Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Hiroshi Ando, 2017)

Moon and Thunder posterThe family is coming in for another round of fierce criticism in Japanese cinema where the “family drama” has long been revered as a representative genre. Hiroshi Ando who has hitherto been more interested in atypical romantic relationships is the latest to reconsider whether family is really all it’s cracked up to be in adapting Mitsuyo Kakuta’s novel, Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Tsuki to Kaminari). Two children from dysfunctional homes now fully grown struggle to adapt themselves to the nature of adult society, unsure if they should remove themselves from it entirely or force themselves into the socially expected roles they fear they don’t know how to play. Yet perhaps what they find in the end is not so much a talent for conventionality as an acceptance of life’s many imperfections.

20-something Yasuko (Eriko Hatsune) lives alone in her family home following the death of her father (Jun Murakami). She has an unsatisfying job in the local supermarket and is in an unsatisfying relationship with a co-worker who wants to get married but she isn’t convinced. Yasuko’s striving for an “ordinary” life is disrupted when Satoru (Kengo Kora), the son of one her father’s former girlfriends who lived with them for a few months 20 years ago, suddenly tracks her down. The reconnection between them is instant and easy but also confused, somewhere between siblings and lovers as they resume the physical intimacy they shared as children but on an adult level.

Satoru, a drifter like his flighty mother (Tamiyo Kusakari), pushes Yasuko towards a consideration of the idea of family which she’d long been resisting. She becomes determined to track down the biological mother who abandoned her when she was just a toddler, hoping to find some kind of answer to the great riddle of her life. Her birth mother, however, fails her once again. Kazuyo, faking tears for the reality show cameras reuniting her with her daughter, is a selfish woman who claims she left her country home because it was boring and that she left her daughter behind because she said she didn’t want to go. Feeling as if she’s being blamed for her own abandonment Yasuko is left with only more confusion and resentment but does at least discover something by accidentally encountering her younger half-sister, Arisa (Takemi Fujii), who shows her that life with her mother might not have been very much different than without.

Yasuko and Satoru revert to their childhood selves because that brief period 20 years ago is the only time either of them ever experienced what they felt to be a “normal” family life as they played together happily and were well fed and cared for by adults acting responsibly. It was however all over too soon – Naoko, Satoru’s drifting mother, upped and left just as she always does. Someone probably left her years ago, and now she makes sure to leave them first before she can be can rejected. Naoko is the only “mother” Yasuko can remember, and her abandonment the most painful in her long memory of abandonments. First came Satoru, and then Arisa her sister, and finally Naoko too returning, filling Yasuko’s home with an instant family that at times seems too perverse and difficult to bear.

Yet she struggles with the idea of “family” itself as something she’s supposed to want but perhaps doesn’t out of fear it will fail her. She considers marrying her workplace boyfriend even though it appears she doesn’t particularly like him and they aren’t suited, solely because his proposal offers her the “normal”, “conventional” kind of life she both fears and longs for. With Satoru she has found a kind of love that is more complicated than most, two lonely children looking for a home and finding it in each other but each fearing that they will not be able to bear the anxiety of its potential end. Yet rather than continue onward along the same dull path she’d walked before, longing for soulless normality, what Yasuko discovers is that she’ll be OK on her own even if things don’t work out in the way that most would consider “normal”. Abandoning past and future, Yasuko begins to accept her presence in the present as a woman with possibilities rather than a passive object clinging onto the life raft of “normality”, accepting that nothing is forever but that once something starts it never really ends.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rent-a-Cat (レンタネコ, Naoko Ogigami, 2012)

©2012レンタネコ製作委員会

rent-a-cat posterPreviously, Ogigami’s heroines (and hero, when one thinks about it) have had to go great distances in order to figure out what it was they were looking for and then finally find it. In Kamome Diner, Sachie went all the way to Helsinki to open up a Japanese cafe only to find herself accidentally attracting a collective of other runaway Japanese people whilst building a community of friendly Finns in her new home. Taeko, in Megane, went on a random holiday that turned out to be much more random than she ever would have expected but she did end up learning to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life which is, presumably, why she ended up on holiday in the first place. Rent-a-Cat’s (レンタネコ, Rent-a-Neko) Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa), by contrast, stubbornly stays put. In fact, she is the pillar around which all else turns as a fixed point for her various “stray cats” each in need of temporary support.

