Over the Town (街の上で, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

Frustrated youngsters chase an unrealisable dream of idealised romance in Rikiya Imaizumi’s ode to Shimokitazawa, Over the Town (街の上で, Machi no Uede). For the moment at least known as the bohemian, avant-garde artists quarter of the contemporary capital beloved for its slightly retro quality replete as it is with narrow lanes and period buildings, Shimokitazawa is also a place of constant change but as the hero later points out even if “parts change and disappear that doesn’t mean they never existed”. Nevertheless, he seems to be marked by a particular anxiety, as do many of his age struggling to make meaningful connections in an ever shifting world. 

Ao’s (Ryuya Wakaba) world begins to crumble when he’s unexpectedly dumped by his beloved girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), on her birthday. Unceremoniously telling him that she’s met someone else, Yuki rationalises that breaking up is the only option but Ao tries to resist only for her to tell him that he can go on deluding himself that he still has a girlfriend but from now on she’ll be hanging out with someone new. From then on, Ao seems to be surrounded by frustrated couples and worryingly outdated ideas of romantic politics such as those of the students who drop into the vintage clothing shop where he works. Ao assumes they’re a couple, but a row slowly brews as the girl, Asako, declares herself bored with helping the guy, Shigeru, try on clothes that turn out to be for the purpose of impressing a different girl altogether despite knowing that Asako fancies him. Eventually Shigeru makes a highly inappropriate suggestion, almost akin to a bet, that if the woman he has a crush on rejects him he’ll deign to dating her even though Asako is “a distant second” in his heart. The shocking thing is that Asako agrees, a slightly mournful look in her eyes as she finally reaffirms that she really hopes it works out with the other girl. 

Throughout the exchange during which Ao looks on as an awkward bystander, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s so great about Shigeru. Meanwhile, not even Ao comes off particularly well, struggling to deal with his breakup and refusing to accept Yuki has moved on. So hung up on her is he that she eventually ends up contacting the barman at his favourite haunt to ask him to have a word, explaining that it’s inappropriate to go on texting your ex even if she doesn’t reply. Meanwhile, he finds himself at the centre of romantic missed connection, captivated by a sad woman at a concert who gives him a menthol cigarette he keeps in his ashtray as a kind of talisman for the rest of the picture. Infinitely awkward, he talks himself out a potential date with the cute girl at his favourite used bookstore (Kotone Furukawa) by asking an inappropriate question, later doing something similar to a woman (Seina Nakata) with whom he makes a more platonic connection as they each reflect that for some strange reason it’s much easier to open up to someone you have no romantic interest in. 

Perhaps that’s why a melancholy policeman keeps stopping random people in the street to ask their advice on his peculiar romantic dilemma in having inconveniently fallen in love with his “niece” (by marriage and the same age as he is, so maybe it’s “OK”, he’d like to think). Shimokitazawa, which Ao rarely leaves, is indeed a small world, the various strands of his romantic entanglements strangely connected from a young woman’s unrequited longing for her sumo wrestler childhood sweetheart to a TV actor’s (Ryo Narita) troubled love life and a young film director’s (Minori Hagiwara) attempt to deflect her own sense of romantic disaffection. Just as Yuki used another man as an excuse to break up with Ao, Ao finds himself recruited as a fake boyfriend to help a young woman shake off a controlling ex whose refusal to accept the relationship is over in the absence of another man skews even darker than his own signalling perhaps like that first vintage shop exchange the dangerously outdated sexual politics which continue to underpin modern dating. Perhaps boring love is the real kind of fun, comfortable and balanced marked by true connection and mutual vulnerability rather than a giddy anxiety. A stubborn holdout where everything’s secondhand in a continual circulatory process of exchange and return, Shimokitazawa is the kind of place where love finds you even if it takes a while to wander on its way. A charming ode to this timeless yet ever-changing district, Imaizumi’s quirky dramedy keeps the neurosis of young love on the horizon but suggests that romance, like a well baked cake, keeps much better than you’d think when cooled.


Over the Town screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

No Longer Human (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Mika Ninagawa, 2019)

Like a character from one of his novels, Osamu Dazai is remembered as a figure of intense romanticism, an image fuelled by his love suicide with a woman who was neither his wife nor the mistress with whom he had conceived a child. A proponent of the “I novel”, Dazai lived as he wrote, but crucially gives the hero of his final book, No Longer Human, a less destructive ending than he eventually gave himself in that he finally accepts his toxicity and chooses self-exile in the belief that he has fallen so far as to lose the right to regard himself as “human”. Mika Ninagawa’s biographical treatment of Dazai borrows the title from his most famous novel (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Ningen Shikkaku: Dazai Osamu to 3-nin no Onnatachi), but gives it a subtitle which pulls focus from the author himself towards the three women who each in their own way made him what he was. 

Yet what he was, in Ninagawa’s characterisation at least, was hollow. Late into the film, she includes a famous literary anecdote in which a young Yukio Mishima (Kengo Kora) turns up to a party where Dazai (Shun Oguri) is holding court following the publication of The Setting Sun and accuses him of being a poseur, a coward who writes endlessly about death but has no real intention of following through. That’s something of which he was often accused, having already failed to die as we see in the film’s opening in a love suicide in which the woman died calling out another man’s name. Intensely insecure, he carps on about being disrespected by the literary establishment, in fact using his final days and one of his last chances to pen an embittered screed against the famous authors who read but apparently did not care for his work. His editor despairs of him, resenting him not only for the debauched lifestyle which interferes with his writing but his essential caddishness that sees him both mistreat his loyal wife and use countless women as fuel for his art never quite caring about what happens to them afterwards. 

Dazai claims that Michiko (Rie Miyazawa), his legal wife and mother of his children, is OK with his affairs because it is “love in the service of art”. There is some truth in that, though as Michiko points out, Dazai himself would have no interest in a woman so passively self-sacrificing as that of Villon’s Wife. When the children catch sight of their father embracing another woman at a festival, she calmly tells them that he is “working” before pulling them on in embarrassment, putting up with it perhaps more because she has no other option than in respect for Dazai the great artist. 

Yet as his new lover Shizuko (Erika Sawajiri) claims, beautiful art comes from broken people, an idea which perhaps enables Dazai’s grandiose vision of himself as an unjustly dismissed literary genius. Just as Villon’s Wife was “inspired” by his relationship with Michiko, The Setting Sun is about Shizuko, only this time Shizuko is more collaborator than muse. He plunders her diaries and the most famous line from his novel, “Men are made for love and revolution” was in fact not written by him but stolen from her (she eventually asks for a co-writing credit but evidently did not get one, penning her own book instead). What she asks him for in return is a child, a strangely common request also made of him by Tomie (Fumi Nikaido), the woman with whom he eventually dies largely, the film suggests, because despite the longing for life that birth represents she pulled him towards death and he was too indifferent to resist. Dazai’s resistance, if you can call it that, is listlessness in which he has no desire to live but equally perhaps no real desire to die. 

Despite the foregrounding of the title, the three women are perhaps three paths he could take – the conventional as a husband and father, the radical as man standing equal with a woman who is not a wife with whom he births “a new art”, and finally the nihilistic “death” which is the route he eventually takes. With or perhaps for Tomie he writes the work he knows will destroy him in which he excoriates himself rather than her but, unlike in life, receives the gift of self-awareness and then lets himself (partially) off the hook. In Ninagawa’s visual complexity he is perhaps to an extent already dead, collapsing in the snow after haemorrhaging blood in the later stages of TB next to a red circle looking oddly like the flag of Japan only for white petals to begin raining down on him as if he were already in his coffin. We see repeated shots of shimmering water reminding us of his death by drowning, and for all of Ninagawa’s characteristically colourful compositions it’s the women who are surrounded by the vibrancy of flowers in full bloom never Dazai himself. On her husband’s death, Michiko can exclaim only (and ironically) that the sun has finally come out as she gets on with her life putting out the washing. Shizuko affirms that Dazai was the love of her life while asserting her own artistic identity in pushing her book which is an inversion of his. Meanwhile, Dazai has consumed himself, a cad to the last, overdosing on romanticism as an artist who fears he has nothing else to say.


Hong Kong trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Akihiko Shiota, 2019)

Repressed desire and toxic resentment conspire against a trio of melancholy musicians in Akihiko Shiota’s delicate indie drama, Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Sayonara Kuchibiru). As the title implies, this is a tale of learning to let go, but then again perhaps not. As an over earnest interviewer suggests there are many ways to interpret the title song, but it also carries with it an unmistakable hint of defeatism as the singer songwriter heroine finds herself perpetually preparing to say goodbye, no longer believing in a positive future and unwittingly sabotaging its existence in an intense desire for protective distance. 

As the film opens in the summer of 2018, folk duo Haruleo is about to set off on a “farewell tour” though it’s not been advertised as such. The atmosphere is extremely awkward and emotionally volatile. Something has obviously gone very wrong in the previously close relationship between bandmates Haru (Mugi Kadowaki) and Leo (Nana Komatsu), while roadie Shima (Ryo Narita) seems to be doing his best to stay out of it and keep the peace if only until after they’ve played their final show in Hakodate way up in Hokkaido. 

That might be difficult however because Leo’s self-destructive streak is out in full force, wandering off with a rough-looking man from the petrol station where they stopped to use the facilities. “Aren’t you going to stop her?” Haru asks of Shima, entirely mistaken in the nature of their relationship, “What would be the point?” he replies, open mouthed in exasperation. Sure enough Leo turns up late to the gig and sporting a nasty bruise on her face after another encounter with a dark and violent man. “I don’t want to watch you fall apart”, Haru had told her on a previous occasion in an awkward attempt at comfort that finally backfired, Leo firing back that hearing that from her only made her feel even worse. Haru echoes those words herself when Shima tries something similar with her, only charged with a somewhat inappropriate fervour driven by misplaced desire. 

Desire is indeed circulating, but in an emotionally difficult and seemingly irresolvable love triangle between three people with extremely low self esteem. Struggling to accept love, they act on self-destructive impulse and only wound where they mean to console. Haru strikes up a conversation with Leo because she says that her “eyes wanted to sing”, seemingly captivated and taking the young woman in but still somehow maintaining a distance. Leo, who seems to have no family and is incapable of looking after herself, quickly bonds with Haru but is frustrated by her resistance to connection. When Haru interviews Shima for a position as their roadie, she’s quick to tell him that romance is prohibited, but later claims that she always expected he and Leo to run off together while silently pining for her in a mistaken belief that her love is hopeless. 

Filled with internalised shame, Haru takes Shima home as a beard to show off to her mother at her father’s memorial service, unable to disclose her sexuality and trying not to look hurt when her mother whips out a postcard from her first love who has since married abroad and had a child. Shima, strangely perhaps the most emotionally astute, is drawn to Haru even after learning that she is gay and realising that all of her songs are really about her unrealisable longing for Leo, who claims to be in love with him though it’s not exactly clear if that, like her tendency to disappear with dangerous men, isn’t a misdirected way of connecting with Haru.

Shima may have failed once and resolved to do better in avoiding making the same old mistakes, but is still an awkward third wheel in this increasingly difficult relationship despite his attempts to mitigate the effects of his presence while perhaps biased towards preserving Haru’s happiness in trying to “save” Leo. Learning that a close friend and former bandmate has passed away forces him, and perhaps the girls too, to reflect on what’s lost if you let important relationships fall by the wayside out of pettiness or pride. Shima’s friend apparently told his young son never to become a musician because it will rob you of the things that are most important. Still, Shima, echoing the words of Haruleo’s signature song, affirms that he regrets nothing. If it all ends in tears, Haru’s lyrics imply that she’s happy to live with the thorn in her side as a reminder of past love. The jury’s out on whether the Farewell Song leads to a new beginning or merely more of the same, perpetually trapped in an inescapable cycle of emotional frustration, but Haruleo seems resigned to weathering the storm whatever it is that might emerge on the other side. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell Song music video

Code Blue: The Movie (劇場版コード・ブルー –ドクターヘリ緊急救命–, Masaki Nishiura, 2018)

Code Blue posterThe common complaint plaguing popular Japanese cinema is that it’s increasingly dependent on existing source material, not in only the prevalence of manga adaptations, but the continuing influence of TV drama. Ever since the massive success of the Bayside Shakedown franchise, big screen outings for popular series have been a mainstay of the Japanese film industry, the problem of course being, from a certain point of view, that their nature as an extension of an already existing narrative universe makes them not only impossible for export but also a potential audience turn off to those not already invested.

Code Blue is itself comparatively unusual in being one of the few Japanese TV dramas to head into multiple series. That being so, a movie was something of an inevitability, but like many medical shows which generally adopt a case of the week formula, Code Blue thrives on finely crafted characterisation. Rather than jump this obvious hurdle, director Masaki Nishiura opts for the time-honoured solution of a brief flashback highlighting the key events of the previous three seasons and otherwise tries to avoid too many references to past events. It remains true however that viewers already acquainted with the Doctor Heli team will be best placed to navigate the complex interpersonal relationships informing the rest of the action.

Those would be, chiefly, the unexpected return of aloof doctor Aizawa (Tomohisa Yamashita) who is about to take up a research position in Toronto, while Dr. Hiyama (Erika Toda) is also preparing to follow her dream by moving on to head up the perinatal department at a nearby hospital. As is stressed in the opening sequence for those who might not be aware, the Doctor Heli program does not airlift passengers by helicopter but drops doctors into emergency situations where they are most urgently needed. Aizawa’s arrival coincides with the forced return of a flight originally heading to Vietnam which experienced heavy turbulence with multiple casualties needing evacuation from the plane or treatment on the ground. One such patient turns out to be an especially difficult case seeing as she has not only sustained serious injuries, but is also suffering from stage 4 stomach cancer and was trying to take a last vacation in her final days.

The Doctor Heli team are deeply touched by Tomizawa’s (Kasumi Yamaya) plight, knowing that though her injuries would otherwise not be regarded as serious, she may well end up spending her remaining time in their ICU rather than doing the things she wanted while she could. A talk with her parents reveals a painful breakup and canceled wedding, neatly echoing a conflicted nurse desperately trying to get out of the, in her view unnecessary, wedding ceremony her fiancé has organised. Tomizawa’s former boyfriend (Mackenyu) eventually returns and apologises, hoping to make up for lost time, but she isn’t sure she should let him, not only because he let her down by running away, but because she fears that if she does she might prevent him moving on with his life after the inevitable occurs.

Despite being skilled at fixing the human body, the doctors confess they are often at a loss when it comes to the human heart. They struggle to communicate their true feelings to each other, keeping their minds on the job with well practiced practicality, but are all too aware of the precariousness of being alive. What they all advise is that it’s best to let the people you love know your true feelings because you never really know if there will be another opportunity. Dependable leader Shiraishi (Yui Aragaki) can’t quite find the words to express her feelings for her soon to be departed best friend Hiyama, while she struggles with her essential “awkwardness” yet has a knack for the good kind of “direct”, always knowing the right words to help people feel better.

Aizawa, who had no family of his own, is stoical and patient with those of others, comforting a young man who’s gotten into a car accident with the abusive father he’d tried to reconnect with, letting him know that there was nothing wrong in his rage or resentment but also nothing wrong in his desire to tell him that he has become a fine man on his own and that his father’s violence has not destroyed him. Likewise, a young nurse, Futaba (Fumika Baba), gets an unexpected shock when her older sister brings their alcoholic mother (Rino Katase), from whom she’d become wilfully estranged, into the hospital after she fell and got a kitchen knife stuck in her head. Aizawa tells her that she did what she needed to do and shouldn’t feel guilty about “abandoning” her mother, but also gives her the space to reconnect with her as she begins to understand a little of her mother’s suffering.

You can’t deny that Code Blue: The Movie (劇場版コード・ブルー –ドクターヘリ緊急救命–, Gekijoban Code Blue Doctor Heli Kinkyu Kyumei) is basically a two hour TV special, shot exactly like the TV series with seemingly no increase in budget or production values, but it topped the Japanese box office and obviously provided fans with exactly what they were looking for. A little less melodramatic than might be feared, the series’ big screen finale (?) is unabashedly emotional but celebrates as much the close bonds between the Doctor Heli team as those with their patients as they face the unthinkable time and again but get through it together.


Teaser trailer (no subtitles)

Weathering with You (天気の子, Makoto Shinkai, 2019)

weathering with you poster 2Some might say much of life is learning to weather the storm, but when the storm is literal as well as metaphorical it’s easier said than done. Following his 2016 mega hit Your Name, Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You (天気の子, Tenki no Ko) opts for much of the same but grafts an additional layer of anxiety onto the lives of his precarious teen heroes who are left largely adrift, betrayed by corrupt adult society and plagued by doubt and despair in a world which, it seems, is trying to drown them in existential hopelessness.

16-year-old Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) has run away from his parochial island home for the bright lights of Tokyo. Beyond disconnection from his parents and small-town ennui, he never gives much of a reason why he’s so determined not to go back, but tries to make a go of it in the city with all the prideful naivety of an adolescent young man. What he discovers is that, because of laws in place to protect him, he can’t support himself honestly as an independent teen, ironically placing him firmly at risk in shady Kabukicho but it turns out that you can’t even get a job as a host in a sleazy bar without proper ID. Just when he’s hit rock bottom, Hodaka is given new hope when a friendly employee at McDonalds decides to gift him a burger just because she can see that he’s hungry.

Hodaka describes the BigMac as the best meal he’s ever tasted, because he’s tasting kindness in an environment which has turned out to be far more hostile than he’d anticipated. He tries to repay that kindness when he spots the girl out in Kabukicho being manhandled by a gangster trying to coax her into a love hotel, threatening him with a gun he picked up from the rubbish bin outside a club. The girl, Hina (Nana Mori), ends up saving him again, but the rescue originally backfires because of Hodaka’s problematic adoption of the gun. He regains Hina’s sympathy by throwing it away, allowing a genuine connection to arise between them, especially when he discovers that Hina has an unusual power – she can stop the rain with the power of prayer.

It’s the height of summer, but it hasn’t stopped raining since Hodaka arrived in Tokyo. In fact, it’s just about time for Obon when the departed souls of long gone relatives are able to return. Hina apparently became linked with the sky after praying at a shrine during her mother’s illness, but if the gloominess of the heavy skies and constant rain is a reflection of her unhappiness, it’s one belied by superficial cheerfulness even though her life is just as hard as Hodaka’s. In addition to trying to support herself on the kind of money you can make as a teenage part-timer, she’s also responsible for her younger brother Nagi (Sakura Kiryu) which is why, perhaps, she was tempted by that gangster’s offer of big bucks to be made in Kabukicho.

Hodaka too looks for familial connections, moving in with a middle-aged man who saved his life during the storm that brought him to Tokyo. Like Hina, Keisuke (Shun Oguri) is also drowning in grief, in his case for a beloved wife killed in an accident, while dealing with separation from his daughter who has been taken in by her grandmother in disapproval of Keisuke’s scrappy lifestyle. It’s working for Keisuke’s occult-themed magazine that leads Hodaka to recognise Hina as a “Sunshine Girl”, but also to learn that such “weather maidens” were once common in ancient Shinto Japan and mostly met a bad end. A fortune teller makes it clear that exercising the kind of power that Hina has is likely to deplete her capacity for life, a mild irony in that it’s the inability to feel alive that these rains seem to symbolise.

Ironically enough, both teens met their destiny because they were chasing the light – Hina drawn to a rooftop shine illuminated by an improbable ray of sunshine in the rain, and Hodaka longing to find his place in the sun and resolving to live inside the light that Hina casts. Eventually, Hodaka is forced to make a decision and comes to the conclusion that he can accept Hina for all that she is, that she doesn’t need to be the “Sunshine Girl”, she can feel what she feels and the world will cope. He will weather the storm along with her.

Meanwhile, the spectre of real world climate change looms in the background. Hodaka’s decision necessarily means he has chosen to drown the world to save his love. Faced with the gradual submergence of the city of Tokyo, an old woman waxes philosophical, remembering that back in Edo most of this land was underwater so perhaps it’s just going back to the way it’s supposed to be. Hodaka is swayed but unconvinced. Still young, he is very invested in the idea that he has changed the world, for good or ill, seizing his agency as path out of his despair. But Shinkai’s messages are mixed. Hina continues to pray, but Hodaka comes to the conclusion that the world has always been messed up so perhaps all you need to do is learn to live in it and the rest will figure itself out. As much as it’s true that the problems of climate change should not rest on the young, who are blameless, it is perhaps irresponsible to advocate cautious indifference. Hodaka remains wedded to the idea that he’s made a choice and his choice has changed the world, while beginning to realise that changing the world is not his responsibility, or at least not his alone and not in that way. He has, however, found a way at least to live with all his choices, undefeated by the rain.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Ken Ninomiya, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Chiwawa posterFollowing indie drama The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, Ken Ninomiya takes a further step towards the mainstream with Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Chiwawa-chan), inspired by Kyoko Okazaki’s 1996 manga. Updated for the Instagram generation, Ninomiya’s adaptation leans heavily on his trademark clubland style and sheds the sense of nihilism which defined mid-90s pop culture in favour of a world weary exploration of identity in the internet age in which connections are wilfully fleeting and personas easily interchangeable. The party is, however, about to come to an end for the latest generation of bright young things seeking hedonistic release but finding only emptiness in the superficial pleasures of meaningless excess.

The titular “Chiwawa” (Shiori Yoshida) is found dead, floating in pieces in Tokyo Bay. The notice of her demise is, in fact, the first time many of her friends discover her real name, Yoshiko Chiwaki, apparently 20 years old and according to the news a nursing student. She was for a time a big star on Instagram and a popular internet model whose face could be seen all over the city on mile high billboards, but before that she was just a girl looking for fun and friends in the Tokyo club scene which is how she met our heroine, Miki (Mugi Kadowaki). Like Miki herself, Chiwawa was added to the small group of clubland friends as the current squeeze of playboy student Yoshida (Ryo Narita), introducing herself with her enigmatic nickname supposedly a reference to her petite stature. Branding herself as an ultra cute airhead, she quickly worked her way into the disparate group of Bohemians but eventually outgrew them and moved on to more dubious pleasures including an ill-fated love affair with a famous photographer (Tadanobu Asano).

The only one of her friends seemingly preoccupied about what happened to Chiwawa, Miki begins an investigation but her research is less geared towards finding out who killed her – something the police don’t seem to be very invested in, but discovering who she “really” was. Mimicking the structure of Okazaki’s episodic manga, Miki begins interviewing her friends to build up a kaleidoscopic composite of the woman she thought she knew while perhaps discovering something about herself as she reconsiders her own life trajectory and the coming end of her youthful days in the clubland scene while pondering where it is she’s supposed to go next.

Like much of Okazaki’s work, the manga’s mid-90’s setting is soaked post-bubble malaise as her dejected youngsters escape from the sense of crushing disappointment in the wake of the abrupt end of the heady ‘80s heyday of Japan as leading global economy, but for Miki and her friends twenty years later perhaps things aren’t all that different as they fight the onset of adulthood and the relative lack of freedom and possibility they will encounter when their student lives end and the workaday world finally arrives. Aspiring filmmaker Nagai (Nijiro Murakami) captures everything with his video camera while working as a photographer’s assistant by day, allowing Miki and her friends to use the studio at night for their Instagram side gigs which is how Chiwawa winds up in the fashion biz.

Some starving artists, others merely nervous hedonists, the gang have no money but when Chiwawa runs off with the gigantic bribe a group of slimy businessmen were boasting about carrying, the gang manage to blow it in just three days of upscale partying. Miki alone, and perhaps more in hindsight, feels the emptiness of all this senseless excess but it’s Chiwawa herself who seems to fear the party’s end most of all. When you start to think it’ll go on like this forever, that’s when you know it’s about to end she laments, apparently missing her old gang like crazy but knowing you can’t put something back together after it falls apart.

Miki fails to solve the mystery of Chiwawa, perhaps sorry that she didn’t try harder to know her while she was alive but also knowing that’s partly because “Chiwawa” might not have wanted to be known for all that she was chasing love and acceptance in all the wrong places. In the end, she retreats into a past that no one quite remembers, another melancholy ghost of Tokyo’s neon-tinged nightlife. Youth moves on, clubs close down, the world keeps turning. That may be the saddest thing of all, Chiwawa remains unknown, unloved, and finally unremembered. A melancholy exploration of fractured identities, the ethereality of youth, and the impossibility of true connection, Chiwawa is another zeitgeisty piece from Ninomiya which takes the manga’s post-bubble anxiety and reboots for an age of alienation in which the end of the party is always lingering painfully on the horizon.


Chiwawa was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)

It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

SR2_teaserWhere now the dreams of youth? Japanese cinema seems to have been asking that very question since its inception but the answer remains as elusive as ever. The heroine(s) of Ryuichi Hiroki’s adaptation of a series of short stories by Mariko Yamauchi, It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Koko wa Taikutsu Mukae ni Kite), idolise Audrey Hepburn and long for urban sophistication only to find themselves hung up on unfulfilled high school promise and unable escape the wholesome romanticisation of their small-town youth to embrace the demands and possibilities of adulthood.

Hiroki follows his small-town high schoolers from 2004 to 2013, jumping freely between time periods as memories spark one another in emotional rather than chronological order. We begin with the unnamed protagonist, “I” (Ai Hashimoto), who has returned to her hometown after 10 (seemingly disappointing) years in Tokyo and now works as a freelance journalist for the provincial paper writing local culture articles on ramen shops and patisseries. She has contacted only one friend since her return, Satsuki (Yurina Yanagi), who has suggested, rather tongue in cheek, that they reconnect with former high school crush Shiina (Ryo Narita).

Back in high school, Shiina was like some kind of untouchable god. Everyone just wanted to be around him as if he alone made the sun shine. All the girls were in love with him, and the all boys wanted his approval. Asked about his hopes and dreams, Shiina just wants high school to go on forever, perhaps realising that he’ll never have it so good again. “I” meanwhile, claims that she wants to “become someone”. A small town girl who didn’t fit in, she hoped to find herself amid the hustle and bustle of the big the city but has returned with an even deeper sense of alienation than when she left with only the bright memory of her brief time as a chosen member of Shiina’s after school posse to cling to.

Satsuki, meanwhile, stayed behind but seems equally hung up on unfinished high school business. Having never been to Tokyo she is envious of her friend’s experiences and longs for the anonymity of the city. If you mess up in Tokyo, she claims, people will eventually forget whereas if you make a mistake in the country it’s all anyone will talk about for the rest of your life. That certainly seems to be true for another of the girls’ contemporaries (Rio Uchida) who left to become an idol only for it all to go wrong and come home branded as a loose woman. Cynical and calculating, she decides on an arranged marriage only to find herself shackled to an old man she doesn’t like very much while her shy friend (Yukino Kishii) seems to have found love by stealth and apparently won the jackpot without even knowing it.

Continuously travelling, the now almost-middle-aged high schoolers meander without direction as if circling around the locus of their departing youth and the sense of possibility disappearing with it. Running into another classmate, Shinpo (Daichi Watanabe), also connected with Shiina, I and Satsuki get a few more clues about their high school crush who apparently now lives a fairly ordinary life as a driving instructor thanks to Shinpo’s recommendation without which he was set to hit rock bottom after some kind of breakdown while failing to make it in Osaka. Nicknamed “Chinpo” (which means “willy”) in school, Shinpo’s dream for the future was to exist alongside someone that he loved but he seems to have given up even on this depressingly compromised desire and resigned himself to loneliness and lovelorn misery as someone who will never be able to find his place in a conservative and conformist society.

I meanwhile, like a similarly unnamed counterpart (Mugi Kadowaki) who really did date Shiina until he cruelly cast her aside, is finally able to burst her high school bubble by confronting it directly and seeing the reality rather than her romanticised impression of it. Those shining days of fun and friendship with everything still ahead will never come again, and so the memory of them remains bittersweet at best. Adult life is dull and disappointing, but there is perhaps melancholy happiness to be found in learning to embrace the present moment rather than harping on a largely imagined past or idealised future. 


It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー, Ken Ninomiya, 2017)

the limit of sleeping beauty posterCan you escape the past by evading it? The heroine of Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー) does her best to find out as she approaches the point at which she can no longer bear the weight of all her sorrows. A rising star of the Japanese indie scene, Ken Ninomiya had some minor festival exposure with his first film, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk drama Slum-polis, back in 2015 before making a complete about turn in releasing a terse mockumentary about a resilient actor hammering on the door of Japanese show business. Sleeping Beauty was, apparently, originally conceived as a mid-length picture before producers suggested expanding it into a full length feature and in many ways marries the twin concerns of Ninomiya’s earlier films in its high concept examination of a fracturing psyche unable to let the past go and move on from trauma and disappointment.

At 19, Aki (Yuki Sakurai) ran away from a bad family situation and ended up in Tokyo with the hope of becoming an actress. With nowhere else to go she wandered into a random bar which is where she met the love of her life, Kaito (Issey Takahashi) – a melancholy photographer and owner of cabaret club Aurora. Kaito takes her in and she begins working at Aurora as a magician’s assistant but ten years pass and, as a TV presenter later put it, it’s unheard of for a Japanese actress to make it in her 30s.

Her mind fracturing, Aki is often accompanied by “Butch” (Nino Furuhata), a strange clown with a scary white face who appears alternately supportive and enabling. Complaining that she feels unstuck in time, Butch reminds her that the idea of time as linear flow is a misconception and that all moments are indeed one moment which is one reason Aki never quite knows “when” she is. Accepting this fact she asks to be taken to the time at which she was happiest, only to be told that emotional time is not necessarily in sync with one’s perception of temporality. Nevertheless, her mind flies back to her first meeting with Kaito who we later surmise is no longer in her life but continues to define it all the same.

The picture we get of Aki is of a woman attempting to bury herself and her disappointments by revelling in a pleasant memory and then using it as raw material to read herself into an idealised version of her current life only one which is still marred by the tragedy of losing Kaito. Ninomiya opens with an orgy in dingy sex club where everyone is wearing creepy carnival masks and the older Aki is sporting a nasty bruise on her chin. The bruise, we later discover, was earned in a nasty encounter with a lascivious producer engineered by a soulless manager who promised her a career but in effect sold her to a man who assaulted and humiliated her. This final humiliation is only one of many acts of degradation that Aki suffers in her quest to make it as an actress – one of only two things Kaito urged her to do before disappearing from her life forever.

Unable to cope with the weight of lost love, defeated dreams, and a wasted youth Aki’s mind splinters into fragments, creating the strange entity known as Butch whom she seems to want to get rid of but cannot bear to be without. Aki’s quest is one of reintegration in which she must find the strength to put herself back together again and finally set light to the past, waking up from her self imposed slumber.

Kaito wants her to know the world is still wonderful, but his message seems curiously perverse considering his final course of action and Aki’s continuing descent into a spiral of depression, exploitation, and mental instability. Fantasy and reality remain hopelessly blurred, only gradually separating and becoming distinct as Aki begins to put herself back together. Ninomiya improves on Slum-Polis with similarly detailed production design and world building but occasionally allows his taste for music video aesthetics to slide into the indulgent with the success of such sequences depending on the viewer’s taste for the overused main titles song, Hummingbird by Kyla La Grange. Nevertheless there’s no disputing Ninomiya’s ambition and originality even if there is something unsettling in his urgency to inhabit the world he seems to be critiquing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)