Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

Keisuke Kinoshita has sometimes been dismissed by Western critics for his supposed sentimentality, but his mid-career comedies can be surprisingly cynical. Scripted not by Kinoshita but Taichi Yamada, 1963’s Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Utae Wakodotachi) is in someways an exception to the rule, a breezy take on the student comedy updated for the present day, but underneath all the absurdist humour and jibs about youthful ennui is a real sense of adolescent hopelessness as these aimless young men ponder their “pitch-black” futures in a rapidly changing Japan where the best they can hope for is fulfilling the salaryman dream.  

Shooting in glorious colour, Kinoshita opens with a lengthly pan over contemporary Tokyo which the jaunty voice over describes as “the number-one city in the world” before homing in on the incongruous figure of a strangely dressed man holding a sign advertising “sensual massage beauties”. A relic of an earlier advertising age, the wandering sign man nevertheless catches sight of someone even “weirder” than he is, a student wearing a student’s cap! Kinoshita then takes us on a brief detour through Japan’s major universities demonstrating that no one is so uncool as to wear a student’s cap in the age of protest, drawing a direct contrast to the student comedies of old while showing us a series of scenes of students “playing” hard with part-time jobs in bands or as models, training hard in preparation for the upcoming Olympics, fomenting the revolution, or fighting in the streets. In the first of many meta touches, our hero, Mori, is eventually woken by the narrator after falling asleep in class, his eyes “gleaming with hopes for the future”. 

Or, perhaps not, he’s just tired. Mori (Tsutomu Matsukawa) is as he describes himself a man without hopes or dreams who believes that the road ahead of him is “pitch black”. Dropping a brush from the window washers’ platform at one of his part-time jobs, he asks himself if there shouldn’t be more to life than this. The only son of his widowed mother, he’s pinned everything on graduating from a top university but feels powerless and empty, adrift in the post-war landscape. Where his calculating friend Miyamoto (Yusuke Kawazu) fills the void with romance and a determination to “get lots of As” and then land a top job, his roommate Okada (Shinichiro Mikami) earnestly studies hard afraid to disappoint his austere family but also quietly resentful in his lack of autonomy, and the dopey Hirao (Kei Yamamoto) simply goes about being nice to people more or less forcing them to eat the traditional treats his loving mother is forever sending. 

Yet for all the bleakness Mori seems to see in his future, he only ever falls up. Luck follows him and he’s presented with ever more fantastic opportunities at every turn. In fact, it’s his slightly grumpy expression as he cleans the windows of an office building that leads to them snapping a picture and making him a cover star without ever bothering to ask his permission though they do eventually pay. Still Mori remains indifferent, telling a reporter who tries to interview him that he had nothing to do with the cover, he has no dreams or aspirations for the future but lives his life day by day. He describes himself only as “nervous”. His words run ironically over the magazine literally becoming tomorrow’s chip paper, used by a stall owner to wrap her croquettes, as a stand for a hot pot, and otherwise bundled up to be pulped. Nevertheless, the cover leads to great opportunities from a TV network looking for a fresh face to front their new youth-orientated drama serial. 

Despite all the promise, Mori remains indifferent, later irritating a new colleague and potential love interest (Shima Iwashita) when he idly suggests he might just give up acting and fall back on the salaryman dream. As she points out, she had to fight all the way to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress so hearing someone say they’re going to throw away a tremendous opportunity that came to them entirely by chance is mildly offensive. Miyamoto meanwhile is growing lowkey resentful, realising that maybe nothing matters after all it’s all just dumb luck. Mori deliberately didn’t do anything because he thought his life was pointless but everything has landed right at his feet while Miyamoto’s life is crumbling. He’s lost all his girlfriends and endured a lonely New Year alone in the dorm, coming to the conclusion that his future really is “pitch black”.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to remain resentful about a friend’s accidental success and so each of the men eventually finds direction in even in directionlessness. Mori realises that he might as well ride his wave of fame for as long as it lasts, accepting in part at least his sense of powerlessness, while Okada does the reverse in deciding to rebel against his authoritarian family by marrying in secret. Miyamoto resolves to make a success of himself in his own way, and Hirao seemingly accepts the hand fate has dealt him with good humour. Kinoshita ramps up the meta comedy with Mori joining Shochiku, encouraged to try and work for that “excellent” director Keisuke Kinoshita, later referencing Garden of Women, while Mariko Okada and Keiji Sada turn up as onstage guests at an event launching him as a young actor. Playfully using outdated, quirky screen wipes and opening with an artsy title sequence featuring colourful confetti falling up, Kinoshita perhaps adopts a slightly ironic tone in satirising the all pervasive sense of confusion and hopelessness among the younger generation but does so with only sympathy for those coming of age in uncertain times. 

