The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea (海辺の金魚, Sara Ogawa, 2021)

A young woman begins to come to terms with a painful maternal legacy while bonding with a neglected little girl in Sara Ogawa’s gentle coming-of-age drama, The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea (海辺の金魚, Umibe no Kingyo). As the title suggests, the heroine struggles with ambivalent feelings towards her future partly in the unresolved relationship with her mother but also in an unwillingness to move on without the firm anchoring of family, anxious about leaving the safety of her current life behind for the uncertainties of adulthood. 

About to turn 18, Hana (Miyu Ozawa) has been living in a children’s home for the past 10 years while her mother, Kyoko (Kinuo Yamada), has been in prison convicted of mass poisoning at a summer festival though she continues to protest her innocence. Part of Hana’s anxiety about the future stems from the fact that in order to apply for a scholarship to university she would need her mother’s signature, but she is reluctant to get back in contact with her and is even considering not going despite having studied hard with just that goal in mind. Perhaps surprisingly, Hana has kept her original surname and though seemingly living in a different area is largely shunned by her classmates, either because they know of her mother’s conviction or simply because she lives in a children’s home. 

Meanwhile, Hana finds herself bonding with a withdrawn little girl, Harumi (Runa Hanada), brought into the home for unclear reasons while remaining largely silent and keeping herself separate from the other children. Perhaps recognising something of herself in her, Hana takes the young girl under her wing and attempts help her adjust to life in care but is alarmed to notice scars on the back of her neck which may suggest she has been the victim of physical abuse. Of course, Hana has no way of knowing her family circumstances or if her mother was the one was harming her but is confused by Harumi’s obvious longing to return to a place in which she has been subjected to violence. As the sympathetic man running the home, Taka (Tateto Serizawa), reminds her, however, Harumi’s mother is the only one she’s ever known so of course like all children she wants to return to a familiar environment and continues to long for maternal love even if that love is also abusive. 

In her desire to protect Harumi Hana avoids reflecting on the similarities with her own life or relationship with her mother. Though many things remain unclear about her early years, Hana perhaps resents Kyoko for burdening her with a criminal legacy and essentially abandoning her into the foster system though it has to be said the children’s home is a warm and welcoming place where the children are each loved and well cared for. Nevertheless she fixates on her mother’s parting words to “be a good girl”, in a way like Harumi thinking that her separation from her mother is somehow her fault for being “bad” and if only she were good enough her mother would come back. Looking after Harumi she finds herself saying the same thing, fearful that she’s turning into her mother and that her maternity is necessarily corrupted beyond repair.  

Like the goldfish in her fishbowl, she longs for freedom and independence but is also afraid of it. Through the gentle bond they begin to build the two young women save each other and themselves, Hana giving herself permission to fail, to not always be “good” and to live her life in the way she wants unburdened by the stigma of her mother’s crime while Harumi discovers a kind of maternal love that is positive and supportive without the threat of violence. Nevertheless, the release she chooses despite its metaphorical qualities is also potentially destructive in that goldfish are freshwater creatures unlikely to survive in the highly salinated environment of the ocean. Even so in letting go of her trauma she begins to move forward into a more certain adult world, determined to take Harumi with her in providing the care and protection her mother was unable to give her. A gentle coming-of-tale, Ogawa’s subtle, empathetic direction lends a touch of melancholy but also a lyrical, hopeful sensibility as the young women discover in each other the means to overcome their trauma. 


The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Innocent15 (イノセント15, Hirokazu Kai, 2016)

innocent-15Innocence is a fairly nebulous concept and one often misused but if you were expecting an “innocent” tale of youthful romance, Hirokazu Kai’s Innocent15 (イノセント15) is out to wrong foot you from the get go. Kai does not shy away from the darker sides of human nature in examining abusive parenting and forced prostitution as well as the damage done when a secret is broken after long years of being unable to be honest about who you really are. This is a bleak tale, but one with with hope shining round the edges, even if uncertainly.

Narumi (Sara Ogawa) and Gin (Riku Hagiwara) are ordinary middle school students living in small town not far from the capital. When Narumi plucks up the courage to confess her love to her friend, she receives the kindest of brush offs but Gin is left confused. His two drop out friends who spend their days skateboarding around the neighbourhood can’t understand his decision to turn down such a pretty girl though they remember that he’s done the same thing before. Gin himself doesn’t quite know why, but even if he feels sorry for not returning Narumi’s feelings, he is unable to accept them.

Though Narumi may seem like the perfect high school girl – quiet, studious, and refined, if a little sad, her home life is anything but ordinary. Saddled with an aggressive woman child for a mother who demands Narumi abandon her homework to cook her dinner while she plays on her gameboy, Narumi keeps her head down and makes the best of things. After putting up with her mother’s regular beatings, she finally decides to leave when she learns that her mother has sold her virginity to her boyfriend for 100,000 yen.

Meanwhile, Gin’s life is turned upside-down when he learns his father is in love with another man. Already in a state of confusion about his own adolescent feelings, Gin is unable to comprehend this sudden bombshell and lashes out at all around him. Therefore when Narumi arrives and tells him she’s leaving for Tokyo to look for her father he immediately says he’ll come with her. However, their youthful ideas of going it alone in the big city are quickly dashed.

Gin’s problems are of a more immediate kind but Narumi has endured long term suffering at the hands of her abusive mother. When she belittles Narumi’s studying and remarks that she’s no need to go to high school because the world always needs more hookers, it seems like an instance of cruel sarcasm but it turns out she really is intent on prostituting her own daughter to her no good boyfriend.

When her mother’s boyfriend viciously attacks Gin, Narumi is left with nowhere else to go. The tragedy is that intense social pressures and her already existing isolation make it impossible for Narumi to confide in someone about the abuse she’s suffering at home. Being only 15, even if she were to simply walk out of her mother’s house she would have no way to support herself, leaving her with little choice between possible starvation on the streets and allowing her mother to sell her to her cruel and violent boyfriend.

Narumi’s “innocent” love for Gin becomes her last lifeline and his rejection a crushing end to her dreams of being saved. By contrast, Gin’s problems are much easier to solve. His resentment towards his father is more likely driven by the shock of the revelation rather than directly because he has fallen in love with another man. Gin may have temporarily rejected his father, but his father has not rejected him. Guilt and embarrassment over his actions aside, Gin is always welcome to return home where his father would welcome him with open arms. All of Gin’s problems are internal as he struggles with his adolescent confusion. All of Narumi’s problems are external – when Gin spots the scars and bruises on her shoulder, she tells him that she was able to put up with her mother’s cruelty because it only hurt her body and never touched her soul. Narumi’s interior is solid, but she’s trapped in a desperate situation from which there is no obvious way to escape.

Mirroring each other, Gin and Narumi try to run away from their problems but are each unable to escape. Kai opts for a series of reverses towards the film’s conclusion which offer hope only to dash it again and the final scene with only the sound of a motorbike’s flooded engine and eventual kickstart adds a note of anxious ambivalence in which there is a chance for the pair to ride away together but no further evidence that this attempt will be any more successful than the last. The general tone is one of gritty realism though Kai also admits the existence of life’s strange coincidence’s such as in the repeated appearance of a “weird lady” on a pink mobility scooter whose eccentric driving style has disastrous consequences. A necessarily bleak tale highlighting the plight of children in danger in their own homes and left with nowhere else to go coupled with a tentative, innocent teenage love story, Innocent15 is a tense, often horrifying experience filled with outrage but is careful to leave at least the possibility of a better way out, however far off it may be.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)