Yan (燕, Keisuke Imamura, 2019)

A sense of dislocation plagues the drifting heroes of Keisuke Imamura’s elegantly lensed Yan (燕), a poetic meditation on the legacy of abandonment both cultural and familial. As much about the disintegration of a family as the complexities of identity, Imamura’s nuanced character drama finds its hero looking for himself in the shadow of his long lost brother and rediscovering perhaps a long absent sense of security in reconnecting with his childhood self while learning to let go of his fierce resentment towards the mother he assumed had forgotten him. 

28-year-old Tsubame (Long Mizuma) is a workaholic architect with a successful, settled life in Tokyo. He is also, however, slightly disconnected and harbouring a great deal of anger towards his family, aside it seems from his cheerful step-mother. An awkward meeting with his father following a rare summons to the family home results in some distressing news. His company’s gone under and he’s deep in debt, which is why he wants Tsubame to go to Taiwan to deliver some important papers to his estranged older brother Ryushin (Takashi Yamanaka) whom he hasn’t seen in 23 years since he left with their mother (Yo Hitoto) so he can renounce his rights to an inheritance to avoid being liable for his father’s debts. Tsubame is reluctant, he didn’t even go to Taiwan for his mother’s funeral and has done his best to erase that side of his life from his memory, but after his step-mother guilt trips him by explaining that his father’s in poor health so it might be the last thing he’ll ever ask he finds himself on the next flight to Kaohsiung.

Despite his animosity towards his Taiwanese heritage, Tsubame seems to have maintained his Mandarin which is a definite help in the busy city but finds himself conflicted in being taken at first for a local and then recognised as not. Sitting down at a dumpling stand the proprietress and another customer guess that he is probably Japanese but on hearing that he was born in the area and his mother was from there immediately remind him that he is then also Taiwanese, something that appears to bother him. Flashing back to his childhood we witness both warm scenes of his mother conversing with her children in Mandarin while they mainly reply in Japanese, and a series of xenophobic micro-aggressions from neighbours who accuse her of trying to harm their children with new year dumplings containing lucky coins while Tsubame finds himself a victim of bullying by the local kids after mistakenly using his Chinese name, Yan, or making the usual kinds of language mistakes that all young children make but being made fun of over them as someone not quite Japanese. Like the heroines of What’s For Dinner, Mom? he also remembers a sense of embarrassment on being the only kid with a non-standard bento but sadly never managed to convert any of his classmates to Taiwanese food, internalising a sense of shame over his difference and becoming hyper Japanese in response. In a particularly painful moment, he berates his mother for her poor language skills and lack of cultural awareness, tearing up a drawing he’d made and crying out that he wished he could swap her for a “normal” Japanese mum like everyone else’s. 

Why exactly she chose to leave only him behind, taking her older son with her, is never quite explained but perhaps a part of her felt that Tsubame preferred to stay in Japan. Ryushin meanwhile is carrying his own burden having left with his mother but resentful over her longing for the son she left behind. He appears to have felt dislocated himself as a boy raised Japan struggling to adapt to his new environment and is now a divorced father, it seems living with another man who left the Mainland for the comparatively liberal Taiwan to escape a conservative father and the pain of having to keep his true a identity a secret even from himself. Bonding with Tony (Ryushin Tei), his brother’s partner, Tsubame comes to a realisation that he has been doing something much the same in rejecting his Taiwanese heritage but struggles to accept that a person can be more than one thing and like the sparrow from which he takes his name could be equally at home in both Japan and Taiwan. 

As Tony tells him, somewhat cynically, bitterness is also born of love which is after all what has brought Tsubame all the way to Kaohsiung. Tsubame’s mother had told him the Chinese proverb that a mother’s love is like a flowing river, but a child’s is the like breeze that rustles the leaves. The small Tsubame replied that he’d always love his mother but has spent the majority of his life in silent resentment, only latterly acknowledging it might have been true after all after coming to an understanding of his mother’s choices and realising that in her heart at least she had never abandoned him. 


