Inu-Oh (犬王, Masaaki Yuasa, 2021)

“Unity demands order” according to an ambitious politician near the end of Masaaki Yuasa’s stunning anime prog rock opera, Inu-Oh (犬王). Inspired by Hideo Furukawa’s novel Heike Monogatari Inu-Oh no Maki, Yuasa’s spirited drama is as much about the liberating power of artistic expression as it is about the danger it presents to those in power, while reclaiming the stories wilfully hidden in history or as the narrator puts it “stolen and forgotten” in order to exorcise a degree of historical trauma lingering in the cultural aura.

Set in the Muromachi period in which two imperial courts contested hegemony, the tale opens with the retrieval of a set of cursed remnants buried at the bottom of the sea after the battle of Dan-no-ura in which the Heike clan were famously defeated. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (Tasuku Emoto) is convinced that possessing imperial treasures would lend credence to his claim, but their resurfacing creates nothing but misery leaving the boy who discovered them, Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), blind and his father dead. Setting off for Kyoto in search of revenge, Tomona is taken in by an elderly Biwa player and eventually runs into a strange creature wearing a gourd mask and behaving like a dog, striking up a friendship that later leads to the realisation that the boy is also cursed, haunted by the spirits of fallen Heike warriors desperate for their stories to be told. 

In true fairytale fashion, curse later begins to dissipate as the pair exorcise the ghosts by telling their stories never singing the same song twice but always in search of new songs to be sung. Tomona changes his name several times, adopting that of “Tomoichi” in keeping with the requirements of his Biwa school and later choosing for himself that of “Tomoari” in his partnership with Inu-Oh in emphasis of the fact that “we are here”. Yet as the ghost of his father reminds him, changing his name makes him difficult to find literally losing touch with his roots in becoming invisible to friendly spirits. He and the cursed boy Inu-Oh are interested in a new kind of Biwa that is opposed by the Biwa priests for its transgressive modernity some feeling that Tomona’s transformation with his long hair and makeup brings the profession into disrepute though the act proves undeniably popular with Inu-Oh the biggest star of the age. 

Having begun in the classical register with images resembling ink painting and a score inspired by traditional noh, Yuasa introduces electric guitar as the film shifts into rock opera, the pair’s stagecraft incredibly modern as they adopt all kinds of elaborate staging to add atmosphere to their tales including at one point a large lantern silhouette mimicking the big screen graphics of the present day. Yet Inu-Oh’s fame comes with a price. His popularity threatens both the pride of a jealous rival and the ambitions of the Ashikaga clan who fear his tales of the Heike are simply too bold and radical, later condemning them as an affront to the glory of the shogun and insisting that their official version must be the only record of the Heika warriors. 

The sense of freedom the pair had felt in their ability to express themselves through music and dance is quickly crushed by cultural authoritarianism, Inu-Oh reduced to a kind of court jester performing only for the lord while as the closing credits tell us becoming the biggest popular star of his age though now too forgotten along with his songs while his more elegant counterpart, Fujiwaka, is remembered for shaping the art of contemporary noh though there is perhaps something in Tomona’s defiant reclaimation of his name along with the essential right to choose it for himself that grants him a greater liberty in simply refusing to allow himself to be subjugated by feudal power. A psychedelic rock opera set in 14th century Japan that remembers even noh was once new and malleable, Inu-Oh insists on art’s danger in its capacity to challenge the status quo not only directly but through a series of internal revolutions born of the masks we choose to wear and those we choose to remove in the radical act of self-expression which is in its own way the truest form of liberty. 


Inu-Oh screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival 

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)

Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? (先生、私の隣に座っていただけませんか?, Takahiro Horie, 2021)

An under-confident mangaka tries to save her moribund marriage through a passive aggressive attempt at “realism”, but then is that really what she wants? What is she really up to? Takahiro Horie’s anti-rom-com Sensei, Would You Sit Beside me? (先生、私の隣に座っていただけませんか?, Sensei, Watashi no Tonari ni Suwatte Itadakemasenka?) is more complicated than it first seems, a tale of romantic revenge, of a woman’s determination to reclaim her independence, or perhaps even a slightly cynical not to mention sexist story of a betrayed wife’s attempts to rekindle her moody husband’s creative mojo in the hope of reigniting the spark in their marriage. What transpires is however a literary game of cat and mouse as a suddenly alarmed husband attempts to get ahead of the game through the transgressive act of reading his wife’s diary. 

