Dance with Me (ダンスウィズミー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2019)

Dance With Me posterYou might be rich and successful, but are you really being true to yourself? The heroine of Shinobu Yaguchi’s latest comedy Dance With Me (ダンスウィズミー) thinks that she is, cynically rolling her eyes at her colleagues mooning over the cute new boss but jumping at the opportunity to join his elite team. Meanwhile, she’s ignoring her family, has few friends, and seems distinctly uptight. Is there more to Shizuka (Ayaka Miyoshi) than meets the eye, or is she really destined for the life of a dull office drone?

Everything starts to change for her one day when she’s bamboozled into looking after her teenage niece and decides to take her to a weird theme park she noticed on a flyer that got stuck to her shoe. It’s there, in Fortune Land, that Shizuka ends up visiting a shady hypnotist named “Martyn” (Akira Takarada) who offers to give her niece some treatment so she can perform to her full potential in an upcoming high school musical. This comes as news to Shizuka, because they were just mocking the art of the musical on the bus, but when she steps out to answer her phone she notices the cheapo ring Martyn gave her on the way in won’t come off. Sure enough, his “treatment” seems to have worked, only on the wrong person. Now whenever Shizuka hears any kind of music at all she can’t resist breaking into song and dance like the heroine of an old Hollywood musical.

It seems in her youth Shizuka loved singing and dancing, but a traumatic bout of stage fright put her off for life. While her family are all cheerfully energetic and easy going, she is uptight and reserved. Now a middle-rank executive at a top rated company, she’s dedicated herself to achieving the idealised image expected of female businesswomen – elegant, professional, and above all quiet. Her new affliction is therefore a major problem, as she proves to herself by breaking into song during an important meeting with the magic Mr. Murakami (Takahiro Miura) who might be able to take her career to the next level.

Luckily, the incident isn’t really quite so bad as she thought seeing as Murakami’s business idea was a little left of centre so her strange behaviour looked like an unusual pitching technique that makes her seem an attractive asset to Murakami’s new team which is currently a member down after the last girl took too much vacation time and then quit. Offered the post, Shizuka asks for a week’s grace and determines to track down Martyn so he can undo the hypnotism, but Martyn is currently on the run from loan sharks so it’s going to be more difficult than she thought.

Forced to sell all her worldly possessions to make up for a restaurant she accidentally trashed, Shizuka takes to the road armed only with her niece’s piggy bank and accompanied by Martyn’s former shill, Chie (Yu Yashiro). Despite herself, she begins to shake off her carefully crafted corporate persona and open herself up to the pleasures of music and movement, freeing both her body and her mind. Her total opposite, Chie is a laidback woman who loves to have a good a time and doesn’t generally think too much beyond the present moment. Though obviously very different and united only by their quests to track down Martyn, the two women develop an awkward friendship in which they begin to see their own flaws as reflected in each other and shift into the centre as they learn to work together while chasing Martyn all the way to Hokkaido.

A chance encounter with a crazy hippie singer-songwriter (Chay) who claims she broke up with her last band because she couldn’t bear to hide from herself anymore pushes Shizuka (whose name literally means “quiet”) into a reconsideration of her life choices, feeling that perhaps she was wrong to reject the frightened little girl she was so completely out of embarrassment and insecurity, wilfully suppressing her sense of fun and freedom for the safety and security of corporate button-down respectability. As the mental health specialist she visited in hope of a cure suggested, maybe the reason she was so suggestible is that, deep down, she always wanted to sing and dance anyway. A musical celebration of the pleasure of living life to its fullest, Dance With Me is a cheerful exploration of one woman’s gradual emergence from emotional repression into a richer, fuller existence as she rediscovers her essential self through the medium of song and dance.


Dance with Me screens in New York on July 19 as the opening night gala of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Playlist:

Tonight -Hoshi no Furu Yoru ni- (Kumiko Yamashita, 1991)

ACT-SHOW (Spectrum, 1979)

Happy Valley (Orange Pekoe, 2002)

Neraiuchi (Linda Yamamoto, 1973)

Yume no Naka e (Yosui Inoue, 1973)

Toshishita no Otoko no Ko (Candies, 1975)

Wedding Bell (Sugar, 1981)

Time Machine ni Onegai (Sadistic Mica Band, 1974)

Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2017)

survival family posterModern life is full of conveniences, but perhaps they come at a price. Shinobu Yaguchi has made something of a career out of showing the various ways nice people can come together to overcome their problems, but as the problem in Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー) is post-apocalyptic dystopia, being nice might not be the best way to solve it. Nevertheless, the Suzukis can’t help trying as they deal with the cracks already present in their relationships whilst trying to figure out a way to survive in the new, post-electric world.

