Roar (轟音, Ryo Katayama, 2019)

Two powerful stories of agency denied run in parallel in Ryo Katayama’s gritty debut, Roar (轟音, Go-on). Does violence free or constrain, and if the world itself is defined by access to it what does that say about the nature of our society? Burdened by familial failure and persistent misogyny Katayama’s heroes seek escape from their sense of futility but find it finally only in fighting their way out as they struggle to liberate themselves from constraints both societal and self-imposed. 

Makoto (Ryo Anraku) has always looked up to his big brother Tadashi (whose name literally means “correct”) but for reasons which remain unclear, Tadashi’s life has veered off course. Resentful of his authoritarian father who he claims has done nothing for him, Tadashi quits his job and eventually commits an act of heinous and senseless violence, placing his family at the centre of a campaign of social shaming. “My future is ruined because of him, what should I do now?” Makoto asks of his mother, but she turns away and tells him only to figure it out for himself while his father too abnegates his responsibility leaving Makoto in sole charge of his brother’s affairs. Burdened by further tragedies, he runs away and finds himself taking shelter with a mysterious vagrant (Ryo Katayama) who appears to earn money as an enforcer beating up targets on behalf of a shady petty gangster. 

Across town, meanwhile, cheerful radio host Hiromi (Mie Ohta) is stuck in a dead end “romance” with her overbearing boss (Shoji Omiya) who, despite being married to someone else, is jealous and possessive, regularly following her around outside of work to make sure she’s not seeing other men and stowing away in the footwell under the back seat of her car to “surprise” her. Nomura pressures her into illicit make-out sessions in the office, but also into voyeuristic public sex acts. Hiromi does not seem to be invested in the relationship even if, on the surface at least, not unhappy about going along with it, but is nevertheless constrained by the fact he is her boss and therefore she likely cannot end the affair without damaging her career nor does Nomura seem the sort of man who will respect her decision if she decides not to continue allowing him access to her body. 

Both Hiromi and Makoto are, in one way or another struggling to escape from their respective positions in society or perhaps to assume those they feel they should have. As the little brother, Makoto is the one who is protected, by his big brother and by his family, but both have deserted him. Tadashi swore he was “invincible”, yet he’s stumbled and is now in need of protection himself but Makoto is not in a position to protect him. In Manabu, the silent thug, he sees an image of his brother which can still be redeemed. He sees that his violence is born of pain and is as much about self harm as it is about hurting others. Makoto begins to care for him, hoping to save him from a life of senseless violence but finally cannot escape the capacity for violence in himself, exacting rage on an innocent bystander but failing to find a sense of power or liberation only deepening his sense of hopelessness. 

Hiromi meanwhile wrestles with being a middle-aged career woman who struggles to accept that perhaps she deserves more than the skeevy boss and has the right to refuse him. Her mind starts to change when a friend, Mayuko (Mari Kishi), introduces her to a handsome young man who offers her the possibility of a happier romantic future, forcing her to reflect on her present and the toxicity of her relationship with the controlling, manipulative Nomura. Her options are however limited, and finally like Makoto her rage boils over into unavoidable violence that is also the catalyst for her liberation in directly defying pervasive societal misogyny in the shape of her lecherous boss. 

Mayuko, Hiromi’s friend, faces a similar problem in discovering that her brothers intend to leave her father’s care to her despite the fact that she has a life and career in the city both because they think such things are women’s work and because they find her status as an unmarried middle-aged woman embarrassing, invalidating her choices in insisting she return to her “proper” familial role as caregiver if not as a wife or mother then as a daughter. She too struggles with herself, but finally opts for compromise rejecting violence in favour of compassion. 

Nevertheless, Katayama opens with a lengthy POV shot which places us directly into the role of Tadashi, forcing us to reckon with our own latent violence in making us complicit with the harm his actions cause to others in his quest for power and agency. Where he leaves us, however, is on the run both towards and away as Makoto and Hiromi attempt to liberate themselves from the sense of futility which defines their lives but find scant release in the senseless act of mindless violence. 


Roar is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Name (名前, Akihiro Toda, 2018)

b5_olNames are a complicated business. Most people do not choose them for themselves, yet they come to define an identity or at least provide a substantial peg on which to hang one. If you give someone a fake name you are by definition shielding your essential self from view, refusing connection either in fear of discovery or intention to harm. The protagonist of Akihiro Toda’s The Name (名前, Namae) adopts several different titles as a part of his increasingly disordered everyday life in which he takes a hammer to his original identity in an ongoing act of guilt-ridden self harm. Meanwhile, his teenage would-be saviour, engages in a little role play of her own hoping to discover an essential truth about herself only to be disappointed, in one sense, and then perhaps find something better.

Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), if that is his real name, is not just leading a double life but is currently engaged in a number of iffy scams each compartmentalised under a different title and in which he plays an entirely different version of himself. Once a successful businessman, personal tragedy, marital breakdown, and bankruptcy have left him a floundering, cynical mess living in a rundown rural hovel with a pernickety neighbour and a decidedly lax approach to housekeeping. Masao’s main “job” appears to be working in a recycling plant where he’s managed to wangle a preferential contract by telling the higher-ups that his (non-existent) wife is seriously ill in hospital. Just as Masao’s scheme is about to be discovered, a mysterious teenage girl suddenly appears out of nowhere and plays along with Masao’s sob story, claiming to be his daughter come to remind him that he needs to leave earlier today because mum has been moved to a different hospital (which is why his boss’ contact had never heard of her).

Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), as we later find out, is a more authentic soul but has decided on a brief flirtation with duplicity in observing the strange and cynical life of the morally bankrupt Masao. Facing similar issues but coming from the opposite direction, the pair meet in the middle – regretful middle-age and anxious youth each doing battle with themselves to define their own identities. Like Masao, Emiko is also living in less than ideal circumstances with her bar hostess single-mother, forced into adulthood ahead of schedule through the need to take care of herself, purchasing groceries, cooking, and keeping the place tidy. Thus her approach to Masao has, ironically enough, a slightly maternal component as she tries to get him back on his feet again – cleaning the place up and giving him something more productive to do than wasting his idle moments in bars and other unsavoury environments.

Masao’s current problems are perhaps more down to a feeling of failure rather than the failure itself. Once successful, happily married and excited about the future, he felt it all crash down around his ears through no real fault of his own. Nevertheless he blamed himself – his intensive work ethic placed a strain on his relationship with his wife and his all encompassing need for success blinded him to what it was that really mattered. By the time he realised it was already too late, and so it’s no surprise that he longs to escape himself through a series of cardboard cutout personalities, enacting a bizarre kind of wish fulfilment coupled with masochistic desire for atonement.

Now cynical and morally apathetic, Masao lets Emiko in on a secret about the grown-up world – it’s all lies. You have to put on disguise or two to get by; the world will not accept you for who you really are. Teenage girls might know this better than most, though Emiko is a slow learner. She might tell Masao that pretending to be other people is fun, but the one role she hasn’t yet conquered is that of Emiko Hayama – something which particularly irritates the demanding director of the theatre club she’s been cajoled into joining. Like Masao, Emiko’s life begins to fall apart through no fault of her own as she finds herself swallowed up by a typically teenage piece of friendship drama when her best friend’s boyfriend dumps her in order to pursue Emiko. Branded a scheming harlot and ejected from her group of friends, berated by the director of the theatre troupe, and having no-one to turn to at home, Emiko finds herself increasingly dependent on the surrogate father figure of Masao who is happy enough to play along with the ruse so long as it is just that.

Through their strange paternal bond, Emiko and Masao each reach a point of self identification, figuring out who it is they really are whilst facing the various things they had been afraid to face alone. Lamenting missed opportunities while celebrating second chances, The Name makes the case for authenticity as a path to happiness in a world which often demands its opposite. Melancholy but gently optimistic, Akihiro Toda’s peaceful drama is a heartwarming tale of the power of unexpected connection and the importance of accepting oneself in order to move into a more positive future.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Keisuke Yoshida, 2013)

My Little Sweet PeaHow many times were you told as a child, someday you will understand this? There are so many things you don’t see until it’s too late, and children being as they are, are almost programmed to see things from a self directed tunnel vision. Such is the case for Mugiko – a young woman with dreams of becoming an anime voice actress who is suddenly reunited with her estranged mother of whom she has almost no memory.

Mugiko (Maki Horikita) has a part time job in a manga store and is saving money to go to voice actress school. Raised by her father who has since passed on, she lives in a small flat with her older brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) who also has a low wage job in a pachinko parlour. The pair’s lives change entirely when their long absent mother, Saiko (Kimiko Yo), arrives on their doorstep one day and begs to live in with them. Norio is dead against it but eventually Mugiko is persuaded and Saiko moves in. However, right after, Norio moves out to live with his girlfriend leaving Mugiko alone with the virtual stranger who is also her mother. Mugiko has a difficult time adjusting to living with a maternal figure and harsh words follow frequent misunderstandings until Saiko suddenly dies. Mugiko then travels back to Saiko’s hometown to inter her ashes and begins to forge a connection with the mother she barely knew.

The “haha mono” or “mother movie” is a subset of Japanese melodrama which focuses on the pain and heartbreak inherent in being a mother. Making countless sacrifices, the often saintly mothers do everything they can to ensure the best for their children even if their efforts cause nothing but suffering for themselves. My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Mugiko-san to) turns the genre on its side to look at things from the point of view of one of the “ungrateful” children, Mugiko, who is filled with resentment over having been “abandoned” only to have her mother suddenly return as if expecting to forget all the years of absence with one home cooked meal.

On journeying back to her mother’s remote rural town, Mugiko begins realise they weren’t so different from each other after all. Everyone in the village is stunned by Mugiko’s appearance which turns out to be the spitting image of her mother at around the same age. Saiko had also been something of a local celebrity thanks to her beauty, charm and popular presence. She left the town for the city with dreams of becoming a famous singer just like Seiko Matsuda and her rendition of the singer’s famous song Akai Sweet Pea is fondly remembered by the older generation.

Saiko’s dreams of hitting it big in the music business were never fulfilled though we know almost nothing about what happened to her between the end of her marriage and reappearance in her children’s lives save that she obviously had enough financial security to be able to send them money every month. Through meeting her mother’s old friends (and more than a few admirers), Mugiko comes to see something of herself in the distant figure of her mother as a young woman. Even if she couldn’t be there for reasons which are never fully explained, it wasn’t because she didn’t want to be or because she’d forgotten about or rejected her children, she suffered everyday thinking of and missing them and was tragically unable to rebuild that connection even at the very end.

Mugiko has been a little unsettled in her life, floating from one dream to the next and who really knows if voice acting is really the thing that she was meant to do. Saiko may have been more certain in her objective but whatever happened later it seems she found fulfilment in being a mother even if her dream of becoming a singer didn’t work out. Having been able to meet her mother even if vicariously, Mugiko is able to understand something about herself and perhaps repair a relationship that never quite took place. Striding out boldly with her mother in spirit beside her, Mugiko is finally able to step into the adult world and everything that is waiting out there for her with a new found confidence that comes with embracing the beauty of a distant scar.


Trailer (with English subtitles)

and here is the hit song from Seiko Matsuda – Akai Sweet Pea (1982)