A successful manga artist, Sawako (Haru Kuroki) has just completed a long-running series assisted by her husband of five years, Toshio (Tasuku Emoto) who was once a bestselling mangaka himself but hasn’t worked on anything of his own since they got married. Toshio appears to be prickly on this subject, and is in something of a bad mood while Sawako’s editor Chika (Nao Honda) waits patiently for the completed pages. Seemingly suspecting something, Sawako asks Toshio to escort Chika back to the station with the intention of following them only she’s interrupted by a phone call from the police to the effect that her mother (Jun Fubuki), who lives out in the country, has been in an accident and broken her ankle. Sawako and Toshio decide to go and stay with her while she recovers, though a change of scene seems to do little to relieve the pressures on their marriage. 

Indeed, on their first night there Toshio remarks that it’s been a while since they’ve slept in the same room which might go some way to explaining the distance in their relationship. Aside from that, Toshio superficially seems much more cheerful perhaps putting on a best behaviour act for his mother-in-law who makes a point of telling her daughter how “great” her husband is and how she’s almost glad she broke her leg because it’s brought him to stay. Her gentle hints to Sawako to let her know if there’s something wrong elicit only a characteristic “hmm” while she otherwise makes only passive-aggressive comments which suggest she fears her marriage may be on the way out. Having long been resistant to the idea of learning to drive even though she grew up in the country, Sawako starts taking lessons at a nearby school cryptically explaining to Toshio that perhaps she’d better learn after all because she’ll be stuck when he leaves her. 

Sawako’s “driving phobia” as she first describes it appears to be a facet of her underlying lack of self-confidence. She simply doesn’t trust herself to take the wheel and cannot operate without the safety net of someone sitting next to her. Having not got on with the grumpy old man she was originally assigned, Sawako gains the courage to take her foot off the brake thanks to a handsome young instructor, Shintani (Daichi Kaneko), who makes her feel safe while slowly giving her the confidence to trust in herself. The implication is that Toshio has been unable to do something similar in part because he’s so wrapped up in his own inferiority complex over his creative decline complaining that nothing really moves him anymore. When Chika advises Sawako choose a more “realistic” subject for her next series, she passively aggressively decides to go all in with a clearly autobiographical tale of adultery that suggests she is well aware her husband and editor are having an affair behind her back while the heroine experiences a passionate reawakening thanks to her handsome, sensitive driving instructor. 

Of course, Toshio can’t resist reading her “diary” and obsessing over how much of it is “true”. Perhaps Sawako intended just this effect, driving her husband out of his mind with guilt and jealousy indulging in a little revenge whether in fantasy or reality. The irony is that there are at least three “senseis” floating around including Sawako herself with the eventual decision of who, if anyone, she wants to sit beside her the unanswered question of her “revenge” manga. Her real revenge, however, may lie in her determination to grab the wheel, reclaiming agency over her life along with a new independence born of her ability to drive and therefore decide its further direction while toying with Toshio’s inner insecurity in order to effect a plan which is far more insidious than it might first seem. Filled with twists and turns, Horie’s cynical love farce eventually cedes total control to its seemingly mousy heroine as she gains the confidence to go solo or hand-in-hand as it suits her towards a destination entirely of her own choosing. 


Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I’m Flash! (Toshiaki Toyoda, 2012)

A conflicted cult leader’s existential crisis plays havoc with the “family business” he’s unwillingly inherited in Toshiaki Toyoda’s ironic contemplation of life, death, and everything in-between, I’m Flash!. Taken from a Sheena & The Rokkets song, the slightly awkward title refers not to the hero’s taste for visible wealth, but to the briefness of life. Shot in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, Toyoda apparently intended the film to “shake off death” but ultimately casts off only its shadow while suggesting once again that “death is the ultimate salvation” and the only true path to freedom. 

