The End of the Pale Hour (明け方の若者たち, Hana Matsumoto, 2021)

A series of youngsters contend with disillusionment amidst the failure of the salaryman dream in Hana Matsumoto’s adaptation of the “I Novel” by Masahiko Katsuse, The End of the Pale Hour (明け方の若者たち, Akegata no Wakamonotachi). United by a chorus of “it wasn’t supposed to be this way”, the choice left to them is to resign themselves to life’s disappointment or to take a gamble on a happier future which though it might not work out might grant them a greater feeling of control over an existence which often seems pointless and unfulfilling. 

The unnamed protagonist (Takumi Kitamura) is already feeling a degree of trepidation even at a gathering that has been organised by a brash fellow student who crassly brands it the “winners’ party” to celebrate that they’ve all been able to line up jobs for after graduation in a competitive employment market. He ends up leaving with an equally bored woman (Yuina Kuroshima), a graduate student a little older than him, and drifts into a relationship with her that seems doomed to failure not least in her constant reminders that “everything ends sometime” and “our youth will be over soon, we need to enjoy it now”. The man insists that their youth won’t end just because they’ve entered the working world but in a sense it of course does, his sparkler fizzling out portentously as he’s forced to think of the future. 

A recent trend has seen large numbers of graduate recruits quit their company jobs within the first three years for reasons the man and his new workplace friend Naoto (Yuki Inoue) quickly discover. Japanese companies generally hire en masse in the spring and then shuffle employees into various departments after a probationary period sometimes letting the ones who don’t make the grade go entirely. Though he had done well in the preliminary tasks and hoped to be assigned to the prestigious planning department where the real work gets done, the man is assigned to the “General Affairs” section of office dogsbodies marked out from the regular salaryman workers by their uniform jackets which make it clear that their work is considered menial mainly concerned with setting up furniture for meetings, taking care of maintenance tasks such as replacing light bulbs, and dealing with interoffice complaints. He is constantly told off for not stamping his documents properly only for someone to explain to him that he needs to make sure his name appears at the correct angle to symbolise his bowing to the boss on paper in an example of the rigid office culture for which the young have increasingly little patience.  

Part of the man’s problem is his passivity. He’s dissatisfied with the system but is at heart conventional and lacks the courage to break with it. The woman is seemingly less so, a free spirit who’s chosen a path she believes to be more creatively fulfilling excited that she might make something that will one day be in someone’s hands. But then as we discover she is more conventional than she first appears, her openness and enthusiasm perhaps partly fantasy to mask the disappointment that she too feels that her life has not turned out as she thought it would. The man remarks that he likes walking around at twilight because it’s the only moment in which he can feel free, a moment of infinite possibility in the liminal space between one day and the next in which today is already over but tomorrow has not started. Later Naoto will say something similar of their youthful days as fresh hires filled with resentment but also determination, railing against the system until the early hours of the morning, describing it as the “magic hour” of their lives though they never knew the light was dimming. 

Such dejection may be slightly unwarranted given that none of them are even 30 by time of the film’s conclusion despite the minor greying of their hair. In any case, the man seems to have come to an acceptance of youth’s end, taking the spirit of the twilight with him as he charts a new, if still conventional course, choosing not to jump ship like his friend but tentatively make an application to get out of General Affairs into a better salaryman job. “It’s been a magic time, hasn’t it?” the woman had said of their brief holiday, “like a dream” but one from which she knows, and perhaps he does too, they’ll soon have to awake. Expressing the anxieties of contemporary generation dissatisfied with their overly corporatised lives in a rigid and conservative society, The End of the Pale Hour nevertheless ends with a sense of the dawn and the promise of new beginnings if tinged with the glow of youthful nostalgia. 


The End of the Pale Hour streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Takuma Sato, 2020)

“Get your act together” an exasperated new mother exclaims, but it seems even new fatherhood isn’t quite enough to jolt the aimless hero of Takuma Sato’s paternity drama Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Nakuko wa Inega) into accepting his responsibility. Fatherhood is indeed a daunting prospect, however Sato isn’t interested solely in Tasuku’s (Taiga Nakano) attempts to “grow up” and embody the ideals of masculinity in a patriarchal society but also in the nature of fatherhood itself along with its legacies and the effects of male failure on those caught in its wake. 

