A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

A Beautiful Star poster 1Given life’s anxieties, it can sometimes be hard to remember that the world is a beautiful place. If only we humans could learn to stop and smell the flowers every so often, we wouldn’t be so eager to destroy the place that gave us life. Loosely adapting a novel by Yukio Mishima, Daihachi Yoshida’s A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Utsukushii Hoshi) swaps Cold War nuclear paranoia for climate change anxiety as a collection of extra-terrestrials consider differing strategies to save the Earth, the most radical of them being the eradication of the human race.

Yoshida opens with the Osugi family, minus son Kazuo (Kazuya Kamenashi), “enjoying” a birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant. The tension between them is obvious as patriarch Juichiro (Lily Franky) bad mouths his absent son, daughter Akiko (Ai Hashimoto) sits sullenly not touching her food, and mum Iyoko (Tomoko Nakajima) tries to keep the peace. Juichiro, as we later realise, is a minor celebrity – a much loved TV weatherman whose predictions are not terribly good but he does have a very personable manner. Unfortunately, he’s not so nice offscreen and has been cheating on his wife with a much younger woman who is after his job. After a tryst at a love hotel, the pair get into some kind of bizarre car accident and Juichiro wakes up on his own in a field feeling not quite right. After a colleague suggests he might have been abducted by aliens, he develops an interest in UFOs and, after being moved to tears on air, comes to the conclusion that he is a Martian emissary from the League of Solar Planets come to enlighten the Earth to the dangers of global warming before it’s too late.

In fact, Juichiro is not the only member of the Osugis to believe he is not of this Earth. Except for mum Iyoko, everyone eventually realises they are actually from another planet but their feelings of “alienation” are perfectly Earthbound and born of extremely normal anxieties the like of which can cause discord in any family. Complaining about his son’s lateness to the birthday dinner, Juichiro runs down Kazuo’s lack of full-time employment and writes him off as “just an errand boy”. Kazuo, resentful of his father, feels an intense insecurity about his failure to forge a successful life for himself – something that is thrown into stark relief when he meets an old college buddy now a salaryman who seems to take pleasure in the fact that the captain of the basketball team has made a mess of things where he is now on the road to career success. So when Kazuo meets shady fixer Kuroki (Kuranosuke Sasaki), currently running the campaign for conservative politician and climate change denier Takamori (Jyunichi Haruta), and finds out he is actually from Mercury, it restores his sense of purpose even if it pushes him towards becoming a slightly dangerous right-wing manipulator.

His sister, meanwhile, is a lonely, depressed university student with a complex about her appearance. Approached by a creepy guy running some kind of campus beauty pageant, she can’t get away fast enough but is captivated by the song of a street busker who eventually tells her she likes his music because it’s inspired by their shared roots as Venusians and that the reason she “despises” her own beauty is that Venusians used to set the beauty standards on Earth but now they’ve been usurped. Feeling not quite so alone and more confident in her skin, Akiko decides to enter the pageant to “correct” the perception of beauty in human society.

“Beauty” seems to be the key. Iyoko finds herself sucked into a pyramid scheme selling “beautiful” water mostly out of a sense of lonely purposelessness. Apparently from power spot deep within the Earth, the water is supposed to be its rejuvenating life blood but like so much else, humanity has misused and commodified it. Juichiro’s Martians have a conventional solution to the present problem in that they want humanity to wake up and slow down. The Mercurians, however, have more radical ideas. Seeing as humanity is toxic to this planet that we all love, the obvious answer is simply to eliminate it, engineer a reset in which the Earth could heal itself after which point a new, more responsible humanity could be permitted to return. The problem, they say, is that humans do not think of themselves as a part of nature or realise that extinction is a perfectly natural part of the ecological life cycle. If they did, they might not be in this mess, but now they need to accept their responsibility and agree to a mass cull to save the planet.

