Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

A quiet suburb of Tokyo, Kamata is in someways the birthplace of modern Japanese cinema home to Shochiku’s prewar studio where the “Kamata Style” which aimed to introduce a note of cheerful naturalism to an artform defined by shinpa gloominess was forged. Produced by actress Urara Matsubayashi who hails from the area and stars in three of the four segments, omnibus movie Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Kamata Zensokyoku) asks some tough questions about what it means to be a woman and an actress today in the contemporary capital as the heroine, “Machiko Kamata”, contends with various demands from the economic to the emotional. 

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, the first segment finds Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) introducing herself as she takes part in a strange audition dressed in an inappropriately short cosplay-style nurse’s outfit. After the audition is over, her agent tells her to say “hi” to the director, a theme which will recur in the third chapter as Machiko finds herself feeling uncomfortable, forced to ingratiate herself in order to get ahead. Annoyed after the eccentric director asks her out for dinner, she can’t help asking him why she has to wear the suspiciously skimpy nurse’s outfit provoking him into a worryingly violent outburst. At home, meanwhile, her world is rocked by her younger brother’s revelation that he’s got a girlfriend who is, ironically, a nurse at local hospital. Jealous and resentful, Machiko can’t warm to Setsuko (Kotone Furukawa) who seems improbably sweet and innocent, almost as if she came from another time (the mid-August dating and ornaments for the Bon festival might clue us in as to why). Spending a day bonding with her, however, the two women generate a kind of sisterhood which pushes Machiko into a realisation of the emptiness she feels in her life of constant struggle as an aspiring actress supporting herself mainly with her part-time job at a ramen bar. 

The themes of alienation and insecurity are only depend in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, in which Machiko reunites with a group of high school friends who are each less than honest about the state of their lives and their unfulfilled desires. Machiko gives the impression that she’s just been in a major movie with a big star, but it turns out she only played a corpse while the rest of the group are scandalised by the bombshell that their friend Marippe (Mayuko Fukuda) has got engaged to a guy from work she’s been seeing secretly for only six months. Besides being somewhat hurt not to have known she was seeing someone, the gang have different reactions to the news with hard-nosed career woman Hana (Sairi Ito) put out by Marippe’s traditional view of conventional gender roles in which she intends to let her career slide to concentrate on being a wife. A trip to a hot spring (the same hot spring seen advertised on Machiko’s T-shirt in part one) brings things to a head with a possibly cheating boyfriend eventually offering the excuse that he is merely a hot spring enthusiast sharing his hobby with a friend of the opposite sex rather than a two-bit louse indulging in the patriarchal double standard. 

Patriarchal double standards are out in force in part three, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, in which Machiko attends another odd audition where she and the other auditionees are asked to outline an episode of sexual harassment they have personally experienced. In fact, we have already seen her be inappropriately propositioned by a middle-aged producer who ran out on her in a coffee shop after she turned him down leaving her with the bill, but the episode she recounts is darker still. As she feared they might, the men in the room quickly figure out who she might have been talking about but proceed to put the blame on her implying that she sleeps around to get ahead and was only offended by the producer’s actions because he wasn’t powerful enough to be useful. It’s another woman however, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), who kicks things into gear by relating that she was assaulted by a man in a club whom she later reveals to have been the director himself only he doesn’t remember her. The director brings both women back and makes them re-enact Machiko’s tale of being inappropriately propositioned in a producer’s office, increasingly exasperated that the situation seems “too scary” as if he’s entirely missed the point of his own exercise or is actively getting off on the actress’ discomfort. The male cameraman (Ryutaro Ninomiya) is the one who eventually points out that the audition itself has descended into a protracted act of sexual harassment, seemingly conducted solely for the entertainment of the director and his assistant. 

Largely disconnected from the other three chapters, the fourth does not feature Urara Matsubayashi and is in fact set not in Kamata but in director Hirobumi Watanabe’s familiar Tochigi. The opening of his segment, characteristically filmed with static camera and in black and white, finds him once again playing a version of himself ranting about not knowing what to do with this unusual project he has taken on for the money even though he doesn’t generally make shorts, has never done an omnibus movie before, and remains suspicious of the concept. He relates all of this to his 10-year-old niece Riko (star of I’m Really Good), who says absolutely nothing while he continues to treat her as if she were the most famous actress in Japan. Somewhat poignantly, a photograph of Watanabe’s late grandmother sits on a stool off to the side, implying perhaps that little Riko has in some senses taken over her role as silent observer. The main thrust of the action follows Watanabe as he attempts to film a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion with local non-actors, but is finally linked back to the omnibus by Riko’s cheerful letter to Machiko in which she states that she wants to become an actress just like her. Ending on such an upbeat moment seems to imbue a sense of hope for the future that was perhaps previously absent, implying that the hopes and dreams of a little girl at least are worth fighting for if only to live up to her sense of expectation for the magic of the movies. 


