The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

8-year bride posterRomantic melodrama has long been a staple of Japanese cinema which seems to revel in stories of impossible love. The short lived boom in “jun-ai” or “pure love” romances which blossomed at the beginning of the century may have petered out gracefully after plundering every terminal or debilitating illness for traces of heartbreaking tragedy, but the genre has never quite gone away and is unlikely ever to do so. Takahisa Zeze’s The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, 8-nengoshi no Hanayome: Kiseki no Jitsuwa) is, however, a slightly different case in that it is inspired by a true story which became something of a hot topic in the relatively recent past. Romantic in a grand, old fashioned sense, the film shifts away from the melodrama of misery while praising the power of perseverance and the enduring potency of true love in bringing about unexpected miracles.

In 2006, shy and retiring car mechanic Hisashi (Takeru Satoh) tries and fails to get out of a party his chatty colleague is arranging for that very evening. Sullen and resentful at having been roped into a social occasion he was not mentally prepared for, Hisashi says barely anything and then manages to free himself when the others decide to go for karaoke. Just as he’s walking off mildly regretful, one of the other partygoers, Mai (Tao Tsuchiya), comes back to harangue him about his “attitude”. Hisashi explains that he’s sorry but he’s not very good at this sort of thing anyway and the truth is he wanted to go home because he’s got a killer stomach ache which being forced to eat fatty meat and down sake out of politeness has done nothing to help. Mai approves of this excuse, and even loops back after leaving to meet the others at the karaoke to hand him a heat pack she had in her bag in the hope that it might help with the stomach trouble. The pair start dating, become wildly happy, and get engaged. Three months before the wedding, Mai is struck down by a rare illness and winds up in a coma.

The romance itself is tucked up neatly into the first half hour or so and mostly conforms to genre norms – he is shy and extremely sensitive, she is extroverted and extremely kind. The love story proceeds smoothly, though there are signs of trouble to come in Mai’s increasing clumsiness followed by headaches which lead to memory loss and finally a painful hallucinogenic episode resulting in prolonged hospitalisation. Zeze wisely scales back on medical detail and focuses on Hisashi’s devotion and unwavering belief that Mai will one day open her eyes and return to him. Rather than cancel the wedding date, Hisashi decides to keep it open in the hope that Mai will be well enough to attend before booking the same date, the date of their first meeting, in every subsequent year just in case she should wake up and regret missing out on her dream wedding.

As the condition is so rare, no one is sure what the prognosis will be though the doctors admit there is a strong possibility Mai may never awaken or that if she does there may well be extensive brain damage and irreparable memory loss in addition to life long medical needs. Hisashi puts his life on hold and comes to the hospital every day, making short video messages he sends to Mai’s phone so she can catch up on what she’s missed when she wakes up. His devotion does however begin to worry Mai’s doting parents (Hiroko Yakushimaru & Tetta Sugimoto) who eventually decide to explain to him that as he’s “not family” there’s no need for him to feel obliged to stick around. They do this not because they’re territorial over their daughter’s care, or that they don’t like Hisashi, they simply worry that he’s going to waste his life waiting for a woman who will never wake up. As he’s still young and has a chance to start again, they try to push him away in the harshest way possible – through cool politeness, but are secretly pleased when he refuses to be pushed.

People making other people’s decisions for them as a means of reducing their suffering becomes a recurrent theme. Rather than say what they mean, kindhearted people say the things which they believe are for the best and will end someone else’s suffering through a moment of intense pain. Everyone is so keen to spare everyone else’s feelings, that they perhaps suffer themselves when there is no need to. Hisashi’s supportive boss remembers a rather odd comment he made during his interview – after replying that he enjoyed fixing things when asked what made him apply for the job, Hisashi’s boss asked him what he thought about while he did it to which he replied “love”. Love does it seems fix everything, at least when coupled with undying devotion and a refusal give up even when things look grim. A romantic melodrama with a positive ending The 8-year Engagement is a happy tearjerker in which love really does conquer all despite seemingly unsurmountable odds.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

