Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

A quiet suburb of Tokyo, Kamata is in someways the birthplace of modern Japanese cinema home to Shochiku’s prewar studio where the “Kamata Style” which aimed to introduce a note of cheerful naturalism to an artform defined by shinpa gloominess was forged. Produced by actress Urara Matsubayashi who hails from the area and stars in three of the four segments, omnibus movie Kamata Prelude (蒲田前奏曲, Kamata Zensokyoku) asks some tough questions about what it means to be a woman and an actress today in the contemporary capital as the heroine, “Machiko Kamata”, contends with various demands from the economic to the emotional. 

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, the first segment finds Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) introducing herself as she takes part in a strange audition dressed in an inappropriately short cosplay-style nurse’s outfit. After the audition is over, her agent tells her to say “hi” to the director, a theme which will recur in the third chapter as Machiko finds herself feeling uncomfortable, forced to ingratiate herself in order to get ahead. Annoyed after the eccentric director asks her out for dinner, she can’t help asking him why she has to wear the suspiciously skimpy nurse’s outfit provoking him into a worryingly violent outburst. At home, meanwhile, her world is rocked by her younger brother’s revelation that he’s got a girlfriend who is, ironically, a nurse at local hospital. Jealous and resentful, Machiko can’t warm to Setsuko (Kotone Furukawa) who seems improbably sweet and innocent, almost as if she came from another time (the mid-August dating and ornaments for the Bon festival might clue us in as to why). Spending a day bonding with her, however, the two women generate a kind of sisterhood which pushes Machiko into a realisation of the emptiness she feels in her life of constant struggle as an aspiring actress supporting herself mainly with her part-time job at a ramen bar. 

The themes of alienation and insecurity are only depend in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, in which Machiko reunites with a group of high school friends who are each less than honest about the state of their lives and their unfulfilled desires. Machiko gives the impression that she’s just been in a major movie with a big star, but it turns out she only played a corpse while the rest of the group are scandalised by the bombshell that their friend Marippe (Mayuko Fukuda) has got engaged to a guy from work she’s been seeing secretly for only six months. Besides being somewhat hurt not to have known she was seeing someone, the gang have different reactions to the news with hard-nosed career woman Hana (Sairi Ito) put out by Marippe’s traditional view of conventional gender roles in which she intends to let her career slide to concentrate on being a wife. A trip to a hot spring (the same hot spring seen advertised on Machiko’s T-shirt in part one) brings things to a head with a possibly cheating boyfriend eventually offering the excuse that he is merely a hot spring enthusiast sharing his hobby with a friend of the opposite sex rather than a two-bit louse indulging in the patriarchal double standard. 

Patriarchal double standards are out in force in part three, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, in which Machiko attends another odd audition where she and the other auditionees are asked to outline an episode of sexual harassment they have personally experienced. In fact, we have already seen her be inappropriately propositioned by a middle-aged producer who ran out on her in a coffee shop after she turned him down leaving her with the bill, but the episode she recounts is darker still. As she feared they might, the men in the room quickly figure out who she might have been talking about but proceed to put the blame on her implying that she sleeps around to get ahead and was only offended by the producer’s actions because he wasn’t powerful enough to be useful. It’s another woman however, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), who kicks things into gear by relating that she was assaulted by a man in a club whom she later reveals to have been the director himself only he doesn’t remember her. The director brings both women back and makes them re-enact Machiko’s tale of being inappropriately propositioned in a producer’s office, increasingly exasperated that the situation seems “too scary” as if he’s entirely missed the point of his own exercise or is actively getting off on the actress’ discomfort. The male cameraman (Ryutaro Ninomiya) is the one who eventually points out that the audition itself has descended into a protracted act of sexual harassment, seemingly conducted solely for the entertainment of the director and his assistant. 

