Between Us (藍に響け, Yasuo Okuaki, 2021)

Hyper-individualism goes to war with collective harmony in Yasuo Okuaki’s taiko-themed coming-of-age manga adaptation, Between Us (藍に響け, Ai ni Hibike, AKA Wadaiko Girls). Reminded that “your sound is everyone’s sound” the closed-off heroine begins to realise you can’t always just do your own thing and expect everyone else to deal with it, but in the end shows remarkably little growth as even her otherwise positive contribution of helping a similarly troubled young woman quite literally find her voice is in itself achieved mainly through abrasive bullying not to mention a persistent ableism which otherwise entirely ignores her feelings. 

Okuaki opens with an intense scene as the heroine, Tamaki (Ayaka Konno), burns her ballet shoes alone on the beach at night before staring pensively out at the ocean. As we discover, Tamaki has a lot going on that she is reluctant to share with others. Something has evidently gone wrong at home, she seems worried about money and the modest house she shares with her mother who appears to work late often is filled with packing boxes suggesting they may only recently have moved. She hasn’t told her mum she’s given up ballet, partly it seems because she’s working part-time at the local supermarket which she has to keep a secret because the elite Catholic school she attends has a rule against part-time jobs. Wandering around alone however while her friends, who each seem to come from extremely wealthy families, assume she’s heading to ballet Tamaki becomes captivated by the sound of taiko drumming, eventually spotted by a young woman practicing, Maria (Sayu Kubota), who happens to be mute. 

Despite the impossibility of direct communication, Maria manages to covey her enthusiasm for the drums presumably picking up on something in Tamaki which, for unexplained reasons, she is extremely reluctant to explore. Fellow drummer Kahoko, however, is dead set against her joining the club even setting her a cruel and impossible challenge as a kind of entrance exam. The irony is that even as the sullen Tamaki stands up against low-level bullying from Kahoko who makes a basic training exercise seem like humiliating punishment, Tamaki becomes far too into perfecting the art of taiko, obsessively honing her craft and displaying natural ability but quickly losing patience with her fellow drummers who are mostly playing for fun and friendship. 

Tamaki is and remains distinctly unpleasant to be around while Kahoko seems to soften, becoming a source of support to the other girls, and poor Maria is rounded on by just about everyone including maternal figure Sister Nitche (Mariko Tsutsui) who was once herself a top taiko coach but for reasons unknown gave up the art, got religion, and became a nun. Sister Nitche was known as a demon coach, and the decision to reassume her role does indeed resurface an element of cruelty in her unseen in her role as high school teacher and carer at the attached children’s centre. Maria first bonds with Tamaki in revealing to her that she was rendered mute in a car accident and has been undergoing rehabilitative therapy in an attempt to regain her speech but that it hasn’t been going as well as she’d hoped. Yet both Sister Nitche and Tamaki eventually set on her, insisting that the reason she’s not making progress is because she’s not trying hard enough instead of, perhaps, reassuring her that even if she not able to improve her speaking it would still be fine and there’s no need to rush. 

The conflict seems to be between the ultra-competitive, deeply wounded Tamaki and the ethos of taiko which demands group harmony. There’s no point being a show off because the group must move as one, yet Tamaki struggles to accommodate herself to the idea of adapting to the collective rhythm insisting everyone attempt to match her speed while suggesting that those who can’t aren’t up to the task and should voluntarily resign rather than bring the group down, echoing the rather harsh survival of the fittest philosophy espoused by a transformed Sister Nitche. Just as she had, Tamaki later turns on Maria in the face of her own failure repeatedly insisting that she is a “loser” who wouldn’t fight for taiko or for her voice in a confrontation that leads first to a physical fight and then to an intense taiko battle that bears out the repeated notion of baring one’s soul through the beating of the drum. 

There is an unmistakable though unresolved homoerotisicm in the conflict between the two young women filled as it is with repressed emotion, frustration, and unspoken desires all of which appear to dissipate through the climax of the physically and emotionally intense taiko session. Nevertheless, there is also something in uncomfortable in the fact of Maria’s path towards finding her literal voice arising because of what is essentially abusive bullying rather than encouragement or positive support especially as it also denies her the right to speak her feelings honestly while no one is making much of an effort to listen to her. Tamaki meanwhile remains somewhat unsympathetic even in her silent concern for Maria betrayed by the unexpected warmth of her smile in seeing her deciding to return to taiko, her own buried troubles otherwise unresolved while her unforgiving hyper-individualism is tacitly condoned even as she learns to submit herself to the collective rhythm and finds through it the sense of connection she was perhaps missing. 


