Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle, Arthur Harari, 2021)

For most people, the Pacific War ended in 1945. For Hiroo Onoda it may in a sense never have ended though he laid down his arms in 1974, 30 years after his initial dispatch, having spent the intervening three decades pursuing guerrilla warfare in the Philippine jungle the last two of them entirely alone. Arthur Harari’s three-hour existential epic, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle), explores the psychological dimensions of his quasi-religious conviction in the righteousness of a mission which is in one sense no more than to survive along with his refusal to accept that the war is over and his personal struggle has been pointless. 

Immediately in opening the film in 1974 with a young man identified only as a “tourist” (Taiga Nakano) arriving on the island in search of Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), Harari draws a direct contrast between these two arrivals and subsequent departures. As he says, the Tourist is just that in town for a specific purpose after which he will leave and though you might be able to say the same of Onoda who came to the island of Lubang in late 1944 his reality was very different. On luring him out of the jungle by playing the patriotic war song he had sung with the other soldiers who unlike him accepted the surrender, the Tourist poignantly tells Onoda that he has travelled to over 50 countries whereas Onoda in a certain sense has never left Japan. “This island belongs to us” he’s fond of insisting seeing it as a piece of the Japanese empire which others are trying to take from him but he alone must defend. 

As we discover, the young Onoda (Yuya Endo) had wanted to become a pilot but washed out of the training program because of a fear of heights and was subsequently put forward for a kamikaze squadron. The irony of his life is that he is a man who refused to die for the emperor, his will to survive bringing him to the attention of Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata) of the notorious Nakano spy school who sells his students a line that they are the good guys helping to liberate East Asia from Western imperialism. Trained in guerrilla warfare part of Onoda’s mission is to foster an uprising in the local population whom he assumes will also oppose American influence never realising that he is in fact a part of a destructive colonising force they will also seek to repel not least because of the way they have been treated by Japanese forces. 

Onoda’s first meeting with his captain on arriving on Lubang is interrupted by the arrival of the mayor of a nearby town who has come to complain that Japanese soldiers have been stealing food supplies from local farmers. This comes as a surprise to Onoda who is obviously not fully aware of the reality on the ground. His initial orders are largely ignored by the remaining NCOs who get up and leave during his briefing knowing that what he’s proposing is impossible. These men are already battle weary, many of them are sick, and they are running low on supplies. Onoda is 22 and fresh faced, arriving full of energy and patriotic zeal assuming these men are simply lazy or lack ideological commitment. He has no grounds to wield authority and no combat experience that would permit him to understand the circumstances in which he finds himself. In an especial irony, his first kill occurs after the war has (for everyone else) ended and he will himself go on to commit acts of atrocity against the local population which he justifies as acts of war. 

The military song which he is fond of singing celebrates there being no more bandits, yet banditry is essentially what he has been reduced to calling into question any idea of heroism which might be attributed to his refusal to accept the wartime defeat. In his Nakano spy school training, Onoda had been encouraged to ignore the accepted rules of war, that all is permissible in the pursuit of victory. He is also told that the prize for the “secret war” he is conducting will be a “secret glory” that goes unrecognised by others while he alone will possess true integrity in knowing that he never wavered in his mission. Yet there is something in him which weakens when he encounters the Tourist and is told that most of Japan believes him to be dead, rendering his struggle an irrelevance. 

He begins to admit the concept of surrender but only if given new orders from Taniguchi whose contradictory teachings have informed the course of his life, yet Taniguchi like many of his generation in the Japan of 1974 does not want to face his wartime past. The bookshop he now runs sells no military books and he claims not to remember Onoda or Lubang refusing his responsibility for his role in the conflict now filled with shame and regret. Yet it’s also possible that Onoda misunderstood the nature of the mission he’d been assigned, that in saving him from the kamikaze squadron because he did not want to die, Taniguchi gave him only one order – to survive. “You do not have the right to die” he reminds the recruits while giving them the ultra-individualist mantra that they must be their own officers which is in essence the paradoxical instruction to obey no orders but their own meaning that Onoda was always free to accept defeat. 

