Shape of Red (Red, Yukiko Mishima, 2020)

“This isn’t A Doll’s House” the heroine of Yukiko Mishima’s Shape of Red (Red) is exasperatedly told by a well-meaning colleague, only in many ways it sort of is. Adapted from the novel by Rio Shimamoto, Shape of Red proves that not all that much has changed since Nora slammed the door on the patriarchal hypocrisies of a conventional marriage as its not quite middle-aged wife and mother is confronted by the weight of her choices, wondering if a dull yet secure middle-class life is worth the sacrifice of personal fulfilment. 

32-year-old Toko (Kaho) gave up a career in architecture to marry upperclass salaryman Shin (Shotaro Mamiya) and is now a housewife and mother to six-year-old daughter Midori. The marriage is unhappy only in the most ordinary of ways, leaving Toko feeling neglected and unfulfilled, treated as a servant in her own home expected to fulfil her husband’s needs while her own go unsatisfied. That is perhaps why she wanders off from a work gathering her husband has dragged her to (in the outfit he picked out for her to wear) into a more interesting party where she re-encounters an old flame who abruptly drags her into an unoccupied room for a rough and unexpected embrace. Leaving the party together for a walk along the beach, Toko fills Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki) in on the past 10 years, lying through her teeth that she’s blissfully happy though admitting that she would have liked to continue with her career. 

Meeting Kurata either awakens a dormant sense of desire in the otherwise button-down Toko, or merely gives her permission to pursue it. She plucks up the courage to tell the less than enthusiastic Shin that she wants to go back to work and takes a job at Kurata’s company where the pair grow closer, but struggles to decide what it is she really wants – the “traditional” housewife life she picked when she married Shin, or the right to fulfil her individual desires. Shin, it has to be said, is an unreconstructed chauvinist from a conservative background who runs all of his major life decisions by his parents. He told Toko he was fine with her continuing to work after marriage but didn’t really mean it, coming up with excuses why she shouldn’t even though Midori is now in regular school. He tells her she can give work a go, but views it as little more than a hobby he assumes she’ll fail, later instructing her to stop because his parents want a second grandchild and, tellingly, he would like a son. Toko, meanwhile, is beginning to feel trapped but conflicted, convincing herself this is the life that she should want while simultaneously accepting that it makes her miserable. 

A third potential man at her place of work, Kodaka (Tasuku Emoto), also quite sexist and a little bit creepy but perhaps ironically so, strikes at the heart of the matter in bringing up her family background. Like seemingly everyone else, she grew up without a father because her parents are divorced, something she’s kept a secret from her conservative in-laws. Toko’s far less conventional mother (Kimiko Yo), sick of keeping up the pretence, brands her daughter’s life choices as “pathetic”, disappointed that she’s deluding herself she’s happy “living a lie” with a man she doesn’t even love.

Yet as fiercely as her newly awaked desire burns, she isn’t convinced by Kurata. Kodaka tells her that she and Kurata are two of a pair, off in their own worlds not really caring about anything, while pointing out that if Kurata has an empty space inside him he refuses to let anyone fill then the reason she sees it is that she does too. The pair work together symbolically rebuilding an imagined future through designing their idealised home, Toko eventually deciding that the windows need to be bigger because she wants to see more, literally broadening her horizons. What she’s deciding is that she wants more of life, but struggles to free herself of the old patriarchal ideas which convince her she’s betraying something by choosing herself. 

Once upon a time, a film like Shape of Red might have punished its heroine for her pursuit of passion, pushing her back towards a life of traditional respectability in forcing her to accept her maternity at the cost of her personal happiness or accept that her only freedom lies in death. Times have changed, if not as much as you’d think. You still can’t have it all, a choice has to be made and largely the choice is the same as Nora’s – stay and live the lie, or leave and accept that social censure is the price of authenticity. “I’ve a feeling we’ll be trapped like this forever” Toko exclaims driving down a seemingly endless tunnel lit by the warm red glow of security lights. Sooner or later you have to choose where you want to live, the superficially cosy show home with tiny windows and no soul, or the drafty opportunity of a room with a view opening out onto wide open vistas of infinite possibility.


Shape of Red is available to stream in Germany from June 9 to 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. It was also due to be screened as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema prior to its suspension.

International trailer (English subtitles)

My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.


My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Eisuke Naito, 2018)

(C)押切蓮介/双葉社 (C)2017「ミスミソウ」製作委員会

Liverleaf poster“How have things turned out this way?” Asks the heroine of Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Misumisou) after receiving a poignant (non)explanation for the cause of all her sufferings. Adolescence is cruel at the best of times, but when you’re stuck in a tiny no horse town with nothing to do, violence can become an easy pastime. The kids of Liverleaf take the art of bullying to all new heights, stopping not at humiliation, ostracisation, or conspiratorial acts of emotional ruin but allowing their petty games to run all the way to arson and murder.

Haruka (Anna Yamada), unlike most of her classmates, is a relatively new resident of a small rural town where she and her family have moved for her father’s job. Her only friend at school, and the only one to stand up for her against the gang of popular kids making her life a misery, is another transfer student, Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), living alone with his grandmother for mysterious reasons. The usual high school girl tricks of making another girl feel unwelcome – stolen shoes, name calling, silent stalking etc eventually progress into direct violence at which point her father (Masahiro Toda) tries to go to the school to complain. Unfortunately, Haruka’s teacher (Aki Morita) is an almost absent, hollow source of authority who cannot control the kids and nor does she try. She tells Haruka’s dad that as the school will be closing down at the end of the academic year it’s hardly the time to make waves and she sees no need to get involved in such trivial matters. Matters come to a head when the kids, egging each other on, set fire to Haruka’s house with her mother (Reiko Kataoka), father, and little sister Shoko (Sena Tamayori) trapped inside.

It’s true enough to say Haruka reacted to her bullying in the way that society expects – she kept her head down and tried to put up with it without making a fuss. Some may read Liverleaf as a tale of vengeance, but it isn’t. As passive as she’s always been, Haruka’s acts of violence are a matter of extreme self defence. She doesn’t go looking for the ones who’ve done her wrong, but they come looking for her and thereafter pay a heavy price for their continued campaign of subjugation.

Haruka became an easy subject for bullying because she was a literal outsider – Aiba escaped this particular fate through being male, conventionally attractive, and with a confidence and maturity which set him apart from the bratty kids trying to prove their status by belittling others. Once Haruka decides to sit out the rest of the school term rather than put up with constant torment, she activates an extreme chain of events when the next likely target, a strange girl with a stammer (Rena Ohtsuka), decides to do whatever it takes to become one of the bullies rather than their latest victim. Morality goes out the window when fear takes over and some will to whatever it takes to make sure it’s someone else in the firing line rather than themselves.

Yet for all the fear and violence, there’s another, perhaps more interesting, story buried under all the senseless bloodletting. It’s not so much that teenage emotions are running wild, but that they barely have them at all and those they do have find no available outlet. Romantic jealousy spirals out of control, turning in on itself as love denied masquerades as hate. Unable to freely voice their innermost anxieties, the kids take their resentments out on each other, getting their kicks through cruel games which bind them with complicity in the absence of real feeling.

Naito attempts to lend an air of realism to the increasingly bizarre middle school warfare but cannot escape the manga origins of his source material. The violence itself is cartoonish and absurd, but there’s also an unpleasant layer of fetishisation which takes over as the blood starts flowing, almost revelling in acts of extreme cruelty as a young man exults in beating the face of a young girl to a bloody pulp. Unremittingly bleak, Liverleaf makes a bid for pathos in its closing coda as it takes us back to a case of ruined friendships and broken dreams but it can’t overcome the uneasy stylisation of all that’s gone before in swapping emptiness for wistful melancholy.


