Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Ryutaro Ninomiya, 2017)

Sweating the Small StuffAs portraits of stagnation go, Japanese indie is no stranger though few have found a protagonist as passive as the hero of Ryutaro Ninomiya’s Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Edaha no Koto). Played by the director himself and sharing his name, Ryutaro is a man who barely speaks and has long since given up the illusion that anything that might be said could be of real consequence. Like most of the men in his run down town he has no dreams or ambitions, barely tolerates those who might regard him as a friend, and finds his only refuge in the pages of a book. A chance phone call produces a brief change in his routine but perhaps not enough to shake him from his committed course of listlessness.

At 27, Ryutaro lives alone in a modest, messy apartment filled with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and piles of books. He has a dead end job at a moribund garage and spends his breaks avoiding his co-workers whom he seems to find annoying. Receiving a phone call from a childhood friend, Ryutaro informs his drunken boss that he needs to leave early before going home to eat noodles, read, and wait to be picked up. His friend, Yusuke, takes him to see his mother, Ryuko, who has been ill with hepatitis C for some years during which time Ryutaro has avoided seeing her despite having been close to her following the death of his own mother when he was just a child.

Ryutaro is a sullen sort of man, almost vibrating with an internalised rage which is only calmed at home with his books. Conversations with his friend Yusuke and later with Ryuko reveal that Ryutaro once had literary aspirations himself, even placing well in competitions, but has more or less given up writing. Yusuke also wanted to be an artist but has abandoned his dreams for a regular salaryman life, as has Yusuke’s brother Satoshi who used to bleach his hair and play in a band. Ryutaro’s boss seems to be among the few who has yet to definitively give up, planning to leave the garage to take over an interiors company owned by a friend of his mother’s who has no heirs to inherit it. Ryutaro’s boss has mentioned similar schemes before and they’ve always fallen through, but he thinks this time will be different. Ryutaro, in contrast, seems to have abandoned any idea of forward motion, refusing to pursue his literary goals, a more stable career, or relationships with friends and lovers in favour of whiling the time away inconsequentially.

Having lost his mother at a young age and then watched his step-mother battle a serious illness which she seems to have recovered from, Ryutaro perhaps has reasons to be wary of forming deep attachments. Only once does his stony facade crack, during a private conversation with Ryuko in which he tells her that sometimes he cheers himself up by remembering that there must be people in a much worse place than he is. Yet Ryutaro is not an unkind man, much of the little he does say is offered quietly in kindness such as his defence of Ryuko’s sometimes absent minded husband, but what he can’t stand is babble and insincerity. Pushed into an unwanted, vacuous conversation with a potential girlfriend he quips that he likes his cheap hairdressers because they get it done without talking before becoming overwhelmed and cruelly laying into the chatty woman with a lengthy rant about the utter pointlessness of her one-sided loquacity. Failing to realise the depth to which he’s hurt her, Ryutaro goes back to the bar where she works to try and see her again only to be rebuffed.

A similar event occurs in another bar when his boss makes a joke about his seeming blankness. Twice Ryutaro gets himself into fights and twice he refuses to defend himself, remaining passive as blows rain down on him. Trying to shut everything out, Ryutaro drinks heavily, declines invitations, and stays at home alone but Ryuko’s illness has forced him to re-emerge, to a degree at least, into the world. Caught in a state of permanent anxiety, Ryutaro finds himself paying repeated visits to Ryuko before finally attempting to talk with his equally detached father who appears to suffer from many of the same problems as Ryutaro himself.

Inspired by true events, Sweating the Small Stuff is both a picture and mild rebuke of aimless youth and of a generation which has collectively decided that everything is meaningless and devoid of purpose. In an odd way, Ryutaro, in his inertia, may be the last man standing, still resentfully clinging on to an idea of real meaning which is defined by its own absence. Ryutaro’s tragedy is that he wants more out of life than there perhaps is to be found and remains frustrated among all those content to waste their time in idle pursuits or surrender themselves to a life of respectable drudgery and ordinary happiness but there are perhaps brief flickers of connection to found even within his ever more disconnected world.