Kontora (コントラ, Anshul Chauhan, 2019)

Copyright © 2020 Kowatanda Films

Life is a series of oppositions, the past conflicting with the future, the young with the old, selfishness with altruism, but without conflict there can be no sense of forward motion. That’s largely where the heroine of Anshul Chauhan’s second feature Kontora (コントラ) has found herself, stuck in a “one horse” town with no sense of excitement, longing for the bright lights of Tokyo while fiercely rejecting her distant father in favour of gentle companionship with her compassionate grandad. It’s not until after he passes away, however, that she begins to realise there were things in his life that he was never able to tell her. 

Teenager Sora (Wan Marui), in her final year of high school, discovers this on finding her grandfather’s body. Understandably panicked she looks over the box of World War Two mementos he appeared to have been poring over just before died and hurriedly hides them so her father (Takuzo Shimizu) won’t see. After the funeral she finds herself fondling his old pilot’s helmet and goggles while reading his war diary, filled with beautifully drawn illustrations and terrible memories of torture and privation. Writing such a diary must have been quite a risk, seeing as Sora’s grandfather recounts only fear and dissatisfaction, envious of the young men who failed the draft and got to continue with their student lives while he is lonely and desperate but claims no longer to be able to understand love. For Sora, however, the most important thing is that her grandfather mentions burying his “metal arm” in the forest. She commits herself to finding it, bunking off school to go digging on a nearby mountain. 

Meanwhile, she also begins spotting a strange young man (Hidemasa Mase) around town who is dressed in rags and seemingly can only walk backwards. The man enters her life in a more concrete sense when he literally collides with her father’s car while the pair are returning from a fairly disastrous family dinner over which her father’s cousin Yoshiji (Takuzo Shimizu) had made an inappropriate bid to get him to sell the family home so he could use it to house workers at his factory, even offering to give Sora a job to make sure she’s looked after. Questioned about her future plans, Sora had mentioned hoping to go to Tokyo, which comes as a shock to her dad and is abruptly shutdown by Yoshiji who can’t see what the point in that would be. His own daughter, Haru (Seira Kojima), went to Tokyo to become a dancer but seems to have returned somewhat chastened and now works in his factory, as if proving his point that there is no future for girls like Sora other than shifting straight into small-town life seconds after graduating high school. 

Sora’s dad leaves the gathering drunk and angry, which is why his first thought is abandoning the injured man on the roadside so he won’t have to deal with a drunk driving charge. Sora, however, refuses to abnegate her responsibly and insists on making sure the man is OK, leading to a compromise in which they take him home to monitor overnight. Still unconvinced, Sora’s dad kicks him out in the morning, but Sora chases him down and brings him back, dressing him in grandad’s clothes and stunned when she hears him singing one of grandad’s songs. 

The man’s presence highlights a key difference between Sora and her distant father. Sora is intrigued and unafraid, she tries to talk to the man and is very interested to find out why he only walks backwards but is also accepting of his silence. Her father meanwhile sees only danger. His first thoughts are only to expel the man by whatever means possible, eventually jumping to conclusions born of prejudice that he may have somehow harmed Sora. Sora, meanwhile, jealously keeps the diary to herself, never sharing her newfound quest with her father until forced into the open at which point she tells him that the diary had given her life a sense of purpose that she was reluctant to share with anyone else. Secrets revealed, the rift between father and daughter begins to heal while the mysterious man looks on in silence, perhaps knowing that grandad had other messages to give that are still waiting to be uncovered. 

Strangely, no one seems to stop to consider that grandad may have buried his “metal arm” for good reason, and that it should perhaps stay that way (especially if a heartless arch capitalist like Yoshiji ends up getting his hands on it). Nevertheless, unearthing the buried past begins to solve the mystery of grandad and enable a kind of healing. The man keeps walking round and round in circles, backwards as if walking against the future, caught on a treadmill of repetitive anxieties and unable to move forward. Sora may be at that point herself, stuck in a moment of adolescent confusion unable to step into adulthood and having lost her only guide and confidant. It may be, in some ways, troubling that she finds her direction through embracing a violent past, but there is indeed a moment of healing in two eras meeting which allows time to reassume its proper flow. Ethereal and mysterious, Kontora is both coming-of-age tale and a melancholy fable of griefs both national and personal in which forward motion is possible but only in facing the past head on and waving it goodbye as you turn around to walk towards a more positive future.

