Howling (遠吠え, M Haris Sheikh, 2022)

“What do you want from the world?” the sad sack hero of M Harris Sheikh’s noirish drama Howling (遠吠え, Tooboe) is asked on three separate occasions giving first a non-answer, then the answer he’d like to give, then the real one which is far less heroic or edifying but at least honest. Like everyone else, he too is howling into a void putting a brave face on his inner insecurity while longing to play the hero in his own life only to discover that no matter how many chances he’s given he may not be up to the mark. 

A self-professed nice guy, we first meet Ryuji (Ichiro Hashimoto) trying to help a young woman at the karaoke bar where he works escape sexual harassment in the workplace promising that he can protect her while pledging to kick the other guy’s ass, only as it turns out the other guy is her boyfriend and it’s Ryuji who’s been harassing her. Quite clearly uncomfortable, the young woman informs Ryuji she’s already reported him to HR and he’ll probably be fired today which is exactly what happens but rather than take this as an opportunity to learn Ryuji goes around telling everyone it was all a misunderstanding and he’s fallen victim to a needlessly judgmental society. “The world is tough for middle-aged men” he adds, lamenting that even having a “friendly discussion” with a younger woman has somehow become inappropriate. 

It’s these twin facets of his personality that go on to precipitate his downfall in his intense desire to conform to the masculine ideal as a protector when coming into contact with two women who are each in need of his help. Apparently never having had a girlfriend, Ryuji is overexcited when a 20-year-old college student, Akane (Yukino Takahashi), contacts him, a 40-year-old man, on a dating app never really considering that there might be something untoward going on right until the moment she explains that she’s trying to hire a randomer to kill her abusive father who happens to be the chief of police which is why she can’t hire a professional. Meanwhile, a school reunion grants him the opportunity of reuniting with middle-school crush Chisato (Sonae Kotani) only to discover that she has since married the bully, Tsuchida, who made their lives miserable and is trapped in an abusive relationship. Ryuji had been unable to protect her when they were children but claims to be different now. Then again Tsuchida said the same the thing and clearly hasn’t changed at all. Hoping to solve all his problems by getting a sudden windfall and proving that he can be the hero, Ryuji agrees to Akane’s plan but of course eventually disappoints himself realising that his fantasy of being a saviour is just that. 

Meanwhile the two women, who happen to be neighbours in a swanky high rise apartment block, begin by believing that they cannot escape their situations alone but need a male saviour each placing their hopes in the overeager Ryuji but finally freeing themselves perhaps spurred on by Ryuji’s male failure but otherwise rendering him an irrelevance. By the final confrontation each of the trio has sustained a wound to the hand to which Akane and Chisato jokingly refer as an eye of truth just like the hero from a manga yet with its own degree of truthfulness in that the women begin to see that their freedom is theirs for the taking while Ryuji is finally forced to accept that his presence is unnecessary proving his mettle only with a gesture of nihilistic futility. 

On the other hand we can also see the hand of a highly pressurised society on his fragile masculinity as he accidentally bonds with a pair of weird street preachers crying out for revolution but with an ironic bent. The first is a former Todai graduate who lost a good job in advertising because of all his unhealthy coping mechanisms. He preaches about a creating a truly fair society free of inequality brought about through a deadly virus claiming that his guru, the Master, is the origin not only of the coronavirus pandemic but every other dangerous pathogen known to man. Somewhat contradictorily, the Master reveals that he once lived in a swanky high rise apartment and would like to do so again which sounds somewhat incompatible with the goals of his revolution assuming he’s not planning to build so many that everyone who wants one can have one. The contradiction is further borne out in Ryuji’s answers about what it is he wants from the world, firstly stating ordinary requests such as a decent job, home, wife, children etc before admitting he’d actually prefer a really big house, lots of women, and respect from other people the last emphasising his internalised sense of belittlement and failure. 

The world that Ryuji inhabits does indeed seem to be oppressive and ominous, the strange overgrown alleyway below an overpass where he first encounters the revolutionaries reflecting the dark path of his soul while in the film’s complex production design the sterile space of the upscale tower block becomes a kind of trauma room where truths are aired leading to the final confrontation whimsically scored with circus music in which the women literally take matters into their own hands, and even the diner where Ryuji meets Akane takes on a Lynchian sense of the uncanny. Darkly humorous with its deadpan gags of giant spaghetti and the completely random entrance of an unrelated older woman also with a glove on her right hand ranting about her daughter’s hairdresser boyfriend and his koala neck tattoo, Sheikh’s absurdist drama quietly builds to its theatrical conclusion bringing down the curtain on a bloody tableaux the world as prophesied turned upside-down.  


