Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Yujiro Harumoto, 2016)

going the distance posterThe “family drama” is often regarded as Japanese cinema’s representative genre, but in the consumerist atmosphere of the late 20th century the family itself became an increasingly discredited concept. Nevertheless, it remains true that discriminating against those who have no family is the last acceptable prejudice with orphans in particular unfairly viewed as somehow untrustworthy, rejected by mainstream society, and denied both work and the possibility of starting a family of their own. The hero of Yujiro Harumoto’s debut feature Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Kazoku e) thinks he has everything finally back on track with a steady job and an engagement to a middle-class secretary, but his good heart coupled with his precarious social status seem set to ensure his new start is a non-starter.

Raised in an orphanage in the Goto Islands, Asahi (Shinichiro Matsuura) now lives in Tokyo with this fiancée Kaori (Yumi Endo) for whom he has given up his boxing career to work as a trainer in a gym. Though Kaori, superficially at least, does not care that Asahi is a man with no family, she is a little preoccupied about how it’s going to look that his “family table”  at the reception will be largely unoccupied because he’s only planning on inviting his “brother” from the orphanage, Hiroto (Masahiro Umeda), and his wife.

Hiroto still lives in Goto and works as a fisherman. Hoping to help him out, Asahi sets him up with a man from his gym, Kita (Nobu Morimoto), who is opening a restaurant specialising in super fresh fish. The meeting goes extremely well and earns Hiroto a hefty contract that convinces him he needs to take out a loan to get a bigger boat. Unfortunately, however, Kita turns out to be a crook and Hiroto ends up well out of pocket, not only for the loan but for all the fish he never gets paid for.

Feeling intensely guilty and somewhat responsible, Asahi wants to do everything he can to put things right for Hiroto, even suggesting to Kaori that they postpone the wedding so that he can give part of the money they’ve saved to help take care of his debts. As predicted, Kaori is not happy about the idea, not least because she’s repeatedly explained to Asahi that she needs to get married as soon as possible because she wants her grandmother, who is suffering with dementia, to be able to attend the wedding while she’s still well enough to know what’s going on.

Unbeknownst to Asahi, one of the reasons Kaori is so keen on her grandmother attending is that her mother almost certainly won’t. Despite telling Asahi that her mother is lukewarm on the idea but coming round, the truth is that she won’t even talk to her, rudely rejecting the invitation and vowing that she’s no interest in seeing her daughter throw her life away on a man with no family and no prospects. In fact, Kaori’s mother crassly makes a point of sending her omiai photos for potential arranged marriages to more “suitable” men – ones from “good families” matching her own class background. Kaori wastes no time in calling her a “bigot”, accusing her of indulging in an outdated and offensive prejudice against the orphaned that regards them as untrustworthy because they have no history and are not anchored to anyone who might be held responsible for their actions.

Yet, despite her anger towards her mother Kaori is not quite free of those same prejudices, snapping back at Asahi that he wouldn’t understand what she’s going through because he had no parents of his own. She keeps the drama a secret from him to avoid having to admit that her family oppose the marriage solely because he is an orphan, partly wanting to spare his feelings and partly aware that Asahi is a good and noble man who might choose to absent himself rather than force her to choose between the man she loves and her family.

Meanwhile, Asahi does something similar in refusing to confide in Kaori about everything that’s going on with Hiroto, partly out of guilt and embarrassment, and partly out of shame in knowing that he is on some level betraying her by choosing to save Hiroto rather than prioritise their marriage. He wants to make things right, put them back to the way they were before, but he has an impossible choice – either reject his responsibility to his brother who is also a good and kind man and would not want to cause him trouble in his relationship, or neglect his new responsibilities to his soon-to-be-wife.

Unfortunately, the couple elect to go on deceiving one another, intending to protect but causing only more harm. It may be the case that they’ve rushed into marriage because of Kaori’s grandmother’s precarious health and Asahi’s hopes for a solid family foundation, but their previously happy relationship is eventually eroded by a gradual disillusionment born of refusing to rely on each other, continuing to fight separate battles rather than combine their efforts to fight them together. Faced with the realisation that he may have ruined his relationship by his own foolishness in trying to help a friend with a problem that was really none of his responsibility, Asahi begins to reject Hiroto, giving up on the idea of “family” in its entirety in mistaken resentment towards his brother for a series of decisions that were entirely his own. Nevertheless, what he discovers is that true family isn’t always about blood ties but about people who will always be there for you no matter what you do. Asahi wasn’t quite as alone as he thought he was, but only by admitting his mistakes, accepting his responsibilities, and finally allowing himself to confide in and rely on others can he truly begin to build a family anchored by something deeper than blood.


Going the Distance was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no 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-old 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.