Since her grandmother died a few years ago, Sayoko’s life has been in free fall. A 30-something single woman with no “regular” employment, Sayoko lives in a spacious Japanese-style house with a small garden which is home to the various stray kitties which seem to seek her out when looking for a good place to crash. Sayoko has taken to writing out large banners declaring her immediate goals – getting married being the main one, and pasting them on the walls to encourage herself to keep going. The truth is, though Sayoko is not exactly unhappy she is unfulfilled. Since childhood she’s had the strange talent of attracting friendly cats but secretly longs to attract people too. Combining her strength and her weakness, Sayoko operates an unusual enterprise – cat rental! Walking along with a loud speaker and a trailer full of cats, she looks for lonely people who might want to borrow a fluffy friend for a while to help them out while they’re feeling low.

Of course, Sayoko’s quest to heal the hearts of others is also one to heal her own. Eccentric since childhood during which she was nicknamed “Jamiko” after a strange monster and mostly spent her time snoozing in the nurse’s office along with a kleptomaniac fellow student, Sayoko has never found her feet when it comes to building lasting relationships with people. Her voiceovers all refer back to her grandmother whom she misses deeply and seems slightly lost without. Appearing to have no real friends and spending a lot of time at home looking after her collection of needy cats, Sayoko’s main source of daily interaction comes from the horrible old woman who lives next door and turns up at random intervals to play Greek chorus in neatly reciting Sayoko’s various neuroses back to her over the garden fence.

Sayoko’s neighbour probably has a hole in her heart she fills by being deliberately insensitive to obviously sensitive people, but Sayoko offers her clients another solution in the form of a fluffy little cat who needs someone to look after it. Before lending one of her charges, Sayoko makes sure to vet the prospective cat guardian – after all, not everyone is nice and some people like to project their own suffering onto harmless little creatures. Through the house visits Sayoko gets to find out exactly what kind of hole it is that needs filling from dimples in jellies to holes in socks and even those in donuts, and being the sensitive soul she is, Sayoko usually knows what kind of help her customers need.

Structured around four different clients and bridged with Sayoko’s own neurotic journeys, Rent-a-Cat takes on a charming, fairytale quality in its repeated formulas. Each time someone asks to rent a cat they get the same speech about the inspection and then when it comes to talking money they each express surprise at the extremely good value, making sure to ask if Sayoko will be OK financially when she operates on these oddly beneficial terms. Don’t worry, she tells them – she has other income, a different one each time from stockbroking to fortune telling. The problems run from late life isolation as in a little old lady who loves making jellies for the son she never sees, to dejected fathers forced to work away from home and missing their kids grow up, and young women who feel trapped in a conservative society and would like nothing more than to jet off somewhere to follow their own path, if only they had the courage.

Social conservatism does seem to be something which particularly annoys Sayoko, if perhaps subconsciously. A strange dream sends her off to a Rent-a-Cat corporate clone where clients can rent cats of three different classes priced according to desirability. Sayoko is particularly anxious about the “Class C” cats whom the lady behind the counter disdainfully describes as “crossbreeds”. Sayoko is not having any of that and takes the woman to task for her need to “rank” things before insisting on renting a Class C cat at the Class A price to fully ram home the unpleasantness and absurdity of such a prejudiced world view.

Branded a “crazy cat lady” by the neighbourhood kids, Sayoko’s humanitarian mission of spreading love and kindness eventually does start to reel in a few humans even if they are mostly lonely souls in need of temporary support. Towards the end, when a promising reappearance provokes only disappointment, Sayoko wonders if perhaps there are holes cats cannot fill or sadnesses too great to be borne, but nevertheless she persists. A falling banner a suggests Sayoko may have already found the material to fill her own hole in helping other people fill theirs whilst surrounded by the by warm indifference of her feline brood.


You can catch Rent-a-Cat at the Japanese Embassy in London on 22nd November as the first in a series of events, Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers, which also includes screenings of Bare Essence of Life, Death of a Japanese Salesman, and Wild Berries from 30th November to 2nd December.

 Original trailer (no subtitles)

Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは, Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close knit posterWhile studying in the US, director Naoko Ogigami encountered people from all walks of life but on her return to Japan was immediately struck by the invisibility of the LGBT community and particularly that of transgender people. Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは,  Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa) is her response to a still prevalent social conservatism which sometimes gives rise to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Moving away from the quirkier sides of her previous work, Ogigami nevertheless opts for a gentle, warm approach to this potentially heavy subject matter, preferring to focus on positivity rather than dwell on suffering.

