Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Yukiko Mishima, 2017)

Dear Etranger posterThe family drama has long been considered the representative genre of Japanese cinema, but with the days of Ozu long gone the family itself has become a subject for reappraisal. Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Osanago Warera ni Umare) is the latest to take a scalpel to the nation’s basic social unit and ask what the word “family” means in an ever changing social landscape. In an Ozu picture, one family must be broken for another to be formed – this is the way of things and in the end must be accepted if with sadness, but does it really need to be this way or is there room for more as connections become less easy to define?

Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) separated from his first wife some time ago and still spends time with his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), though only a few times a year. Four years ago he married another woman, Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who had also been married before and has two children – Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eri (Miu Arai). Nanae has recently discovered she is pregnant and is thrilled to bits to add to their family, but Makoto is conflicted. He liked the family as it was and worries that the new baby will place a wedge between himself and his step-daughters, that they may suddenly feel themselves pushed out and not really part of the new family that is being forged by a child who has a blood relation to both their parents rather than just one.

In truth, family dynamics aren’t all Makoto currently has to worry about. A 40-year-old man, he’s also hitting the scrap heap at work – rather than laying people off, they’re transferring them to unpleasant jobs in the hope they’ll resign. A lifelong salaryman, Makoto has been sent to the packing warehouse where his every move is logged on computer and he’s rated for speed. This is partly his own “fault”. Rather than play the salaryman game, Makoto wanted to be a family man. He doesn’t work weekends or overtime, he takes public holidays off, and never stays out late drinking with colleagues – all things which mark your card as an antisocial shirker in workaholic Japan.

Makoto’s superior, warning him about the imminent transfers, criticises his attitude. He tells him that he doesn’t think spending time with his children is his “job” as a father. He sees his responsibility as one of providing a role model and he thinks the best way to do that is to be seen working hard as a “respectable” member of society. Makoto couldn’t disagree more. He works to rule, but wants to be the sort of father that’s there for his kids, not just an authoritarian figure who comes home late smelling of booze and throws his weight around. He knows that as the children grow up they’ll grow away from him and won’t want to hang out with dad anymore, so he wants to spend time with them now while he still can.

Makoto’s intense desire to be a family man is perhaps unusual in Japan where men channel their ambition into work and women are (still) expected to channel theirs into the home. It is therefore doubly painful for Makoto when his elder step-daughter, Kaoru, heading into a difficult age, suddenly rejects him on hearing about the new baby. Despite the fact that Kaoru’s biological father (Kankuro Kudo) was violent towards both her and her mother, Kaoru begins to insist on seeing him, complaining that it’s unfair to be forced to live with “a stranger”. On one level, Kaoru is at the age at which most young women begin to find their father annoying and embarrassing, but her resentment is also informed by a fear of abandonment and cultural doubt about her place in a still atypical family, unconvinced that it’s possible for a man to become a father to a child that’s not his own by blood.

Blood ties still seem to trump all in most people’s minds, but bureaucracy plays its part too. Makoto still insists on making time to see Saori – something which is sadly unusual in Japan where divorce usually results not only in the children losing contact with the absent parent but also the entirety of an extended family. Kaoru doesn’t quite like it that Makoto does this, she feels almost betrayed as if he’s choosing his biological child over her and that continuing to associate with Saori means he hasn’t fully committed to her family. There seems to be an idea that the family unit is a distinct bubble and one can’t be inside more than one at a time, just as one can’t be listed on more than one “family register”. When an emergency occurs and Saori needs to get a lift from Nanae who has Eri in the back of the car, she isn’t sure if it’s OK for her to get in even with her father with her. She suddenly feels awkward, as if her presence in his car with his new family is inappropriate. None of these people know each other – the existence of a parallel family is so embarrassing as to be “unseen”, buried like a scandalous secret and kept entirely separate to avoid any cross-contamination. When Eri asks who Saori is, awkward silence prevails until she is forced to introduce herself as a “friend” of her father’s – something he doesn’t bother to correct until the drive home when another encounter has pushed him into reconsidering what it means to be a “father”. 

