My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Kozue Nomoto, 2020)

A dejected, self-involved TV producer is forced into a moment of introspection when dealing with relationship breakdown and career setback in Kozue Nomoto’s ironic character study My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Ai no Kudaranai). Examining a number of social issues from women in the workplace to attitudes to LGBTQ+ people in contemporary Japan, Nomoto’s unflinching drama never lets its abrasive heroine off the hook even as she begins to realise that her own less than admirable behaviour has contributed to her present sense of despair and impossibility. 

Kei (Maki Fujiwara) has been in a relationship with former comedian Yoshi (Akiyoshi Okayasu) for the last five years, but it’s clear that she is beginning to tire of him. The couple are supposedly trying for a baby, but Kei has been taking contraceptive medicine behind Yoshi’s back while complaining that she doesn’t understand why he insists on getting pregnant before getting married when he hasn’t even met her parents. At work meanwhile she’s beginning to feel left behind, secretly jealous when a slightly younger female colleague reveals she’s been promoted to become the lead producer on a variety show and a little resentful when her idea for a programme focusing on the lives of ordinary people as opposed to celebrities is turned down by her bosses. The idea does however bring her to the attention of indie exec Kinjo (Takuma Nagao) who wants to bring her on board to produce a web series he’s about to launch along the same lines. And then, Yoshi drops the bombshell that he thinks he’s pregnant which is, to say the least, unexpected. 

Yoshi’s surprise announcement signals in a sense a reversal of traditional gender roles within their relationship with the man the nester and woman reluctant commitmentphobe. Kei is also the main financial provider, but on some level both resents and looks down on Yoshi for his lack of conventional masculinity having given up his comedy career to work part-time in a supermarket, obsessing over discount produce like the pettiest of housewives but often indulging in false economies such as reduced price yet still extravagant sake. Strangely, Kei goes along with Yoshi’s delusion taking him to a fertility clinic where she assumes they’ll set him straight but thereafter begins staying with a friend who ironically has an infant child and may be experiencing some difficulties in her marriage to which Kei remains entirely oblivious. 

Despite her journalistic desire to witness everyday stories, Kei is often blind to those around her never stopping to wonder if Yoshi is trying to tell her something through his bizarre pregnancy delusion or if her friend might need someone to talk to. She does something similar on spotting the office courier (Yukino Murakami) whom many of the ladies have a crush on using the ladies’ bathroom. Assuming the delivery guy is a lesbian she asks him about coming on the webshow, becoming even more excited when he explains that he’s a transman after inviting Kei to an LGBTQ+ friendly bar where he works part-time. Kei doesn’t realise that her throwaway comment that “that sort of thing is popular now” hurts Shiori’s feelings and leaves him feeling exploited as much as he would like to appear on the programme to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues. 

For her part, Kei is obviously not homophobic but does undoubtedly treat Shiori and his friends with a degree of exoticism, declaring that she’s never met anyone like them before while staring wide eyed in wonder as if these concepts are entirely new to her. Kinjo, the producer of the web series, is squeamish when Kei raises the idea, introducing her to a male scriptwriter who obviously already has his own concepts in mind, rudely ignoring Kei’s input while dismissively allowing his drink to drip on her proposal. The studio turn the idea down on the grounds that LGBTQ+ topics are “inappropriate” because there may be children watching and parents won’t want to explain words like “gay” or “lesbian” to their kids. Kei is rightly outraged, but she’s also a hypocrite because her intentions were essentially exploitative and self-interested. She wasn’t interested in furthering LGBTQ+ rights, she just wanted to chase ratings. 

Kinjo dresses up his personal distaste as a dictate from above but it’s clear that he doesn’t really value Kei’s input and continues to treat her poorly for the entirety of the project, blaming her for everything that goes wrong and expecting her to fix it on her own. There’s even an awful moment when Kei’s friend Tsubaki (Sayaka Hashimoto) shows up with her baby and one suspects they may be about to rope her in as a replacement guest, but the result is even worse as Kinjo stares into the pushchair and then throws the pair out while embarrassing Kei in the process. 

“Being busy’s no excuse for being unreliable” Tsubaki sympathetically tells her though it takes a few more setbacks before Kei begins to realise that she’s been unfair and to be honest generally unpleasant to those those around her. Feeling inferior, she makes a point of bumping into an elderly male janitor, treating him with contempt even when he stops to try and help her after she collapses in the office. Only through an ironic moment of emotional honesty which allows her to come to an understanding of her relationships does Kei begin to piece things together, reflect on her own mistakes and anxieties, and realise what it is she really wants. A contemplative reconsideration of accepted gender norms, Nomoto’s gently humorous drama never lets its heroine off the hook but does allow her to find new direction if only through confronting herself and the world in which she lives. 


My Sorry Life streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  


A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)