Orange (orange-オレンジ, Kojiro Hashimoto, 2015)

Orange posterPerhaps it isn’t possible (or even desirable) to live a life without regrets, but given the opportunity who wouldn’t want a second chance to tackle some of those thorny adolescent moments where you said something you shouldn’t have or didn’t say something that perhaps should have been said. The heroine of Kojiro Hashimoto’s Orange (orange-オレンジ) gets exactly this opportunity when she receives a letter from her future self asking for her help in “erasing” some of her teenage regrets by using the information in the letter to save a friend she hasn’t yet met. Though the letter contains little information about the life she is leading ten years from now, it is clear that something happened all those years ago which has profoundly affected the lives of a tight group of high school friends.

16-year-old Naho (Tao Tsuchiya) receives the letter at the beginning of her second year of high school, reading it under the vibrant pink cherry blossoms. A little creeped out, she doesn’t read it fully but is surprised when, just as the letter said, a new student, Kakeru (Kento Yamazaki), transfers into her class and occupies the previously empty desk next to hers. A shy and quiet girl Naho is nevertheless part of a group of five friends which includes sportsman Suwa (Ryo Ryusei), geek Hagita (Dori Sakurada), and two other girls Takako (Hirona Yamazaki) and Azusa (Kurumi Shimizu). For reasons unexplained, the group quickly takes Kakeru into their fold only for him to suddenly disappear for a couple of weeks. On closer inspection of the letter, Naho is disturbed by the news that Kakeru is “no longer around” at the time of her future self’s writing.

Orange fits neatly into the popular tragic high school romance genre in which an older version of the protagonist looks back on a traumatic event and tries to come to terms with their own action or inaction in order to move forward with their adult lives. 26-year-old Naho, as we quickly find out, has moved on – she is married to Suwa and has a young son she has named Kakeru but she and the others are still finding it difficult to come to terms with what happened to their friend and the possibility that they could have done something more to help him if they’d only known then what they know now.

So far so “junai”, but Orange tries to have things both ways by introducing a slightly clumsy time travel/parallel universe theory in which the protagonists realise that they won’t be able to change the past but are hoping that their friend is happy in an alternate timeline created by their efforts to influence their younger selves with more mature thinking coupled with the benefit of hindsight. Unlike other examples of the genre, Orange undercuts the usual need to deal with the past and find closure through a mild fantasy of denial in which the older protagonists can believe in an alternate future in which they were able to do things differently and save their friend from his unhappy destiny.

Saving their friend is, however, only a secondary goal – the first being to ease their own sense of guilt in not having seen that Kakeru was in trouble and needed their help. All this emphasis on personal “regret” cannot help but seem somewhat solipsistic – everyone is very sorry about what happened in the past and wishes that they could have acted differently but is also somewhat preoccupied with their own role in events rather than a true desire to have in someway eased their friend’s suffering. Though there is the true selflessness of real, grown up love such as that displayed by Suwa who has always loved Naho but supports her love of Kakeru despite his own feelings, the actions of the group remain childishly goal orientated as Kakeru’s survival becomes an end mission flag rather than an expression of love and care for a friend in trouble.

The teenagers are, despite advice from their older selves, still teenagers and so it is only to be expected that they respond to a very grown up problem with a degree of immaturity, but it is also true that Kakeru’s ongoing, mostly well hidden, depression plays second fiddle to the various romantic subplots currently in action. Though the friends rally round with fairly trite phrases about helping to carry Kakeru’s burden and always being there him, Orange almost tries to argue that kind words are enough to pull a strained mind back from the brink – not that kind words ever hurt, but some problems are bigger than superficial pledges of friendship can handle especially when you’ve half a mind on who loves who and who is trying to get in the way of someone else’s romantic destiny. In spending so much time worrying about their friend, they have, in a sense, left him to deal with all his problems on his own while revelling in their own “concern”.

Superficial and melodramatic, Orange’s insistence on the power of teenage friendship can’t help but ring a little false and the parallel universe solution an overly convenient narrative device which allows for two differing resolutions both of which essentially frustrate the attempts of the older protagonists to accept their own sense of guilt and responsibility for their friend’s death in order to move on with their lives. Kakeru, in a sense, gets forgotten in his friends’ need to absolve themselves of his fate – a particularly ironic development in a cautionary tale about the enduring legacy of regret and the necessity of communicating one’s true feelings fully in the knowledge that there may not always be another opportunity to do so.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rent-a-Cat (レンタネコ, Naoko Ogigami, 2012)

