Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Kosai Sekine, 2018)

love at least posterFor some, it might be impossible grasp just how exhausting it can be merely being alive. For the heroine of Kosai Sekine’s debut feature Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Ikiteru Dake de, Ai) , adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya (Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!, Vengeance Can Wait), life is a draining cycle of waking and sleeping from which she fears she will never be able to free herself. An encounter with an equally atypical though perhaps more destructive young woman who orders her to leave her ordered existence so that she might step into the newly vacant space unwittingly helps her towards a moment of clarity though not the one it might at first seem.

Yasuko (Shuri) has vague memories of her mother dancing when the power went out but she herself is afraid of the dark. Looking back there’s a lot that makes sense to her about her mother’s behaviour and subsequently her own, but she hasn’t yet found a way to come to terms with her psychology. Yasuko has bipolar and is currently unemployed as she suffers with hypersomnia and hasn’t been able to hold down a job. She’s supported by her live-in boyfriend of three years, Tsunaki (Masaki Suda), who once dreamed of being a writer but now has a soul crushing job at a tabloid magazine writing salacious exposés about celebrities.

Yasuko is currently in the middle of a depressive spell and rarely leaves the house, spending most of the day asleep and exchanging texts with her somewhat unsupportive sister but her life is turned upside-down when she receives a surprise visit from a woman calling herself Ando (Riisa Naka) who drags her off to a nearby cafe and explains that she previously dated Tsunaki three years ago and now she wants him back. Viewing Yasuko as some kind of lesser human, Ando thinks she should see sense and leave Tsunaki to which Yasuko quite reasonably points out she has no income and so the request is quite unreasonable. Ando, however, is nothing if not thorough and it’s not long before she’s bamboozled both the cafe and Yasuko into taking her on as a part-time waitress.

Ando, an extremely unpleasant and manipulative woman, may be as Yasuko points out even “sicker” than she is but somehow she seems to make all around her do her bidding. Oddly enough, working at the cafe might actually be good for Yasuko – the cafe owner and his wife are kind and sympathetic people who seem to want to help and the other waitress was once a hikikomori so they might truly have some idea of what is involved in trying to help those in need. Ando, however, doesn’t quite seem to want her to succeed – she turns up at the cafe on a regular basis to feed Yasuko’s insecurities, pointedly asking her if she’s considered whether the problem might not just be that she’s “useless”, telling her that it’s pointless to try because she’ll inevitably fail, all of which seems quite counterproductive to her nefarious plan.

Then again, kindness and sympathy are not always quite as helpful as they seem. The cafe owner’s wife is nice, to be sure, but is fond of repeating the mantra that depression is caused by loneliness and that therefore making friends with the people at the cafe will make everything better. There might be something in her way of thinking, but it’s also a superficial approach to a more complicated problem and mild refusal to face some of the more serious aspects of Yasuko’s condition. When she’s started to feel as if the cafe is a safe space, told to think of herself as “family”, Yasuko lets down her guard and reveals one subject of her obsessive anxieties which just happens to be the washlet and the possibility of its sudden explosion should the water pressure go haywire. All of a sudden it’s as if the air changes, they look at her like she’s “mad” and the facade of their patronising desire to help is suddenly ripped away. Yasuko’s worst fear has been realised, they “see through” her and she feels as if there’s no hope any more.

Being seen through is perhaps something which Yasuko both fears and craves. Tsunaki, meanwhile, is suffering something similar only in a less extreme way. He also feared being seen through, but unlike Yasuko chose to isolate himself, rarely speaking and maintaining a healthy distance to the world. For this reason he’s been able to put up with his awful tabloid job, even excusing himself when an actress whose affair they’d exposed committed suicide because after all it was “nothing to do with” him despite the fact he was so obviously complicit. Increasingly conflicted, he begins to pull away from Yasuko, unwilling to overburden her with his own worries or perhaps more accurately equally afraid to expose them. Yasuko’s cruel barb that she wished Tsunaki’s “lack of character” would infect her hints at her mild frustration with his passivity, that his refusal to engage and habit of pussyfooting around her illness to avoid creating a scene are also contributing to her ongoing lethargy. The passive aggressive texts from her sister which seemed so unsupportive are perhaps less so as she is the only person willing to go toe to go with her and suddenly Yasuko’s meanness towards her outwardly patient and caring boyfriend reads more like provocation, as if she’s trying to make him respond rather than allow him to continue enabling her inertia.