Howling screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

International trailer (English subtitles)

Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Kasho Iizuka, 2022)

A resentful young man struggles to orient himself amid constant xenophobia and social prejudice in Kasho Iizuka’s sympathetic coming-of-drama Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Sekai wa Bokura ni Kizukanai). At a difficult age, he flails around lashing out at all around him without fully comprehending the consequences of his actions, but eventually comes to understand a little more about his mother’s past, his place in Japan, his relationships with his extended family, and his possibilities for the future while searching for the father he has never really known save for a name on his maintenance payments. 

Jun’s (Kazuki Horike) main source of resentment is towards his mother, Reina (GOW), a Filipina bar hostess by whom he feels emotionally neglected while unfairly blaming her for the discrimination he faces for being mixed ethnicity. The pair live incredibly modestly as Reina sends all her money back to her family in the Philippines even telling Jun to use his child support payments to get the electric turned back on if it bothers him that much, leaving Jun feeling as if he isn’t really included her definition of “family” or that perhaps she resents him as a burden that causes her to hold back even more of her pay. That’s one reason that he becomes so irate on coming home one day and unexpectedly finding an unfamiliar man in his pants in their living room only to be told he’s his mum’s new boyfriend, Mr. Morishita, who will be moving in the week after next because they’re getting married. Granted, this is not an ideal way to find out about such a drastic change in his living circumstances but Jun just can’t accept it, fearing firstly that Reina is after his money only to discover to his further bemusement that Morishita is also unemployed.  

News of his mother’s impending wedding has Jun feeling even more pushed out than before, especially when Reina confirms that if he’s forcing her to choose she’s going to choose Morishita and he’ll have to fend for himself. Meanwhile, his high school boyfriend Yosuke is already talking up the possibilities of marriage seeing as their prefecture has recently brought in a same sex partnership scheme. Though Yosuke excitedly talks it over with his supportive parents, Jun is noticeably sullen replying honestly that he really isn’t sure if it’s a such a good idea mostly because he doesn’t want Yosuke to get “dragged” into his ever increasing financial responsibilities to his extended Filipino family. Like many of the other kids, Jun has left his careers survey blank and it’s his refusal to think seriously about his future that eventually disrupts his relationship with Yosuke. 

In response to all of these crises, he decides to try tracking down his birth father whom he has never met a quest which takes him through a series of Filipino hostess bars across their largely rural area and eventually to a man, Watanabe, who was once married to “Loopy Lisa” as she was then but is not actually his dad. Even so, Watanabe begins to open his eyes and change his perspective on his mother’s occupation for which he had previously looked down her beginning to understand the sacrifices she is making not only for her family back home but for him too and that while her love may be difficult for him to understand it is not absent. Meanwhile, she too faces prejudice and discrimination on more than one level, a co-worker at a part-time job at a bowling alley she took while laid off from a bar struggling in the post-corona economy expressing openly racist sentiment even in front of their boss, and from the local council when she tries to apply for rent relief which she is denied on the grounds that those working in the “adult entertainment” industry are not eligible for benefits. 

Reina gives as good as she gets and refuses to let discrimination slide, but Jun finds it all quite embarrassing and is carrying a degree of internalised shame which later leads her challenge him on his fragile sense of identity that he too looks down on her as an inherently dishonest foreigner just like any other prejudiced Japanese person no different from her unpleasant colleague or the kids at school who’d bullied him for being half-Filipino, gay, and the son of a bar hostess. Confronted with his own bad behaviour and gaining a new perspective thanks both to Mr Watanabe and Morishita whom he realises is sensitive, kind, and genuinely cares for his mother he begins to envisage a future for himself only to have his horizons broadened once again when Yosuke introduces him to a young woman at the school, Mina, who is asexual but wants to raise a family and is looking for another kind of partnership that hints at a new evolution of the family unit. 

A willingness to embrace the idea of family and of being a part of one himself marks Jun’s passage into adulthood, coming to an understanding of his mother and her relationship with her family in the Philippines and willing to take on the responsibilities of a committed relationship in mutual solidarity and support. A highly empathetic coming-of-age tale, Angry Son never shies away from societal issues such as widespread xenophobia, homophobia, bullying, prejudice, and discrimination but eventually allows its enraged hero to discover a new sense of confidence in his identity in order to forge his own future in a sometimes hostile environment. 


Angry Son screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

International trailer (dialogue free)

Images: ©2022「世界は僕らに気づかない」製作委員会

My Identity (神様のいるところ, Sae Suzuki, 2019)

“You’re not the only one suffering because of language barriers” the heroine of Sae Suzuki’s My Identity calmly explains to her mother after spending a few days away perfecting her language skills. My Identity (神様のいるところ, Kamisama no Iru Tokoro) is perhaps less about identity in itself than the difficulty of communication but nevertheless finds a young woman displaced, quite literally pushed out both by her frustrated mother and by a society which continues to be fiercely intolerant of difference. What she realises however, is that she’s not the only one feeling lost, discovering an alternate maternal figure in an orphaned adult herself at the mercy of an unforgiving and judgemental patriarchal society. 

As we first meet her, high schooler Rei (Hinata Arakawa) is physically pushed out of her family home, the door closed behind her as her mother lays in to her father with accusations of fiscally irresponsible infidelity in her native language. As we later discover Rei is half-Taiwanese and in fact lived on the island until she was five but now feels under-confident in both a perhaps more familiar Mandarin and the Hokkien between which her mother switches freely. At school meanwhile she is taunted by two horrible boys who bully her for being “Chinese”, calling her “creepy” and “ugly” while questioning her ability to speak Japanese. When they tear up a thank you card she’d written in Chinese claiming not to understand it she finally loses her temper and fights back, hitting one of the boys on the head with her backpack. Ironically, she is the one that gets into trouble. Her mother takes a cane to her legs, angry most of all it seems that people will think that foreign mothers raise badly behaved children and will continue to look down on her. Rei just wants to connect with her mother, but her mother isn’t listening. 

That might be why she makes unwise decision to look into dodgy compensated dating after hearing about a forum where “gods” congregate looking to pick up teenage girls. She thinks better of it at the last minute only to be chased by a weird old man claiming to be worried about her which is how she bumps into Aoi (Kaho Seto) who cooperates by pretending to be her responsible adult. A youngish office worker, Aoi has problems of her own and has apparently been out on a night of heavy drinking with a colleague, something which becomes a source of gossip among the other women at work who seem to universally dislike her. She’s coming up for a transfer, but is aggressively harassed by her boss who tells her that he’s going to wait for her when she gets off, causing her to alter her schedule in order to avoid him. 

After a traumatic incident, the two women find themselves on the run, breaking into a disused inn which they end up operating in a temporary illusion of domesticity. Rei practices her Mandarin, looking to Aoi for guidance, but discovering that her worries are fairly universal. What if you can’t communicate your feelings she asks, but Aoi has no answer for her, and Rei can only lament that people start hurting each other when communication fails. Her Taiwanese heritage, however, becomes an unexpected, two-fold threat to her new familial connection when the pair visit a local Taiwanese temple which is also home to a Japanese researcher who speaks perfect Mandarin and has identified the two women as the fugitives from the news, but has also developed a quite obvious attraction to Aoi. 

Rei came here to face herself, but is consciously working towards a resolution, determined to make a connection while asserting her own agency. Aoi meanwhile worries she’s doing the opposite, “playing house”, “running away”, “refusing to face reality”. The researcher tells her, perhaps not altogether altruistically, that she’s being irresponsible, and that her indulgence of Rei may in the long run be harmful. She too feels lost and alone, confessing that she found herself subject to unwanted male attention she couldn’t directly deflect and feigned an ignorance that put her at odds with other women who came to resent her for it. Preoccupied, she too fails to understand Rei’s feelings, trying to be kind but nevertheless causing pain along the way. 

Through visiting the temple and reconnecting with her Taiwanese heritage, Rei finds the words she needs in order to communicate what it is she really feels and hopes that, finally, someone is going to listen. Contending with miscommunication, prejudice, ignorance, and a fundamental “language barrier” in the difficulty of translating feelings accurately and being fully understood, Rei does her best to become her most authentic self, integrating her identity and defiantly embracing it but doing so with openness as she strives for communication as a weapon against hate and violence.