As the film opens, “guru” Rui (Tatsuya Fujiwara) literally collides with destiny as the bright red sports car he’s driving meets a motorcyclist coming in the other direction. The unnamed cyclist (Tasuku Emoto) is killed instantly and thereafter callously forgotten while the girl in the passenger seat next to him (Kiko Mizuhara) who’d he’d only met that evening in a bar is now in a coma with no indication of when or if she may wake up. Rui is shaken, however, most in being confronted with the real world cost of his phoney religion something which he has perhaps been ignoring in order to continue living his life. “If you want to make serious money there’s nothing better than religion” he’d cynically joked, playing the playboy enjoying the attention his gurudom grants him, particularly with the opposite sex, while living a life of undeserved luxury built on exploiting the vulnerability of others. 

Yet as we come to realise his troubles are not only moral or spiritual but personal in realising that he is but a puppet of his own organisation which is in reality run by his pragmatic mother (Michiyo Okusu) and hard-nosed sister (Mayu Harada) to whose marketing genius he attributes the cult’s recent success. One of three bodyguards hired to protect him quips that Rui is “kind of like a mob boss”, and he’s not far off except that Rui is only the face of the organisation with no real power to affect change. The cult, which runs under the slogan “Life is Beautiful”, was apparently founded by his grandfather and can only be inherited through the male line but Rui later discovers that both his grandfather and father whose skulls sit in his ossuary may have died unnatural deaths suggesting perhaps that they too came to experience this same sense of existential impotence or fell victim to the machinations of others. Feeling emasculated, Rui was forced to become the guru when his middle sister decided to transition, joining older sister Sakura and his mother as part of the matriarchal governing body while refusing the burden Rui must now carry. 

“Everyone needs something to cling to” Rui’s mother rationalises, justifying herself that the members of the cult would merely have joined another organisation if not theirs. Veteran hitman Kamimura (Shigeru Nakano) says something similar when the bodyguards are asked to switch sides and take Rui out of the picture, insisting that if they don’t do it someone else will. Rui’s decision to dissolve the church sparked by his meeting with the girl in the bar creates a serious business problem for his mother and sisters, yet reflecting he realises that he had plenty of opportunities to change his life and let each of them pass him by. “Is life supposed to be enjoyable?” zen hitman/bodyguard Fujiwara (Ryuhei Matsuda) answers when Rui asks him if he’s happy living on the sidelines, but it’s he alone who seems to see the value of living in the present ironically embodying the cult’s central messages that it’s only the fear of death that prevents one living a happy life while also correcting Rui’s minder that the contemplation of mortality shouldn’t be as “effortless” as the solutions they offer profess.  

Rui’s only escape lies in the ocean, in a sense diving into life while swimming towards the sun in search of rebirth while Fujiwara asks himself if he’s completely free if the world is but a fleeting dream and after death everything disappears as if it never existed. The guru may have fallen victim to his own philosophy, looking for salvation in death while perhaps selfishly prioritising his own liberation rather than destroying the corrupt system of which he was a part and in which he will simply be replaced. “Not at any time will the illusion of hope be destroyed” according to an ethereal voiceover casting doubt over its own message of positivity even while its hero swims toward the light. 


I’m Flash! is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th October as part of the Toshiaki Toyoda: 2005 to 2021 box set courtesy of Third Window Films accompanied by a typically insightful commentary from Tom Mes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Junji Sakamoto, 2020)

“You don’t know the pain of being forgotten” laments an ageing actress attempting to move the heart of a heartless conman in Junji Sakamoto’s comedy noir I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Ichido mo Uttemasen), more as it turns out a melancholy meditation on age and disappointment than hardboiled farce. Sakamoto’s elderly heroes live in a world of night in which their dreams of youth never died, but are confronted with the realities of their lonely existences when the sun rises and exposes the shallowness of their escapist fantasy.