©2012レンタネコ製作委員会

rent-a-cat posterPreviously, Ogigami’s heroines (and hero, when one thinks about it) have had to go great distances in order to figure out what it was they were looking for and then finally find it. In Kamome Diner, Sachie went all the way to Helsinki to open up a Japanese cafe only to find herself accidentally attracting a collective of other runaway Japanese people whilst building a community of friendly Finns in her new home. Taeko, in Megane, went on a random holiday that turned out to be much more random than she ever would have expected but she did end up learning to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life which is, presumably, why she ended up on holiday in the first place. Rent-a-Cat’s (レンタネコ, Rent-a-Neko) Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa), by contrast, stubbornly stays put. In fact, she is the pillar around which all else turns as a fixed point for her various “stray cats” each in need of temporary support.

Since her grandmother died a few years ago, Sayoko’s life has been in free fall. A 30-something single woman with no “regular” employment, Sayoko lives in a spacious Japanese-style house with a small garden which is home to the various stray kitties which seem to seek her out when looking for a good place to crash. Sayoko has taken to writing out large banners declaring her immediate goals – getting married being the main one, and pasting them on the walls to encourage herself to keep going. The truth is, though Sayoko is not exactly unhappy she is unfulfilled. Since childhood she’s had the strange talent of attracting friendly cats but secretly longs to attract people too. Combining her strength and her weakness, Sayoko operates an unusual enterprise – cat rental! Walking along with a loud speaker and a trailer full of cats, she looks for lonely people who might want to borrow a fluffy friend for a while to help them out while they’re feeling low.

Of course, Sayoko’s quest to heal the hearts of others is also one to heal her own. Eccentric since childhood during which she was nicknamed “Jamiko” after a strange monster and mostly spent her time snoozing in the nurse’s office along with a kleptomaniac fellow student, Sayoko has never found her feet when it comes to building lasting relationships with people. Her voiceovers all refer back to her grandmother whom she misses deeply and seems slightly lost without. Appearing to have no real friends and spending a lot of time at home looking after her collection of needy cats, Sayoko’s main source of daily interaction comes from the horrible old woman who lives next door and turns up at random intervals to play Greek chorus in neatly reciting Sayoko’s various neuroses back to her over the garden fence.

Sayoko’s neighbour probably has a hole in her heart she fills by being deliberately insensitive to obviously sensitive people, but Sayoko offers her clients another solution in the form of a fluffy little cat who needs someone to look after it. Before lending one of her charges, Sayoko makes sure to vet the prospective cat guardian – after all, not everyone is nice and some people like to project their own suffering onto harmless little creatures. Through the house visits Sayoko gets to find out exactly what kind of hole it is that needs filling from dimples in jellies to holes in socks and even those in donuts, and being the sensitive soul she is, Sayoko usually knows what kind of help her customers need.

Structured around four different clients and bridged with Sayoko’s own neurotic journeys, Rent-a-Cat takes on a charming, fairytale quality in its repeated formulas. Each time someone asks to rent a cat they get the same speech about the inspection and then when it comes to talking money they each express surprise at the extremely good value, making sure to ask if Sayoko will be OK financially when she operates on these oddly beneficial terms. Don’t worry, she tells them – she has other income, a different one each time from stockbroking to fortune telling. The problems run from late life isolation as in a little old lady who loves making jellies for the son she never sees, to dejected fathers forced to work away from home and missing their kids grow up, and young women who feel trapped in a conservative society and would like nothing more than to jet off somewhere to follow their own path, if only they had the courage.

Social conservatism does seem to be something which particularly annoys Sayoko, if perhaps subconsciously. A strange dream sends her off to a Rent-a-Cat corporate clone where clients can rent cats of three different classes priced according to desirability. Sayoko is particularly anxious about the “Class C” cats whom the lady behind the counter disdainfully describes as “crossbreeds”. Sayoko is not having any of that and takes the woman to task for her need to “rank” things before insisting on renting a Class C cat at the Class A price to fully ram home the unpleasantness and absurdity of such a prejudiced world view.

Branded a “crazy cat lady” by the neighbourhood kids, Sayoko’s humanitarian mission of spreading love and kindness eventually does start to reel in a few humans even if they are mostly lonely souls in need of temporary support. Towards the end, when a promising reappearance provokes only disappointment, Sayoko wonders if perhaps there are holes cats cannot fill or sadnesses too great to be borne, but nevertheless she persists. A falling banner a suggests Sayoko may have already found the material to fill her own hole in helping other people fill theirs whilst surrounded by the by warm indifference of her feline brood.


