Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2019)

Only the cat knows poaterThe disappearance of a beloved cat has sparked many a crisis in Japanese cinema. In Shotaro Kobayashi’s* Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Hatsukoi: Otosan, Chibi ga Inaku Narimashita), the disappearance is as metaphorical as it is literal in that this particular cat has come to symbolise the faded love of a couple married for fifty years whose relationship has begun to disintegrate if in a very ordinary way.

Chibi had been a constant companion to Yukiko (Chieko Baisho) who often feels neglected by her salaryman husband of 50 years, Masaru (Tatsuya Fuji). Now that he’s (semi-)retired, she hoped they might be able reconnect, perhaps even travel, but he is just as disinterested in domestic life as ever and mostly spends his days popping back into the office or playing shogi in a nearby club. An awkward, conservative man, Masaru aggressively ignores his wife, even irritatedly blanking her when she spots him out and about, while she dutifully waits for him at home to take his socks off for him in the hall and pick up the jacket he so casually throws to the floor for her to deal with. Chibi’s disappearance is then another blow to her already lonely world and Masaru’s extremely unsympathetic reaction to her fears eventually provokes her into wondering if she should leave him.

Masaru, it has to be said, is not an easy man and it’s easy to imagine that much of Yukiko’s married life may have been difficult or even unhappy. This is perhaps why though youngest daughter Naoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is originally panicked by her mother’s mention of divorce, all three of the couple’s grown-up children are eventually on her side and claim they can completely understand why she might feel that way. As if trying to fill a very real void in her life, Yukiko has taken to watching romantic Korean dramas dubbed into Japanese while reminiscing on her own romantic past which led her to marry Masaru all those years ago.

Nevertheless, despite her own dissatisfaction, she remains perturbed by Naoko’s disinclination to marry even at the comparatively late age of 37. Avowing that she doesn’t think a woman needs a career, Yukiko tries to push her daughter towards the socially conservative choices of home and family. Yukiko may worry that Naoko will end up all alone in her old age, but then as Naoko points out, Yukiko did everything “right” and feels alone anyway. Tellingly, Naoko was once engaged to man who jilted her right before the wedding because he was insecure about her career success which had exceeded his own and apparently needed to be master in his own home. Unfortunately, the world has not quite moved on enough and it seems many men still only want women who will take their socks off for them at the end of a busy day.

Naoko doesn’t want to get married just for the sake of it which, ironically, seems to be the same way Yukiko felt when she was young though as it turned out her courtship with Masaru was an awkward mix of arranged and not. Having fallen for him at her job on the milk counter at the station, she was slightly stunned to spot his picture in an omiai book and agreed to the meeting only for Masaru to tersely tell her he’d decided to take the first offer and didn’t even open the envelope to peek inside. In true Masaru fashion, this may turn out to be a lie of awkwardness but it’s left a note of anxiety running right through their decades long marriage which only is now bubbling the surface. Yukiko worries she “stole” Masaru from her friend on the counter who liked him first and whom she spots him secretly meeting all these years later. A lack of emotional honesty has created a widening gulf between husband and wife with Yukiko left wondering if her husband ever really loved her at all.

The search for the missing cat becomes a quest to rediscover the smouldering love of a longterm couple that a lack of communication has all but smothered. Yukiko tries everything she can to find Chibi, even hiring a pet detective, while Masaru irritatedly tells her to give up – that Chibi has most likely gone off to die and wanted to spare Yukiko the pain of watching him suffer. Masaru may be somewhat casting himself as the wandering cat, the strong and silent type who thinks he’s protecting his wife by making her miserable, but deep down he too wants to save their love even if it means he will finally have to find the wherewithal to talk about his feelings without embarrassment. A charming late life love story, Only the Cat Knows is careful not to sugarcoat the the destructive social codes of a bygone era but allows its pair of former lovers to rediscover what it was they once had while allowing them to move forward into a happier future.


Only the Cat Knows was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

*Director Shotaro Kobayashi’s name is also romanised as Syoutarou Kobayasi

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2017)

hamon posterConventional wisdom states it’s better not to get involved with the yakuza. According to Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ Hamon: Futari no Yakubyogami), the same goes for sleazy film execs who can prove surprisingly slippery when the occasion calls. Based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s Naoki Prize winning novel and directed by Shotaro Kobayashi who also adapted the same author’s Gold Rush into a successful WOWWOW TV Series, Hamon: Yakuza Boogie is a classic buddy movie in which a down at heels slacker forms an unlikely, grudging yet mutually dependent relationship with a low-level gangster.

Ninomiya (Yu Yokoyama), a classic slacker, makes ends meet by acting as a kind of liaison officer between the normal world and the yakuza one. His contact, Kuwahara (Kuranosuke Sasaki), is a scary looking guy but as yakuza go not so bad to work with. Following the government’s organised crime crackdown, Ninomiya finds himself at more of a loose end and so when an elderly film director, Koshimizu (Isao Hashizume), comes to him and asks to meet a yakuza first hand, Ninomiya sets up a meeting. Yakuza and movies can be a dangerous mix but somehow or other Koshimizu manages to charm the pair and even gets Kuwahara’s boss, Shimada (Jun Kunimura), to invest some of his own money.

Unfortunately, this is when things start to go wrong. Koshimizu’s pretty “daughter” is really his mistress (as Kuwahara suspected) and the wily old bugger has taken off for the casino paradise of Macao with both the beautiful woman and suitcase full of yakuza dough. Kuwahara is now in a lot of trouble and ropes in Ninomiya to help him sort it out but in their pursuit of Koshimizu they eventually find themselves caught up in a series of turf wars.

Yakuza comedies have a tendency towards unexpected darkness but Hamon’s key feature is its almost childish innocence as Ninomiya and Kuwahara go about their business with relatively few genuinely life threatening incidents. Though the pair bicker and argue with Ninomiya always secretly afraid of his big gangster buddy and Kuwahara fed up with his nerdy friend’s lack of know how, the relationship they’ve developed is an intensely co-dependent one which fully supports the slightly ironic “no me without you” message. Eventually growing into each other, Ninomiya and Kuwahara move increasingly into the other’s territory before finally re-encountering each other on more equal footing.

These are less rabid killers than a bunch of guys caught up in a silly game. Shady film director Koshimizu turns out to be some sort of cartoon hero, perpetually making a sprightly and unexpected escape despite his advanced age while the toughened gangsters hired to keep him locked up find themselves one hostage short time after time. Ninomiya’s worried cousin Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) keeps trying to talk him into a more ordered way of life which doesn’t involve so much hanging round with scary looking guys in suits, but Ninomiya is reluctant to leave the fringes of the underworld even if he seems afraid for much of the time. Kuwahara is a yakuza through and through, or so he thinks. This latest saga has left him in an embarrassing position with his bosses, not to mention the diplomatic incident with a rival gang, all of which threatens his underworld status and thereby essential identity.

Still, all we’re talking about here is having a little more time for solo karaoke, not being bundled into the boot of a car and driven to a remote location. Filled with movie references and slapstick humour this is a yakuza tale inspired by classic cinematic gangsters rather than their real world counterparts but it still has a few things to say about human nature in general outside of the fictional. An odd couple, Ninomiya and Kuwahara couldn’t be more different but besides the fact they don’t quite get along, they make a good team. No me without you indeed, solo stakeouts are boring, even if you do bicker and fuss the whole time it’s good to know there’s someone who’ll always come back for you (especially if you tell them not to) ready to take the wheel.


Hamon: Yakuza Boogie was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)