The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Atsuro Shimoyashiro, 2019)

Where now the dreams of youth? It may be impossible to escape a regretful middle age, wondering what might have been if only you knew then what you know now, but for the heroes of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Tokyo no Koibito) the pain seems all the more acute. “Today’s the day our youth ends” a brokenhearted woman laments, trying to make peace with her choices but finding that her return to the past may have done more harm than good. 

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a 31-year-old salaryman, married with a baby on the way and living in provincial Gunma. With the anxiety of impending fatherhood on his mind, he’s surprised to receive a message from his university girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), who wants to reconnect. Telling his wife he’s going on a business trip, Tatsuo decides to spend the weekend in Tokyo, staying with another friend from uni before meeting up with Marina for a Sunday in the city reminiscing about old times. 

Like Tatsuo, his old college friend Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura) has long since given up the dream of becoming a filmmaker. A breakdown at 27 has apparently led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaving him unable to hold down a job and dependent on his wife, Seiko (Maki Nishiyama), who supports both him and his step-daughter Shizuko through sex work while Komazawa has become an idle alcoholic. Despite his disappointment, Tatsuo spends the evening bonding with the local bar lady who claims to be able to see the future before leaving early in the morning to meet Marina who suggests revisiting the seaside they went to years before. 

Very much ready to step back into the more innocent past, Tatsuo has brought with him a tape of a song they used to listen to way back when and wastes no time in reassuming the poses of his 20-year-old self, sunshades and all. Marina, by contrast is self-consciously cute but mature, if perhaps sad. Tatsuo starts to tell her that he gave up his filmmaking dreams, married a good woman, and took a regular salaryman job at the family firm, but fails to complete the thought. Marina meanwhile casually remarks that she married a wealthy man but hints that she did so largely for convenience and material comfort rather than love. 

“We never get to marry the woman we love the most” Tatsuo’s strangely boys will be boys brother-in-law (Mutsuo Yoshioka) sighs, commiserating with Tatsuo’s lament for his disappointed youth and failure to make his filmmaking dreams a reality. We discover that an early success in a scriptwriting competition gave him an inflated sense of possibility, and that his desire for success was largely a desire to impress his girlfriend. Wounded male pride in his sense of artistic failure eventually convinced him he had to break things off while she silently cursed him, jokingly sentencing him to 18 years of solitude in a playful reference to a Tai Kato film. Now he realises his foolishness and is filled with regret in having settled for a conventional middle-class life as a husband and father.

Marina, meanwhile, is feeling something much the same in trying to achieve closure on the past before she becomes a mother. After breaking up with Tatsuo, she drifted through nude modelling and ended up the trophy wife of a wealthy man she doesn’t love, pegging her hopes on material comfort and hoping that love will come later. “I’m glad you’re happy now” a bar owner and former Instagram fan tries to congratulate her, but all Marina can do is smile sadly and ask her similarly troubled companion if happy is what she looks.    

“I’m not young anymore, I can’t live for a dream” Tatsuo accepts, but living on a dream is all they’re doing, recalling the time when they were “modern lovers” in Tokyo kidding themselves that they were urban sophisticates when perhaps all they did were the kinds of things unsophisticated suburbanites do like hang out at batting cages and go to barbecue restaurants. It’s too late to turn back now, but the past is a difficult trap to escape and perhaps what they long for is not so much the love cut off in its prime but a return to the possibilities of youth. Meeting again reawakens the desire for something more out of life than life may now have to give them, but this is day that youth ends, hitting the end of the road in a slow car crash of realisation that regret is the price of age.


The Modern Lovers was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Retro hit Love You, Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa (not that one!) & Los Primos which recurs frequently throughout the film

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.