Everyone in the small town of Oga seems to be aware that Tasuku has undergone a shotgun marriage though it’s more the subject of gentle ribbing than scorn or disdain. Many remark on his relative youth, though he’s perhaps not so much younger than his parents might have been when he was born it’s just that times have changed. In any case, his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka), is beginning to get fed up with him worried that he isn’t ready to be a father and isn’t taking the responsibility seriously enough. As young men do he still drinks like a single man and is vulnerable to peer pressure. Kotone begs him not to participate in the local Namahage festival but he insists they have to keep the tradition alive while apparently feeling an obligation to Mr. Natsui (Toshiro Yanagiba) who ensures it continues. She makes him promise not to drink, and he does his best in the beginning but, paradoxically, the Namahage is a drinking festival. Soon enough, Tasuku has had a little too much and beginning to feel hot takes off all his clothes, running around in the nude save for the large oni mask on his face while local reporters there to cover the traditional festival decide to make him a viral sensation. Unable to bear the shame, Tasuku abandons his wife and child and runs away to anonymity in Tokyo. 

The irony is that introducing the festival to the reporters, Mr. Natsui had flagged it up as a bastion of family values, that it’s not about “scaring” children but teaching them “good ethics” while reassuring them that their fathers will always protect them. According to Mr. Natsui, those children then grow up to become fathers who protect their offspring, Tasuku’s unfortunate streaking somewhat undermining his argument. It’s interesting in a sense that Tasuku is himself fatherless, his father having passed away some years earlier leaving not much of himself behind other than the oni masks he carved for the Namahage. Tasuku’s brother (Takashi Yamanaka), who was supposed to be getting married but apparently did not perhaps because of Tasuku’s scandal, later becomes upset on deciding to sell the family business lamenting that he was able to save “nothing” of his father, rejecting the Namahage mask that Tasuku offers him as “trash” while acknowledging perhaps that the Namahage is all is he left them along with the transitory lessons it imparts. 

Tasuku was clearly not quite ready to be a dad, but having spent some time growing up and hearing that his father-in-law has passed away leaving his ex with little choice than to work as a bar hostess on the fringes of the sex trade, he decides to go home and try to make amends. He swears repeatedly that he won’t run away again and will do whatever it takes until he’s forgiven, but still he flounders failing to find secure employment while periodically visiting his grandmother in a nursing home and helping his mother (Kimiko Yo) out selling traditional ice creams at local tourist attractions. “You’re not the only one who can be Nagi’s father” she reminds him as he perhaps begins to realise that there are some bonds you can’t repair even if you’re eventually forgiven for having broken them. 

Performing the Namahage forces Tasuku uncomfortably into the role of the authoritarian father safe scaring the child in order to instil in them a sense of confidence that encourages them not to be afraid of life, in the way that he may ironically be, because there will always be someone there waiting to catch them. The ability to protect a family is a defining feature of the masculine ideal, and the Namahage in its way perpetuates outdated ideas of gendered social roles while Tasuku’s mother and even grandmother are always there for him with unconditional acceptance, supporting him even in the depths of his “disgrace” and encouraging him to move forward even if that means accepting defeat. Keeping the Namahage alive is also in a sense to preserve the paternal legacy, just as Tasuku’s father may have passed nothing else down to his sons so Tasuku may find he has nothing more to offer, perhaps no longer a “crybaby” but still struggling to shift into the role of the father even while belatedly coming of age in the knowledge that he may have left it too late. 


Any Crybabies Around? streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. For viewers outside of Germany it is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Air Doll (空気人形, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2009)

“Was everything you saw in this world sad? Was there something, anything, what was beautiful?” the heroine of Hirokazu Koreeda’s exploration of urban loneliness Air Doll (空気人形, Kuki Ningyo) is asked by her creator though he can offer her few answers for the strange mystery of her life. Like a child, she takes beauty where she finds it yet much of what she sees is indeed sad as she reflects on the disconnected lives around her, the emptiness and futility of life in the contemporary society where everything is just a substitute for something else which cannot be obtained. 

