Demolition Girl (JKエレジー , Genta Matsugami, 2019)

Demolition Girl poster 1High school is tough for everyone, but some have it harder than most. Cocoa (Aya Kitai), the heroine of Genta Matsugami’s Demolition Girl (JKエレジー, JK Elegy), struggles to envisage a way out of her dead end existence in small town, rural Japan but begins to find a new sense of purpose when presented with unexpected opportunity. Circumstances, however, continue to conspire against her as she fights bravely for her right to define her own destiny while those around her all too often try to drag her down.

17 and in the last year of high school, Cocoa isn’t planning on going to uni like her friends because her family is poor. Cocoa’s mother died several years ago and her father (Yota Kawase) has been a feckless mess ever since. A gambling addict, he spends his days at the races frittering away the meagre stipend he gets through fraudulently claiming disability benefit. Meanwhile, Cocoa’s equally feckless 26-year-old brother Tokio (Ko Maehara) has come home from Tokyo after failing to make it as a comedian and spends his days lounging around at home. Cocoa is the only one working, providing for the entire family with her part-time job at a sausage stand at the amusement park. Just recently she’s started supplementing her income through starring in some “videos” her brother’s friend and former comedy double act partner Kazuo (Hiroki Ino) has been making with the hope of flogging them to the select group of people who might find footage of a girl in high school uniform stomping on things “satisfying”.

Symptomatic of the perils of small-town life, Kazuo offers the videos to an old friend who owns the local rental store, not quite realising that his old buddy Naoki (Ryohei Abe) is now what passes for a gang leader in these parts. Still, Kazuo is not a bad guy, just a naive one who realises he’s hit his wall and this small-town existence is all there is waiting for him. Knowing he’s in way over his head, he eventually tries to do the right thing and genuinely wants to see Cocoa succeed even when he knows that means his cash cow will be leaving town.

Cocoa, meanwhile, has become re-energised after a well-meaning teacher tells her she is probably bright enough to get into a national university (rather than just a private one) where the fees are much more manageable. Still unconvinced, she becomes determined when her aunt tells her that her late mother had been putting money away for her especially for university. Sadly, it turns out her wastrel father may have already burned through that, but her resolve is undampened. She’s seen a way out, and she’s going to take it no matter what it takes. As her aunt tells her, she needs to get out of that apartment otherwise she’ll be stuck there forever “caring” for her feckless family members while they sit idly by frittering her money away on easy pleasures.

Still, it won’t easy. Circumstances conspire against her from a stern school board suspicious about her extracurricular activities to the ominous presence of the petty thugs who’ve become quite interested in the potential of the videos. Cocoa’s 18th birthday (which her family didn’t even seem to really remember) turns out to be one of the saddest ever as she parties with her two friends in a karaoke box and is then forced into the realisation that they’re each standing a crossroads and likely taking different paths. Supportive as they are, her friends can’t seem to understand why she got involved with the videos in the first place. From much more comfortable backgrounds, they struggle to comprehend her desire for ready cash as a means of escape or her yearning for independence and to be free from her burdensome family who over rely on her for support but offer very little in return.

A subtle condemnation of systemic inequality and the innate unfairness of a world in which circumstances of birth determine almost everything, Demolition Girl revels in its heroine’s resilience as she decides not to be beaten down by those who tell her she cannot make it out. A beautifully lensed evocation of small-town life, Matsugami’s debut is a wonderfully observed coming of age tale in which its determined heroine learns that she can choose to do things “her own way” without compromising her sense of integrity or having to leave her friends behind.


Demolition Girl was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Innocent15 (イノセント15, Hirokazu Kai, 2016)

innocent-15Innocence is a fairly nebulous concept and one often misused but if you were expecting an “innocent” tale of youthful romance, Hirokazu Kai’s Innocent15 (イノセント15) is out to wrong foot you from the get go. Kai does not shy away from the darker sides of human nature in examining abusive parenting and forced prostitution as well as the damage done when a secret is broken after long years of being unable to be honest about who you really are. This is a bleak tale, but one with with hope shining round the edges, even if uncertainly.

Narumi (Sara Ogawa) and Gin (Riku Hagiwara) are ordinary middle school students living in small town not far from the capital. When Narumi plucks up the courage to confess her love to her friend, she receives the kindest of brush offs but Gin is left confused. His two drop out friends who spend their days skateboarding around the neighbourhood can’t understand his decision to turn down such a pretty girl though they remember that he’s done the same thing before. Gin himself doesn’t quite know why, but even if he feels sorry for not returning Narumi’s feelings, he is unable to accept them.

Though Narumi may seem like the perfect high school girl – quiet, studious, and refined, if a little sad, her home life is anything but ordinary. Saddled with an aggressive woman child for a mother who demands Narumi abandon her homework to cook her dinner while she plays on her gameboy, Narumi keeps her head down and makes the best of things. After putting up with her mother’s regular beatings, she finally decides to leave when she learns that her mother has sold her virginity to her boyfriend for 100,000 yen.

Meanwhile, Gin’s life is turned upside-down when he learns his father is in love with another man. Already in a state of confusion about his own adolescent feelings, Gin is unable to comprehend this sudden bombshell and lashes out at all around him. Therefore when Narumi arrives and tells him she’s leaving for Tokyo to look for her father he immediately says he’ll come with her. However, their youthful ideas of going it alone in the big city are quickly dashed.

Gin’s problems are of a more immediate kind but Narumi has endured long term suffering at the hands of her abusive mother. When she belittles Narumi’s studying and remarks that she’s no need to go to high school because the world always needs more hookers, it seems like an instance of cruel sarcasm but it turns out she really is intent on prostituting her own daughter to her no good boyfriend.

When her mother’s boyfriend viciously attacks Gin, Narumi is left with nowhere else to go. The tragedy is that intense social pressures and her already existing isolation make it impossible for Narumi to confide in someone about the abuse she’s suffering at home. Being only 15, even if she were to simply walk out of her mother’s house she would have no way to support herself, leaving her with little choice between possible starvation on the streets and allowing her mother to sell her to her cruel and violent boyfriend.

Narumi’s “innocent” love for Gin becomes her last lifeline and his rejection a crushing end to her dreams of being saved. By contrast, Gin’s problems are much easier to solve. His resentment towards his father is more likely driven by the shock of the revelation rather than directly because he has fallen in love with another man. Gin may have temporarily rejected his father, but his father has not rejected him. Guilt and embarrassment over his actions aside, Gin is always welcome to return home where his father would welcome him with open arms. All of Gin’s problems are internal as he struggles with his adolescent confusion. All of Narumi’s problems are external – when Gin spots the scars and bruises on her shoulder, she tells him that she was able to put up with her mother’s cruelty because it only hurt her body and never touched her soul. Narumi’s interior is solid, but she’s trapped in a desperate situation from which there is no obvious way to escape.

Mirroring each other, Gin and Narumi try to run away from their problems but are each unable to escape. Kai opts for a series of reverses towards the film’s conclusion which offer hope only to dash it again and the final scene with only the sound of a motorbike’s flooded engine and eventual kickstart adds a note of anxious ambivalence in which there is a chance for the pair to ride away together but no further evidence that this attempt will be any more successful than the last. The general tone is one of gritty realism though Kai also admits the existence of life’s strange coincidence’s such as in the repeated appearance of a “weird lady” on a pink mobility scooter whose eccentric driving style has disastrous consequences. A necessarily bleak tale highlighting the plight of children in danger in their own homes and left with nowhere else to go coupled with a tentative, innocent teenage love story, Innocent15 is a tense, often horrifying experience filled with outrage but is careful to leave at least the possibility of a better way out, however far off it may be.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2004)

ramblers-riarizumu-no-yado.39798

Nobuhiro Yamashita is well known for his low-key, naturalistic style often focusing on the everyday musings of youthful slackers. Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Realism no Yado), his third feature film takes this idea and pushes it to the max as it follows two filmmakers wasting time in the mountains after their ultimate slacker actor friend lets them down at the last minute.

The two guys are Tsuboi, a screenwriter and the younger of the two, and Kinoshita – a director and a little bit older in his late twenties. The trip has been organised by a mutual acquaintance, Funaki, who’s an actor and the other two have met once or twice before but don’t exactly know each other. Funaki has overslept and will be late, or he might just come tomorrow or something. He tells the other two to go ahead without him. With nothing else to do the two guys wander off into the mountains to kill time while they wait for their Godot-like friend where they have various encounters with the strange mountain-folk all while a gentle friendship builds up in the background.

By far the most important episode occurs whilst the pair are sitting on the beach “rambling” on about nothing in particular when a scantily clad young woman, Atsuko, comes running towards them out of the sea. Hilariously, the pair try to run away as if she were some kind of terrifying sea monster but eventually decide to help her after she tells them that all of her belongings, including her wallet with her ID and money, have been washed away to sea. They end up adopting her for two or three days, paying for her new clothes, meals and board each a little taken with her but nothing untoward in mind. Suddenly this episode ends, leaving a curious hole in the young guys’ relationship.

Other than getting to know Atsuko, the guys waste time fishing, chatting with the interesting staff at the various inns they end up staying at and just generally hanging around wondering where the hell Funaki has got to. Having failed to arrange accommodation (slackers!) the pair decide to inn hop a little whilst roaming around the area though it’s definitely the off season. After their adventure with Atsuko the boys’ funds start to run down and they’re reduced to sharing meals which gets them noticed by a shady guy in cafe who insists they stay over with his friend – though it turns out to be not really his friend’s place at all and, feeling awkward, the pair attempt to find somewhere else last minute ending up at every traveller’s worst nightmare. The final “inn” is not even really a B&B, just a freezing room in someone’s house which is filled with children, a father who’s dying in the corner and a bathroom which would definitely not pass any kind of health and safety regulation. Getting a little fed up, the boys spend their final night laughing off the strange and sometimes rotten adventure they’ve been having – wondering first about Atsuko and then feeling annoyed about their “friend” who doesn’t seem to have been very invested in this particular enterprise.

As usual for a Yamashita movie, nothing really happens while quite a lot is happening. We get invested in Tsuboi and Kinoshita’s vacation as their friend pulls a Godot style stunt on them by repeatedly failing to appear but always promising to be there soon. Whilst travelling and killing time the two guys talk about various things and get to know one another better. Their time with Atsuko actually seems to bring them closer together rather forcing them into the roles of rivals, though a late stage revelation about Atsuko’s sudden disappearing act may also give them a collective sense of befuddlement mixed with mild guilt. The Ramblers ramble on for 83 minutes, though it never feels like an over extended stay. Once again Yamashita crafts a low-key, nuanced character piece that allows his naturalistic, humorous eye to shine through.


Suprisingly, you can actually buy this on UK iTunes with English subtitles!