Liverleaf screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 8th July, 7pm with director Eisuke Naito in attendance for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Kamikaze Taxi (Masato Harada, 1995)

Kamikaze Taxi DVD coverAlmost 25 years later, Masato Harada’s post-bubble critique of a society failing to deal with its traumatic past feels oddly relevant. Xenophobia, misogyny, class oppression, and political corruption are far from unique problems but find fertile ground in a society in flux in which recent economic trauma has forced tensions to the fore. 1994 was a period of marked political chaos in which a corruption scandal had brought down a Prime Minister while the country debated electoral reform and attempted to deal with the ongoing recession, finding itself caught between the problems of past and future as the Showa era legacy continued to gnaw at the promise of Heisei.

Lowly goon Tatsuo (Kazuya Takahashi) has been charged with finding girls for corrupt politician Domon (Taketoshi Naito), but his world is turned inside out when Domon badly beats a prostitute leading his girlfriend Renko, a madam, to kick up a fuss which eventually gets her killed by sadistic mob boss Animaru (Mickey Curtis). Insensitively ordered to dispose of Renko’s body, Tatsuo’s resentment intensifies until he is shouldered with caring for the injured prostitute, Tama (Reiko Kataoka), who tells him that Domon keeps a large amount of cash hidden in his house. Seeing a chance to escape from the yakuza world whilst getting revenge on everyone involved in the death of Renko, Tatsuo enlists a few of his trusted guys and stages a heist. It goes badly wrong, leaving everyone except Tatsuo dead.

Meanwhile, on the run, Tatsuo gets a lift from Peruvian returnee Kantake (Koji Yakusho) now working as a taxi driver after being unable to find any other kind of work in the middle of a recession in a society not always welcoming of overseas workers. Although he was born in Japan and spent most of his childhood in the country, Kantake’s grasp of the language has become corrupted and he finds himself unable to communicate in his “homeland” despite being “Japanese”. Even without verbal communication, the two men bond and Kantake returns to collect Tatsuo despite becoming aware of his gangster past, forging a kind of brotherhood in their shared outsider status.

When Tatsuo is first introduced to Domon, the first thing he asks him is if he is “fully Japanese”. Domon “hopes” he is, but has his doubts because his name “sounds a bit Korean”. Harada opens the film with some on screen testimony from migrant workers in Japan, some of whom are, like Kantake, of Japanese birth if raised overseas but nevertheless find themselves regarded as foreigners – turned down for housing and employment, cast out from regular mainstream society. In the bubble era when it was all hands to the wheel, the migrant workers were an essential part of a well functioning economy, but now the bubble’s burst and they are no longer “needed” as construction dwindles and the demand for casual labour decreases, men like Domon begin to suggest simply sending them all “home”. 

A fierce nationalist, Domon is also a misogynist whose sexual proclivities run to extreme violence. Sadly, his views are not so far from the mainstream as might be hoped – the heartless yakuza think nothing of silencing Renko and then disappearing her body, while Tama’s assault is something bought and paid for. On TV, Domon appears on a panel discussing the comfort woman issue and unsurprisingly refuses to acknowledge it while the increasingly exasperated female contributor points out that the use of comfort women was not only a state sponsored crime but a crime against women which speaks volumes about current social attitudes. Domon insists that the Japanese women who “served” as prostitutes overseas were soldiers, while the “foreign” women were soulless money hungry mercenaries who deserved everything they got. In his view, all of today’s problems are down to “selfish” career women who should get back in their boxes as quickly as possible so everything can go back to “normal”.

The wartime legacy hangs uncomfortably over modern Japan as ultra nationalists like Domon harp on about their time in service, exploiting their fallen comrades for personal and political gains. Kantake too, it seems, has fought in a war and is the son of a former kamikaze pilot of the kind despised by men like Domon who themselves have continued to live even in defeat. Drugs and foreign wars link two eras and two continents, not to mention two men, as Kantake reflects on the true “kamikaze” spirit as seen in the beautiful flight of the Condor coasting on the winds above the Andes. It is indeed a gust of wind which saves him as he decides to fulfil Tatsuo’s quest for vengeance, remaining true to their brotherly bond and attempting to wipe the slate clean by eliminating the corrupting forces which deny each of them the right to live as full members of their society. Asked for his life story by a dying man, Kantake begins to speak but all too quickly is urged to “forget about Showa” – a partial plea for making peace with the past, getting rid of nationalism, the yakuza, the hierarchical and patriarchal society in favour of something kinder and more honest built out of its ashes.