The psychological consequences of doing so, however, may have been too great. Coming of age in a militarised society, he already feels himself emasculated and embarrassed by his failure to become a pilot essentially because he is afraid to die. An awkward meeting with his father (played by film director Nobuhiro Suwa) resembles that of a Spartan woman sending her son to war with the instruction to return with his shield or on it. To return in defeat is psychologically impossible and suicide forbidden and so the only choice is inertia. In this Onoda may be hiding in the jungle unable to face a post-war future, descending into delusional conspiracy when presented with evidence that the war is over choosing to see the attempts of others to discourage him from his mission as proof of its importance, as if he and the remaining soldier sticking with him are key players in geopolitical manoeuvring worthy of such an elaborate plot. To believe the world is wrong is easier than to accept that he’s wasted his life in service of a mistaken ideal while failing to prove himself a man by the standards of a heavily militarised society. 

He’s tempted out of his delusion only by the Tourist who confronts him with the face of a new Japan entirely unknown to him, a Japan of economic prosperity, of the Shinkansen, of democracy. Being taken off the island means he must finally leave his dreams and delusions behind to enter a new post-war reality. Harari frames the island of Lubang as a psychological realm, the topography of Onoda’s delusion, but is also mindful of the islanders living outside it whom Onoda terrorises under the justification of war no better than a bandit in his quest for survival. In Harari’s oneiric landscapes, Onoda’s vistas are forever haunted by the spectres of his latent regret in the reflections of the boy he once was who came to Lubang to prove himself a man only to leave it a ghost. 


Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle opens in UK cinemas April 15 courtesy of Third Window Films. It will also be released on blu-ray May 16 in a set which also features an interview with actor Kanji Tsuda plus an interview with director Arthur Harari, DOP Tom Harari and assistant director Benjamin Papin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Katsuhito Ishii & Hajime Ishimine & Shunichiro Miki, 2005)

“Is that normal?” someone asks watching a previously mild-mannered doctor having a right old go at a tiny man baby currently attached to a high school girl’s armpit after being pulled free of its aquatic carapace, “don’t be rude” his companion shushes him. Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki’s Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Nice Mori: The First Contact) became the best known example of the short-lived trend in surreal comedy which came to dominate a certain kind of Japanese cinema from the late ’90s to early 2000s while perhaps surviving into the present day in a more arthouse friendly form in the deadpan absurdist cinema of filmmakers such as Akira Ikeda (Ambitious Places, The Blue Danube) or Isamu Hirabayashi (Shell and Joint).  

Even so, Funky Forest is wilfully anarchic skipping between a series of interconnected skits that eventually coalesce as something like a unique universe loosely revolving around three “unpopular with women” brothers and a “delusional” high school teacher in a non-relationship with a former student who thinks he’s seen a UFO and is engaged in a battle to save the aliens from the planet Piko-Riko. Two and a half hours long, which is admittedly pushing it for a non-linear sketch comedy, the film is split into two parts, Side A and Side B, joined by a short intermission after which the surrealism intensifies, the design of the title cards changes, and the action shifts in focus from a quiet onsen to an ordinary high school where the teacher and the two adult brothers each work. 

The action begins however with a pair of manzai comedians seemingly performing on some kind of space ship and to an audience consisting of identical military personnel each like the comedians dressed in white and silver while the show is broadcast to a man sitting in a tiny pod-like dream ship. The “Mole Brothers” recur throughout, their set routinely dividing one skit from another while one, Kazushi, also turns up on his own in a couple of other sketches as part of the great connected universe, and though their act being kind of a dud is part of the joke their variety-style humour is an otherwise key indicator of the kind of comedy which is being employed and subverted even as the action becomes ever more surreal. As it happens, each of the major plot strands seems to lead us towards a dance sequence such as that which closes the first half in Takefumi’s (Ryo Kase) strange fever dream which culminates in a Mandarin-language group routine and the first appearance of the weird, shrimp-like creatures which dominate Side B. 