Being driven apart by their parallel crises eventually brings the pair back together again, closer to an emotional centre and reaching a brief moment of understanding. As Yasuko says, the connection may have been only momentary, but within that infinitesimal space she can perhaps find a life. The dark is not so scary after all. Anchored by an extraordinary performance from Shuri, Love at Least is a beautifully composed examination of the costs of modern living in which fragmentary moments of absolute connection become the only source of salvation in a world of broken dreams and hopeless futures.


Love At Least made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Akiko Ohku, 2017)

tremble all you want posterShojo manga has a lot to answer for when it comes to defining ideas of romance in the minds of its young and female readers. The heroines of Japanese romantic comedies are almost always shojo manga enthusiasts – the lovelorn lady at the centre of Christmas on July 24th Avenue even magics herself into a fantasy Lisbon to better inhabit the cute and innocent world of a manga she loved in childhood. The heroine of Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Katte ni Furuetero), Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), does something similar in creating an alternate fantasy world filled with intimate acquaintances each encouraging and invested in her ongoing quest to win the heart of a boy she loved in high school who became the hero of her personal interest only manga, The Natural Born Prince.

At 24 Yoshika is still obsessed with “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura) who is forever number “One” in her affections. Working as an office lady in the accounts department, Yoshika’s fingers tip tap over the calculator all day long until she can finally go home and read about her favourite topic, extinct animals, on the internet before it’s time to head back to work. Because of her undying love for Ichi (whom she has not seen or heard from in many years), Yoshika has never had a boyfriend or engaged in “dating” – something which causes her a small amount of anxiety and embarrassment when considering the additional awkwardness of starting out at such a comparatively late age.

Yoshika’s dilemma reaches a crisis point when, much to her surprise, a colleague becomes interested in her. Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she rechristens number “Two”, is, like her, slightly shy and bumbling but also outgoing and with a need to say things out loud. Seeing as this is apparently the first time this has ever happened to Yoshika, she finds it very confusing – not least because she can’t decide if “dating” Kirishima is a betrayal of Ichi or if she is really ready to leave her Natural Born Prince behind.

The dilemma isn’t so much between man one and man two but between fantasy and reality, idealism and practicality. Yoshika, painfully shy, lives in a fantasy world of her own creation as we discover during a tentative, emotionally raw musical number in which she is forced to confront the fact that the reason she doesn’t know the names of any of the people we’ve seen her repeatedly engage with is that, despite her longing and her loneliness, she has never been able to pluck up the courage to actually speak to them. Thus they exist in her head as a series of nicknames, theoretical constructs of “friends” with whom to engage in (one-sided) conversations – a frighteningly relatable (if extreme) concept to the painfully shy. Deprived of her fluffy fantasy, Yoshika arrives home to collapse in tears and finds her world growing colder, riding the bus all alone and eventually cocooning herself in her apartment.

Thus when Kirishima starts to show an interest, Yoshika can’t quite figure out which “reality” she is really in. The idea that he might simply like her doesn’t compute so she assumes the worst and pushes him away in grand style, retreating to the entirely safe world of Ichi worship in which she, in a sense, has already been rejected so there is nothing left to fear. Coming up with a nefarious plan to meet Ichi by stealing the identity of a former classmate and organising a reunion, Yoshika’s fantasy is challenged by the man himself or more specifically his perception of events which differs slightly from her own owing to not placing herself at the centre. Though Yoshika had correctly surmised that Ichi was uncomfortable with the attention he received as the school’s “number one” and decided to ignore him as a token of her love, she remained unaware of the degree to which he suffered in her obsession with her own unrequited desires.

