My Small Land (マイスモールランド, Emma Kawawada, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Despite the nation’s relative wealth, Japan’s refugee policy is incredibly strict. In 2021, it approved the claims of just 74 asylum seekers which may seem like a small amount but is actually the highest number of people granted asylum since Japan first began recognising refugees in 1982. In fact, only 915 people (as of May 2022) have been granted refugee status in the 40 years since the policy was put in place. For a nation that prides itself on omotenashi, it’s a curiously hostile stance and one which has increasingly come under the spotlight in contemporary cinema with films such as Thomas Ash’s hard-hitting documentary Ushiku exploring the lives of asylum seekers trapped in indefinite detention, Akio Fujimoto’s Passage of Life, and briefly in Nobuhiro Suwa’s Voices in the Wind in which the heroine encounters a welcoming community of Kurdish refugees. 

Director Emma Kawawada is not from a refugee background herself but the daughter of a British father and Japanese mother and in her first feature My Small Land (マイスモールランド) explores the themes of cultural dislocation through the eyes of a young Kurdish woman who came to Japan at five years old after her father was persecuted and tortured for his political beliefs in Turkey. In the film’s opening sequence, Sarya (Lina Arashi) is visibility distressed at a community wedding when a well-meaning older woman tells her it’ll be her turn next, her father (played by Arashi’s real father) chipping in that they still have her late mother’s dress for her to wear. She looks down at the red paint on her hand which, as she later explains to convenience store workmate Sota (Daiken Okudaira), is worn by relatives at a wedding but also closely resembles the red sun of the Japanese flag. She tries to scrub to it off, but it won’t come clean and she’s eventually warned about it at work making an excuse rather than attempting to explain. 

In fact, Sarya has most been telling people that she’s German following an incident in primary school in which she wanted to say she was supporting Japan in the World Cup like everyone else but felt awkward about it and said Germany instead leading her classmates to assume that’s where she was from. When she tries to explain to Sota that she’s actually Kurdish, he hasn’t even heard of Kurds before and is confused later given a small lecture by Sarya’s father Mazlum explaining that the Kurds are an ethnic group divided by irrational borders and have no country of their own. His explanation echoes Sarya’s sense of rootlessness as a young woman with no clear homeland torn between two competing cultures. Though she has become an unofficial translator for the Kurdish community and her father keeps them immersed in Kurdish traditions she does not feel completely comfortable stating that she is a Kurd while on another level bothered by the community’s constant joking that she will one day wed construction worker Welat.

Sarya is bright and on track for a scholarship to university in Tokyo hoping to become a primary school teacher in tribute to the teacher who helped her when she first arrived in Japan with no language skills, but all that goes out of the window when Mazlum’s asylum claim is refused and the family lose their visas. Given a provisional release, they are not permitted to work and cannot leave Saitama, the prefecture where they are registered, without permission from the authorities. Saitama is directly adjacent to Tokyo, its borders as arbitrary as any other as demonstrated by the sign halfway along a bridge demarcating its boundaries. This is quite inconvenient for Sarya as her secret part-time job is technically in Tokyo, while it also means she has to explain to Sota why she can’t accompany him to Osaka where he hopes to look at art schools and is now technically working illegally. When Mazlum is caught working his construction job, he is put into indefinite detention and advised by the family’s sympathetic lawyer to reapply for asylum. If he is sent back to Turkey, he will be immediately arrested and his life will be in danger. 

The family’s situation lays bare how vulnerable asylum seekers are in the contemporary society. They are told they can’t work and can’t leave yet are provided no financial support leaving them with little option other than to break the rules or appeal to friends and family, if they have them, for immediate help. Left in charge of her two younger siblings who barely remember any Kurdish and know only Japan, Sarya finds herself resorting to compensated dating, pushed into potentially dangerous ways to earn money now that her route to legal employment has been taken away. Meanwhile, as her father is detained in a kind of “prison” and she has lost her visa, she is viewed as an “illegal” immigrant leading even those who had otherwise been sympathetic towards her such as Sota’s warmhearted mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) distancing themselves from the stigma of illegality. Sota wants to help, but he’s just a teenage boy and is unable to offer much beyond his savings which Sarya is understandably reluctant to accept. Even so, despite the bureaucratic cruelty at its centre, My Small Land has an otherwise hopeful outlook as Sarya begins to find the strength to define her own borders and boundaries while taking care of her family in a sometimes hostile society. 


My Small Land screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Will I Be Single Forever? (ずっと独身でいるつもり?, Momoko Fukuda, 2021)

If you can achieve financial independence in the contemporary society, then what is or should be the primary purpose of and motivation for marriage, what does it mean, should you want it at all or is it merely an outdated institution designed to keep women in their place by making them dependent on men? Adapted from the manga by Mari Okazaki, Momoko Fukuda’s Will I Be Single Forever? (ずっと独身でいるつもり?, Zutto Dokushin de Iru Tsumori?) finds a series of young women asking just these questions wondering why it is everyone themselves included is still intent on viewing marriage and motherhood as the only markers of success as if none of their other achievements really matter if they’re going to write spinster of this parish on their headstone. 

10 years previously the now 36-year-old Mami (Jun Hashizume) shot to stardom penning a best-selling book about how it isn’t a sin to be single and the worst thing isn’t to be alone but to settle for less solely to escape loneliness. These days, however, she’s beginning to wonder, growing fearful of what it might mean to spend the rest of her life alone and worrying she’s about to miss the marriage boat witnessing it pass by passively without making a concrete decision of her own. Expressing her views on a talk show where “the troubled women of today are slapped with harsh reality”, Mami disappoints some of her longtime fans who found validation in her book reassured that there was nothing wrong in their desire to live independently rather than get married right after college and become regular housewives. Yet they are also ageing and facing the same dilemma, wondering if their life choices are really OK or if they’re missing out on a family life by refusing to settle for Mr. Almost-Right. 

The film’s English-language title flips the Japanese as if the question is self-directed, the women asking themselves when Mr. Right’s going to come along or worrying about the consequences if he never shows up, while the Japanese is more like the dreaded question every young woman is asked by an invasive female relative at a family gathering reminding her she’s not getting any younger and will end up alone if she’s not careful. Meanwhile, Mami is reminded that women who’ve bought their own apartments seldom marry, men aren’t interested in women who can be financially independent and don’t need to rely on them for economic support as Yukino’s (Miwako Ichikawa) longterm boyfriend explains breaking up with her immediately before moving in together as it turns out right next to Mami though she doesn’t know it as she takes out her frustrations online through an embittered anonymous Twitter account. 

For her, the point of marriage is supposed be escaping loneliness yet as her school friend Ayaka (Eri Tokunaga) will testify marriage can be the loneliest thing of all. Her husband is happy to play with the baby but hands it back every time it cries or needs changing unwilling to engage with the less fun sides of marriage or parenthood. Husbands are emotionally absent and rarely help at home, Ayaka’s trying to be helpful by taking the baby to the park so that she can focus on her chores both leaving her out of their fun and reinforcing the idea the home is all her responsibility and none his. “Don’t end up like me” Mami’s mother (Mariko Tsutsui) advises instantly seeing that her decision to marry casual boyfriend Kohei (Yu Inaba) just because he asked is doomed to end in failure, warning her that you have to “be ready to live alone” even if you marry, “no good comes of being a slave to a husband” she adds uttering the unthinkable in trying to warn her daughter of the realities of a patriarchal marriage. 

And as it turns out though five years younger vacuous rich kid Kohei is a patriarchal man whose friends all praise him for being brave and understanding in marrying an older woman while he pats himself on the back for being progressive in granting her permission to continue using her maiden name professionally after they marry. When they go to meet his conservative parents he criticises her outfit for making her look “old” while he’s worn shorts to a fancy restaurant and then orders a ridiculous green soda drink, forcing Mami to go along with his mother’s prodding that she’ll give up work when they marry to devote herself to childrearing though he’d also refused to attend a fertility/genetic screening session Mami had recommended on the grounds that it’s unnecessary because he’s a man as if childbirth is only a female concern and only women can have fertility issues or potential problems in their medical history. The more she tries to voice her worries the more he overrules her, the final straw coming as he refuses to listen to her anxiety about getting behind the wheel of a car, generally unnecessary in Tokyo, having previously been involved in an accident. She begins to wonder why it’s so important to follow the “correct path” even if it brings you no happiness solely in order to avoid people asking you with barely suppressed pity if you’re going to be single forever. 