Largely disconnected from the other three chapters, the fourth does not feature Urara Matsubayashi and is in fact set not in Kamata but in director Hirobumi Watanabe’s familiar Tochigi. The opening of his segment, characteristically filmed with static camera and in black and white, finds him once again playing a version of himself ranting about not knowing what to do with this unusual project he has taken on for the money even though he doesn’t generally make shorts, has never done an omnibus movie before, and remains suspicious of the concept. He relates all of this to his 10-year-old niece Riko (star of I’m Really Good), who says absolutely nothing while he continues to treat her as if she were the most famous actress in Japan. Somewhat poignantly, a photograph of Watanabe’s late grandmother sits on a stool off to the side, implying perhaps that little Riko has in some senses taken over her role as silent observer. The main thrust of the action follows Watanabe as he attempts to film a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion with local non-actors, but is finally linked back to the omnibus by Riko’s cheerful letter to Machiko in which she states that she wants to become an actress just like her. Ending on such an upbeat moment seems to imbue a sense of hope for the future that was perhaps previously absent, implying that the hopes and dreams of a little girl at least are worth fighting for if only to live up to her sense of expectation for the magic of the movies. 


Kamata Prelude streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

August in Tokyo (愛の小さな歴史, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2015)

august in Tokyo posterFollowing on from the dark series of coming of age tales in Plastic Love Story, Ryutaro Nakagawa continues to examine his central themes of unusual connections, lingering effects of past trauma, and the dark side of familial dysfunction in the cheerfully titled August in Tokyo (愛の小さな歴史, Ai no Chiisana Rekishi). Beginning with a framing sequence involving suicide and depression, Nakagawa spins back for a no happier look at two very different people facing much the same problems as they attempt to reconnect with family members, pursue doomed romances, and generally fail to move forward even though they each strive to put the past behind them. Yet there is hope here as the framing sequence proves in its insistence that loss is an inevitable part of life but that the end of one relationship does not mean no others should start.

A young girl, Natusmi (Asaka Nakamura), receives a phone call from the police telling her that her best friend has committed suicide. Left reeling, Natsumi also attempts to kill herself but is saved by a young man with whom she later develops a friendship after bonding over their shared loss in each having lost someone close to them who died by their own hands.

Their story gives way to that of another man and woman who don’t know each other but are living very similar lives in close geographical proximity. Natuski (Eriko Nakamura), having left a job at a book shop following a failed affair, has a part-time job delivering bento. Approached one day by a young man (Sosuke Ikematsu) who tells her that her estranged father (Ken Mitsuishi) is in a bad way, Natsuki decides the best form of revenge might be to move in and look after him. Meanwhile, Natsuo (Takashi Okito) is a petty gangster becoming disillusioned with his life of senseless unpleasantness. Reencountering his younger sister Asuka (Manami Takahashi), Natsuo decides to reassume his familial responsibilities by “saving” her from her dead end life as a drug addicted casual sex worker.

Abandonment and familial breakdown are the threads which bind the stories of Natsuki and Natso together. Living out their eerily similar lives, they each reflect on why it was they were born if their parent(s) did not want them enough to bother looking after them. Natsuki’s memories of her father who left when she was small are not positive. She has a scar on her chest from where he burnt her with a cigarette and still resents him for the drunken beatings he inflicted on her mother who later died when Natsuki was only ten years old. She wonders if her life might have been different if she’d had a normal childhood. A failed a attraction to a middle-class pianist only serves to ram home her sense of insecurity and inadequacy, leaving her to wonder if she can ever escape the cycle of suffering to which her father’s failures seem to have condemned her.

Natsuo and his sister have it harder, each wondering why it was they were born, preferring to think it was all just an unhappy accident of a biological urge rather than the expression of a love they themselves have never felt. At some point Natsuo made the decision to abandon his family, leaving Asuka to deal with it alone. Attempting to care for their abusive father with senile dementia, Asuka’s life was destroyed, leaving her no way to support herself until an ill advised romance led her into the path of drugs and the sex trade. Natsuo wants to put things “right”, but he may be running out of time.

Natsuki and Natsuo struggle, each trying to do the “right” thing but finding themselves conflicted. Natsuki can’t forgive her father for everything he’s put her through. The young man who convinced her to help him, perhaps disconnected himself, describes Natsuki’s father as “like a father” to him – a figure of nobility who stood up for others and was the only man who took him for drinks and spent time with him as a father might. Natsuki says says her only purpose in life is hating her father, yet in the end she can’t. Natsuo’s worries are equally self focussed in his guilt over having abandoned his sister and her subsequent fall into dangerous drug dependency but his late in the day attempts to “save” her and their patronising paternalism often frustrate his essential goal.

Running in parallel these two sad stories are tragedies waiting to happen but, even in their darkness, they hold the potential for salvation. As in the framing sequence, such unexpected connections may be born from sadness but there is happiness to be found if you can find the strength to carry on. Maintaining his familiar aesthetic of naturalism mixed with expressionist dance sequences, Nakagawa’s latest examination of human relationships and contemporary society is bleak but also hopeful, insisting that patch work hearts are the path to a brighter future.


Available in most territories via iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.

Trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Tale of a Raindrop (雨粒の小さな歴史, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2012)

tale of a raindop poster 2Leaving university is a stressful time in anyone’s life, but for the heroine of Ryutaro Nakagawa’s debut feature, Tale of a Raindrop (雨粒の小さな歴史, Amatsubu no Chiisana Rekishi), troubles seem to have arrived all at once. A young woman about to step out onto the adult stage, Michiru (Noa Sakakibayashi) is faced with a series of problems familial and personal as she learns to come to terms with abandonment by her estranged father through the strange repetition of her own adolescent life.

22 year old Michiru is about to graduate university, but her life has just taken a for the surreal. Her best friend dies, she finds out she has a younger sister only to lose her too, and then a strange guy with a Chaplin fixation thinks now is the best time to nervously declare his love. Receiving a letter from a mysterious young woman named Sayuri (Mio Minami), Michiru discovers her long lost father had another daughter and abandoned her too. Sayuri wants to get to know her father and asks Michiru for advice, but Michiru knows even less than she does. Raised by her mother alone, Michiru hasn’t thought of her father in years and knows nothing about him. The letter says he liked the song Ma Vie En Rose, the films of Charlie Chaplin, and foreign cigarettes, but precious little else.

From this point on Michiru’s life splits into a series of concentric circles. Somehow afraid to answer Sayuri’s letter, Michiru nevertheless wants to find out more about her familial relations, reading the book Sayuri suggested in her letter which her mother later confirms was among her father’s favourites and details the marriage of a snowflake and a raindrop which produces a child but then dissolves. It seems Michiru’s father was a nervous sort of man, a mumbler, who found it difficult to voice his feelings and had a tendency to leave his lovers after they had his child. Strangely enough, Michiru’s own suitor, a nervous cinephile who frequents the cinema where she works, is also a mumbler who loves Chaplin and can’t seem to make himself plain where it comes to emotional truths but this strange romantic circularity only seems to confuse Michiru further.

Meanwhile, Michiru’s close childhood friendship suddenly ends when she receives a call from her mother to say that Harumi has been killed by a train. There was no note, but it’s difficult not assume her death was a suicide, perhaps brought on by longterm abuse at the hands of her mentally ill father to whom Harumi had become the sole carer. Not having detected the extent of the sadness in her melancholy friend who often remarked that she wished Michiru was her sister, Michiru’s guilt and loneliness intensify as she contemplates the sudden revelation that she has a younger sister she never knew about.

Rather than answer the letter, Michiru opts to track Sayuri down, discovering that until very recently she had been living with a no good, drug addict boyfriend (Sosuke Ikematsu) intent on pimping her out for extra money. Hoping to get her new sister out of a dead end life on the fringes of the sex trade, she takes her in and the pair become firm friends but Sayuri’s life has been harder than Michiru could ever have imagined. Michiru’s upbringing was stable and loving whereas Sayuri’s was troubled and loveless. Sayuri’s only wish was to find the sister she hoped would be mired in the same misery and is disappointed to discover that another woman sharing her no good father’s genes has turned out fairly normal.

Looking for answers, Michiru eventually gets in touch with a friend of her father’s who, somewhat tactlessly, describes him as “like a father to me”. Oddly enough this nonbiological son is able to illuminate the latter part of her father’s life which seems to have been a sad and lonely one though she does find some evidence that perhaps she was always in his thoughts after all. Split into three chapters in which Michiru hears “the music pouring out from the world” and “the music pouring out from her”, before learning to embrace the “music pouring out from myself”, Michiru’s journey is a slow dance into adulthood as she learns to put the traumas of the past to one side, accepting their part in her formation but refusing to let them interfere with her future happiness. Elliptical and drenched in symbolism, Nakagawa’s feature debut is a beautifully restrained look at blossoming womanhood in which the past is neither friend nor enemy but a constant companion whose existence must be recognised but never dwelt on.