74-year-old Susumu Ichikawa (Renji Ishibashi) was once a promising novelist but veered away from the realms of literary fiction towards the allure of hardboiled noir, no longer permitting his wife Yayoi (Michiyo Okusu) to read his drafts claiming that she would find them too distressing. His publisher (Koichi Sato) meanwhile is more distressed by the quality of the prose than the content, partly because his novels are simply dull but also because they are far too detailed to be mere imagination and as each one seems to be based on a recent ripped from the headlines case he’s staring to worry that Susumu is the real life legendary hitman said to be responsible for a series of unsolved suspicious deaths. 

On the surface, it might be hard to believe. At home, Susumu is a regular old gent who reads the paper after breakfast and locks himself away in his study to write for the rest of the day but his wife complains that he stays out too late at night little knowing that he leads something like a double life, dressing like a shady character from a post-war noir and even at one point likening himself to Yves Montand in Police Python 357. He speaks with an affected huskiness and is fond of offering pithy epithets such as “women come alive at night” while reuniting with two similarly aged friends in a bar run by a former hitman nicknamed “Popeye” (pro wrestler Jinsei Shinzaki) who seems to have some kind of nerve damage in his hands he’s trying to stave off through obsessive knitting. 

What Susumu seems to be afraid of, however, is the sense of eclipse in his impending obsolescence. The guy who ran the local gun shop whom he’d known for 30 years recently passed away, while the guy from the Chinese herbalist apparently went home to die. His publisher’s retiring, and Popeye’s going to close the bar because his mother’s ill so he’s going back to his hometown. Susumu and his wife didn’t have any children and he perhaps feels a little untethered in his soon-to-be legally “elderly” existence while the now retired Yayoi is also lonely with her husband always off in another world he won’t let her share. His friend Ishida (Ittoku Kishibe) once a prosecutor and now a disgraced former mob lawyer working as a security consultant/fixer is estranged from his only daughter, while former cabaret star Hikaru (Kaori Momoi) never married and spends her days working in a noodle bar. They are all scared of being forgotten and fear their world is shrinking, living by night in order to forget the day. 

Perhaps you can’t get much more noir than that, but there’s a definite hollowness in Susumu’s constructed hardboiled persona that leaves him looking less like Alain Delon than a sad man in an ally with only a cigarette for a friend. Even his new editor is quick to tell him that no reads noir anymore, Susumu is quite literally living in the past battling a “hopeless struggle” as someone puts it against the futility of life by living in a hardboiled fantasy. We see him looking at target profiles for an investigative reporter proving a thorn in the side of yakuza and big business, and threaten a heartless conman (Yosuke Eguchi) whose investment frauds have caused untold misery, yet he’s not really a part of the story and his life is smaller than it seems or than he would like it to be. Perhaps in the end everyone’s is even if Susumu is as his new editor describes him “one step away from being insane”. Never quite igniting, Sakamoto’s lowkey tale of elderly ennui is less rage against the dying of the light than a tiny elegy for lives unlived as its dejected hero steps back into the shadows unwilling to welcome an unforgiving dawn.


I Never Shot Anyone screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2020)

“If I became the person I wanted to be, would the world have changed?” the conflicted hero of Shunsuke Kariyama’s Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Aokute Itakute Moroi) eventually asks having undergone a kind of awakening but still perhaps struggling with himself caught between the desire to be better and the fear of the vulnerability that may entail. As the title implies, this is a tale of painful youth and bitter revelations but also of the fragile male ego, the damage that can be done by a young man who feels himself scorned, and the various ways an embittered, self-absorbed mind can reorder the world to accommodate its sense of righteousness. 