Yan was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Hikita’s Are Expecting! (ヒキタさん! ご懐妊ですよ, Toru Hosokawa, 2019)

Even once you’ve entered a comfortable middle age in which you assume everything will remain pretty much the same until the day you die, life can still surprise you. So it is for the hero of Toru Hosokawa’s The Hikita’s are Expecting (ヒキタさん! ご懐妊ですよ, Hikita-san! Gokainin Desu yo), inspired by writer Kunio Hikita’s autobiographical essay in which he humorously recounts his experiences of undergoing fertility treatment with his considerably younger wife, a process which of course places an immense strain on their relationship but also brings them together as they remain determined to meet their baby by any means possible. 

At 49, however, Kunio (Yutaka Matsushige) is a typical middle-aged man, set in his ways and fond of a drink. He and his younger wife Sachiko (Keiko Kitagawa) had made a mutual decision not to have children, but as many of her friends become mothers Sachiko begins to change her mind, especially after she witnesses Kunio help to calm a little boy having a tantrum at the bus stop. Kunio had been fairly indifferent to the idea of children and is in any case a passive personality so has no real objection only pausing to process the fact that his life might be about to change. He is not anticipating any problems and assumes conceiving a child will be a fairly straightforward process but after months of trying the natural way they start to wonder if something might be wrong. Kunio had not been expecting to discover that the problem lies with him. His sperm has low mobility, and it is unlikely Sachiko will become pregnant without medical help. 

This news is something of a blow to Kunio’s sense of masculinity, especially in comparison to his editor (Gaku Hamada) who has several children already and keeps getting his wife pregnant by accident even while actively trying not to. Kunio doesn’t want to think that he’s at fault and pins his hopes on there being some kind of mistake but is forced to face the fact that though it’s just one of those things he will not be able to fulfil Sachiko’s desire to have a child all on his own. Nevertheless, he becomes determined to do everything he can to help, embracing a few old wives tales like putting a picture of a pomegranate on your wall and obsessively eating peaches while taking steps to lead a healthier lifestyle such as abstaining from alcohol and going on regular runs. 

He’s also challenged however by Sachiko’s conservative and extremely authoritarian father who has never approved of the marriage for a number of reasons ranging from the age difference to Kunio’s liberal outlook and way of life. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t approve of their decision to have children, but his branding of fertility treatment as “disgraceful” is at best insensitive and his attempt to order his daughter to to “reconsider”, blaming all the problems on Kunio and advising that she leave him to find someone her own age he assumes would be more fertile, extremely inappropriate. Perhaps still a little gaslit, Sachiko finds herself unable to stand up him, even while Kunio points out that whatever their decision it’s entirely between them as husband and wife and he’s not even really sure why they’re having this bizarre family conference in the first place. 

Meanwhile, they find themselves tested by the strain of undergoing fertility treatment. To begin with, Kunio foregrounds his own embarrassment and inconvenience, complaining about being made to wait in the fertility clinic while a host of heavily pregnant women put up with their discomfort in silence while sitting right next to him, but later feels guilty that it’s Sachiko who has to endure a number of supposedly painless surgical procedures on his account even though there’s nothing medically wrong with her. Together they experience joys and setbacks, occasionally overcome with despair, but always supporting each other and moving forward with good humour determined to become parents no matter what it takes. At the clinic, Kunio gets talking to another man who seems depressed and exhausted, explaining that they’ve been trying for six years and have decided to call it quits if this last treatment ends without success. Some time later he spots the man and his wife in the street, alone, but whatever the outcome was apparently much happier and rejoicing in each other’s company. Kunio at least is reassured, supporting his wife as they work together to expand their family, knowing that whatever happens at least they have each other. 


The Hikita’s Are Expecting! streams for free in the US on June 19 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Father’s Day Cheer mini series. Sign up to receive the viewing link (limited to 300 views) and activate it between 2pm and 10pm CDT after which you’ll have 24 hours to complete watching the movie.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Organ (あの日のオルガン, Emiko Hiramatsu, 2019)

Emiko Hiramatsu is best known as a regular collaborator to the endlessly prolific Yoji Yamada. Though his repertoire is more varied than some give him credit for, Yamada is one of several veteran directors to have begun looking backwards with a sometimes uncomfortable nostalgia for the wartime era in tales of maternal suffering such as Kabei and Nagasaki: Memories of my Son, or its legacy of unfulfilled desire in the more complex The Little House, all of which were co-written by Hiramatsu. It’s to the war she returns in her second directorial feature Organ (あの日のオルガン, Ano Hi no Organ), once again chronicling female fortitude as an idealistic nursery school teacher defies governmental advice to evacuate the children in her care to the relative safety of a disused temple outside of the city. 

“Angry girl” Kaede Itakura (Erika Toda) is outraged by the news that the schools will soon be closed, not least because of it’s impracticality seeing as the parents of the children in her care have all been mobilised for the war effort and will not be able to look after them. Worried about the intensification of aerial bombardment, she’s considering taking the children somewhere safer but is struggling to convince others that she is right to reject the governmental line. Her greatest challenge is not, however, the authorities, but the children’s parents, many of whom have been quite thoroughly brainwashed and have no idea how badly the war is going. They find Kaede’s suggestion defeatist and are certain that they are in no real danger. Of course, no one wants to be separated from their children, but some begin to wonder if they aren’t being selfish in wanting to keep them close if they’ll be safer elsewhere. Experiencing a serious air raid, most parents ultimately decide that perhaps evacuation is for the best. 

The kids, though obviously distressed to be taken away from their parents, perhaps think of it as an extended school trip. The locals, however, are not universally pleased to see them. A farmer beefed up by militarist credentials, loudly complains about being forced to feed and shelter “unproductive” refugees. He’s only talked round when the sole male teacher explains to him that the children are important because they too are children of the emperor who will someday grow up to become fine soldiers fighting for imperial glory. 

Kaede bristles, but finally cannot argue. A neat mirror of macho male militarist ideology, her philosophy also has its patriotic quality in her constant insistence that they must save their “cultural identity” by teaching the children traditional arts such as flower arranging and folk songs which, while admired by the militarists for their essential Japaneseness, are also regarded as frivolous. She tries to maintain distance between herself and the children, clear that this a school and not a home, but is forced to accept a degree of maternity when it becomes clear that lack of human warmth is causing them to suffer. 

The teachers at the school, all of whom are necessarily unmarried and most of them young, are doubted by others precisely because they have no children of their own even if they are ultimately respected as educators. Caring for the children is also their way of serving, allowing their parents to devote themselves entirely to the war effort in the knowledge that their kids are safe. The country is, however, much more conservative than the city. Also viewed with suspicion is a man who’s come home from the war injured and now finds himself out of place, “unproductive”, and to a degree feminised. When he dares to talk cheerfully to one of the teachers after helping her fix her bicycle, the ultra militarist doesn’t like it, accusing the teachers of being a bunch of loose women in the habit of taking advantage of “vulnerable” men who are apparently both emasculated and infantilised by their inability to serve. The militarist’s complaint gets the teacher sent home, back to the city, and straight into the heart of danger where she may die simply for smiling at a lonely young man. 

Kaede once again doesn’t approve, but is powerless to resist. She is forced to compromise her principles for the greater good to keep the children safe. Her “angry girl” fortitude is directly contrasted with the ethereality of the bumbling Mitsue (Sakurako Ohara) who has a knack with the children but is not exactly a responsible adult. Yet Mitsue too is “serving”, if only as a morale booster, her cheerful attitude helping to carry others through tough times. It’s her organ from which the film takes its title, gathering the children to sing wholesome folk songs including the classic “furusato” with all its evocations of nostalgia for an idyllic pastoral innocence.

Meanwhile, Kaede wonders if she’s done the right thing in separating families, darkly worried that the parents might have preferred to die with their children rather than be glad they sent them away to safety. Many of the children in her care are orphaned, losing homes and family members in the fire bombing, and finally not even rural Saitama is safe, but she has at least saved something in her determination to carve out a space for peaceful innocence far away from the unfeeling chaos of militarist folly.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Day and Night (デイアンドナイト, Michihito Fujii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

day and night poster 1Can two wrongs ever really make a right? Michihito Fujii’s Day and Night (デイアンドナイト) wants to ask if the difference between good and evil is really as stark as that between dawn and dusk, or if life is really more like twilight in which morality is a relative concept and acts cannot by judged individually but only as a part of the whole. What the hero discovers, however, is that the world is an inherently unfair place and it may not be possible to “win” against the forces of self-interest solely through being pure of heart.

The drama begins with a stunned Koji (Shinnosuke Abe) returning to his small-town home to graffiti scrawled across his fences and his father lying in repose inside after having apparently taken his own life. No one will quite explain to Koji what exactly has happened, but it seems there has been some unpleasantness surrounding his father’s auto business. Though most of the other townspeople including his old friends are civil, they are also frosty and obviously unwilling to address the subject of Mr. Akashi save to press Koji for money they might still be owed as employees.

Meanwhile, poking around the garage in search of answers, he runs into the mysterious figure of Kitamura (Masanobu Ando) who claims to have known his father well though Koji’s mother claims never to have heard of him. Seeing as Kitamura is the only person willing to speak to him, Koji ends up taking a job at the orphanage where he works which turns out to be a little different than he thought seeing as Kitamura is actually the head of a local crime ring which exists with the sole purpose of keeping the orphanage running.

Though Koij, like his father, is an upstanding, law-abiding young man, he is quickly pulled into Kitamura’s world of moral justifications when presented with his personal philosophy in which the greater good remains paramount. Kitamura steals cars by night, stripping the unsellable ones for parts, which is where Mr. Akashi came in having succumbed to a life of “crime” in order to support himself while his business was suffering. He also does some possibly less justifiable work in the red light district while making a point of beating up drug dealers because 80% of the kids in his care have a parent in jail for crimes related to substance abuse. In Kitamura’s view at least, these are all “justifiable”, morally defensible “crimes” given that they are necessary to ensure the protection of the orphans. Though the money is good and Koji does need it, they are not in this for personal gain but to protect something they feel is important.

As Kitamura puts it, Mr. Akashi put his faith in laws that are meant to protect people but in the end it killed him. Having discovered a serious flaw in the auto parts he received from a local company he did the “right thing” and blew the whistle but Nakamichi Autos is the major player in the local economy and many people did not take kindly to having their reputation called into question. Nakamichi rallied its supporters and had Akashi hounded into submission. As one of the former employees tells Koji, the truth “hardly matters anymore”. Nakamichi doesn’t care there is a minor flaw in their products because they feel the chance of a fatal accident is slim enough not to need to worry about and happy to let the risk continue as long as they maximise their profits.

Miyake (Tetsushi Tanaka), Nakamichi’s CEO, also has his justifications, insisting that there’s no such thing as right and wrong only the cold logic of numbers and that the death of one man will not change anything. Increasingly pulled into Kitamura’s world of crime, Koji opts for underhanded methods to expose the truth about Nakamichi and clear his father’s name but finds in the end that no one is interested in facts. Listening in to some of his father’s old employees enjoying their belated severance pay he is dismayed to hear them too justifying their actions as they each insist that they did what they thought was “best” for everyone, for a peaceful life, for their families.

In truth, Koji claims he hated his father. That he resented him for always working all the time. Now however he begins to see that Akashi was only trying to protect his family by providing for it. His father was a “good” man, and he did the “right” thing, but he also became involved with Kitamura’s morally questionable crime syndicate. Kitamura wants to protect the orphans and takes care of them well, but can he really justify his actions solely on the grounds that there is no honest way to care for children who are often victims of an unfair society the pressures of which have pushed their parents from the “moral” path? What Koji’s left with, broadly, is that “good” people do “bad” things for “good” reasons, but bad people do bad things because they’re selfish and so they hardly care about the consequences of their actions. He starts to believe that the only way to resist is to fight fire with fire, but discovers that the little guy is always at a disadvantage when there is too much vested interest in not “making trouble”. It turns out everyone is OK with the status quo, so long as it’s not their car that might suddenly lose its wheels. As Miyake says, “that’s just how society works”.

A bleak meditation on the wider nature of justice and moral greyness of the world, Fujii’s noirish drama suggests good and bad are less like day and night than a shady evening in which the only shining light is the greater good. The world, however, continues on in self interest and the “good” will always lose to the “bad” as long it compromises itself trying to play by the other guy’s rules. Koji finds himself torn between a desire to avenge his father and a new sense of fatherhood fostered by bonding with a teenage girl at the orphanage as he contemplates the existence of a line between good and evil and his own place along it, but his old fashioned “nobility” finds no answer in the infinitely corrupt moral dubiousness of the modern society.


Day and Night was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Mitsuaki Iwago, 2019)

Island of Cats Poster“The best is yet to come” resolves 70-year-old Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa) at the conclusion of The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Neko to Jiichan). Inspired by the manga by the appropriately named Nekomaki, the debut feature from wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago is a decidedly laidback affair, neatly fusing two genres of Japanese comfort cinema – cats and cuisine. It’s also another in the recent run of films deliberately targeting the older generation in its quiet celebration of community and late life serenity, but it’s very existence is also perhaps a mild dig at cold and frenetic Tokyo which can’t help but pale next to the island’s inherent charms.

Daikichi has lived alone with his cat, Tama (who neatly introduces himself using the exalted “Wagahai” in a reference to Soseki’s famous novel), since his wife Yoshie (Yuko Tanaka) passed away two years previously. He has a grown-up son (Takashi Yamanaka) who is married with a teenage daughter of his own in Tokyo, but mostly spends his life hanging out with his old friends and playing with the island’s many cats. His peaceful days begin to change, however, when a pretty middle-aged (“young” to Daikichi and his friends) woman, Michiko (Kou Shibasaki), arrives from Tokyo and opens a cafe – the island’s first. In fact, the older generation find the cafe slightly intimidating, thinking such modern innovations are only for the youngsters, but are finally tempted in when directly invited by Michiko herself who serves up a selection of cream sodas and tasty ice creams in addition to slightly more rarefied treats like fish carpaccio.

In contrast to many an island drama, though the bulk of the population is older there are a fair few youngsters around and plenty of children too – at least enough to keep the local school open and the ferries running frequently. It is true however that most leave when they come of age either heading off to university on the mainland or seeking their fortunes in the cities. Nevertheless, the despite the absence of family the elderly are well cared for by the recently arrived young doctor (Tasuku Emoto) who takes his responsibility extremely seriously and is grateful for the opportunity to come to the island because it’s enabled him to become the kind of doctor he always wanted to be.

Michiko, meanwhile, has come to the island in search of relief from city life which she felt was gradually crushing her. An instant hit with the local cats as well as Daikichi and his friends, her presence adds a new energy to the island as the older generation start to enjoy both trying new things they thought perhaps were “inappropriate” when you’re old, and revisiting those they missed out on in their youth. Friends reconnect, bickering is exposed as an odd kind of affection, and cats just generally make everything better. The island may be dull compared to the bright lights of Tokyo, but it has its charms and those that live there are one big family taking care of each other and enjoying the laidback rhythms of coastal life.

Daikichi’s son, visiting when he can, is keen for him to come and live with the family in Tokyo but he and Tama are happy enough on the island just muddling through the way they always have surrounded by friends and happy memories. Reconnecting with his late wife through the recipe book she left behind, he resolves to learn a few dishes of his own – filling the rest of the pages with recipes learned from Michiko, his friends, newspapers and TV, determined to go on learning as long as he can. Sharing his life with others on the island, Daikichi too finds a new zest for living even as his days pass much as before, resolving that there is still plenty more to enjoy as he enters his twilight years. Gentle and mellow in the extreme, The Island of Cats is not promising much more than living up to its name but does its best to sell the charms of serene island life as Daikichi and his friends rejoice in the simple pleasures of shared cuisine and admiring “everybody’s” cats as they continue to do pretty much whatever they please while warming the hearts of the kindly islanders as they enjoy their days of fun and sunshine with nary a care in the world.


The Island of Cats screens in New York on July 20 as part of Japan Cuts 2019. It will also screen in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on July 28.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine poster 1“I see it now, we can’t change anything” a despondent would-be-revolutionary decries in a moment of despair. Almost 100 years later, you might have to concede they have a point when the world finds itself on a tipping point once again and the same old prejudices refuse to disappear. Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Kiku to Guillotine Onna Zumo to Anarchism) casts an unflinching eye back towards the Japan of 1923 caught in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster which followed on from a chaotic era of rapid social change and bewildering modernisation during which a series of battles were being fought for the future direction of a nation still trying to define itself in world dominated by empires.

When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck claiming mass loss of life and extreme damage to infrastructure, the ensuing chaos gave rise to a vicious rumour that Koreans were taking advantage of the situation to foment the independence movement by poisoning wells and committing arson leading to a pogrom against anyone who failed to prove themselves Japanese enough to satisfy the mob. Meanwhile, the same forces also turned on political opponents whose influence they perceived as destructive to their own aims culminating in the murder of prominent anarchist Sanae Osugi along with his feminist wife Noe Ito and their six-year-old nephew.

We begin, however, with a different band of outsiders in the Tamaiwa itinerant female sumo wrestler troupe many of whom have taken refuge in an isolated world of female solidarity in order to escape abusive relationships. Kiku (Mai Kiryu) is one such woman who found the courage to run away from a violent husband on catching sight of the powerful female wrestlers who made her realise that she too could become strong like them. Having accepted that “weak people can’t change anything”, Kiku has vowed to become “strong” in order to claim her own agency and ensure that she can’t be pushed around ever again.

Meanwhile, an anarchist sect known as the Guillotines are fomenting a more general kind of revolution but have not been very successful and are now on the run from the authorities which is how they end up running into the female wrestlers and more or less bringing them into the struggle. Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries. They rob the rich to fund their “activism” but spend most of the money on sex and drink while plotting revenge for the murder of Osugi with various schemes which imply that at heart they aren’t so different from that which they hate.

Nevertheless, the forces of darkness are rising and history tells us that, temporally at least, they will win. The vigilante militias which carried out the massacres were largely made-up of farmer soldiers who’d served in Russia and experienced terrible hardship. Unable to bear the idea that their traumatic wartime experiences had been a senseless waste, they doubled down on militarist ideology and insisted on their nationalistic superiority. This led them to hate, to regard anything that lay outside of their code as inferior and dangerous. Though the massacres were condemned by the government and the perpetrators prosecuted for their crimes, the convictions were largely quashed a short time later which is why we see our major villains rewarded by the state and our revolutionary “heroes” imprisoned for their resistance towards state oppression and desire to create a fairer, more equal society.

Ironically enough, Nakahama’s big utopian idea is an overly idealistic vision for a future Manchuria which in hindsight proves extremely uncomfortable but is perhaps an indication of the naivety of the times. Even so, the Guillotines for all their romanticism are essentially progressive in their thinking and in full support of sexual equality, insisting on the necessity of the wrestlers to embrace their physical capabilities in order to defend themselves against an oppressive and patriarchal society fuelled by male violence. Though this in itself might be mildly problematic in implying that in order to become “equal” women must learn to be more like men, it also plays into the film’s subtle sense of irony in which the tools of militarism are being subverted in order to oppose it. The “intellectual” Guillotines find their revolutions failing, while fighting fire with fire may be the only surefire way to win even if it legitimises the problematic act of violence in the process. Then again, as another of the Guillotines puts it, the truly strong are those who have no need of killing. 

In any case, the Tamaiwa stable becomes a tiny enclave of progressive values built on female solidarity though they ultimately discover that solidarity is not quite enough and they cannot protect each other from the ravages of the times without external assistance. Even so, they attempt to hold the line, literally pushing back against the fascist incursion while insisting on their right to resist as human beings with will and agency. The prognosis seems bleak. 100 years later the same battles are still being fought and the same tensions rising in the wake of new disasters yet there are also those who will continue to resist and like the Tamaiwa wrestlers refuse to give in to those who threaten to restrict their freedom.


The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2015)

Three Stories of Love posterRyosuke Hashiguchi began his career with a collection of sometimes melancholy but ultimately hopeful tales of gay life in contemporary Japan. In 2008 he branched out with the finely tuned emotional drama All Around Us which followed an ordinary couple’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of a child. Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Koibitotachi) finds him in much the same territory as he takes three very different yet equally burdened romantics and sets them on a path towards a kind of acceptance while suffering inside a system where everyone seems to be intent on exploiting other people’s unhappiness.

