along the way but Masato is well on the road to achieving his rakugo dreams.

Created by real life rakugo comedian and occasional actor Shinpei Hayashiya, Rakugo Monogatari certainly has the air of authenticity. For a film that’s about an apprentice, we don’t really see a lot of direct training scenes (though there are some) and, in fact, we don’t spend all of our time on the hopeful Masato. After he starts to make some headway, the canvas widens a little to look at the arcane institution of the rakugo association and in particular its reaction to the decision of one of its female members to pursue a career in television which is taking her away from her rakugo roots. The position of female rakugo performers is briefly touched on as, though there are at least two highly proficient female rakugo-ka active on these stages, one of the other association members proclaims that he feels “uncomfortable” with a woman reciting this material at an important event. He says this right in front of an apparently high ranking female member of the association who looks rightfully non-plussed (and in general she is not a woman to be crossed lightly) before trying to back track. The younger female rakugo-ka eventually gets to perform but then has her profile immediately undermined by a personal scandal that would probably not have much effect on a male star’s career.

Hayashiya does give in to melodrama in the third quarter though he largely even manages to work a few laughs into a tragic situation. The other thread of the film is the warm and solid relationship between Kozaru and his wife Aoi, which is filled with a sort of bickering, reciprocal humour as the two become surrogate parents to the nervous Masato. In an odd sort of way it’s Aoi who lends the heart to the film and though her role is purely supportive, she provides the firm foundations which allow her husband and his new apprentice to flourish in their own careers.

A perfect tribute to the art of rakugo, Rakugo Monogatari is an affectionate comedy celebrating all sides of its famously complicated world. Though it runs a little long and has a tendency to run off the point for a while (perhaps an intentional complication), Rakugo Monogatari nevertheless proves an enjoyable foray into the world of this declining art form and finds plenty left to enjoy while it’s there.