Narratage (ナラタージュ, Isao Yukisada, 2017)

Narratge poster 1Isao Yukisada made his name with the jun-ai landmark Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World back in 2004. Adapted from a best selling novel (which had also been adapted as a TV drama around the same time), Crying Out Love was the epitome of a short lived genre in which melancholy, lovelorn and lonely middle-aged heroes looked back on the lost love of their youths. Jun-ai has never really gone away though it might not be so popular as it once was, but the focus has perhaps shifted and in an unexpected direction. Narratage (ナラタージュ), once again adapted from a best selling novel though this time one by an author still in her early 20s when the book was written (incidentally smack in the middle of the jun-ai boom), is another sad story of frustrated love though in contrast to the jun-ai norm, its tragedies revolve around loves which were tested and subsequently failed, leaving the broken hearted romantics trapped within their own tiny bubbles of nostalgia.

The heroine, Izumi (Kasumi Arimura), narrates her tale from three distinct periods of her young life speaking from the perspective of her still young self now living as a lonely office worker. A lonely high school misfit, she found herself drawn to a sensitive teacher, Hayama (Jun Matsumoto), who rescued her from despair through an invitation to join the drama club. Relying on him ever more, she began regularly visiting his office for guidance and the pair bonded over their shared love of cinema. On graduation Izumi decided to declare her love, but earned a sad story in return and resolved to move on with her life. Then in the second year of university, she gets an unexpected phone call, calling her back to help out with a play at the school’s culture festival.

Yukisada begins with a rather unsubtle metaphor in which the older Izumi lovingly fondles an antique pocket watch which has long since stopped ticking. 20-something Izumi apparently has very little in her life, a pang of melancholy envy passing her face as she talks to a friend on the phone at home with a new baby while she prepares for another lonely night of (unnecessary) overtime. Where the heroes of jun-ai obsess over true love lost, Izumi struggles to face the fact that the man she loved did not, could not, love her in the way that she wanted him to. There is, of course, something deeply inappropriate in the awkward relationship between Izumi and Hayama who are a teenage student and her teacher respectively – connect as they might, there are moments when a line is crossed even while Izumi is still a schoolgirl which is in no way justified by the presentation of their (non)romance as a natural consequence of their mutual suffering.

Hayama and Izumi are presented as equals but they aren’t and never could be. As if to continue the chain, university era Izumi gets a love confession of her own from old classmate Ono (Kentaro Sakaguchi) who has apparently been carrying a torch for her all this time. Ono’s love, like Izumi’s, is originally generous and altruistic – he understands her unrequited affection for Hayama and perhaps even sympathises, but once Izumi decides to try and make things work with someone who loves her it all starts to go wrong. Ono is jealous, possessive, desperate. He demands to inspect her phone, insists she erase Hayama from her mind and devote herself only to him. Izumi, sadly, goes along with all of this, even when her attempts to turn to Ono for protection when afraid and alone are petulantly refused. When the inevitable happens and she decides to try and sort things out with Hayama, Ono tries to exert an authority he doesn’t really have, ordering her to bow to him (literally), and harping on about all the hard work he personally has put into their relationship which, he feels, she doesn’t really appreciate while berating her for not really loving him enough. As it turns out, neither of Izumi’s romantic options is particularly healthy or indeed viable.

At one particularly unsubtle moment, Izumi (alone) attends a screening of Naruse’s Floating Clouds – another film about a couple who fail to move on from a failed love affair though their struggle is ultimately more about the vagaries of the post-war world than it is about impossible love. Meanwhile the school play is to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is also about misplaced and unrequited loves which spontaneously sort themselves out thanks to some fairy magic and a night in a confusing forest. No magic powers are going to sort out Izumi’s broken heart for her. Like the pocket watch, her heart has stopped ticking and her romantic outlook appears to be arrested at the schoolgirl level. She and Hayama maybe equally damaged people who save and damn each other in equal measure, but the central messages seem to be that difficult, complicated, and unresolved loves and the obsessive sadness they entail produce nothing more than inescapable chains of loneliness. Simplistic as it may be, Izumi at least is beginning to find the strength to set time moving once again prompted perhaps by another incoming bout of possibly requitable love lingering on the horizon.


International trailer (English 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)

Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル, Keisuke Yoshida, 2016)

hime-anole posterSome people are odd, and that’s OK. Then there are the people who are odd, but definitely not OK. Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル) introduces us to both of these kinds of outsiders, attempting to draw a line between the merely awkward and the actively dangerous but ultimately finding that there is no line and perhaps simple acts of kindness offered at the right time could have prevented a mind snapping or a person descending into spiralling homicidal delusion. To go any further is to say too much, but Hime-anole revels in its reversals, switching rapidly between quirky romantic comedy, gritty Japanese indie, and finally grim social horror. Yet it plants its seeds early with two young men struggling to express their true emotions, trapped and lonely, leading unfulfilling lives. Their dissatisfaction is ordinary, but these same repressed emotions taken to an extreme can produce much more harmful results than two guys eating stale donuts everyday just to ask a pretty girl for the bill.

Okada (Gaku Hamada) is a young man lost. He has a dead end construction job he doesn’t like and isn’t particularly good at, but treading cement all over the finished floors at least helps him bond with his mentor, Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), who seems to view him as a friend even if constantly referring to him as “Okamura”. Okada takes the opportunity to explain his malaise to Ando – that he feels his life slipping away from him in its emptiness, going through the motions with no real hobbies or girlfriend to give his existence meaning. Ando does not really understand this, he says dissatisfaction is natural and the driving force of all life but, on the other hand, he is not particularly dissatisfied because he lives for love!

Ando has a crush on a girl at the local cafe, Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), who actually hasn’t noticed him because she’s pre-occupied with the blond guy who got there before Ando and sits outside everyday just staring at her. Luckily or unluckily, the guy in question, Morita (Go Morita), is an old high school acquaintance of Okada’s and so Ando asks him to find out what’s going on with this scary looking guy and his angelic lady love.

So far, so Japanese indie rom-com, but when the title card flashes up about a third of the way in, we’re in very different territory. Suddenly the colour drains from the screen and Yoshida changes his aesthetic and shooting style almost entirely. Gone is the comforting, slightly washed out colour scheme and the static, middle-distance camera of the opening. Now we are the voyeur, held helpless behind Yoshida’s erratic shaky cam, hiding behind the bins as Morita goes about his bloody business. Morita’s world is dark yet realistic, he’s shot and positioned with the arch naturalism familiar to the Japanese indie and the violence he inflicts is not movie violence, it is shocking, sickening, and visceral.

Hime-anole does not shy away from the consequences of its actions. This is, in a way, its point. At one time or another everyone concludes the increasingly surreal events they become engulfed in must be all their fault because they all have at some point acted in a way they do not quite approve of. Guilt is another of the emotions that is hard to express, especially when it’s mixed with humiliation or fear, but left unaddressed it is these corrosive agonies which develop into deep psychoses. Morita, a violent sociopath, was once (or so it would seem) an ordinary young boy who liked video games and had few friends. Perhaps if he hadn’t been the victim of humiliating, sadistic treatment, or if someone had found the courage to stand up for him, none of this might be happening.

Then again, the world is a strange place filled with people who have trouble deciding where the lines are when it comes to appropriate behaviour. Poor Yuka seems to have become something of a nutter magnet, stalked by two guys at the same time and chatted up in the street by persistent suitors who only leave her alone when they realise she’s waiting for another man. Okada is the only man who’s treated her like a regular human being for a very long time so it’s no surprise that she begins to prefer him to his awkward friend. Ando is, it has to be said, odd. Convinced Yuka is the one for him yet completely uninterested in her feelings, he vows to persevere. Yet for all his talk of chainsaws, Ando is basically harmless (to others at least) and just another lonely guy who doesn’t know how to express himself in way in which he will be understood. Morita, by contrast, is instantly creepy and has no interest in connection, he only wants to take and possess in a kind of ongoing vengeance for truly horrific events in his childhood following which something inside him became very broken.

