Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro (とんかつDJアゲ太郎, Ken Ninomiya, 2020)

Among the more prolific of young indie talents currently emerging in Japan with five features released since his 2015 debut Slum-Polis, Ken Ninomiya is fast becoming the go to chronicler of Tokyo’s contemporary club scene but unlike The Limit of Sleeping Beauty or Chiwawa, Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro (とんかつDJアゲ太郎) is a surprisingly wholesome take on the same phenomenon as an otherwise clueless young man begins to step into himself after accidentally falling love with the live house vibe. 

As his slightly amusing name implies, Agetaro (Takumi Kitamura) is the third generation heir to a tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) restaurant. It’s not that he doesn’t want to take over the family business, but admits that he’d largely be doing it because he doesn’t know what else to do. His rather nerdy friends, all sons of small business owners in an area of Shibuya with a distinctly small-town vibe, are in much the same position. Ironically remarking that Agetaro always loses at The Game of Life as they hang out playing boardgames, the guys eventually find him with a pair of binoculars staring at a girl in an apartment opposite they are convinced inhabits a different word where people eat prosciutto and cheese and drink fancy wine. Agetaro gets an unexpected chance to meet his unobtainable crush, Sonoko (Maika Yamamoto), when he’s summoned to deliver a bento to a dance club after hours for a moody DJ, Oily (Yusuke Iseya), who describes tonkatsu as the area’s “soul food” and rates Agetaro’s dad’s as the very best. Allowed to step onto the dance floor, he finds himself blown away by Oily’s set and determines to become the very first tonkatsu chef/DJ partly in the hope of impressing Sonoko. 

Though set very much in the present day, there’s a pleasingly retro quality to Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro that recalls old school Showa-era musical youth movies in which young guys from humble backgrounds make something of themselves by working hard and staying true to their roots. Agetaro’s problem is that he’s caught in a moment of adolescent anxiety, resentful of his father (Brother Tom) whom he feels looks down on him, refusing to let his son anywhere near the fryer while making him chop cabbage all day and reminding him he doesn’t have to take over the shop if he doesn’t want to. Agetaro’s dad won’t teach him to fry because he thinks he doesn’t take anything seriously, and he might be right, but as his sister (Natsumi Ikema) says he’s worried about him too secretly trying to be supportive by standing at the back of the room when Agetaro gets his big break at the local club. 

Despite being mentored by Oily, however, Agetaro blows his first opportunity failing to get the crowd moving with a rather naff set designed to entertain his equally nerdy friends. But failure, crucially, only endears him to Sonoko who had previously been put off by his cheesy attempts to become a viral YouTube star with a series of gimmicky videos featuring himself and his friends wearing novelty “tonkatsu” outfits. Where he thought of giving up, Sonoko’s reminder that everyone makes a mess of things once in a while and no one should expect success right out of the gate helps Agetaro realise that what he needs to do is bring all of himself to his set which in this case means understanding that the thing is learning do something well and in that there’s no difference between frying the perfect cutlet and finding the perfect beat. Simply put, he needs to become the Tonkatsu DJ for real. 

Attracted to DJing because of the freedom it offers, Agetaro eventually finds his “heaven” on the dance floor marrying both sides of himself as he accepts his tonkatsu legacy and claims his space within the club scene which here is unproblematically joyful, a warm and welcoming space in which young people come together to enjoy good music, dance, and have wholesome fun. Simply put, it’s hard not to fall in love with a film which makes space for an unironic and unapologetically joyful moment of catharsis featuring Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is Place on Earth. Shifting away from the slick music video aesthetic of his earlier work, Ninomiya hits lowkey charm in his tale of minor slacker success as his feckless hero finally figures himself out and learns how to cook up a storm in the store and on the floor. 


Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro screens on July 4/6/9 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2019)

“Things happen to everyone” the hero of Hideyuki Hirayama’s Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Heisa Byoutou: Sorezore no Asa, AKA Closed Ward) explains, not in an accusatory sense or attempt to limit someone else’s trauma response but in a gentle spirit of empathy, a reminder that everyone has their own load to carry and theirs are heavier than most. Empathy is indeed a minor theme of Hirayama’s drama as his wounded protagonists eventually find the strength to allow themselves to live again in the unconditional solidarity of their newly found family in defiance of the internalised shame and external stigma that plagues them in an admittedly conformist society. 

Hirayama opens with a flashback, shot in muted colour, as a man, Hide (Tsurube Shofukutei), is marched slowly towards the execution chamber where he is eventually hanged but, inconveniently for the prison authorities, does not die. Lacking a clear precedent for such an unusual event, they are at a loss as to how to proceed while Hide does not exactly seem overjoyed in his improbable survival. As hanging him again would be cruel and simply letting him off as if reborn to live a new life they feel not in the interests of justice, they opt for a fudge, palming the now wheelchair-using Hide off on the hospitals system by placing him in the secure ward of a psychiatric institution. 

A quiet man keeping himself to himself, Hide patiently crafts ceramics and meditates on his crime keeping others at arm’s length as if believing himself unworthy of human society. He may have been sentenced to death for something truly unforgivable, but he is not mentally ill and does not really belong in the hospital whereas many of the other patients are self-committals who are technically free to leave at a time of their own choosing. Chuya (Go Ayano), a young man with schizophrenia, has more or less learned to live with his condition and exercises a greater degree of personal freedom, often venturing into town and bringing back various items he cynically sells to others on the ward. He could leave if he wanted to, but stays partly out of a sense of internalised shame and partly in fear of the outside world. Yuki (Nana Komatsu), meanwhile, an 18-year-old woman committed by her mother (Reiko Kataoka) after becoming worryingly withdrawn, has little personal agency, first placed on the ward and then removed from it neither with her full consent. 

Though we can see that the hospital is a largely positive, supportive place where the patients are well cared for we do not see a great deal of treatment practices and it is in someways surprising that Yuki is allowed to leave in the company of a man who is quite clearly violent and abusive even if we can also infer that she herself has remained largely silent as regards the nature of her trauma. Her silence is perhaps her means of both defence and resistance with her first words offered to Hide largely because he does not ask her for them, merely sitting by giving her the space to choose to speak or not to. Despite his caution that the longer one stays on the ward the more one begins to think of oneself as a patient, she begins to think of the hospital of her safe place and the other patients as her surrogate family, touched by an old woman’s radiant happiness as she helps her back to her room mistaking her for her granddaughter. 

Yet as much as the hospital works for her, it does not necessarily work for others as in the case of Shigemune (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) whose antisocial and violent tendencies often endanger other patients not least because of lax supervision and questionable decisions made by members of staff. A direct parallel is perhaps being drawn between the jail and the ward, Chuya frightened he may never leave while Hide believes he does not deserve to and Yuki longs to stay only to have her new safe place ruined by another predatory man of violence. Yet there is also a sense that society views the hospital as a place to dump those it feels to be problematic, Hide hidden away in embarrassment, Chuya rejected by his family, and Yuki betrayed by a mother who has come to see her as a rival. Shopkeepers look at them askance, not altogether happy that “even crazy people have rights these days” while the trio struggle to accept themselves as having a right to a happier future even as they begin to bond in a newfound sense of family. While the closing scenes may engage in an uncomfortable ableism, there is an undoubtable sense of warmth and compassion in Hirayama’s egalitarian sense of solidarity as his wounded protagonists find strength in faith reflected in others to shake off their sense of internalised shame and claim their right to life in an often hostile society. 


