Shape of Red (Red, Yukiko Mishima, 2020)

“This isn’t A Doll’s House” the heroine of Yukiko Mishima’s Shape of Red (Red) is exasperatedly told by a well-meaning colleague, only in many ways it sort of is. Adapted from the novel by Rio Shimamoto, Shape of Red proves that not all that much has changed since Nora slammed the door on the patriarchal hypocrisies of a conventional marriage as its not quite middle-aged wife and mother is confronted by the weight of her choices, wondering if a dull yet secure middle-class life is worth the sacrifice of personal fulfilment. 

32-year-old Toko (Kaho) gave up a career in architecture to marry upperclass salaryman Shin (Shotaro Mamiya) and is now a housewife and mother to six-year-old daughter Midori. The marriage is unhappy only in the most ordinary of ways, leaving Toko feeling neglected and unfulfilled, treated as a servant in her own home expected to fulfil her husband’s needs while her own go unsatisfied. That is perhaps why she wanders off from a work gathering her husband has dragged her to (in the outfit he picked out for her to wear) into a more interesting party where she re-encounters an old flame who abruptly drags her into an unoccupied room for a rough and unexpected embrace. Leaving the party together for a walk along the beach, Toko fills Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki) in on the past 10 years, lying through her teeth that she’s blissfully happy though admitting that she would have liked to continue with her career. 

Meeting Kurata either awakens a dormant sense of desire in the otherwise button-down Toko, or merely gives her permission to pursue it. She plucks up the courage to tell the less than enthusiastic Shin that she wants to go back to work and takes a job at Kurata’s company where the pair grow closer, but struggles to decide what it is she really wants – the “traditional” housewife life she picked when she married Shin, or the right to fulfil her individual desires. Shin, it has to be said, is an unreconstructed chauvinist from a conservative background who runs all of his major life decisions by his parents. He told Toko he was fine with her continuing to work after marriage but didn’t really mean it, coming up with excuses why she shouldn’t even though Midori is now in regular school. He tells her she can give work a go, but views it as little more than a hobby he assumes she’ll fail, later instructing her to stop because his parents want a second grandchild and, tellingly, he would like a son. Toko, meanwhile, is beginning to feel trapped but conflicted, convincing herself this is the life that she should want while simultaneously accepting that it makes her miserable. 

A third potential man at her place of work, Kodaka (Tasuku Emoto), also quite sexist and a little bit creepy but perhaps ironically so, strikes at the heart of the matter in bringing up her family background. Like seemingly everyone else, she grew up without a father because her parents are divorced, something she’s kept a secret from her conservative in-laws. Toko’s far less conventional mother (Kimiko Yo), sick of keeping up the pretence, brands her daughter’s life choices as “pathetic”, disappointed that she’s deluding herself she’s happy “living a lie” with a man she doesn’t even love.

Yet as fiercely as her newly awaked desire burns, she isn’t convinced by Kurata. Kodaka tells her that she and Kurata are two of a pair, off in their own worlds not really caring about anything, while pointing out that if Kurata has an empty space inside him he refuses to let anyone fill then the reason she sees it is that she does too. The pair work together symbolically rebuilding an imagined future through designing their idealised home, Toko eventually deciding that the windows need to be bigger because she wants to see more, literally broadening her horizons. What she’s deciding is that she wants more of life, but struggles to free herself of the old patriarchal ideas which convince her she’s betraying something by choosing herself. 

Once upon a time, a film like Shape of Red might have punished its heroine for her pursuit of passion, pushing her back towards a life of traditional respectability in forcing her to accept her maternity at the cost of her personal happiness or accept that her only freedom lies in death. Times have changed, if not as much as you’d think. You still can’t have it all, a choice has to be made and largely the choice is the same as Nora’s – stay and live the lie, or leave and accept that social censure is the price of authenticity. “I’ve a feeling we’ll be trapped like this forever” Toko exclaims driving down a seemingly endless tunnel lit by the warm red glow of security lights. Sooner or later you have to choose where you want to live, the superficially cosy show home with tiny windows and no soul, or the drafty opportunity of a room with a view opening out onto wide open vistas of infinite possibility.


Shape of Red is available to stream in Germany from June 9 to 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. It was also due to be screened as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema prior to its suspension.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy (ホットギミック ガールミーツボーイ, Yuki Yamato, 2019)

Hot Gimmick posterStrangely enough, shojo manga adaptations can in fact be among the most problematic exercises in contemporary Japanese cinema. Targeted very specifically at adolescent girls, the romantic world that they present is often consumed by its own sense of blind innocence as the shy heroine eventually finds love with a “handsome prince” who, though sometimes an inappropriate figure, is either improbably gentlemanly or a “difficult” Mr. Darcy type who more or less bullies her into submission. Yuki Yamato’s adaptation of Miki Aihara’s Hot Gimmick, given the subtitle “girl meets boy” (ホットギミック ガールミーツボーイ), however, seems to be well aware of the genre’s uncomfortable tendency to reinforce conservative social norms and normalise unhealthy relationship dynamics, even if it perhaps fails to entirely reject it in its broadly positive yet ambivalent conclusion.

Innocent and naive high schooler Hatsumi (Miona Hori) has been charged with secretly picking up a pregnancy test for her younger yet much more worldly sister Akane (Hiyori Sakurada) who ends up losing it on their way home from school. Unfortunately, it’s found by a schoolmate, Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu), who uses it to blackmail her, forcing her to become his “slave” or he’ll send the test straight to her mother. For reasons not entirely clear besides her natural diffidence, Hatsumi goes along with it but is still carrying a torch for a childhood friend, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki), who has since gone on to become a top idol. Unbeknownst to her, Azusa has in fact returned, apparently missing them all at the estate where he used to live. Increasingly terrorised by Ryoki, Hatsumi is more worried that Azusa will get the wrong idea and assume she is romantically involved with him. Meanwhile, her brother Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya) is worried about both guys, overprotective in a disappointingly patriarchal way.

This is indeed a very patriarchal world. Unlike her sister, Hatsumi is romantically naive and terrified of the consequences of someone finding out about the pregnancy test even if Akane is fairly unfazed, simply brushing off questions from her mother by implying that someone is probably playing tricks on them. Hatsumi is preoccupied with the nature of “cuteness” and intensely insecure, which is perhaps why she allows herself to go on being manipulated by Ryoki even while knowing that is exactly what he’s doing. “I’m just stupid and unattractive” she’s fond of saying, fully believing that she has no right to her own agency because she is unable to see her own worth.

That essential insecurity seems to make her a magnet for all the creepy guys in a 10 mile radius. Talking to another somewhat imperfect boy, Akane tells him that guys like girls like Hatsumi who seem “vulnerable”, lamenting for a moment that that’s something she definitely is not (ostensibly, at least), but stopping short of reflecting on how dark a comment that might actually be or how the whole concept of “kawaii” is built on the idea of disempowered femininity. Azusa, who is originally posited as the “innocent” love interest, later turns out to be anything but, while Ryoki is later redeemed (to a point) in leading Hatsumi towards an awareness of an agency over her own body, while she, again problematically, turns to her protective brother rather than engage with the various ways in which all three guys have continually misused and manipulated her.

A intense subplot concerning the legacy of illicit romantic relations in the previous generation binds all of the troubled teens inside a net of moral resentment in which they embrace a kind of conservatism they reject their parents for rejecting. They are all, in a sense, attempting to break free of familial legacies, but find themselves paying for their parents’ mistakes while the parents themselves remain more or less absent, occasionally resurfacing to enforce obedience through shame. What Hatsumi comes to realise, however, is that the lesson they were teaching her was not quite wrong but misguided. Where they told her that she should guard her body because not to do so was shameful, she discovers that there is power in owning herself, that she is free to decide what she does and does not do with her body and has the right to grant or refuse access to it.