Side B is indeed somewhat through the looking glass as we find the high school kids literally playing these alien creatures like musical instruments some of which need to be plugged in to the human body in one way or another such as the strangely cute rat/shrimplike beings which attach directly to the tongue. Sitting right in front of the high school class which is taught by lovelorn brother Katsuichi (Susumu Terajima) is none other than the film director and Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno who later turns up again to discuss contemporary anime with guitar bother Masaru (Tadanobu Asano) in one of his many part-time jobs, though the class also includes the young primary school student who featured in the first skit in which she lamented having so much homework and escaped to the dreamscape in order to fight giant orbs with her mind. 

In an odd way perhaps that’s what our three directors are doing too, away on flights of fancy which make little literal sense but seem to have their own internal logic even though the directorial force the film presents is an adorable little scottie dog whose thoughts are translated by someone wearing a giant papier-mâché head. “Thinking is too scary, so I’ll forget about it”, someone explains which may be good advice in deciding to just accept the crazy randomness and play along. Often interrupting the action by cutting to black to mimic old-fashioned channel hopping the directors also throw in a random 20s intermission in the middle of a scene, animation of various styles, and surreal body-horror-adjacent practical effects, before winding up at the funky forest itself, a weird dreamscape somewhere in Hokkaido ruled by a dream-hopping girlband.  “What a strange dream” one character exclaims though in the great scheme of things perhaps it’s easier to make sense of a dream than a defiantly surreal reality.  


Funky Forest: The First Contact is released on blu-ray in the UK on 21st March courtesy of Third Window Films alongside quasi-sequel Warped Forest in a set which includes a feature length commentary from all three directors and a series of deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2008)

“We’re part of a whole system” the chief mechanic insists with exasperation, irritated with an employee being too thorough, “what if this delays departure?”. Best known for ensemble comedies, of which Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト) is one, Shinobu Yaguchi had originally envisaged a disaster movie only to change tack realising that aircraft accidents really are (thankfully) extremely rare and the backstage workings of an airport might well lead themselves to comedy. Even so, it’s perhaps surprising that sponsor airline ANA who were apparently heavily involved in the project allowed themselves to be seen in a less than perfect light even if their pilots and ground staff do indeed save the day when potential disaster strikes. 

Like any good farce, Yaguchi throws just about every potential problem into one basket beginning with the fact that this flight to Honolulu is the final exam for co-pilot Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) who is hoping to earn a promotion to captain though a disastrous performance in the simulator may have dimmed his expectations. It’s also the first flight for chirpy air hostess Etsuko (Haruka Ayase) still harbouring some delusions about the glamour of the flight attendant life while the plane itself is late in and technically speaking needs a couple of repairs though the airline is already a little jumpy about the number of delays impacting their services recently and the chief mechanic thinks some of them can wait. A junior engineer takes it on himself to change a part and incurs the wrath of his boss for taking to long, but is perhaps privately worried he didn’t do it properly and later alarmed when the plane runs into trouble worried that his missing wrench might be the cause. Aside from the pressing typhoon, the other problem is a flock of annoying seagulls normally taken care of by an old man nicknamed “bird guy” who warns them off with a shotgun only today he’s been accosted by the “bird lovers alliance”, while the airport is also surrounded by a bunch of obsessive aviation enthusiasts recording every detail and uploading them online. 

If something can go wrong then it will, as it does when the backup sensors stop working leaving the pilots flying blind, but even before that consumer aviation is first and foremost a customer facing business with the airline concentrating on ensuring that passengers have a good experience so they don’t lose their business to a rival. That’s one reason they’re so paranoid about avoiding delays, but also find themselves dealing with aggressive passengers each intent on receiving individual attention forgetting for a moment that the plane is full of other people who also have needs and demands. Still learning the ropes, Etsuko struggles to understand her place in the machine only to redeem herself later through a little lateral thinking following a culinary disaster while becoming quietly disillusioned with the unexpectedly stressful side of her otherwise glamorous profession. Meanwhile stern purser Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) gives them all a masterclass in deescalating an entitled customer’s rage by stroking his ego with some well-placed psychology. 

