Mari and Mari (彼女来来, Tatsuya Yamanishi, 2021)

How well do you really know your significant other, and is it possible that even you can be lulled into a false sense of security by the performative qualities of your relationship? The befuddled hero of Tatsuya Yamanishi’s Mari and Mari (彼女来来, Kanojo Rairai) is forced to reckon with the superficialities of his romantic life when he arrives home one day to discover that his girlfriend is nowhere to be found and in her place is another woman with the same name who seems intent on occupying the space she has just vacated. 

Casting agent Norio (Kou Maehara) is in a longterm, actually rather nauseating in its sweetness, romantic relationship with girlfriend Mari (Nao). Despite being a well established, not yet married but might as well be cohabiting couple, they have their own little song they like to sing about how great their lives are with each other while taking romantic walking dates along the river where they look lovingly into each other’s eyes. “You’ve been together for ages, but you act like it’s a first date” one of Norio’s colleagues unironically remarks, seemingly a little envious. After moaning about a workplace setback, Norio suggests taking a trip while Mari points out that he’s always too busy for holidays but seems pleased just with the thought. 

For all these reasons, Norio is especially confused when he arrives home after a tough day and finds Mari gone, understandably mistaking the figure of a woman sleeping on their sofa for his girlfriend only to realise his error when she gets up and turns around, the low evening light finally hitting her face. The woman, who is apparently also named “Mari” (Hana Amano) claims to have no memory of her life before waking up on the sofa, and declaring herself homeless announces that she’s moving in. Extremely confused, Norio embarks on a quest to try and out what’s happened to Mari but discovers few leads. Even her sister seems relatively unconcerned, certain that she’s just blowing off steam bringing up a childhood incident in which she “ran away” to stay with a friend whose family ran a sweetshop because she had a sweet tooth and they weren’t allowed sweets at home. 

This relatively innocent story perhaps highlights the possibility of cracks in Norio’s “perfect” relationship, that “Mari 1” might have been feeling the lack of something and has gone off to find it. Though we’re told that Norio and Mari had been happily coupled for some years, a surprise visit from Norio’s parents reveals they’d never met his longterm girlfriend which does indeed seem odd if the relationship is as serious and loved up as it seemed to be. The plot thickens further when he visits the bookstore where Mari was working and is told she quit her job a few days previously having said nothing to him. You have to wonder if Mari 2 is actually real or a merely a manifestation of his inability to accept the fact that his relationship has failed and his girlfriend has moved on. 

Could Norio be guilty of treating his romantic life like one of his auditions, simply slotting in a woman who looks the part to play the role of “girlfriend”? Maybe Mari 1 was so wrapped up in her relationship that she didn’t have any friends, but Norio doesn’t contact any outside of her sister and appears not to know very much about her interior life. He also appears oblivious to a sweet intern at the office, his work life beginning to suffer while he remains preoccupied with Mari 1’s disappearance, who seems to have a crush on him until becoming unexpectedly jealous on spotting her in a clinch with another coworker in the darkened break room. Missing Mari 1 he repeatedly rebuffs Mari 2, attempting to throw her out of his apartment and rejecting each of her attempts to get close to him but eventually warms to her presence and finally allows her to take Mari 1’s place as his live-in girlfriend. 

Are Mari 1 and Mari 2 interchangeable to him? His brief comment that Mari 1 looked like another person under different light hints at a slight fluidity in the nature of her identity, as does the repeated motif of the sunlight climbing towards her face in their darkened bedroom. Then again, could the memory of Mari 1 merely be the intrusive ghost of failed love that disrupts his subsequent relationships, suggesting that his relationship with Mari 2 is doomed to failure because of his obsession with the one who literally got away. Or are Mari 1 & Mari 2 actually the same and a reflection of the way people can sometimes change or you learn something new about them and they seem like a completely different person? Perhaps “Mari” is just a signifier for romantic partner, otherwise devoid of an individual identity. What seems clear at least is that Norio does not “see” the woman in his life because he only sees “Mari”, as the slightly melancholy, intensely lonely look on the face of the woman next to him at the film’s conclusion may seem to suggest. 


Mari and Mari streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Theatre: A Love Story (劇場, Isao Yukisada, 2020)

The problem with tortured artists is that rather than be content with destroying themselves, they destroy someone else instead. Japanese cinema has a preoccupation with narcissistic heroes, and even if he does have a rare degree of self-awareness the protagonist of Isao Yukisada’s adaptation of the novel by comedian Naoki Matayoshi, Theatre: A Love Story (劇場, Gekijo), is among the most insufferable in the sheer depths of his resentful self-loathing. The “a love story” suffix is an addition for the English title though it proves true enough in that this is a story about a love of theatre which is really a love of life and possibility only our gloomy hero is still far too much in the shadows to be able to see it clearly. 

