A Sparkle Of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Bunji Satoyama, 2013)

sparkle-of-lifeAs Japan’s society ages, the lives of older people have begun to take on an added dimension. Rather than being relegated to the roles of kindly grandmas or grumpy grandpas, cinema has finally woken up to the fact that older people are still people with their own stories to tell even if they haven’t traditionally fitted established cinematic genres. Of course, some of this is down to the power of the grey pound rather than an altruistic desire for inclusive storytelling but if the runaway box office success of A Sparkle of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Sansan) is anything to go by, there may be more of these kinds of stories in the pipeline.

77 year old Tae (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) lost her husband some years ago after nursing him through a long illness. Spotting a pretty wedding dress in a shop window and examining the adverts on the outside, Tae ventures in and attempts to sign up with the matchmaking service which so prominently promises a happy ending at its doorway. The clerk is surprised, to say the least, after realising that Tae is not a pushy relative trying to find a spouse for an unmarried son or daughter but is seeking someone to brighten her remaining days. Now that she is totally free, Tae just wants to feel her heart flutter again and perhaps enjoy the warm glow of companionship one last time.

Looking it up on the computer, Ayako (Kanami Tagawa) – the assistant dealing with Tae’s application, is surprised to find there are a number of older men already on the books. Accordingly, she sets Tae up with some of the more promising candidates though it seems that men don’t really change all that much and not all of them are exactly after “a relationship” after all. Eventually Tae hits it off with a charming older gentleman, Yuichiro (Gaku Yamamoto), who seems to be everything she wants in a partner but there’s something else that seems to be keeping them apart.

Just as Ayako originally reacted with mild horror on learning that Tae herself was seeking a romantic partner, not everyone approves of her decision. Tae’s longtime friend (the best friend of her late husband), Shinji (Akira Takarada), is strangely angry and somewhat resentful though, predictably, he has reasons which are more personal than social or moral when it comes right down to it. Tae’s family, finding out by accident after letting themselves into her home while she’s out, are also outraged. Getting over the shock, Tae’s son announces that he supposes it’s OK for her to think about getting remarried but finds the idea of using a dating service embarrassing and orders her to stop right away.

Like Tae’s son, many people try to infantilise Tae and her friends, relegating them to a kind of second childhood now that their working or family lives have ended. Running into her friends from the Sunny Day Club, Tae is exasperated by their game of throwing hoops which, as Shinji says, they used to enjoy as children. Tae may be older but she still wants more out of life than being handed a juice box and told to sit in the corner while the grownups talk.

Dating is, however, harder with so much already in the past. Yuichiro may describe his relationship with Tae as being like a second stab at first love but with everything so different than it was before the situation presents its own set of difficulties. The essential problems are, of course, the same though Tae’s longed for second chance for love may have been right by her side all these years only too bound up with duty and tradition to have made his feelings plain.

Bunji Sotoyama’s approach is tailor made for his target audience but the warm and gentle atmosphere coupled with the often laugh out loud humour is sure to appeal to all age groups. Tae’s quest for love and determination to enjoy the time she has left to the fullest despite what anyone else might have to say about it is a quiet but firm bid for freedom and individual happiness in old age rather than the unwelcome relegation to the world of second childhood otherwise offered to women in Tae’s position. A comedic tale of late life love, A Sparkle of Life is a lesson in realising you only see the fireworks once it begins to get dark but that only makes them all the more precious.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

all around usRyosuke Hashiguchi returns after an eight year absence with All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。Gururi no Koto) and eschews most of his pressing themes up this by point by opting to depict a few “scenes from a marriage” in post-bubble era Japan. Set against the backdrop of an extremely turbulent decade which was plagued by natural disasters, terrorism, and shocking criminal activity Hashiguchi shows us the enduring love of one ordinary couple who, finding themselves pulled apart by tragedy, gradually grow closer through their shared grief and disappointment.

Tokyo, 1993. Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) have had an “on and off” (but seemingly solid) relationship since their art school days. She works at a publishing house and he’s kind of a slacker with a job in a shoe repair booth. Shoko worries that Kanao plays around too much (but actually doesn’t seem that bothered about it) whilst continuing to attempt to micromanage their entire existence with her clearly marked calendar planning out the most intimate of actions. When Shoko discovers she’s expecting a child, the pair decide to finally get married and begin their lives as a family. Kanao also gets an opportunity on the work side when an old college friend helps him get a job as a courtroom artist for a news agency.

However, their joy is short-lived as an abrupt jump forward in time shows us a tiny shrine underneath the calendar (shorn of its red crosses) dedicated to the memory of their infant daughter. Kanao is the keep calm and carry on sort so he just tries to bluster through but Shoko is distraught and slowly descending into a mental breakdown. If that weren’t enough to contend with, Shoko’s estranged father has been tracked down and is apparently very ill dredging up even more pain an uncertainty from the long buried past.

We follow Shoko and Kanao over a period of nine years. As well as the ever present motif of the calendar, we feel the passage of time through Kanao’s work at the court house which sees him become the artistic recorder of some of the most traumatic moments of the age. Having entered into an era of economic turmoil following the end of the bubble economy, the 1990s saw not only the devastating Kobe Earthquake but also the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground perpetrated by a dangerous religious cult, members of which wind up in court in front of Kanao, tasked with the thankless task of bearing witness to their testimony.

Kanao evidently decided not to discuss his personal tragedy with his work colleagues or, one would assume, his boss would not have reacted so harshly when he made the reasonable request to turn down the opportunity to sit in on yet another child murder trial – either by accident or design, the trials which present themselves to Kanao (and are all real, sensationalised media events of the time) involve the horrific murders of small children with only one of the defendants voicing any kind of regret or remorse.

Meanwhile, Shoko has been trying to get on with life as best she can but finds herself sinking ever deeper into depression. Her uptight, controlling personality cannot cope with this perceived “failure” on her part or of the destruction of all her plans by a truly unforeseen tragedy. Having had her doubts before regarding Kanao’s commitment to her, she finds his lack of reaction puzzling. Mistaking Kanao’s lack of outward emotion for indifference, Shoko finds it hard to continue believing in their shared destiny and wonders if her husband ever really cared for her at all. Kanao is a laid-back soul, someone who’s learned to become used to disappointment by accepting it quickly and then trying to move on. His more grounded approach might be just the one Shoko needs in order to come to terms with what’s happened – never pushing or complaining Kanao is contented simply by her presence and is prepared to give her the space she needs whilst always being around to offer support.

Hashiguchi relies on visual cues to help navigate the shifting dynamics including the repeated use of the calendar as a symbol of Shoko and Kanao’s marital status, the now unneeded pregnancy books bundled to be thrown out, or rice discarded in the sink as a marker of a house proud woman’s slide into crippling depression. Small moments make all the difference from a mother’s bandaged wrists and a cutback to the only person who’s noticed them, to the repeated joke of all the veteran journalists suddenly falling over themselves in an attempt to escape the courtroom and be the first to file their copy. A necessarily sad story, but an oddly warm one as two people worried they may be mismatched grow into each other in the face of their shared tragedy. Anchored by the strong performances of its two leads (particularly Tae Kimura who manages some convincing on screen crying in a difficult role) All Around Us is another beautifully pitched human drama from Hashiguchi who proves himself an adept chronicler of the human condition even whilst stepping away from his trademark themes.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hush! (ハッシュ!, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2001)

hushThe family drama is a mainstay of Japanese cinema, true, but, it’s a far wider genre than might be assumed. The rays fracture out from Ozu through to The Family Game and Crazy Family which sought to ask a few questions about where the idea of “family” was headed in a society of rapidly increasing materialism. Ryosuke Hashiguchi comes at the idea from a different angle in 2001’s Hush! (ハッシュ!) as he once again takes the perspective of the gay community and asks if the “traditional family” is about to change – what could, or should, survive if the old, rigid ideas can be remade into something lasting created out of love and acceptance rather than obligation?

