Yan (燕, Keisuke Imamura, 2019)

A sense of dislocation plagues the drifting heroes of Keisuke Imamura’s elegantly lensed Yan (燕), a poetic meditation on the legacy of abandonment both cultural and familial. As much about the disintegration of a family as the complexities of identity, Imamura’s nuanced character drama finds its hero looking for himself in the shadow of his long lost brother and rediscovering perhaps a long absent sense of security in reconnecting with his childhood self while learning to let go of his fierce resentment towards the mother he assumed had forgotten him. 

28-year-old Tsubame (Long Mizuma) is a workaholic architect with a successful, settled life in Tokyo. He is also, however, slightly disconnected and harbouring a great deal of anger towards his family, aside it seems from his cheerful step-mother. An awkward meeting with his father following a rare summons to the family home results in some distressing news. His company’s gone under and he’s deep in debt, which is why he wants Tsubame to go to Taiwan to deliver some important papers to his estranged older brother Ryushin (Takashi Yamanaka) whom he hasn’t seen in 23 years since he left with their mother (Yo Hitoto) so he can renounce his rights to an inheritance to avoid being liable for his father’s debts. Tsubame is reluctant, he didn’t even go to Taiwan for his mother’s funeral and has done his best to erase that side of his life from his memory, but after his step-mother guilt trips him by explaining that his father’s in poor health so it might be the last thing he’ll ever ask he finds himself on the next flight to Kaohsiung.

Despite his animosity towards his Taiwanese heritage, Tsubame seems to have maintained his Mandarin which is a definite help in the busy city but finds himself conflicted in being taken at first for a local and then recognised as not. Sitting down at a dumpling stand the proprietress and another customer guess that he is probably Japanese but on hearing that he was born in the area and his mother was from there immediately remind him that he is then also Taiwanese, something that appears to bother him. Flashing back to his childhood we witness both warm scenes of his mother conversing with her children in Mandarin while they mainly reply in Japanese, and a series of xenophobic micro-aggressions from neighbours who accuse her of trying to harm their children with new year dumplings containing lucky coins while Tsubame finds himself a victim of bullying by the local kids after mistakenly using his Chinese name, Yan, or making the usual kinds of language mistakes that all young children make but being made fun of over them as someone not quite Japanese. Like the heroines of What’s For Dinner, Mom? he also remembers a sense of embarrassment on being the only kid with a non-standard bento but sadly never managed to convert any of his classmates to Taiwanese food, internalising a sense of shame over his difference and becoming hyper Japanese in response. In a particularly painful moment, he berates his mother for her poor language skills and lack of cultural awareness, tearing up a drawing he’d made and crying out that he wished he could swap her for a “normal” Japanese mum like everyone else’s. 

Why exactly she chose to leave only him behind, taking her older son with her, is never quite explained but perhaps a part of her felt that Tsubame preferred to stay in Japan. Ryushin meanwhile is carrying his own burden having left with his mother but resentful over her longing for the son she left behind. He appears to have felt dislocated himself as a boy raised Japan struggling to adapt to his new environment and is now a divorced father, it seems living with another man who left the Mainland for the comparatively liberal Taiwan to escape a conservative father and the pain of having to keep his true a identity a secret even from himself. Bonding with Tony (Ryushin Tei), his brother’s partner, Tsubame comes to a realisation that he has been doing something much the same in rejecting his Taiwanese heritage but struggles to accept that a person can be more than one thing and like the sparrow from which he takes his name could be equally at home in both Japan and Taiwan. 

As Tony tells him, somewhat cynically, bitterness is also born of love which is after all what has brought Tsubame all the way to Kaohsiung. Tsubame’s mother had told him the Chinese proverb that a mother’s love is like a flowing river, but a child’s is the like breeze that rustles the leaves. The small Tsubame replied that he’d always love his mother but has spent the majority of his life in silent resentment, only latterly acknowledging it might have been true after all after coming to an understanding of his mother’s choices and realising that in her heart at least she had never abandoned him. 


