The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Shinji Araki, 2020)

“You’re free now, so the world is more beautiful” the hero of Shinji Araki’s dystopian thriller The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Ninzu no Machi) is unironically told by a mysterious saviour even as a watchtower lingers on the horizon behind him. Modern Japan, it seems to say, is no paradise but is it worth trading your identity and existence for the guaranteed satisfaction of your basic needs? Freedom, happiness, and love may be nebulous concepts which mean different things to different people, but in the end leading a satisfactory life might just come down to what it is you decide you can live without. 

The nameless protagonist later credited as Aoyama (Tomoya Nakamura) describes himself as an “average joe” who has “a weak will” and doesn’t “belong anywhere in society”. While being beaten up by a loanshark, he’s unexpectedly rescued by the miraculous appearance of the mysterious “Paul” (So Yamanaka), a middle-aged man dressed in an orange jump suit who tells him there’s a place he can go where’d he fit right in. After a lengthy bus ride, he finds himself a new resident of “The Town” where those like him who for one reason or another felt themselves rejected by mainstream society can live in ease and comfort, only as he later discovers he is unable to leave. Should he walk too far beyond the fence, the microchip in his head activates a sonic wave of painful and disabling distortion. 

Somewhere between a utopian cult commune and a penal colony occupying a disused conference centre, The Town is a free love society which insists that equality is possible and that freedom and peace are more than mere dreams. Family creates inequality, so The Town’s Bible says, so residents must live alone. Pregnancy is prohibited, while children brought into the compound are separated from their parents and raised in a communal nursery. All basic needs, food, warmth, shelter and even sex, are otherwise guaranteed though the residents are expected to “work” to earn them, performing often pointless tasks parasitically underpinning modern capitalism such as writing meaningless product reviews in return for treats, or performing as stooges to create hype around new store openings. Aoyama’s sense of morality is however shaken when he’s asked to commit electoral fraud by repeatedly voting for a chosen candidate with stolen ballots, later recruited as a crisis actor in a fake terrorist incident intended to further influence an election in the wake of a corruption scandal. 

In The Town, he’s told his existence is meaningful and given a place to belong. Yet he has to surrender his name, known as “Dudes” residents must greet each other ritualistically only by the word “fellow” followed by some kind of compliment. All his needs may be met, but he’s forbidden to fall in love, can never marry or have a family, and it does seem troubling that there are no elderly people around even if some suggest there are other “Towns” just for them. Some might say, The Town is way is a way for mainstream society to get rid of all the people it doesn’t want or feels have no value. Araki throws up frequent title cards featuring various statistics such as the numbers of homeless people, bankruptcies, unemployment etc along with brief flashbacks to whatever it was that brought residents to The Town from being thrown thrown out of a manga cafe after attempting to live there to being almost choked to death by debt-collecting yakuza suggesting there’s little “freedom” in the rigid contemporary society and most particularly for those unable or unwilling to live by its rules.  

In The Town rules are few, and you’re well looked after, but you can’t leave and though it seems like an individualist paradise where you’re free to satisfy each of your physical desires you have no further control over your existence. As one resident puts it, “life here is kind of weightless”, perhaps a relief for some but a crushing existential crisis for others. Aoyama realises that in The Town he rarely feels angry, but perhaps he feels nothing much of anything else, either. Just as he’s starting to adjust, his feelings of unease are strengthened by the arrival of a young woman who apparently had no previous societal issues but has come to The Town in search of her younger sister whom she failed to help despite knowing she was trapped in an abusive relationship. Unlike Aoyama, Beniko (Shizuka Ishibashi) claims not to have felt much of anything in the regular world, unsure even what love is and unimpressed by the beautiful vistas of freedom that are supposed to define The Town, but doesn’t want to stay and be rendered a mindless drone exploited by mysterious forces for whatever purpose they may choose.

What Aoyama realises he craves is the love and companionship of a conventional family life. “We want to support each other and work hard. Love each other and live together” he explains to a non-plussed Paul who seems to pity him, his simple desire at once at odds with the values of The Town and perhaps equally unobtainable in contemporary Japan. In the end, the only “freedom” he may find lies in complicity with one system or another, becoming an oppressor as one of the oppressed. The question is what sort of life is most satisfying, freedom from the anxiety of hunger and cold, or the freedom to love and live fully in manner of your choosing. The modern society may not grant you either, and both perhaps have their costs. A bleak dystopian thriller, Araki’s steely drama features innovative production design and slick direction mimicking the hero’s sense of disaffection with detachment and a total lack of resistance to the otherwise bewildering world of The Town but saves its real sense of confusion for the state of the modern society and the fate of those who survive on its margins. 


The Town of Headcounts streams in the US March 15 – 19 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Hideo Nakata, 2002)

dark-water

Review of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water first published by UK Anime Network.


For good or ill, the J-horror boom came to dominate Japanese cinema at the turn of the century and if anyone can be said to have been instrumental in ushering it in, director Hideo Nakata and novelist Koji Suzuki, whose landmark collaboration on The Ring has become symbolic of the entire genre, must be at the head of the list. Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara) finds the pair working together again on another supernaturally tinged, creepy psychological thriller. Neatly marrying the classic J-horror tropes of freaky children and dripping wet ghosts, Dark Water also embraces aspects of the uniquely Japanese “hahamono” or mother movie which prizes maternal sacrifice and suffering above all else.

Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a nervous middle aged woman, is in the middle of a messy divorce with her exceedingly smug salaryman husband. Despite having been less than present during the marriage, Yoshimi’s husband now wants full custody of the couple’s five year old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). In order to aid her case, Yoshimi quickly finds an apartment and starts looking for a job. All seems to be going well except for the mysterious dripping stain on the ceiling which the building manager doesn’t seem very interested in fixing. Before long, strange events begin unfolding including unexplained puddles, a mysterious red children’s shoulder bag which keeps reappearing after being thrown out, and brief sightings of a little girl in a yellow raincoat….

Nakata opens the film with what is in effect a flashback sequence as Yoshimi waits for her own mother to pick her up from primary school. It quickly becomes apparent that Yoshimi’s relationship with her birth mother was an imperfect one which later ended in neglect and abandonment. Yoshimi continues to have frequent flashbacks to her childhood and harbours and intense fear of inflicting the same kind of damage her mother inflicted on her onto her own daughter. Ikuko is also left waiting at school when Yoshimi is kept late at a job interview – something which is eventually used against her in the court case. Though Yoshimi’s aunt reassures her that she’s doing a much better job than her mother did for her, Yoshimi is filled with doubts as to her suitability as a mother which are only further compounded by her intense love for her daughter and fear of losing her.

On top of her maternal worries and residual abandonment issues, Yoshimi also has a history of mental distress which her ex-husband uses to discredit her. It’s open to debate exactly how much of what appears to be happening is actually happening and how much a manifestation of a possible nervous breakdown, but aside from the supernatural shenanigans there are also real world dangers to consider including the missing posters for a girl who was around Ikuko’s age when she disappeared two years previously. The primary school headmaster is convinced that the girl was abducted by a third party but it also transpires that Mitsuko, like Yoshimi and as Yoshimi fears for Ikuko, was abandoned by her mother.

When it comes right down to it, Dark Water lays the blame for its supernaturally tinged evil firmly at the feet of divorce and family breakdown. The supposedly progressive primary school in which the main aim is to allow children freedom of expression is quick to tell the already overwrought Yoshimi that the “strange behaviour” they’ve been witnessing in Ikuko is essentially all her fault because of the divorce and disruption to Ikuko’s home life. Similarly, the central supernatural threat is born of maternal neglect, a symptom of the selfish individualism of the mother who has chosen to leave her child behind. Yoshimi has been jettisoned by her controlling ex-husband and her only thought is to keep her daughter with her, yet she is being made to pay for a social prejudice against atypical families such as those resulting from a “selfish” decision to dissolve a marriage.

Dark Water cleverly recasts Yoshimi as an idealised mother willing to sacrifice all to protect her child. As the situation intensifies, Yoshimi begins to feel as if she’s becoming a toxic presence in her daughter’s life. Rather than risk the same fate befalling her own daughter as has befallen her, Yoshimi opts to make herself the last link in the chain of abuse, freeing her daughter from her own baggage. In contrast with both Yoshimi and Mitsuko, Ikuko will always know that her mother loved her and will always be with her even if protecting her from afar.

