They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Yoji Yamada, 2019)

From 1969 to 1996, travelling salesman Tora-san appeared in 48 films, a 49th movie special appearing after star Kiyoshi Atsumi’s death brought an unavoidable end to the series. Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Otoko wa Ysurai yo 50: Okaeri Tora-san) arrives to mark the 50th anniversary of the first film’s release, and as the series had done in its later stages, revolves around Tora’s neurotic nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is now a middle-aged widower and father to a teenage daughter. Feeling somewhat wistful, Mitsuo’s thoughts turn to his now absent uncle, wishing he were still around to offer some of his trademark advice along with the gentle warmth and empathy which proved in such stark contrast with his otherwise anarchic and unpredictable personality.  

Yamada, who directed all but two of the series in its entirety, opens with another dream sequence this time of Mitsuo as he finds himself overcome with memories of his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who is now married with children and living abroad working for the UNCHR. Mitsuo’s wife passed away from an illness six years previously and he’s so far resisted prompts from his relatives to consider remarriage though it seems fairly obvious that his editor, Setsuko (Chizuru Ikewaki), has a bit of a crush on him. Having taken a gamble giving up the secure life of a salaryman to become a novelist, Mitsuo’s first book is about to be published and it’s at a signing that he serendipitously re-encounters Izumi who just happened to be in the store that day on a rare trip to Japan and spotted the poster. 

Like many Tora-san films, Wish You Were Here is about the bittersweet qualities of life, the roads not taken, the misdirections and misconnections, and the romanticisation of a past which can no longer be present. At a crossroads, Mitsuo ponders what might have been recalling the shattered dreams of his first love which seems to have ended without resolution because of the unfairness of life. He wishes that his crazy uncle was still around to make everything better, offering more of his often poetic advice but most of all a shoulder to cry on as he’d been for so many women throughout the series. But Mitsuo himself has always been more like Tora than he’d care to admit, if tempered by his father Hiroshi’s shyness. He too is a kind man whose bighearted gestures could sometimes cause unexpected trouble. What he’s learning is in a sense to find his inner Tora, embracing his free spirit through his art if not the road, but also coming to a poetic understanding that sometimes the moment passes and there’s nothing you can do to take it back, only treasure the memory as you continue moving forward. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), one of Tora’s old flames, who now runs a stylish bar in Tokyo. The beauty of the Tora-san series was that it aged in real time. The actor playing Mitsuo played him as a child and we saw him grow up on screen just as we saw Shibamata change from post-war scrappiness to bubble-era prosperity and beyond. The family’s dango-shop has had an upscale refit and there is now a modern apartment complex behind it where the print shop once stood. Seamlessly splicing in clips from previous instalments as Mitsuo remembers another anecdote about his uncle, Yamada shows us how past and present co-exist in the way memory hangs over a landscape. Once or twice, the ghost of Tora even reappears hovering gently behind Mitsuo only to fade when he turns around to look while there’s an unavoidable sadness as we notice the Suwas’ living room is now much less full than it once was. 

Aside from his uncle, it’s the warm family atmosphere that Mitsuo recalls from his childhood, something which, like Tora, he might not have always fully appreciated. Driving Izumi to a potentially difficult reunion with her terminally ill estranged father (Isao Hashizume), he refers to his own parents as “annoying” in the “pushy” quality of their kindness, something which irritates Izumi who points out that she’d have loved to have such a warm and supportive family and if she had she might never have gone to Europe, implying perhaps that their fated romance would been fulfilled. The Shibamata house was Tora’s port, he could wander freely because he had somewhere to go back to where they’d always let him in no matter what kind of trouble he caused.

A fitting tribute to the Tora-san legacy, Wish You Were Here is also a joyful celebration of the Shitamachi spirit. Tora might be gone, but the anarchic kindness and empathy he embodied lives on, not least in the mild-mannered Mitsuo and his cheerful daughter who seems to be continuing the family tradition of meddling in her loved ones’ love lives as her lovelorn father prepares to move on in memory of Tora, the free spirited fool.


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)

Bright future posterThe cinema of the late ‘90s and early 2000s is one defined by alienated youth kicking back against a stagnant society in which they see no place for themselves now that the dull and conventional salaryman world of their parents can no longer offer security in place of fulfilment. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early masterpieces had edged towards the nihilistic, embracing this sense of generational hopelessness but finding perhaps glimmers of possibility in the longing for escape no matter how far off. Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Akarui Mirai), shifting away from the genre fare which had made his name, does something much the same but perhaps even bleaker in its melancholy acceptance of intergenerational disconnection.

Our two heroes, Yuji (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), have workaday jobs at a factory which they find fulfilling only in their emptiness. The guys have found a fan in the factory’s ageing boss, Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano), who begins giving them special jobs and trying to hang out with them while promising a special signing bonus should they agree to become regularised employees. Bonding in their resentment towards men of Fujiwara’s age who romanticise their youth while exercising paternal authority and entitlement, the two hatch their revenge on an unforgiving society through the strange plan to acclimatise their pet jellyfish to life in modern Tokyo.

The jellyfish, closely associated with the ethereal Yuji, becomes a kind of symbol of the “bright future” the two young men fear will elude them. They, like the jellyfish, have tried to acclimatise themselves to living in the otherwise hostile environment of contemporary Tokyo but also accept that the ability to survive may not be enough and it may eventually be necessary to remove oneself from an unforgiving society until such time as it is possible to return.

This or something like it seems to be Mamoru’s key philosophy as the owner of the jellyfish and the chief architect of the “bright future” both men dream of – literally in the case of Yuji who is the idea’s unwilling prophet. Mamoru has, for reasons unknown, decided to take the strangely melancholic Yuji under his wing, eventually entrusting sole custody of the jellyfish to him in an attempt to force him to look after “himself”. In service of this ideal and perhaps of Yuji’s unwilling visions, Mamoru takes more immediate revenge against the literal Fujiwara – murdering his boss and his wife (Marumi Shiraishi) in their well appointed middle-class home (only their small daughter is spared). Yuji interprets this gesture as protective seeing as he himself had found the bodies after wandering into the Fujiwara home with violence on his mind, but misinterprets Mamoru’s intentions for him in disappointing his mentor by insisting that he is prepared to “wait” for him rather than take this cue to step up and take control of his own life’s direction. 

Yuji is indeed, like the majority of heroes in turn of the century Japanese cinema, entirely directionless. He appears to have no surviving family in the older generation, only an exasperated sister who does her best to help but doesn’t know how, attempting to straightjacket him into a salaryman world of conventional success with an office boy job at her understanding company. A strange young man, Yuji has has vivid dreams and a need for control and routine – it’s the closure of the local bowling lanes which sends him round to the Fujiwara’s in a calm yet violent rage while repeatedly losing in a video arcade to his sister’s boyfriend also sends his insecurity into overdrive. He once dreamt of a “bright future” but now sees only darkness. Stepping up onto the roof of a building in which he is learning to find a home, he is forced to admit that despite attempting to look far into the distance he can’t see much of anything at all from where he is right now.

Yet for all his resentment towards men like Fujiwara, it’s a father figure which eventually begins to push him in a more positive direction. Mamoru’s father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji) takes his son’s vulnerable best friend under his wing, giving him a home and a purpose as he begins to teach him how to repair things that might ordinarily be thrown away. Shinichiro’s previous assistant quit because he saw no future in this line of work, but Yuji seems to delight in the repurposing of the previously useless for arcane ends even if his chief contribution is a continuation of his jellyfish experiments. Shinichiro, superficially supportive, cannot understand the obsession with the jellyfish. Attempting to reassure a thwarted Yuji, he asks him what exactly the jellyfish could achieve in a world so resistant to real change yet he also berates him with the impassioned impotence of age in decrying his contemptuous dismissal of the reality which, after all, belongs to men like Shinichiro who will demand respect while offering very little in return.

The jellyfish find they can’t live in Tokyo, but youth adopts a different solution as it runs rampant with out purpose or direction but seemingly delighting in meaningless anarchy. A group of teens Yuji runs into wear identical Che Guevara T-shirts while sporting light-up microphone headsets as they wander round the city kicking cardboard boxes and laughing as they go, like overgrown children with no clear forward path before them. Age and youth seem primed to exist in differing realities, perpetually unable to understand each other while youth struggles to find direction in the absence of parental guidance. Ironic in the extreme, the “bright future” here seems to exist only as a vague hope but, perhaps, the only guiding light in an ever darkening world.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

Golden Orchestra! (オケ老人!, Toru Hosokawa, 2016)

ƒIƒP˜Vl_ƒeƒBƒU[ƒ`ƒ‰ƒV•1C³_ƒAƒEƒg‚È‚µIt might never be too late to follow your dreams, but if following your dreams makes you very unhappy perhaps you need to spend some more time figuring out what they are. Golden Orchestra (オケ老人!,  Oke Rojin!) is one in a long line of Japanese fish out of water / underdog comedies, but addresses some very contemporary concerns from the ageing society to a perceived loss of community in the face of soulless commercialism. Our stuck-up school teacher is about to learn a few lessons, chief among them being that it’s much better just having fun with nice people than being caught up in a vicious and unwinnable game of elitism with a bunch of permanently scowling snobs.

