Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Hiroshi Kurosaki, 2020)

“What can we do? It’s for the victory of our country” one woman stoically laments as her family home is demolished in an attempt to mitigate the damage from potential aerial bombing in Hiroshi Kurosaki’s wartime drama, Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Taiyo no Ko). A co-production between Japanese broadcaster NHK and American distributor Eleven Arts, Kurosaki’s ambivalent interrogation of the price of progress asks some difficult questions about scientific ethics while simultaneously suggesting we may have been stoking a fire we cannot fully control in a bid for a technological evolution which has become unavoidably politicised. 

The hero, Shu (Yuya Yagira), is an idealistic young man who excels at running experiments. He has been spared the draft because his work has been deemed essential for the war effort as he is part of the research team at Kyoto University working on the development of an atomic bomb. A theoretical thinker, Shu has not fully considered the implications of the project and largely views it as a problem they are trying to solve in the name of science rather than a concerted attempt to create a super weapon with the potential to bring death and destruction to the entire world. 

Others meanwhile are beginning to question the ethical dimensions of their work. The team is equipped with a shortwave radio receiving the American broadcasts and is fully aware that Japan is losing the war. There are frequent power outages which interfere with their research, while food shortages are also becoming a problem. The potter Shu has been visiting in order to acquire Uranium usually used for a yellow glaze tells him that he rarely needs to use colour anymore because the vast majority of his output is plain white funerary urns for boys who come back as bones. Some of the scientists feel guilty that they are living in relative safety while other young men their age are fighting and dying on the front line, while others wonder if working on the bomb, which will almost certainly not be finished in time, is the best way to help them. They also wonder if scientists should be involved in the creation of weapons at all, but their mentor Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura) justifies the project under the rationale that they aren’t just trying to make a bomb but to unlock the power of the atom and harness its intrinsic energy to take humanity into a brave new world. 

As it turns out, Arakatsu may not have expected the project to succeed but was in a sense using it in order to protect his students by ensuring they would be exempt from the draft. Another senior researcher meanwhile points out the Americans are also working on a bomb, and if they don’t finish it first the Russians will. Arakatsu claims this war, like most, is about energy but nuclear energy may be infinite and therefore its discovery has the potential to end human conflict forevermore. Still, it’s difficult for Shu reconcile himself to the reality of what he was working on seeing the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima. The scientists are plunged into a deep sense of guilt and despair that they failed to prevent this tragedy, but also perhaps relief in knowing they were not responsible for inflicting it on the city of San Francisco as had been the plan. 

Arakatsu claims he wants to change the world through science, a sense of purpose that appeals to Shu even while he remains firmly in the present moment. His childhood friend, Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), however is looking far ahead already thinking about what to do when the war is over. Seeing through the wartime propaganda disturbed by the answers the high school girls co-opted to fill-in at her factory give when asked about their dreams that all they want is to marry as soon as possible and raise children to serve the nation, she aims to educate. Shu’s brother Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), meanwhile, is a conflicted soldier filled with guilt for having survived so long crying out that he can’t be the only one not to die. The theory that nothing is ever created or destroyed becomes an odd kind of justification, yet Shu is also forced to admit that destruction can be “beautiful” while claiming that scientific progress is a body already in motion which cannot be stopped. “The nature of science transcends humanity” Shu is told by an accented voice speaking in English, insisting that the bomb is merely another stop on the inevitable march of progress in the great chain reaction of history. Kurosaki’s melancholy drama preserves both the beauty and wonder of scientific discovery as well as its terrible ferocity but offers few answers as to the extent of its responsibilities. 


Gift of Fire screens in Chicago on Sept. 16 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema before opening at cinemas across the US on Nov. 12 courtesy of Eleven Arts.

US trailer (English subtitles)

The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Koji Fukada, 2020)

“It’s hard to see weakness, especially your own” the oblivious hero of Koji Fukada’s perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic romantic melodrama The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Honki no Shirushi) is told, though it’ll be a while before he realises how annoyingly right his rival has read him. Adapted from the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato and first aired as a 10-part TV drama, Fukada’s tale of mutual salvations finds its dissatisfied heroes struggling to define themselves in a conformist culture but finding perhaps the “signpost” towards the real through a process of romantic misadventure in realising that the emotional crash of a failed connection can perhaps bounce you into a moment of self-realisation and the courage to carry it through. 

Last to experience such a moment, the hero 30-year old Tsuji (Win Morisaki) is a thoroughly bored salaryman working at a company which sells fireworks along with cheap plastic toys for children. Entirely passive, he is in two contradictory romances with a pair of diametrically opposed office ladies at his company (which has a strict rule against inter-office dating) but is emotionally invested in neither of them. His life changes one day while he’s idly buying a bottle of water at a convenience store and notices a confused woman has picked up a damaged children’s toy he was trying to get taken off the shelf by the disinterested cashier but she hardly pays attention to him changing it over for her because she’s intensely confused by a map of the local area. After his attempt to help her fails, Tsuji leaves the store but later comes across the woman again when she somehow stalls in the middle of a level crossing and is about to be hit by a train, heroically leaning through an open window to put the car in neutral and push it out of the way with mere seconds to spare. He stays with the woman, Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), until the police arrive but she panics and tries to make out he was driving before thinking better of it and coming clean. 