The first of our heroes, Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara), is a bridge inspector whose wife was murdered in a random street attack three years previously. Ever since then he’s suffered with depression and found it difficult to hold down a job or a life and has become obsessed with getting personal revenge on the killer who pleaded the insanity defence and was committed to psychiatric care rather than to prison. Meanwhile, across town, listless housewife Toko (Toko Narushima) is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering husband and living with her snooty mother-in-law. Toko’s only outlet is compulsively rewatching a shaky video of the time she and her friends witnessed Princess Masako briefly exit a building. The third of our heroes, Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda), is a self involved lawyer with a longstanding crush on his straight best friend from college who has since married and had a young son.

The three strands are only loosely interconnected, occurring as they do in the same city at the same time, though they do each share a sense of defeat and impossibility as each of our heroes struggles either to escape from or come to terms with their difficult circumstances. Atsushi’s case is perhaps the most extreme as he deals not only with his grief and anger but with the persistent stigma of being involved with violent crime. Visited by his bubbly sister-in-law he idly remembers to ask after the man she was about to marry last time they met only to be told that he abruptly dumped her after her sister’s death and not only that, all her friends abandoned her too. Getting revenge has become Atsushi’s only reason for living – he stopped paying his health insurance to get money together for fancy lawyers like Shinomiya who convinced him he could lodge a civil case but were only ever stringing him along to fleece him of money he never really had.

Shinomiya is, in a sense, our villain. He listens dispassionately to his wealthy clients – including one woman seeking a divorce (Chika Uchida) because her husband forgot to tell her he was burakumin until after they were married, but privately mocks them and is so unpleasant to his colleagues that someone eventually pushes him down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. Intensely self-involved, he cares little for other people’s feelings save for those of his forlorn love Satoshi (So Yamanaka). Satoshi’s wife Etsuko, originally friendly and understanding, eventually takes against Shinomiya either because she doesn’t like the way he fiddled with her son’s ears or resents the two men cooing over the child and accidentally making her feel like an unwelcome outsider. Introducing his much younger boyfriend only seems to make matters worse, though the relationship does seem to have its problematic dimensions even if not in the way Etsuko decides to interpret them as Shinomiya takes pains to run down his partner in public and berate him at home. It’s difficult to resist the interpretation that Shinomiya prefers younger lovers because he can boss them around and, in truth, he doesn’t even seem very attached to this one, but he’s about to get a very rude awakening when it comes to learning that he’s not as permanent a part of everyone else’s lives as he seems to think.

Atsushi is fleeced by the Shinomiyas of the world and his heartless health insurers, but he’s wily enough to spot the obvious scam in the lovelorn office boy’s sudden enthusiasm for magical beautifying water which turns out to be part of a bar lady’s (Tamae Ando) nefarious scheme to resell the tapped variety with some of her own glamour shots attached to the front. Toko is wily enough to see it too, though she eventually succumbs when would-be-chicken-farmer Fujita (Ken Mitsuishi), whom she met at work during a difficult moment with her boss, delivers her some on spec. Lonely and insecure, Toko appreciates the unexpected interest but Fujita is not the white knight she first assumes him to be and is eventually exposed as yet another scam artist gunning for the little money she might have been able to hide away in her rabidly penny pinching home.

Shinomiya might feel himself proud to be among the fleecers rather than the fleeced, but he soon gets a comeuppance in realising he has wilfully pulled the wool over his own eyes, blinded in a sense by love. Toko, meanwhile, has learned to accept the latent feudalism of the modern society in her obsession with royalty though a brief attempt to transcend her feelings of innate inferiority seems destined to end in failure if perhaps engineering a mild improvement in her familial circumstances. Atsushi alone, a man whose job it is to assess the foundations, begins to find a degree of equilibrium thanks largely to nothing more than a good friend willing to listen and share his own suffering. Exploitation of others’ misfortunes and a series of social prejudices conspire against our three lovers but perhaps there is something to be said for learning to find the blue sky from whichever vantage point you happen to be occupying no matter how small and distant it may be.


Three Stories of Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2017)

wilderness posterWhen Shuji Terayama published his only novel in 1966, Japan was riding high – the 1964 Olympics had put the nation back on the global map and post-war desperation was beginning shift towards economic prosperity. In adapting Terayama’s jazz-inspired avant-garde prose experiment for the screen, Yoshiyuki Kishi updates the action to 2021 and a slightly futuristic Tokyo once again feeling a mild sense of post-Olympic malaise. Terayama, like the twin heroes of Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Ah, Koya), got his “education” on the streets of Shinjuku, claiming that more could be learned from boxing and horse races than any course of study. Both damaged young men, these lonely souls begin to find a place for themselves within the ring but discover only emptiness in place of the freedom they so desperately long for.