That Hime-anole ends with a Brazil-style fantasy only adds to its strangely melancholy air as it insists on sympathy for the devil even whilst showing each of his sadistic crimes for the ugly, bloody messes they really are. Maybe the reason everybody feels they’re to blame is that in some way they are yet everyone has done things they regret or aren’t proud of, wishing they’d done things differently or managed to find the courage to do what they thought was right rather than choosing to protect themselves or keep their head down when they could have saved someone else pain. Betrayals can be small things, but they fester – like those unspoken emotions which were making our guys so unhappy in the first place. There are no innocents in Hime-anole save perhaps for the ones pushed further than they could endure, but there are those finally facing up to their own flaws and attempting to do things differently now they know better. If that’s not progress, what is?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The City Of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

city of betrayalWhat is it that makes one person betray another? Following Love’s Whirlpool, playwright and Be My Baby author Daisuke Miura returns to the world of messy modern love with a tale ridden with infidelity and the impossibility of trust. Despite being in outwardly successful relationships, the central characters find themselves seeking something, trying to eclipse some element of dissatisfaction which is more with themselves than with their partners by burying it in a meaningless affair which only becomes less meaningless as time goes on. Formerly a TV drama now recut for the big screen The City of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Uragiri no Machi) is a melancholy and contemplative piece but one which shares Miura’s rather depressing view of romance with its inherent difficulties and contradictions.

Yuichi (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young man with a part-time job he never bothers to go to and a successful girlfriend, Satomi (Eriko Nakamura), who is content to pay all the bills and even give him pocket money to out drinking with his friends. Bored at home, Yuichi checks porn sites and chats on a meet up board for casual sex. When he sees a message from “Tomo” popup wondering if anyone nearby is up for some no strings fun, he jumps right on it. Yuichi tells “Tomo” that he works in mass communications and reassures her that he’s not all that bad looking so there’s nothing to worry about.

“Tomo” claimed to be 30 and in the fashion business, but really she’s Tomoko Hashimoto (Shinobu Terajima), a 40 year old housewife who is convinced her husband has been having an affair. Tomoko is not unhappy with Koji (Mitsuru Hirata) – a salaryman of a similar age to herself, he’s a good man, considerate and well mannered if a little dull. Like Yuichi and Satomi, Tomoko and Koji enjoy a full relationship and get on pretty well even if there are the usual little niggles hiding beneath the cheery facade.

Despite having met up for casual sex, the start of Yuichi and Tomoko’s affair is a slow one in which Tomoko originally changes her mind, aware of the large age difference between herself and Yuichi and afraid it would put him off. Spending time together just as friends, the pair grow closer before heading into a love hotel for an experience which is not altogether successful. Still, they continue to meet up at regular intervals behind their partners’ backs.

The cheating and the subterfuge doesn’t sit well with either of them, but their secret affair fulfils needs which weren’t being met elsewhere. Neither Yuichi or Tomoko is particularly unhappy in their relationships but each were in their own way deeply unhappy. Yuichi’s masculine pride is hurt by his girlfriend’s status as the breadwinner while he cannot seem to get his act together, find a job, and make a success of himself. Later on he tells Tomoko that part of the reason he liked spending time with her was that she never scolded him for being the way he is, she just accepted him at face value. Tomoko by contrast, was perhaps looking either for revenge against her possibly adulterous, sometimes neglectful husband or a something more straightforward than her slightly strange marital arrangements. Though Koji is generally attentive and a goodhearted, kind person his ministrations sometimes have the whiff of manipulation and Tomoko has reasons to be suspicious of his ongoing friendship with someone called “Tamura” from “work” whom no one else at work seems to know.

In actuality it turns out that there are no faithful relationships, as one character puts it “there are many truths”. A man can love his wife and his mistress and that’s not necessarily a contradiction, much as it might seem so to the accidentally adulterous Yuichi. Despite the bond generated by their shared loneliness, the relationship between Yuichi and Tomoko remains casual, in one sense, though Yuichi eventually contemplates leaving his girlfriend and suggesting Tomoko leave her husband to allow them to start a new life together, probably knowing that it’s impossible. A lengthy post-credits sequence seems to provide a melancholy if reassuring coda as the lovers return to their respective spheres each having achieved a kind of “success”, though perhaps are no more fulfilled in themselves than they had been before. Another despairing look at modern love from Miura, The City of Betrayal is human at heart, rather than moralistic, arguing for the mature view whilst at the same time offering an ambivalent defence of conventionality.


The City of Betrayal was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Daisuke Miura, 2014)

Love's WhirpoolNo names, no strings. That’s the idea at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of his own stage play, Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Koi no Uzu). Love is an odd word here as it’s the one thing that isn’t allowed to exist in this purpose built safe space where like minded people can come together to experience the one thing they all crave – anonymous sex. From midnight to 5am this group of four guys and four girls have total freedom to indulge themselves with total discretion guaranteed.

The four couples are a disparate group which includes a primary school teacher, office lady, shy college student, and a brusque regular who apparently comes to the club five times a week. The male side consists of a slick salaryman, a freeter, a factory worker and an anxious NEET who’s cleaned out his bank account just to be here in this extremely expensive, upscale sex club. After receiving the instructions from the owner (shower first, after sex, after going to the toilet, always use a condom, and respect the women’s right to say no), the group sit awkwardly wearing only their towels waiting for someone else to kick things off.

Everyone is being extremely polite to one another, the women beginning to talk amongst themselves whilst the men do the same. Everyone has come here for the same reason but it’s not as quite as straightforward as they thought it would be. Soon enough, people start to pair up an head downstairs but after the initial ice is broken the edges sharpen, relationships change, and a kind of Bacchanalian harshness begins to take over.

Once inside the split level, trendy club style environment, the guests spend the entirety of the evening naked save for their white bath towels but this is about as far from intimacy as it’s possible to get. They may have all come for one reason, but they each had various different motives for doing so. The office lady and the school teacher are both attractive young women, confident in what they do and don’t want, and would prove a hit in any club or bar (though this is a safer option). The freeter and the salaryman could say the same though the salaryman spends half the evening phoning his wife to explain that he’s been kept out drinking with a boring colleague. College girl and Neet are both too shy to get it on independently, leaving the cynical regular and the overweight factory worker as the odd ones out. It’s not long before they’ve begun to dissect each other, ticking off the check list like remembering to buy washing powder and then discussing the merits of “Ariel” vs “Persil” with your fellow “shoppers” in the checkout line. Utilitarian as it is, as the night goes on the barriers fall away leaving both wild abandon and cruelty lying behind them.

Things are reinvigorated half way through when another couple join, a husband and wife duo who each claim to be 100% OK with how this is going to work but, as it turns out, one of them was more serious than the other. By this point, relationships have begun to solidify themselves and shy Neet has grown attached to the unexpectedly raucous, repressed college girl. Such attachments are unwise in an environment like this, and can become dangerous if everyone does not remain on the same page as to what’s going on. At the end of the evening, the guys are asked to wait so the girls can leave first – to help prevent stalking. This is no strings, remember. No names, no phone numbers, none of this ever happened.

This intense need for secrecy is understandable yet speaks something to the oddly specific conflict between repression and the open expression of erotic desire that is permitted inside the club but only if you follow its rather strict (if very sensible) rules, not to mention the arcane, underground directions needed to find it at all. For some the reason for coming here was loneliness but what they’ll find is only likely to exacerbate the aching lack of connection they already feel. The case of the college student becomes the most interesting as she fights both her own shyness and the intense shame she feels in regards to her own sexual desires. After the fact, she feels as if she’s betrayed herself, as if the “other self” that emerged during the previous night’s proceedings is a shameful doppleganger that must now go back into hiding. She wants to forget this happened, go back to being a lonely college girl but for the NEET, it’s the opposite, he feels unreal now – as if he left his “real” self behind in that unreal space.

A sophisticated take on modern human relationships, Love’s Whirlpool occasionally pulls its punches in opting for a satirical tone and only really skims the surface of why places such as these still need to exist. Stylishly shot and explicit without becoming exploitative or sleazy, Miura’s film proves a refreshingly nuanced, mature take on modern sexual behaviour even if it stops short of probing into some of the darker aspects that flicker around its edges. If Love is a whirlpool, desire is a tornado, but where a whirlpool may drag you under you’ll eventually float to the surface gasping for air. After a tornado burns through, all you’re left with is ashes and emptiness. Modern love, indeed.


English subtitled trailer (NSFW)