Receiving a package from grandpa fills the Suzukis with horror more than gratitude. Mum Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu) can’t bring herself to cut the head off a fish and the sight of the giant bug that crawls out of the lettuce is just too much to bear. Her teenage daughter, Yui (Wakana Aoi), is not very excited either, tapping her smartphone with her fake nails, while her son Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) spends all his time alone in his room with headphones permanently attached. Mr. Suzuki, Yoshiyuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) – the family patriarch, is a typical salaryman, obsessed with work and often in bed early.

All that changes one day when Yoshiyuki’s alarm clock does not go off. There’s been a power outage – nothing works, not the TV, not the phone, not even the tower block’s elevator. Being the salaryman champ he is, Yoshiyuki tries to make it into to work in other ways but the power’s out across the city and there’s nothing to be done. Everyone is sure the power will come back on soon, but days pass with the consequences only increasing as supermarket shelves become bare and water frighteningly scarce. After his boss decides to take his chances in the mountains and a neighbour dies as a direct result of the ongoing power shortage, Yoshihyuki decides to take the family on the road to find Mitsue’s country bumpkin father in the hope that he will have a better idea of how to survive this brave new world.

Yaguchi is quick to remind us all of the ways electricity defines our lives, even if we’ve begun to forget them. Not only is it a question of mobile phones being out and lifts being out of order, but gas appliances are also electric ignition as are the pumps which drive the water system. So used to the constant stream of electricity, no one quite realises what its absence means hence Yoshiyuki’s big idea is to get a plane from Haneda airport. Ridiculous as it may seem, he’s not the only one to have underestimated the part electricity plays in flight and the aviation industry as the airport is swamped by people trying to escape the rapidly disintegrating city. Credit cards no longer work leading to long checkout lines as the old ladies with their abacuses make a startling return to checkouts while bemused shoppers attempt to use the ATM machine to get more cash.

Cash itself still has worth, at least for a time. Eventually the barter system takes over as food and water become top price commodities. A very flash looking man tries to trade genuine Rolex gold watch and later the keys to his Maserati for food but is roundly informed that none of his hard won prizes is worth anything in this new back to basics era. Thanks to Mitsue’s housewife skills of frugality and haggling, the family are able to get themselves a small stockplie of resources but find themselves tested when the less fortunate ask them for help.

The crisis brings out both the best and the worst in humanity. As the family make their escape from the city on a series of bicycles, they pass a succession of salesmen all upping the price of bottled water by 100% each time. Profiteering is rife as the unscrupulous procure ordinary foodstuffs to be sold for vast amounts of money. Yet the Suzukis rarely find themselves on the wrong side of trickery and even encounter a few kindly souls willing to help them on their journey such as a gang of cycle wear clad survival experts and a very forgiving farmer who takes the family in when they help themselves to one of his escaped pigs (a sequence which allows Yaguchi to go on another Swing Girls-style pig chase only without the slo-mo and classical music).

Forced to reconnect, the family become closer, gradually coming to know and accept each other whilst finding new and unknown talents. Living simply and harmoniously has its charms, ones that don’t necessarily need to disappear if the power ever comes back on. The only certainty is that you can’t survive alone, and who can you count on if you can’t count on family?


Screened as the opening night movie of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2001)

Japan has really taken the underdog triumphs genre of sports comedy to its heart but there can be few better examples than Shinobu Yaguchi’s 2001 teenage boys x synchronised swimming drama Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ). Where the conventional sports movie may rely on the idea of individual triumph(s), Waterboys, like many similarly themed Japanese movies, has group unity at its core as our group of disparate and previously downtrodden high school boys must find their common rhythm in order to truly be themselves. Setting high school antics to one side and attempting to subvert the normal formula as much as possible, Yaguchi presents a celebration of acceptance and assimilation as difference is never elided but allowed to add to a growing harmony as the boys discover all new sides of themselves in their quest for water borne success.

Dreamy high school boy Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is currently the only member of his high school’s swimming team, and unfortunately he’s not a particularly good swimmer. His interest is piqued when he spots a synchronised swim meet, but he forgets all about it until a new teacher arrives and pledges to revive the school’s fortunes in the pool. Seeing as their new teacher is a pretty young woman with an interest in swimming, the team suddenly becomes much more popular but when she reveals her synchronised swimmer past numbers dwindle once again. Unfortunately, the hot new teacher suddenly has to leave the school so the boys are left to fend for themselves in their new and possibly embarrassing career in a generally feminine sport.

Being teenage boys who only started this whole thing because of the pretty teacher, most of the other guys are are looking for a way out but they also don’t like to be called quitters and so they become determined to make a success of themselves. Suzuki, who secretly wanted to become a synchronised swimmer anyway, is the most committed but also, perhaps, the least confident in his choice of sport as he embarks on a tentative romance with a girl from another school – herself an enthusiast of the more masculine karate. Terrified that she will find out and laugh at him, Suzuki goes to great lengths to avoid telling her what it he really does in his club activities, possibly putting the growing romance at risk in the process.

This mild challenge to masculinity is the main joke of the film but Yaguchi neatly subverts as the guys become cool again thanks to mastering a difficult skill and creating an impressive spectacle through hard work and group mentality. The boys gain an unlikely mentor in the form of a dolphin trainer at Sea World who they hope will be able to train them in the same way he trains his marine creatures but quickly sets them off on some Karate Kid style practical training which involves a lot of menial tasks around the park before dumping them at the local arcade to play dance dance revolution until they learn the art of synchronicity through the power of idol pop. Waterboys is, essentially, a hymn to the harmonious society as the boys eventually find their common rhythm and the power that comes from many acting as one.

Unusually, this does not requite a loss of individuality or for any erasure of essential personality traits but rather a greater need for acceptance as difference merely adds to the strength of the whole. Though there are a fair few gay jokes in what is essentially a movie about high school boys in skimpy trunks, the joke is not homosexuality but reactions to it as Yaguchi adopts a “get over it” attitude and so when one of the boys does confess his love for another it’s treated with no particular reaction other than lack of surprise. Similarly the cross dressing mama-san from the local gay club (a surprising turn from Akira Emoto) becomes one of their greatest supporters and may provide comic relief but is never a figure of fun. In order to succeed the boys will need to be in tune with each other, but that in tune sounds better when it allows for harmony rather than insisting on dull monotony.

Visually inventive and often hilarious, Waterboys lacks the heart of Yaguchi’s similarly plotted Swing Girls but nevertheless succeeds in its tale of inexperienced young guys working hard and achieving the impossible, growing up and discovering new things about themselves as they do. Waterboys may be lighthearted, crowd pleasing fun, but its good natured message that great things are possible when determined people work hard at them together, and that group harmony does not necessarily require social conformity, only add to its warm and gentle tone.


Korean trailer (Korean captions/subtitles only)

Parco Fiction (パルコ フィクション, Takuji Suzuki & Shinobu Yaguchi, 2002)

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Since making 2002’s Parco Fiction, directors Shinobu Yaguchi and Takuji Suzuki have both gone on to bigger and better things but for this under seen portmanteau movie, they found themselves uniting to create something which seems to be a strange advert for the Parco department store in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district. The film is divided into five different short episodes loosely connected to the department store plus opening, closing and linking segments each filled with the kind of whimsical, absurd humour usually found in these kinds of films.

Opening with a planning meeting for the building of the department store in which its unusual name is decided after the chain smoking consultant finds it written on his scarred lungs after a medical emergency, the story moves on to a young lady who is undergoing an interview for a job at the store. Unfortunately, the young man being interviewed alongside her is an ideal candidate – a Tokyo university graduate who seems to have completely charmed the panel. However, the girl is given a job with the instruction not to open the envelope she’s been given but she can’t resist and finds herself setting off on a strange quest.

This only continues in part two as we come into contact with a soon to be middle school girl who has the misfortune of having a slightly dotty grandma by the name of “Harco”. Every time the Parco ad comes on, grandma gets very excited because she thinks someone’s calling her name even though the last person to call her “Harco” died, years ago. The little girl sets off to solve this problem by stopping grandma seeing the ads, but then something even stranger happens.

Tale three is set during a sale in which a young woman has her heart set on a particular dress and will stop at nothing to get it. This introduces us to the security guard at the Parco who takes us into story five as a shop worker has an unusual medical problem which prevents her from looking up. The security guard has a crush on the shopgirl, but he’s on the taller side so all he can do is stay close by and prepare to catch her every time she’s about to swoon after slightly raising her head. The film then closes with another mini sequence featuring the “standing room only” screening of Parco Fiction at a public cinema.

As is common with these kinds of films, some of the segments are more successful than others. The first perhaps goes on too long and the episode with the little girl and her grandma gets a little too surreal for its own good but the overall tone is zany, quirky humour. Sometimes very off the wall and filled with a good deal of slapstick too, Parco Fiction feels like a fairly low-key, frivolous effort but none the less enjoyable for it. Having said that, the entire duration of the film lasts only 65 minutes, and, truthfully, feels a little long despite the variation of stories involved.