It’s a pattern than will often be repeated in the earlier parts of their relationship. Having tried to do something good, he finds himself incurring only infinite trouble. Bugged by the rental company who find his business card in the abandoned car, Tsuji is bamboozled into Ukiyo’s very complicated world of lies and broken promises but nevertheless feels oddly compelled to help her. “You’re too kind to everyone”, the first of his office romances Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) tells him with mild contempt, though he offers her a wry smile that suggests he doesn’t quite think of it as kindness implying his capacity for altruism may be masking a deep-seated sense of emptiness and inadequacy. When his affair with Hosokawa is exposed, he expresses consternation that she shouldn’t have to be the one to transfer simply because she’s a woman, describing himself as an average employee going through the motions while she is clearly keeping the place together, though she again accuses him of selling himself short unable to see how many people in the office look up to and depend on him precisely because of his rather dull efficiency and air of confident reliability born of having no real personality. 

In fact he seems to be in flight from the “real”, consciously or otherwise afraid of facing his authentic self and wilfully masking it by putting on the suit of the conventional salaryman. Ms. Hosokawa is much the same, having initiated the relationship on a no strings basis but secretly wanting more. Approaching middle age she finds herself suffocating under her various demands, playing the part of the dependable senior office lady but dreaming of escape through romantic salvation. Only once her relationship with Tsuji begins to implode does she rediscover a new sense of self. The other girlfriend, meanwhile, Minako (Akari Fukunaga) plays the contrasting role of the office cutie irritatingly sweet and simpleminded but after being cruelly dumped suddenly dyes her hair pink and becomes feisty and uncompromising no longer unable to stand up for herself while refusing to conform to idealised visions of youthful femininity. 

Tsuji meanwhile fixates on the idea of “saving” Ukiyo while she battles an internalised victim complex which encourages her to think that all the bad things happening to her are entirely her own fault because she is a bad person, constantly apologising for her own existence. Yet the situation is later reversed, Ukiyo repeating word for word the speech Tsuji had given to Hosokawa as she explains there’s another man she must save because he is incapable of saving himself. Investing their entire worth in the act of saving someone else, the pair attempt to paper over their lack of selfhood, but in essence find their positions reversing in pattern which seems to suggest you have to save yourself before you can find the path towards your romantic destiny. As Tsuji turns fugitive, imploding in a perceived defeat in having failed to take control over the forces of change in his life, Ukiyo finally develops the strength to take care of herself bolstered by the certainty of her love for him. 

Painted alternately as a damsel in distress and a femme fatale who ruins men and drags them to hell, Ukiyo is of course neither just, as an old friend explains, an unlucky woman subject to a series of societal prejudices. There is however something in the pair’s mutual claims that there was someone trapped who couldn’t climb out without their help even if that help is slightly less literal than they’d assumed. Even when relationships fail, or crash and burn as another puts it, they invite the possibility for growth and become perhaps signposts on the way to the “real thing”. Shot with a whimsical realism and filled with a series of twists and reversals, Fukada’s elliptical tale is less one of romantic fulfilment than a search for the true self but finally allows its heroes to find mutual salvation in staking all on love. 


The 10-episode TV drama edit of The Real Thing streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Feature edit trailer (no subtitles)

Ito (いとみち, Satoko Yokohama, 2021)

“Ye can’t hear my silence!” the timid young heroine of Satoko Yokohama’s Ito (いとみち, Itomichi), an adaptation of the Osamu Koshigaya novel, finally fires back, reminding us that silence too is means of communication. The film’s Japanese title, Itomichi, refers to the groove in shamisen player’s nail caused by the friction of the strings, but also perhaps to the path of the heroine of the same name as she makes her way towards self actualisation, figuring out the various ways there are of connecting with people as she begins to step into herself while coming to terms with the past. 

As we first meet Ito (Ren Komai) she’s trapped in a boring history lesson about local famines, reminded by the teacher to raise her voice while reading from the textbook but reluctant to do so firstly because she has an unusually strong local accent and often speaks in dialect and secondly because she is intensely shy. When she’s finished, the teacher even jokes that listening to her read is a little like classical music though it doesn’t seem much like a compliment. Even so, it’s particularly apt as Ito, like her late mother, has a talent for playing the Tsugaru shamisen and has even won numerous competitions yet she’s barely touched her instrument recently, perhaps developing a slight complex about the bumpkinishness of her intensely local way of life, especially as her father Koichi (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a university professor researching the traditional culture of the local area. 

