5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Moon Sung-ho, 2019)

5 Million Dollar Life posterIs it possible to live a life without “debts” of one kind or another or are we all just living on loans? The hero of Moon Sung-ho’s 5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Gooku Yen no Jinsei) wants to find out, not least because he feels himself indebted to those who have helped him in the past and struggles with the pressure of living up to their expectation. An unexpected source provides some helpful advice in pointing out that “value” in one sense at least is not something you’re free to decide for yourself but is defined by others. Then again, not being certain of your own worth makes it impossible to claim your rightful place in society as someone as worthy of love and respect as any other.

When Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki) was six, his family found out he had a congenital heart defect and would need to go abroad for a transplant. His community rallied around him and raised five million dollars so he could go to America for treatment. The heartwarming story also made him the star of an ongoing documentary in which he’s interviewed on television every year so those who contributed to saving his life can find out how he’s getting on. Becoming a local celebrity and an accidental TV star is obviously a lot of pressure for any young man, but Mirai feels acutely burdened by the responsibility of “repaying” the kindness that was offered to him. He doesn’t feel his life was worth five million dollars and knows he is unlikely to repay their “investment”. He is after all just “ordinary”. He won’t win a Nobel prize or cure cancer, all he can do is live his life in the normal way but that’s hard when it feels like everyone is secretly looking over his shoulder and waiting for him to make a mistake.

Meanwhile he’s also become a role model to the suicidal Chiharu (Hikari Kobayashi) who doesn’t “see the value in life”  and feels that “death is glorious” because people can hate you while you’re alive, but they’ll love you when you’re gone. Mirai gets where she’s coming from. He longs for an ending too, if only to reject the responsibility he feels towards those who saved his life. Attacked by a troll online, he takes up the challenge to make the five million dollars back and then kill himself to bring an end to the whole affair but quickly discovers that it’s a lot harder to make five million dollars than he thought.

Neatly taking place during the last summer of high school, Mirai’s odyssey sends him on an odd trek across working class Japan as he finds himself alone and without money or means to support himself. At only 17, he can’t even stay in a hotel on his own and so he winds up becoming homeless but is taken in by a nice old man who claims he decided to help him because he bought an umbrella with his last pennies rather than pinching someone else’s. Though he is often exploited and betrayed by those who take advantage of his goodness, that same quality finds an answer in others who, sometimes despite themselves, want to help him because he seems like the sort of person who needs help.

This idea finds encapsulation in the surprisingly astute words of wisdom Mirai receives from a petty gangster he meets after getting involved with sex work. The gangster, who starts off by telling him that he’s making a mistake selling himself short when it’s the customer who decides what his “value” is, later explains that it’s not so much that the world is divided into people who are nice and people who aren’t, but that some people are “worth” being nice to and Mirai, for one reason or another, is one such person who thrives on kindness.

Mirai’s desire to quantify his life by putting a price on it may be mistaken, as proved by the sad case of a family committing suicide because of monetary debt, but what he realises is that people help because they want to and they don’t necessarily expect anything in return other than kindness. If he wants to find a way to repay them, he’ll have to figure it out on his own terms first, but all they really wanted they wanted from him was that he live his life as happily as possible. 5 Million Dollar Life goes to some pretty dark places, but always maintains a healthy cheerfulness as Mirai goes on his strange odyssey looking for the “value” in being alive and discovering that it largely lies shared kindnesses and unselfish connection.


5 Million Dollar Life screens on 11th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Yukiko Mishima, 2017)

Dear Etranger posterThe family drama has long been considered the representative genre of Japanese cinema, but with the days of Ozu long gone the family itself has become a subject for reappraisal. Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Osanago Warera ni Umare) is the latest to take a scalpel to the nation’s basic social unit and ask what the word “family” means in an ever changing social landscape. In an Ozu picture, one family must be broken for another to be formed – this is the way of things and in the end must be accepted if with sadness, but does it really need to be this way or is there room for more as connections become less easy to define?

Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) separated from his first wife some time ago and still spends time with his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), though only a few times a year. Four years ago he married another woman, Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who had also been married before and has two children – Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eri (Miu Arai). Nanae has recently discovered she is pregnant and is thrilled to bits to add to their family, but Makoto is conflicted. He liked the family as it was and worries that the new baby will place a wedge between himself and his step-daughters, that they may suddenly feel themselves pushed out and not really part of the new family that is being forged by a child who has a blood relation to both their parents rather than just one.

In truth, family dynamics aren’t all Makoto currently has to worry about. A 40-year-old man, he’s also hitting the scrap heap at work – rather than laying people off, they’re transferring them to unpleasant jobs in the hope they’ll resign. A lifelong salaryman, Makoto has been sent to the packing warehouse where his every move is logged on computer and he’s rated for speed. This is partly his own “fault”. Rather than play the salaryman game, Makoto wanted to be a family man. He doesn’t work weekends or overtime, he takes public holidays off, and never stays out late drinking with colleagues – all things which mark your card as an antisocial shirker in workaholic Japan.

Makoto’s superior, warning him about the imminent transfers, criticises his attitude. He tells him that he doesn’t think spending time with his children is his “job” as a father. He sees his responsibility as one of providing a role model and he thinks the best way to do that is to be seen working hard as a “respectable” member of society. Makoto couldn’t disagree more. He works to rule, but wants to be the sort of father that’s there for his kids, not just an authoritarian figure who comes home late smelling of booze and throws his weight around. He knows that as the children grow up they’ll grow away from him and won’t want to hang out with dad anymore, so he wants to spend time with them now while he still can.

Makoto’s intense desire to be a family man is perhaps unusual in Japan where men channel their ambition into work and women are (still) expected to channel theirs into the home. It is therefore doubly painful for Makoto when his elder step-daughter, Kaoru, heading into a difficult age, suddenly rejects him on hearing about the new baby. Despite the fact that Kaoru’s biological father (Kankuro Kudo) was violent towards both her and her mother, Kaoru begins to insist on seeing him, complaining that it’s unfair to be forced to live with “a stranger”. On one level, Kaoru is at the age at which most young women begin to find their father annoying and embarrassing, but her resentment is also informed by a fear of abandonment and cultural doubt about her place in a still atypical family, unconvinced that it’s possible for a man to become a father to a child that’s not his own by blood.

Blood ties still seem to trump all in most people’s minds, but bureaucracy plays its part too. Makoto still insists on making time to see Saori – something which is sadly unusual in Japan where divorce usually results not only in the children losing contact with the absent parent but also the entirety of an extended family. Kaoru doesn’t quite like it that Makoto does this, she feels almost betrayed as if he’s choosing his biological child over her and that continuing to associate with Saori means he hasn’t fully committed to her family. There seems to be an idea that the family unit is a distinct bubble and one can’t be inside more than one at a time, just as one can’t be listed on more than one “family register”. When an emergency occurs and Saori needs to get a lift from Nanae who has Eri in the back of the car, she isn’t sure if it’s OK for her to get in even with her father with her. She suddenly feels awkward, as if her presence in his car with his new family is inappropriate. None of these people know each other – the existence of a parallel family is so embarrassing as to be “unseen”, buried like a scandalous secret and kept entirely separate to avoid any cross-contamination. When Eri asks who Saori is, awkward silence prevails until she is forced to introduce herself as a “friend” of her father’s – something he doesn’t bother to correct until the drive home when another encounter has pushed him into reconsidering what it means to be a “father”. 

Makoto’s strong desire for acceptance and for forging a “family” that is “his” may perhaps seem selfish and possessive, yet he also tries to react with patience and empathy towards others in his position. He tries to be patient with Kaoru, advising her that he doesn’t think meeting her “real” dad is a good idea but if it’s what she wants he’ll try to make it happen. Likewise, he is grateful to Saori’s stepfather for raising his daughter when he wasn’t able to. Finally the walls begin to dissolve and it stops being about who belongs on which bit of paper and starts being about connections forged through love and understanding. The new baby, rather than forcing everyone apart, begins to bring them together, each joined by a feeling of joy and responsibility towards the new life to which they are all connected. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)