Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Yukiko Sode, 2021)

“Is that still a thing?” a young boy asks incredulously of his rather severe grandmother as she quite insensitively sets up new marriage meetings for her granddaughter seconds after being told that her fiancé has unilaterally ended their engagement earlier that day. The “aristocracy” might seem like something from a bygone age, yet as those of us living in highly stratified societies can attest it continues to place a near invisible stranglehold over the mechanisms which govern our lives. Even so, the system traps all as Yukiko Sode’s sensitive drama Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Ano Ko wa Kizoku), adapted from the novel by Mariko Yamauchi, makes plain as two women involved with the same man, as dejected and unhappy as either of them, eventually find common ground in attempting to seize their own agency from within a fiercely patriarchal society. 

At 27, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is beginning to feel as if her life is slipping away from her. As we first meet her, she’s on her way to a posh New Year meal at a fancy Tokyo hotel. The taxi driver envies her, lamenting that he drives people here all the time but has never set foot inside. The reason she’s running late, however, is a mild sense of embarrassment as evidenced by the empty chair at her side intended for the fiancé who won’t be coming. Explaining that he broke off the engagement because the timing was bad, Hanako attempts to put a brave face on the apparent shame she seems to be feeling while her sisters and mother suggest it might be for the best, he was a little too “flamboyant” and in any case they’re ideally looking for someone suitable to take over the family medical practice. While everyone is busy proposing alternative matches, only Hanako’s brother-in-law (Takashi Yamanaka) bothers to ask her what it is she really wants but all she can muster is that she’d be fine with someone “normal”. 

After a few miserable omiai meetings with dreadful men from an awkward doctor with a photo fetish to a sleazy playboy salaryman who thinks women only say they like jazz because at some point a guy liked it, Hanako begins to lose the will to live thinking perhaps that looking for the “right guy” might be aiming too high and she should just take the best offer on the table. When she meets Koichiro (Kengo Kora), however, it’s love at first sight. Showing up like Prince Charming he’s handsome, poised, softly spoken, and even posher than she is. Hanako is the perfect choice to be his wife essentially because of her innate blandness. She’s everything the society wife is supposed to be, quiet, reserved, and unassuming in her total obedience to the tenets of her “upbringing”.  

Meanwhile, Koichiro has also been in a longterm non-relationship with another woman, Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), a bar hostess from a small town who has had to struggle the whole way to make a life for herself. The pair first met at Keio University, but Miki was forced to drop out before graduating when her father lost his job despite having studied her socks off just to get a place. A member of the “in-crowd”, Koichiro’s acceptance was guaranteed because he attended an affiliated school filled with the children of the rich and powerful. Mirroring Hanako’s lunch date with her society ladies, we see Miki and her friend invited by a couple of upperclass classmates to a fancy afternoon tea only to gorp at the menu and its exorbitant price list at which the “in-crowd” do not even glance. When they meet again 10 years later and Miki explains she didn’t exactly choose her line of work, Koichiro laments it’s exactly the same for him, which it of course isn’t, but he is in a similar way trapped. 

“I just want my family to continue” he later explains to Hanako, “it’s just how I was brought up. The same reason you married me”. In a certain way, Koichiro was no more free than Miki, ironically feminised reduced to his capacity to perpetuate the family line while aware that his whole life has been mapped out for him since the day he was born. He went to Keio, married a suitable woman, and is expected to run for political office. Hanako married him because she was expected to marry someone and it was undoubtedly a good match, yet she’s unhappy because the relationship is devoid of intimacy while her in-laws ironically pressure her about the lack of an heir. She suggests getting a job for something to do, but asking her brother-in-law for advice is reminded she’d need to talk to her husband and family first. 

