Ride Your Wave (きみと、波にのれたら, Masaaki Yuasa, 2019)

“The next wave is already on the horizon waiting for you to catch it” according to the heroine of Masaaki Yuasa’s uncharacteristically uncomplicated Ride Your Wave (きみと、波にのれたら, Kimi to, Nami ni Noretara) offering words of comfort to her dejected soon-to-be boyfriend over his continuing failure to master the surfboard. It’s advice she struggles to follow herself, however, after she’s blown off course by unexpected tragedy. Yet, nothing’s ever really as off course as you think it is and the waves she must learn to ride are her own and hers alone. 

Oceanography student Hinako (Rina Kawaei) is something of a mess. She’s moved out on her own to study at university in Chiba, but is struggling with the transition to adult life, unable to unpack her things or cook herself a decent dinner. Nevertheless, she’s become a “hero” to dashing fireman Minato (Ryota Katayose) who watches her bravely ride the waves from the roof of the fire station. The pair finally meet when some irresponsible students have an impromptu fireworks party that ends up setting fire to Hinako’s building, leaving her marooned on the roof cradling her surfboard at which point she’s rescued by Minato heroically appearing in a cherrypicker. She offers to teach him to surf, they go for coffee, and eventually fall hopelessly in love. Their romance, however, is cut short when Minato heads to the beach alone in stormy seas and drowns trying to save a jet skier who’s got into trouble. Unable to deal with the grief, Hinako avoids the sea altogether but begins to believe she is seeing Minato in every watery surface and can in fact summon him by singing their favourite song. 

Fellow firefighter Wasabi (Kentaro Ito), himself a little in love with the formerly fearless Hinako, tries to jolt her out of her “delusion” by asking how this could have happened to her, once so brave and independent now filled with grief and anxiety. Minato, whose name literally means “harbour”, had promised to protect her, staying by her side forever. Faced with her first serious relationship going far too well, Hinako identified a potential problem in her possible over reliance on her extremely capable boyfriend, preferring to wait until she was able to ride the waves alone before taking the next step. Minato wanted the same thing, encouraging her growth while providing a “safe harbour”, but his sudden absence has left her afraid to move forward and unwilling to leave the land. 

Delusion or not, Hinako clings to her lost love, carrying around “Minato” in a tiny flask of water or filling up an inflatable porpoise and walking it all around town to the constant consternation of the locals. What she learns, on one level, is that she has to learn to save herself, but also that in doing so she can help to save others. Learning something about Minato’s past and the reasons which eventually led to him becoming a fireman persuade her that she ought to use whatever skills she has for the common good. Meanwhile, the lovelorn Wasabi learns something similar after reconnecting with Minato’s spiky sister Youko (Honoka Matsumoto) who was once a shut-in refusing to go to school where her rather abrasive manner made her an outcast but found a new strength in self-acceptance on hearing Wasabi declare that just being herself was good enough for him. 

Youko decides to pick up her brother’s dream of opening an artisanal coffeeshop, which is nice but also a little shortsighted in that it does not allow her to pursue a dream that’s entirely her own other than through finding the courage to embrace the risk of romance. Likewise, Hinako and Wasabi are largely carried along in Minato’s wake, but nevertheless make unambiguously good decisions in choosing to dedicate their lives to helping others, accepting that that’s often less about grand heroic gestures than it is about small moments of connection. Hinako realises that she has to let go of the past, however painful, for Minato’s good as well as her own, while finding her sea legs to take her into a more promising future. After all, the waves keep coming. Minato recedes into the great confluence of life, while Hinako gains the courage to ride the waves alone, no longer afraid to leave the shore but in search of new horizons. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

UK Trailer (English subtitles)

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2018)

In most countries, the legal and medical definitions of death centre on activity in the brain. In Japan, however, death is only said to have occurred once the heart stops beating. The bereaved parents at the centre of The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Ningyo no Nemuru Ie), adapted from the novel by Keigo Higashino, are presented with the most terrible of choices. They must accept that their daughter, Mizuho, will not recover, but are asked to decide whether she is declared brain dead now so that her organs can be used for transplantation, or wait for her heart to stop beating in a few months’ time at most. As their daughter was only six years old, they’d never discussed anything like this with her but come to the conclusion that she’d want to help other children if she could. Only when they come to say goodbye, Mizuho grasps her mother’s hand giving her possibly false hope that the doctor’s assurances that she is brain dead and will never wake up are mistaken. 

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Harimas were in the middle of a messy divorce when they got the news that Mizuho had been involved in an accident at a swimming pool. Kazumasa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Mizuho’s father, is the CEO of a tech firm specialising in cutting edge medical technology mostly geared towards making the lives of people with disabilities easier. He does therefore have a special interest in his daughter’s condition and is willing to explore scientific solutions where most might simply accept the doctor’s first opinion. His wife, Kaoruko, meanwhile has a deep-seated faith that her daughter is still present if asleep and will one day wake up. 

