It’s a Summer Film! (サマーフィルムにのって, Soshi Matsumoto, 2020)

“Movies connect the present with the past through the big screen” according to the jidaigeki-obsessed heroine of Soshi Matsumoto’s charming sci-fi-inflected teen movie It’s a Summer Film! (サマーフィルムにのって, Summer Film ni Notte). True to its title, Matsumoto’s whimsical drama very much belongs to the grand tradition of high school summer movies as its youthful heroines contemplate eternity, romantic heartbreak, and artistic fulfilment while secretly plotting to best their vacuous rival by filming their very own teen samurai movie ready in time for the all-important school cultural festival. 

Aspiring director Barefoot (Marika Ito) is completely obsessed with classic samurai movies, arguing with her similarly devoted friends about who is hotter Shintaro Katsu or Raizo Ichikawa. She is a key member of the school movie making club, but intensely resentful of star player Karin (Mahiru Coda) who won the tender to make the film for this year’s cultural festival with a sappy teen romance which mostly seems to involve repeated scenes of the central couple loudly declaring their love for each other. Barefoot thinks a film should convey love without words and has written a script for a teen samurai movie in which adversaries become too emotionally invested in each other to engage in the expected final confrontation. All she’s lacking is a star and after spotting a handsome guy apparently as moved by a local rep screening as she is decides she’s found her man. What she doesn’t know is that Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko) is a secret time traveller from a future in which she has become a renowned master filmmaker but film itself sadly no longer exists. 

Being from the future and all explains Rintaro’s reluctance to star in the film, dropping accidental hints that he’s from another place as in his amusement that humans still staff removal companies and total mystification by the word “Netflix”. Yet he too is completely obsessed with classic jidaigeki from the heyday of the genre which had largely gone out of fashion by the early 1980s. As many point out, Barefoot’s hobby is slightly unusual, though she learned her love of chanbara from her grandma, receiving messages from the past she hoped to pass on to the future. Gathering most of the other rejected, outsider teens from a boy who looks about 40 to a pair of baseball nerds who can correctly guess the player from the sound of a ball hitting a glove and a bleach blond biker, she assembles a team to make her movie dreams come true as if to prove there’s something more out there than the, as she sees it, vacuous high school rom-coms favoured by the likes of Karin. 

Among the series of lessons she finally learns is that Karin need not be an adversary but could be a friend if only she look beyond her snootiness and resentment of the popular crowd even if Karin’s all pink, needlessly extravagant and egotistically branded crew shirts don’t do much to dispel Barefoot’s perception of her as entitled and self-obsessed. Another lesson she learns is that she’s not as disinterested in romance as she thought she was, though falling for Rintaro leaves her with a secondary dilemma realising that he’ll eventually have to return to his own times while also contemplating what the point of the future even is if they don’t have movies there. What she’s going to do with the rest of her life if the art of cinema is already obsolete? 

With some ironic help from Karin, what she realises is that even if something is destroyed it doesn’t disappear, films live on in the memories of those who saw them who can then take their memories with them into the future. Where her first draft had ended with an emotional anti-climax that saw her heroes too emotionally involved to engage in conflict, she now realises that samurai movies are love stories too and that “killing is a confession of love” in a slightly worrying though not altogether inaccurate take on the homoerotic subtext of the chanbara. A charmingly whimsical coming-of-age tale filled with meta touches from the constant references to classic jidaigeki to the heroine’s sci-fi-obsessed sidekick who seems to have an unrequited crush on her best friend idly reading The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, It’s a Summer Film! more than lives up to its name in its cheerful serenity as the teenage old souls defiantly learn to claim their own space while connecting with each other as they contemplate love and transience in the eternal art of cinema. 


It’s a Summer Film streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Goto-san (ゴトーさん, Hiroshi Gokan, 2020)

It doesn’t take much to remind you that even the most stable of lives can be upended in an instant, often not even by disaster or tragedy just the vagaries of life, but for those living on the margins certainty is an unattainable luxury. The eponymous hero of Hiroshi Gokan’s Goto-san (ゴトーさん) seems happy enough living his day-to-day life, not really worrying too much about the future but perhaps mourning a hidden past or in flight from something or other no one else knows, never suspecting that the rug may suddenly be pulled from under him. 

Goto (Hirofumi Suzuki) has been living and working at 24-hour mangacafe Sunflower for at least two years, no one knows exactly how long because he’s “always” been there. The first sign of trouble arrives when an old man who often frequented the cafe and was thought to be homeless is found dead in his room. The panicked manager asks “clean-freak” Goto to sort it all out for him, surprised that he seems to have taken a death on the premises in his stride. Meanwhile, a young woman, Riko, is renting room 208 on a daily basis eschewing the weekly rate presumably because she’s hoping to move on either today or tomorrow or someday at least and a longterm agreement seems like admitting defeat. 

Gokan opens the film with scenes of a Tokyo under construction, busy in the run up to the 2020 Olympics while Goto’s boss and an official-looking man in a suit make ominous comments about “that virus” and its capacity to mess up their business. A small group of men are currently holding a protest, flying a banner reading “never forgive corporate exploitation of dead end job labour” while announcing statistics over a megaphone to the effect that one in seven children lives in poverty, one in five elderly people is struggling, and one in three single women face hardship as do a majority of young people. Can you really say that holding the Olympics in these circumstances is a good idea? The protest group at least seems to think it’s a bit of a slap in the face to low income workers who might be experiencing a temporary bounce but are also facing potential exploitation and will likely be forgotten once the construction frenzy’s over. 

Taking their battle off the streets, the protest group decide to take the message into the manga cafe which is perhaps insensitive, preaching to the converted, or a potential annoyance to this drop out community who may be well aware of the oppressive nature of modern day capitalism and have decided not to participate. For his part, Goto’s motives remain ambiguous though he seems happy enough with his quality of life until he gets a coupon for sex services and ends up accidentally meeting Riko. Perhaps recalling an old dream, owning a boating license and fascinated by a wind-up toy of an ocean liner left behind by the dead man, he tells her he’s a first mate on a cruise ship, pretending to live in another part of town little knowing that they live in the same building. Wanting to get to know her socially, he ends up looking for extra work, but his job-hunting experience later comes to nothing when he has to leave the cafe abruptly discovering that it’s almost impossible to find work without access to online resources and a permanent address. Some might think a change in his circumstances is an opportunity to reset, but Goto seems not to take it ironically ending up in much the same position he was before.

Riko, meanwhile, seems to think differently eventually spring-boarded into the determination to change her life escaping the world of sex work and manga cafes she finds disappointing to chase something better though we might wonder what exactly it is she finds as she crosses Shibuya scramble inches from an oblivious Goto who might dream of sailing overseas but remains ironically landlocked to the local area. Opening with a jaunty detachment, the whimsical score perfectly matching the surreality of life at the manga cafe, Gokan’s screenplay becomes progressively darker as Goto finds himself at the mercy of his times trapped by economic malaise, running aground while the river flows on all around him.  


Goto-san screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Other Home (向こうの家, Tatsuro Nishikawa, 2018)

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they start to realise that things are not always as they appear and no matter how happy and settled your family life might seem, your parents aren’t perfect though they are probably doing their best. For Hagi (Ayumu Mochizuki), that moment comes at 16 when he gets fed up with school and takes some time off believing he might be able to learn more outside of the classroom than in. An unconventional coming-of-age tale, Tatsuro Nishikawa’s graduation project The Other Home (向こうの家, Mukou no Ie) is also a meditation on the modern family and the patriarchal order. 

Getting back to school after the summer break gets off to a rocky start when Hagi and his friend are told that the fishing club of which they are members is being shut down as the teacher who was in charge of it is scaling back her workload because she’s just got engaged and will eventually be leaving to get married. Hagi takes this in his stride, mostly at a loss over where to eat his lunch because his girlfriend, Naruse (Mahiru Ueta), for some reason thinks it’s embarrassing to eat alone in the classroom. In any case, Hagi reacts by deciding not to go to school at all. His parents don’t approve, but decide to give him some space to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, he’s beginning to wonder if it’s odd that his family never fight, his parents committed to talking things through peacefully rather than resentfully hiding their true feelings. 

Or, so he thought. There is something childishly naive in his conviction that because his parents never fight in front of him they never fight at all, though it’s true enough that he comes from a talking about things family in which his mother Naoko (Mana Minamihisamatsu), in particular, is keen that they share their thoughts and feelings honestly, looking forward to her husband Yoshiro (Toru Kizu) returning home each day after which they share a drink and make time to talk. It comes to something of a surprise to him then when his dad asks him to pick up a set of keys he’s forgotten and bring them to a cafe near where he works without letting his mother know. Hagi does as he’s told only to learn the keys are for a cheerful cottage by the sea which he’s been renting for his mistress, Toko (Mai Ohtani), with whom he now wants to break up preferably before the lease is due for renewal. Too cowardly to do it himself, Yoshiro enlists his teenage son’s help to break up with the woman he’s been cheating on his family with. 

Strangely, this revelation does not seem to sour him on his dad even if he realises the threat it poses to their happy family life. “Protecting the family peace. Men must uphold that promise” Yoshiro unironically tells his son, problematically implying that the way to do that is by covering up affairs rather than simply not having them. Dutifully Hagi heads over to “the other home”, only to be thrown out by Mr. Chiba (Denden), a friend of Toko’s who not unreasonably tells him that this is something his father should be dealing with himself rather than sending his teenage son to guilt his mistress into moving out of her house. Failing to engage with his father’s betrayal, Hagi nevertheless comes to sympathise with Toko who is about to be rendered homeless thanks to his father’s moral cowardice, staying with her in the cottage while lying to his mother that he’s doing an internship at his father’s company. 

Nevertheless, each of his parents is eventually found wanting as Toko teaches him the things they perhaps should have including how to ride a bike, an embarrassing oversight which had seen him deemed “uncool” by his exasperated girlfriend. The film has little time for Naoko’s talking about things philosophy, her husband merely lying to her while engaging in the same patriarchal double standards simultaneously insisting it’s a man’s duty to “protect family peace” while deliberately endangering it through an extramarital affair. Hagi too perhaps picks up these uncomfortably old fashioned ideas partly from his teacher who proudly shows off her engagement ring boasting that it cost her fiancé three months’ salary, the expense apparently proof that he intends to look after her well for the rest of her life as if she couldn’t do that herself. He begins to feel sorry for Toko as she outlines her life as a kept woman, a backroom full of unwanted presents from various men who too looked after her for a time, but in the end merely offers to look after her himself by quitting school to get a job so he can renew the lease to make up for his father’s moral cowardice.

The reason they were so happy, it seems, is that Yoshiro gave himself an escape valve. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to be dad” he admits, apologising for his inability to share his burdens honestly, his male failure neatly undercutting the tacit acceptance of the patriarchal authority which stands in contrast to Naoko’s ideal of a healthy relationship founded on emotional authenticity. Finally learning to ride a bike, Hagi finds himself entering a less innocent world as a young man now fully aware of the universe’s moral greyness if perhaps not quite so enlightened as he might feel himself to be.


The Other Home screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)