Mary and the witch's flower posterWhen Studio Ghibli announced that it would be ceasing production, it couldn’t help but feel like the end of an era. The studio which had made Japanese animation an internationally beloved art form was no more. Into the void stepped a brand new animation studio which vowed to pick up the Ghibli gauntlet – Studio Ponoc was formed by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura who enlisted a host of other ex-Ghibli talent including Arrietty director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Mary to Majo no Hana), Ponoc’s first feature is, like Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, an adaptation of a classic British children’s novel. Part of the ‘70s children’s literature boom, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick was more or less forgotten until the film, paradoxically, brought it back into print. Like many post-war children’s novels, The Little Broomstick is the story of a clever and kind little girl who thinks she doesn’t quite fit in. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is no different in this regard, even in updating the tale (seemingly) to the present day as its spiky heroine finds herself taking on mad scientists and crazed witches in a strange fantasy realm all while trying to get used to the comparatively gentle rhythms of country life.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is bored. She hates her frizzy red hair which a horrible local boy, Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki), uses as justification to describe her as a “red haired monkey”, and fears that the rest of her life will merely be a dull exercise in killing time until its inevitable conclusion. Mary has just moved in with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the country while her parents are apparently working away and, as she still has a week left of summer holidays until school starts, she’s desperate for something to do. Unwisely following two cats into a misty forest, she chances upon a mysterious flower – the “Fly By Night” which blooms only once every seven years. With no respect for nature, Mary picks herself some of the pretty bulbs to take back to the gardener but unwittingly opens up a portal to another world. Taking hold of an abandoned broomstick, she finds herself swooped off to Endor College – an elite institution of witchcraft and wizardry where she dazzles all with her magical skills. Thinking she’s finally found her place, Mary is content to go along with everyone’s assumption that she is the new student they’ve been waiting for but on closer inspection, Endor College is not quite all it seems.

Mary’s initial dissatisfaction with herself is somewhat sidelined by the narrative but there’s something particularly poignant about her loathing of her red hair. In British culture at least, those with red hair often face a strange kind of “acceptable” prejudice, bullied and ostracised even into adulthood. Thus when Peter calls Mary a “red haired monkey” it isn’t cute or funny it’s just mean and she’s probably heard something similar every day of her life. When she rocks up at Endor and they tell her that her red hair makes her special and is the sign of high magic potential, it’s music to her ears but it’s also, perhaps, reinforcing the idea that simply having red hair makes her different from everyone else.

Feeling different from everyone else perhaps allows her to look a little deeper into the world of Endor than she might otherwise have done. Despite her conviction that she doesn’t fit in and is of no use to anyone, Mary is never seriously tempted by the promises of Endor which include untold power as well as a clear offer of acceptance and even respect. When she realises that the couple who run the school – a witch and a scientist, have been abusing their powers by committing heinous acts of experimentation on innocent “test subjects”, Mary learns to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves even if she couldn’t have done it for herself.

Messages about the seductive power of authoritarian regimes exploiting feelings of disconnection, the scant difference between magic and science, and the need for respect of scientific ethics in the pursuit of knowledge, all get somewhat lost amid Mary’s meandering adventures, as does Mary herself as her gradual progress towards realising that she possessed her own “magic” all along ticks away quietly in the background. Yet the biggest problem Mary and the Witch’s Flower faces is also its greatest strength – its ties to Studio Ghibli. With echoes of Yonebayashi’s previous adaptations of classic British literature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower also indulges in a number of obvious Ghibli homages from the Ponyo-esque flying fish and Laputa influenced design of Endor to the overt shot of Mary riding a deer on a rocky path, and the unavoidable girl+broomstick echoes of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even if Mary and the Witch’s Flower cannot free itself from the burden of its legacy, it does perhaps fill the void it was intended to, if in unspectacular fashion.


Mary and the Witch’s Flower will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Altitude Films in May 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lu Over the Wall (夜明け告げるルーのうた, Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Lu over the wall posterComing of age dramas are the mainstay of anime, but if anyone was going to take one in a pleasingly new direction it would be Masaaki Yuasa. His second release of 2017 following the comparatively more abstract The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, Lu Over the Wall (夜明け告げるルーのうた, Yoake Tsugeru Lu no Uta) is the tale of a boy learning to break of out his emotional repression in order to step into a healthier adulthood but it’s also one of learning to live with loss and grief. From the Irish selkie to the conventional mermaid, people of the sea have more often than not stood in for people from a land of lost things where souls are carried away and lonely sailors lured to their doom, but perhaps we’ve simply misunderstood them and the song they sing isn’t intended to make us sad but only to make us remember the joy of living.

Sullen teenager Kai (Shota Shimoda) is in his last year of middle school with a lot of decisions awaiting him as to the further direction of his life. For the moment, Kai lives in the small fishing village of “Hinashi” somewhere in Southern Japan. “Hinashi” literally means “sunless” and the town is indeed overshadowed by a large cliff which blocks the town from the sun but there’s a more metaphorical kind of gloominess lurking here too. Kai is not the only miserable one, pretty much all of the townspeople once dreamt of escape but have either proved unable to get away from their small town roots, or have tried and failed to make it somewhere else before reluctantly returning, salmon-like, to the place of their births. The only one, it seems, to successfully make it out is Kai’s mum who left the family when Kai was small.

Much to his father’s (Shinichi Shinohara) irritation, Kai’s big dream is music though he’s less than thrilled when bamboozled into joining two other aspiring rockstar teens, Kunio (Soma Saito) and Yuho (Minako Kotobuki), as the third member of “Seirèn” even if it does give him an excuse to explore the generally forbidden territory of Mermaid Island. Whilst there, the trio’s song calls out to a music loving Merfolk girl, Lu (Kanon Tani), who can’t resist joining in and, awkwardly, is a much better lead vocalist than the divaish Yuho.

Lu, a charmingly vibrant toddler-type, is perfectly primed to bring this moribund town back to its sunny old self. Able to conjure her own portable corridors of water to travel over land, Lu tracks down Kai hoping to hear more wonderful music and making childish attempts to communicate through broken Japanese so that she can learn to understand the human world. Lu is not, however, the image most of the townspeople have when they think about Merfolk considering most of the local legends paint them as voraciously carnivorous predators existing only to steal landlubbing souls.

The Merfolk are a perfect metaphor for most of the ills consuming the town – a never seen manifestation of unknown fears. Everyone here has lost someone or something at sea (this is, after all a fishing village) or to the city, or just in themselves in learning to accept reality over the lure of unattainable dreams. Kai’s young and caring if distant father tries to push his son towards the “correct” path of non-stop studying and moral uprightness, but his son is just like teenage him, dreaming musical dreams of escape. It might have all gone wrong for Kai’s dad, but as he’s finally able to admit thanks to the guidance of Lu, he doesn’t regret a minute of it.

Ironically enough, Kai’s name is also the word for shellfish in Japanese, making his grandfather’s (Akira Emoto) frequent lament that the muscles in his dinner won’t open more than a little pointed. Kai is definitively closed off, refusing to even open the letters from his mother and keeping himself aloof at school and at home. Yet he’s not the only one who needs to open up – forced to dance to Lu’s tune (literally) each of the townspeople comes to make peace with those things that are so very hard to say, either letting past traumas float away or deciding to swim away with them.

It is, however, a little uncomfortable when the final resolution takes on a romantic dimension seeing as Lu has been painted as an adorable child with her giant bubbly head, cute high pitched voice, and childishly broken Japanese, not to mention that a secondary plot strand revolves around her father (an anthropomorphised shark/killer whale) who has attempted to shed some prejudices of his own to help his daughter in her desire to make friends with humans. Nevertheless, Yuasa and his scriptwriter Reiko do their best to do justice to all the ills of the town from the corporate greed of the mermaid loving old timer who wants to open a theme park exploiting their image, to the creepy behaviour of Yuho’s governor father, and the ever present themes of loss, guilt, and disappointment. The trio of teens at the centre may have felt themselves trapped in a dead end town, but thanks to Lu they come to realise that they too can jump over the wall and go wherever they want so long as they take the music with them.


Lu Over the Wall is in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th December 2017 courtesy of Anime Ltd.. Find out where it’s screening near you via the official Lu Over the Wall microsite.

Anime Ltd. trailer (Dialogue free)