The hero, Kaede (Ryo Yoshizawa), opens with a voiceover revealing his life philosophy of social isolation afraid both of upsetting others and of getting hurt. Despite himself, however, he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the bright and friendly idealist, Hisano (Hana Sugisaki), whom he first noticed in one of his political science classes when she challenged the teacher advancing her life philosophy that peace is born only of mutual surrender and allows no role for violence. A true cynic, Kaede mocks her internally for her “naivety” but is moved on leaving the room to notice that she looks hurt not to have been taken seriously. Noticing him too, she tracks him down and makes a point of sitting next to him in the cafeteria, badgering him into a friendship he doesn’t resist because of his tenet of not challenging the views of others. Together they found the “Moai’ club which is dedicated to building a better world by helping people to become the people they want to be. 

Or at least, that’s what he tells us. As we slowly discover, Kaede is not a completely reliable narrator. Three years later he recruits a friend, Tosuke (Amane Okayama), to help him take down Moai, which has since become some kind of creepy cult corrupted by corporate interests that many seem to be using as a path towards employment, so that he can rebuild it to reflect the values he and Hisano intended when they founded the organisation she apparently having passed on. Yet the more he tells us, the more we start to wonder if there isn’t something else to it, especially when social welfare grad student Wakisaka (Tasuku Emoto) enters the scene. Is this really about the better world, or petty male romantic jealousy? Shy and introverted, it seems that Kaede never had the courage to tell Hisano how he felt and perhaps took it for granted that she understood, unfairly feeling betrayed when she showed interest in someone else despite her near constant prompts for him to speak up whether it be about her or their movement. Kaede says nothing, then blames Hisano for “rejecting” him as if the only reason she could have had for befriending him in the first place was the eventual breaking of his heart. 

In true “nice guy” fashion, Kaede can’t help but see himself as the wounded party. In the flip book he’s been idly drawing which opens the film, a man runs smack into a rock and bangs his head much in the way he seems to feel he has done in his abortive attempts to enter society. Yet later he begins to gain another understanding, his stick figure getting back up and climbing on top of the head of Moai to behold a new world below him. He starts to realise that to change the world you really do need to start with yourself and that in this he has resolutely failed. His petty act of revenge may in a sense be morally justifiable, exposing Moai for the questionable force it has become, but it’s also sordid and unpleasant intended solely to wound in order to avenge his sense of male pride. Only too late does he realise the consequences of his actions and what they say about the kind of person he is and wanted to be. Consumed by a sense of inadequacy, he is defeated by life, too afraid to become the person he should be lest the world reject him but his brief moment of fantasy of what could have been if only he’d been less cynical and cold is bathed in a kind of golden light he perhaps realises he could feel again if only he change himself in order to change the world in which he lives. A masterclass in male gaslighting, Kariyama’s duplicitous drama refuses to let its hero off the hook but reserves for him the right to start again, become the person he wants to be and lay down his arms in willing vulnerability in the hope that others may do the same. 


Blue, Painful, Fragile is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Haruhiko Arai, 2019)

“It’s kind of erotic” a young man remarks watching the local bon odori, “Like dancing on the border between this world and the next”, the woman adds, “people who have died and are stuck in limbo”, “kind of like us”. In limbo is indeed where the lovers of It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Kako No Futari) seem to be, perpetually awaiting the end of the world while wilfully retreating into the romantic past as they reheat their adolescent love affair from a perspective of experience.

Now approaching middle age, Kenji (Tasuku Emoto) is a dejected divorcee living an aimless life in Tokyo when he gets a call from his father (Akira Emoto) to let him know that his cousin, Naoko (Kumi Takiuchi), is getting married and would like to invite him to the wedding. He spins a yarn about needing to ask for time off from a job he doesn’t have, but packs up and leaves right away, staying in the old family home vacant since his mother died and his father remarried. Naoko visits him almost immediately, enlisting his help transporting a large TV set to the house she will be sharing with her fiancé, a major in the SDF currently engaged in disaster relief. Apparently still not over their aborted romance of more than a decade earlier, she determines to seduce her former lover for a one night stand, but the night of passion reawakens Kenji’s desire and eventually leads to a five-day holiday in which the couple cocoon themselves in intimacy awaiting the return of the absent major. 