It so happens that one of Kazuma’s researchers (Kentaro Sakaguchi) specialises in a new kind of technology which hopes to restore motor function through artificial nerve signals controlled by computers and electromagnetic pulses. He hatches on the idea of using the technology to improve his daughter’s quality of life by letting her “exercise” to maintain muscle strength, but despite the excellent results it achieves in terms of her health, it takes them to a dark place. Muscle training might be one thing, but having Mizuho make meaningful gestures is another. They don’t mean to, but they’re manipulating her body as if she were a puppet, even forcing her to smile without her consent. 

Kazumasa starts to wonder if he’s gone too far. Seeing his daughter’s face move with no emotion behind it only proves to him that she is no longer alive. Meanwhile, he comes across another parent raising money to send his daughter to America for a life saving heart transplant and begins to feel guilty that perhaps his decision was selfish. The father of the other girl sympathises with him and confides that they can’t bring themselves to pray for a donor because they know it’s the same as praying for another child’s death, but Kazumasa can’t help feeling he’s partly responsible because he made the choice to artificially prolong his daughter’s life but now realises that she is little more than a living a doll. 

This is something brought home to him by Kaoruko’s increasing desire to show their daughter off. Her decision to take her to their son Ikuo’s elementary school entrance ceremony instantly causes trouble with the other parents who feign politeness but are obviously uncomfortable while the children waste no time in ostracising Ikuo because of his “creepy” sister. Kazumasa privately wonders if Kaoruko’s devotion has turned dark, if she’s somehow begun to enjoy this new closeness with her daughter to the exclusion of all else and has lost the power of rational thought. He can’t know however that perhaps she’s coming to the same conclusion as him, but it finding it much harder to accept that they might have made a mistake and all their interventions are only causing Mizuho additional suffering.

What’s best for Mizuho, however, is something that sometimes gets forgotten in the ongoing debate about the moral choices of her parents and relatives. Kazumasa’s colleagues accuse of him of misappropriation in monopolising a key researcher, hinting again at the “selfishness” of his decision to expend so much energy on treating someone whom many believe to be without hope when there are many more in need. The researcher in turn accuses Kazumasa of “jealousy” believing that he has displaced him as an “artificial” father working closely with Kaoruko in caring for their daughter. The “life” in the balance is not so much Mizuho’s but that of the traditional family which is perhaps in a sense reborn in rediscovering the blinding love that they shared for each other which will of course never fade. What they learn is to love unselfishly, that love is sometimes letting go, but also that even in endings there is a kind of continuity in the shared gift of life and the goodness left behind even after the most unbearable of losses.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Leo Sato, 2018)

Kamagasaki couldron warAs far as Japanese cinema has been concerned, the city of Osaka is renowned for two very specific things – gangsters and comedy. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Tsukiyo no Kamagassen), the debut narrative feature from Leo Sato, neatly brings them both together in an anarchic tale of social inequalities and the pettiness of organised crime. A warmhearted exploration of the eponymous “invisible slum”, Kamagasaki Cauldron War delights in everyday resistance as its ordinary citizens attempt to live their ordinary lives all but forgotten in a society intent on swallowing them whole.

The drama begins with drifter Henmi – a casual labourer with a young son, Kantaro (Tumugi Monko), who dreams of joining the local yakuza gang Kamitari but is rudely rejected by its foot soldiers. In revenge, he steals their precious “kama” sake bowl which is the symbol of their clan and essential for carrying out the succession ritual. This is all the more embarrassing because the elderly boss is thinking of retiring now that his son, Tamao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), has been released from a 20-year prison stretch. Tamao, however, is secretly pleased because he doesn’t much fancy taking over while the petty yakuza who’s been running the show all this time is also quite happy because he doesn’t really want to give up control. Nevertheless, the precious Kama must be recovered at all costs or the gang will continue to face a significant loss of street cred.

Meanwhile, a bigger drama is underway. Kamagasaki is home to a significant proportion of “homeless” people, many of whom congregate around Sankaku Park where a regular soup kitchen runs next to the giant symbolic Kama cauldron in the park’s centre. It also the last remaining undeveloped post-war area and is therefore rich pickings for unscrupulous property developers such as Capital Beat who are primed to bulldoze the welfare centre to build more housing and therefore need to clear the park of the homeless in order to make the area seem attractive. Already trying to prevent the homeless from settling, the city has put up a series of insidious barriers including floral centrepieces and more obvious metal barriers but is nervous of taking direct action such as physical evictions. Which is where the yakuza come in. Working with Capital Beat and corrupt police, the yakuza take clubs to the soup kitchen and get vulnerable people to commit arson by setting fire to live rats and having them run into “derelict” buildings.

At the centre of events, orphan Nikichi (Yota Kawase) tries to keep himself afloat when the only gigs going are transfers to Turkish nuclear power plants by taking advantage of the Kama crisis and getting his hands on as many as possible little knowing that he is actually in possession of the Kamitari sake bowl thanks to little Kantaro whom he has been persuaded to adopt with his sex worker girlfriend Mei (Naori Ota) who grew up with him in the same orphanage. Coincidentally, the pair were also childhood friends with Tamao who has apparently been holding a torch for Mei all these years as well as grudge against Nikichi for an embarrassing injury caused during a sports contest at school. While they’re busy scrapping it out, the local area decides to fight back against Capital Beat by protesting the city’s treatment of the homeless leaving Nikichi an accidental figurehead for a campaign he doesn’t quite believe in and is only tangentially involved with.

Decrying that there is “no place to rest in the whole world” some enterprising homeless guys have built a tunnel under the giant Kama while others attempt to repurpose their penury by declaring that “garbage is the weapon of the people”. Recalling the anarchic spirit of the student protests (including a surprising cameo by Masao Adachi), the residents of Kamagasaki rise up against social intransigence by taking on the yakuza armed with pots and pans before the police stick their oar in and end up becoming a mutual point of irritation. Filmed on retro 16mm, Kamagasaki Cauldron War offers no real solutions to its various problems but delights in the everyday anarchism of its workaday world in which its scrappy residents do their best to get by in an often hostile environment, finding whatever ways they can to resist societal oppression while maintaining a sense of humour and world weary hope for the future.


The Kamagasaki Cauldron War was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Lies She Loved (嘘を愛する女, Kazuhito Nakae, 2018)

lies she loved posterHow well do you really know the people with whom you share your life? Or, perhaps, how honest have you really been with those closest you? Inspired by a notorious newspaper article, The Lies She Loved (嘘を愛する女, Uso wo Aisuru Onna) has a few hard questions to ask about the nature of modern relationships and the secrets which often lie at their hearts. Yet the message is perhaps that there are different kinds of truths and the literal may be among the least important of them. The salient message is that consideration for the feelings of others and a willingness to share the burden of being alive are the only real paths towards a fulfilling existence.

30-something Yukari (Masami Nagasawa) is a workaholic career woman currently at the top of her corporate game. Unmarried, she’s been living with impoverished medical researcher Kippei (Issey Takahashi) for the last five years and is happy enough with him (save the occasional one night stand) but also feels as if there’s something missing. She’s angry when he doesn’t show up to a pre-arranged dinner where he’s supposed to meet her mum, leaving her to deal with her mother’s disapproving scorn all alone, but chastened when it’s revealed he was found collapsed in a local park and is currently in the hospital after suffering a brain haemorrhage. If that weren’t enough chaos for the hyper organised Yukari, the police tell her Kippei’s ID is fake. He doesn’t work where he said he said worked and no one seems to have heard of him. Remembering a conversation about cheating spouses, Yukari turns to the detective uncle (Daigo) of one of her work friends for help but starts to wonder what sort of answers it is that she’s really looking for.

An intriguing mystery, The Lies She Loved begins in worrying fashion as if it wants to punish Yukari for her obsessive workaholic lifestyle and avoidance of the traditionally feminine roles of wife and mother. The couple aren’t married, but Kippei is for all intents and purposes a kept man and house husband. He doesn’t earn enough to contribute to the household economy, but makes up for it by handling the domestic tasks usually the domain of a “wife”, i.e. cooking and cleaning. Meanwhile, Yukari works insane hours and often stays out drinking with colleagues, claiming this valuable out of hours time as part of the job but sometimes spending it with other men. We see her “lie” to Kippei, telling him a large bouquet of snacks won from an amusement stand was a gift from a female friend when it came from a “date”, while he reproves her with coldness for her excessive drinking and the tendency it provokes in her for unsolicited cruelty.

Yet moving on we see that a woman’s career, or man’s lack of one, is not the issue at all. The issue is neglect, a taking for granted of other people’s feelings and their willingness to provide support and affection while getting nothing in return. Rather than going to work, Kippei had been spending time in a coffeeshop writing something that’s somewhere between novel and therapy about a happy family living on an idyllic island. We discover that he too once took something for granted, became wrapped up in his career, and overburdened someone else by allowing them to take on the entirety of their mutual responsibility with tragic consequences. Filled with remorse, he ran away from his crime and tried to forget.

The crime is not a woman working, but people in general working too much and knowing each other too little. Humiliated, Yukari wants answers about her immediate past, wanting to know if she was tricked by a conman in order to avoid facing the fact that she never really bothered to ask many questions about the man she invited into her home. Indeed, her decision to “invite” him in the first place is not altogether altruistic and cannot help giving off the scent of mild desperation as she tries to make the arrangement seem convenient while ensuring she retains the upper-hand in the power dynamics without giving too much away. What she really wants to know, without really wanting to admit it, is if her lover really loved her despite his “lies”, but to know that she’ll have to deal with her own longstanding intimacy issues and accept that a loving home is a balanced one in which both partners are equal and agree to share their burdens with openness and generosity. A progressive, nuanced look at modern romance The Lies She Loved is a surprisingly effective defence of love and a mild rebuke of the society which does its best to undermine it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)