Shinji (Masaki Suda), abandoned to an orphanage by his mother after his father committed suicide, has just been released from juvie after being involved in a street fight which left one of his best friends paralysed. Discovering that his old gang won’t take him back he’s at a loss for what to do. Meanwhile, shy barber Kenji (Yang Ik-june) who stammers so badly that he barely speaks at all, is battling the possessive stranglehold his drunken, violent ex-military father weilds over him. Raised in Korea until his mother died and his father brought him back to Japan, Kenji has always struggled to feel a part of the world he inhabits. The two meet by chance when Shinji decides to confront the man who attacked his gang, Yuji (Yuki Yamada) – now an up and coming prize fighter. Shinji is badly injured by the professional boxer while Kenji comes to his rescue, bringing them to the attention of rival boxing manager Horiguchi (Yusuke Santamaria) who manages to recruit them both for his fledgling studio.

The Tokyo of 2021 is, perhaps like its 1966 counterpart, one of intense confusion and anxiety. Plagued by mysterious terrorist attacks, the nation is also facing an extension of very real social problems exacerbated by a tail off from the temporary Olympic economic bump. As the economy continues to decline with unemployment on the rise, crime and suicides increase while social attitudes harden. In an ageing society, love hotels are being turned into care homes and wedding halls into funeral parlours. The elder care industry is in crisis, necessitating a controversial law which promises certain benefits to those who commit to dedicating themselves either to the caring professions or to the self defence forces.

Yet nothing much of this matters to a man like Shinji who ignores the crowds fleeing in terror from the latest attack in favour of “free” ramen left behind by the man who recently vacated the seat next to him out of a prudent desire to make a speedy escape. Shinji takes up boxing as way of getting public revenge on Yuji but also finds that suits him, not just as an outlet for his youthful frustrations but in the discipline and rigour of the training hall as well as the camaraderie among the small team at the gym. Kenji, by contrast, is kind hearted and so shy he can barely look his opponent in the eye. He comes to boxing as a way of finally learning to stand up for himself against his bullying father, but eventually discovers that it might be a way for him achieve what he has always dreamed of – connection.

Asked why he thinks it is we’re born at all if all we do if suffer and long for death, Kenji replies that must be “to connect” though he has no answer when asked if he ever has. For Kenji boxing is a spiritual as well as physical “contact sport” through which he hopes to finally build the kind of bridges to others that Shinji perhaps builds in a more usual way. Shinji tells himself that the only way to win is to hate, that in boxing the man who hates the hardest becomes the champion but all Kenji wants from the violence of the ring is love and acceptance. Shinji’s friend, Ryuki (Katsuya Kobayashi), has forgiven the man who crippled him and moved on with his life while Shinji is consumed by rage, warped beyond recognition in his need to prove himself superior to the forces which have already defeated him – his father’s suicide, his mother’s abandonment, and his friend’s betrayal.

While Shinji blusters, shows off, and throws it all away, Kenji patiently hones his craft hoping to meet him again in the boxing ring and “connect” in the way they never could before. There’s something essentially sad in Kenji’s deep sense of loneliness, the sketches in his notebook and strange relationship with an equally sad-eyed gangster/promoter (Satoru Kawaguchi) suggesting a hankering for something more than brotherhood. Nevertheless what each of the men responds to is the positive familial environment they have never previously known, anchored by the paternalism of coach Horiguchi and cemented by unconditional brotherly love.

Caught at cross purposes, the two young men battle each other looking for the same thing – a sense of freedom and of being connected to the world, but emerge with little more than scars and broken hearts, finding release only in a final transcendent moment of poetic tragedy. Kishi’s vision of the immediate future is bleak in the extreme, a nihilistic society in which hope has become a poison and death its only antidote. A tragedy of those who want to live but don’t know how, Wilderness is a minor miracle which proves infinitely affecting even in the depths of its despair.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Yoshiyuki Kishi conducted at the Busan International Film Festival (Japanese with English subtitles)

Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)