Each of the Osugis has their insecurities wielded against them, and in the end each of them is in some way deceived. Kazuo’s resentful ambition is exposed by Kuroki, but he eventually realises he’s not much more than a patsy, while Akiko has to face up to the possibility that she’s been spun a yarn by an unscrupulous man who was only after the usual thing from a naive and vulnerable young woman. Iyoko’s deception is of the more usual kind as she figures out that “beautiful water” is an obvious scam she only bought into because of the false sense of belonging and achievement it afforded her, and Juichiro has to wonder if his Martian “delusion” has a medical explanation, but through their various deceptions the family is eventually forced back together again springing into action as a unit. The Mercurians dismissed humanity as unable to see the world’s beauty, remaining wilfully ignorant of the gift they had been given. The Osugis have at least been awakened to a kind of beauty in the world and in themselves as they face their alien qualities and integrate them with those of others. Yoshida may not have a clear answer for the problems of climate change (who does?), but he is at least clear on one thing – you lose that which you take for granted. Smell the flowers while the flowers last.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Dynamite Graffiti (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Masanori Tominaga, 2018)

Dynamite Graffiti posterThe division between “art” and “porn” is as fuzzy as the modesty fog which still occasionally finds itself masking “obscene” images in Japanese cinema, but for accidental king of the skin rag trade Akira Suei it’s question he finds himself increasingly unwilling to answer even while he employs it to his own benefit. Back in the heady pre-internet days of the 1980s, Suei was the public face behind a series of magazines along differing themes but which all included “artistic” images of underdressed women in provocative poses alongside more “serious” content provided by such esteemed figures as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki in addition to stories and essays penned by “legitimate” authors and the more scurrilous fare written by Suei himself. Inspired by one of Suei’s essays “Dynamite Graffiti” (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Sutekina Dynamite Scandal), Masanori Tominaga’s ramshackle biopic has the informal feel of a man telling his sad life story to a less than attentive bar girl as he takes us on a long, strange walk through the back alleys of ‘70s Japan.

The entirety of Suei’s (Tasuku Emoto) life is lived in the wake of a bizarre childhood incident in which his mother (Machiko Ono), suffering with TB and trapped in an unhappy marriage to a violent drunk, chose to commit double suicide with the young man from next door. Perhaps there’s nothing so strange about that in the straightened Japan of 1955, but Suei’s mother chose to end her life in the most explosive of ways – with dynamite stolen from the local mine. Carrying the legacy of abandonment as well as mild embarrassment as to the means of his mother’s dramatic exit, Suei finds himself a perpetual outsider drifting along without the need to feel bound by conventional social moralities as symbolised by the “ideal” family.

What he longs for, by contrast is freedom and independence. Bored by country life he dreamt of moving to the city to work in a factory, but the problem with factories is that they’re mechanical and turn their employees into mere tools with no possibility of personal expression or fulfilment. Spotting an advert for courses in “graphic design”, Suei’s world begins to open up as he embraces the bold new possibilities of art even as it wilfully intersects with commerce.

Taken with the new philosophy of design as the message, a means of “exposing” oneself and ultimately enabling true human connection, Suei remains frustrated by the limitations of his role as a draughtsman for local advertisers and, inspired by a friend’s beautiful poster, finds himself entering the relatively freer creative world of the “cabaret” scene as a crafter of signboards and flyers. The cabaret bars are little better than the factories, exploiting the labour of women who themselves are the product, but Suei’s distaste is soon worn down by constant exposure. From the clubs and cabarets it’s only a natural step towards erotic artwork, nudie photographs, and finally a vast magazine empire of “literary” pornography.

Suei’s accounts of his youth are filled with a lot of high talk about the possibilities of art, of his desire to remove the masks which keep us divided so that we might all know “true” human love. Whether his adventures in adult magazines can be said to do that is very much up for debate. They are, as he freely admits, expressions of male fantasy – exposing a perhaps unwelcome truth about the relationships between men and women even as they continue to exploit them. Yet Suei’s own desire to find something more than a potential for titillation in his work continues to dwindle as he finds himself engaged in increasingly complicated schemes to avoid censure from the police while simultaneously insisting that his magazines are both “artistic” and not.

His insistence that the photographs are “artistic” becomes his primary weapon in getting sometimes vulnerable young women to agree to take their clothes off. Abandoning his loftier aspirations, Suei sinks still further into the smutty morass whilst still maintaining the pretension that his magazines are not like the others. He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) to chase fleeting affections with unsuitable or unstable women, one of whom eventually descends into a mental breakdown which provokes in him only the realisation that his desire for her was a romantic fantasy which her illness has now dissipated. Art is an explosion, Suei claims, but his mother was the explosive force in his life, blowing him off course and leaving him too wounded to embrace the reality he so desperately claims to crave but continues to reject in favour of the same kind of male fantasies his magazines peddle.

