The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Mitsuaki Iwago, 2019)

Island of Cats Poster“The best is yet to come” resolves 70-year-old Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa) at the conclusion of The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Neko to Jiichan). Inspired by the manga by the appropriately named Nekomaki, the debut feature from wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago is a decidedly laidback affair, neatly fusing two genres of Japanese comfort cinema – cats and cuisine. It’s also another in the recent run of films deliberately targeting the older generation in its quiet celebration of community and late life serenity, but it’s very existence is also perhaps a mild dig at cold and frenetic Tokyo which can’t help but pale next to the island’s inherent charms.

Daikichi has lived alone with his cat, Tama (who neatly introduces himself using the exalted “Wagahai” in a reference to Soseki’s famous novel), since his wife Yoshie (Yuko Tanaka) passed away two years previously. He has a grown-up son (Takashi Yamanaka) who is married with a teenage daughter of his own in Tokyo, but mostly spends his life hanging out with his old friends and playing with the island’s many cats. His peaceful days begin to change, however, when a pretty middle-aged (“young” to Daikichi and his friends) woman, Michiko (Kou Shibasaki), arrives from Tokyo and opens a cafe – the island’s first. In fact, the older generation find the cafe slightly intimidating, thinking such modern innovations are only for the youngsters, but are finally tempted in when directly invited by Michiko herself who serves up a selection of cream sodas and tasty ice creams in addition to slightly more rarefied treats like fish carpaccio.

In contrast to many an island drama, though the bulk of the population is older there are a fair few youngsters around and plenty of children too – at least enough to keep the local school open and the ferries running frequently. It is true however that most leave when they come of age either heading off to university on the mainland or seeking their fortunes in the cities. Nevertheless, the despite the absence of family the elderly are well cared for by the recently arrived young doctor (Tasuku Emoto) who takes his responsibility extremely seriously and is grateful for the opportunity to come to the island because it’s enabled him to become the kind of doctor he always wanted to be.

Michiko, meanwhile, has come to the island in search of relief from city life which she felt was gradually crushing her. An instant hit with the local cats as well as Daikichi and his friends, her presence adds a new energy to the island as the older generation start to enjoy both trying new things they thought perhaps were “inappropriate” when you’re old, and revisiting those they missed out on in their youth. Friends reconnect, bickering is exposed as an odd kind of affection, and cats just generally make everything better. The island may be dull compared to the bright lights of Tokyo, but it has its charms and those that live there are one big family taking care of each other and enjoying the laidback rhythms of coastal life.

Daikichi’s son, visiting when he can, is keen for him to come and live with the family in Tokyo but he and Tama are happy enough on the island just muddling through the way they always have surrounded by friends and happy memories. Reconnecting with his late wife through the recipe book she left behind, he resolves to learn a few dishes of his own – filling the rest of the pages with recipes learned from Michiko, his friends, newspapers and TV, determined to go on learning as long as he can. Sharing his life with others on the island, Daikichi too finds a new zest for living even as his days pass much as before, resolving that there is still plenty more to enjoy as he enters his twilight years. Gentle and mellow in the extreme, The Island of Cats is not promising much more than living up to its name but does its best to sell the charms of serene island life as Daikichi and his friends rejoice in the simple pleasures of shared cuisine and admiring “everybody’s” cats as they continue to do pretty much whatever they please while warming the hearts of the kindly islanders as they enjoy their days of fun and sunshine with nary a care in the world.


The Island of Cats screens in New York on July 20 as part of Japan Cuts 2019. It will also screen in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on July 28.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

After the Rain (恋は雨上がりのように, Akira Nagai, 2018)

KoiAme_teaser_B5_F_outAdolescence is a difficult time for all, a period of waiting, in a sense, for the rain to end and everything to make the kind of sense you’ve been led to believe life is supposed to make only to finally see that the thing about life is there is no sense to be made of it. After the Rain (恋は雨上がりのように, Koi wa Ameagari no yo ni), adapted from the popular manga by Jun Mayuzuki, is touted as an admittedly creepy age gap romance between a confused teen and a melancholy middle-aged man but thankfully arrives at something more thoughtful and less problematic in its philosophical look at self-imposed inertia seen through the lenses of age and youth.