Nevertheless, her final sense of empowerment is undercut by her continued relationship with Ryoki who, while perhaps growing to accommodate a less misogynistic world view, is still a boy who tried to make her his slave and repeatedly calls her stupid even if eventually agreeing that the whole world turns in her. Yamato’s stylish visuals add to the sense of absurdity which defines the closing moments as Hatsumi at once affirms an awareness of herself as a being with worth and agency, yet also embraces her “stupidity” as she takes her first few diffident steps towards an assurance of adulthood.


Currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Eating Women (食べる女, Jiro Shono, 2018)

Eating Women poster 2“Comfort cinema” may be a slightly maligned genre, disregarded for its throwaway pleasures, but it can often be much more subversive than it’s given credit for. Jiro Shono’s adaptation of Tomomi Tsutsui’s novel Eating Women (食べる女, Taberu Onna), refusing to unambiguously reinforce contemporary social norms, it actively undercuts them as it pushes its lonely heroines towards more positive paths of self-fulfilment while remaining unafraid to embrace the sometimes taboo idea of female desire as something entirely normal.

The heroine, however, is someone who’s decided to live without it. Food writer and bookstore owner Atsuko (Kyoko Koizumi) lost the love of her life at 29 and has lived alone ever since. She does, however, have a very committed group of female friends who get together once a month to enjoy a tasty dinner she and her friend Mifuyu (Kyoka Suzuki), who runs the local restaurant, cook for them. Unlike Atsuko, Mifuyu is a sexually liberated older woman, complaining once again that both of her (young, male) apprentices have quit after she seduced them. Keiko (Erika Sawajiri), Atsuko’s editor, has hatched on a different solution in affirming that she has already achieved financial independence and has no real desire for male companionship, preferring to embrace her freedom to live as she chooses while Tamiko (Atsuko Maeda), an assistant TV producer and the youngest of the group, is facing the opposite dilemma – her boyfriend has proposed to her, but she’s unconvinced because he’s just too “nice” to make her heart beat faster.

Though at different points of their lives, the women are always there to support each other while permitting themselves the indulgence of fully enjoying beautifully cooked meals taken with good company. Meanwhile, across town, an American woman, Machi (Charlotte Kate Fox), seems to be content to play the role of a 50s housewife to a grumpy salaryman husband (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who barges in through the front door and roughly forces himself on her before retreating to the bedroom. The problem in their marriage is, apparently, that Machi can’t cook, providing mostly Western-style microwavable dinners which fail to excite her husband who tells her he’s been having an affair with someone who can make good food. Heartbroken, Machi runs into Mifuyu and eventually ends up living in one of Atsuko’s spare rooms where she slots right in with the other gourmet women as she begins to learn to cook under Mifuyu’s gentle guidance.

It is not, however, a pathway towards regaining her husband or “fixing” a perceived fault so that she can be a “proper” wife, but a way for Machi to rediscover life’s small pleasures along with a sense of independence, rejoicing in her own success as she enjoys a meal she cooked herself made with ingredients that she earned the money to pay for. Tamiko’s barfly friend Akari (Alice Hirose) begins to discover something similar on her own, repeatedly dumped by snooty salarymen boyfriends who objected to her preference for minced meat over whole steak. Akari had a habit of thinking of herself in terms of the meat – quick, cheap, and simple, but finally finds love with a gentlemanly colleague after she gains the confidence to share with him her real self by embracing her love of mince without embarrassment.

The only “misstep” is perhaps in Keiko’s tale in which her bid for solo independence is eventually negated by her loneliness, implying that in the end she did need male companionship after all. Indeed, only Atsuko who rejects sex in favour of vicarious maternity is allowed to live life alone, though conversely Mifuyu’s free spirited pursuit of younger men is never judged negatively nor is she encouraged to settle down even while she ironically advises Tamiko to do just that, and pointedly tells Keiko that she’s running out time to find anyone halfway decent. Yet all of that aside, the ladies are an accepting bunch, emphasising that love is love and refusing to judge others, making sure to offer support to all who need it. We’re never the same people as yesterday, Atsuko writes in her book, we just need to be ourselves. Above all, however, she seems to say you have to be kind to yourself, embracing life’s small pleasures such as the simple joy of well cooked food made with love, and the rest you can figure out later.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Masato Hijikata, 2016)

kodai family posterFear of “broadcasting” is a classic symptom of psychosis, but supposing there really was someone who could hear all your thoughts as clearly as if you’d spoken them aloud, how would that make you feel? The shy daydreamer at the centre of The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Kodaike no Hitobito) is about to find out as she becomes embroiled in a very real fairytale with a handsome prince whose lifelong ability to read minds has made him wary of trying to form genuine connections with ordinary people. Walls come down only to jump back up again when the full implications become apparent but there are taller walls to climb than that of discomfort with intimacy including snobby mothers and class based insecurities.

29-year-old Kie (Haruka Ayase) has a dull job as a regular OL in the successful Kodai company. A self-confessed shy person who finds it difficult to talk, Kei spends most of her time alone though she does have a few friends at work. Though Kei’s exterior life may appear dull she has a rich, even overactive imagination which she uses to entertain herself by heading off into wild flights of fancy guided only by a friendly (?) gnome.

Kei’s life begins to change when the oldest son of the Kodai family returns to the office after studying abroad. Mitsumasa (Takumi Saito) is a handsome, if sad-looking man who quickly has all of the office in a flurry of excitement thanks to his dashing good looks and confident stride. Mitsumasa, however, has a secret – the ability to read other people’s thoughts inherited from his British grandmother, Anne. Whilst walking down the corridor and trying to ignore the lewd and avaricious thoughts of some of the ladies (and the worried ones of some of the men now fearing more than one kind of competition), Mitsumasa is treated to one of Kei’s amusing fantasies and is quickly smitten.

For Kei who finds voicing her true feelings difficult, Mitsumasa’s ability seems like the perfect solution. Finally, someone who will just understand her without the need for conversation. However, what Kei hasn’t considered is that a deeper level of intimacy is being asked of her than she’d previously anticipated. From the merely embarrassing to the tactless and tasteless, it is no longer possible to withhold any part of herself other than by an exhausting process of trying to close her mind down completely. Mitsumasa is used to this particular phenomenon in which his enhanced powers of communication only result in additional barriers to connection. Somewhat closed off himself, resigned to the fact he’s going to “overhear” things he’d rather not know, Mitsumasa has made a point of keeping himself aloof from ordinary people who, once they know about his abilities, find him suspicious and threatening.

Yet Mitsumasa’s telepathic powers are not the only obstruction in this fairytale love story. Kei already can’t quite believe what’s happening is real and struggles with the idea someone like Mitsumasa might seriously be interested in her. Though Mitsumasa’s brother (Shotaro Mamiya) and sister (Kiko Mizuhara), who share his ability, are broadly supportive (and equally entertained by Kei’s innocent and quirky flights of fancy), his mother (Mao Daichi) is anything but. Kei’s prospective mother-in-law starts as she means to go on by mistaking Kei for a new maid and then proceeding to further erode her confidence by pointing out that she knows nothing about this upper class world of balls and tennis and horse riding.

When it all becomes too much, Kei does what she always does – retreats to safer ground. Papering over her cowardice with the weak justification that she thinks she’ll only make Mitsumasa miserable, Kei backs away from the idea of baring her whole, unfiltered soul even if she knows it will cost her the man she loves and the ending to her real life fairytale.

