The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

Christmas on July 24th Avenue (7月24日通りのクリスマス, Shosuke Murakami, 2006)

Christmas July 24th AvenueThey do Christmas a little differently in Japan. Rather than a celebration of family and commercial excess, Christmas is an occasion for romance much like the Western Valentine’s Day. Strangely, Japanese cinema has been slow to warm to the idea of the Christmas date movie though Christmas on July 24th Avenue (7月24日通りのクリスマス, 7 gatsu 24 ka dori no Kurisumasu) tries its best to plug the gap. Starring the ever reliable Miki Nakatani, Christmas on July 24 Avenue is a grown-up romance filtered through the innocence of the shojo manga its heroine has come to love.

Sayuri Honda (Miki Nakatani) is a 24 year old office lady who dreams of romance but has come to believe that she just isn’t destined for a great love of her own. Obsessed with a manga she’s loved since childhood which is set in Lisbon, Sayuri has begun to notice the various similarities between her hometown of Nagasaki and the Portuguese capital, living part-time in a kind of sunbaked European fantasyland. When her long lost high school crush, Satoshi (Takao Osawa), resurfaces as a famous architect with a bestselling book out, Sayuri’s dreams of romantic fulfilment are suddenly reawakened.

Constructed with obvious projected wish fulfilment, Sayuri’s arc is the rom-com classic of shy girl gets handsome boy after a series of coincidences and misunderstandings. Bespectacled and reserved, Sayuri’s major selling point is her propensity to suddenly fall over and make a spectacle of herself which she does in spectacular fashion during one of the amateur dramatic plays she helps out with. Embracing an unwelcome genre norm, Sayuri’s journey towards true love begins with prettying herself up – swapping her glasses for contacts, getting a more sophisticated haircut, and dressing in more typically elegant girlish outfits over her practical, dowdy tastes.

Rather than allow Sayuri to realise she’s fine as she is and doesn’t need to change herself for a man, the arc is Sayuri abandoning her anxieties to become the kind of person she thinks Satoshi would like. While all of this is going on there’s another potential suitor hanging around in the form of Yoshio (Ryuta Sato) – a geeky guy who works in a bookstore and has been nursing a crush on the oblivious Sayuri for years. Several times Yoshio confesses his love, and several times Sayuri fails to understand him. His being a pure love, Yoshio decides to help Sayuri find happiness no matter who with.

Sayuri sees her own situation mirrored in that of her brother. Where Sayuri sees herself as plain and undesirable, her brother is handsome and popular with the ladies – the kind of “prince” she herself dreams of. Despite having a long history of dating remarkable girls, Koji’s new girlfriend (Juri Ueno) is a virtual clone of Sayuri – mousy with glasses and a talent for mumbling. Oddly, Sayuri is not worried by this development in the way that might be expected, but only outraged at her brother’s breaking of romantic protocol in taking up with someone who is nowhere near his league. Resenting that a girl just like her has improbably managed to bag a prince, Sayuri treats her potential new sister-in-law with scorn and contempt whilst continuing to blame her own failure to do the same on her plainness and reserve.

Truth be told, Satoshi is a predictably dull love interest – a cardboard cutout prince of the kind familiar to shojo romance. Additional spice is added in an extra-marital affair between Satoshi and an old flame with whom he apparently has some unfinished business but even this hint of impropriety does not seem to put Sayuri off. Her final revelations tend towards realising that there’s nothing wrong with plain dowdy girls hooking handsome guys, even though she is no longer a plain and dowdy girl herself and her prince is also responsible for a crisis in the marriage of a friend. She has this revelation through a lengthy speech at someone else’s wedding which she has nearly derailed by provoking a crisis of confidence in the bride.

Based on a short story by Shuichi Yoshida – best known for socially conscious crime thrillers such as Villain, Rage, and Parade, Christmas on July 24th Avenue is a consciously cute affair filled with quirky details which attempt to recreate the world of shojo manga but cannot make up for the soulless quality of its romance. A lack of chemistry between Nakatani and Ozawa prevents the love story from taking off while the second lead is kept hovering the background but more sweet joke than credible option. Reaching an improbably neat conclusion in which everything is forgiven and everyone lives happily ever after, Christmas on July 24th Avenue fulfils its promise of magical romance filled with cheerful Christmas carols and twinkling lights but proves disappointing after all the fancy wrapping.


30 second trailer (no subtitles)

Rage (怒り, Lee Sang-il, 2016)

rage posterVillain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.

In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).

Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.

Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama),  living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.

The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.

Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.

Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.

Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.

Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.

The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)