Pointing out that talking is Ito’s weak spot, Koichi reminds her that she can communicate with others through her music even if he later admonishes her to use her words if she has something to say. Her refusal to pick up her shamisen is then a kind of withdrawal if of a particularly teenage kind. Hoping to get over her shyness, she finds herself quite accidentally applying for a part-time job at a maid cafe in the city, an incongruity in itself but one that helps her begin to open up to others. Then again, a maid cafe might not be the best environment selling as it does an outdated conception of sexual politics. Koichi later makes this argument pointing out that a maid cafe is not so different from a hostess bar while another maid, Tomomi (Mayuu Yokota), takes issue with the false chivalry of some of the middle-aged men who frequent the establishment who set up a club to “protect” Ito after she is inappropriately touched by a belligerent customer. To Tomomi the very idea that women need “protection” from men against men is inherently sexist and wrongheaded while the fact that they all rally round to protect the shy and vulnerable Ito also speaks volumes about their ideals of womanhood explaining why it is they’re in a maid cafe where the waitresses call their customers “master” and indulge their every whim in the first place. Even so, Ito’s colleagues are also quick to reassure her that she is in no way at fault, the customer’s behaviour was unacceptable and against the spirit of their establishment.

Yet as the manager points out “moe moe” is also a “means of communication” not perhaps intended to be taken literally. Ito does not exactly discover how to use her words, but through interacting with her colleagues at the cafe begins to come into an acceptance of herself no longer seeing her accent and dialect as uncool or old fashioned giving herself space to breathe as she makes new friends guided by her cafe mentor Sachiko (Mei Kurokawa) and finally getting up the courage to speak to another lonely young woman whom she’d been on awkward nodding terms with seeing as they catch the same train home from school. As Ito’s grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) reveals, she learned how to play the shamisen with her eyes and ears proving that communication comes in many forms. Ito’s name which she had previously found old-fashioned and embarrassing appropriately enough means threads or here strings of a shamisen which become in their own ways channels to connect with other people which as the slightly dubious owner of the cafe (Daimaou Kosaka) points out is the most important thing of all. 

As Ito rehearses her maid routine with a video of her mentor, grandma outlines her thoughts about shamisen on camera for Koichi’s eager students, handing her knowledge down for the next generation. Literally finding her groove again, carving a niche in her fingernail, Ito rediscovers her love for music while gaining the confidence to stand on stage and be herself encouraged by all her friends and family. A beautifully pitched coming-of-age tale celebrating the local culture of Yokohama’s hometown Aomori, from which leading actress Ren Komai also hails, Ito is a warm and loving tribute not only to Tsugaru shamisen but to friendship and community brokered by a wealth of communication and a willingness to listen even to silence. 


Ito screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (C)2021『いとみち』製作委員会

A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Shin Adachi, 2019)

Adapting his own autobiographical novel, screenwriter and director Shin Adachi claims that the events and characters of A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Kigeki Aisai Monogatari) are exactly as they are in real life, only the film makes it all look better. Even if true, Adachi can’t be faulted for his honesty. His protagonist stand-in, Gota (Gaku Hamada), has almost no redeeming qualities, while his long-suffering wife receives little sympathy even while giving as good as she gets as a sake-guzzling harridan apparently ready to run her husband down at every opportunity, of which there are many, but Gota is quite simply useless. The Japanese title is careful to include the word “comedy” as a prefix, but this is humour of an extremely cruel variety. 

Married for 10 years with a small daughter, Gota’s chief preoccupation in his life seems to be that his wife, Chika (Asami Mizukawa), no longer finds him sexually desirable and they are rarely intimate. Rather than lament the distance in their marriage, all Gota does is go on a long, misogynistic rant about how he’d get a mistress or visit a sex worker only he has no money while complaining that he has to humiliate himself by helping out with the housework and childcare which he only does to curry favour in the hope that he will eventually be able to have sex with his wife. After some minor success as a screenwriter, his career is on the slide and he’s had no work in months, something which seems to damage his sense of masculinity and in his mind contributes to his wife’s animosity towards him.

He is right in one regard in that Chika is thoroughly fed up being forced to pick up the slack while he sits around watching VR porn, not writing or looking for a job but insisting that the next movie is always just round the corner. She’s tired and overworked, sick of penny pinching and resentful that she has to do everything herself, but it’s not so much the money that bothers her as Gota’s fecklessness while all he seems to care about is sex, meeting his own needs and no one else’s. Even when he takes his daughter, Aki (Chise Niitsu), to the park he ignores her to ogle other women, becoming embarrassed on running into a neighbour we later learn he slept with and then ghosted. He does the same thing again later on a beach, so busy sexting that he doesn’t see her wander off and is roundly chewed out by the lifeguard (an amusing cameo from director Hirobumi Watanabe, giving him the hard stare) who eventually finds her and brings her back. Not content with that, he rounds out the bad dad card by frequently bribing Aki with treats so she won’t spill the beans to her mum about his many questionable parental decisions. 

Really, we have to ask ourselves, why does Chika not leave him? The perspective we’re given is Gota’s and he appears not to understand that any of his behaviour is problematic, which might be why he seems genuinely shocked when Chika reaches the end of her tether and once again suggests divorce. He seems to think some of this at least is performative, part of the act of “marriage”, and she does indeed make a show of her frugality – insisting on sharing a 200 yen bowl of udon with her daughter to save money and climbing up a utility pole to sneak into a hotel after booking only a single occupancy room for the three of them, but is there more in her decision not to leave than habit? Gota seems to think so, especially on noticing her wearing the lucky red pants she bought back when they were young and in love and she believed in his potential. But then perhaps she really is just being economical.  

Nevertheless, she appears to keep supporting him, once again typing up his latest screenplay because he claims not to be able to use a word processor, and laughing off the rather more serious incident in which he is arrested after being discovered by a policeman molesting a drunk woman in the street. Adachi doesn’t appear to have very much to say in favour of the modern marriage, as if this one is no worse than any other (even a friend who married well (Kaho) badmouths her husband and giggles about a young lover), but Gota seems to have learned absolutely nothing even while declaring his love to his sleeping family and vowing to make a success of himself at last. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. 


A Beloved Wife is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, Kenji Katagiri, 2019)

A dejected young woman finds herself conflicted in her memories of the father who failed her in Kenji Katagiri’s A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai). Drawing inspiration from the webcomic by Mariko Kikuchi, Katagiri’s whimsical drama does its best to put a comical spin on the extended trauma of living with an alcoholic dad while laying the blame squarely at the the feet of a society with an entrenched drinking culture in which refusing to imbibe is all but unthinkable. 

The heroine, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto), begins her tale in the late ‘90s when she is only eight years old and unaware that her family circumstances are not exactly normal. Tadokoro (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her salaryman dad, usually rolls in late and collapses in the hall after staying out all night drinking. This is such a common occurrence that Saki and her younger sister Fumi are completely unfazed by it, marking off dad’s drunken days with a big red X on the calendar and cheerfully helping their mum drag him back into the house. Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), their mother, tries to put a brave face on it, and to the girls it probably still seems a little bit funny, but as she gets older Saki begins to see the toll her father’s drinking has taken on her mother not only in practical terms but emotional in realising that he drinks largely as a means of escaping his responsibility which includes that towards his family. 

Saki asks her mum why dad’s three friends keep coming round to drink while playing mahjong but the only explanation she can offer is that adults need to socialise. Socialisation does it seems revolve around alcohol, and to that extent perpetuates deeply entrenched patriarchal social codes in largely remaining a homosocial activity with the only women present those that run the bar (the wives of Tadokoro’s friends make a point of thanking Saeko for allowing their husbands to drink at her house, they it seems are not invited). Tadokoro’s excuse for his drinking is that it’s a necessary business activity, that you can’t get by as a salaryman without figuring out how to have fun at a nomikai and bond with your clients over sake. His office best friend later discovers this to be true as a teetotaller given the banishment room treatment he attributes to the fact he doesn’t drink which is why his bosses don’t trust him as member of the team. 

Tadokoro might think he’s serving his family through his career, but it’s clear that he neglects them physically and emotionally by refusing to moderate his drinking. He breaks promises to his kids to take them to the pool because he’s still hung over from the night before while his wife finds herself at the end of her tether with his continued indifference later telling the little Saki that she wanted to divorce him even before the kids were born but it’s too late for that now. Saeko escapes from the burden of her life through religion, adhering to a shady Christian-leaning cult which preaches that endurance builds character and character leads to hope, all of which presumably convinces her that she is supposed to just put up with Tadokoro’s problematic behaviour rather than reassuring her that there is no sin in leaving him. 

Saki fears making her mother’s mistake, traumatised by her childhood experiences and drawn into an abusive relationship of her own out of loneliness and low self esteem. She resents her father but also feels bad about it, simultaneously thankful when he takes a temporary break from drinking and mahjong but also aware of how sad it is that she is grateful for things that other families would consider normal. Tadokoro proves unable to quit drinking, and Saki wonders if she’s right to even ask him if, as others say, drinking is his mechanism for escaping loneliness, but also reflects on the sadness she now understands in her mother as stemming from her father’s abnegation of his responsibilities and the loneliness it must have provoked in her. Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), trying to explain why Saki should break up with her abusive boyfriend (Shogo Hama), tells her of an experiment she read about in which a rat was trapped in a box and randomly given electric shocks. At first, it tried to escape, but eventually became resigned to its fate and settled for learning to endure the pain. Saki is perhaps much the same, trapped by filiality in finding herself unable to either forgive or reject the memory of the father who so resolutely failed to live up to the name.


