Ring Wandering (リング・ワンダリング, Masakazu Kaneko, 2021)

“Don’t forget me” pleads a mysterious young woman guiding the hero of Masakazu Kaneko’s Ring Wandering (リング・ワンダリング) towards the buried legacy he is unwittingly seeking. In this metaphorical drama, the aspiring manga artist hero is on a quest to discover the true appearance of the long extinct Japanese wolf, but is confronted by a more immediate source of unresolved history while working on a construction site for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. 

The manga Sosuke (Show Kasamatsu) is working on is about a wolf and a hunter, Ginzo (Hatsunori Hasegawa), whose daughter Kozue was killed by one of his own traps. Though praising the general concept, his workplace friend points out that his manga lacks human feeling but Sosuke claims it’s unnecessary in a story that’s about a duel to the death between man and nature while matter of factly admitting that Kozue is merely a plot device designed to demonstrate Ginzo’s manly solitude. Yet Soskue complains that he can’t make progress because the Japanese wolf is extinct and he can’t figure out how to draw it. 

His quest is in one sense for the soul of Japan taking the wolf as a symbol of a prehistoric age of innocence though as it turns out he knows precious little about more recent history. The workers at the construction site have heard rumours about a stoppage at another build and joke amongst themselves that if they should find any kind of cultural artefact they’ll just ignore it rather than risk the project being shut down or any one losing their job. The site itself symbolises a tendency to simply build over the buried past erasing traces of anything unpleasant or inconvenient. When Sosuke comes across an animal’s skull buried in a pit he has recently dug, he is convinced it’s that of a Japanese wolf only later realising it is more likely to be that of a dog killed in the fire bombing of Tokyo during the war along with thousands of others on whose bodies the modern city is said to lie. 

Then again, impassive in expression Sosuke is particularly clueless when it comes to recent history. While searching for more wolf cues he comes across a young woman (Junko Abe) looking for her missing dog but completely fails to spot her unusual dress aside from assuming the old-fashioned sandals she is wearing are for the fireworks show set to take place that day incongruously in the winter. Similarly in accompanying her to her home he is confused by all her references to things like the metal contribution and her brother having been sent to the country. He wonders if she might be a ghost, and she wonders the same of him, but still doesn’t seem to grasp that he’s slipped into another era fraught with danger and anxiety only realising the truth on exiting the dream and doing some present day research. 

The fallacy of violence works its way into his manga in the fact that Ginzo’s traps eventually lead to the death of his daughter while he becomes on fixated on besting the wild wolf as a point of male pride though others in the village are mindful to let it live. A pedlar meanwhile explains that the wolf has been forced down towards the village because of the declining economic situation as more people hunt in the mountains for food and fur depriving him of his dinner. He tells Ginzo that the country has been “brainwashed in militarism” and the gunpowder that killed Kozue and will one day be repurposed to create joy and awe is now his most wanted commodity. In the end Ginzo too is saved by a kind of visitation, a ghost from the past offering a hand of both salvation and forgiveness along with an admonishment forcing him to take responsibility for his role in his daughter’s death.

In forging a familial relationship with a lost generation Sosuke comes to a new understanding of more recent history and in a sense discovers the connection he was seeking with his culture, weaving the anxieties of 1940s into an otherwise pre-modern fable about the battle between man and nature in which wolf becomes not aggressor but casualty in a great national folly. Like Kaneko’s previous film Albino’s Trees deeply spiritual in its forest imagery and oneiric atmosphere, Ring Wandering finds its hero transported into the past while unwittingly discovering what it is he’s looking for without ever realising that it has always been right beneath his feet. 


Ring Wandering streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©RWProductionCommittee

Skeleton Flowers (かそけきサンカヨウ, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2021)

The increasingly prolific Rikiya Imaizumi has become most closely associated with zeitgeisty youth romance accurately capturing the fears and anxieties of 20-somethings in contemporary Japan but brings his characteristically mellow touch to the classic coming-of-age tale in adapting Misumi Kubo’s short story Skeleton Flowers (かそけきサンカヨウ, Kasokeki Sankayo). In contrast to the gloominess of the title, teenage angst is never where you’d expect it to be as the variously pre-occupied pair at the film’s centre strive to deal with their problems with maturity and mutual compassion. 

You might for instance expect Yo (Sara Shida) who has been raised by her father, Nao (Arata Iura), since her mother left the family when she was three to feel jealousy or resentment when he sits her down and tells her that he’s fallen in love and wants to get married, especially as the woman he’s fallen in love with, Yoshiko (Akiko Kikuchi), has a small daughter of her own, Hinako. Attempting to be sensitive, Nao frames the new arrangement in a positive light in that Yo will be have more free time to be a regular teen and hang out with her friends rather than skipping out on after school clubs to take care of the household chores, a spin which could backfire in that Yo has obviously been used to being the lady of the house and might feel as if a responsibility she was proud of carrying is being taken away from her or that she’s being displaced by the new maternal presence of Yoshiko. She may in fact feel a little of this, but rather than lashing out or rebelling against the change in her familial circumstances she does her best to accept it with good grace while simultaneously prompted into a reconsideration of the relationships between parent and child meditating on the absence of her birth mother and wondering how and why she could have come to leave her behind. 