Between Us screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our 30-Minute Sessions (サヨナラまでの30分, Kentaro Hagiwara, 2020)

“I want to move on” a grieving young woman explains, though perhaps ironically heading in the wrong direction. A youthful take on learning to live with loss, Our 30-Minute Sessions (サヨナラまでの30分, Sayonara made no 30-bun) finds a group of college hopefuls shattered by the unexpected death of a charismatic friend leaving them each lost, moving on in one sense but treading water in another uncertain what to do with the unfulfilled potential of their adolescent memories. Yet, through ghostly intervention, what they eventually realise is that nothing’s ever really lost, the echoes of those memories merely add to the great symphony life and all you can do in the end is learn to play along with it. 

That’s something introverted college student Sota (Takumi Kitamura) has however struggled with, unable to emerge from the trauma of losing his mother at a young age. As we first meet him, he’s subjected to a painful group interview for a regular salaryman job at which they ask about the memories he’s made with his university friends but rather than come up with a convincing lie, Sota honestly tells them he has no friends and that’s a good thing because it means he’s free to dedicate himself to work 100%. As expected, he gets a rather brutal rejection text before he’s even reached the lift, pausing only to rudely but perhaps accurately decline an invitation to join a WhatsApp group with the other hopefuls for the reason that it’s “pointless” because they’re unlikely to meet again. 

Sota doesn’t like to share his space with other people, but after noticing a walkman abandoned at a disused swimming pool finds himself a permanent host to Aki (Mackenyu), recently deceased lead singer of up-and-coming college band Echoll. Unlike Sota, Aki is charismatic and outgoing, every inch the rock star but less cocky than aggressively caring. It pains him that the thing he left unfinished has fallen apart in his absence and that all his friends seem to have given up their dreams and aspirations in life. For unknown reasons it seems that when Sota presses the play button on the walkman, it allows Aki to take over his body for the length of a single side of a cassette tape temporarily lending him the swagger and verve hitherto missing in his life even if he claimed not to particularly have missed them. 

In fact, Sota quite enjoys the arrangement because it means he doesn’t quite exist for the time the tape is playing, other people are no threat to him in his literal invisibility. Yet over time, a conflict obviously develops especially as the main thrust of Aki’s mission is healing his former girlfriend’s broken heart. Having lost her love of music, Kana (Sayu Kubota) has spent the last year largely inside working her way through a book of daily soup recipes that only her mother tastes. She claims she’s “moved on”, but in reality has done anything but caught in a kind of limbo unable to let go of her guilt and memories of lost love while conflicted as she bonds with the shy and introverted Sota himself it turns out also a frustrated musician.

A poignant reminder of Aki’s unfinished business as he and his friends attempt to find a degree of accommodation with loss the Japanese title translates more closely to “30 minutes to goodbye”, but there’s also something in the Japanese for playback (再生) equating to “again life” as it grants the late singer a temporary resurrection if one that lasts only the length of a set list. Perhaps a hipsterish affectation, the love of the outdated analogue recording mechanism, besides its practical advantages, provides a tangible proof of life albeit a fallible one in which every attempt to replay necessarily weakens integrity. Yet as a veteran later puts it, no matter how many times the tape is erased and overwritten, traces of previous recordings remain becoming in a sense just one of many layers that add depth and richness to the quality of the whole. 

The bandmates begin to realise that starting over doesn’t mean forgetting Aki or betraying his memory, they don’t have to leave him behind but can in a sense take him with them in the memories they share while Sota eventually begins to see the joy in human interaction and the power of connecting through music shedding his introversion in the knowledge that not all friendships are inauthentic and even if someone makes an early exit they leave traces of themselves behind on which others can build. A stylistically interesting take on the band movie with a fantastic soundtrack of convincing college rock hits, Our 30-Minute Sessions is a classic coming-of-age drama but one dedicated perhaps less to the art of moving on than to that of moving forward adding new notes to an ever expanding symphony of life.


Our 30-Minute Sessions streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)