My Identity streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tale of Iya (祖谷物語 -おくのひと-, Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)

1Japanese cinema has certainly been no stranger to the discussion of environmental issues from Studio Ghibli’s concerns about the modern society’s encroachment into the natural world to the ultra modern concerns about pollution and the dangers of nuclear disasters. However, they’ve rarely been addressed to poetically as in The Tale of Iya which is an extraordinarily rich examination of man and the landscape. Tinged with magical realism and surreal juxtapositions, The Tale of Iya is an oddly wonderful experience in the broadest sense of the word.

Film begins with a vast expanse of deep snow in which a lone figure dressed in traditional blue mountain dress with a conical straw hat is making an everyday journey to a local shrine. This could be a scene from any Jidaigeki or even a woodblock print were it not for the crashed car the old man finds a little further into his journey. A woman has been thrown through the windscreen and is lying motionless the bonnet. The old man gives the incongruous scene a quizzical look, but moves on along his planned path. Then, however, even more strangely he finds a little pink bundle by the side of a frozen river. This time he does stop and scoop the infant up. A jump cut sees us flash forward to around fifteen years later as teenage girl dressed in pink gets up to make breakfast for her ‘grandfather’  – the old man of the mountains. On her way to the local school she passes an old lady who’s taken to making sack mannequins which seem to do their part to make up the population of this rapidly declining mountain village.

The newly born sack people aren’t the only newcomers though – in an attempt at modernisation, the town planning committee have elected to build a tunnel which will connect them to the main road and make transportation easier. However, this has met with strong opposition from ‘environmental groups’ represented by an American eco-warrior. Amongst these strangers is another from Tokyo who seems to have come for an unknown reason but eventually decides to stay and attempt to farm the land. Iya is certainly very beautiful, but country life is also hard and entirely dependent on the weather. The young people long to leave for the comparative excitement of the city. City people though long for the simplicity of a long forgotten country life.

The film begins in a more or less naturalistic style filled with the most beautiful cinematography of snow covered vistas and foggy mountains. However, a strong seam of surreality constantly builds throughout the film until it reaches the final third and almost becomes a sort of science-fiction film about a magical environmental product that can clean polluted rivers down to near perfect clarity. Folklore beliefs and practices run side by side with a more poetic slice of magical realism that is jarring at first (and actually a tiny bit frightening) but the film’s surreal and dreamlike imagery is likely to be the thing that lingers longest.

A Tale of Iya also manages to offer a broadly nuanced and balanced view of the nature of country life and concerns about the environment. This is a remote town with a dwindling population – the new tunnel will ease communication, ultimately make lives safer and perhaps stop so many young people leaving the area altogether. The local people are therefore very much in favour of the new tunnel and many of them actually work for the construction company who are building it. The only opposition to the bridge is from a group of foreigners who are living in a commune but come down from the mountain every day to shout ‘save Iya’ and various ‘shame on you’ type comments (in English) at the construction team. The irony being that their ‘commune’ run in a typical communal farming style with hundreds of ‘save Iya’ billboards might actually be the biggest eye-sore in the area.

That’s not to say the film isn’t in favour of conservation or that it feels all construction is beneficial (quite the reverse) but it is eager to present a fair comment on both sides of the problem. Similarly, it isn’t afraid to point out that this ancient way of life is extremely difficult. Kudo, who’s arrived from Tokyo and looks so jumpy all the time one wonders if he left in a hurry, is eager to learn about traditional farming. He looks so pleased with himself when he’s finally mastered how to water crops in the traditional way, not to mention that torturous looking two buckets on a stick water carrying device. It’s not long before he’s taken up the self sufficient life but the problem with that is you have to do everything yourself – no electric, no running water (other than that which runs in a stream), no sanitation and in short no safety net. Muddling through and celebrating small victories is fine in the blistering heat of summer but as the first snow falls and you don’t have enough winter stores, death from cold or starvation (or both) is a very real possibility. City people romanticise country life thinking it’s ‘easier’ or admiring its ‘simplicity’ but whatever it gives it also takes.

At 169 minutes, there’s no point in denying A Tale of Iya is an extremely long film that moves a stately pace. Undeniably some viewers will be put off by its epic running time and frequent flights of fancy but those who stay the distance will be richly rewarded. Magical, beautiful and finally profoundly moving, A Tale of Iya is an incredibly heady brew that stays in the mind long after it finishes. Truly ‘wonderful’ in every sense of the word, A Tale of Iya deserves to be much more widely seen.


First published by UK Anime Network.