Currently available to stream via Festival Scope as part of their Locarno Film Festival selection.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles for captions)

La La La at Rock Bottom (AKA Misono Universe, 味園ユニバース, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2015)

プリントNobuhiro Yamashita has made something of a career out of championing the underdog and La La La at Rock Bottom (味園ユニバース, Misono Universe) provides yet another foray into the lives of the disposed and degraded. With a lighter touch than some of his previous work, the once again musically inflected film is another testament to the power of redemption and that you can still turn your life around if you only have the courage to take the chance.

The film begins with a young man being released from prison. The guard apologises about the smell of mothballs emanating from the man’s jacket, usually the family bring clean clothes. No family has come for this inmate though – just a couple of cool seeming characters who profess their gratitude for “what you’ve done for us” but the reunion is anything but warm. A little while later the man is unceremoniously bundled into a car and taken off to a quiet place where he is beaten half to death by thugs using baseball bats. After waking up, he stumbles around and eventually chances on a summer festival with a band playing on the mainstage. Zombified, the man grabs the mic and starts singing before promptly collapsing again.

The band’s manager, a young girl, takes the man home whereupon she discovers he’s lost his memory. Giving him the ironic nickname of “Pooch” (Kasumi also has a habit of picking up stray dogs), the band and local villagers quickly “adopt” the confused stranger and let him work at their karaoke rooms and studio whilst coaching him to become their new lead singer. However, as Pooch’s memories start to return it seems that his former life may not have been as tranquil as his laid-back amnesiac persona might suggest.

Like much of Yamashita’s previous work, music plays a central role with the one thing that Pooch remembers from his former life being the lyrics to a particular song and his innate singing talent. The leading role of Pooch himself is played by real life singing star Subaru Shibutani of Kansai based idol band Kanjani Eight who proves himself more than capable of belting out these hard rock/enka tracks as well as being able to imbue Pooch’s amnesiac blankness with his own specific character. He is ably supported by the popular young actress Fumi Nikaido who turns in yet another impressively nuanced performance as the older than her years Kasumi.

The beginning of the film gives us quite an idea of the man Pooch may have been and the kind of life he’s led. As the revelations pile on and Pooch’s memories inevitably return threatening the new life and personality he’s begun to build with the band and the possibility of fulfilling a long abandoned dream of being a singer, his dark side begins to break through and we’re shown a man lost in rage and violence left with nowhere to turn. At the end of the day, “Pooch” has been given a valuable opportunity to start all over again but it requires him to make the choice to do so. Go back to being “Shigeo”, a self hating thug who’s alienated absolutely everyone in his life or choose to become Pooch and earn a second chance to be the man he always wanted to be.

Like Yamshita’s previous film, Tamako in Moratorium, with which it also shares a lot in terms of style, La La La offers no great revelations or technical bells and whistles but revels in the simple pleasure of a tale told well. Like much of his other work, the central message is that it’s never too late to begin again (even if there are bridges which have been burned beyond repair) only that it requires you to make the sometimes scary choice to take a chance on something new. That choice rests with one person but is greatly aided by the support of others and the unusual bond between the two central characters (which stops short of romance) plus the uncompromising faith which Kasumi places in Pooch are some of the greatest joys of the film.

Perhaps not a career best from this still vastly underrated director, La La La at Rock Bottom is nevertheless another beautifully constructed addition to his filmography. Offering an extreme depth of performance from each of its ensemble cast, the film is rich with detail whilst also reflecting Yamashita’s trademark cinematic naturalism. Once again a musical feast for the ears, La La La at Rock Bottom is destined to become one of the director’s best loved films even in a career which has already offered so many as yet undiscovered gems.


Unlucky Woman’s Blues (つぐない, Shinji Imaoka, 2014)

sceen1_bAnother Raindance 2014 review up on Uk-anime.net

Shinji Imaoka made waves (if you’ll pardon the pun) a couple of years ago with the unlikely splicing of a whimsical musical romance with the soft core porn genre pretty unique to Japan known as ‘pink film’ in his fantastical comedy Underwater Love. Since then pink film’s fortunes have continued to decline with the specialist cinemas which housed the films having all but disappeared from the Japanese landscape. However, a committed few like Imaoka himself have held true to the pink film cause and tried desperately to ensure the genre’s survival, albeit in a slightly different form.

