The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Atsuro Shimoyashiro, 2019)

Where now the dreams of youth? It may be impossible to escape a regretful middle age, wondering what might have been if only you knew then what you know now, but for the heroes of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Tokyo no Koibito) the pain seems all the more acute. “Today’s the day our youth ends” a brokenhearted woman laments, trying to make peace with her choices but finding that her return to the past may have done more harm than good. 

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a 31-year-old salaryman, married with a baby on the way and living in provincial Gunma. With the anxiety of impending fatherhood on his mind, he’s surprised to receive a message from his university girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), who wants to reconnect. Telling his wife he’s going on a business trip, Tatsuo decides to spend the weekend in Tokyo, staying with another friend from uni before meeting up with Marina for a Sunday in the city reminiscing about old times. 

Like Tatsuo, his old college friend Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura) has long since given up the dream of becoming a filmmaker. A breakdown at 27 has apparently led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaving him unable to hold down a job and dependent on his wife, Seiko (Maki Nishiyama), who supports both him and his step-daughter Shizuko through sex work while Komazawa has become an idle alcoholic. Despite his disappointment, Tatsuo spends the evening bonding with the local bar lady who claims to be able to see the future before leaving early in the morning to meet Marina who suggests revisiting the seaside they went to years before. 

Very much ready to step back into the more innocent past, Tatsuo has brought with him a tape of a song they used to listen to way back when and wastes no time in reassuming the poses of his 20-year-old self, sunshades and all. Marina, by contrast is self-consciously cute but mature, if perhaps sad. Tatsuo starts to tell her that he gave up his filmmaking dreams, married a good woman, and took a regular salaryman job at the family firm, but fails to complete the thought. Marina meanwhile casually remarks that she married a wealthy man but hints that she did so largely for convenience and material comfort rather than love. 

“We never get to marry the woman we love the most” Tatsuo’s strangely boys will be boys brother-in-law (Mutsuo Yoshioka) sighs, commiserating with Tatsuo’s lament for his disappointed youth and failure to make his filmmaking dreams a reality. We discover that an early success in a scriptwriting competition gave him an inflated sense of possibility, and that his desire for success was largely a desire to impress his girlfriend. Wounded male pride in his sense of artistic failure eventually convinced him he had to break things off while she silently cursed him, jokingly sentencing him to 18 years of solitude in a playful reference to a Tai Kato film. Now he realises his foolishness and is filled with regret in having settled for a conventional middle-class life as a husband and father.

Marina, meanwhile, is feeling something much the same in trying to achieve closure on the past before she becomes a mother. After breaking up with Tatsuo, she drifted through nude modelling and ended up the trophy wife of a wealthy man she doesn’t love, pegging her hopes on material comfort and hoping that love will come later. “I’m glad you’re happy now” a bar owner and former Instagram fan tries to congratulate her, but all Marina can do is smile sadly and ask her similarly troubled companion if happy is what she looks.    

“I’m not young anymore, I can’t live for a dream” Tatsuo accepts, but living on a dream is all they’re doing, recalling the time when they were “modern lovers” in Tokyo kidding themselves that they were urban sophisticates when perhaps all they did were the kinds of things unsophisticated suburbanites do like hang out at batting cages and go to barbecue restaurants. It’s too late to turn back now, but the past is a difficult trap to escape and perhaps what they long for is not so much the love cut off in its prime but a return to the possibilities of youth. Meeting again reawakens the desire for something more out of life than life may now have to give them, but this is day that youth ends, hitting the end of the road in a slow car crash of realisation that regret is the price of age.


The Modern Lovers was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Retro hit Love You, Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa (not that one!) & Los Primos which recurs frequently throughout the film

Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Takuji Suzuki, 2019)

Randen posterStill running over a century later, the Randen tram line is the only one in Kyoto and connects a series of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations in the famously “historical” city. It is also, of course, a key method of public transportation much loved by locals. Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Randen) fits neatly into that subgenere of Japanese films which might as well have been funded by the tourist board, but even so has real affection for its anachronistic street cars as they traffic a series of romantically troubled souls towards the places they need to be with a little help from the supernatural.

Chief among them, Eisuke (Arata Iura) is a blocked writer specialising in real life strange tales. He’s come to Kyoto, rich with culture and history, in search of local mystery but finds himself preoccupied with thoughts of home and the Kyoto-born wife from whom he fears he may have grown apart. Meanwhile, Kako (Ayaka Onishi), a painfully shy woman working in a bento shop finds herself unexpectedly sucked into the world of showbiz when she is persuaded to help a Tokyo actor, Fu (Hiroto Kanai), run lines in a Kyoto accent. Back on the platform, high school girl Nanten (Tamaki Kobuse), on a school trip from Aomori, falls for aloof high school boy Shigosen (much to the consternation of her friends) but unfortunately for her trains are “everything” for him.

Mimicking the linearity of the tramline, Randen takes us through three ages of love with three variously troubled lovers each trying to find the right stop. Teenagers Nanten and Shigosen struggle with their feelings in the normal way. She is certain, he (more romantic than he seems) is not – denying his feelings in the anxiety that requited love evaporates where the suffering of unreciprocated attraction does not. Kako, meanwhile, is struggling with quite different issues in that she lacks self confidence and has decided she’s no good with people. She rebuffs Fu’s straightforward attempts at romance out of shyness and confusion, unable to parse his non-committal replies and wondering if he finds her line of questioning irritating, in which case why is hanging around with her. Eisuke, meanwhile, does something much the same as he recalls a “failed” trip he took with his wife to Kyoto sometime ago and ponders the various ways each of them will change in the time they are apart.

Through it all, the rail station cafe owner (Ryushi Mizugami) is there to dispense his wisdom and knowledge of the city. Picturesque as it is, the tramline is also pregnant with local superstition – the teenagers believe catching sight of the “Yuko” train and its distinctive retro livery means a couple will stay together, while accidentally catching sight of a train staffed by kitsune and tanuki will lead a couple to part. Superstition is as superstition does, but there may indeed be some truth in it if only as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The presence of the contrary trains does, however, prompt true emotions to the surface if only to avoid a negative outcome born of getting on the wrong train at the wrong time and ending up in an unwelcome romantic destination.

Sometimes the train takes you where you want to go, and other times you need to get off and rethink. Shigesen bought his camera to film the things he likes, but worries now it’s more that he likes the stuff he films. There might be room in his heart for something other than trains, but he’ll have to put the camera down for a minute to find out. Nanten’s friends busy themselves the touristy stuff – the Jidaigeki movie theme park and putative trips to feed monkeys, but for her Kyoto is the city of love and she doesn’t want to leave it without fulfilling her romantic destiny. A loving tribute to the iconic, appropriately historical, method of mass transit and to the charmingly, picturesque town itself, Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram exists at the intersection of past and present as its conflicted lovers make ghosts of themselves riding the tram into eternity and fading into the city as just another part of local history, running the lines forevermore.


Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)