Riku (Oji Suzuka), her sometime love interest, had started a discussion in their friendship group about their earliest memories Yo unable to come up with anything on the spot but later remembering her mother carrying her into the forest and showing her the skeleton flowers of the title which appear bright white when dry but gradually become transparent as they absorb water. Later she remembers something else unsure if it’s a memory or a dream, a feeling of being suspended in mid-air as her parents argued as if everyone had forgotten she existed. Riku too frequently states that he’s “nothing at all”, feeling himself lost and directionless after being diagnosed with a heart condition later forced to accept that his life will never be the same as it was and his choices are now limited in ways they might not have been before. His health anxiety ironically leaves him emotionally numb, unable to identify let alone express his feelings as he becomes close not only to Yo but another, much more direct, girl in his class Saki (Tomo Nakai) who later does him the favour of explaining exactly what his problems are hoping to jolt him out of his emotional inertia while taking him to task for having been unintentionally condescending in his innate kindness. 

It’s this innate kindness that eventually sees both the teens through, each approaching their various worries with a mature compassion. Riku had felt uncomfortable in his familial home and jealous of Yo’s “real family” as she comes to accept her new relationships with Yoshiko and Hinako, but himself comes to understand the complicated relationship between his overbearing grandmother and lonely mother as one of mutual support getting another tip from Yoshiko that even if he feels has no particular talents, also jealous of Yo’s artistic prowess, his ability to support those around him is a talent in itself and an important part of the whole. A robust emotional honesty and the willingness to think things through calmly eventually lead stronger bonds between all concerned, Yo forgiving her birth mother while also embracing a new maternal relationship with Yoshiko, while Riku gains a new perspective of his own and even if he still hasn’t quite learned to identify his feelings is more comfortable with expressing them directly. A gentle, empathetic coming-of-age tale Imaizumi’s teenage drama roots itself in a world of fairness and compassion that allows each of the teens the space to figure themselves out while helping others to do the same no longer transparent in the rain but whole and fully visible not least to themselves. 


Skeleton Flowers streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Body Remember (ボディ・リメンバー, Keita Yamashina, 2021)

“It’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not.” according to the hero of Keita Yamashina’s twisty take on meta noir, Body Remember (ボディ・リメンバー). For him, the superficial, literal truth is perhaps less important than that which it conceals, hoping to expose the buried reality hidden between the lines in the novel he is attempting to write inspired by a story narrated by his infinitely unreliable femme fatale cousin Yoko (Yume Tanaka). Shifting between an apparently concrete “reality” that is perhaps exposed as anything but by the final scene, dreams, memories, and the act of creation, Yamashina hints at collective fantasies and the essential truth of sensation as his artist hero attempts to turn an enigma into art. 

An unsettling presence, Yoko strides into a cafe dressed in a vibrant red and proceeds to explain to novelist Haruhiko (Takaya Shibata) and his artist girlfriend Ririko (Momoka Ayukawa) that she has long found it difficult to distinguish reality from dream, believing in a sense that the “truth” is irrelevant. Her story seems to be a rather ordinary if tawdry one of finding herself at the centre of a love triangle but also feeling like a third wheel as if she were a puzzle piece hovering over empty spaces unsure where to land while the men are comfortably installed in their rightful places. When lawyer Jiro (Ryuta Furuya) turns up at the bar she has been running with husband Akira (Yohei Okuda) and mournfully explains he suspects his wife is having an affair, the trio reassume an intimacy from their uni days which is later broken by a passionate embrace between Jiro and Yoko accidentally witnessed by the betrayed Akira. 

Playing with images of sex and death, Yoko also recounts that seeing Jiro loosen his tie provoked in her a powerful urge to strangle him with it. Yoko apologises for scaring Haruhiko, but on the contrary he seems to find it arousing later openly telling Ririko that he too is captivated by Yoko while she complains that Jiro and Akira, now (or perhaps always) characters in a novel, are underwritten foils who exist only for Yoko. Haruhiko in a sense agrees, but also pulls focus and makes his potential story, in fact the story we have been watching, about the two men, foreseeing a conclusion which is all manliness and honour tinged with a frisson of homoeroticism that joins them both in the inevitable death foreshadowed in the opening scene. 

Yet Ririko wants to know the truth of it, investigating the bar where Yoko claimed to work and discovering that no such establishment ever existed though the location was recently used by a shady cult. Perhaps jealous, she dreams of an intimate encounter between the smitten Haruhiko and his “sexy” cousin, yet later reflects on her own tendency to run away from reality in flights of fancy. Her revelations perhaps provoke a deeper intimacy with her conflicted boyfriend who finds himself attempting to construct an “authentic” narrative from unreliable testimony, but then again we can’t be sure everything we see is real as the couple engage in a surreal game of beach volleyball with two men resembling Akira and Jiro whose behaviour is strange and childlike if displaying a similar intimacy to that which they appear to share in Haruhiko’s nascent “novel”. 

Challenged by Ririko, Haruhiko merely disappears his heroine, avowing that in the end she was never important in his story about the ambiguous relationship between two men turning her into a mythical femme fatale while Ririko continues to sketch her rival in an attempt to figure her out. Yoko herself tells us that she sees no real distinction between dream and reality that one is no more true or important than the other while insisting that while her mind may forget the facts, the sensation is recorded in her body which will always “remember” if indistinctly. 

Using a cast of mostly theatre actors, Yamashina crafts an unsettling atmosphere founded on tactile sensuality that belies the frequent unreliability of verbal communication while the jazz score and shadowy photography contribute to the sense of noirish dread complete with wafting cigarette smoke and a fatalistic, morally ambivalent conclusion. Further disrupting our sense of reality with a final self cameo, Body Remembers nevertheless reminds us that the truth is less important than our perception of it just as it returns us to where we started even less certain than before. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)