Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Kosai Sekine, 2018)

love at least posterFor some, it might be impossible grasp just how exhausting it can be merely being alive. For the heroine of Kosai Sekine’s debut feature Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Ikiteru Dake de, Ai) , adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya (Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!, Vengeance Can Wait), life is a draining cycle of waking and sleeping from which she fears she will never be able to free herself. An encounter with an equally atypical though perhaps more destructive young woman who orders her to leave her ordered existence so that she might step into the newly vacant space unwittingly helps her towards a moment of clarity though not the one it might at first seem.

Yasuko (Shuri) has vague memories of her mother dancing when the power went out but she herself is afraid of the dark. Looking back there’s a lot that makes sense to her about her mother’s behaviour and subsequently her own, but she hasn’t yet found a way to come to terms with her psychology. Yasuko has bipolar and is currently unemployed as she suffers with hypersomnia and hasn’t been able to hold down a job. She’s supported by her live-in boyfriend of three years, Tsunaki (Masaki Suda), who once dreamed of being a writer but now has a soul crushing job at a tabloid magazine writing salacious exposés about celebrities.

Yasuko is currently in the middle of a depressive spell and rarely leaves the house, spending most of the day asleep and exchanging texts with her somewhat unsupportive sister but her life is turned upside-down when she receives a surprise visit from a woman calling herself Ando (Riisa Naka) who drags her off to a nearby cafe and explains that she previously dated Tsunaki three years ago and now she wants him back. Viewing Yasuko as some kind of lesser human, Ando thinks she should see sense and leave Tsunaki to which Yasuko quite reasonably points out she has no income and so the request is quite unreasonable. Ando, however, is nothing if not thorough and it’s not long before she’s bamboozled both the cafe and Yasuko into taking her on as a part-time waitress.

Ando, an extremely unpleasant and manipulative woman, may be as Yasuko points out even “sicker” than she is but somehow she seems to make all around her do her bidding. Oddly enough, working at the cafe might actually be good for Yasuko – the cafe owner and his wife are kind and sympathetic people who seem to want to help and the other waitress was once a hikikomori so they might truly have some idea of what is involved in trying to help those in need. Ando, however, doesn’t quite seem to want her to succeed – she turns up at the cafe on a regular basis to feed Yasuko’s insecurities, pointedly asking her if she’s considered whether the problem might not just be that she’s “useless”, telling her that it’s pointless to try because she’ll inevitably fail, all of which seems quite counterproductive to her nefarious plan.

Then again, kindness and sympathy are not always quite as helpful as they seem. The cafe owner’s wife is nice, to be sure, but is fond of repeating the mantra that depression is caused by loneliness and that therefore making friends with the people at the cafe will make everything better. There might be something in her way of thinking, but it’s also a superficial approach to a more complicated problem and mild refusal to face some of the more serious aspects of Yasuko’s condition. When she’s started to feel as if the cafe is a safe space, told to think of herself as “family”, Yasuko lets down her guard and reveals one subject of her obsessive anxieties which just happens to be the washlet and the possibility of its sudden explosion should the water pressure go haywire. All of a sudden it’s as if the air changes, they look at her like she’s “mad” and the facade of their patronising desire to help is suddenly ripped away. Yasuko’s worst fear has been realised, they “see through” her and she feels as if there’s no hope any more.

Being seen through is perhaps something which Yasuko both fears and craves. Tsunaki, meanwhile, is suffering something similar only in a less extreme way. He also feared being seen through, but unlike Yasuko chose to isolate himself, rarely speaking and maintaining a healthy distance to the world. For this reason he’s been able to put up with his awful tabloid job, even excusing himself when an actress whose affair they’d exposed committed suicide because after all it was “nothing to do with” him despite the fact he was so obviously complicit. Increasingly conflicted, he begins to pull away from Yasuko, unwilling to overburden her with his own worries or perhaps more accurately equally afraid to expose them. Yasuko’s cruel barb that she wished Tsunaki’s “lack of character” would infect her hints at her mild frustration with his passivity, that his refusal to engage and habit of pussyfooting around her illness to avoid creating a scene are also contributing to her ongoing lethargy. The passive aggressive texts from her sister which seemed so unsupportive are perhaps less so as she is the only person willing to go toe to go with her and suddenly Yasuko’s meanness towards her outwardly patient and caring boyfriend reads more like provocation, as if she’s trying to make him respond rather than allow him to continue enabling her inertia.

Being driven apart by their parallel crises eventually brings the pair back together again, closer to an emotional centre and reaching a brief moment of understanding. As Yasuko says, the connection may have been only momentary, but within that infinitesimal space she can perhaps find a life. The dark is not so scary after all. Anchored by an extraordinary performance from Shuri, Love at Least is a beautifully composed examination of the costs of modern living in which fragmentary moments of absolute connection become the only source of salvation in a world of broken dreams and hopeless futures.


Love At Least made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Masanori Tominaga, 2009)

Pandora's BoxOsamu Dazai is one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. Beginning his career as a student before the war, Dazai found himself at a loss after the suicide of his idol Ryunosuke Akutagawa and descended into a spiral of hedonistic depression that was to mark the rest of his life culminating in his eventual drowning alongside his mistress Tomie in a shallow river in 1948. 2009 marked the centenary of his birth and so there were the usual tributes including a series of films inspired by his works. In this respect, Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Pandora no Hako) is a slightly odd choice as it ranks among his minor, lesser known pieces but it is certainly much more upbeat than the nihilistic Fallen Angel or the fatalistic Villon’s Wife. Masanori Tominaga had made an impact with his debut film The Pavillion Salamandre and seemed to be a perfect fit for the quirkier, darkly comic Pandora’s Box but perhaps in the end it was too perfect a fit.

Inspired by events from Dazai’s own life, the story centres around a young man at the end of the second world war who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time but kept quiet about it expecting to die soon and remove the burden on his family. However, when the war finally ends Risuke (Shota Sometani) inherits a new will to live and commits himself to a sanatorium to treat his lung condition. Whilst in the hospital he comes into contact with writers and poets as well as pretty nurses all the while proceeding with his plan to become a “new man” for this “new era”.

At once both hopeful and nihilistic, Pandora’s Box mixes gallows humour and denial in equal measure as the motley collection of inpatients waste their days away in this eccentric establishment which looks after them well enough but promises no real progress in terms of their health. Each of the patients receives a nickname when they enter the sanatorium so Risuke quickly becomes Hibari (sky lark). Tellingly, these nicknames overwrite real world personas – original names are recalled only at the time of death. Deaths do indeed occur but aside from these unhappy events, no one acknowledges the seriousness of their condition or the possibility that they may die from it, never leaving the hospital again. Physical pain and suffering is almost entirely absent though Risuke gives ample vent to his mental anguish through his letters to a fellow patient who has now been discharged back into the unseen chaos of the post-war world.

Indeed, the sanatorium might be a kind of idyll in this era of instability. Well fed and well cared for, the patients are far better off than many left adrift in the starving cities but the outside world rarely impinges on the isolated atmosphere of the sanatorium. Events change slightly when a friend of Risuke’s, Tsukushi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is discharged and a new nurse, Take (Mieko Kawakami), arrives stirring up various different emotions amongst the male patients in Risuke’s ward. Striking up a friendship with the younger nurse, Mabo (Riisa Naka), Risuke finds himself torn between two very different women.

Although its tone is necessarily one of depression and numbness, Pandora’s Box ends on an improbably upbeat note in which Risuke remarks that just like a climbing plant he may not know where he’s going, but it will certainly be a place of bright sunlight. A minor work filled with dark, ironic humour it’s perhaps unfair to expect the same kind of impact as Dazai’s more weighty efforts but Pandora’s Box is a lower budget affair which, although interesting enough in terms of direction, fails to make much of an impression outside of its obvious pedigree. The light jazzy score and deadbeat voice over add to the period feel whilst also lending an air of hopeless yet buoyant resignation to Risuke’s ongoing journey into the post-war world. This, in many ways, is what we’re here for – Risuke, unlike Dazai, has made a commitment to forge a way forward in which he plans to fight for the sun rather sink below the waves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)