Makoto’s strong desire for acceptance and for forging a “family” that is “his” may perhaps seem selfish and possessive, yet he also tries to react with patience and empathy towards others in his position. He tries to be patient with Kaoru, advising her that he doesn’t think meeting her “real” dad is a good idea but if it’s what she wants he’ll try to make it happen. Likewise, he is grateful to Saori’s stepfather for raising his daughter when he wasn’t able to. Finally the walls begin to dissolve and it stops being about who belongs on which bit of paper and starts being about connections forged through love and understanding. The new baby, rather than forcing everyone apart, begins to bring them together, each joined by a feeling of joy and responsibility towards the new life to which they are all connected. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flowers (フラワーズ, Norihiro Koizumi, 2010)

flowersThe rate of social change in the second half of the twentieth century was extreme throughout much of the world, but given that Japan had only emerged from centuries of isolation a hundred years before it’s almost as if they were riding their own bullet train into the future. Norihiro Koizumi’s Flowers (フラワーズ) attempts to chart these momentous times through examining the lives of three generations of women, from 1936 to 2009, or through Showa to Heisei, as the choices and responsibilities open to each of them grow and change with new freedoms offered in the post-war world. Or, at least, up to a point.

In 1936, oldest sister Rin (Yu Aoi) is to be married off against her will to a man picked by her father and whom she has never actually met. Bold and wilful, Rin finds herself more than usually torn between her intense resentment at being forced into a one time only life changing event simply on her father’s say so, and the guilt of rejecting centuries of tradition in rejecting her father’s authority. Minutes before the ceremony Rin makes a break for it fully done up in her wedding dress and makeup.

Flashing forward to her funeral in 2009, we learn that Rin did marry (someone, at least) and had three daughters. It’s her granddaughters we’re interested in now – happy mother Kei (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerful even at a wake, and the depressed Kanna (Kyoka Suzuki) – an unmarried former concert pianist who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant and is unsure what to do. In order to understand them we have to flashback a little again – to 1969, 1964, and 1977 to find out what happened to Rin’s three daughters – Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka), and Sato (Yukie Nakama).

Koizumi makes the most of his shifts in time periods to experiment with technical effects recreating the look of classic films of the era. Hence, 1936 is a desaturated monotone filled with classic silent movie compositions, seemingly owing a large debt to Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi. The difference between 1964 and 1969 might be thought slight but partly down to the different genre elements in the two vignettes, the contrast is marked with 1964 taking on the classic romantic melodramas of the period, and 1969 embracing bright and colourful salaryman comedy – only this time it’s a salary woman embarking on the era of having it all (though perhaps, tragically, ten too years to early to make the most of it). 1977 brings us back down with bump of realism as Sato lives an ordinary suburban life as a housewife and mother. Imbuing each of his eras with the warmth of nostalgia backed up with rich period detail, Koizumi has indeed framed his passage of womanhood narrative with an impressive degree of grounding.

This has been a period of intense social change, entirely for the better even if there is still a long way to go. Though marriages of 1936 were referred to as semi-arranged, families could and did place intense pressure on their children to consent or refuse to accept their refusal to do so (perhaps as true for sons as daughters, though sons were unlikely to find themselves in such a difficult position when things went wrong). Thus the course of Rin’s life is decided by her rigid, austere father leaving her with no possibility of choice in a world entirely controlled by men. Her daughters have more freedom and opportunities, marrying for love and choosing careers and/or motherhood as they see fit.

Midori, the most headstrong of the three sisters takes a job at a publishing house where she is the only female employee. Receiving a marriage proposal leads her to question her choices once again, wondering if accepting means jumping off the career ladder altogether. Wanting to get ahead, Midori has been behaving like her male colleagues – dressing in less feminine clothes and in subdued colours, heading off the inevitable sexist comments with aggression and violence but, eventually emboldened, she she finds herself blossoming when embracing her femininity within the workplace.

The world has moved on – women cannot be pushed in the same way Rin was pushed even if social mores can still be used to cajole them into conformity. The one big recent social change is in Kanna’s decision to proceed as a single mother. Though the question is still raised, there is broad approval for the idea which is met with no obvious stigma and only love and support from her immediate family. However, some things apparently don’t change as even if not all roads lead to marriage they all point towards motherhood which is still presented as the only marker of success as a woman. In this respect the closing montage accompanied by the odd choice of Olivia Newton John’s Have You Even Felt Mellow feels ill judged as the sister who’s experienced the ultimate heartbreak bounces around recreating the opening of Georgy Girl (only more successfully) with a new haircut and indulging in an ice-cream as a sort of antidote to eternal widowhood.

Nevertheless, Flowers does present a warm and broadly inspirational ode to the healing power of family and unbreakable female resilience even in the midst of such extreme social change. Painted with a keen eye for period detail and a deeply nostalgic longing for comforts long since passed, Koizumi’s exploration of womanhood through the ages is quick to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice experienced by women of all generations but is, in the end, too ready to accept it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):