Hanako’s friend, fellow aristocrat and concert violinist Itsuko (Shizuka Ishibashi), meanwhile has remained quite defiantly single explaining to Miki whom she’d met by chance that she believes a woman should be financially independent partly because her mother had wanted to leave her father who had several affairs and numerous illegitimate children but couldn’t because she had no way to support herself, upperclass women largely being brought up to be the wives of important men. As she tells Miki, she hates society’s tendency to pit women against each other and isn’t here to judge her about her relationship with Koichiro but merely to talk. Rather than a bitter love triangle what arises between the women is a sense of solidarity, each finding common ground in being victims of a patriarchal society even if their “upbringings” and social status are currently very different. While Miki perhaps admires from afar but does not particularly resent the “in-crowd”, Hanako begins to see the various ways her “upbringing” has trapped her, attracted by Miki’s sense of confidence and independence remarking that her life seems “lived in”, struck by the warmth of the photos she has on her wall of various trips with friends. 

Her mother had told her to “close her eyes to some things and try to get along” hearing the sad tale of a woman who managed to escape the golden prison of the aristocracy but only at the cost of her child, a cruelty Hanako had been too naive to consider. As Itsuko had told her, Tokyo is a compartmentalised city where you only meet members of your own social class, yet through her accidental contact with Miki she begins to realise another life is possible even if not quite shaking off her privilege as she rejects the tenets of her upbringing to seize her own agency while Koichiro remains trapped within the feudal legacy unable to free himself of the outdated notions of filial responsibility. A tale of cross-class, female solidarity, Aristocrats takes aim at the ironic equality of a system which damages all, even if some remain wilfully complicit, while affording the ability to its protagonists to sidestep the forces which constrain them to claim their own freedom brokered by mutual support and the aspiration towards a freer society. 


Aristocrats streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

True Mothers (朝が来る, Naomi Kawase, 2020)

Perhaps surprisingly and in contrast with many other developed nations child adoption remains relatively rare in Japan with most children who for whatever reason cannot be raised by their birth families cared for by institutions while the adoption of adults is unusually common usually for the purposes of securing an heir for the family name or business. This might be one reason that the “secret” of adoption is touted as a subject for blackmail in Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of the mystery novel by Mizuki Tsujimura True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru), though in this case it will prove to be a fruitless one as the adoptive parents have already made an effort towards transparency having explained to their son that he has another mother while their friends, family, and the boy’s school are all fully aware that he is not their blood relation. 

The Kuriharas, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are a settled, wealthy married couple who are shocked to discover that they are unable to conceive a child naturally because Kiyokazu is suffering from infertility. After a few unsuccessful rounds of painful treatment, they decide to give up and resign themselves to growing old together just the two of them, but after accidentally stumbling over a TV spot about an adoption service which focuses on finding loving homes for children rather than finding children for couples who want to adopt they begin to consider taking in a child who is not theirs by blood. As Kiyokazu puts it, it’s not that he’s obsessed with the idea of having a child, but they have the means and the inclination to raise one and could be of help when there are so many children in need of good homes. After enrolling in the programme, they adopt a little boy, Asato (Reo Sato), and somewhat unusually are encouraged to meet the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), who they discover is a 14-year-old girl tearfully entrusting her baby to them along with a letter to give him when he’s old enough to understand. 

The central drama begins six years later as Asato prepares to leave kindergarten for primary school. A crisis occurs when Satoko is called in because a boy, Sora, has accused Asato of pushing him off the jungle gym. Thankfully, Sora is not seriously hurt though according to the school Asato admits he was there at the time but says he doesn’t remember pushing anyone. The teachers don’t seem to regard him as a violent or naughty boy and wonder if he might have accidentally knocked Sora off without realising, while Satoko for her part tries to deal with the matter rationally neither leaping to his defence without the full facts or prepared to apologise for something that might not have been his fault. The other mother, however, somewhat crassly asks for compensation, bringing up the fact that the family live in a nice apartment and can’t be short of a bob or two. Stunned, Satoko does not respond while the other mother instructs her son not to play with Asato anymore. It’s around this time that she starts receiving anonymous calls that eventually turn out to be from a young woman claiming to be Hikari who first petitions to get her son back and then like Sora’s mother asks for monetary compensation. Only on meeting her the young woman seems completely different from the heartbroken teen they met six years’ previously and Satoko can’t bring herself to belief it’s really her, but if it isn’t who is she and what does she want?

