Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト 夏・秋 / 冬・春, Junichi Mori, 2014/15)

Divided into four hour-long segments, Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト) opens with a voice over from Ichiko (Ai Hashimoto) introducing us to Komori, her home village. High in the mountains, Komori is a community of farmers without a single store though there is a farmer’s co-op if you make the half-hour bike ride to the high street. It’s downhill so not so far on a bike on your way, but a good 90 minute walk in the winter snow. Most people do their shopping at the supermarket a few towns over but if Ichiko wants to go there it takes her the best part of a day. Ichiko, however, has a taste for doing things herself and so she grows most of her own food or barters for that which she doesn’t have with some of the other sharecroppers. Always with one eye on the future and particularly for the winter to come, Ichiko preserves her produce and makes the most of all she has.

Despite her feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness, Ichiko throws herself into the business of farming, weeding her rice field and preparing for the harvest all alone. She doesn’t seem to mind the solitude or the monotony, rejoicing in cooking the food she has grown and savouring each of its flavours. A gifted cook, Ichiko also likes to experiment, finding new ways to use each of the vegetables in her garden and trying them out on her two old school friends Yuta (Takahiro Miura) and Kikko (Mayu Matsuoka).

Yuta, like Ichiko, tried life in the city but ultimately decided to come home to the country. Despite wanting nothing but escape, Yuta found that he couldn’t adapt to the city’s insincerity. He missed real conversation and the ability to talk seriously about serious things whilst learning from others – something he so admired in the village. Ichiko, rather than empathising with him, is a little jealous. Yuta came home to face himself and discovered who he really was whereas she suspects she came back to escape doing exactly that. In short, she ran away and is living in hiding.

Yuta, adopting the gentle tones he was so in praise of, almost points this out to Ichiko albeit in a subtle way by telling her that he admires the way she does everything for herself but that he’s worried she may have missed the point. Ichiko’s need for independence is perhaps a reaction to abandonment by her mother which apparently happened quite abruptly in her teenage years. Her mother’s letters are vague and don’t include a return address or any details regarding where, how, or with whom she is currently living. Her last letter, however, seems to contain some relevant advice in the form of various excuses. Ichiko’s mother tells her that she was worried she’d just been wandering round in circles but finally realised that the arc of her life has been more like a spiral. Never taking the same path twice, she learned as she went and so finding yourself back at the start is not the same as never having set off.

Rather than actively making the choice, Ichiko merely commits to making it. Realising that it’s time to come out of hibernation and figure out where it is she wants to be rather than simply allowing Komori to become her default setting, the decision is made quickly and keenly. Yet it takes time, effort, and experience to bring something to fruition and, skilled as she is, Ichiko still has a few things to learn. Filled with wonderful food and idyllic scenery, Little Forest is perhaps an idealised view of country life – the kind of life lived by those who know how to live happily even when life is hard, but there is truth in its age old wisdom as long as you know how to harvest it.


Released as two two-part movies: Summer/Autumn (2014) & Winter/Spring (2015)

Summer/Autumn trailer (no subtitles)

Winter/Spring trailer (no subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


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

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)

 

Rage (怒り, Lee Sang-il, 2016)

rage posterVillain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.

In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).

Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.

Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama),  living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.

The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.

Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.

Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.

Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.

Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.

The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yuya Ishii, 2017)

tokyo night sky posterLearning to love Tokyo is a kind of suicide, according to the heroine of Yuya Ishii’s love/hate letter to the Japanese capital, The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da). This city is a mess of contradictions, a huge sprawling metropolis filled with the anonymous masses and at the same time so tiny you can find yourself running into the same people over and over again. Inspired by the poems of Tahi Saihate, The Tokyo Night Sky is at once a meditative contemplation of city life and an awkward love story between two lost souls who somehow find each other in its crowded backstreets.

The heroine, Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), works as a nurse by day and supplements her income by night as a bar tender in a “girls bar” (basically a normal bar where all the bartenders are female and you have to pay an entrance fee on top of your overpriced drinks). Depressed and anxious, she wanders the city with a poetic interior monologue expressing her constant loathing for its indifferent soullessness. Meanwhile, Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a casual day labourer working on various projects in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. He describes himself as odd and is over sensitive about being blind in one eye. Unlike his friends and colleagues, Shinji prefers literature to parties and solitude to company.