Kamata Prelude streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Little Miss Period (生理ちゃん, Shunsuke Shinada, 2019)

Perhaps surprisingly, Japanese cinema has never been afraid to tackle the sometimes taboo issue of menstruation but Little Miss Period (生理ちゃん, Seiri-chan) is certainly the first time it’s been turned into an accidental protagonist. Inspired by a popular web manga by Ken Koyama, who is male as is the director Shunsuke Shinada, the film revolves around the titular Little Miss P who arrives every month in the form of a giant pink fuzzy monster and generally causes havoc in women’s lives, but for all the trouble, pain, and inconvenience she causes Little Miss P also becomes a symbol of female solidarity and an accidental confidant whose presence can also be a comfort in regrettably patriarchal society. 

The first victim is Aoko (Fumi Nikaido), a young woman working in a busy publishing office who receives an inconvenient visit from Little Miss P while trying to sort out a problem with an uncommunicative writer which eventually leads to more trouble after the author begins bad mouthing them on social media and Aoko is given a public telling off by her sexist boss for failing to appreciate artistic temperament. Aoko’s boss is an unreconstructed chauvinist who makes deliberately inappropriate comments in the workplace and then jokes that he hopes he won’t be accused of harassment. He complains about Aoko looking tired and exclaims that these are the reasons he doesn’t like working with women, but running into a colleague in the ladies’ room, Aoko gets some practical though unhelpful advice coming from another woman to the effect that they can’t ever use Little Miss P as an “excuse” because it will just be seen as another reason to deny women the same rights and privileges as men. 

Aoko wishes that men could experience what it’s like to host Little Miss P if only once year and then perhaps they’d understand, though they also have problems of their own as manifested in the large white Mr. Sex Drive who appears out of nowhere to bother the boyfriend (Kyohei Kanomi) of Aoko’s younger sister Hikaru (Risaki Matsukaze). While Aoko laments the sexist atmosphere in the workplace that leaves her feeling as if she has to make a choice to be seen actively prioritising her career, being more present, more productive than the men just to be seen as equal, the office cleaner, Riho (Sairi Ito), resents her invisibility as a faceless service worker many regard as little more than a bot or real world NPC with no identity or interior life. She makes caustic comments about the vacuous lives of the office workers around her but has fully internalised this view of herself as worthless and undesireable. She resents Little Miss P in part because she doesn’t understand what the point of her visit is when it seems so unlikely that she would ever bear a child. 

Riho is so invested in her inferiority complex that she cannot comprehend that Aoko’s company want to hire her for writing gig after figuring out her secret blogger identity, believing it must be some kind of trick. In one sense, she might be right in that Aoko’s colleague Uchiyama (Ren Sudo) has an obvious crush on her, but still she finds it impossible to accept that she has a right to expect recognition as a human being and indeed as woman. Each of the women find themselves in dialogue with Little Miss P who often provides a quite literal shoulder to cry on as well a reassuring sense of “you got this” security. Aoko apologises to Little Miss P as she bids her goodbye for another month, admitting that it can’t be nice that in general no one is glad to see her (though there are of course cases in which they might be rather more than glad), but Little Miss P takes it all in her stride as part of the job and as much as she often causes trouble and inconvenience is also a warm and reassuring presence which unites women not so much in shared struggle but gentle camaraderie. 

It’s Little Miss P who helps Aoko bond with her prospective step-daughter Karin (Hana Toyoshima), while she perhaps remains ambivalent on the idea of marriage with its consequent loss of independence and the responsibility of suddenly becoming a mother for the first time to an adolescent girl. Female solidarity trumps family or romance, or at least so it seems as Aoko looks back on getting her own first visit from Little Miss P which threw her recently widowed single-father into an ambulance-calling panic but also resulted in a comforting dish of rice with red beans, traditionally eaten at moments of celebration. “Not everything about it is bad” Aoko tells a troubled Karin, “there’s nothing good about it. Not one thing” she replies, but Little Miss P has at least brought them together in female solidarity as they return to their respective, disappointingly patriarchal, worlds. 


Little Miss Period is available to stream online (Worldwide except Japan, Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, & Myanmar) from 9th to 14th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)