Kontora screens on March 12/13 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bad Poetry Tokyo (東京不穏詩, Anshul Chauhan, 2018)

Bad Poetry Tokyo posterRunning towards a dream can help you forget whatever it was you were running away from, but there may come a time when you have to accept that your dream has betrayed you and the sun is already setting. For the heroine of Anshul Chauhan’s debut feature Bad Poetry Tokyo (東京不穏詩, Tokyo Fuon Uta) that moment has arrived all too soon and though she perhaps expected it to come and had actively resisted it, it can no longer be outrun.

30 years old, Jun’s (Shuna Iijima) dream has been a long time coming. At a make or break audition for a Canadian film, she tells the panel that she studied English at a top university in Tokyo and plans to move to LA to work in movies. Meanwhile, she blew out of her country home five years ago and has become estranged from her family. She supports herself working as a hostess in a seedy bar which is more a front for sex work than it is a drinking establishment, but sex work is work and at least pays well allowing her to save money to move to LA.

Unfortunately she plans to move there with her current boyfriend, Taka (Orson Mochizuki), who is a bouncer at the club and was responsible for getting her the job in the first place even if he now can’t quite reconcile himself with the feelings of jealousy and resentment her work causes him. Taka also has issues of his own and when twin crises present themselves in the form of a possessive and intimidating client, and a home invasion that seems like an inside job and leaves her with visible facial scarring, Jun is finally robbed of all hope and left with no other option than to retreat to her hometown and the quiet horrors which have been patiently waiting for her return.

Jun’s life, it would seem, has been one long scream. Returning to a seemingly empty home, she is less than happy to find her slumbering father (Kohei Mashiba) slumped over in the living room. Noticing the wounds on her face he begins to ask her what happened but more out of irritation than concern – he warns her not to bring any trouble to his door. Jun mutters that it might have been a mistake to come back, to which her father cooly retorts that the biggest mistake was her birth, resenting his daughter for her very existence and the taboo desires she arouses in him while insisting that this is all her fault because she is essentially “bad”. Jun’s dad didn’t even bother to tell her that her mother had died, perhaps out of embarrassment or shame for this was not a natural death and though not at his hand he is very much to blame. The first of many men to have wronged her, only now in her somewhat weakened and desperate state is Jun finally ready for a reckoning. After all, there is nothing more to lose.

Men have indeed ruined her life, as has the oppressive patriarchy which continues to define it. The first time we see her, Jun is forced to perform an intense audition scene of a woman being brutally beaten and abused for a dispassionate director. Which is to say, she is forced to humiliate herself and relive very real traumas in the quest to fulfil her dream. This early scene of playacting will be recalled several times, most obviously in the flashforward which opens the film and eventually leads to a moment of both liberation and transgression which ultimately seals her fate.

Unable to gain a foothold in acting, Jun is forced into a life of sex work which she finds degrading and unpleasant, allowing herself to be “violated” in return for money as she later describes it. Again reliving past traumas, her anger only grows and intensifies as she passively permits herself to be misused. A final act of rebellion in refusing the intimidating and entitled attentions of a controlling client leads to a dangerous situation in which he reminds her that women like her belong to men like him and if it pleases him he will destroy her. Jun gives up on her dream and therefore has no more need of the club, but employment in a hostess bar is not always as casual as it seems and one cannot just simply leave. Once again Jun has become someone’s property, not merely as an idea but as flesh.

Jun’s physical wounds are a manifestation of her emotional trauma and the legacy of violence which traps her in an oppressive cycle of abuse and despair. Back in her hometown, filled as it is with unpleasant memories and the shadow of her father’s cruelty, Jun is haunted by the spectre of an innocent childhood. Reuniting with an old friend who, it seems, has always carried a torch for the girl she once was, Jun is forced to confront the gulf between the “innocent” self which escaped with hope, and the defeated self which has returned with none. Even this seemingly positive, innocent romance is eventually tainted by violence offered as an act of love which has its own sense of disquieting poetry. Yet violence is the force which perpetuates despair, creating only fear and rage and pain each time it breeds. Jun is running once again but neither forward nor back, only full pelt towards the setting sun.

Bad Poetry Tokyo was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Festival promo (English subtitles)