Japanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Daigo Matsui, 2016)

Japanese Girls Never DieJapanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei) but, like old soldiers, only fade away in Daigo Matsui’s impassioned adaptation of the Mariko Yamauchi novel. Crushed by a misogynistic society, these are women who may well want to disappear if only as an alternative to finally being forced into submission to the predefined paths of womanhood – i.e. marriage and motherhood (and nothing else) that have been carved out for them. The young are, however, fighting back if in less than admirable ways. The best revenge on an oppressive society may be living well in one’s own way, but when that same society is at great pains to frustrate your goal the options are few.

As per the title, 28-year-old admin assistant Haruko Azuma (Yu Aoi) has gone missing. Her face, stolen from her missing poster, has been co-opted by a pair of petty punk idiots trying to come-up with a viral graffiti tag to rival Obey, but there’s no art or intention behind their minor act of social transgression so much as bravado and pithy rebellion. Nevertheless, Haruko’s image, plastered throughout the city, has become a hot topic on Japan’s social networking sites where a hundred trolls wade in with their prognostications and salacious fantasies of her violent death at the hands of a sex maniac.

Meanwhile, in an ironic subversion of the normalities of city life, young men have been urged to avoid walking alone at night following a spate of attacks by a gang of rabid school girls taking revenge on the male sex. No exact motive is given for their crusade save the missing poster that precedes Haruko’s and asks for information on a disappeared school girl, but goodness knows they have enough obvious reasons to have decided on a course of vigilante justice.

Haruko’s world is one defined by entrenched sexism. At 28 she finds herself embarrassed to be a still single woman at a wedding while a chance encounter with a school friend (Huwie Ishizaki) at a supermarket leads to more awkwardness when he pointedly remarks he assumed she’d be a housewife by now, and that she looks “old”. At work, Haruko’s colleague Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada), 37 and still unwed, is the butt of hundred jokes for the two middle-aged men who, for some reason, are their bosses though they hardly seem to do any work and automatically earn seven times Yoshizawa’s salary. The bosses urge Haruko to dress in more feminine fashions, asking invasive questions about her personal life while disparaging single women like Yoshizawa who they blame for Japan’s declining birthrate and a related raise in their taxes, avowing that women over 35 are essentially pointless seeing as their eggs are already “rotten”. Yoshizawa has developed a thick skin for their constant needling, realising that it amounts to an odd combination of sexual harassment and constructive dismissal campaign. Unwilling to pay a “higher” salary to an “older” woman, they are waiting for her to quit so they can hire a young and pretty new girl who will be naive enough to accept the pittance they intend to pay her.

It might be thought that the attitudes of Haruko’s bosses are a reflection of their generation, but the two young punks, Yukio (Taiga) and Manabu (Shono Hayama), are no different. 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a bar girl with ambitions to enter the beauty business, gets swept into their unpleasant orbit after getting into a “relationship” with Yukio, but Yukio thinks of her only as a plaything, even going so far as to encourage the shy Manabu to try his luck because (he claims contemptuously) Aina is the kind of girl who’ll go with anyone. Later she becomes a key part of their mini graffiti movement, but once the pair start to get a little recognition they essentially erase Aina from the story taking all the credit for themselves. Aina, poignantly looking up at the poster advertising the boys’ big moment in the same way she had gazed at Haruko’s missing poster on the police station notice board, realises she’s finally had enough of all their lies and of being made to feel invisible in a society which refuses to recognise her as anything more than an object for exploitation.

Haruko’s face is literally plastered all over town, but she remains essentially faceless, her image stolen and stripped of its identity to be repackaged as soulless symbol for two idiotic boys who not only do not care who she is or might have been but only seek to profit from claiming to be allies in a struggle while simultaneously propping up the opposing side. The image does, however, gain its own independent power, speaking for all the oppressed and belittled women who find themselves essentially disappeared in being forced to abandon their hopes and dreams in the face of extreme social pressure. The school girls are fighting back – the next generation will (perhaps) not be so keen to remain complicit in the social codes which restrict their prospects. Then again, as the image of Haruko tells one of her lost disciples, the best revenge is living well. Choosing to absent oneself from a system of social control, going missing in a more positive sense, may be the best option of all.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Dundee Contemporary Arts – 26 February 2018
  • HOME – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 1 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 3 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 6 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 9 March 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 13 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Harmonium (淵に立つ, Koji Fukada, 2016)

harmoniumKoji Fukada first ventured into the family drama arena with the darkly comic satire Hospitalité in 2010 in which frequent collaborator Kanji Furutachi played the decidedly odd “family friend” who quickly took over the household and exposed all of its weaknesses before departing as mysteriously as he arrived. This time Furutachi plays the man of the house, though like his counterpart in Hospitalité, has not been telling the whole truth. Unlike much of Fukada’s previous work, Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) abandons the comedy overtones for a truly bleak and tragic atmosphere which seems to speak of the death of the family unit itself.