11 year old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is home alone, again. Her mother rolls in late, dead drunk, and promptly flops down onto the futon next to Tomo’s still in her work clothes. A note left the next day explains that Tomo’s mother has quit her job and won’t be coming home for a while. This is not the first time she’s done this and the money she’s left is at least enough for a train ticket to visit uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). When Tomo slaps a collection of manga down in front of him at the bookstore where he works, Makio immediately realises what’s going on and is both infuriated with his sister and glad to take his niece in for a while until her mother comes to her senses.

There’s one potential problem. Makio now has a live-in girlfriend only she’s not quite what Tomo might be expecting. On meeting Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo is indeed shocked but is soon won over by Rinko’s warm and loving nature. Rinko is a transgender woman who’s experienced her share of hardships in life but finally found fulfilment in her relationship with Makio though she has a lot of love to give and would dearly love a child of her own.

Used to being left to her own devices, Tomo is a tough and resourceful child but also one with a thick protective shell. Unused to being mothered, Tomo finds Rinko’s attempts to reach out to her difficult to bear, cycling back and forth through a pattern of affection and rejection. Where her mother left her only store bought onigiri (which she has come to hate) and cash, Rinko makes beautiful character bentos complete with octopus frankfurters and adorable panda faces. So touched is Tomo by this gesture that she can’t quite bring herself to eat it and eventually makes herself ill by finally deciding to enjoy it long after it’s past its best.

Nevertheless even if Tomo comes to bond with Rinko, there are still those who don’t approve of her existence. Tomo has a, well, not quite friend at school, Kai, who is somewhat ostracised by the other children who call him “gay” and write homophobic slurs on the classroom blackboard. Tomo, whilst sometimes hanging out with Kai who lives near to her outside of school, refuses to have anything to do with him in class lest she be rendered guilty by association. Growing closer to Rinko, Tomo also comes to an acceptance of and willingness to fight for Kai who has confided in her about his crush on another boy in their class. Kai’s mother (Eiko Koike), however, is not so understanding and so when she catches sight of Tomo in the supermarket with Rinko she offers to save her from the “weirdo” and later bans Kai from hanging out with his only friend in case he somehow catches “weirdness” from their atypical family setup. This attitude of hers eventually has potentially tragic consequences for her young son, left with nothing other than the prospect of maternal and later societal rejection eased only by Tomo’s firm insistence that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Unlike Kai’s mother, Rinko’s instantly understood and remained fully supportive of her child even whilst hauled into school for an explanation of why “Rintaro” has been skipping P.E.. Rinko’s mother not only goes out and buys lacy bras for her daughter, but even knits her a pair of fluffy pink breasts so she won’t feel so depressed about not developing in the same way as all the other girls. Tomo’s mother has a lot of problems of her own but many of these stem back to her own upbringing, unintentionally threatening to pass on some of these same qualities to her own daughter as she allows her to feel just as worthless and unloved as her mother did her. Yet, Ogigami’s camera remains resolutely unjudgemental in trying to understand each of these various facets of motherhood from the immense maternal love of Rinko as it finally finds an outlet in Tomo to the far less positive image of Kai’s mother who presumably thinks she’s doing the best for her son in trying to prevent him veering from the norm but only succeeds in making him feel his life is not worth living.

The title of the film, as grandly punned as it is, refers not just to the quickening family bonds among this idealised yet unusual family but also to Rinko’s favourite method of stress relief – knitting. Like the cooking she is often seen providing for the family, Rinko’s knitting is also largely about warmth in making something for a particular person which is tailor made to keep them warm in the cold, but it also works as a multilayered metaphor as she brings people together, binding them tightly with her own wamth and generosity of spirit. Rather than fighting back with angry words (or well aimed dish soap as a provoked Tomo eventually does), Rinko channels her frustrations into her knitting, using them to create something positive rather allowing negativity to overwhelm her. Ogigami’s film seems to want to do the same, arguing for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance as a pathway to a better world even if it’s clear the road is long and we’re not so far along it as we should be.


Close-Knit was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

There’s also an interesting interview with director Naoko Ogigami and producer Kumi Kobata in the Nikkei Asian Review in which they discuss the casting of actor Toma Ikuta.

Original trailer (English subtitles)