Yan was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Akihiko Shiota, 2016)

wet woman in the wind poster largeBack in the early ‘70s, Nikkatsu reacted to the gradual box office decline of Japanese cinema by taking things one step further than their already edgy youth output in rebranding themselves as a purveyor of softcore pornography known as Roman Porno. Unlike the familiar “pink film”, Roman Porno was made with the assets of a major studio behind it including better actors, production values, and distribution power but it still obeyed strict genre rules calling for speedy turnarounds, minimal running times and the requisite amount of nudity (to the permitted parameters) at set intervals. 45 years later Roman Porno is back in a series of films directed by some of today’s most interesting directors who attempt to recreate the genre anew for modern audiences whilst paying homage to the originals.

Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Kaze ni Nureta Onna) starts as it means to go on with hapless protagonist Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) sitting by a river looking sad just as a strange young woman suddenly rides her bicycle directly into the nearby lake before climbing out and stripping off her T-shirt (which, amusingly enough reads “you need tissues for your issues”), revealing her bare breasts to a complete stranger. Kosuke is baffled and confused. He tries to leave but the woman follows him, asking if she can stay with him tonight because she has nowhere else to go. Kosuke is resolved, he’s given up girls and wants nothing whatsoever to do with weird women from ponds but Shiori (Yuki Mamiya) is not one to take no for an answer.

It’s never made clear but something unpleasant has obviously happened to Kosuke that has made him retreat from the city with his tail between his legs (so to speak). A respected playwright, Kosuke seems to have had something of an existential crisis and has decided to condemn himself to a life of self-imposed isolation because “you have to be alone if you really want to think deeply about things”. His isolation is, however, only up to a point. Kosuke’s semi-primitive lifestyle sees him living in a shack in the woods but he has electric lighting provided by generator batteries and grinds his own coffee beans by hand after buying them from a local cafe owned by a man Kosuke went to university with but claims not to have known at the time. The cafe owner’s wife has recently left and he blames Kosuke for reawakening a desire in her that had apparently lain dormant with her husband.

In a shocking coincidence, Shiori has also taken a job at the cafe and has set about seducing the recently lonely owner who has now become fixated and jealous, once again afraid Kosuke in particular is going to steal away his new plaything just like he stole his wife. This is a fallacy on several levels, not least that Shiori is not a woman to be constrained by any man but a true free spirit who gives her love freely to whomever that she chooses.

Spirit might be the best way to describe Shiori who arrives and departs with the wind, a force of nature with the sole intent of freeing her targets of the burden of repressed desires. A radio broadcast later reveals that a tiger has been on the run from the nearby zoo and if this were a fable, you could almost believe the tiger to be Shiori, sinking her teeth into soft centre of human weakness and leaving right after she tears its throat out.

Free spirit as she is, Shiori does find herself in moments of danger as the the threat of sexual violence rears its ugly head. Kosuke likes to think of himself as an enlightened kind of man, an intellectual, but he’s also a self-involved womaniser not above attempting to force himself on a woman he feels to be his for the taking or, half in jest, threatening to rape a former lover. Yet for Shiori much of this is sport – she sees through Kosuke and neatly undercuts all of his self delusions and neuroses, but she’s also merely toying with him.

Finding himself literally kicked out of bed and rendered redundant when Shiori finds more pleasure in getting together with his former lover Kyoko, Kosuke wanders outside in confusion and seduces, with a degree of tenderness, Kyoko’s shy, bespectacled assistant, Yuko. When the morning comes, however, he feels he made a mistake. Yuko has become attached to him, sharing a traumatic childhood story only for Kosuke to brush it aside and encourage her to go out into the world to explore the rich pleasures on offer now that he has “awakened” her. Kosuke remains as self-centred as ever, but Yuko at least does perhaps find something in his words of “wisdom”.

As in all good sex comedy, the men are pathetic slaves to desires they find themselves unable to express, whether out of fear or cultural ideals of masculinity, while the women remain in control and must guide the men either towards a healthier outlook or their own destruction. Both Kosuke and the cafe owner conspire in their own downfall in misguided battles for possession or conquest. Having already suffered defeat, Kosuke has retreated from the field dejected and humiliated, but in his all out impassioned attempt to re-enter the world of carnality he literally brings his entire universe crashing down around his ears. Forced to realise his own ridiculousness, Kosuke is left alone with little else to do than survey the scale of the destruction his various delusions have wrought. A fun loving pastiche, Wet Woman in the Wind is an oddly whimsical tale, witty yet insightful even its seeming lightness.


Currently available to stream via Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles) NSFW!

Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2016)

destruction-babiesPost-golden age, Japanese cinema has arguably had a preoccupation with the angry young man. From the ever present tension of the seishun eiga to the frustrations of ‘70s art films and the punk nihilism of the 1980s which only seemed to deepen after the bubble burst, the young men of Japanese cinema have most often gone to war with themselves in violent intensity, prepared to burn the world which they feel holds no place for them. Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ) is a fine addition to this tradition but also an urgent one. Stepping somehow beyond nihilism, Mariko’s vision of his country’s future is a bleak one in which young, fatherless men inherit the traditions of their ancestors all the while desperately trying to destroy them. Devoid of hope, of purpose, and of human connection the youth of the day get their kicks vicariously, so busy sharing their experiences online that reality has become an obsolete concept and the physical sensation of violence the only remaining truth.

The rundown port towns of Shikoku are an apt place to stage this battle. Panning over the depressingly quiet harbour, urgent, thrumming electric guitars bring tension to the air as the younger of two brothers, Shota (Nijiro Murakami), catches sight of his only remaining family member, older brother Taira (Yuya Yagira). Currently in the middle of getting a beating from local thugs, Taira signals his intention to leave town, which he does after his boss breaks up the fight and tells him to get lost.

By the time Shota has crossed the river, his brother is already lost to him. A vengeful, crazed demon with strange, burning eyes, Taira has taken the same path as many an angry young man and headed into town spoiling for a fight. Driven by rage, Taira fights back but only to be fought with – he craves pain, is energised by it, and rises again with every fall stronger but a little less human.

As he says, he has his rules (as mysterious as they may be), but Taira’s violent exploits eventually find a disciple in previously cowardly high school boy Yuya (Masaki Suda) who discovers the potential violence has to create power from fear in witnessing Taira’s one man war of stubbornness with the local yakuza. Yuya, a coward at heart, is without code, fears pain, and seeks only domination to ease his lack of self confidence. Taira, random as his violence is, attacks only other males capable of giving him what he needs but Yuya makes a point of attacking those least likely to offer resistance. Proclaiming that he always wanted to hit a woman, Yuya drop kicks schoolgirls and sends middle aged housewives and their shopping flying.

The sole female voice, Nana (Nana Komatsu) – a kleptomaniac yakuza moll who finds her validation though shoplifting unneeded items selected for the pleasure of stealing them, originally finds the ongoing violence exciting as she watches the viral videos but feels very differently when confronted with its real, physical presence and each of the implied threats to her person it presents. Tough and wily, Nana is a survivor. Where Taira staked his life on violence and Yuya on the threat of it, Nana survives through cunning. The victory is hers, as hollow as it may turn out to be.

Mariko’s chilling vision paints the ongoing crime spree as a natural result of a series of long standing cultural norms in which contradictory notions of masculinity compete with a conformist, constraining society. The entire founding principle of the small town in which the film takes place is that men come of age through violence, though the older man who has (or claims to have) provided the bulk of parental input for these parentless brothers describes Taira as if he were the very demon such festivals are often created to expel. Men of 18 years carry the portable shrines, he repeatedly says, but 18 year old Taira is a “troublemaker” and “troublemakers” must leave the town altogether.

If Taira sought connection through violence, Shota continues to seek it through human emotions – searching for his brother, hanging out with his friends, and drawing closer to his brother’s boss who offers him differing degrees of fatherly input. In contrast to his peers, Shota seems to disapprove of the way his cocksure (false) friend Kenji (Takumi Kitamura) treats women though it is also true that Kenji is actively frustrating his attempts to find his brother whilst dangling a clue right before his eyes. Nevertheless, the harshness of this unforgiving world seems determined to turn Shota into the same rage filled creature of despair as his older brother as injustice piles on injustice with no hope of respite.

Destruction Babies is apt name for the current society – born of chaos, trapped in perpetual childhood, and thriving on violence. Taira and Shota were always outsiders in a world which organises itself entirely around the family unit but the force which drives their world is not love but pain, this world is one underpinned by the physical at the expense of the spiritual. Metaphorically or literally, the lives of the young men of today will entail repeated blows to the face while those of the young women will require ingenious sideward motions to avoid them. Oblique, ambiguous, and soaked in blood, Destruction Babies is a rebel yell for a forlorn hope, as raw as it is disturbing.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017 and set for UK release from Third Window Films later in the year.

Original trailer (English subtitles)