This being a comedy it all turns out alright in the end even if Suzuki has undergone something of a baptism of fire and Etsuko has had her eyes opened to the reality of the flight attendant life. Despite everything going wrong at the same time, it goes right when it needs to thanks to the teamwork and dedication of the disparate team from the guys in the air control weather department to the scrambling ground staff arranging meals and accommodation for passengers unable to reach their destination. There’s even the hint of a happy ending for check in supervisor Natsumi (Tomoko Tabata) who was dead set on quitting her job because it doesn’t afford her any opportunities to meet nice guys, while what it does seem to largely contain is fending off the three teenage aeroplane enthusiasts who hang out in arrivals and dealing with various passenger crises. They are indeed all part of whole system, and that’s good and bad in that they all feel under pressure to get planes in the air on time which perhaps encourages them to overvalue efficiency at the cost of safety, but also makes it easier to spring into action in order to fend off a crisis should one occur so that everyone can have a “happy flight” blissfully ignorant of the minor panic under the bonnet of this not so well oiled machine. 


Happy Flight streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Atsuro Shimoyashiro, 2019)

Where now the dreams of youth? It may be impossible to escape a regretful middle age, wondering what might have been if only you knew then what you know now, but for the heroes of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Tokyo no Koibito) the pain seems all the more acute. “Today’s the day our youth ends” a brokenhearted woman laments, trying to make peace with her choices but finding that her return to the past may have done more harm than good. 

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a 31-year-old salaryman, married with a baby on the way and living in provincial Gunma. With the anxiety of impending fatherhood on his mind, he’s surprised to receive a message from his university girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), who wants to reconnect. Telling his wife he’s going on a business trip, Tatsuo decides to spend the weekend in Tokyo, staying with another friend from uni before meeting up with Marina for a Sunday in the city reminiscing about old times. 

Like Tatsuo, his old college friend Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura) has long since given up the dream of becoming a filmmaker. A breakdown at 27 has apparently led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaving him unable to hold down a job and dependent on his wife, Seiko (Maki Nishiyama), who supports both him and his step-daughter Shizuko through sex work while Komazawa has become an idle alcoholic. Despite his disappointment, Tatsuo spends the evening bonding with the local bar lady who claims to be able to see the future before leaving early in the morning to meet Marina who suggests revisiting the seaside they went to years before. 

Very much ready to step back into the more innocent past, Tatsuo has brought with him a tape of a song they used to listen to way back when and wastes no time in reassuming the poses of his 20-year-old self, sunshades and all. Marina, by contrast is self-consciously cute but mature, if perhaps sad. Tatsuo starts to tell her that he gave up his filmmaking dreams, married a good woman, and took a regular salaryman job at the family firm, but fails to complete the thought. Marina meanwhile casually remarks that she married a wealthy man but hints that she did so largely for convenience and material comfort rather than love. 

“We never get to marry the woman we love the most” Tatsuo’s strangely boys will be boys brother-in-law (Mutsuo Yoshioka) sighs, commiserating with Tatsuo’s lament for his disappointed youth and failure to make his filmmaking dreams a reality. We discover that an early success in a scriptwriting competition gave him an inflated sense of possibility, and that his desire for success was largely a desire to impress his girlfriend. Wounded male pride in his sense of artistic failure eventually convinced him he had to break things off while she silently cursed him, jokingly sentencing him to 18 years of solitude in a playful reference to a Tai Kato film. Now he realises his foolishness and is filled with regret in having settled for a conventional middle-class life as a husband and father.

Marina, meanwhile, is feeling something much the same in trying to achieve closure on the past before she becomes a mother. After breaking up with Tatsuo, she drifted through nude modelling and ended up the trophy wife of a wealthy man she doesn’t love, pegging her hopes on material comfort and hoping that love will come later. “I’m glad you’re happy now” a bar owner and former Instagram fan tries to congratulate her, but all Marina can do is smile sadly and ask her similarly troubled companion if happy is what she looks.    

“I’m not young anymore, I can’t live for a dream” Tatsuo accepts, but living on a dream is all they’re doing, recalling the time when they were “modern lovers” in Tokyo kidding themselves that they were urban sophisticates when perhaps all they did were the kinds of things unsophisticated suburbanites do like hang out at batting cages and go to barbecue restaurants. It’s too late to turn back now, but the past is a difficult trap to escape and perhaps what they long for is not so much the love cut off in its prime but a return to the possibilities of youth. Meeting again reawakens the desire for something more out of life than life may now have to give them, but this is day that youth ends, hitting the end of the road in a slow car crash of realisation that regret is the price of age.


The Modern Lovers was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Retro hit Love You, Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa (not that one!) & Los Primos which recurs frequently throughout the film

5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Moon Sung-ho, 2019)

5 Million Dollar Life posterIs it possible to live a life without “debts” of one kind or another or are we all just living on loans? The hero of Moon Sung-ho’s 5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Gooku Yen no Jinsei) wants to find out, not least because he feels himself indebted to those who have helped him in the past and struggles with the pressure of living up to their expectation. An unexpected source provides some helpful advice in pointing out that “value” in one sense at least is not something you’re free to decide for yourself but is defined by others. Then again, not being certain of your own worth makes it impossible to claim your rightful place in society as someone as worthy of love and respect as any other.

When Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki) was six, his family found out he had a congenital heart defect and would need to go abroad for a transplant. His community rallied around him and raised five million dollars so he could go to America for treatment. The heartwarming story also made him the star of an ongoing documentary in which he’s interviewed on television every year so those who contributed to saving his life can find out how he’s getting on. Becoming a local celebrity and an accidental TV star is obviously a lot of pressure for any young man, but Mirai feels acutely burdened by the responsibility of “repaying” the kindness that was offered to him. He doesn’t feel his life was worth five million dollars and knows he is unlikely to repay their “investment”. He is after all just “ordinary”. He won’t win a Nobel prize or cure cancer, all he can do is live his life in the normal way but that’s hard when it feels like everyone is secretly looking over his shoulder and waiting for him to make a mistake.

Meanwhile he’s also become a role model to the suicidal Chiharu (Hikari Kobayashi) who doesn’t “see the value in life”  and feels that “death is glorious” because people can hate you while you’re alive, but they’ll love you when you’re gone. Mirai gets where she’s coming from. He longs for an ending too, if only to reject the responsibility he feels towards those who saved his life. Attacked by a troll online, he takes up the challenge to make the five million dollars back and then kill himself to bring an end to the whole affair but quickly discovers that it’s a lot harder to make five million dollars than he thought.

Neatly taking place during the last summer of high school, Mirai’s odyssey sends him on an odd trek across working class Japan as he finds himself alone and without money or means to support himself. At only 17, he can’t even stay in a hotel on his own and so he winds up becoming homeless but is taken in by a nice old man who claims he decided to help him because he bought an umbrella with his last pennies rather than pinching someone else’s. Though he is often exploited and betrayed by those who take advantage of his goodness, that same quality finds an answer in others who, sometimes despite themselves, want to help him because he seems like the sort of person who needs help.

This idea finds encapsulation in the surprisingly astute words of wisdom Mirai receives from a petty gangster he meets after getting involved with sex work. The gangster, who starts off by telling him that he’s making a mistake selling himself short when it’s the customer who decides what his “value” is, later explains that it’s not so much that the world is divided into people who are nice and people who aren’t, but that some people are “worth” being nice to and Mirai, for one reason or another, is one such person who thrives on kindness.

Mirai’s desire to quantify his life by putting a price on it may be mistaken, as proved by the sad case of a family committing suicide because of monetary debt, but what he realises is that people help because they want to and they don’t necessarily expect anything in return other than kindness. If he wants to find a way to repay them, he’ll have to figure it out on his own terms first, but all they really wanted they wanted from him was that he live his life as happily as possible. 5 Million Dollar Life goes to some pretty dark places, but always maintains a healthy cheerfulness as Mirai goes on his strange odyssey looking for the “value” in being alive and discovering that it largely lies shared kindnesses and unselfish connection.


5 Million Dollar Life screens on 11th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Lowlife (最低, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

The Lowlife 2017In terms of the mainstream cinema industry, the AV (“adult video”) world is viewed with suspicion and distain. AV is where unlucky women end up after having the misfortune to encounter unscrupulous yakuza or be born to feckless parents whose debts they are forced to pay with their bodies. However, mainstream cinema perhaps has a reason to demonise its rival on top of reflecting persistent social stigmas relating to the expression of sexuality. Takahisa Zeze began his career in “pink film”, which is to say softcore pornography, and casts a non-judgemental eye over the modern hardcore porn scene in The Lowlife (最低, Saitei), adapting a novel by AV actress and gravure model Mana Sakura which explores the lives of three women who each have been impacted by the industry.

The first two of our heroines – college dropout Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), and melancholy housewife Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), have made a free choice to enter the AV industry mostly out of loneliness and insecurity. Ayano, who claims to be the only “ugly” one among her many sisters, is convinced to take part in a porn shoot by an unscrupulous boyfriend but finds herself reassured in being adored by the camera and appreciated on set, if only briefly. Miho, meanwhile, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a man who has begun sleeping in his study and continually puts off the discussion of starting a family despite Miho’s intense desire to become a mother. Checking on her husband one morning she is dismayed to find a porn DVD in the open tray of his laptop which feels like a double betrayal in that he has obviously not been “working” all night and has avoided intimacy with her while finding release somewhere else. Irritated, Miho takes the extreme decision of becoming a porn star herself as a strange kind of revenge and motion towards personal fulfilment.

Our third heroine, Ayako (Aina Yamada), however, is looking at the same problem from a different angle in that she is daughter of a single-mother who had previously worked in the porn industry before returning home to her own single-mother to start again and raise her daughter. Takako (Saki Takaoka) is a difficult, flighty woman who still likes to live the high life drinking with random guys and rolling in late or sometimes not at all to the constant worry of her anxious daughter. A gifted artist, Ayako is a shy, gloomy girl who finds it hard to connect with her peers and resents her mother for her unconventional lifestyle. Her problems intensify when she wins a prominent art prize and irritates a classmate who seems to be stalking her causing him to spread the rumour of Takako’s past all over the school.

Social stigma is indeed one of the main problems each of the women face. Ayano, who seems to be otherwise happy enough with her life AV, gets an unexpected visit from her concerned mother and scornful sister when someone presumably spots her in a video and decides to have a word. As Ayano points out to her annoyingly judgemental sister, that means whoever told them just outed themselves as an AV-watcher so perhaps she should ask her boyfriend about that before making sarky comments. Nevertheless, nobody really says anything about the men who consume pornography, only about the “immoral” women who star in them. Ayano’s mother Izumi (Makiko Watanabe) blames herself, complaining that Ayano was the only one of her daughters she never quite bonded with, by turns angry with her for “shaming” the family and concerned that she has “thrown her life away” by becoming forever tainted with the stigma of having been involved in the sex industry.

Corrupted maternity becomes a somewhat uncomfortable theme as each of the women assesses their relationships with other women in the context of the traditional family. Having given up work and become a housewife as society expects, Miho has done everything right but is intensely unhappy because her husband will not move to the next step by starting a family. At 35, she feels her life stagnating, that everything is already settled and nothing will change from now until the time she dies. Neglected by a husband who seems to have lost interest in her as a woman as well as in their shared endeavour of building a home, she finds herself drawn to AV as a path to sexual fulfilment which isn’t really infidelity while also subverting her image of superficial perfection and embracing another identity outside of the home. She remains, however, conflicted as she gazes jealously at a happy family out on holiday at the pleasant mountain lodge where they’ll shoot the movie away from prying eyes. Her involvement in AV is, in a way, also an act of self harm as she punishes herself for her inability to become a mother, while also getting back at her disinterested husband.

Even so, Zeze is careful to frame the AV industry in a positive light. On arrival at the agency, Miho is greeted by an extremely sensitive and sympathetic manager who does his best to ease her concerns while making her feel safe at her most vulnerable. Having felt so neglected and lonely at home, the AV world provides her with a place that she is appreciated, desired as a woman and treated like a star. Similarly, Ayano who had believed herself “ugly” and unlovable begins to gain confidence in herself thanks to being appreciated by the camera, eventually striking up a relationship with a nice guy journalist in a bar which seems like it might develop into something more. While some might argue that the industry is merely exploiting feminine insecurities, it cannot be denied that both women find in it a path towards self acceptance and actualisation.

Despite the fiercely non-judgemental tone, a late plot twist further casts Miho’s transgression as a fall rather than a rise while an eventual connection with Ayako further deepens the maternal subtext as she completes the circle by mothering the lost young woman trying to come to terms with her atypical family situation. Ayako’s grandmother too seems to prescribe motherhood as the answer to all life’s mysteries even if the answer is often that they can’t be solved and all that remains is the urgency of living. Zeze’s depiction of the porn industry might be a rosy one glossing over the seamier side in favour of presenting a world built on empowerment rather than exploitation, but its infinitely sympathetic eye makes plain that porn is just a job like any other and the women who work in it do not deserve the scorn that society often chooses to heap on them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Enokida Trading Post (榎田貿易堂, Ken Iizuka, 2018)

NC18_cinema_Enokida Trading Post_flyer_preview.jpegJapanese cinema is filled with tales of those who become disillusioned with city life and decide to go home to the country to start all over again. Almost always they start with failure and build to success as the hero or heroine gradually figures out what they want out of life and then how to make it happen. Enokida Trading Post (榎田貿易堂, Enokida Boekido), however, does things a little differently. Mr. Enokida (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) has been back in his home town for four years and has already built up a successful, if scrappy, business selling second hand goods. When the right hand side of the first character in Mr. Enokida’s name suddenly falls off the store’s sign one day without warning, Mr. Enokida knows something big, good or bad, is definitely on its way.

Both director Ken Iizuka and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa hail from the small country town, not coincidentally also called Shibukawa, in which the film is set. A tribute to rural life, Enokida Trading Post adopts the calming, laidback feel of many a Japanese tale of life in the village but that’s not to say it’s the sort of place where nothing much happens – quite the reverse in fact. When we first meet Mr. Enokida, he’s wandering into the local hair salon but he’s got more than just a quick trim on his mind. Aside from indulging in a little how’s your father with the middle-aged proprietress (Reiko Kataoka), he’s also picking up a few extra pennies from the curious little boy he’s allowed to watch from outside. The affair with hairdresser will eventually get him into a lot more trouble, but Mr. Enokida is the sort that finds trouble worth the prize so it’s mostly the people around him who will end up paying the price.

Enokida Trading Post has two other employees – Chiaki (Sairi Ito), a married woman experiencing some kind of problems at home, and Kiyohiko (Ryu Morioka) who seems to have an extreme aversion to answering the telephone. The gang are also joined by a hippyish older lady, Yoko (Kimiko Yo), who stops by to chat every now and then, and an old friend, Hagiwara (Kenichi Takito), also recently returned from Tokyo but apparently only for a few weeks while he finishes a screenplay.

Sex and gossip become the two main pastimes for the Enokida gang as Kiyohiko catches sight of Yoko in a compromising position with the old man who runs the local laundrette while Mr. Enokida has begun to worry that Chiaki may have become a victim of domestic violence. As it turns out Chiaki’s worries are of a quite different order which might explain why she keeps renting “racy” mainstream movies like Betty Blue and Eyes Wide Shut from the local DVD store and apparently watching them all alone.

In an attempt to solve some of their problems, the gang find themselves making a visit to “Chinpokan” which effectively means “willy museum” and is indeed filled with pieces of erotic art from classic shunga to a room full of wooden penises in various sizes. A visit to Chinpokan can it seems work wonders, but as soon as you solve one problem another arises and a surprising discovery is made regarding another local love story before a third suddenly spirals into violence, revenge, and murder! Even in peaceful Gunma, such things do indeed still happen – something which prompts Mr. Enokida into a another reassessment of his life choices as he ponders his role in events so far and tries to decide what his next move ought to be.