Though charming enough and filled with interesting manga-inspired effects, Kodai Family never makes the most of its interesting premise, falling back on standard romantic comedy tropes from parental disapproval to predictable misunderstandings. The irony is that Mitsumasa and his siblings are so busy listening to the thoughts of others that they often can’t hear their own and are so deep in denial that they need a third-party (telepathic or not) to push them into realising how it is they really feel. This is a world of double insulation, in which the walls are both thick and thin, but there is a way a through for those brave enough to kick them down by baring all for love, snobby mothers be damned.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (帝一の國, Akira Nagai, 2017)

teiichiBack in the real world, politics has never felt so unfunny. This latest slice of unlikely political satire from Japan may feel a little close to home, at least to those of us who hail from nations where it seems perfectly normal that the older men who make up the political elite all attended the same school and fully expected to grow up and walk directly into high office, never needing to worry about anything so ordinary as a career. Taking this idea to its extreme, elite teenager Teiichi is not only determined to take over Japan by becoming its Prime Minister, but to start his very own nation. In Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (帝一の國, Teiichi no Kuni) teenage flirtations with fascism, homoeroticism, factionalism, extremism – in fact just about every “ism” you can think of (aside from altruism) vie for the top spot among the boys at Supreme High but who, or what, will finally win out in Teiichi’s fledging, mental little nation?

Taking after his mother rather than his austere father, little Teiichi (Masaki Suda) wanted nothing more than to become a top concert pianist. Sadly, his father finds music frivolous and forces his son towards the path he failed to follow in becoming a member of the country’s political elite. Thus Teiichi has found himself at Supreme High where attendance is more or less a guaranteed path to Japan’s political centre. If one wants to be the PM, one needs to become student council president at Supreme High and Teiichi is forging his path early by building alliances with the most likely candidates for this year’s top spot. The contest is evenly split between left and right. Okuto Morizono (Yudai Chiba) – a nerdy, bespectacled shogi champ proposes democratic reforms to the school’s political system which will benefit all but those currently enjoying an unfair advantage. Rorando Himuro (Shotaro Mamiya), by contrast, is the classically alluring hero of the right with his good looks, long blond hair and descent from a long line of previous winners.

Teiichi follows his “natual” inclinations and sides with Rorando but a new challenger threatens to change everything. Dan Otaka (Ryoma Takeuchi) is not your usual Supreme High student. A scholarship boy, Dan comes from a single parent family where he helps out at home taking care of his numerous younger siblings. From another world entirely, Dan is a good natured sort who isn’t particularly interested in politics or in the increasingly tribal atmosphere of Supreme High. What he cares about is his friends and family. Principled, he will do what seems right and just at the expense of the most politically useful.

For all of its posturing and petty fascist satire, there’s something quite refreshing about the way Battle of Supreme High posits genuine niceness as an unlikely victor. Teiichi, a politician through and through, has few real principles and is willing to do or say whatever it takes to play each and every situation for its maximum gain. Finding Morizono’s old fashioned socialism naive and wishy washy, he gravitates towards Rorando’s obviously charismatic cult of personality but Dan’s straightforward goodness eventually starts to scratch away at Teiichi’s attempt to put up a front of amorality.

The fascist overtones, however, run deep from the naval school uniforms to the enthusiastic singing of the school song and highly militarised atmosphere. Played for laughs as it is, the school’s defining characteristic is one of intense homoerotism as pretty boys in shiny uniforms flirt with each other in increasingly over the top ways. Teiichi does have a girlfriend (of sorts) who protects, defends, and comforts him even while able to see through his megalomaniacal posturing to the little boy who just wanted to play piano but he’s not above exploiting the obvious attraction his underling, Komei (Jun Shison), feels for him as part of his grand plan.

Teiichi has its silliness, but its satire is all too convincing as these posh boys vie for the top spots, reliving the petty conflicts of their fathers and grandfathers as they do so. No one one has much of a plan or desire to change the world, this is all a grand game where the winner gets to sit on the throne feeling smug, but then Teiichi’s nimble machinations hopping from one front runner to the next rarely pay off even if he generally manages to keep himself out of the line of fire. Rather than cold and calculating politics, the force most likely to succeed becomes simple sincerity and the unexpected warmth of a “natural” leader.


Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)