20-something school teacher Chizuru (Anne Watanabe) harbours a longstanding dream of playing in an orchestra but gave up the violin when she got a job. A visit to a classical music concert in provincial Umegaoka reignites her musical passion and she quickly becomes determined to dust off her instrument and ask for an audition. However, as she was so excited she can’t quite remember the orchestra’s name and, assuming there couldn’t be two in this tiny town, signs up for the wrong one. Only realising her mistake when a bunch of old people turn up instead of the well turned out collection of musicians she was expecting, Chizuru tries to back out but the old people are so happy to have her that she can’t quite work up the courage to tell them no.

As it happens there’s a People’s Front of Judea situation going on between Ume-sym and Ume-phil. The conductor of Ume-sym, Nonomura (Takashi Sasano), is also the owner of a family-run electronics shop – a relic of a bygone era made all the more lonely by the flashy electronics superstore that’s been set up right next door. The owner of the electronics superstore, Osawa (Ken Mitsuishi), used to be a member of Ume-sym but stormed out to form his own orchestra – Ume-phil, so he’s betrayed Nonomura twice over and there’s bad blood between them which isn’t helped by Osawa’s constant overtures to Nonomura’s son about buying up the shop in order to close it down.

Chizuru is, it has to be said, a somewhat clueless woman approaching middle age who is also a bit of a snob. She’s harboured musical dreams ever since she can remember, giving them up because, after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do in order to accept a conventional, ordered life. If playing music was all she wanted to do, there was nothing stopping her doing it at home in her free time, but Chizuru wants to be among the best. She looks down on the old people in the orchestra – firstly because they’re “old” and therefore “bothersome” (as she notes turning off a tap left running by an absent-minded older lady), and then because they’re just not any good, and finally because their aim isn’t really becoming a successful orchestra so much as it is participating in a community activity. The old ladies have brought snacks which must be indulged and appreciated, while the old men all enjoy the after practice drinking sessions perhaps more than they do the music.

Turning her back on this anarchic friendliness, Chizuru practices night and day to get into Ume-phil, but Ume-phil isn’t about love of music either, it’s just about being superior and giving yourself an excuse to look down on people. Chizuru finds out for herself how stressful and unpleasant it can be as a “member” of just such a community when they grudgingly grant her a spot. Ume-phil runs on a survival of the fittest policy – not everyone gets to play, only whoever is deemed most worthy. When push comes to shove, Osawa buys himself success by hiring a world-famous French conductor for the biggest concert of the year. Only the professional conductor is true music lover and quickly quits Osawa’s ersatz orchestra, charmed by the down-home wisdom of Mr. Nonomura who manages to fix his treasured cassette player when Osawa advised him to throw it out and buy something more up-to-date. Some people just can’t see what’s really important.

As expected, Chizuru finally realises that it’s just much nicer (not to mention less stressful) having fun making music with the old people rather than putting up with the soulless rigour of the Osawa brigade for whom nothing will ever be good enough. In the end Ume-sym decides to practice Dvorak’s Largo which is, as anyone who’s seen a Japanese film knows, an instantly warm and nostalgic tune familiar as the inspiration for (in some cities at least) Japan’s five ‘o clock chimes (British viewers may well experience the same surge of wistful melancholy thanks to the same tune’s iconic use in a series of Hovis adverts from the ‘70s and ‘80s). It’s an apt choice for a film which harks back to a simpler time when people took care of each other and rejoiced in ordinary pleasures like home-made pickles and fixing things that were broken rather than throwing them out to buy new ones. In true community spirit, it’s not so much that one side wins and another loses, so much as that the joy of sharing a dream with others becomes infectious, producing a rapprochement between the old and the new which allows a peaceful coexistence of the two. Cosy cinema at its finest, Golden Orchestra may not offer anything new to a well-worn formula but in many ways that is the point and its harmonious charms prove hard to resist.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The original Hovis ad from 1973 (which was directed by Ridley Scott)

Chin-yu-ki: The Journey to the West with Farts (珍遊記, Yudai Yamaguchi, 2016)

Chin-yu-ki posterWhen a film tells you what it is, you should believe it the first time. Many fine films are undone by unwise titles, but if you were expecting anything more than what is promised by the title of Chin-yu-ki: Journey to the West with Farts (珍遊記), you have only yourself to blame. Director Yudai Yamaguchi is known for his distinctly lowbrow, zany humour and it seems he’s met his match in adapting the much loved Journey to the West parody manga, Chin-yu-ki – Taro to Yukaina Nakamatachi. Set in Japan in an indistinct period possibly somewhere around the Meiji restoration, Chin-yu-ki is a bawdy story of penis power, fantastic farts, romantic disappointments, and the ongoing path to enlightenment of its slightly more than cheeky hero.

Beginning as it means to go on, the film opens with a Buddhist nun, Genzo (Kana Kurashina – renamed “Shenzang” in the subtitles on this HK blu-ray to match the original Journey to the West), talking to an older couple referred to as “Old Fart” (Ryosei Tayama) and “Old Bag” (Takashi Sasano). The couple were never blessed with children of their own and so when they notice a great flash and something falling to Earth, they are delighted to find a lovely baby boy lying in the crater. Unfortunately, Taro Yamada (Kenichi Matsuyama), as the baby is called, is a wrong ‘un. Now 16 years old, Taro is a fiery demon who has robbed the entire area to build himself a giant mansion where he lives on his own and has provided his adoptive parents with a small hovel on the outskirts of town. Old Fart and Old Bag try to warn Genzo that Taro is not your average sinner – he controls people with his giant penis and stinky farts.

Genzo is undeterred and demonstrates her various skills which, strangely, centre around the ability to unping a bra at 20 paces (yes, apparently in this version of the Meiji era, people wear bras). Her other trick is magically hurling buns into people’s mouths which does at least shut them up for a bit. Against the odds she manages to tame Taro, reducing him to his basic, naked state in which she manages to shove a magic crown on his head which allows her to control him and stop him doing naughty things. Genzo determines to take Taro to Tianzhu to purify his soul and so the pair walk off together towards their joint destiny.

The road trip format provides plenty of scope for set piece gags as Genzo and Taro encounter various strange characters along the way who often make surprising returns. This is no character drama, but Taro does indeed learn a few things even as he remains as wilfully naughty as in his unreformed state. As it turns out, the major narrative event revolves around a grudge held by a man who previously encountered Taro at his most cruel. Ryusho (Junpei Mizobata), now a famous pretty boy actor, is still nursing a broken heart after Taro ruined his true love dream which had proved so difficult for him to win as a shy young schoolboy. Now backed by a series of strange companions including a dominatrix-type assistant who dresses in shiny leather and carries a whip, a woman in Cheongsam, and a man in anachronistic Chinese PLA uniform, Ryusho is still a hopeless romantic and develops an unlikely crush on Genzo, which she returns but is unable to act on because of her vows and her mission to reform Taro.

Misunderstandings abound and it has to be said, the crosstalk between Ryusho who has been abandoned by his buddies and has hired a series of Vietnam-era American mercenaries, Genzo, and Taro as they argue about an unclear subject is genuinely quite funny as is the reaction when Taro unmasks himself in a local bar full of bounty hunters who don’t believe he is who he says he is because he’s wearing a shirt with the name of a guy he just robbed on it. The rest of the humour is, however, of a lower order even if the penis and fart jokes fade out in the middle section of the film which does have a few amusing jokes of its own. Matsuyama delivers a surprisingly energetic performance which is in strong contrast with the distant, inscrutable characters he often plays but as cheerful as his Monkey King stand in is, he can’t compensate for the film’s otherwise disposable quality which seems primed to appeal to those seeking zany, lowbrow humour but offers very little else.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

©2017 BEFORE WE VANISH FILM PARTNERS

before we vanish posterKiyoshi Kurosawa is getting sentimental in his old age. In Journey to the Shore and Real, brokenhearted, left behind spouses went on long and difficult journeys of grief and salvation. In Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha) we receive a visitation that presages our doom but wishes to know us before we go. An alien invasion movie which takes its cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live, Kurosawa’s quirky drama is less about the enemy within than the hidden existential threat of a failure to understand oneself. As the Japanese title suggests, these invaders are merely out for a stroll, making time to smell the flowers before the big lawnmower arrives to cut them all down.

Strange events are afoot in Tokyo. A high school girl wanders home with a pair of goldfish in a plastic bag before brutally murdering her entire family, gazing at the scene of carnage with a beatific smile. Meanwhile, the estranged wife of Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda), Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), has been sent for to claim her presumably amnesiac husband from a medical facility. Shinji was brought in after wandering the streets cluelessly and seems to have lost certain sections of his memory. The doctor’s diagnosis is uncertain but leans towards some kind of temporary psychotic break or early onset Alzheimer’s. In any case, he is now Narumi’s responsibility, much to her consternation. Across town a down on his luck journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) covering the brutal family murder finds himself the designated “guide” to another strange young man, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who seems to have done something very untoward to his parents.

These three “strangers” are really invaders from outer space – something which they freely confess to anyone who will listen, only everyone assumes they are joking. Exactly why they want to destroy the Earth is never revealed, nor is the the reason for the strange mission undertaken by the three researchers acting as the vanguard for the upcoming invasion. These three have been tasked with a thorough investigation of “humanity” in which they must learn and acquire certain “concepts”. They do this by requiring the subject to visualise their thinking behind a word or phrase and then tapping the head to pinch it causing that concept to be removed from the person’s interior cosmology.

The aliens learn as much from the effect of removing the concept as they do from its explanation. This being Japan, it’s not surprising that the first concept Shinji removes is that of “family” which he takes from Narumi’s younger sister, Asumi (Atsuko Maeda). Asumi had decamped to Narumi’s after an argument with her parents over their railroading her into a mainstream life she doesn’t really want. The removal of the concept of family means Asumi no longer needs to be bound by hollow obligation but her sudden coldness towards her sister immediately invites a series of other questions as to the true nature of their relationship. Similarly, Shinji removes a concept of “possession” from a young man. The young man does not immediately lose understanding of the word, but the concept ceases to be important to him. He is, in a sense, freed from the burden of materialism. Paying an unexpected visit to Narumi’s workplace and meeting her boss who, it seems, has just belittled her work on an important project after she rebuffed his attempt at sexual harassment, Shinji removes his concept of “work” leading him to play aeroplanes all around the office like an overexcited child.

There are positive effects of losing some of these centrally held ideas even if their loss seems tragic or painful on the surface. They are, however, what make us human whether that be attachment to family or an irrational desire to devote all to work and ceaseless acquisition. The final, most elusive concept is that of love – something alien and fascinating to the visitors which they find impossible to harvest due its essentially nebulous nature. Despite being part of a uniform hive mind, the invaders have each developed unique personality traits as a consequence of their “human” lives – the schoolgirl craves violence and destruction, Amano fatherly friendship, and Shinji something close to love with his own “guide” in the form of Narumi whose love for her husband apparently endured despite his betrayal.

Far from the gloomy nihilism of Pulse in which death is eternal loneliness, Before We Vanish suggests that what will survive of us is love. Salvation does, however, require a sacrifice which provokes the film’s romantic conclusion in which the absence of love becomes the “eternal loneliness” promised by Pulse but is tempered by patience and devotion. A gleefully absurdist exploration of the human soul, Before We Vanish finds Kurosawa at his most optimistic affirming the power of the human spirit at its most indestructible.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Little House (小さいおうち, Yoji Yamada, 2014)

the-little-houseIf there is a frequent criticism directed at the always bankable director Yoji Yamada, it’s that his approach is one which continues to value the past over the future. Recent years have seen him looking back, literally, in terms of both themes and style with remakes of films by two Japanese masters – Ozu in his Tokyo Story homage Tokyo Family, and Kon Ichikawa in Her Brother. While he chose to update both of those pieces for the modern day, 2008’s Kabei sent him back to the traumatic years of militarism and warfare for a story of maternal sacrifice and national tragedy. The Little House (小さいおうち, Chiisai Ouchi) brings this recent meandering around the past full circle with its deliberately Ozu-esque aesthetic and flashback tale of atonement as one woman leaves the truth she could never bear to speak on paper as a last dying confession.

After the death of his great-aunt Taki (Chieko Baisho), who never married and has no other family besides himself, his sister, and father, Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) discovers a biscuit box with his name on it filled with keepsakes and the conclusion of a kind of autobiography he’d been encouraging Taki to write in the last few months of her life. Cutting back and forth between the contemporary interactions of the older Taki and her great-nephew, and the younger Taki’s (Haru Kuroki) life as a Tokyo maid from the mid-1930s to the end of the war, The Little House takes its cues from The Go Between as an innocent bystander becomes the unwilling guardian of a secret the holding of which will prove to be a lifelong burden.

An 18 year old girl in 1935 from a poor family in Japan’s frozen North, Taki’s options are few – early marriage, geisha house, or maid. All things considered, maid is the best option and Taki is thrilled to be travelling to the big city with all of its untold excitements. After a spell working for a famous novelist, Taki becomes the housekeeper of the “Little House” – a curiously cute Western style cottage with a bright red roof out in the suburbs. Her mistress, Tokiko (Takako Matsu), is an oddly flighty woman, fiercely independent of spirit but living within the confines of her time. Crisis approaches the family not with the onset of war but with the arrival of Mr. Hirai’s sensitive, artistic, colleague, Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), whose softly spoken ways quickly find their way into Tokiko’s heart.

In fact, The Little House, is not a million miles away from an expansion of a similar narrative device previously employed in Kabei but this time Tokiko is no pillar of strength, singlehandedly upholding the traditionally saintly virtues of the Japanese mother but a flesh and blood woman caught in the storm of a turbulent era. Taki becomes our passive observer as she sits, almost invisibly, in the corner of every scene, unwilling chaperone or accidental accomplice. As she witnesses the growing attraction between Tokiko and Shoji begin to spark into something more dangerous she finds herself conflicted, not knowing the best way to help her mistress. Should Tokiko be discovered, it wouldn’t just be a scandal leading to the end of a marriage, but considering the stringency of the times the outcome could be far more serious for all concerned.

When Takeshi eventually meets Tokiko’s son Kyoichi (Masakane Yonekura), he echoes many of the older Taki’s sentiments but adds that it was an era in which everyone was “forced to make an unwilling choice”. Taki finds herself forced to choose between action and inaction and does something she thinks is for the best, but is then forced to live with the suffering of wondering if she did the right thing.

The film does not seem entirely clear on her motives for her choice – it half commits to a possible love triangle between Taki, Tokiko, and Shoji by emphasising Taki and Shoji’s shared Northern roots and by Shoji’s subsequent inclusion of both women in his artwork. Taki, however, seems to be looking more to her mistress than her suitor, wanting nothing other than to stay in the Little House with Tokiko and Kyoichi for evermore. A later scene featuring a “mannish” university friend of Tokiko seems to reinforce the directions of Taki’s unspoken desire, though if her declaration of loyalty to the Little House following a disastrous marriage proposal was intended to voice it, it falls on deaf ears.

This being the case, Taki and Shoji become almost mirrors of each other – each somehow on pause, still living inside the Little House long after it ceased to exist. The loss of the Little House is not just the destruction of a building but the obliteration of everything it stood for, not only in terms of Taki’s investment in the family who live there, but in its evocation of early Showa dreams, individuality and innocence.

As the well educated Takeshi points out, Taki’s memories are often too rosy to tally with the history books, but even given the grimness of the times as they seem in hindsight, she has a right to the romanticism of her youth. The increasingly difficult political circumstances rarely impinge on the female centred domestic environment, but are made felt firstly through the husband’s toy business which begins by chasing the Chinese market and then is reduced to making wooden toys only and trying to marry off its eligible employees to woo more investment, and through the family’s excitement about the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games which are subsequently canceled. Tokiko’s later exclamation of “Isn’t it awful everything’s disappearing” does not just refer to the sudden absence of luxury from soaps to previously ordinary foodstuffs, but to her whole bourgeois way of life suddenly brought crashing down by a series of events she has no control over.

Yamada channels Ozu with initially distracting obviousness both in the contemporary and period sequences, matching his famous compositions from the straight to camera dialogue to the mid level tatami mat view and propensity for shooting through corridors and doorways. The world of the Little House is a curiously artificial one as Yamada shoots on an obvious stage set complete with tiny twinkling lights for stars which both looks forward to the artwork at the film’s conclusion and signals its nature as an unreal, constructed, environment existing only within Taki’s memory. Were it not that the Ozu compositions creep into the contemporary sequences, it could almost be read as a representation of Takeshi’s internal dramatisation of Taki’s memoirs as mediated through classic cinema.

The Little House is, indeed, resolutely old fashioned. Far too subtle for its own good, The Little House is an exercise in restraint in which the central love triangle never even hits the simmer, let alone the boil. Given the well trodden nature of the narrative, even the most inattentive viewer will have correctly guessed the big reveal well before Takeshi puts two and two together, rendering the final explanatory segment entirely redundant. Never quite as affecting as it would like to be, The Little House is a muted experience, perpetually pulling back each time it approaches doing something more interesting with its material. Nevertheless, it does provide an interesting perspective on its period setting as its collection of tragically romantic heroes march forward blindly into a maelstrom of oncoming destruction.


HK trailer (English/traditional Chinese subs)