The film begins in a slightly run down, low rent backstreet bar run by a kimono-clad mama-san, Kisumi, and denizened by a collection of misfit drunks with nowhere else to go. Tonight though, there’s a new customer. A woman, Toko, is sitting with her back to us, drinking heavily but seemingly brushing off the obvious ‘are you OK?’ questions coming her way. That is until she hears her favourite song, gets up leaving all her stuff behind and collapses in the street. Being the kind of community spirited dive it is, the customers help get her into one of the upstairs rooms to sleep it off. However, it seems Toko may have had another reason for coming to the Redemption Bar – Kisumi’s boyfriend, Gunji!

The original Japanese title of the film bears the subtitle “Women of Shinjuku Golden-gai” – Golden-gai (literally ‘golden street’) is a hive of tiny alleyways packed out with hundreds of tiny bars offering actually quite expensive if slightly ramshackle places to enjoy a few drinks. In many ways it’s a snapshot of a bygone era and one of the last remnants of the way the city the looked before the economic miracle. However, like pink film it’s permanently on its way out and parts of the surrounding area were even burned down by yakuza back in the 80s so developers could buy the land. Maybe for these reasons it’s regarded as a kind of ‘hip’ place for artists, writers and musicians etc. In short, it’s the sort of romanticised environment you find in a Tom Waits song full of depressed, misunderstood lonely people all looking for their ticket out of the gutter. Indeed, Unlucky Woman’s Blues, which is the song Toko seems to cling to is just such a lament for her unhappy destiny.

It’s a far cry from When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, but the women of Golden-gai do seem to be an unlucky bunch. Seduced and betrayed by faithless men some are driven to violence and others to a life of an ageing mama-san always waiting for that one special customer who’s going to take them away from this life of sake drenched misery. It’s difficult to see what so many ladies have found so irresistible about the apparently much lusted after Gunji – he’s not particularly handsome, or rich or in anyway interesting but still he seems to have some kind of all powerful allure.  He’s nobody’s way out of the Golden-gai, he’s the very embodiment of being trapped within the destructive cycle of this world of drunks and wounded gamblers.

Oddly, according to an interview with Mark Schilling for the Japan Times Unlucky Woman’s Blues was actually partly conceived as a sort of advert for the area and was pitched by its star – herself a former pink film icon turned Golden-gai mama-san. Despite its romanticised trappings, it does little to make the area seem appealing or glamorous – rather the atmosphere is one of faded grandeur and forever lost hopes. Apparently ticket buyers to the film in Japan were entitled to a discount coupon to enjoy the many charms of the area and get to know some of its famous bar staff though given the depressing picture painted of the Golden-gai in the film you have to wonder how successful that may be.

In the same interview which is mostly about the decline of pink film as an industry, Imaoka states his intention to move on from the pink film or at least to make pink films which are more easily marketable. To this end, his sponsors requested R-15 style sex scenes rather than the more explicit (simulated) eroticism of the R-18 world of pinku eiga. In an R-15 film, almost anything goes but you can’t show the lower half of the body which may account for the impressive array of blankets on show in this film. As in Underwater Love, the sex scenes themselves end up feeling quite shoehorned in and actually a little bit boring. Melodramatic as it is, the plot feels as if it wants to do something different and strange as it is to say the film may have been stronger without all the sex.

Unlucky Woman’s Blues is entertaining enough but ultimately forgettable. Typically low production values and fairly basic direction never really lift it above its fairly modest origins and its overwrought atmosphere makes it something of a depressing watch. It lacks the the whimsical exuberance that made Underwater Love so popular and may struggle to find an overseas audience unfamiliar with the area that seems to be almost a character itself. That said, its main fault is not being hugely interesting which doesn’t make it bad and those looking for an even softer pink film may find more to love in Unlucky Woman’s Blues.