Everyone around Suei seems to be damaged. Nary a face in the red light district is without a bandage or bruise of some sort. These are people who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the ladder and are desperately trying to scrap their way up. Times change and Suei’s empire implodes. Porn is swapped for pachinko as the exploitable pleasure of choice paving the way for yet another reinvention which sees him throw on a kimono to rebrand himself as his own mother and self-styled pachinko expert. You couldn’t make it up. Still, perhaps there is something more honest in Suei’s pachinko persona than it might first appear even if his present “art” is unlikely to enlighten us to the true nature of love.


Dynamite Graffiti is screening as the opening night movie of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (南瓜とマヨネーズ, Masanori Tominaga, 2017)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise posterIt’s important to be supportive towards your partner’s dreams, but what if your support is actually getting in the way of their development? The question itself never seems to occur to the heroine of Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (南瓜とマヨネーズ, Kabocha to Mayonnaise) as she descends deeper and deeper into a dark web of wilful self sacrifice hoping that her singer songwriter boyfriend will finally get his act together and come up with some new material. Adapted from the manga by Kiriko Nananan, Masanori Tominaga’s charting of a modern relationship is perhaps slightly more hopeful than those which have previously featured in his movies but nevertheless takes his heroine to some pretty dark places all in the name of love.

Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) is a 20-something woman living with her aspiring rock star boyfriend, Seiichi (Taiga). In order to facilitate his art, she has convinced him to give up work while she supports the couple financially through her job at live music venue. Seiichi, however, remains conflicted about the arrangement and hasn’t written anything of note in months. In fact, as Tsuchida tells a colleague, he barely leaves the house which means he’s not likely to be suddenly inspired either. What Seiichi doesn’t know is that the money from Tsuchida’s regular job isn’t quite enough and she’s started supplementing her income through working in a hostess bar. Though not naturally suited to the work, she soon picks up a “particular” client (Ken Mitsuishi) who offers her some “overtime” at a hotel. Tsuchida isn’t quite sure but having come so far she can hardly turn back now, even if the guy is a pervert with a school girl fetish. Hiding the money in a cigarette box in shame, Tsuchida is eventually caught out and forced to confess to Seiichi who is horrified, placing a serious strain on their relationship.

Just as her relationship with Seiichi starts to go south, Tsuchida runs into an old flame, Hagio, who is everything Seiichi isn’t – brash, arrogant, confident, and very much not the sort of man to make a life with. Nevertheless, Tsuchida can’t help looking back and remembering how madly in love she was with Hagio (Joe Odagiri), forgetting that she was just as madly in love with Seiichi or she wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble for his benefit. Hagio himself cites Tsuchida’s all or nothing intensity as one reason he ended the relationship the first time round, she was just too into him and he found it annoying.

Seiichi, a quieter, introspective sort, never found Tsuchida’s devotion irritating but the pressure of her expectation was perhaps a barrier to his artistic success. Staying home all day, bored and depressed, Seiichi rarely found the inspiration to write between brooding about his lack of progress and feeling guilty that he couldn’t pull his economic weight. To his credit, Seiichi harbours no particularly sexist notions towards Tsuchida’s being the family earner, but he does mildly resent a barbed comment from a friend who criticises him for his “purist” stance in accusing his former band members of selling out when he is being kept by his girlfriend. Likewise, he doesn’t reject Tsuchida for engaging in prostitution or for “cheating” on him, but turns his anger inward in resenting that she felt forced to go such great lengths for the music that he isn’t quite so confident about anyway.

The problem is that Tsuchida gets far too into her idealised notions of romance rather than directly engaging with the person in front of her. She pushed Seiichi towards music and encouraged him to fulfil his dreams but in the end stifled them with her unforgiving intensity. Likewise, she ends up over engaging in Hagio’s hedonistic, devil may care lifestyle and never really stops to think where it’s going to take her. Only near the end does she begin to approach a level of self realisation which allows her to see that her relationship with Hagio will never work out because she remains afraid to enter a true level of intimacy with him in fear that he won’t like what he sees and will leave her.

Told from Tsuchida’s perspective with frequent voice overs to let us in on her interior monologue, Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is a messy “grownup” love story between three people who are still in the process of growing up. Artistic integrity rubs up against relationship dynamics as Tsuchida is forced to examine her own behaviour and realise she often, intentionally or otherwise, sabotages her dreams by attempting to impose her own singular vision upon them rather than simply let them be. As in real life, there may not be a “happy” ending, in one sense at least, but there is still the possibility of one further down the line for a woman who’s finally accepted herself and is willing to let others do the same.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)