Available in most territories via iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Plastic Love Story (プラスチック・ラブ・ストーリー, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2014)

plastic love story posterFake plastic love, in the words of Radiohead – it wears you out. For three young women in contemporary Japan each seeking an identity through romantic connection, plastic love will have to do, for a time at least. Ryutaro Nakagawa’s indie feature Plastic Love Story (プラスチック・ラブ・ストーリー) is, in essence, anything but romantic as its three heroines veer dangerously between life and death, each lost, lonely, and lovelorn as they search for the pathways to lead them into a settled adulthood. For all of its gentle coming of age qualities, Plastic Love Story is a dark tale in which release is found only through loss, shared pain, and finally sacrifice.

Office lady Eri (Mai Sakata) is about to quit her job as she believes herself to be pregnant. A common occurrence even in modern Japan, though Eri’s case is less usual because she is not married. After confronting the probable father who wants nothing to do with it or her, Eri becomes fixated on a middle school classmate whom she feels was the last person to really understand her.

Meanwhile, high school girl Rina (Manami Takahashi) has a difficult home life with a flighty mother and distressed father. She dreamed of becoming a ballerina but since a leg injury put paid to her dancing dreams, Rina has tried to fill the void left by parental absence and early disappointment by hooking up with a string of useless boyfriends.

Kanae (Yumi Yamawaki), by contrast, is also a high school girl but sullen and depressed. A childhood trauma involving the death of her younger brother who had learning difficulties which was quickly followed by the death of her mother, has left her with an ongoing sense of guilt and hopelessness. Rejecting an erstwhile suitor from school, Kanae develops an odd relationship with a disturbed, suicidal young man currently in her doctor father’s care.

Each of the three women is in some way damaged, attempting to deal with extreme trauma and doing it all alone. Though they do not know each other and never meet, there are strange connections which bind them in their shared sufferings and inability to escape their oppressive environments. Eri’s loneliness is longstanding, leading her to attempt suicide as a schoolgirl at which point she was saved by the kindly attentions of another loner, Yasu, whom she has come to regard as a kind of absent soulmate. Yasu, in a trope which is repeated in all three stories, has since committed suicide but has left behind a series of videotapes through which, his sister says, he was able to make himself understood as he never could without a camera in his hand. The tapes centre on another high school classmate who seems to have been Yasu’s first (unrequited) love. Watching the videos forces Eri to face facts about her non-existent middle school romance and eventually helps her exorcise the ghost of her lonely teenage self.

Rina and Kanae are not quite so lucky, a little way behind on the path and each required to make a sacrifice of their potential mates in order to achieve what Eri achieves though her unattainable soulmate has already passed on. Rina’s life has been one of subservient neediness as she finds herself trapped in unfulfilling relationships with boys who see her only as a sex object. In fact, one of them actually describes her as a “toilet”, but all Rina says she wants is a “normal” relationship which starts as friends and gradually becomes something more. The janitor at her university has an intense crush on her which Rina originally rebuffs but every insane demand she makes of him, the janitor fulfils making more than a few sacrifices of his own.

Kanae’s relationship with the equally guilt ridden, suicidal young man at her father’s surgery is even less positive than Rina’s manipulative romance as the pair bond through their shared self loathing in feeling responsible for the deaths of people close to them whom they feel they did not try hard enough to save. Leaving aside the fact that the man is in his twenties and Kanae still a schoolgirl, the relationship is an intentionally doomed one. Kanae does not seek love but only an end to loneliness, avowing that no one has enough happiness to save someone else but that someday she plans to go faraway and learn to love herself once again.

Taking a turn for the poetic, Nakagawa has each of the women dance happily as they learn to let go of the objects which have bound them, smiling less painfully and walking with a little more lightness. Three expressions of womanhood, they exclaim that now they know love, they know beauty, they know solitude. The path that leads them here is dark, littered with bodies of those they have lost or have sacrificed in order to enact their own happiness. Plastic does not only imply something “fake” or engineered, but something soft and pliable, which is to say it can be moulded for good or ill. These plastic loves have soon turned rotten, but perhaps there is hope for a better future for each of these women for having come through them, even if their escape was not without cost.


Original trailer (English subtitles)