Less a tug of love drama between an adoptive and a birth mother as in the recent After the Sunset, True Mothers places its most important clue in the title in that there need not be a monopoly on motherhood. A woman brought out at the adoption agency open day reveals that she’s explained to her son that he has three mothers, herself, his birth mother, and Asami (Miyoko Asada), the woman who runs “Baby Baton”. Asami encourages her prospective parents to explain to the children the circumstances of their birth before they enter primary school, keen both that they avoid the trauma of suddenly discovering the truth and that the birth mother not be “erased” from the child’s life and history. 

Though founded in love and with the best of intentions, Baby Baton also has its regressive sides in reinforcing conservative social norms, open only to heterosexual couples who’ve been married over three years (Japan does not yet have marriage equality or permit same sex couples to adopt) and requiring one parent, though it does not specify which, to give up their career and become a full-time parent. Its residential requirement is also not a million miles away from a home for unwed mothers hidden away on a remote island near Hiroshima which seems to be the way it is used and viewed by Hikari’s parents who force her to give up the baby more out of shame than practicality, telling people that she’s in hospital recovering from pneumonia. Nevertheless it’s at Baby Baton that Hikari finally finds acceptance and a sense of family, feeling rejected by the birth parents who have sent her away rather than embracing or supporting her in the depths of her emotional difficulty. Asami was there for her when no one else was, later explaining that unable to have children herself she founded Baby Baton as means of helping other women who found themselves in difficulty in the hope of “making sure all children are happy”. 

Like Hikari many of the other women at Baby Baton are there because of a corrupted connection with their own maternal figures, often rejected or abandoned many of them having participated in sex work as a means of survival. Reminiscent of her documentary capture of residents of the old persons’ home in The Mourning Forest or the former leper colony in Sweet Bean, Kawase films the scenes at Baby Baton with naturalistic realism as one young woman celebrates her 20th birthday sadly wondering if any one will ever celebrate her birthday again. A testament to female solidarity, the home presents itself as a kind of womb bathed in golden light and protected by a ring of water providing a refuge for often very young women at a time of intense vulnerability until they are eventually rebirthed by the surrogate maternal figure of Asami. 

The film’s Japanese title “Morning Will Come” as echoed in the song which plays frequently throughout hints at an eventual fated reunion while also pointing towards Asato the first character of whose name literally means “morning”, lending an ironic quality to its English counterpart which invites the conclusion that there are somehow false mothers while simultaneously evoking a sense of a great confluence of maternity in the unselfishness of maternal love. Immersed in a deep well of empathy, Kawase’s bittersweet drama is infinitely kind if not without its moments of darkness and pain resolute in its sense of fairness and the insistence there’s love enough to go around if only you’re brave enough to share it.


True Mothers streams in the UK from 16th April exclusively via Curzon Home Cinema.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

asako I & 2 posterDualities define the perpetually submerged worlds of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour followup Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Netemo Sametemo). Waking and sleeping, fantasy and reality, past and present, presence and absence, love and sadness. Asako (Erika Karata), an ordinary young woman of the contemporary era, finds herself in a similar position to many of the heroines of contemporary Japanese literature in that she has no idea what she really wants out of life and is essentially torn between a series of idealised lives snatched from movies and magazines. Yet she is also haunted by a broken heart, arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence thanks to an early disappointment in love in which remains horribly unresolved.

As a university student in Osaka, Asako attends a photo exhibition dedicated to one of the few books put out by legendary Japanese photographer Shigeo Gocho titled “Self and Others”. Fascinated by an eerie picture of two little girls dressed identically, one slightly taller than the other, Asako’s attention is eventually caught by a striking young man. She leaves the exhibition and follows him until he eventually turns and faces her. Firecrackers some teenagers had been struggling to light suddenly explode around his feet. He strides over to her, asks for her name, and then leans in for a kiss – at least, that’s the way he later tells it to a disbelieving friend who points out that “no one meets like that”. An arty type in dungarees and shaggy hair, the young man’s name is “Baku” (Masahiro Higashide) – he uses the character for wheat (his dad was big into grains) but it’s also a homonym for explosion which a is key indication of the unpredictable excitement he comes to represent for Asako as her uni best friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) attempts to warn her by insisting that Baku is the heartbreaking type and whatever she has with him is destined to end in tears.

Haruyo’s prediction comes to pass when Baku steps out one day to buy some shoes and never returns. A brokenhearted Asako makes her way to Tokyo and begins working a cafe but two and a bit years later, she is stunned to find “Baku” wearing a suit and working in an office. He doesn’t remember her and says his name’s Ryohei, but Asako can’t shake the association which is both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Ryohei is smitten, he felt the connection too, but Asako doesn’t quite know what to do with this unfortunate coincidence.

Events repeat themselves with only mild distortions – Asako and Ryohei attend another Gocho photo exhibition though this time with Asako’s Tokyo best friend, Maya (Rio Yamashita). Rather than a motorcycle accident, Ryohei and Asako find and comfort each other after the 2011 earthquake and eventually become a couple, move in together, and even get a cat. Asako begins to fall for Ryohei, but can’t be sure her love for him isn’t really love for Baku refracted through a different lens. Baku, a man with a wandering heart, once told her he would always return no matter how long it might take. There’s a part of Asako that’s always waiting, held back, afraid to move and unwilling to acknowledge the death of her younger self as immortalised in the image of herself with Baku.

When Haruyo runs into Asako and Ryohei unexpectedly in Tokyo, she gives us our first indication that Ryohei really does look like Baku and the association isn’t just a projection of Asako’s romantic anxieties. Haruyo’s first words to Asako are that she hasn’t changed – they’re intended as a compliment, but Asako bristles. She feels as if she’s moved forward, matured, is preparing to enter a comfortable middle age with Ryohei at her side but deep down she knows she hasn’t. She’s still the naive student pining for a lost love that never cared enough about her to resolve itself. She worries she’s been playacting and that her relationship with Ryohei isn’t “real” even if she cares about him enough to have her feeling guilty for this mild form of betrayal.

Later, offered another possibility, Asako feels as if her life with Ryohei has been like a dream, or perhaps the only waking moment of her life. When Ryohei introduces a work friend to Maya as an excuse to get close to Asako, they watch a video of her performing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a play famously about self delusion in which the fierce belief in an impossible future becomes the only thing which makes life possible. The climactic earthquake hits just as Ryohei is preparing to watch Maya perform in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – the play which lays bare the playwright’s key tenet, that if you take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness. Ryohei’s friend Kushihashi (Koji Seto) might rip into Maya’s “narcissistic” acting, denigrating her for attention seeking rather than baring her soul on stage, but Asako admires her determination and absolute certainty in her chosen goal, things she herself lacks.

Talked down by the soothing tones of practiced de-escalator Ryohei, Kushihashi is prompted to confess that his outburst was mostly out of jealously, that having given up his dreams of the stage for a conventional salaryman life he resented seeing someone else embrace theirs. Asako can’t decide which “dream” she wants – a life of fireworks and unpredictability with Baku for all the heartbreak it might bring, or one of gentle happiness with the good and kind Ryohei. A series of crises prompt her into making a clear choice – seemingly her first, though it may be too late. Real love is messy, painful, and ugly, but it’s beautiful too once you learn to see through the miasma of self delusion and romantic fantasy.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)