Kamikaze Taxi screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 1st July at 6pm plus Q&A with director Masato Harada.

HD re-release trailer (no subtitles)

Enokida Trading Post (榎田貿易堂, Ken Iizuka, 2018)

NC18_cinema_Enokida Trading Post_flyer_preview.jpegJapanese cinema is filled with tales of those who become disillusioned with city life and decide to go home to the country to start all over again. Almost always they start with failure and build to success as the hero or heroine gradually figures out what they want out of life and then how to make it happen. Enokida Trading Post (榎田貿易堂, Enokida Boekido), however, does things a little differently. Mr. Enokida (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) has been back in his home town for four years and has already built up a successful, if scrappy, business selling second hand goods. When the right hand side of the first character in Mr. Enokida’s name suddenly falls off the store’s sign one day without warning, Mr. Enokida knows something big, good or bad, is definitely on its way.

Both director Ken Iizuka and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa hail from the small country town, not coincidentally also called Shibukawa, in which the film is set. A tribute to rural life, Enokida Trading Post adopts the calming, laidback feel of many a Japanese tale of life in the village but that’s not to say it’s the sort of place where nothing much happens – quite the reverse in fact. When we first meet Mr. Enokida, he’s wandering into the local hair salon but he’s got more than just a quick trim on his mind. Aside from indulging in a little how’s your father with the middle-aged proprietress (Reiko Kataoka), he’s also picking up a few extra pennies from the curious little boy he’s allowed to watch from outside. The affair with hairdresser will eventually get him into a lot more trouble, but Mr. Enokida is the sort that finds trouble worth the prize so it’s mostly the people around him who will end up paying the price.

Enokida Trading Post has two other employees – Chiaki (Sairi Ito), a married woman experiencing some kind of problems at home, and Kiyohiko (Ryu Morioka) who seems to have an extreme aversion to answering the telephone. The gang are also joined by a hippyish older lady, Yoko (Kimiko Yo), who stops by to chat every now and then, and an old friend, Hagiwara (Kenichi Takito), also recently returned from Tokyo but apparently only for a few weeks while he finishes a screenplay.

Sex and gossip become the two main pastimes for the Enokida gang as Kiyohiko catches sight of Yoko in a compromising position with the old man who runs the local laundrette while Mr. Enokida has begun to worry that Chiaki may have become a victim of domestic violence. As it turns out Chiaki’s worries are of a quite different order which might explain why she keeps renting “racy” mainstream movies like Betty Blue and Eyes Wide Shut from the local DVD store and apparently watching them all alone.

In an attempt to solve some of their problems, the gang find themselves making a visit to “Chinpokan” which effectively means “willy museum” and is indeed filled with pieces of erotic art from classic shunga to a room full of wooden penises in various sizes. A visit to Chinpokan can it seems work wonders, but as soon as you solve one problem another arises and a surprising discovery is made regarding another local love story before a third suddenly spirals into violence, revenge, and murder! Even in peaceful Gunma, such things do indeed still happen – something which prompts Mr. Enokida into a another reassessment of his life choices as he ponders his role in events so far and tries to decide what his next move ought to be.

Mr. Enokida’s motto had always been that anything except for actual rubbish he could handle. Sadly, quite a lot of rubbish has just happened to him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. The revelations do however prompt each of his friends into opening up about their individual worries and finally finding the strength to face them head on to make some decisions of their own. Making the best use of the beautiful scenery and filled with the charms of small town life, Enokida Trading Post is another in the long line of relaxed rural adventures, effortlessly finding the strangeness of the everyday in the country while grounding its sense of absurd fun in the unique philosophy of Mr. Enokida and his variously troubled friends.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

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)

 

Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Joji Matsuoka, 2016)

midnight diner 2 posterThe Midnight Diner is open for business once again. Yaro Abe’s eponymous manga was first adapted as a TV drama in 2009 which then ran for three seasons before heading to the big screen and then again to the smaller one with the Netflix original Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories becoming the de facto season four. Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Zoku Shinya Shokudo) returns with more of the same as Master puts out his sign and opens the shop, welcoming the denizens of Tokyo after dark in search of a little place to call home amid all the chaos and alienation.