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

After the Sunset (夕陽のあと, Michio Koshikawa, 2019)

Two women find themselves caught up in an impossible situation in Michio Koshikawa’s sensitive maternal drama After the Sunset (夕陽のあと, Yuhi No Ato). Though both want the best for the child, they have to acknowledge that someone is going to end up desperately hurt while perhaps no one is at fault other than the insensitive and austere society which saw fit to punish a young woman already in the depths of despair rather than come to her aid. 

7-year-old Towa (Towa Matsubara) lives in a cheerful island village with his mother Satsuki (Maho Yamada), fisherman father Yuichi (Masaru Nagai), and compassionate grandma Mie (Midori Kiuchi). What he doesn’t know is that Satsuki and Yuichi are not his birth parents. Unable to have children of their own they decided to pursue adoption after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments and now that they have everything else sorted are hoping to finalise Towa’s legal status as a member of their family. What they don’t know is that Towa’s birth mother, Akane (Shihori Kanjiya), has been living on the island for the past year to be close to her son but is conflicted and at something of a loss as to what to do. Matters come to a head when they need the birth mother’s signature on the adoption forms to confirm her renunciation of parental rights and Akane’s true identity is exposed. 

The first and most obvious problem is that both women believe themselves to be the rightful mother. Satsuki has been raising Towa since he was a baby and her feelings for him are no different than if she had given birth to him herself. Akane meanwhile gave birth to Towa in difficult circumstances and was then separated from him. She has spent the past four years searching and wants nothing more than to be reunited with her son. Though she can see that he is very happy with with Satsuki and Yuichi and is grateful that he has found such a loving family in such a beautiful place, she cannot bear the thought of losing Towa while Satsuki cannot help but fear that this other woman who was able to do what she was not in giving birth has come to take her child away. 

It is of course an impossible situation with no good or right answers. Satsuki begins by resenting Akane, discovering that Towa was abandoned as an infant in an internet cafe and regarding her as having lost the right to call herself his mother but on investigating more begins to understand the kind of despair she must have been in to have taken such a drastic step. A victim of domestic violence left all alone with an infant child and no means of support, she considered suicide but rather than help her the authorities criminalised her actions and took her child away, dangling the false hope of a reunion in return for “rehabilitation” while Satsuki and Yuichi gave him a happy family home she knew nothing about. Towa has lived all his life on the island, he thinks Satsuki and Yuichi are his mother and father, how could you explain to him that he has to leave his second mother to return to the first that he never really knew?

Where one might expect there to be fear and anger, the two women eventually come to an understanding of one another as mothers who each want the best for the child even if that means they may end up hurt. As grandma puts it, the island is a welcoming place. It accepts all those who come, and does not pursue those who choose to leave but is always willing receive them when they return. Towa points out that that it takes a village, to him everyone on the island, including Akane, is his mother because they all raised him together though his father holds that the best mother of all is the sea. There is perhaps room for more than one if only in an ideological sense, no true mothers and no false only people who love their children and struggle against themselves to do what they know in their hearts is best. A gentle exploration of everyday life on a tranquil island, Michio Koshikawa’s sensitive drama finds people at their best in the extremities of emotional difficulty, finding their way through mutual compassion and understanding in an acknowledgement that there is no right answer only an acceptable best that leaves the door open for a future reconciliation.


After The Sunset is available to stream in Germany until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Satoko Yokohama, 2016)

“There are no small parts, only small actors” according to the mantra of the bit part player, but perhaps deep down everyone wants to play the lead. Most jobbing actors will tell you that they’re happy to be working and if you work as much the dejected hero of Satoko Yokohama’s The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Haiyu Kameoka Takuji), you can make a pretty decent living with a little more job security than a big name star whose career will inevitably hit the odd dry spell. Yet, who doesn’t want to at least feel that they’re the lead in their own life story? Spending all your time being other people can make you lose sight of who you really are and live your life with a sense of cinematic romanticism forever at odds with accepted reality. 

Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) is a classic background actor, turning up in small roles in TV dramas, often playing the villain of the week or appearing as a prominent extra. Meanwhile, his offscreen life seems to be lived in a booze-soaked haze, hanging out in his favourite bar surrounded by similarly dejected middle-aged men or occasionally meeting up with colleagues. Even his agent expects him to be sozzled when she rings to confirm new jobs though to be fair she doesn’t seem too bothered about it. 

Kameoka has perhaps made his peace with the kind of actor he is, but there’s also an inbuilt anxiety in waiting for people to ask what it is he does, knowing that it sounds glamorous and exciting when, to him at least, it’s anything but. Chatting with a pretty young woman, Azumi (Kumiko Aso), working behind a bar in a small town where he’s filming, Kameoka spins her a yarn about being a bowling ball salesman rather than be forced into a conversation about the life of a jobbing actor which might perhaps depress him more. Alone in the bar, the pair of them strike up a rapport over shared sake, but Kameoka forgets that in essence she’s just the same as him – acting, performing her role as the cheerful hostess, keeping him happy to sell more drinks. Later, she tells him that she’s switching roles, “recasting” herself as a good wife and mother, pointing again towards the unavoidable performative quality of conforming to socially defined labels such as “wife”, “mother”, “landlady”, “actor” or “man”. 

Everyone is, to some degree, acting, forced to perform a role in which they may privately feel miscast but are unable to reject. Kameoka is losing sight of who he is and so his life begins to feel increasingly like a movie, obeying narrative logic rather than that of “reality” while he often drifts off into flights of fancy in which he gets to play not the lead but a slightly bigger supporting part, recasts himself as the star of a favourite film, or finds himself momentarily in a film noir. Real or imagined, his directors have nothing but praise for him to the degree that it somehow feels ironic. He’s brought in to show the rookie leads how it’s done, an accidental master at dropping dead on camera, but as the landlady at his local says of another actor on TV, he just doesn’t have that leading man sparkle. Of course, not having that kind of presence is perfect for being a background player but a great shame when he has the talent to succeed, just without the burden of “star quality”. 

Then again, his talent is uncertain. Despite telling his agent that he doesn’t do stage, he agrees to work with a famous actress/director on an avant-garde theatre piece. Though she’s much harder on the young female star, Matsumura (Yoshiko Mita) rarely compliments his acting and eventually advises him that he’s unsuited to stage work because he has “film timing”. Privately, he might agree, but a job’s a job. Ironically enough, the performance that Matsumura failed to bring out in him is vividly brought to life during a very weird audition for a Spanish director who happens to be one of Kameoka’s favourites. He inhabits the role so strongly as to completely become it to the extent that its world rises all around him, but all too soon the audition is over with a simple “that’s great, thank you – we’ll be in touch”. Kameoka even suffers the indignity of crawling under the frozen shutters to exit the building while the next hopeful, a top TV actor he worked with on a previous job, makes his way inside. 

The woman in Kameoka’s audition fantasy is clearly Azumi, something that becomes clearer to him still during another flight of fancy that recasts him as a romantic hero making the grand gesture of a rain soaked dash, motorcycle filmed against rear projection, as he prepares for the inevitable “happy ending”. Reality, however, triumphs once again. Lovelorn, Kameoka declares himself lonely and indeed is always alone, not one of the “main cast” just a “bit player” hanging round until his scene and then moving on to the next project. He waves at women who weren’t waving at him, sympathises with a failed singer turned bar hostess, and celebrates the unexpected marriage of a friend but in a strange sense perhaps misses “himself”, gradually eclipsed by all the roles he plays onscreen and off. “Who are you?”, the Spanish director’s interpreter asks. “Takuji Kameoka, Japanese Actor”, is as good an answer as any. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Banana? At This Time of Night? (こんな夜更けにバナナかよ 愛しき実話, Tetsu Maeda, 2018)

Many people will tell you that if you’re having trouble sleeping, a banana is just the thing though if you’ve failed to properly prepare and have left it until 2.30am to try and buy one you might be out of luck. The hero of Tetsu Maeda’s A Banana? At This Time of Night? (こんな夜更けにバナナかよ 愛しき実話, Konna Yofuke ni Banana kayo: Itoshiki jitsuwa) is not proposing to go out and find one himself, but using his sudden desire for the potassium rich fruit as an excuse to dispatch one of his helpers in the hope of being left alone with the pretty young girl who’s just joined the team. Unbeknownst to him, the girl, Misaki (Mitsuki Takahata), is actually the girlfriend of the aspiring doctor, Tanaka (Haruma Miura), he was trying to get rid of, but the plan backfires when she takes the opportunity to go get one herself in order to escape an increasingly awkward situation. 

Inspired by Kazufumi Watanabe’s non-fiction book, A Banana? At This Time of Night? is the latest in a series of recent Japanese films dealing with the issue of disability in a society which often struggles to accommodate difference. The hero, Yasuaki Shikano (Yo Oizumi), has suffered with muscular dystrophy since the age of 12 and has survived to the age of 34 despite being told that he would likely never see 20. Determined to live an “independent” life, he relies on a small team of volunteers who assist him with day to day tasks he can no longer manage, and works as an activist for the rights of disabled people. 

Yasuaki is, however, by his own admission not always an easy person to get along with. He is often selfish and cruel to the volunteers who have given their time to help him out of nothing more than human kindness while deliberately sending them out on random errands to buy burgers  (or bananas) but finding fault when they return. Yet, he largely gets away with it because of his cheeky personality and the fact he is so robustly “honest” about his own behaviour. One of the major tenets of his activism is destigmatising the idea of asking for help so that younger disabled people in particular who might feel awkward about asking others to assist them so they can lead independent lives know that there is nothing wrong in being upfront about their needs. 