As for herself, she is quite literally empty inside, an inflatable sex doll owned by middle-aged family restaurant waiter Hideo (Itsuji Itao) who has given her the name of his ex, Nozomi (Bae Doona), which ironically means hope, wish, or desire though not generally of the sexual kind. Yet one day she suddenly wakes up and begins to explore the world rejoicing in its new sensations feeling the rain on her hands and the wind that sounds the chimes as she watches her neighbours go about their daily routine. Dressed in the French maid’s outfit picked out for her by Hideo she gets a job at a local video store and begins living a more independent life while learning how to operate in human society. She feels herself out of place but is repeatedly told that there are others like her, mistaking her literal emptiness for their spiritual despair. 

Yet that sense of emptiness and futility is evident from Nozomi’s first forays into the human world in that the first act of mundanity she witnesses is the bin men sorting rubbish for disposal. “Unfortunately they’re non-burnable” Nozomi’s creator explains when she visits him in search of answers revealing he throws out the broken dolls that are returned to him once a year, “after all, once we die we’re burnable garbage. It’s not such a big difference” he adds, though as it turns out it is quite a big difference to Nozomi in ramming home to her that she can never become human and will always be something else, an inorganic “substitute” for something perceived as the “real”. 

“Your only flaw is that your body’s so cold” Hideo ironically laments as he warms her up in the bath, something she is told repeatedly to remind her that though she has discovered a heart it does not beat and she is not “alive”. Yet an old man (Masaya Takahashi) seeking a different kind of comfort later remarks that those with cold hands often have warm hearts as he reflects on his own life as a “substitute” teacher while she looks over the pictures of the many dogs he’s had through the course of his life as substitutes for the traditional family that have only left him feeling lonelier through their inevitable absences. There is perhaps in this a slightly conservative and uncomfortable implication that the loneliness we see in everybody that we meet is partly caused by the decline of the traditional family itself partly a consequence of the shifting gender roles of the later 20th century society. When they first meet, Nozomi has been rejected by a group of local mothers for inappropriately cooing over a baby in a pushchair the old man comforting her with a tale of the mayfly which is itself empty inside existing only to give birth and then die its own life defined by futility. Nozomi can never truly be human, but more than that she can never truly be a woman because she cannot reproduce as signalled in her final exchange with a little girl in her neighbourhood who swaps her beaten up and broken doll, a substitute for her absent mother now symbolic daughter to Nozomi, in exchange for her ring, a symbol of adulthood. 

In this way Nozomi becomes herself a symbol of something that is broken, an active barrier to societal happiness in providing a way for men like Hideo to escape the responsibility of the traditional family by satisfying his sexual desire through a fantasy of intimacy with an inanimate substitute. When Nozomi throws her pump away, Hideo buys a new model and when she confronts him he asks her to go back to being a passive doll because he finds all the human stuff “annoying” and only wants a woman who can be a selfless embodiment of his desires, will never talk back, challenge him, or hurt his feelings. Meanwhile, when her boss at the store (Ryo Iwamatsu) who seems have experienced a recent familial breakdown of his own blackmails her into having sex with him in the bathroom he is conversely annoyed by her passivity while tearfully calling out his wife’s name. Even her innocent love for coworker Junichi (Arata Iura) has its darkness, not only does she suspect she’s merely a substitute for his ex, his fetishisation of her revolves around his ability to take control over life by letting out her air and then permitting her to live by blowing his own back into her. 

“I am an air doll. A substitute for sexual desire” is how she introduces herself, preoccupied with her literal emptiness yet along with a heart discovering a sense of self as she interacts with others, beginning to wear her own clothes rather than those purchased for her by Hideo. At a moment of crisis she is surrounded by all the treasures she’s collected which ironically include a number of ornaments intended for a doll’s house including a tiny simulacrum of a cake which reappears in her imaginary birthday party suggesting that the only true happiness is to be found in wishful fantasy while the “real” will only ever disappoint. Nevertheless, she uses her last breath to bring happiness to all she can, uniting the old man with a lonely old woman (Sumiko Fuji) who confesses to random crimes just to have someone to talk to. Shot with unusual fluidity by Mark Lee Ping-Bing, Koreeda captures a society in flux in which the easy convenience of disposable consumerism has begun to replace human relationships and left us all empty inside. 