To re-cap, the Midnight Diner is a casual eating establishment run by Master which opens only between the hours of midnight and 7am. The restaurant has only a small formal menu but Master’s selling point is that he is prepared to make whatever the customer so desires (assuming the ingredients are available). Regulars and newcomers alike are given a warm welcome and a place to feel at home, free of whatever it was that was bothering them in the outside world.

Like the first film, Midnight Diner 2 is really three TV episodes stitched together. The first begins on an ominous note as each of the regulars arrives in mourning clothes only to be struck by the coincidence that they’ve each been to a different person’s funeral. A woman arrives dressed in black but reveals she hasn’t been bereaved, she simply enjoys dressing like this to destress from the difficult atmosphere at her publishing job. Noriko (Aoba Kawai) is a top editor but often finds herself sidelined – this time by a young author whose book she made a success but has now dumped her owing to all her notes on his second effort. Saddled with an elderly client who doesn’t like taking advice from a woman, Noriko’s fortunes fall still further when she finds him dead. A visit to a real funeral threatens to change her life completely.

Strand two follows the son of a nearby soba shop, Seita (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has fallen in love with a much older woman and wants to marry despite his mother’s reservations. The third segment continues along the familial theme with an old woman travelling all the way from Kyushu to Tokyo after falling victim to an “Ore Ore” scam.

Scams and parental bonds become the central themes tying the episodes together as each of the lovelorn protagonists finds themselves taking advantage of Master’s sturdy shoulders. Noriko and Mrs. Ogawa (Misako Watanabe) fall victim to an obvious conman but do so almost willingly out of their desperate loneliness. Noriko, dissatisfied with her working environment, takes to the streets dressed in black but becomes the target of “funeral fetishists” who are only interested in her “bereaved” state. A chance encounter at a real funeral makes her believe her life can change but she is deceived again when a man she came to care for is unmasked as a serial trickster. Mrs. Ogawa faces a similar problem when she races all the way to Tokyo to pay off a “colleague” of her son’s, so desperate to help that she never suspects that she’s fallen victim to a scam.

Mrs. Ogawa’s deep love for the son she has become estranged from is contrasted with that of the soba noodle seller for the son she can’t let go. Seita cares for nothing other than ping pong, much to his mother’s consternation and has little interest in taking over the family business. A young man, he’s tired of the constraints his lonely widowed mother continues to place on him though his determination to marry an older woman at such a young age bears out his relative maturity.

As usual Master has good advice and a kind word for everyone that helps them get where they need to go, softly nudging them in the right direction through the power of comfort food. By now the cast of familiars is well and truly entrenched but there will always be space at Master’s counter for those in need who will be greeted warmly by those already aware of its charms. True enough, Midnight Diner 2 offers little in the way of innovation (though we do get a little more information about the mysterious Master) but no one comes the Midnight Diner looking to try something new. In here, nostalgia rules and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア), Daisuke Miyazaki, 2016)

yamato (california) posterWhen you think of the American military presence in Japan, your mind naturally turns to Okinawa but the largest mainland US base is actually located not so far from Tokyo in a small Japanese town called Yamato which is also the ancient name for the modern-day country. The US has been a constant presence since the end of the second world war prompting resistance of varying degrees from both left and right either in resentment at perceived complicity in American foreign policy, or the desire to reform the pacifist constitution and rebuild an independent army capable of defending Japan alone. Daisuke Miyazaki’s second feature, Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア) dramatises this long-standing issue through exploring the life of hip-hop enthusiast and Yamato resident Sakura (Hanae Kan) who idolises an art form born of political oppression in a country which she also feels oppresses her as a Japanese citizen living on the other side of the fence from land which technically still belongs to the US government.