High school girl Akira (Nana Komatsu) loves nothing more than running but her record-breaking track career was brought to an abrupt halt by a ruptured achilles tendon. Having given up on her athletic dreams, she now spends her “free” time on a part-time job in a diner-style “family restaurant”. Unbeknownst to all, the reason Akira took the job was that the restaurant’s manager, 45-year-old divorced father Kondo (Yo Oizumi), was once nice to her after her accident and now she’s developed an almighty crush on his mild-mannered charms.

While Akira is processing the loss of her future as a top runner, Kondo is trying to get over not only the failure of his marriage but of his own dreams of literary success. Jealous of a college friend with a bestseller, Kondo has barely written anything in years and has all but resigned himself to a lifetime of managing a low-level chain restaurant in suburbia.

Kondo, for all his faults, is essentially a good guy whose major problem in life is being too nice. Needless to say, he’s not enthused by Akira’s surprise declaration of love and understands that it could cause him a lot of trouble but even so he wants to help her get over whatever it is that makes her think an affair with an older guy might be a good idea. Realising that her misplaced crush is most likely a displacement activity born of her grief for her racing career, Kondo sets about trying to coax Akira back towards something more positive than unwise romance through genial paternal attention even if she finds his attempts to make clear that he is only prepared to offer friendly support somewhat frustrating.

Akira’s problems are perhaps greater than they first seem. A strange girl with underdeveloped social skills and a relatively low need for interpersonal interaction, Akira has few friends and a habit of accidentally glaring at everyone she meets (which is not an ideal quality for a diner waitress). She is however very beautiful which also earns her a heap of unwanted attention precisely because of her angry aloofness. Neither of the boys her own age who declare an interest are very promising – both of them are unwilling to take a flat no for an answer and continue to chase Akira even though she consistently ignores them, though sous-chef Kase (Hayato Isomura) is at least a little more perceptive than he originally seems and finally able to offer some impartial advice to the confused young woman once he’s realised that his attentions really are unwanted.

Unwilling to engage with anything that reminds her of what she’s lost, Akira has been avoiding all her old friends. Haruka (Nana Seino), who has been chasing along behind desperate to catch up ever since they were kids, is as broken-hearted about their ruptured friendship as Akira is about running and longs to repair what was broken if only to prove that there’s more between them than just sports. Originally worried about Akira’s interest in Kondo she relaxes when she realises that he, like her, just wants to help Akira escape her moment of wounded inertia.

As Kondo puts, it’s boring waiting for the rain to stop. Like the heroes of Rashomon which becomes a repeated motif, Akira and Kondo are essentially just marking time waiting to be released from a self-imposed sense of frustrated impossibility. Kondo needed a dose of self-confidence which the decision to help a depressed high school girl who seems to be the only person who doesn’t find him pathetic just might offer, while Akira needs to realise that her life isn’t over and that she may have been too hasty in abandoning her dreams over what could be nothing more than a minor setback. Through their awkward non-romance the pair each rediscover something about themselves that they’d forgotten along with the courage to face their painful failures head on rather than attempting hide and living on in melancholy resentment.

Thankfully not the creepy age gap romance the synopsis teases, Nagai’s adaptation perhaps fails to mine the unexpectedly rich philosophical seam of Mayuzuki’s manga to its fullest extent in its powerful confrontation of age and youth sheltering from the storm of disappointment, but nevertheless presents an oddly warm tale of serendipitous friendships and mutual support as two frustrated people at different points of life each find the courage to move forward through helping someone else do the same.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Japanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Daigo Matsui, 2016)

Japanese Girls Never DieJapanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei) but, like old soldiers, only fade away in Daigo Matsui’s impassioned adaptation of the Mariko Yamauchi novel. Crushed by a misogynistic society, these are women who may well want to disappear if only as an alternative to finally being forced into submission to the predefined paths of womanhood – i.e. marriage and motherhood (and nothing else) that have been carved out for them. The young are, however, fighting back if in less than admirable ways. The best revenge on an oppressive society may be living well in one’s own way, but when that same society is at great pains to frustrate your goal the options are few.