The two first catch sight of each other in a crowded bar where Mika is trying to buy time before having to head back to a dull double date with her drunken friend and the lewd guys she’s invited to come along, and Shinji is trying to read away from the noise and chaos of his lodging house. They meet again when one of Shinji’s colleagues suggests going to the girls bar, and then seem to be constantly running into one another for no particular reason.

Though romance would seem to be the natural outcome of the “pointless miracle” of their repeated meetings, the process is a slow one. It’s obvious the pair share a deep, innate understanding of each other but they each have various problems which conspire to keep them apart. Shinji, describing himself as odd and assuming he’s annoying, is prone to nervous babbling which Mika correctly guesses is less down to a love of his own voice than a fear of awkward silence. For her part Mika is anxious all the time, brittle and insecure she instinctively rejects attempts at intimacy but somehow warms to Shinji responding to his confession of oddness with a comforting “well then, you’re just like me.”

The pair advance and retreat as they wander around the city they both claim to hate but as much as they keep each other at a distance their lives begin to overlap and run in parallel. Mika receives a text from an ex (Takahiro Miura) with a confused declaration of love while Shinji receives one from an old high school classmate (Ryo Sato) with much the same effect. Mika insists that love makes you boring, that you’ll never find someone who is prepared to love the most pitiable part of you, and that there is no such thing as love on this planet, but her protestations point more towards a kind of soul-searching and buried hope than they do of active rejection.

Ishii marries the romantic undercurrent with an ambivalent portrait of the stratified city. Mika, a nurse by profession, needs to take a second job to make ends meet while the more traditionally working class Shinji is a sensitive intellectual relegated to dangerous and insecure employment. As a day labourer he gets no employment benefits like sick pay or insurance – hence when he’s injured on the job he avoids letting anyone know for as long as possible because it means both loss of wages and a doctor’s bill. An older friend (Tetsushi Tanaka) has ruined his back through long years of overwork and is now left with nothing while a Filipino migrant worker (Paul Magsign) pines for home and the wife and child waiting for him there.

Shinji’s anxieties are partly economic – trapped in insecure employment which may well, as his older friend points out, dry up once the Olympics rolls around but the greater problem is inertia. During their journeys around the city, Shinji and Mika run into the same busker (Yoshimi Nozaki) who is always singing the same strange song about her underarms sweating which seems to echo their shared anxiety. Yet the song she offers them also provides a note of hope as she enthusiastically reaches the “Ganbare!” chorus, cheering the pair of frightened lovers on and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and desires rather than waiting around for something to happen.

Waiting has been Mika’s problem. Saddled with intense abandonment issues stemming from childhood trauma, Mika is always sure something bad is about to happen. Shinji partly shares her anxiety often claiming that he has “a bad feeling” about something or other but conversely, he begins to believe that the “something” could be good as well as bad. Rather than try and argue with her, Shinji concedes most of Mika’s points, nobody knows what will happen in the future, nobody can make any promises, and everything ends someday but that’s OK – it’s only life.

Ishii’s Tokyo is a soulless place filled with the melancholy and the empty but there’s beauty here too, if only people would look up from their smartphones every now and then to see it. Mika is afraid of being swallowed by the city and becoming one of its faceless masses but her listlessness and depression stand for the city itself as she refuses and rejects the process of living with all of its attendant risks. Ishii paints the city in all the colours of the night, but for all of its beautiful sadness it’s also a place of noise and chaos where existence is exhausting and the price of living high. It is, however, also a place of ordinary miracles offering hope to the hopeless if only they are willing to accept it.


The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flowers (フラワーズ, Norihiro Koizumi, 2010)

flowersThe rate of social change in the second half of the twentieth century was extreme throughout much of the world, but given that Japan had only emerged from centuries of isolation a hundred years before it’s almost as if they were riding their own bullet train into the future. Norihiro Koizumi’s Flowers (フラワーズ) attempts to chart these momentous times through examining the lives of three generations of women, from 1936 to 2009, or through Showa to Heisei, as the choices and responsibilities open to each of them grow and change with new freedoms offered in the post-war world. Or, at least, up to a point.