As the film begins, Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) wakes up to find his one night stand already fully dressed and heading out the door, awkwardly, without even stopping to say goodbye. Eventually he hooks up with the kindly Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) and the two quickly become fairly serious but then a damaged woman, Asako (Reiko Kataoka), enters their lives hoping to use Katsuhiro as a sperm donor, forcing the men to reassess a number of important desires and beliefs, putting strain on their still fledgling relationship. If that weren’t enough drama, a girl at Katsuhiro’s place of work has also developed a crush on him and is prepared to take her unreturned love to some extremely dark places.

The first level of mini stresses Naoya and Katsuhiro have to contend with is their conflicting (if complementary) personalities and attitudes to their sexuality. Naoya is an easy going type with a job at a pet grooming salon. He’s a fully out gay man and a frequenter of city’s gay scene. Katsuhiro, by contrast, is much more mild mannered and innately kind. He works at a scientific research station and is more or less closeted – that is, he doesn’t particularly go out of his way to hide his sexuality from his work mates and family but he doesn’t volunteer the information either. This attitude seems to bother Naoya at various points but being the easy going type he’s apt to let it go most of the time.

However, when Katsuhiro reveals Asako’s offer, Naoya is actively against it. His idea of gay life suggests that relationships are generally short, he prefers the relative freedom of his life as an essentially “single” man rather a husband shackled to a family. Katsuhiro on the other hand perhaps would have liked children, or to be a father figure to someone else’s. Though Naoya has previously expressed boredom and disillusionment with his life spent in clubs and gay bars, he’s still resistant to the idea of settling down, or at least to the belief that a single relationship really can stay the course.

All three of the central characters have, in a sense, been let down by the “traditional” family. Naoya’s father left when he was small, leaving him with a single mother which is something that wasn’t so common when he was a child resulting in a fair amount of social stigma from other people in the community. These days his brassy mother knows about his sexuality and seems OK with it (aside from getting the random idea that Naoya will be wanting a pair of breasts at some point). Katsuhiro’s father was an alcoholic who died when he was just a small boy, his relationship with his brother and his family seems good but he’s afraid to reveal his sexuality to them for fear of disapproval. His brother had an arranged marriage, which doesn’t seem to have worked out so well at least from the sister-in-law’s perspective. Asako has also had a troubled life looking for affection in all the wrong places, feeling that if she had not been neglected as a child perhaps she’d have been a steadier adult. Naoya was running away from the idea of family ties, but Katsuhiro and Asako are actively seeking to repair the ones which never grew into the kind of roots one needs to anchor onself in a society entirely built around familial bonds.

After receiving some surprising medical news, Asako perversely decides that her own salvation lies in becoming a mother. She’s had enough of casual relationships and decided to go a different route so when she spots the kind look Katshiro gives a small child at a restaurant, she decides he must be the one to father her baby. Asako knew that Naoya and Katsuhiro were a couple, but that works out pretty well for her plan so she approaches him and makes her left field offer right off the bat. It will take some figuring out but this literal third way is a neat solution to a series of problems and, being completely new, is safe from the pettiness and misery often found within the traditional family unit. Contrasted with the bitterness displayed by Katsuhiro’s sister-in-law, the unusual arrangement of these three would be parents and their unborn child(ren) is one filled with love, forgiveness and mutual support rather than cold obligation or a simple fulfilment of societal expectations.

Once again Hashiguchi proves himself adept at creating a series of complex, flawed human beings who are nevertheless relatable and often endearing. Hashiguchi’s films tend to run long but he also ensures that even his supporting characters are well enough drawn to maintain interest in the many subplots from Naoya’s abrasive gay bar buddy to Katsuhiro’s unhinged stalker. An interesting sideways look at the state of the modern family, Hush! seems to advocate that just shutting up and going with the flow is not the answer but there are quieter solutions to be found if everyone is willing to listen to the silence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)