You can catch Rent-a-Cat at the Japanese Embassy in London on 22nd November as the first in a series of events, Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers, which also includes screenings of Bare Essence of Life, Death of a Japanese Salesman, and Wild Berries from 30th November to 2nd December.

 Original trailer (no subtitles)

Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2012)

ninkyo helperIn old yakuza lore, the “ninkyo” way, the outlaw stands as guardian to the people. Defend the weak, crush the strong. Of course, these are just words and in truth most yakuza’s aims are focussed in quite a different direction and no longer extend to protecting the peasantry from bandits or overbearing feudal lords (quite the reverse, in fact). However, some idealistic young men nevertheless end up joining the yakuza ranks in the mistaken belief that they’re somehow going to be able to help people, however wrongheaded and naive that might be.

The hero of Hiroshi Nishitani’s Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Ninkyo Helper) is just one of these world weary idealists turned cynics. We find him working a low rent convenience store job where he fills the shop with the kind of intensity that only a disappointed former yakuza can generate. Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) was trying to make a go of things in the regular world, but when a sad little old man comes in with armed robbery on his to do list, Hikoichi shows his yakuza stripes by easily beating him down in front of his stunned colleague.

This might have earned him some brownie points at work, but overcome by pity for this pathetic old man reduced to robbing corner shops for petty change, he gives him the cash and tells him to run. The police soon turn up and arrest them both – during the robbery Hikochi’s colourful tattoos were caught on security camera and no one wants a yakuza working here, even if he did volunteer to pay back the tiny sum of money the old guy got from his own wages.

Meeting up in prison, Hikoichi and the armed robber eventually become friends and after his release, Hikoichi ends up in the old guy’s home town where he joins his former clan as an enforcer. Extremely bitter by this point, Hikoichi has decided to play the modern yakuza game to the max so when he finds out his assignment is running a dodgy “care” home which gets its residents by extorting old people through outrageous loans which send them bankrupt, he only briefly pauses.

The idea of a yakuza running a care home is a strange one. The Uminoneko residential care facility is far from what one would want from a old people’s home – there are no doctors, or even carers, the entire home is run by one nurse, herself an elderly woman who got her nurse’s certification and eldercare qualifications back in 1943!

With a rapidly ageing population, eldercare is a big topic in Japan as the birth rate has progressively fallen while lifespans have increased leaving many older people without family to look after them. With the nature of the family unit also changing, it’s become much harder to care for elderly relatives at home especially if they need around the clock attention. There are simply not enough facilities available to cope with the increasing needs of the older generation leaving families struggling to cope and social services overwhelmed. It’s not surprising that the yakuza have picked up on this as a growth area.

When Hikoichi arrives at the Uminoneko facility, which is just really a prefab shed with some futons in it, he finds a hellish place filled with unstimulated old people left on their beds to die. The place is filthy, and about the only attention the guests receive is the occasional offering of food to keep them alive so that the clan can keep claiming their pensions and welfare payments. Though Hikoichi goes along with this to begin with, it’s not long before his idealism rears its ugly head and he hits on the idea of reforming Uminoneko by turning it into a kind of old person’s commune in which the residents themselves will help out with the running of the place. What was a sad and gloomy prison of exploitation suddenly transforms as the older generation rediscover a place that they can belong, working together to build their own community. However, this of course means less money for the clan and more trouble for Hikoichi.

The clan aren’t his only problems as the town also has a progressive mayor who made a commitment to wipe out organised crime and turn the area into a tourist hotspot with a special focus on caring for the older generation. Teruo (Teruyuki Kagawa) has is own stuff going on which again causes a problem for Hikioichi as he also has a long standing crush on the older yakuza’s daughter, now a single mother with two young children and a mother of her own with senile dementia who needs expensive medical care. Yoko (Narumi Yasuda) has a grudge against yakuza after enduring decades of stigma and eventual abandonment by her father but is willing to deal with them if it will enable her to help her mother. Predictably she begins to develop a better understanding of her father as she bonds with Hikochi and warms to his noble tough guy ways.

Directed by Hiroshi Nishitani and inspired by a TV show (though functioning as a standalone movie), Beautiful World is a finely plotted drama which explores both the roles of the ageing population and eldercare explosion in Japan, and the conflicting role of the yakuza who seek to exploit those who are arguably the weakest in society. Hikoichi makes for a very Takakura-like, brooding presence as his innate idealism and desire to help those around him conflict with his experiences as a yakuza which teach him to distrust everyone and expect betrayal and exploitation at every turn. Resolving in an unconventional and unexpected way, this otherwise mainstream, if  beautifully photographed, drama develops into one of the more interesting character driven pieces of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: