Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Toshio Lee, 2021)

Life is a lonely battlefield for the middle-aged hero of Toshio Lee’s Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Watashi wa Ittai Nani to Tatakatteiru no ka). The film’s English-language title and supermarket setting may recall Juzo Itami’s Supermarket Woman, but Lee’s lighthearted dramedy soon takes an unexpected left turn as the hero battles a kind of mid-life crisis of fracturing masculinity as his professional and family lives come under simultaneous threat firstly by his failure to land a long overdue promotion and secondly by his eldest daughter’s impending marriage. 

After 25 years working at the same small-town supermarket, Haruo Izawa (Ken Yasuda) is well respected by his colleagues and often depended on by his boss Mr. Ueda (Hikaru Ijuin) yet harbours an internalised inferiority complex that he has not yet made manager. When Mr. Ueda passes away suddenly, everyone, including Haruo himself, just assumes he’ll finally be getting promoted but head office soon parachute in an extremely strange man from accounts, Nishiguchi (Kentaro Tamura), who knows nothing at all about how to run a supermarket. Haruo ends up with an awkward horizontal promotion to deputy manager while Nishiguchi basically leaves everything up to him. 

Haruo is always being told that he’s too nice but as he later tells another employee, he too is really just thinking of himself as revealed by his ever running interior monologue in which he often imagines himself in situations which will show him in a good light only for things not to pan out as he’d hoped. It’s clear that what he’s experiencing is partly a middle-aged man’s masculinity crisis often comparing himself to others and embarrassed on a personal level in not having achieved his career goals while directly threatened by the presence of his daughter’s new boyfriend fearing that he will lose his patriarchal authority within his own household in which he is already somewhat mocked by an otherwise genuinely loving and supportive family. His anxiety is compounded by the fact that he is a stepfather to the two daughters while he and his perspicacious wife Ritsuko (Eiko Koike) have a son together. The discovery of plane tickets sent by the girls’ estranged birth father in Okinawa with the hope that they will visit unbalances him in his increasing fear of displacement.  

As in the Japanese title of the film, Haruo is always asking himself what it is he seems to be fighting with the obvious answers being an internalised inferiority complex and toxic masculinity while constantly told that he doesn’t help himself with his Mr. Nice Guy approach to life. When he discovers an employee may be defrauding the business, he stops his assistant from reporting it and after discovering the truth decides to help cover it up so they won’t lose their job but later loses out himself when his simple act of kindness and compassion is viewed in bad faith by a potential employer. He tries to make things work with Nishiguchi, but Nishiguchi is a defiantly strange person and so all of Haruo’s attempts to help him integrate into supermarket life backfire. As it turns out, he’s in a constant battle with himself against his better nature but always resolving to be kind and put others first while privately annoyed that the universe often seems to be unkind to him. 

Then again as an old lady running a curry house puts it, happiness is having a full belly and so long as Haruo has a healthy appetite things can’t really be that bad. His life is quite nice, which is something he comes to appreciate more fully while reclaiming his image of himself as a father and along with it a sense of security brokered by a truly selfless act of kindness informed by paternal empathy. Professional validation may be a little harder to win, but lies more in the gentle camaraderie with fellow employees than in ruthless workplace politics or rabid ambition. Life need not be a lonely battle as Haruo begins to learn setting aside his manly stoicism and trusting in his ace detective wife who has been engaging in a similar and apparently victorious battle herself reaffirming her love for the kind of sweets so unexciting no one remembers they’re there which may seem a little plain on the outside but have their own kind of wholesome sweetness. 


Struggling Man streams in the US Sept. 17 – 23 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Love, Life and Goldfish (すくってごらん, Yukinori Makabe, 2021)

An emotionally repressed salaryman discovers that it really is all about connection in Yukinori Makabe’s absurdist musical, Love, Life, and Goldfish (すくってごらん, Sukutte Goran). Adapted from the manga by Noriko Otani, the Japanese title is itself a minor pun in that it could be translated either as “please try to save me”, or “please have a go at scooping” as in goldfish which is a popular activity at Japanese summer festivals. A fish out of water, former top banker Makoto (Matsuya Onoe) is in a sense saving himself, biding his time until he’s scooped back up again, but discovers his true purpose may be to save someone else in this strange, goldfish-obsessed tranquil country town. 

Defiantly aloof, Makoto arrives a wounded man resentful that one mistake could have derailed his career to the extent that he’s gone from a cushy job in the Tokyo head office to a regular clerk in a rural branch of a nationwide bank. Viewing himself as an elite, infinitely better than all these country bumpkins with their weird goldfish obsession, Makoto is scrupulously polite but abruptly deflects the attempts of his new colleagues to make him feel welcome. He does however, develop a fascination for a melancholy young woman dressed in kimono, Yoshino (Kanako Momota), whom he firstly mistakes for a geisha running a house of ill-repute only to realise that her establishment caters to a different clientele in that she runs a goldfish scooping emporium. Meanwhile, he also becomes an object of fascination for Asuka (Nicole Ishida), a young woman running a bar with her brother. 

Makoto is fond of saying that “numbers don’t lie”, devoting himself entirely to work and insisting that he has no need of things like love or friendship but is in fact deeply lonely and trying to fill the void with industry. Though we never see much of his previous life, it’s easy to assume that he has at some point been deeply hurt and has affected this impervious persona as a means of self defence. Nevertheless, bottling up his emotions is apparently what caused his career to implode leading him to break with salaryman protocol and tell his boss what he actually thought in a less than polite manner. In a repeated motif, Makoto is no longer sure if and when his interior monologue has become exterior with the unwanted consequence that some of his less than charitable thoughts and inner insecurities accidentally leak into the outside world. 

More self aware than he seems, Makoto is moved to tears on hearing a heartfelt song from Asuka who, like him, is a Tokyo “reject” having come back after failing to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress. Overwhelmed by the sight of someone expressing their emotions without embarrassment he can’t help crying but continues to struggle with his feelings for Yoshino who is herself perhaps also feeling something similar. Once a promising pianist, she now only plays alone too afraid of judgement or rejection to risk playing for others. 

Tellingly Makoto’s Tokyo outburst had been over a business plan for an AI robot massage parlour which his boss dismissed on the grounds that it’s human warmth and kindness which are essential for healing. Of course Makoto didn’t want to hear that because he wants to live in a cold world of order ruled by the unassailable logic of numbers, but through gradually bonding with the townspeople comes to accept that it’s human connection that’s most important after all. “Sometimes you have to face reality even if it’s painful”, he remarks eventually realising that “you can’t save anyone if you obsess over numbers” after failing to scoop an arbitrary number of goldfish with a broken paddle. 

Realising life’s not a numbers game gives Makoto the courage to sing with his heart no longer quite so repressed as he prepares to escape this strange holding tank for the oceans of the metropolis. An old-fashioned integrated musical, the whimsical score skips through several genres from j-pop to rap though it’s true enough that some of the melodies stray uncomfortably close to popular hits from recent musical theatre and family animation. Nevertheless, the quirky production design and absurdist direction make Love, Life, and Goldfish difficult to resist as the repressed salaryman its centre learns to open his heart while swimming in a different river to realise that it really is all about feeling after all. 


Love, Life and Goldfish screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

His Lost Name (夜明け, Nanako Hirose, 2018)

His Lost Name poster 1Family as performance has become a prominent theme in the ongoing development of the family drama. Ever since The Family Game punched a gaping hole through the sanctities of the family unit, nothing has quite been the same. Then again, performance only goes so far and will necessarily fail when there is no genuine connection to back it up. Every family has its problems, according to Tetsu the bereaved patriarch at the centre of His Lost Name (夜明け, Yoake), but you cannot simply escape them through substitution or subterfuge.

When Tetsu (Kaoru Kobayashi) finds a young man passed out on a riverbank, his first instinct is to help him. He takes him home, but the man though obviously grateful remains reticent, only latterly identifying himself as “Shinichi Yoshida” (Yuya Yagira) which, as Tetsu points out, is a suspiciously common name. “Shinichi” starts working at Tetsu’s furniture factory and is warmly welcomed by the other employees as well as Tetsu’s fiancée Hiromi (Keiko Horiuchi) who runs the office. He is, however, somewhat nervous, shrinking away from passing policemen and having a full on meltdown when a friend tries to take his picture.

Tetsu, meanwhile, has not been entirely truthful either. His wife and son, also (coincidentally) called Shinichi, were killed in a car accident some years previously. Despite having arranged to officialise his relationship with Hiromi, it seems he’s not quite ready to leave the past behind and is not planning to live with her even after they marry nor has he made much of a motion to separate himself from his former family home.

The arrival of the new “Shinichi” is then a fortuitous one, in some senses, in that it affords Tetsu a path back towards the son he’s lost. This is perhaps why he is so keen to look after Shinichi despite knowing that he’s not telling him the whole truth and is obviously on the run from something or other. Shinichi tells him that he’s on a “soul-searching” vacation and is in this tiny village because he visited it at some unspecified point in the past. Tetsu is content to let him be, confident that Shinichi will offer up more truth when the occasion calls but also hoping to persuade him to stay in the place of the Shinichi he has already lost.

Snippets of what he says may be true – an overbearing, authoritarian father and cold family background suggest Shinichi is looking for exactly what Tetsu offers him. Yet Tetsu, trying his best to do better, may be little different. He argued with his Shinichi because he rejected the furniture business to be an electrician. Tetsu railroaded his son in much the same way Shinichi’s father did him, and despite his instruction to “choose your own path” is clearly grooming his surrogate son as an heir (much to the disappointment of Shoji (Young Dais), a loyal worker at the factory who clearly loves Tetsu and is a good friend to Shinichi).

Both accepting that what passes between them is to some extent a simulacrum, the two men take what they need, fulfilling the roles of family a little more than superficially but painfully missing the mark. Meanwhile, their awkward closeness begins to disrupt Tetsu’s peaceful existence in dredging up memories of the past, damaging his relationship with Hiromi and placing a strain on his business. Shoji, upset that Shinichi froze rather than back him up during an incident we can infer was in some degree triggering, angrily tells him that he should “trust us more”. He may well have a point in that Shinichi’s reticence prevents him becoming a full member of the “family” but it’s less a matter of trust in others than belief in himself that keeps Shinichi silent.

Unable to accept himself as himself, and failing to step into the persona of “Shinichi”, all Shinichi is left with is intense shame and self-loathing. The failure of the Shinichi persona perhaps forces him to reclaim his own name, but the shame still remains as does the sense of drifting confusion which prevents him from moving forward with his life. Tetsu meanwhile is forced to accept that he cannot save his son and is ill-equipped to help this confused young man with whom he has made all the same mistakes as before, burdening him with unfair parental expectations he knows for certain that the boy cannot carry. A tale of fractured identities, fraying familial bonds, and irresolvable guilt, His Lost Name leaves its heroes much as it found them, mired in shame and regret but with perhaps a degree of acceptance for that which cannot be changed.


His Lost Name screens in New York on July 23 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)