Breath of Rokkasho (息衝く, Bunyo Kimura, 2017)

Breath of Rokkasho posterIndividual desire versus responsibility to the collective is something of a major theme in Japanese cinema. The fallible ideologue at the centre of Breath of Rokkasho (息衝く, Ikizuku) believes individualism is the key to world happiness, implying that a collection of fulfilled individuals would amount to a fulfilled society, but then again his logic is perhaps hard to follow when he cares so little for other people’s freedom. Taking place in the post-Fukushima world, Rokkasho wants to extend this idea through examining the complexity of the anti-nuclear movement and the political forces which advocate for it while ordinary people largely sit back in silent disapproval. The ideal society, if there even is such a thing, will probably not be built by those in power but by those who manage shake off the problematic legacy of the past in order to embrace their “individual” wills but with the collective good in mind.

Norio (Shigeki Yanagisawa), Yasuyuki (Ryuta Furuya), and Yoshi (Nana Nagao) were raised in a politicised Buddhist cult, The Seed Association, which has a strong interest in ecological affairs and therefore the anti-nuclear movement. Each lacking fatherly input, the three youngsters fell under the spell of the cult’s most prominent member, Mr. M (Satoru Jitsunashi). Mr. M however abruptly upped and left them, abandoned without hope or answers. 20 years later, Norio is a civil servant also working for the Seed Association on political campaigns while Yasuyuki has become the new golden boy whom many tout as the natural successor to Mr. M. Yoshi left the sect at a much younger age and is now a single mother in the middle of what seems to be a fairly messy divorce.

Looking up at the Tanashi Tower (also known as Sky Tower West Tokyo) – a “state of the art” radio tower completed in 1989 midway through a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and named after the town which used to stand here the name of which literally means “no rice”, the three kids ask Mr. M if it’s possible to see the Nighthawk Star from down below. He tells them he doesn’t know, but they can look for it together. Mr. M did not help them, he disappeared and left them with only more questions and an even shakier relationship with their familial pasts. Each badly let down by parental figures who either abandoned their families to join the cult out of nuclear fear, committed suicide, or were simply distant and neglectful, neither Norio, Yasuyuki, or Yoshi has been able to step into the adult world with any degree of confidence or faith in its teachings.

Only by confronting their difficult pasts can the trio begin to unblock their individual paths. A visit to the long absent Mr. M who has apparently embraced full individualism as a hermit farmer who dresses in a comical baby chick’s costume complete with squeaky claw-shaped slippers, begins to show them that their faith in his teachings may have been misplaced. Mr. M claims that the human race is not yet strong enough to live only by thinking of its own happiness, something that he feels would bring the greatest happiness to all mankind. Refusing to recognise the “selfishness” of his philosophy, Mr. M has withdrawn from society and made himself the centre of a happy nation of one.

Parental betrayal becomes a major theme, eventually extending to the paternity of the state in its repeated failures to protect and care for its children. The English title of the film references the Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing facility which has become an ongoing scandal in its 20-year series of construction delays with 23 postponements issued since its original 1997 projected date for completion. Norio, the melancholy civil servant, hails from the town himself – in fact his mother took him away from it precisely because she feared a nuclear disaster. Yet The Seed Association, or anyone else for that matter, has not been able to solve the nuclear issue even in the post-Fukushima era. Engaged in the business of “politics” the sect’s intentions have become blurred as they contemplate their survival in an ever shrinking society, subject to the same political games of manipulation and backbiting as any other party. Gradually disillusioned with the cult’s hypocrisy and didacticism, Norio considers forging his own path – something which sets him at odds with Yasuyuki whose faith is also shaken only he’s invested far too much to allow himself to acknowledge it.

The Japanese title, by contrast, simply means to gasp for air. Trapped fast in society filled with corrupt, conflicting values each of the three struggles to find a foothold for themselves as they flounder wildly without guidance or aim. Yet in being forced to confront themselves and their pasts there is a movement towards progress, or at least a strong desire to find it. They, like their nation, have been betrayed and struggled to deal with their betrayal, but have managed to find their own essential truth even so and along with it the ability breathe deeply even when the air is thickening.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

At the Terrace (テラスにて, Kenji Yamauchi, 2016)

At the TerraceEvery keen dramatist knows the most exciting things which happen at a party are always those which occur away from the main action. Lonely cigarette breaks and kitchen conversations give rise to the most unexpected of events as those desperately trying to escape the party atmosphere accidentally let their guard down in their sudden relief. Adapting his own stage play titled Trois Grotesque, Kenji Yamauchi takes this idea to its natural conclusion in At the Terrace (テラスにて, Terrace Nite) setting the entirety of the action on the rear terraced area of an elegant European-style villa shortly after the majority of guests have departed following a business themed dinner party. This farcical comedy of manners neatly sends up the various layers of propriety and the difficulty of maintaining strict social codes amongst a group of intimate strangers, lending a Japanese twist to a well honed European tradition.

Haruko (Kami Hiraiwa), a youngish middle-aged woman has stepped out onto the terrace to check her phone with a degree of privacy but she is shortly joined by a late arrival to the party, Tanoura (Hiroaki Morooka), who lets out a long sad sigh right alongside her. The party’s hostess, Kazumi (Kei Ishibashi), hears his small howl of exasperation and decides to make something of it. Embarking on a strange line of questioning, she gets Tanoura to admit not only to a fondness for the woman who was just on the terrace, but particularly for her shapely white arms. Tanoura fusses and backpedals but is pushed into a corner of defeat with relative ease by his more experienced host. Unfortunately he did not know that Haruko is the wife of a fellow guest – in fact, the guest of honour who has just delivered a speech at the dinner party (which he missed because he was late). Kicking off a late night challenge, Kazumi’s brazen questioning and subsequent decision to announce the results to the group at large proves the catalyst for visible crumbling of the bourgeoisie which is about to take place.

Even though everybody ought to be getting home, the guests linger and the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense and awkward. Insecure hostess Kazumi quickly begins a war with her attractive rival, Haruko, using the bizarre obsession everyone seems to have with her arms as the first round of fire. Haruko counters that she disagrees and thinks Kazumi is the more attractive because of her low cut dress designed to show off her ample bosom. This line of conversation makes the men feel very awkward, especially when asked for their opinion but someone then attempts to move to a higher level by discussing similar themes in the works of Kawabata and Tanizaki, though this flies over the heads of some of the guests prompting a return to the slightly unpleasant atmosphere of the earlier part of the evening.

If Kazumi is attempting to remain the dominant female at her own party, the men have various other concerns mostly bound up with their working relationships. Business and pleasure rarely mix, at least not at parties, and so there’s an immense amount of politeness and de-escalation involved in the way in which they talk to each other. Mr. Soejima (Kenji Iwaya) – Kazumi’s husband, the host, and the owner of this fine villa has organised the party as a networking event at which Haruko’s husband, Taro (Ryuta Furuta), delivered the keynote speech. Another company guest, Masato (Takashi Okabe), is known and not known as he’s recently lost an awful lot of weight thanks to gastric surgery which means no one quite recognises him and despite having been quite a drinker in the past he is now supposed to be avoiding alcohol altogether. While Masato spends most of the evening sitting quietly to the side, Tanoura seems to get dragged into arguments despite his attempts to remain neutral and polite, eventually bursting into tears as he thinks about the horrors of Syria – not a side of him this hard-nosed, business focused gathering is likely to find endearing.

Alcohol flows, secrets are revealed and flirting is embarked upon as pretty much everyone is after Haruko who is dismayed to find her husband either hardly notices or is actively allowing other men to flirt with her to increase his networking potential. The arrival of the Soejima’s son, Teruo, throws another kind of energy into the room as he reveals juicy details about his parents’ marriage and becomes the subject of a few barbed comments from his father. Teruo is young and handsome, becoming something of a mirror for the ways that Haruko has dominated the conversation despite his mother’s best efforts to remain in charge, even matching her in the beauty of his arms. As the evening finally draws to a close sex and death mingle across the crowded terrace filled with onlookers not sure in which direction to cast their gaze.

Yamauchi sticks to his one set conceit but shoots it from various angles to best capture the drama erupting amongst this group of not quite friends. The two women face off against each other while their husbands do the same only with tales of their masculine exploits. No one quite knows how to behave now that they’ve moved away from the business table, who they’re supposed to be and what their proper place is, leading to a dangerous destabilising of the established social order. Haruko, at least, is striking out to prove she’s more than her husband’s wife even if she was made to come to this party against her will and has wanted to go home for ages.

Opting for an appropriately surreal, retro edge, Yamauchi closes with a series of “you have been watching” portraits and the sight of an adorable small furry squirrel captured in the garden to remind you that not everything here is ugly and attempting to misrepresent itself to get the best out of a difficult social situation. Hilarious, if excruciating, At the Terrace neatly sends up the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie as they lie, deflect, and sometimes spar in order to conform to their expected social roles only to inadvertently destroy them through improper application.


At the Terrace was screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)