Mr. Enokida’s motto had always been that anything except for actual rubbish he could handle. Sadly, quite a lot of rubbish has just happened to him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. The revelations do however prompt each of his friends into opening up about their individual worries and finally finding the strength to face them head on to make some decisions of their own. Making the best use of the beautiful scenery and filled with the charms of small town life, Enokida Trading Post is another in the long line of relaxed rural adventures, effortlessly finding the strangeness of the everyday in the country while grounding its sense of absurd fun in the unique philosophy of Mr. Enokida and his variously troubled friends.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)

 

Parks (PARKS パークス, Natsuki Seta, 2017)

parks posterParks are a common feature of modern city life – a stretch of green among the grey, but it’s important to remember that there has not always been such beautiful shared space set aside for public use. Natsuki Seta’s light and breezy youth comedy, Parks (PARKS パークス), was commissioned in celebration of the centenary of the Tokyo park where the majority of the action takes place, Inokashira. Mixing early Godardian whimsy with new wave voice over and the kind of innocent adventure not seen since the Kadokawa idol days, Parks is a sometimes melancholy, wistful tribute to a place where chance meetings can define lifetimes as well as to brief yet memorable summers spent with gone but not forgotten friends doing something which seems important but which in retrospect may be trivial.

Student Jun (Ai Hashimoto) begins the story with a meta voiceover declaring her intention to begin among the cherry blossoms – letting us know right away that this will be an ephemeral sort of tale. She’s young, in love, and carefree – too carefree, actually, she’s already got a job lined up for after uni but has forgotten to do any of the work needed to graduate. Then, disaster strikes. Dumped by her boyfriend, Jun finds a letter from the university reminding her that she’s way behind and in a lot of trouble (the letter is dated six months previously).

On top of all of this, she bumps into the strange and dreamlike Haru (Mei Nagano) who barges into her apartment which apparently was once home to the lost love of her late father in the 1960s (he was evidently quite an aged dad). Chasing the leads they find in a collection of love letters and photographs the girls track down some of the pair’s old friends and eventually the grandson of the woman in question, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who discovers a reel-to-reel tape among his late grandmother’s effects which contains the remnants of the love song Haru’s father and Tokio’s grandmother were creating together. Seeing as the tape is damaged the trio decide to finish the song which will also form a part of the thesis Jun is supposed to be writing to graduate university.

Light, bright, and breezy like a spring day in a beautiful park, Parks is necessarily slight but filled with all the whimsical nostalgia of the no longer young. Celebrating the park’s 100th birthday, Seta apparently wanted create something which tied the various ages together – hence the 1960s focus, though her 1960s is much more French New Wave and postmodern silliness than it is student protests or economic anxiety. Romance is in the air as lovers meet in the park vowing never to part, only they do for reasons which Haru is desperate to know even if no one else particularly cares about the background to their ongoing project.

The interplay between the three accidental friends is the heart of the drama as they find themselves pulled in various different directions. Shota Sometani’s oddly spirited Tokio with his city boy accent and nerdy attempt at cool wants more Twitter followers and has his eyes set on musical fame where as poor Jun just wants to be left alone to finish Uni while Haru is swept up in the romantic love story of her much missed father.

Or is she? Seta throws in a few meta gags leaving us unsure of who or what Haru really is or if any of this is real. Taking a decidedly Lynchian detour with strange and surreal scenes focussing on a mysterious door, she lends this world an odd sort of charm through, like her New Wave inspiration, often refuses to follow the trail to its conclusion. Flitting between past and future, allowing the two to mingle and overlap and Haru to become a friend of her father as a young man, Parks is a sweet summer daydream filled with gentle music and warm air fit to blow away on the breeze.

The song itself, a characteristically whimsical composition by Tokumaru Shugo (who also has a brief cameo in the film), is a beautifully innocent ‘60s folktune which is then corrupted by the conflicting modern dreams of the easily swayed realists Tokio and Jun while the idealistically romantic Haru listens in horror before Jun finally remembers what all of this was about and tries to fix things before they get any more broken. Some songs are intended to float away on the breeze, like summer adventures and casual friendships and Parks is such a one, though a pleasant way to dream away a warm afternoon.


Parks was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles available by clicking subtitle button)