The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yuka Yasukawa, 2021)

A young woman begins to regain a sense of self-confidence in the face of social prejudice when invited to consult on a film in Yuka Yasukawa’s adaptation of the Rio Shimamoto novel, The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yodaka no Kataomoi). Drawing inspiration from a Kenji Miyazawa story about an ostracised nighthawk bullied by a hawk who cannot accept that they are the same because he finds the nighthawk’s difference offensive, Yasukawa’s gentle drama is less about the transformational quality of love than it is about learning to accept oneself as distinct from the self that others see. 

A shy young woman, Aiko (Rena Matsui) keeps a distance with others because of a longterm sense of rejection owing to a prominent birthmark on her face. After agreeing to be interviewed for a book about people living with facial difference and disfigurement, Aiko is approached by filmmaker Tobisaka (Ayumu Nakajima) who just happened to chance on their photoshoot and was struck by what he describes as a quiet sense of strength in her reserve. Though Aiko is not originally keen on the idea of having someone turn her life into a film, she soon begins to bond with Tobisaka who does not appear to react to her birthmark and eventually embarks on a romance only to find herself insecure in his continuing attachment to a former muse and dedication to his craft. 

While visiting her publisher, Marie (Lisa Oda), Aiko encounters a curious little girl who touches her own face and bluntly asks Aiko if the bruise-like mark on her cheek hurts. Aiko answers patiently that it doesn’t and isn’t offended by the little girl’s question, but perhaps is by the mother’s reaction as she stares and wonders what to say before apologising for her daughter’s rudeness but not for her own. Aiko recounts something similar in recalling her childhood bullying in which the kids in her class nicknamed her “Lake Biwa” because the mark on her face resembled the famous landmark which they were learning about in school. Though they were being cruel to her, Aiko remembers that a part of her enjoyed the attention while the teacher’s attempt to shut her classmates down was in a way more painful as if it were the birthmark itself which was “horrible” rather than the kids’ comments. After that the other children began to avoid her, unsure what to say and perhaps blaming her for having gotten into trouble with the teacher. She explains that she worries people often drift away from her in part because of the birthmark itself and in part because of the way it influences her behaviour generating a vicious cycle of doubt, rejection, and loneliness. Tobisaka’s muse, Miwa (Miyuu Teshima), looks very much like her only without the birthmark and Aiko worries if she can keep him while fearing in her insecurity that their relationship is nothing but a long con designed to get her to agree to participating in the film. 

Yasukawa often frames Aiko looking into mirrors, at one point a reflection of her face appearing next to that of Miwa in her makeup on a poster for the film. Tobisaka gives her a compact mirror as a gift that he possibly intends to help her see herself though perhaps as he sees her, while she remains internally conflicted insistent that there’s nothing wrong with having a birthmark but carrying a degree of internalised shame and wondering if her life would be different without it. It’s another compact given to her by a similarly troubled friend that later grants her agency in realising that she does have a choice in displaying her birthmark or not even if deciding that she might not want to have it removed after discovering that it may be medically possible. Her supervisor advises her that attempting to become a different person in the pursuit of growth is nothing but a fantasy while she gradually comes to the realisation that change is not quite not quite what she’s looking for, quite literally freeing herself from her self-imposed imprisonment to embrace her authentic self. Her growth lies not simply in being loved by a man who may in a way be exploiting her, but in truly seeing herself and others for the first time. An elegantly lensed tale of self-acceptance, Yaskukawa’s gentle drama allows its diffident heroine the space to grow while becoming more rather than less of herself in defiance of a social prejudice that is all to often routed in the same insecurity she has now escaped.


The Nighthawk’s First Love screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 13 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro