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)

I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

Hirobumi Watanabe has made a name for himself as a purveyor of deadpan wit, often shooting in a stark black and white and casting himself as a sometimes irate monologuer inhabiting a world of silence. With I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Watashi wa Genki), however, he for the most part stays behind the camera which he operates for himself for the first time in the absence of regular cinematographer Bang Woo-hyun, and subverts the conceits of Poolsideman to show us the innocent world of childhood, following an energetic little girl through one ordinary, though as it turns out, packed with small incident day. 

After opening with a colour sequence in which Riko (Riko Hisatsugu), a very energetic young girl, shoots an encouraging iPhone video, Watanabe returns to a more familiar black and white to find her playing with her best friend Nanaka (Nanaka Sudo), and then waking up to the sound of bird song ready for a brand new day. Like the hero of Poolsideman, she is constantly exposed to the radio news though, we can assume, she is not the one who put it on or actively listening to it. The central irony is that, where Poolsideman’s hero found himself driven in dangerous directions by reports of death, violence, and war, Riko is largely indifferent to the current pensions crisis which seems to be dominating the news. As a child, pensions are not something she is particularly worried about, though in a very real sense this will one day affect her especially in its implications for Japan’s rapidly ageing society as the discussion moves on to potential tax reform and ideas to combat a stagnating economy. In any case, Riko carries on playing happily with her friends, the news washing over her as perhaps it should. 

Meanwhile, her days are filled with ordinary things like walking to school with her brother and Nanaka, chatting about what’s for lunch and what they had for dinner, playing shiritori, and enjoying the pleasant rural landscape. In the evening they make the exact same journey in reverse, returning to their homes where they do their homework and wait patiently for their parents to return from their jobs to make dinner. On this particular day, two unusual events occur the first being she’s ended up with Nanaka’s homework book by mistake and needs to return it. The second is a visit from a strange man with the bizarre name of Kamekichi Jinguji (Hirobumi Watanabe) who claims to be from a company selling textbooks that will send even the dimmest of students to the top of the class. 

Luckily Riko is not duped by Kamekichi whose rather bizarre scam is undermined when she tells him her dad’s a policeman which sends him into a bit of a panic, but his presence does perhaps hark back to the pensions crisis as Riko finds herself targeted by a problem which is usually associated with the elderly in being doorstepped by a fraudulent salesman taking advantage of the fact she is currently without responsible adults with both parents out working. He tries the same thing with Nanaka who is almost taken in, but catches her just after Riko has arrived to give the book back, pausing only to remind the girls that they are the future and it’s their job to build a better Japan. Particularly ironic advice from a guy conning children out of their pocket money in exchange for phoney textbooks, not to mention somewhat unfair in projecting the responsibility for fixing a series of social problems like the pensions crisis into the future when it’s people like him who should be fixing them now to make the better world possible while little girls like Riko and Nanaka play happily enjoying a carefree childhood. 

To that matter, Riko’s childhood seems to be pretty carefree. She hangs out with Nanaka, plays football, enjoys the pleasant country environment and is surrounded by loving family even if sad that her policeman dad often works late and can’t join them for dinner while her older brother is forever playing video games at the table. The politicians on the news debate what standard of life is appropriate, trying to get out of their responsibilities by splitting hairs about the “model family”, but Riko carries on enjoying her ordinary days oblivious to the troubles of the world around her. “I’m really good!” she affirms in her introductory video after politely enquiring after the viewers’ health, and it’s as good a mission statement as you’re likely to find. 


I’m Really Good is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English captions)

Cry (叫び声, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2019)

Hirobumi Watanabe has become closely associated with a particular brand of deadpan, black and white comedy, often casting himself in a prominent role as a motormouth monologuer. Cry (叫び声, Sakebigoe), however, returns him to the themes of 7 Days which proved divisive with critics following as it did the lowkey absurdist charms of And the Mud Ship Sails Away… Once again set in rural Tochigi, the (almost entirely) wordless Cry stars Watanabe this time as a pig farmer rather than cattleman and follows the crushing mundanity of his life over the course of an ordinary week. 

Replete with agricultural detail, Cry is at pains to dramatise the cyclical, rhythmic qualities of a life lived in tune with nature even as that of a pig farmer is in some ways perhaps in conflict with it in the cultivation and constraint of other living creatures. There is perhaps something rather ironic in recalling that Watanabe’s production company is called Foolish Piggies Films, and it’s all but impossible to ignore the odd kind of symmetry in the life of the farmer and his animals who are each in their own way imprisoned on either side of the bars. The major difference between them lies in crowding and solitude, cacophony and silence. Aside from the equally silent grandmother (sadly the final onscreen appearance of Watanabe’s own grandmother Misao Hirayama who sadly passed away last year and had been a constant fixture in each of the director’s films to date) with whom he lives, the farmer has no other human contact, indeed his only “social” outlet is a solo trip to the cinema where he is the sole spectator and the only other person with whom he interacts is the usher who says nothing more than “enjoy the movie”. 

We can infer that the farmer goes to the pictures every Sunday at around the same time after seeing to the pigs, that he likely does so alone, and that this is a fixed part of his weekly routine. On a weekday, we see him rise, eat breakfast with his grandmother, muck out the pigs and break for lunch, usually taking a moment of rest on windswept rooftop under an incongruous electricity pylon as if to signal the encroachment of modernity on his simple life, or in event of rain returning home to read the paper. In the evenings he reads by the light of a small lamp and writes in a diary. Sunday aside, his days are almost identical yet, unlike the heroes of other Watanabe films who often comically walk the exact same routes they came by only in reverse, he seems to vary his path, making the surprisingly long journey between his home and the pens a little less predictable than the other areas of his life. 

The “cry” of the title might express this desire for an interruption to the maddening mundanity of his existence, but otherwise the farmer does not appear to be particularly unhappy with the simplicity of his life save for the intense drumming of the taiko score which accompanies him as he walks along the quiet country paths towards the pens as if he were heading to a battlefield which, in a way, he perhaps is as he engages in the paradoxical task of caring for animals he will one day surrender for slaughter and in fact consume.

He does not seem to be withholding a wail of existential despair, merely living an ordinary life in ordinary ways. Even on his trip to the cinema, he appears to be watching, until he falls asleep, footage from Watanabe’s own I’m Really Good (a poster for And the Mud Ship Sails Away… also sits in the foyer) in which farmland kids walk the same paths he walks but entertain themselves with games of shiritori which is generally much less fun to play on your own even if not exactly impossible. At home he cares patiently for his grandmother, diligently cleaning her dentures, again another part of his routine, while bathing in the calming silence free of the noisy cacophony of the pig pens and of the roar of the wind which sweeps the rooftop. His life may be simple, but perhaps no less repetitive than that of many others and with its own small joys even in its mundanity. 


Cry is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English captions)

Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2018)

Hirobumi Watanabe goes full 8 1/2 with the decidedly meta comedy, Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Futsu wa Hashiridasu). After the joyful celebration of Party ‘Round the Globe, he returns in a noticeably self-reflective mood once again playing a version of himself as a self-involved, childish blocked filmmaker who fears he is falling out of love with film. Unable to come up with ideas, he fobs off producers and ignores phone calls while hanging out with grandma (Misao Hirayama) and making a nuisance of himself at the library but a mini-nervous breakdown and a reconnection with the film-loving little boy he once was perhaps offer him new direction though the jury’s out on whether “Hirobumi” is ever going to grow up. 

Once again locating itself in peaceful Tochigi and shot in crisp black and white with Watanabe’s trademark deadpan static camera, Life Finds a Way opens with Hirobumi fielding a phone call from a producer in which he confesses that he’s supposed to be working on a script created in collaboration with rock band Triple Fire but he’s getting nowhere so he’s hanging out in a cafe to “relax” while playing Dragon Quest. Later he rings his cinematographer, Bang Woohyun, and makes a similar apology, admitting that he’s going to take some time off to watch the World Cup because, after all, it’s a once in every four years opportunity. Meanwhile, he’s mostly snoozing at home with grandma, or driving around with his almost entirely silent and extremely patient strawberry farmer friend Kurosaki (Kurosaki Takanori). 

One of his early rants offered as a monologue to Kurosaki who seems to be used to them, revolves around his sense of inferiority as a creative unfairly maligned as a lazy good-for-nothing by workaholic Japanese society. In Japan, he says, we worship the worker ant who survives because he works away earnestly, while in France they honour the grasshopper because his beautiful music can cheer you up even in the depths of winter. Hirobumi thinks the French have it right, that Japanese people are too obsessed with doing everything “properly”, always worrying about trivial things. According to him, there are far too many worker ant types in the Japanese film industry. He thinks films should be free and unconstrained, not bound by some kind of ideal. 

In any case, while being quite rude to “worker ant” Kurosaki who labours all day long on his strawberry farm, Hirobumi blames all his problems on having been unlucky enough to have been born in Japan rather than somewhere like France where they appreciate people like him. Later, he interviews a few locals and asks them what they think is the problem with the Japanese film industry, only for Kurosaki to repeatedly answer “it’s Hirobumi”, perhaps getting his own back. In fact, Kurosaki, apparently meaning well, shows Hirobumi a piece about of one of his films in a glossy magazine only it’s uncomplimentary in the extreme which sends him into a rage, ranting furiously about ungrateful audiences and how much he hates film critics. Hirobumi seemingly blames everyone but himself for his faults and failures, climbing all the way up to a hilltop shrine to pray that he wins the Palme d’Or while also asking that the gods not give good jobs to successful directors but give them all to him instead, and for bad things to happen to someone who sent him a strongly worded letter. 

Hirobumi’s “fan mail” appears to be from a stuffy old woman who states that she has “kindly” written to him several times already to explain that his work is an insult to cinema yet he keeps “selfishly” making films. She’d liked to have told him this in person, but was apparently “too busy” so has written another letter urging him to reflect on his life choices and either make “good” films like Koreeda and Miyazaki, or find himself another career. Hirobumi wonders what the point of films is if they don’t make people happy or have the capacity to change the world. Asked what films meant to them most of his interview subjects either had no answer or regarded them only as entertainment. An encounter with himself perhaps reminds him what it was he saw in cinema and allows hims him to begin moving forward creatively. 

But even having finished his script, has Hirobumi really changed? He seems permanently to be surrounded by children, hanging out reading the manga in the kids’ section of the library, lining up behind a string of obedient primary school students to check out his DVDs where he sets a bad example by having a series of Tora-san movies already overdue but using grandma’s card to take out more, and hanging out with his niece catching crayfish in the local stream with a bucket and net just like he must have done since he was little. He lies about missing the World Cup, ignores phone calls from the library to snooze while spending time with grandma, and is not really any nicer to the patient Kurosaki than he was before. But life finds its way, Hirobumi escapes his creative malaise by rediscovering the joy of cinema, healing himself body and soul, and feeling more positive about the future even if nothing has really changed. 


Life Finds a Way is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. It was also scheduled to screen as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Festival Trailer (English captions)

Original trailer (no subtitles)