In 1936, oldest sister Rin (Yu Aoi) is to be married off against her will to a man picked by her father and whom she has never actually met. Bold and wilful, Rin finds herself more than usually torn between her intense resentment at being forced into a one time only life changing event simply on her father’s say so, and the guilt of rejecting centuries of tradition in rejecting her father’s authority. Minutes before the ceremony Rin makes a break for it fully done up in her wedding dress and makeup.

Flashing forward to her funeral in 2009, we learn that Rin did marry (someone, at least) and had three daughters. It’s her granddaughters we’re interested in now – happy mother Kei (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerful even at a wake, and the depressed Kanna (Kyoka Suzuki) – an unmarried former concert pianist who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant and is unsure what to do. In order to understand them we have to flashback a little again – to 1969, 1964, and 1977 to find out what happened to Rin’s three daughters – Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka), and Sato (Yukie Nakama).

Koizumi makes the most of his shifts in time periods to experiment with technical effects recreating the look of classic films of the era. Hence, 1936 is a desaturated monotone filled with classic silent movie compositions, seemingly owing a large debt to Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi. The difference between 1964 and 1969 might be thought slight but partly down to the different genre elements in the two vignettes, the contrast is marked with 1964 taking on the classic romantic melodramas of the period, and 1969 embracing bright and colourful salaryman comedy – only this time it’s a salary woman embarking on the era of having it all (though perhaps, tragically, ten too years to early to make the most of it). 1977 brings us back down with bump of realism as Sato lives an ordinary suburban life as a housewife and mother. Imbuing each of his eras with the warmth of nostalgia backed up with rich period detail, Koizumi has indeed framed his passage of womanhood narrative with an impressive degree of grounding.

This has been a period of intense social change, entirely for the better even if there is still a long way to go. Though marriages of 1936 were referred to as semi-arranged, families could and did place intense pressure on their children to consent or refuse to accept their refusal to do so (perhaps as true for sons as daughters, though sons were unlikely to find themselves in such a difficult position when things went wrong). Thus the course of Rin’s life is decided by her rigid, austere father leaving her with no possibility of choice in a world entirely controlled by men. Her daughters have more freedom and opportunities, marrying for love and choosing careers and/or motherhood as they see fit.

Midori, the most headstrong of the three sisters takes a job at a publishing house where she is the only female employee. Receiving a marriage proposal leads her to question her choices once again, wondering if accepting means jumping off the career ladder altogether. Wanting to get ahead, Midori has been behaving like her male colleagues – dressing in less feminine clothes and in subdued colours, heading off the inevitable sexist comments with aggression and violence but, eventually emboldened, she she finds herself blossoming when embracing her femininity within the workplace.

The world has moved on – women cannot be pushed in the same way Rin was pushed even if social mores can still be used to cajole them into conformity. The one big recent social change is in Kanna’s decision to proceed as a single mother. Though the question is still raised, there is broad approval for the idea which is met with no obvious stigma and only love and support from her immediate family. However, some things apparently don’t change as even if not all roads lead to marriage they all point towards motherhood which is still presented as the only marker of success as a woman. In this respect the closing montage accompanied by the odd choice of Olivia Newton John’s Have You Even Felt Mellow feels ill judged as the sister who’s experienced the ultimate heartbreak bounces around recreating the opening of Georgy Girl (only more successfully) with a new haircut and indulging in an ice-cream as a sort of antidote to eternal widowhood.