The question comes from an older era in which it was it was near impossible for a woman to survive without a husband, but now that she can why should she put up with poor treatment and restrictions on her freedom if she is perfectly capable of supporting herself? Much younger than the others, sugar baby / professional socialite Miho (Sayuri Matsumura) meanwhile has gone the other way in trying live off men without the constraints of marriage only to find herself hamstrung by patriarchal expectations once again in having failed to realise that her lifestyle has an expiration date while she’s painted herself into a corner with no qualifications or work experience at the age of 26. The bulk of her business model is already rooted in the selling of other younger, prettier women as party guests for wealthy men and the consequences of continuing down that path are largely unpalatable to her. 

Touched by a further TV update from Mami, each of the women has a kind of epiphany that allows them to move forward into happier lives reassuring them that it’s alright to ask for more and they don’t have to hold any part of themselves back to meet the outdated expectations of traditional femininity, even Miho finding another way of harnessing the skills she does have to achieve true independence. The answer is not a total rejection of marriage or committed relationships but a reacknowledgment that to marry or not should be their own choice based on their own happiness rather than something you have to get over with to avoid the social stigma of becoming an old maid. A relatable exploration of the lives of young women in the contemporary society Fukuda’s empathetic drama eventually advances that in the end the best cure for loneliness is female solidarity in the face of a still overwhelmingly patriarchal society. 


Will I Be Single Forever? streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mio’s Cookbook (みをつくし料理帖, Haruki Kadokawa, 2020)

“Food nurtures like heaven” according to a piece of advice from a local doctor which quickly becomes a catchphrase of the heroine of Haruki Kadokawa’s slice of foodie cinema Mio’s Cookbook (みをつくし料理帖, Mi wo Tsukushi Ryoricho). Adapted from the novel by Kaoru Takada, the Meiji-era drama is at once a tale of a pioneering young woman making her way in fiercely patriarchal society, and a heartwarming exploration of chosen and re-formed families discovering new senses of solidarity in the of wake tragedy while resolving to extend that sense of community to other lonely souls. 

The titular Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) meanwhile has had her share of loss, orphaned during a catastrophic flood and thereafter separated from childhood best friend Noe (Nao Honda) who simply disappeared. 10 years later, Mio and her adoptive mother Yoshi (Mayumi Wakamura) have relocated from Osaka to Edo though their lives have not been easy, Yoshi’s son having run off never to be seen again following the failure of the family restaurant. Mio is now working in a small cafe owned by a kindly older gentleman, Taneichi (Koji Ishizaka), but struggling to adapt to the sophisticated tastes of the capital with customers flatly refusing to eat her overly subtle oysters. A sullen samurai, Komatsubara (Yosuke Kubozuka), points her on her way by explaining that her food lacks “foundation” which is why she hasn’t yet found her groove. 

Mio’s culinary journey is also one of growing confidence as she learns to reorient herself in her new city life eventually realising that the key lies in uniting the tastes of Osaka and Edo as if integrating the two cities into her essential identity. A fortune teller had once told her that she would suffer many hardships but eventually reach “blue sky beyond clouds”, discovering a taste of that in her unexpected success even as those around her marvel at the female chef, a hitherto unheard of phenomenon, as she climbs the ranks of the local restaurants with her innovative cuisine after taking over from Taneichi. 

Yet her success also brings her enemies in the conservative and increasingly greedy Edo society. A rival restaurant rips off her signature dish and charges twice the price, a customer admitting that many will gladly pay more just to be seen doing so, less interested in the quality of the food than what is fashionable (times it seems do not change all that much). Even so “food is only as good as the cook” Yoshi is fond of saying believing that a bad person can’t make good food, something brought out by Mio’s compassionate nature as she continues to help those around her, vowing to “take vengeance through food” in concentrating on perfecting her craft and nourishing people’s souls rather than allowing herself to be beaten into submission by elitist intimidation. 

Meanwhile she continues to wonder whatever happened to Noe, reflecting that she was lucky in having found Yoshi who took her in out of compassion and continues to stay with her all these years later while gaining a surrogate father in the kindly Taneichi who himself lost a daughter. Noe’s prophecy was that she would “rise like the sun” and achieve “world-conquering fortune” though as it turns out she was not so lucky even if the prophecy did in fact come true if ironically. Both women continue to suffer because of the world in which they live each prevented from pursuing their romantic freedom, Mio forced to give up on her probably impossible love for samurai Komatsubara in order to embark on a quest to save her friend through achieving true success with her restaurant while Noe is constrained by her inescapable life as an oiran.  

Even so the film never really digs into the division placed between the women by the existence of the Yoshiwara into which one cannot enter and from which the other can never leave while the open ended conclusion that only advances a hope that the division may be breached perhaps suggests that it may never be, in part because it depends on Mio’s success as an independent woman in a feudalistic, patriarchal society. Meanwhile the two women continue to support each other in ways they can, Mio trying to raise her friend’s spirits with frequent care packages designed to remind her of home and their more innocent childhood smuggled in by supportive friends while each of them have in their own way found new families based on mutual compassion as a means of overcoming despair to rediscover a sense of hope for a better future founded on human solidarity. 


Mio’s Cookbook streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Copycat Killer (模倣犯, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2002)

copycatYoshimitsu Morita had a long standing commitment to creating “populist” mainstream cinema but, perversely, he liked to spice it with a layer of arthouse inspired style. 2002’s Copycat Killer(模倣犯, Mohouhan) finds him back in the realm of literary adaptations with a crime thriller inspired by Miyuki Miyabe’s book in which the media becomes an accessory in the crazed culprit’s elaborate bid for eternal fame through fear driven notoriety.

Following a non-linear structure, the film first introduces us to an old man who runs a tofu shop where he lives with his middle aged daughter who is in the middle of a breakdown following the end of her marriage, and his grown up granddaughter who has become the woman of the house during her mother’s illness. Though not without its difficulties his life was happy enough but after granddaughter Mariko goes out one evening and never comes home, nothing will ever be the same again.

A severed arm and a handbag are discovered in a flower bed by a teenage boy whilst walking a dog, though a mysterious distorted voice later contacts the media to inform them that the arm and the handbag do not belong to the same woman. The boy, oddly enough, is the sole survivor of his family who were all murdered some years previously. He was interviewed at the time by press reporter Yumiko whose soba shop owning brother may have a connection to the crimes. The cold blooded killer knows all of this and is engineering coincidences into a grand plan in which he will harness the power of mass media to earn himself a kind of national respect as an “expert” on the crimes which he has himself been committing.

Hitting a style somewhere between The Black House and Keiho, Morita opts for a dreamlike atmosphere filled with dissolves, soft split screens and hacker inspired graphical touches. Not only is the killer interested in appearing on TV either in voice or in person but can also manipulate mass media by hacking commercials and billboards to proclaim his own messages. As well as the early computer inspired effects, photo zooms, and contemporary methods of evidence presentation, Morita wrong foots the audience by zigzagging through the chronology of crime beginning with the central murder then switching back to the killers as they are now, then their childhoods, and cutting back to each of the other protagonists – the grandfather, teenage boy, and reporter.

Possibly inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, the killers are a duo of psychotic young men who think they can achieve everlasting fame and personal satisfaction by committing the kind of murders which have never been committed before. The true motivator of the crimes even tells one of his victims that she ought to be grateful. That she was leading a “pointless” life and now she’s being given the opportunity to “serve” in something greater as a component in his master plan. Before, he explains, she’d just have gone on living until she died and been forgotten but now she’ll be a star – everyone will remember her name as a victim in the crime of the century and the world will mourn her death.

At another juncture, the killer also remarks that absolute faith in the family unit is the reason a relative of a suspect or victim of crime is routinely targeted by the press and a source of recrimination even though they themselves had nothing to do with it. Family issues are also a factor as rejection and abandonment by parental figures is offered as a reason for why a person may eventually become deranged. Thus, the killer’s intention to harness mass media for worldwide fame through committing heinous, terrible crimes is painted as a quest for the attention and recognition he never received from his parents. The family is both nothing and everything, but as we reach the conclusion it’s family that engenders hope as we’re presented with a potential new family committing to proving that nurture can trump nature with happy childhoods building mentally balanced adults.

The grief stricken grandfather tells the killer that his selfish actions are cowardly and pointless. That if he really wanted to cause a sensation in this cruel world, he should have become a hero and taught people how to love instead of hate – that would be the true radical action. Morita’s essential world view is once again resolutely bleak but offered with a wry and cynical sense of humour. The final messages are of acceptance and moving on no matter how hard it may be, and of trying to create something good out of even the very worst occurrences. The film’s extremely strange, oddly explosive expressionist finale takes things a step too far and the youthful, contemporary electronic score with its link to the stereotypical hacking iconography occasionally calls attention to itself but Copycat Killer still proves an entertaining, multilayered crime thriller filmed with Morita’s characteristically experimental approach and necessary dose of oddness.


Unsubtitled trailer: