Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Masaharu Take, 2014)

165856_02Actress of the moment Sakura Ando steps into the ring, literally, for this tale of plucky underdog beating the odds in unexpected ways. It would be wrong to call 100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Hyaku Yen no Koi) a “boxing movie”, it’s more than half way through the film before the protagonist decides to embark on the surprising career herself and though there are the training sequences and match based set pieces they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, the plucky underdog comes to the fore as we watch the virtual hikkikomori slacker Ichiko eventually become a force to be reckoned with both in the ring and out.

Ichiko Saito is a 32 year woman with no job who still lives at home in her parents’ bento store where she also refuses to help out. With unkempt hair, slobbish pyjamas and a bad attitude, she stays in all day playing video games with her nephew other than running out to the 100 yen store late at night for more cheap and nasty snacks. Her sister has recently moved home after a divorce and to put it plainly, the two do not get on. Finally the mother decides the sister is the one most in need and more or less throws Ichiko out onto the streets. She gets herself a little apartment and a job in the 100 yen store where she’s perved over by a sleazy colleague and amused by a crazy old lady who turns up each night to help herself to the leftover bento.

Ichiko also becomes enamoured with a frequent customer who they nickname “Banana Man” because he just comes in, buys a ridiculous number of bananas, and leaves without saying anything. He’s even more awkward than Ichiko though he seems to kind of like her too. Banana Man is an amateur boxer and eventually ends up staying in Ichiko’s apartment following a rather complicated chain of events. When this too goes wrong, Ichiko decides to try her hand at boxing herself, hoping to make the next set of matches before she passes the age threshold.

We aren’t really given much of a back story for Ichiko, other than that her polar opposite sister thinks she’s too much like their father who also seems to be a mildly depressed slacker only now in early old age. Her mother is at the end of her tether and her sister probably just has problems of her own but at any rate does not come across as a particularly sensitive or sympathetic person. Getting kicked out at this late stage might actually be the best thing for Ichiko though it’s undoubtedly a big adjustment with her family offering nothing more than possible financial support.

Working in the 100 yen store isn’t so bad but it doesn’t really suit Ichiko with her isolated shyness and lack of work experience. Mind you, it seems like it doesn’t suit anyone very well as her manager quits right away and her only co-worker is a lecherous criminal who literally will not stop talking or take no for an answer. Ichiko’s only real relationship is with Banana Man but even this is strange with Ichiko becoming infatuated and coming on too strong for the rather immature amateur boxer who’s just hit the end of his career. If Ichiko is going to get anywhere she’ll have to do it on her own and on her own terms, no one is going to help her or be on hand to offer any kind of life advice.

That is, until she starts boxing where she gets some coaching, if only inside the ring. The gloves give her a purpose, in getting to a real match before the age limit passes (it’s 32 and she is already 32) she finally has something concrete to work towards and strive for. She just wants to win, once, after all the awful and humiliating things that have happened to her, she just wants to hit back. Even if she falls at the final hurdle, these seemingly small elements have caused a sea change within her. No longer holed up at home, too fearful to engage with anything or anyone, Ichiko has her self respect back and can truly stand on her own two feet.

Indeed, the film might well be called sympathy for the loser – what attracts Ichiko to the sport to begin with is the mini shoulder hug at the end between the victorious and the defeated. With the idea that it’s OK to lose, there are no hard feelings between athletes and even a mutual respect for those who’ve done their best even if they didn’t quite make it, this moment of catharsis seems to give Ichiko the connection she’s been craving. However, the film’s ending is a little more ambiguous and where this rapid transformation of the “100 yen kind of girl” might take her may be harder to chart.


100 Yen Love is Japan’s submission for the 2016 Academy Awards.

Obon Brothers (UK Anime Network Review)

Obon BrothersReview of quirky comedy Obon Brothers (お盆の弟 Obon no Ototo) from this year’s Raindance up at UK Anime Network. I was also lucky enough to interview the director, Akira Osaki, while he was at Raindance to introduce the film which you can also read over at UK Anime Network.


Sometimes you think everything is going to be alright, but then several calamities arrive all at once. Down on his luck film director and stay at home dad Takashi has only been able to get one film made so far and it doesn’t look good for another any time soon. Right now he’s spending sometime apart from his wife and daughter as his elder brother Wataru is ill with colon cancer and as his brother never married, both their parents are dead and they have no other family Takashi has gone to look after him. However, Wataru is anything but grateful and proceeds to mope about the house repeatedly asking when Takashi plans to go home.

When he finally does go home, Takashi’s wife realises she liked it better when he wasn’t there and asks for a divorce. With nowhere else to go except back to Wataru’s, a confused and heartbroken Takashi goes home to Gunma where he reconnects with his screenwriting partner who’s finally met a girl through internet dating. Persuaded to come on a double date, Takashi strikes up a friendship with Ryoko despite still harbouring hopes for a reconciliation with his wife. No job, no home, no wife – what does the future hold for a mild mannered man like Takashi?

Like last year’s Raindance highlight And the Mudship sails away, Obon Brothers stars Kiyohiko Shibukawa though this “Takashi” is a little more sympathetic than the completely apathetic character from Watanabe’s film. With a sort of gentleness of spirit, Takashi is the sort of person who enjoys taking care of others like his ailing brother and cute little daughter and is just as happy keeping house as anything else. For his wife, his passivity becomes a major issue as she finds herself taking on a more independent role and comes to feel she needs someone with more drive at her side rather than the meek Takashi who’s content just muddling through.

Indeed, just muddling through ends up becoming an accidental theme of the film. Every morning, Takashi stops at the local shrine, throws a coin in the donation box and prays for everything to work out…and then goes home and waits for things to happen. However, things don’t just happen no matter how much you want and pray for them – at the end of the day you have to put the effort in which goes for all things in life from marriages to friendships and careers. If anybody gets anything at all out of Takashi’s religious practices, it’s ironically the older brother Wataru who thinks all this religious stuff is hokum – even going so far as to urinate into a sacred pond!

Also like Watanabe’s And the Mudship Sails Away, Obon Brothers is shot in black and white with a preference for long takes and static camera. Consequently it has an innately sophisticated indie comedy feeling which, coupled with its naturalistic tone, bring a kind of warmth and familiarity that it’s hard to resist. Though the film touches on some heavy themes – cancer, the breakdown of a marriage, it treats them all with a degree of matter of factness that never lets them overshadow the main narrative. After all, these things happen and life carries on while they do.

A loving tribute to the prefecture of Gunma from which many of the cast and crew originate including the director Akira Osaki, scriptwriter Shin Adachi and leading actor Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Obon Brothers has more than a little autobiographical content though it doesn’t reflect the actual circumstances of any of the creative team’s lives. It’s a gentle comedy, though one with shades of darkness creeping in around the edges, and moves at an equally gentle pace which gives you ample time to see into these characters and their lives. Osaki’s camera is unjudgemental, it gives equal sympathy and understanding to everyone and even the eventual end of Takashi’s marriage is accomplished with the utmost amicability. Whether or not Takashi has actually changed very much by the end of the film or has just gained a little more knowledge about who he is as a person, Obon Brothers gives you the feeling that it’s alright to start all over again – even if you’re just muddling though!


Obon Brothers is getting a UK release from Third Window Films next year(?) – highly recommended, especially if you like gentle, indie comedies!