Wondering if she should just “go extinct” like the animals she loves so much who evolved in ways incompatible with life on Earth – literally too weird to live, Yoshika begins to lose her grip on the divisions between fantasy and reality, unable to accept the “real” attention and affection of those who would be her real world friends if she’d only let them while continuing to engage in the wilfully self destructive mourning of her illusions. Tremble All You Want (but do it anyway) seems to become Yoshika’s new mantra as she makes her first active decision to gravitate towards the land of the real despite her fear and the conviction that it will not accept her. Filled with whimsical charm but laced with a particular kind of melancholy darkness, Ohku’s tale of modern love in a disconnected world is a strangely cheerful affair even as our heroine prepares to swap her colourful fantasy for the potential comforts of the everyday.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (hit the subtitle button to turn on English subs)

Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Side JOb posterFukushima has become a focal point for recent Japanese cinema, not just as a literal depiction of an area in crisis but as a symbol for various social concerns chief among them being a loss of faith in governmental responsibility. Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Kanojo no Jinsei wa Machigai ja Nai) has the distinction of being helmed by a Fukushima native in Ryuichi Hiroki who also wrote the original novel from which the film is adapted. Typical of Hiroki’s work, Side Job is less an ode to the power of perseverance than a powerful meditation on grief, inertia, and helplessness. Though he offers no easy answers and refuses to judge his protagonists for the ways they attempt to deal with their situations, Hiroki does allow them to find a kind of peace, at least of the kind that allows them to begin moving forward if not quite away from the past.

Five years after The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Miyuki Kanazawa (Kumi Takiuchi) is still living in a cramped prefab house with her widowed father, Osamu (Ken Mitsuishi). Miyuki’s mother was lost in the storm and her body never found, leaving the pair bereft and with an unanswered question. Having lost his farm to the exclusion zone, Osamu is left with nothing much to do and mostly spends his time idly playing pachinko and drinking much to the consternation of Miyuki who has a regular job with the city council.

Miyuki may well be angry about the way her father fritters away their money, but that doesn’t quite explain why she boards an overnight coach every Friday and spends her weekends in Tokyo engaging in casual sex work. She appears not to like the work very much and it is occasionally dangerous, but she does seem to have built up a kind of friendship with her “manager” as he drives her around the city to her various clients. Miura (Kengo Kora) claims to enjoy his work because it gives him an opportunity to observe human nature in all of its complexity though if he harbours any conflict about his role as a dispatcher of sometimes vulnerable young women, he is slow to voice it.

The “side job” of the title provides a kind of escape from a boring, conventional life in rural Iwaki, equal parts self-harm and quest for sensation. Miyuki, like many of those around her walks around with an air of irritated blankness, angry at so many things she doesn’t quite know where to begin. Yet for all that she’s also emotionally numbed, held in a state of suspended animation, longing to feel something, anything, even if that something is only shame. Through her double life Miyuki is able to find a sense of control and equilibrium that eluded her in grief-stricken Iwaki. Her manager, Miura, promises to “protect” her, though he makes clear that there are many women he feels a duty to protect rather than just Miyuki. Just as it seems Miyuki has come to depend on him, Miura drops a bombshell of his own though it maybe one which spurs Miyuki on towards a new beginning.

Everything in Iwaki is, in a sense, temporary. Miyuki and her father still live in the tiny prefab house in the hope of one day being able to go “home” while Osamu attends occasional meetings with the farming collective to try and find out what’s going on with his fields. Held in a kind of limbo, repeating the same daily tasks with relentless monotony, Miyuki and Osamu are trapped by a sense of helpless dread, forever waiting for something to happen but having lost the faith that it ever will.

While the pair struggle on, others find themselves unable to bear the weight of their tragedies. The spectre of suicide haunts Miyuki and her father from the woman next-door (Tamae Ando) who has become depressed thanks to the stigma surrounding her husband’s job with the decontamination programme, to the window at the agency which no longer opens following the suicide of one of the employees. Pushed to the edge by financial strain, there are also those who find themselves befriending the vulnerable with an intent to defraud, but it is in the end genuine human relationships which light the way for each of our struggling protagonists. Osamu bonds with an orphaned little boy through playing catch, Miyuki finds strength in Miura’s decision to break with his old life and build a new one, and her assistant at the city council, Nitta (Tokio Emoto), grows into the responsibility of being a big brother while attempting to do the best he can for the people of Fukushima.

What each of them finds isn’t an answer or a “cure” for their trauma but a path towards accepting it in such a way as it allows them to begin moving forward. New seeds are planted in the expectation of a coming future, new lives are celebrated, and the past begins to recede. Memory becomes a still frame, bottled and in a sense commodified but held close as a kind of talisman proving nothing is really ever “lost”. Filmed with an eerie sense of listless beauty, Side Job is an unflinching yet not unforgiving exploration of life after tragedy in which the only possible chance for survival lies in empathy and simple human connection.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)