Nagata (Kento Yamazaki), whose fear of intimacy appears to be so great that he never gives away his first name, is first found wandering the streets like a zombie, muttering the words “How long will I last?” to himself before coming to a pause in front of a gallery window in which is displayed a painting of a monkey screaming under a full moon. The vision of existential despair appears to match his own and he’s obviously captivated by it, as is a young woman, Saki (Mayu Matsuoka), who quickly walks away after he creates awkwardness by intently staring at her. She tries to escape because, to be honest, not only is he a class A street creep, but he seems as if he might actually be disturbed. He asks her to go on a date the next day (today is too hot), later confessing he wanted to take her for a drink but is broke all of which makes it sound like he wants money as well as her phone number. Feeling sorry for him she gives in and is seemingly not even that bothered when he attempts to order her drink for her without asking what she wants at a nearby cafe. 

In many ways, the “meet cute” of Nagata and Saki typifies the entirety of their relationship which spans the better part of an ill-defined decade. The nicer she is to him, the more resentful he becomes. What the pair have in common is “theatre”. He’s a pretentious, avant-garde playwright, she’s a bubbly aspiring actress whose faith in the genius he keeps insisting he has only reinforces his sense of insecurity. The problem isn’t so much that lack of success is eating away at him, as it is that he actively resents the successes of others. He even becomes irritated when Saki praises Clint Eastwood, as if Clint Eastwood were his competition. Nagata simply can’t stand it when other people are praised as if the mere fact of someone else’s happiness actively depletes his own, has taken something from him, or is solely a reflection of his failures as an artist and a human being. It is really is all about him. He even refuses to take Saki to Disneyland because then he’d be in competition with Disney and if Saki said anything nice at all about the experience it would just piss him off. 

What seems impossible to understand is why Saki stays, especially after Nagata moves in with her and continues to bum around paying no rent while she works three jobs and tries to finish her uni degree. Eventually she asks him for a small contribution, maybe just something towards the utility bills, but he bizarrely replies that it’s her apartment and it’s irrational to pay for someone else’s utilities which is odd seeing as he’s just got out of the bath and has therefore clearly been using the facilities. In his voiceover, he confesses that he said that in order to avoid having a serious conversation and perhaps to mask a sense of internalised shame over essentially being a kept man, something which is only finally brought home to him by an old acting acquaintance, Aoyama (Sairi Ito), who offers him some freelance writing work but that only seems to deepen his artistic crisis as he battles a sense of selling out in neglecting his playwriting. 

If Saki is underwritten it is partly intentional in that we see her only through Nagata’s eyes and he barely looks, seeing in her only a source of a salvation he is too afraid to accept. He snaps at her and calls her stupid, causes her anxiety, embarrasses her in front of her friends and is, as Aoyama puts it, “a jerk”. His behaviour is in any case abusive, but he’s so blinkered that he never notices that she’s the same as him, anxious on an existential level and in search of mutual protection. By the time he’s done with her, she’s no longer so bright and cheerful, well on the way to alcoholism born of depression and sense of failure on reflecting that she’s a woman approaching 30 who has probably failed to make it as an actress in Tokyo, is exhausted by her city life, and has been slowly destroyed by Nagata’s mix of feigned indifference and possessiveness. Aoyama and his best friend from school Nohara (Kanichiro Sato) make a final desperate intervention to save Saki, pointing out that in his toxic narcissism he destroys her to save himself, unable to bear the idea of her awakening to that which he deeply believes but does not want to acknowledge, that really he’s just no good. 

“As long as we have theatre there’s no need to despair” Nagata finally exclaims, rediscovering a love for the form in its capacity to remake the world, to show him both what is and could be as he rewrites his tragic, delayed coming-of-age romance as an emotionally authentic stage play now convinced, like the old Saki, that he really does want everyone to be happy after all. Theatre: A Love Story is the age old tale of the curtain coming down on an arc of one’s life, accepting that something has ended and that it’s OK, it’s just the way life is. Saki, somewhat problematically declares she wouldn’t have it any other way because she loved Nagata for everything he was and if he’d changed he wouldn’t be the same. In a sense we’re left with Nagata’s artistic validation and a tacit condonation of his emotionally abusive behaviour, but then Yukisada undercuts the final message with a melancholy credits sequence in which he perhaps hands back to Saki even in her passivity as she finally looks for an exit.   


Currently available to stream via Amazon Prime Video in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)