On a morning just like any other, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and their small daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), take breakfast together around the kitchen table. Akie leads grace while Toshio reads his paper before Hotaru moves on to a story about the baby spiders in the garden and how they collectively eat their mother. After his wife and daughter have left for the day, Toshio lifts the shutter on his workshop only to see a familiar, if long forgotten, face standing behind it.

The two men talk and it’s clear they’re old friends but have not seen each other in a long time. Fresh out of prison, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is dressed in an odd looking suit without a jacket, the top button of his pristine white shirt neatly buttoned up. Toshio offers Yasaka a job in his workshop and a room in his house – all without a word to Akie, but somehow there’s something other than an altruistic desire to help an old friend who’s fallen on hard times at play.

Yasaka moves in and is permanently on his best behaviour but it isn’t until it’s discovered that he has a talent for the harmonium and begins to help Hotaru improve her playing that Akie starts to warm to him. It also helps that he’s interested in her spiritual life at the local protestant church, unlike her husband, and is generally around and available to her. Learning how Yasaka ended up in prison and how he now feels about his crime, Akie comes to feel this melancholy man must be especially worthy to God, and sure enough a mutual attraction begins to arise between the pair.

There’s a kind of debt implied in the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio which has Toshio running scared, trying to keep his old friend sweet lest he call it in. Yasaka’s intentions remain unclear, has he come for revenge or for comfort, to restart his life or to rehash the past? There’s something inescapably odd about his presence with his identical black suit trousered, white shirted figure which simultaneously makes him look like someone who just came out of prison and has been given one outfit to help them get a job, and like a dodgy TV evangelist or cult leader – ever so slightly too buttoned down and contained. At one point he tells Toshio he’s starting to wonder why Toshio has all of this ordinary success and he doesn’t, he could take it if he wanted to. Toshio, it has to be said, is not trying very hard to protect his place at the head of the table.

Like Yoshimitsu Morita in that other landmark of the family drama turned inside out by an unscheduled visitor, The Family Game, Fukada also makes the dinner table the centre of the conversation. We can see right away that this is not a “harmonious” household through the unbalanced seating arrangements – Toshio on one side, barely speaking and reading his paper, while Akie and Hotaru sit together opposite him reciting grace before they eat. There’s an ugly, empty space at the expected fourth position which is soon to be filled by Yasaka, but his presence does little to alleviate the anxiety of three people sitting at a table meant for four. Notably, after an unexpected tragedy occurs in the second part of the film the table itself has been rotated ninety degrees and only half of it is ever used as the lower part is cut off with a small TV showing live footage from another room. The family no longer take meals together, the kitchen is no longer a warm and organised place but a cold and chaotic one.

The sins of the father are visited upon the child. Everyone thinks they’re guilty of something, and that someone else is paying for their wrongdoing (and by implication forcing them to suffer by proxy). The presence of the harmonium – a staple in small churches and parlours of the 19th century, has a strangely religious resonance that perfectly tallies with Akie’s adherence to her Protestant faith which infuses the house even in the absence of crosses or other forms of iconography. Yasaka carries with him a sense of malevolence, like a visiting demon tempting and provoking as he goes, though it ultimately remains unclear if he is even to blame for the tragedy which befalls the family or is simply another victim of it.

Retaining his elegantly composed, static camera, Fukada makes use of unusual and high impact cuts as well as a daring, unannounced jump forward in time. Red becomes a recurrent theme as it alarmingly cuts through the otherwise subdued colour scheme whether as a T-shirt hidden behind a calm white boiler suit, or the reflections of a car window as a particularly dark thought passes through a passenger’s mind. Filled with mismatched pairs and asymmetrical setups, the family find themselves locked into a wheel of repetitions until the final scene which sees them recreate a “happy” family photo in a kind of grim tableau as neglectful father Toshio desperately fights to revive his family. Darker in tone and filled with an almost supernatural malevolence, Harmonium is a tense and unpredictable drama probing at the status of the traditional family in an increasingly uncertain world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Au revoir l’été ほとりの朔子 (ほとりの朔子 Koji Fukada, 2013)

sakuko_mainReview of this kind of cute French new wave influenced Japanese indie up at UK Anime Network. I kind of liked this one – it’s getting another screening at The Proud Archivist on Tuesday if you couldn’t make it today. Alternatively you can watch it online via FilmDoo!


It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of  “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French – a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances – well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.

Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.

If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely just you started to feel it was getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy – it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.

Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing but – there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said – not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.

Nothing really happens, no grand life changing events but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t  shy away from showing us what might become of them with the unhappy grown ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and is willing to see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.

Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. Which is just as well because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.