Not a landmark film by any means, Parco Fiction still has plenty to offer particularly as a fairly early effort from these two directors who’ve since gone on to carve out fairly interesting careers. Sure to interest fans of quirky comedies, each of the segments has a zany, studenty humour vibe that often proves extremely funny. The film is undoubtedly low budget (and obviously filled with references to the Parco department store) but earnest enough and filmed in an accomplished and interesting manner.


This is another one you can randomly buy on UK iTunes with English subtitles.

Unsubbed trailer:

Wood Job! (Wood Job(ウッジョブ)神去なあなあ日常, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2014)

ff20140516a1aHe’s a lumberjack and he’s OK! Well, after a while anyway – climbing trees all day is not quite as much fun as it sounds in Shinobu Yaguchi’s latest comedy which sees a streetwise city kid randomly decide on a career on forestry. Not so much fish out of water as duck in a tree, Wood Job! is a heartwarming comedy drama which more than lives up to the puntastic comedy of its title.

Yuki Hirano is your typical slacker teenager. Like many guys his age, he’s run into something of a life crisis as he didn’t get into university and he hasn’t really thought about what to do. At first he thinks it’s no big deal, he’ll just take the tests again next year but after being abandoned by his girlfriend and seeing all his friends set off without him Yuki feels a little lost. That is until he notices a shiny magazine advertising a new life in the open air – “come and work with me!” it says next to a picture of a pretty girl. Yuki’s packed his bags and caught the next train before you can even say “Where’s the nearest combini”? but his new found occupation is a little more intensive than he was expecting and Yuki’s not sure he’s cut out for this no frills life. Then however he meets the girl from the advert herself – can Yuki really stick around long enough to convince her he’s not some city boy layabout but a real mountain man?

Wood Job! is that rare film that manages to mix a fair amount of slapstick comedy with the kind of naturalistic, everyday humour that can’t help but give it an endearingly warm quality. Taking the classic fish out of water approach as its basis, the film highlights the absurdity of country life (at least to eyes more accustomed to the city) but crucially never mocks it and seems to have a profound respect for the rural way of life and all that entails. Neither does it shy away from the fact forestry is hard work which is often dangerous and requires an extremely specific skill set – you can’t just rock up one day because you’ve seen a picture of a pretty girl on a poster and instantly become a man of the mountains over night. The villagers are all too used to people who turn up in the country with romantic ideas about getting back to the land or living a more simple life but go home after a week or so because they can’t adapt to this very different environment. Already pre-conditioned to expect disappointment, their approval is hard to win but worth all the more because of its rarity.

Yuki Hirano is something of a departure for Sometani who ranks as one of Japan’s most promising young actors. Having hitherto made a name for himself playing “intense” characters, Wood Job!’s laid back slacker couldn’t be more different than the tortured soul of Himizu though Sometani carries off this seeming 180 degree turn with aplomb further proving his versatility as an actor. He’s also surrounded by an equally talented cast including Hideaki Ito (most recently seen as the sociopathic teacher in Lesson of Evil, also alongside Sometani in a small role) as his hard tasking forestry mentor as well as Ken Mitsuishi and Akira Emoto in smaller roles and Masami Nagasaki as Yuki’s longed for poster girl for the world of forestry. Filled with realistically drawn characters near perfectly pitched by its well put together cast, Wood Job! manages to achieve just the right comedy-drama balance which makes some its more outlandish moments seem perfectly plausible.

It may be a very conventional film in many ways, but Wood Job! succeeds in doing what it set out to do incredibly well. Filled with warmth and good humour, director Shinobu Yaguchi manages to breath new life into this old idea to create a charming and engaging tale of the virtues of country life. Any film which manages to pack not one, but two distinct puns into its title alone has to be worth a look but Wood Job! more than lives up to the comedic promise of its name.


This is playing as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme so it’ll be a bunch of places between now and the end of March including:

  • MAC Birmingham (24th February)
  • Dundee Contemporary Arts (25 February)
  • Tyneside Cinema Newcastle (15th march)
  • Nottingham Broadway (25th March)
  • Brewery Arts Centre Cumbria (25th March).

So if you’re near any of these be sure to check it out! Also because people always say this – if the festival isn’t coming near you it’s most likely not Japan Foundation deliberately snubbing you, get in touch with your local indie cinema and try and convince them to book some of these films. If you don’t have a local indie cinema you’re probably out of luck though as the big chains often won’t take these kinds of special screenings :(. In short, support your local indie (or a not so local one if it’s your only option).

Review of the forestry themed comedy Wood Job! up at UK Anime Network. I love how many puns they managed to pack into the title of this film, it wins just for that.