Family of Strangers streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Infinite Foundation (無限ファンデーション, Akira Osaki, 2018)

Sometimes the music finds you when you need it most. So it is for the heroine of Akira Osaki’s wistful coming-of-age drama Infinite Foundation (無限ファンデーション, Mugen Foundation). To better capture the teen experience with an immediate naturalism, Osaki’s cast was provided with no script only a vague outline inspired by the songs of singer-songwriter Cosame Nishiyama and asked to improvise each individual scene. What results is suitably intense tale of complicated teenage female friendships, frustrated ambitions, and fear for the future in which a shy, introverted young woman gradually finds the courage to chase her dreams with the help of an ethereal songstress and unexpected solidarity. 

Mirai (Sara Minami), whose name literally means “future”, is a dreamy young girl who thinks she’s not much use for anything so usually idles away her time in school drawing dress designs in her sketchbook when the teacher’s not looking. In fact, she’s technically in summer school catch up, but every time the teacher returns to check on her he notices that she still hasn’t got round to filling in the answers on her maths test. Wandering home one day she hears the gentle strains of a ukulele coming from a nearby recycling plant and strikes up a friendship with a strange girl, Cosame (Cosame Nishiyama), with her hair in long plaits and dressed in a school uniform. Meanwhile, she’s also unexpectedly approached by the stylish Nanoko (Nanoka Hara) who, taken with her beautiful designs, insists that she join the drama club to help them come up with costumes for their imminent production of Cinderella. 

Perhaps Mirai will be going to the ball after all. Before that however she’s still contending with a sense of insecurity while her cheerful and supportive mother (Reiko Kataoka) tries to encourage her to pay more attention to her studies. Pushed towards conventional academic success, Mirai had been a little embarrassed about her love of drawing, particularly as it’s something as “frivoulous” as dress designs which she can’t believe anyone else would value. Rather than hanging out with friends, she spends most of her time sewing in her room, retreating into comfortable fantasy but also lonely and a little bit lost. So when Nanoko is so enthusiastic about her artwork it gives her a much needed confidence boost showing her that someone at least thinks her drawings have value and are not silly or embarrassing wastes of time. 

The drama club, however, is something of a baptism of fire for someone who feels themselves not good with people and at sea with interpersonal relationships. Mirai sticks fast to Nanoko, but Nanoko’s longterm bestfriend Yuri predictably doesn’t like it that she’s abruptly dragged this other person into their shared activity while the other members of the group struggle to relate to her, describing her as difficult to talk to and leaving her sitting in the corner doing her own thing while they get on with rehearsing. The main drama occurs when Nanoko makes a surprising announcement that puts the show in peril. She has a big audition lined up in Tokyo for a part in a film which makes it impossible for her to also star in the play. Nanoko asks for understanding, but does so with a degree of entitlement and superiority that cannot help but annoy her friends. She implies that she’s in this because she’s a real actress, while they’re only messing around in a school play. Mirai isn’t sure where to put herself, her new friend has just betrayed her and now she doesn’t know if they were ever friends at all or she was just using her to increase her hold over the drama club. 

The message that Mirai begins to get is that she may have real talent, but it’s up to her to achieve her dreams. She begins to feel that everything she’s been doing with her life has been superficial and incomplete because she never had the confidence to follow through, living in her own tiny bubble alone in her room for fear of getting hurt out in the big wide world. While the mysterious ukulele player sings her inspirational songs about living with loneliness, Mirai begins to build her infinite foundations towards a more confident future as a young woman determined to fight for her dreams.


Infinite Foundation streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Life: Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Kana Yamada, 2019)

“Killing is easy. Revive me instead!” The heroine of Kana Yamada’s Life Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Title: Kyozetsu) exclaims during a climactic argument, trying to find meaning in a life of ceaseless transaction. Adapting her own play, Yamada sets her tale of existential disappointment in an apartment used as an HQ for a group of call girls, each with their own problems but trying to live as best they can within the compromising environment of a patriarchal society which offers them little in the way of hope for a less depressing future. 

According to the agency’s top girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) “everyone here is a failure of society”. Asking herself whether her painfully “ordinary” life was worth much of anything, Kano (Sairi Ito) resolved to become the hare rather than the tortoise, put on her recruit suit and submitted her CV to “Crazy Bunny”, a “delivery” company offering services only hinted at on the menu. Discovering that sex work was something she couldn’t handle, she managed to switch sides, becoming part of the management team taking “orders” and dispatching other women to various love hotels in the surrounding area, which means of course that she is privy to most of the interoffice drama even if she has little knowledge of these women’s external lives beyond that which they offer up freely as part of their work. 

The women who work at the agency, if you can call it that, are a varied bunch almost as if Yamashita, the thuggish boss running the operation on behalf of an older man (Denden), has made an effort to cater to all tastes. Three of the ladies gossip about ridiculous clients and their excuses for not wanting to use protection (including a fake medical certificate), while openly taking potshots at an older woman, Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who has been selected as a substitute for the in demand Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu). Older women are cheaper they giggle, though the oldest of them, Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), is not so young herself and perhaps aware that she’s reaching a crisis point as she ages of out of the “most desirable” demographic. Kano thinks of Mahiru as the office’s hare in comparison to her patient tortoise, an embodiment of faceless desire wanted by all known by none. 

Mahiru too is well aware of her appeal and an expert in manipulating it. She loves money, she says, because she wants to use it to “buy someone’s life to burn the garbage inside me”, later vowing to “buy a person who can serve me for life”.  Carrying the burden of childhood trauma and sexualised from an early age, Mahiru is distrustful of relationships not based on transaction but perhaps craving something deeper while darkly yearning to burn the city of Tokyo to the ground. As it happens she is not the only one yearning to raze this society for the various ways in which it condemns women like her to a kind of underclass while men continue to live by a double standard that allows them to “buy” female bodies but resents the women who “sell” them. 

Another young woman, Kyoko (Kokoro Morita), finds this out to her cost in her difficult romance with the agency’s driver Ryota (Syunsuke Tanaka) with whom she slept for free while they were both drunk. She claims to understand him, that they are really both alike, soft people trying to look hard in order to survive in a cruel society. But he rejects her, asking who’d want to date a “hooker” like her, echoing Riyu’s words that she is “utterly worthless” by virtue of her life in sex work. Kyoko may be right and he likes her too, but he can’t let go of the idea that there is something “humiliating” about being romantically involved with a woman who has sex with men for money. 

Yamashita, meanwhile, is breaking all the rules of the trade by having sex with the girls he runs sometimes paying but perhaps sometimes not, wielding his position of power for sexual gratification before finally unmasking himself in describing the women as “garbage waiting to be thrown away”, disposable merchandise to be used and discarded once no longer useful to men like him. Kano might have been under no illusions as to Yamashita’s character, but the depths of his callousness surprise her. She’d developed a fondness for his underling, Hagio. (Hagio), who seemed sensitive and kind but turns out to have more than she’d expected in common with the girls while continuing to engage in the double standard, insisting that those who pay for sex are stupid, deluded for falling in love with those who only want money. 

Kano thought her “ordinary” life was “pathetic” and wanted to know if a “tortoise” like her could become the protagonist of her own story only to remain on the sidelines, a patient observer of these women’s lives while not quite as conflicted as you might expect her to be in her complicity with their exploitation. “A woman who ran away wouldn’t understand” Riyu fires back on being pushed for her refusal to entertain an unpleasant client, and perhaps it’s true, she wouldn’t because she works for the other side. She decides that perhaps it’s alright for her life not to have a “title”, meandering aimlessly without clear purpose but continuing all the same while the women take their particular kinds of revenge against a misogynistic and oppressive society ruled by male violence. Fully taking the play off the stage, Yamada depicts the lives of sex workers with a melancholy empathy quietly enraged at the society which forced them into lives they may not have asked for or wanted but discriminates against them simply for doing a job which is in essence like any other. “It’s not my fault” a high school girl instantly answers when questioned by a policeman, and you know, it really isn’t. 


Life: Untitled is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)