Of course, despite his “honesty”, there’s an essential contradiction in Yasuaki’s definition of independence in that he freely admits that he can only live an “independent” life because of the support he receives from the volunteers. Without them, his life would be impossible. In a further contradiction, we eventually realise that he’s only so mean to his mother (Chie Ayado) because he doesn’t want her to sacrifice the entirety of her life to look after him and wants his parents to be able to live their own lives while he lives his. Misaki, only originally volunteering to check up on her boyfriend, is horrified by Yasuaki’s attitude and vows never to return, only to be coaxed back by Tanaka awkwardly forced to take dictation of an apology/declaration of love when Yasuaki finds himself smitten by her boldness in defiantly standing up to him. 

Slightly embarrassed, Tanaka never explains that Misaki is his girlfriend, perhaps a little patronisingly allowing Yasuaki to play at romance he feels is impossible so that his feelings won’t be hurt. The central problem is, however, that both Misaki and Tanaka have their own failures of honesty which place their relationship at risk. Tanaka was under the impression that Misaki was studying to become a teacher, but her friends just said that to get her into a party with med students and she never bothered to correct him. When the relationship gets more serious, she comes clean, but he takes it badly, half-convinced she just wanted to meet a doctor and the whole relationship has been a lie. Meanwhile, he’s only studying medicine because his authoritarian father wants him to take over the family hospital and he’s beginning to wonder if it’s really what he wants to do with his life. Unlike either of them Yasuaki knows exactly what he wants – to go America and meet his idol which is why he’s been working hard learning English. 

Through their shared friendship with Yasuaki, both of the lost youngsters begin to find direction and the courage to follow it. Despite the many setbacks and difficulties he faces, Yasuaki never gives up on his dreams and boldly insists on the right to pursue them while living his life to the fullest. Which isn’t to say that his own story is merely inspirational fodder for his friends, but it does make the case for a better, more inclusive society built on mutual support in which all are free to live the way they choose spreading love and joy wherever they go. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Masaharu Take, 2018)

We make antiques posterWho will scam the scammers? The antiques trade is a high stakes business, and at least as far as Masaharu Take’s We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Uso Happyaku) goes, one which makes use of its aura of respectability to cheat unsuspecting amateurs out of their hard earned cash for the false promise of exclusivity. Then again, does it really matter when something was made so long as it was made well and with artistic integrity? Perhaps collectors are just as happy with a nice piece as an authentic one, if only no one ever tells them the difference.

Jaded antiques dealer Norio Koike (Kiichi Nakai) prides himself on having a good eye, forced to learn to spot the inauthentic in record time after having his reputation trashed when he accidentally sold a “fake”, making the rookie mistake of taking provenance at face value without assessing all the facts. These days he’s not as precious as he used to be, mostly making his living out of buying up genuine antiques from clueless owners, convincing them their pieces are fakes and therefore worthless before selling them on at tremendous profit. It’s a trick he pulls on a wealthy man with a warehouse full of teacups that belonged to his father he’d rather get rid of so he can open a cafe, spotting an obvious fake and buying it cheap to take it straight back to where he knows it came from. Koike gets his comeuppance however when the man calls him back and says he’s found something interesting – an Edo-era letter in a box. Koike lies and says the letter is a random missive about a peasant revolt, when really it’s from grandmaster Rikyu and mentions coming with a tea bowl which Koike manages to find after searching the warehouse again.

After buying the entire stock to mask his desire for the tea bowl and letter, Koike realises he’s been had. The man he was talking to isn’t the owner of the warehouse but a caretaker, and the warehouse only exists to store fakes produced by a team of master forgers operating out of a nearby ramen joint. Noda (Kuranosuke Sasaki), who managed to scam Koike, was like him professionally embarrassed and by the same two corrupt elitists, Tadayasu Hiwatashi (Kogan Ashiya) and his celebrity authenticator Seiichiro Tanahashi (Masaomi Kondo), who picked him up as an aspiring ceramicist, giving him a fancy award but secretly using him to produce “replicas” to sell in their store. 20 years later, Noda is a cynical and jaded figure, unable to connect with his “nerdy” son (Tomoya Maeno) who spends his time building fantastically realistic military dioramas, and increasingly distanced from his patient wife who deeply resents the loss of his artistic integrity.

After a brief locking of horns, the two men decide to team up to scam the scammers, teach them a lesson, get a little ironic revenge, and become filthy rich in the process. Creating expert fakes, however, is a taxing business which requires an extreme depth of knowledge and in this case of a well known and hugely respected historical figure. Sen no Rikyu, the father of the tea ceremony, was, ironically enough, ordered to commit seppuku after speaking truth to power and, because he was an honourable man, he did it.

The reason most fakes fail is because they’re soulless replicas, often expertly crafted but essentially superficial. Creating a convincing fake allows Noda to regain the creative mojo that he’s been suppressing all these years in resentment towards Hiwatashi and Tanahashi, determined to craft something that reflects the spirit of Rikyu by virtue of the fact that it contains a piece of his own soul. Of course, the guys fully intend to exploit their own “artistic integrity”, Koike turning on the salesman’s patter to sell the dream of Rikyu to two soulless elitists too wrapped up in their sense of self-importance and blinded by greed to see things properly. Yet, there is a perverse love not only for the grift but for the craft and for Japan’s disappearing traditional culture, if only in the ironic rebuke of those who misuse it for their own gain. Bonded in revenge not only against the the venal Hiwatashi and Tanahashi but middle-age and and life itself, the guys generate an unlikely friendship, rediscovering their authentic selves through forgery as they scam the scammers and retake their sense of integrity in the form of a briefcase stuffed with cash.


International trailer (English subtitles)

37 Seconds (Hikari, 2019)

37 Seconds poster“We’re just like everybody else” the heroine of Hikari’s debut feature 37 Seconds replies in bemusement when a prospective date confesses he never thought he’d feel comfortable with “someone like” her. Quietly meditating on societal prejudice against disability, 37 Seconds takes its heroine on a journey of self discovery as a series of disappointments pushes her towards embracing a new side of herself as an individual in defiance of those who might feel they know what is best, or perhaps just most “appropriate”, for “someone like” her without bothering to consider how she might feel.

Softly spoken, 23-year-old Yuma (Mei Kayama) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair to get around. Although she has a degree of independence with a job as an assistant to a manga artist, her friend Sayaka now a giant YouTube star, to which she travels alone by train, Yuma otherwise has little life outside the home she shares with her increasingly overprotective mother Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno). Yuma’s dreams of becoming a manga artist in her own right are dealt a blow when she’s told that her style is too close to Sayaka’s, only Sayaka’s style is Yuma’s because Yuma is doing all the work while her friend steals the credit and gleefully gives interviews claiming she is 100% indie and has no assistants. Beginning to realise she’s being exploited, Yuma gets an idea when she spots some erotic manga abandoned in the park and starts ringing up magazines for work. One bites and likes her stuff but worries that her sex scenes lack authenticity because of her lack of experience. 

Though previously unbothered, Yuma decides to embrace her sexuality in the name of art but finds a series of obstacles in her way, not least among them her mother who continues to infantilise her claiming that she is too vulnerable to be allowed out alone because there are too many strange people in the world. Kyoko won’t let Yuma wear pretty dresses, or makeup, or go out in the same way other girls her age might, refusing to accept that her little girl has grown up and has the same desires as any other young woman including that to be independent. Unable to escape her mother’s control, Yuma begins lying to her to meet prospective dates but finds them all unsuitable until finally trying to hire a sex worker only for that to go horribly wrong too. It does however introduce her to the people who will change her life – empathetic sex worker Mai (Makiko Watanabe), and her assistant Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito), whom she meets in a love hotel corridor while waiting for a broken lift.

When Yuma first meets Mai, she’s in the company of another man with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair, Kuma – played by Yoshihiko Kumashiro, a real life activist raising awareness about sexuality in the disabled community whose life inspired Junpei Matsumoto’s 2017 feature Perfect Revolution. Seeing the warm and genuine relationship between Mai and Kuma gives Yuma a new hope that a different kind of life is possible, especially as Mai offers to take her under her wing. Having an older woman to confide in about things she could never discuss with her mother allows Yuma to explore her newfound desires with confidence knowing that there are people looking out for her and always ready to offer advice.

Not everyone, however, is quite so enlightened and Yuma’s problems are largely to do with the persistent social stigma she faces from the world around her as well as a resultant sense of internalised inferiority. Sayaka, her “friend”, views her as a kind of cash cow, taking advantage of her skills but denying her existence while Sayaka’s agent swings in the other direction by telling her she should go public because she’d get a lot of press once people know she employs a disabled woman as an assistant. The first place Yuma gets any kind of respect is the office of the erotic manga magazine where the boss treats her like any other prospective hire and offers her constructive advice. From the awful dates and bad faith friends to her mother’s well-meaning yet problematic attempts to trap her in childhood, Yuma struggles to find a sense of self-worth when everyone is telling her that her life is limited and she must conform to their stereotypical ideas of how “someone like” her should live.

Thanks to Mai and Toshiya, Yuma eventually gains the confidence to assert herself, but also the ability to accept that her mother’s actions, however misguided, came from a place of love tempered by regret and sadness she was unable to understand without engaging with her mother’s history. A beautifully empathetic exploration of a young woman’s gradual blossoming under the light of genuine connection, 37 Seconds is a unsubtle rebuke of a fiercely conformist society unwilling to accommodate difference but also a quiet hymn to defiance as its heroine learns to shake off the labels placed on her and claim her independence no matter what anyone else might have to say about it.


37 Seconds was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)