Air Doll in in US cinemas and on VOD Feb. 4 courtesy of Dekanalog

Trailer (English subtitles)

Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“I never thought my life would come to such a lonely autumn” an old woman laments in Shuichi Okita’s touching adaptation of the novel by Chisako Wakatake Ora, Ora, Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Ora Ora de Hitori Igumo), her husband now gone, a son so estranged he may as well be too, and a daughter (Tomoko Tabata) who only stops by to ask for money. What’s it all for? In an increasingly ageing Japan, later life loneliness has become a pressing issue, but for Momoko (at 75: Yuko Tanaka, at 20 – 34: Yu Aoi) the problem may be that she’s beginning to find her own company oppressive mainly because she’s become plagued by a trio of mental sprites dressed in regular old lady clothes who speak to her in her native Tohoko dialect and force her to think about the realities of her life. 

And then there’s the other guy who looks really like the guy she was briefly engaged to before running out on an arranged marriage only dressed in her pyjamas and telling her there’s no point getting out of bed because every day is the same and she doesn’t have anything to do anyway. Meanwhile, she finds herself pulled back towards memories of happier times when her children were small. All of this has Momoko wondering if she’s sliding into dementia, or if perhaps she’s merely beginning to go out of her mind with grief, loneliness, and existential futility. 

It’s also clear that like everyone else her age despite having led a happy life, Momoko has doubts and regrets. When she ran out on her arranged marriage inspired by the Olympic buzz of Tokyo in 1964, she thought she was striking out for freedom and independence, that she was a “new woman” of the post-war era and she was going to live her own life the way she wanted it. Yet in Tokyo the first friend she makes is someone from the same area who’s managed to completely shed their regional accent, and then she met a man who refused to lose his (Masahiro Higashide) and fell in love with him. She doesn’t regret her life, but feels in a sense disappointed that she ended up falling into the same patriarchal patterns she tried so hard to escape as a conventional housewife and mother dedicating herself to supporting the man she loved. Her friend, Toko (Toko Miura), points out that she always hesitates when she refers to herself as “watashi” rather than the familiar “ora” in the Tohoku dialect as if shamed by the inauthenticity and resentful that her accent, her essential identity, is something she has to lose in order to blend in to Tokyo society. 

Heartbreakingly, we witness her bamboozled into leasing a new car, a symbol of freedom and independence, from a young man who seems nice but is obviously intent on leveraging her loneliness, addressing her as “mother” (not an unusual way to refer to the woman of a house but definitely a deliberate avoidance of “granny”) and encouraging her to think of him as a son. Ironically, while he’s there the phone rings but it’s an “ore ore” scam claiming that her son’s in trouble and needs money. She laughs it off and tells the salesman she’s not silly enough to fall for something like that just as she signs on the dotted line, but later we discover that she did indeed fall prey to it sometime earlier in desperation for the son who, as she had, left home young and never looked back. Her daughter meanwhile, stops by after hearing about the car but mostly so she can ask for money to pay for art lessons for her son. 

Thinking back on their days as a family, Momoko can’t reconcile herself to this sense of parental rejection but meditates on her relationship with her own grandmother realising she too must have been desperately lonely but she was “young and stupid” and didn’t understand. Her interior monologue with her trio of sprites is recited entirely in the voice of her younger self, and at one point she even tries throwing beans at them like demons during Setsubun, but eventually accepts them enough to talk out loud which is either a sign that she’s really losing it or a kind of liberation. “How will I carry on by myself?” she asks, meditating on this new kind of “independence” which might itself soon be taken from her whether she wants it or not. Nevertheless, what she discovers is that she might not be as alone as she thought she was and more has been passed on than she assumed but if you have to go alone then that’s alright too.


Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 series alongside Shuichi Okita’s debut Chef of South Polar as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Name is Yours (君が世界のはじまり, Momoko Fukuda, 2020)

A collection of Osaka teens process adolescent angst and generational anxiety but in the end find a gentle solidarity in their shared suffering while resolving to be kind in Momoko Fukuda’s adaptation of her own novel, My Name is Yours (君が世界のはじまり, Kimi ga Sekai no Hajimari). “People are unknowable” they solemnly resolve, admitting that you never really know anyone but later making an effort to share their secrets, if only gently, bonding in a new sense of openness as they begin to move forward into a brighter future. 

Fukuda opens however with a scene of crime as a high school student is arrested for the murder of their father. As we discover, several of the teens could be potential suspects, each in someway resentful of their dads though for very different reasons. Recently transferred Tokyo boy Io (Daichi Kaneko), mocked for his accent, is involved in some kind of hugely inappropriate sexual relationship with his middle-aged step mother as accidentally witnessed by moody classmate Jun (Yuki Katayama) hanging round the shopping mall in order to avoid going home to her overly domesticated dad (Kanji Furutachi ) whom she blames for her mother’s decision to leave the family. Narihira (Pei Omuro), meanwhile, was abandoned by his mother soon after birth and is sole carer to his father who seems to be suffering with early onset dementia. 

Childhood best friends En/Yukari (Honoka Matsumoto) and Kotoko (Seina Nakata) first encounter Narihira in their secret hideout, a disused school library, having a private cry leading Kotoko to fall madly in love publicly dumping her current boyfriend with extreme prejudice seconds later. Meanwhile, En becomes an accidental confidant to nice guy Okada (Shouma Kai) who has received a mysterious love letter he doesn’t quite understand because it’s come in the form of a classical poem only for Okada too to fall for Kotoko while Narihira seems to prefer En. 

Love triangles aside, each of the teens has their private sorrows some more secret than others but nevertheless producing chain reactions of their own in their inability to express themselves fully. But as angry and frustrated as they are, they still want to be kind if more to others than themselves. “If I only think about my own freedom how can I be kind to others?” Narihira sadly reflects confessing his occasional resentment in trying to care for his father. Even Io, seemingly realising how inappropriate his relationship with his step mother is, resolves that he wants to be kind to her despite the harm she may be doing him. “Wanting to hurt other people is absurd” he claims, unable to understand the impulse to exorcise his frustration through violence. 

Narihira attributes his salvation to having met En, explaining that in a sense she opened up a new world in giving him the courage to talk about his father sharing the secret with Okada who told the coach on their sports team who told him about a facility that might be able to help. Yet Narihira also begins to disrupt the previously close relationship between En and Kotoko, leaving Kotoko feeling jealous and En confused it seems on more than on level as the unexpectedly perspicacious Okada seems to have figured out forcing her in turn to reckon with and accept her own unspoken feelings. 

Taking refuge in a darkened shopping mall overnight, the teens unexpectedly bond through a musical performance of the classic Blue Hearts track Hito ni Yasashiku with its melancholy yet cheerful chorus encouraging each other to hang in there, remaining kind in a world which often isn’t. “Well, I can’t say for sure. Nobody can.” an amused secretary guard honestly answers asked by one of the teens if the mall will be torn down, his refreshingly direct answer perhaps adding to their new sense of confidence even in the face of the world’s uncertainty. A gentle, quietly nostalgic coming-of-age tale, Fukuda’s Osaka-set lowkey yet stylishly moody drama begins with violent darkness but ends in bright sunlight, the teens each finding a sense of equilibrium having come to new understandings about themselves and those around them bolstered by a youthful solidarity. Some secrets it seems still cannot quite be shared, but friendships resolve themselves all the same if in unexpected ways allowing a melancholy intensity to dissipate into a sad if fervent hope for the future. 


My Name is Yours screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hito ni Yasashiku music video

The Blue Hearts – Hito ni Yasashiku

Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Yukiko Sode, 2021)

“Is that still a thing?” a young boy asks incredulously of his rather severe grandmother as she quite insensitively sets up new marriage meetings for her granddaughter seconds after being told that her fiancé has unilaterally ended their engagement earlier that day. The “aristocracy” might seem like something from a bygone age, yet as those of us living in highly stratified societies can attest it continues to place a near invisible stranglehold over the mechanisms which govern our lives. Even so, the system traps all as Yukiko Sode’s sensitive drama Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Ano Ko wa Kizoku), adapted from the novel by Mariko Yamauchi, makes plain as two women involved with the same man, as dejected and unhappy as either of them, eventually find common ground in attempting to seize their own agency from within a fiercely patriarchal society. 

At 27, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is beginning to feel as if her life is slipping away from her. As we first meet her, she’s on her way to a posh New Year meal at a fancy Tokyo hotel. The taxi driver envies her, lamenting that he drives people here all the time but has never set foot inside. The reason she’s running late, however, is a mild sense of embarrassment as evidenced by the empty chair at her side intended for the fiancé who won’t be coming. Explaining that he broke off the engagement because the timing was bad, Hanako attempts to put a brave face on the apparent shame she seems to be feeling while her sisters and mother suggest it might be for the best, he was a little too “flamboyant” and in any case they’re ideally looking for someone suitable to take over the family medical practice. While everyone is busy proposing alternative matches, only Hanako’s brother-in-law (Takashi Yamanaka) bothers to ask her what it is she really wants but all she can muster is that she’d be fine with someone “normal”. 

After a few miserable omiai meetings with dreadful men from an awkward doctor with a photo fetish to a sleazy playboy salaryman who thinks women only say they like jazz because at some point a guy liked it, Hanako begins to lose the will to live thinking perhaps that looking for the “right guy” might be aiming too high and she should just take the best offer on the table. When she meets Koichiro (Kengo Kora), however, it’s love at first sight. Showing up like Prince Charming he’s handsome, poised, softly spoken, and even posher than she is. Hanako is the perfect choice to be his wife essentially because of her innate blandness. She’s everything the society wife is supposed to be, quiet, reserved, and unassuming in her total obedience to the tenets of her “upbringing”.  

Meanwhile, Koichiro has also been in a longterm non-relationship with another woman, Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), a bar hostess from a small town who has had to struggle the whole way to make a life for herself. The pair first met at Keio University, but Miki was forced to drop out before graduating when her father lost his job despite having studied her socks off just to get a place. A member of the “in-crowd”, Koichiro’s acceptance was guaranteed because he attended an affiliated school filled with the children of the rich and powerful. Mirroring Hanako’s lunch date with her society ladies, we see Miki and her friend invited by a couple of upperclass classmates to a fancy afternoon tea only to gorp at the menu and its exorbitant price list at which the “in-crowd” do not even glance. When they meet again 10 years later and Miki explains she didn’t exactly choose her line of work, Koichiro laments it’s exactly the same for him, which it of course isn’t, but he is in a similar way trapped. 

“I just want my family to continue” he later explains to Hanako, “it’s just how I was brought up. The same reason you married me”. In a certain way, Koichiro was no more free than Miki, ironically feminised reduced to his capacity to perpetuate the family line while aware that his whole life has been mapped out for him since the day he was born. He went to Keio, married a suitable woman, and is expected to run for political office. Hanako married him because she was expected to marry someone and it was undoubtedly a good match, yet she’s unhappy because the relationship is devoid of intimacy while her in-laws ironically pressure her about the lack of an heir. She suggests getting a job for something to do, but asking her brother-in-law for advice is reminded she’d need to talk to her husband and family first. 

Hanako’s friend, fellow aristocrat and concert violinist Itsuko (Shizuka Ishibashi), meanwhile has remained quite defiantly single explaining to Miki whom she’d met by chance that she believes a woman should be financially independent partly because her mother had wanted to leave her father who had several affairs and numerous illegitimate children but couldn’t because she had no way to support herself, upperclass women largely being brought up to be the wives of important men. As she tells Miki, she hates society’s tendency to pit women against each other and isn’t here to judge her about her relationship with Koichiro but merely to talk. Rather than a bitter love triangle what arises between the women is a sense of solidarity, each finding common ground in being victims of a patriarchal society even if their “upbringings” and social status are currently very different. While Miki perhaps admires from afar but does not particularly resent the “in-crowd”, Hanako begins to see the various ways her “upbringing” has trapped her, attracted by Miki’s sense of confidence and independence remarking that her life seems “lived in”, struck by the warmth of the photos she has on her wall of various trips with friends. 

Her mother had told her to “close her eyes to some things and try to get along” hearing the sad tale of a woman who managed to escape the golden prison of the aristocracy but only at the cost of her child, a cruelty Hanako had been too naive to consider. As Itsuko had told her, Tokyo is a compartmentalised city where you only meet members of your own social class, yet through her accidental contact with Miki she begins to realise another life is possible even if not quite shaking off her privilege as she rejects the tenets of her upbringing to seize her own agency while Koichiro remains trapped within the feudal legacy unable to free himself of the outdated notions of filial responsibility. A tale of cross-class, female solidarity, Aristocrats takes aim at the ironic equality of a system which damages all, even if some remain wilfully complicit, while affording the ability to its protagonists to sidestep the forces which constrain them to claim their own freedom brokered by mutual support and the aspiration towards a freer society. 


Aristocrats streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2019)

“Things happen to everyone” the hero of Hideyuki Hirayama’s Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Heisa Byoutou: Sorezore no Asa, AKA Closed Ward) explains, not in an accusatory sense or attempt to limit someone else’s trauma response but in a gentle spirit of empathy, a reminder that everyone has their own load to carry and theirs are heavier than most. Empathy is indeed a minor theme of Hirayama’s drama as his wounded protagonists eventually find the strength to allow themselves to live again in the unconditional solidarity of their newly found family in defiance of the internalised shame and external stigma that plagues them in an admittedly conformist society. 

Hirayama opens with a flashback, shot in muted colour, as a man, Hide (Tsurube Shofukutei), is marched slowly towards the execution chamber where he is eventually hanged but, inconveniently for the prison authorities, does not die. Lacking a clear precedent for such an unusual event, they are at a loss as to how to proceed while Hide does not exactly seem overjoyed in his improbable survival. As hanging him again would be cruel and simply letting him off as if reborn to live a new life they feel not in the interests of justice, they opt for a fudge, palming the now wheelchair-using Hide off on the hospitals system by placing him in the secure ward of a psychiatric institution. 

A quiet man keeping himself to himself, Hide patiently crafts ceramics and meditates on his crime keeping others at arm’s length as if believing himself unworthy of human society. He may have been sentenced to death for something truly unforgivable, but he is not mentally ill and does not really belong in the hospital whereas many of the other patients are self-committals who are technically free to leave at a time of their own choosing. Chuya (Go Ayano), a young man with schizophrenia, has more or less learned to live with his condition and exercises a greater degree of personal freedom, often venturing into town and bringing back various items he cynically sells to others on the ward. He could leave if he wanted to, but stays partly out of a sense of internalised shame and partly in fear of the outside world. Yuki (Nana Komatsu), meanwhile, an 18-year-old woman committed by her mother (Reiko Kataoka) after becoming worryingly withdrawn, has little personal agency, first placed on the ward and then removed from it neither with her full consent. 

Though we can see that the hospital is a largely positive, supportive place where the patients are well cared for we do not see a great deal of treatment practices and it is in someways surprising that Yuki is allowed to leave in the company of a man who is quite clearly violent and abusive even if we can also infer that she herself has remained largely silent as regards the nature of her trauma. Her silence is perhaps her means of both defence and resistance with her first words offered to Hide largely because he does not ask her for them, merely sitting by giving her the space to choose to speak or not to. Despite his caution that the longer one stays on the ward the more one begins to think of oneself as a patient, she begins to think of the hospital of her safe place and the other patients as her surrogate family, touched by an old woman’s radiant happiness as she helps her back to her room mistaking her for her granddaughter. 

Yet as much as the hospital works for her, it does not necessarily work for others as in the case of Shigemune (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) whose antisocial and violent tendencies often endanger other patients not least because of lax supervision and questionable decisions made by members of staff. A direct parallel is perhaps being drawn between the jail and the ward, Chuya frightened he may never leave while Hide believes he does not deserve to and Yuki longs to stay only to have her new safe place ruined by another predatory man of violence. Yet there is also a sense that society views the hospital as a place to dump those it feels to be problematic, Hide hidden away in embarrassment, Chuya rejected by his family, and Yuki betrayed by a mother who has come to see her as a rival. Shopkeepers look at them askance, not altogether happy that “even crazy people have rights these days” while the trio struggle to accept themselves as having a right to a happier future even as they begin to bond in a newfound sense of family. While the closing scenes may engage in an uncomfortable ableism, there is an undoubtable sense of warmth and compassion in Hirayama’s egalitarian sense of solidarity as his wounded protagonists find strength in faith reflected in others to shake off their sense of internalised shame and claim their right to life in an often hostile society. 


Family of Strangers streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)

“Music saves the world” according to a hold out record store owner keeping the doors open in the wake of coming disaster. In one way or another and most particularly at the present time, perhaps it always feels as if the world is ending but somehow we seem to carry on. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) is, as it says, a story of how music saves the world, but also of how personal acts of quiet integrity echo through time while art finds its audience and its purpose in the proper moment even if the message is not immediately understood. 

The film opens in the “future” of 2012 during which a fiery comet is headed directly for the Earth resulting in a deadly tsunami set to engulf Mount Fuji, drowning humanity rendered unexpectedly powerless in the face of cosmic destiny. A man in a wheelchair dressed oddly like a cult leader trundles along empty arcades strewn with rubbish, pausing to poke at some trolleys with his walking stick. Eventually he stops outside a record store which is to his surprise open for business despite the coming apocalypse and jumps up, apparently able to walk after all, and heads inside where he takes the boss (Nao Omori) to task for his strange decision to go to work on this day of all days. The shopkeeper however calmly engages in conversation with a customer, sure that “music saves the world”, “this song will save the day”, introducing him to the music of little-known ‘70s punk band Gekirin whose music was too far ahead of its time for the conservative post-war society. 

Their forgotten song, Fish Story, however as we will see does indeed change the world if in small and unexpected ways not least because it’s remembered for an unexpected pause in the middle of a guitar solo, a temporary suspension of living time in which small miracles could occur. “It has a meaning” the shopkeeper insists, though refusing to elaborate. As we discover, it does and it doesn’t, but stays true to the spirit of song, a “fish story” of its own embellished in the telling as curious listeners attempt to explain its existence. For three college students in 1982 who enjoy listening to paranormal tapes, it’s something of a let down seeing as they’d been told that the missing section contained a woman’s scream which is apparently still audible to those with a sixth sense but predictably not to them. Nevertheless, a moment of silence and a woman’s scream eventually result in a timid young man (Gaku Hamada) assuming his destiny, learning to stand up to bullies even if in eventual need of rescue himself. 

Like the young man of 1982, the shopkeeper and his customer are largely passive, sure that someone is coming to save them, idly talking of superheroes in teams of five like classic tokusatsu serial Go-rangers or else Bruce Willis saving the day by heroically sacrificing himself to blow up the asteroid. But the Americans’ “Armageddon” plan soon proves a bust, hinting perhaps at the fallacies of the disaster movie model in which the nation of production saves the world all on its own. The only possible hope now lies in cross-cultural cooperation. “Just as music knows no border, we’ve come together in this emergency” says the team of international experts boarding an Indian rocket as they pursue the only option left for the salvation of humanity no matter that there’s only a one in a million chance it works, because that’s what you do at the end of world, only what you can. 

The old man scoffs at the shopkeeper and his customer, sure the world is going to end even though he previously predicted it would do so 13 years previously in line with Nostradamus. Others concluded it would end in 2009 and took action accordingly, action which almost assures the present destruction in accidentally destroying the mind capable of preventing it. It is all connected, in a cosmic sense, but it’s also all small coincidences that lead to a greater whole. In the post-war chaos of 1953, a struggling father lies about his English skills to get a job as a “translator” only to engage in an avant-garde act of language violence bludgeoning one text into another with the aid of a dictionary. The incomprehensible novel which results is pulped, but survives as a curiosity and eventually finds its way home, inspiring another work of art and becoming a kind of fish story of its own. Gekirin chose to disband rather than compromise their artistic integrity, knowing that no one was going to hear their song. “Does that make everything we’ve done meaningless?” dejected bassist Shigeki (Atsushi Ito) asks, and perhaps it seems that way, but the word is heard in the end. It all matters, we all matter, no matter how insignificant it seems in the moment. 

Adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura’s anarchic voyage through a comfortable and nostalgic post-war Japan albeit one in the shadow of coming disaster is imbued with a quiet sense of hope even as it leaves its protagonists passive participants in a history they are unaware of making. Two teams of five do in their way save the world, and all because of a song that no one heard which was inspired by a book that no one read. Life, it’s all a big fish story, but it makes sense in the end so long as you stick around long enough. 


Fish Story is released on blu-ray & VOD in the UK on 10th August courtesy of Third Window Films. On disc extras are presented in standard definition and include: making of featurette, Gekirin live performances, Gekirin talk show, director and cast Q&A, and deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)