As the camera pans around a ruined landscape which turns out to be a junkyard, it eventually finds Sakura as she sits alone atop a pile of rubbish rapping about her existential misery, the hopelessness of her life, and her constant anxiety. Sakura has left high school but has no hopes, aspirations or plan. She works part-time at the eel restaurant owned by a family friend but he rarely has enough custom to need her help. Still living at home with her single mother (Reiko Kataoka) and older brother Kenzo in a cramped apartment where space is divided by a series of hanging sheets, Sakura is put out to learn that the half-Japanese daughter of her mother’s American G.I. boyfriend will be coming to stay. When Rei (Nina Endo) finally arrives, Sakura makes a point of ignoring her but the two eventually bond over a shared love of hip-hop and an awkward sense of recognition.

Tellingly, Rei’s (late) mother was from Okinawa – another reminder of the wider American presence, but her long absent father, Abby Goldman, is as distant a protector as America itself. Communicating only through handwritten letters, Abby is neither seen or heard but somehow believed in like an invisible god. Strangely, Rei asks Sakura what her father was like as if she’d never met him only for Sakura to awkwardly answer that he was somewhere between a bother, a friend, and a father but that she’s also grateful to him for introducing her to her beloved hip hop. Later she takes her mother to task on this same issue, Abby hasn’t visited in years and doesn’t even provide for them anymore yet he dispatches the daughter he rarely sees himself for them to care for instead. Abby, like America, offers little and takes much, at least in Sakura’s increasingly hotheaded assessment.

Sakura is quite clearly in a state of depression. Sullen and angry, she lashes out at all around her but is mostly at war with herself and understandably anxious about her future. Her mother and brother both understand this about her and are patient and understanding, naturally cheerful people faced with adversity. With no work to go to and the prospect of finding any slim, Sakura spends her time perfecting her rap technique and hanging out alone in an abandoned trailer in the woods. Despite dressing in the accepted rapper style of loose grey tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie Sakura is a poor fit for the world she’s chosen. Lyrical writing more suited to performance poetry or, as she later puts it, the avant-garde, doesn’t gel with the aggressive, mostly male posturing she sees from her peers yet Sakura is determined to make her way into this arena as a means of self-expression rather than any deluded idea of fame and fortune.

Rei, her American friend, eventually sparks an epiphany following a fiery argument during which she accuses Sakura of being nothing more than an American copycat, adopting a foreign art form to mask an insecurity in her own fragile identity. Rei, trying to get through to her knew friend, has pushed too deep and hit all the wrong nerves leading to a surreal sequence which finally sets Sakura off on a voyage of self discovery and results in a concerted vow of “independence” but also of rejoining the world, accepting others rather than refusing to engage, and stepping forward together but on an equal footing with no leaders and no followers.

Miyazaki’s balanced view does not shy away from the less pleasant aspects of his own society from the protest group which wanders through the frame carrying banners calling for the immediate expulsion of migrants from Asia, to a group of yankees throwing rocks at the homeless, and Kenzo’s straightforward remark that he’s only interested in meeting Rei if she’s pretty – according to him mixed-race Japanese girls often aren’t. Grey mixes with green as brutalist shopping malls break through the vegetation leaving even an errant pagoda entirely intact in the central square. Like Sakura’s own soul this is a land of contradictions and uneasy cross-pollinations but it doesn’t need to be as defeatist and unimaginative as a dated shopping mall, wasei hip-hop just might be the next big thing.


Yamato (California) was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hush! (ハッシュ!, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2001)

hushThe family drama is a mainstay of Japanese cinema, true, but, it’s a far wider genre than might be assumed. The rays fracture out from Ozu through to The Family Game and Crazy Family which sought to ask a few questions about where the idea of “family” was headed in a society of rapidly increasing materialism. Ryosuke Hashiguchi comes at the idea from a different angle in 2001’s Hush! (ハッシュ!) as he once again takes the perspective of the gay community and asks if the “traditional family” is about to change – what could, or should, survive if the old, rigid ideas can be remade into something lasting created out of love and acceptance rather than obligation?

As the film begins, Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) wakes up to find his one night stand already fully dressed and heading out the door, awkwardly, without even stopping to say goodbye. Eventually he hooks up with the kindly Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) and the two quickly become fairly serious but then a damaged woman, Asako (Reiko Kataoka), enters their lives hoping to use Katsuhiro as a sperm donor, forcing the men to reassess a number of important desires and beliefs, putting strain on their still fledgling relationship. If that weren’t enough drama, a girl at Katsuhiro’s place of work has also developed a crush on him and is prepared to take her unreturned love to some extremely dark places.

The first level of mini stresses Naoya and Katsuhiro have to contend with is their conflicting (if complementary) personalities and attitudes to their sexuality. Naoya is an easy going type with a job at a pet grooming salon. He’s a fully out gay man and a frequenter of city’s gay scene. Katsuhiro, by contrast, is much more mild mannered and innately kind. He works at a scientific research station and is more or less closeted – that is, he doesn’t particularly go out of his way to hide his sexuality from his work mates and family but he doesn’t volunteer the information either. This attitude seems to bother Naoya at various points but being the easy going type he’s apt to let it go most of the time.

However, when Katsuhiro reveals Asako’s offer, Naoya is actively against it. His idea of gay life suggests that relationships are generally short, he prefers the relative freedom of his life as an essentially “single” man rather a husband shackled to a family. Katsuhiro on the other hand perhaps would have liked children, or to be a father figure to someone else’s. Though Naoya has previously expressed boredom and disillusionment with his life spent in clubs and gay bars, he’s still resistant to the idea of settling down, or at least to the belief that a single relationship really can stay the course.

All three of the central characters have, in a sense, been let down by the “traditional” family. Naoya’s father left when he was small, leaving him with a single mother which is something that wasn’t so common when he was a child resulting in a fair amount of social stigma from other people in the community. These days his brassy mother knows about his sexuality and seems OK with it (aside from getting the random idea that Naoya will be wanting a pair of breasts at some point). Katsuhiro’s father was an alcoholic who died when he was just a small boy, his relationship with his brother and his family seems good but he’s afraid to reveal his sexuality to them for fear of disapproval. His brother had an arranged marriage, which doesn’t seem to have worked out so well at least from the sister-in-law’s perspective. Asako has also had a troubled life looking for affection in all the wrong places, feeling that if she had not been neglected as a child perhaps she’d have been a steadier adult. Naoya was running away from the idea of family ties, but Katsuhiro and Asako are actively seeking to repair the ones which never grew into the kind of roots one needs to anchor onself in a society entirely built around familial bonds.

After receiving some surprising medical news, Asako perversely decides that her own salvation lies in becoming a mother. She’s had enough of casual relationships and decided to go a different route so when she spots the kind look Katshiro gives a small child at a restaurant, she decides he must be the one to father her baby. Asako knew that Naoya and Katsuhiro were a couple, but that works out pretty well for her plan so she approaches him and makes her left field offer right off the bat. It will take some figuring out but this literal third way is a neat solution to a series of problems and, being completely new, is safe from the pettiness and misery often found within the traditional family unit. Contrasted with the bitterness displayed by Katsuhiro’s sister-in-law, the unusual arrangement of these three would be parents and their unborn child(ren) is one filled with love, forgiveness and mutual support rather than cold obligation or a simple fulfilment of societal expectations.

Once again Hashiguchi proves himself adept at creating a series of complex, flawed human beings who are nevertheless relatable and often endearing. Hashiguchi’s films tend to run long but he also ensures that even his supporting characters are well enough drawn to maintain interest in the many subplots from Naoya’s abrasive gay bar buddy to Katsuhiro’s unhinged stalker. An interesting sideways look at the state of the modern family, Hush! seems to advocate that just shutting up and going with the flow is not the answer but there are quieter solutions to be found if everyone is willing to listen to the silence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)