Nakata conjures up a supremely creepy atmosphere filled with everyday horrors. The run down apartment complex in which Yoshimi finds her (presumably very reasonably priced) apartment is an unsettling world of its own with its strangely moist, dripping walls, eccentric residents, and rapidly decaying exterior. One of the most effective and visually interesting entries in the J-horror genre, Dark Water perfectly mixes creepy, supernatural horror with psychological drama culminating in a final sequence which doesn’t stint on the scares but proves emotionally devastating in the process.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (世界の中心で、愛をさけぶ, Isao Yukisada, 2004)

sekachuJust look at at that title for a second, would you? Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, you’d be hard pressed to find a more poetically titled film even given Japan’s fairly abstract titling system. All the pain and rage and sorrow of youth seem to be penned up inside it waiting to burst forth. As you might expect, the film is part of the “Jun ai” or pure love genre and focusses on the doomed love story between an ordinary teenage boy and a dying girl. Their tragic romance may actually only occupy a few weeks, from early summer to late autumn, but its intensity casts a shadow across the rest of the boy’s life.

The story begins 17 years later, in 2004 when Sakutaro is a successful man living in the city and engaged to be married. Whilst preparing to move, his fiancée, Ritsuko, who happens to be from the same hometown, finds an old jacket of hers in a box which still has a long forgotten cassette tape hidden in the pocket. Dated 28th October 1986, the tape takes Ritsuko back to her childhood and a long forgotten, unfulfilled promise. She leaves a note for Sakutaro and heads home for a bit to think about her past while he, unknowingly, chases after her back to the place where he grew up and the memories of his lost love which he’s been unable to put to rest all these years…

In someways, Crying Out Love is your typical weepy as a young boy and girl find love only to have it cruelly snatched away from them by fate. Suddenly everything becomes so much more intense, time is running out and things which may have taken months or even years to work out have to happen in a matter of hours. In real terms, it’s just a summer when you’re 17 but then when you’re 17 everything is so much more intense anyway even when you don’t have to invite Death to the party too. Aki may have a point when suggesting that the the love the local photographer still carries for their recently deceased headmistress who married another man only lasted so long because it was unfulfilled. Perhaps Aki and Sakutaro’s love story would have been over by the end of high school in any case, but Sakutaro was never given the chance to find out and that unfinished business has continued to hover over him ever since, buzzing away in the back of his mind.

“Unfinished business” is really what the film’s about. Even so far as “pure love” goes, there comes a time where you need to move on. Perhaps the photographer might have been happier letting go of his youthful love and making a life with someone else, although, perhaps that isn’t exactly fair on the “someone else” involved. The photographer’s advice, as one who’s lived in the world a while and knows loneliness only too well, is that the only thing those who’ve been left behind can do is to tie up loose ends. Sakutaro needs to come to terms with Aki’s death so he can finally get on with the rest of his life.

There is a fair amount of melodrama which is only to be expected but largely Crying out Love skilfully avoids the maudlin and manages to stay on the right side of sickly. The performances are excellent across the board with a masterfully subtle performance from Takao Osawa as the older Sakutaro equally matched by the boyishness of a young Mirai Moriyama as his teenage counterpart. The standout performance however comes from Masami Nagasawa who plays the seemingly perfect Aki admired by all for her well rounded qualities from her sporting ability to her beauty and intelligence but also has a mischievous, playful side which brings her into contact with Sakutaro. Her decline in illness is beautifully played as she tries to put a brave face on her situation, determined not to give in and clinging to her romance with Sakutaro even though she knows that she will likely not survive. Kou Shibasaki completes the quartet of major players in a slightly smaller though hugely important role of Sakutaro’s modern day fiancée saddled with a difficult late stage monologue which she carries off with a great deal of skill.

Impressively filmed by Isao Yukisada who neatly builds the films dualities through a series of recurrent motifs, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is not without its melodramatic touches but largely succeeds in being a painfully moving “pure love” story. Beautiful, tragic, and just as poetic as its title, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is a cathartic romance that like Sakutaro’s memories of Aki is sure to linger in the memory for years to come.


The Japanese R2 DVD release of Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World includes English subtitles (Hurray!).

(Unsubbed trailer though, sorry)