Nevertheless, Flowers does present a warm and broadly inspirational ode to the healing power of family and unbreakable female resilience even in the midst of such extreme social change. Painted with a keen eye for period detail and a deeply nostalgic longing for comforts long since passed, Koizumi’s exploration of womanhood through the ages is quick to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice experienced by women of all generations but is, in the end, too ready to accept it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Stitch of Life (繕い裁つ人, Yukiko Mishima, 2015)

stitch-of-lifeTradition vs modernity is not so much of theme in Japanese cinema as an ever present trope. The characters at the centre of Yukiko Mishima’s adaptation of Aoi Ikebe’s manga, A Stitch of Life (繕い裁つ人, Tsukuroi Tatsu Hito), might as well be frozen in amber, so determined are they to continuing living in the same old way despite whatever personal need for change they may be feeling. The arrival of an unexpected visitor from what might as well be the future begins to loosen some of the perfectly executed stitches which have kept the heroine’s heart constrained all this time but this is less a romance than a gentle blossoming as love of craftsmanship comes to the fore and an artist begins to realise that moving forward does not necessarily entail a betrayal of the past.

Ichie Minami (Miki Nakatani) has taken over the tailoring business started by her grandmother, using her grandmother’s vintage treadle sewing machine and mostly occupying her time by making alterations on her grandmother’s existing patterns. To make ends meet, she’s also been reproducing some of her grandmother’s designs for sale at a local shop which brings her to the attention of department store employee and fashion enthusiast Fujii (Takahiro Miura) who has the idea of getting Ichie to work on some new items for a branded fashion line. Ichie, however, is devoted to her grandmother’s legacy and has committed herself to continuing the work her grandmother started with no deviation from the current model. Undeterred, Fujii continues to visit Ichie while she works, reaching even deeper levels of understanding both of her craft and of her person. Something inside Ichie begins to move too, but the pull back to the past is a strong one and it takes more than just courage to decide to finally embrace all of your hopes and dreams.

When Fujii hands the portfolio pitch he’s designed to his boss at the department store she loves the clothes and exclaims that the person who made them must be nice too, to which Fujii sheepishly admits that Ichie is more like a stubborn old man. Rigid in her habits and a little standoffish, perhaps even austere, Ichie does indeed seem harsh and unforgiving. Yet the irony is that her work requires the opposite of her. The clothes Ichie makes, and those her grandmother made before her, are perfectly tailored to the person in question, not just in terms of their measurements but designed to bring out each person’s personality, to help them become more of themselves and live a little happier in beautifully made outfits. Thus, Ichie must look closely at each person she meets in order to understand them fully and arrange her craft in perfect symbiosis with their individual needs. Perhaps for this reason Ichie finds her solitary time listening to the rhythmical beat of the sewing machine particularly relaxing, but the shop remains somewhere the local people gather in search of something more than just a simple hem repair.

Ichie’s grandmother sought to create clothes that could be worn for a lifetime, remaining long after both she and the person they were made for have disappeared. This approach may seem odd from a modern perspective of wash and wear disposable clothing intended to be replaced in a matter of months, but the idea here was never about the fashionable but one of engineering personal happiness through attire. The clothes make the man, in a sense, but the man also makes the clothes. As she made her alterations, Ichie’s grandmother recorded the various goings on in her customers’ lives in her notebook, allowing the clothes themselves to become the story of someone’s life. As Ichie’s former teacher puts it when trying to explain the art of making tea, it takes more than just heart – it takes experience, and care, and dedication. Ichie’s grandmother was meticulous – a trait which her granddaughter has inherited, with every stitch perfectly placed, each hem perfectly straight, and garment perfectly tailored for its intended wearer.

Ichie may keep herself contained for good reason, but now and then something else comes through such as a love of truly giant cheesecakes or a sudden bout of worry on being asked to craft a funeral dress for a good friend, but Fujii’s gentle prodding does indeed lead her towards a period of self reflection on what exactly it is she wants to do with her grandmother’s legacy. A cynical person might regard the annual “soirees” Ichie’s grandmother began in the small town as an excuse to get people to buy an outfit they’ll only wear once a year but the event, like the clothes, becomes an occasion for the artifice which lays bare the truth. Eventually, her grandmother’s gentle spell works on Ichie too (with a little help from Fujii) as the love of the craft of tailoring helps her to become herself, cast off her grandmother’s shadow whilst honouring her legacy, and learn to take pleasure in doing the things which only she can do.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no 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)