As per the title, 28-year-old admin assistant Haruko Azuma (Yu Aoi) has gone missing. Her face, stolen from her missing poster, has been co-opted by a pair of petty punk idiots trying to come-up with a viral graffiti tag to rival Obey, but there’s no art or intention behind their minor act of social transgression so much as bravado and pithy rebellion. Nevertheless, Haruko’s image, plastered throughout the city, has become a hot topic on Japan’s social networking sites where a hundred trolls wade in with their prognostications and salacious fantasies of her violent death at the hands of a sex maniac.

Meanwhile, in an ironic subversion of the normalities of city life, young men have been urged to avoid walking alone at night following a spate of attacks by a gang of rabid school girls taking revenge on the male sex. No exact motive is given for their crusade save the missing poster that precedes Haruko’s and asks for information on a disappeared school girl, but goodness knows they have enough obvious reasons to have decided on a course of vigilante justice.

Haruko’s world is one defined by entrenched sexism. At 28 she finds herself embarrassed to be a still single woman at a wedding while a chance encounter with a school friend (Huwie Ishizaki) at a supermarket leads to more awkwardness when he pointedly remarks he assumed she’d be a housewife by now, and that she looks “old”. At work, Haruko’s colleague Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada), 37 and still unwed, is the butt of hundred jokes for the two middle-aged men who, for some reason, are their bosses though they hardly seem to do any work and automatically earn seven times Yoshizawa’s salary. The bosses urge Haruko to dress in more feminine fashions, asking invasive questions about her personal life while disparaging single women like Yoshizawa who they blame for Japan’s declining birthrate and a related raise in their taxes, avowing that women over 35 are essentially pointless seeing as their eggs are already “rotten”. Yoshizawa has developed a thick skin for their constant needling, realising that it amounts to an odd combination of sexual harassment and constructive dismissal campaign. Unwilling to pay a “higher” salary to an “older” woman, they are waiting for her to quit so they can hire a young and pretty new girl who will be naive enough to accept the pittance they intend to pay her.

It might be thought that the attitudes of Haruko’s bosses are a reflection of their generation, but the two young punks, Yukio (Taiga) and Manabu (Shono Hayama), are no different. 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a bar girl with ambitions to enter the beauty business, gets swept into their unpleasant orbit after getting into a “relationship” with Yukio, but Yukio thinks of her only as a plaything, even going so far as to encourage the shy Manabu to try his luck because (he claims contemptuously) Aina is the kind of girl who’ll go with anyone. Later she becomes a key part of their mini graffiti movement, but once the pair start to get a little recognition they essentially erase Aina from the story taking all the credit for themselves. Aina, poignantly looking up at the poster advertising the boys’ big moment in the same way she had gazed at Haruko’s missing poster on the police station notice board, realises she’s finally had enough of all their lies and of being made to feel invisible in a society which refuses to recognise her as anything more than an object for exploitation.

Haruko’s face is literally plastered all over town, but she remains essentially faceless, her image stolen and stripped of its identity to be repackaged as a soulless symbol for two idiotic boys who not only do not care who she is or might have been but only seek to profit from claiming to be allies in a struggle while simultaneously propping up the opposing side. The image does, however, gain its own independent power, speaking for all the oppressed and belittled women who find themselves essentially disappeared in being forced to abandon their hopes and dreams in the face of extreme social pressure. The school girls are fighting back – the next generation will (perhaps) not be so keen to remain complicit in the social codes which restrict their prospects. Then again, as the image of Haruko tells one of her lost disciples, the best revenge is living well. Choosing to absent oneself from a system of social control, going missing in a more positive sense, may be the best option of all.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Dundee Contemporary Arts – 26 February 2018
  • HOME – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 1 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 3 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 6 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 9 March 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 13 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)