Adapted from the novel by Kazufumi Shiraishi which was published in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, It Feels So Good finds itself in a moment of acute anxiety and existential threat. The lovers feel themselves in various ways already dead, in part because of the poetic affectation of a lovers’ suicide in which they imagined themselves swallowed by the crater of a dormant mount Fuji. The inactive volcano motif perhaps hints at the untapped potential of their still simmering passion, but also at their mutual emptiness as they attempt to find meaning in the aftermath of disaster. Naoko confides that she decided to get married, in part, because she wanted to become a mother after witnessing so much death, but later adds that she is also suffering from a kind of survivor’s guilt as a resident of Akita, in the disaster area but itself relatively untouched by death or destruction. Kenji, meanwhile, struggles to emerge from the ashes of his failed marriage which seems to have sent him into a self-destructive, alcoholic spiral, that cost him his career and left him living aimlessly in the city. 

Naoko spins their “temporary” affair as a return to the past, not really cheating just temporally displaced, as they hole up together in her marital home making the most of their time alternating between the bed and the dinner table engaging in two kinds of dialogue, that of the body and the other of the mind. Returning to a previous intimacy they marvel at the ease of their connection while edging their way towards a frank discussion of how and why their original affair came to an end, reflecting on shame and fear as they meditate on past choices and their future implications always aware that their present connection has an expiry date. That sense of an ending takes on existential connotations not only for the couple but for the wider world as they contemplate a coming disaster, refocussing their minds and desires on the here and now. “I should have listened to my body” Kenji laments, refusing to think of the future in favour of the present moment, “it’s now or never”.

It Feels So Good topped the Kinema Junpo Best 10 list for 2019, a feat doubly notable because it is directed by Haruhiko Arai who is, among other things, editor of rival publication Eiga Geijutsu (ethical concerns aside it took the top spot in their poll too). Arai began his career in pink film writing scripts for Koji Wakamatsu and there is something distinctly ‘70s in It Feels So Good’s nostalgic sensibility besides its plaintive retro folk score and theatrical dialogue. Nevertheless what he charts is two people learning how to live in a world of constant anxiety, sitting atop a volcano but choosing heat over ash, retreating into private passion as a protective bubble against existential uncertainty.


It Feels So Good is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shape of Red (Red, Yukiko Mishima, 2020)

“This isn’t A Doll’s House” the heroine of Yukiko Mishima’s Shape of Red (Red) is exasperatedly told by a well-meaning colleague, only in many ways it sort of is. Adapted from the novel by Rio Shimamoto, Shape of Red proves that not all that much has changed since Nora slammed the door on the patriarchal hypocrisies of a conventional marriage as its not quite middle-aged wife and mother is confronted by the weight of her choices, wondering if a dull yet secure middle-class life is worth the sacrifice of personal fulfilment. 

32-year-old Toko (Kaho) gave up a career in architecture to marry upperclass salaryman Shin (Shotaro Mamiya) and is now a housewife and mother to six-year-old daughter Midori. The marriage is unhappy only in the most ordinary of ways, leaving Toko feeling neglected and unfulfilled, treated as a servant in her own home expected to fulfil her husband’s needs while her own go unsatisfied. That is perhaps why she wanders off from a work gathering her husband has dragged her to (in the outfit he picked out for her to wear) into a more interesting party where she re-encounters an old flame who abruptly drags her into an unoccupied room for a rough and unexpected embrace. Leaving the party together for a walk along the beach, Toko fills Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki) in on the past 10 years, lying through her teeth that she’s blissfully happy though admitting that she would have liked to continue with her career. 

Meeting Kurata either awakens a dormant sense of desire in the otherwise button-down Toko, or merely gives her permission to pursue it. She plucks up the courage to tell the less than enthusiastic Shin that she wants to go back to work and takes a job at Kurata’s company where the pair grow closer, but struggles to decide what it is she really wants – the “traditional” housewife life she picked when she married Shin, or the right to fulfil her individual desires. Shin, it has to be said, is an unreconstructed chauvinist from a conservative background who runs all of his major life decisions by his parents. He told Toko he was fine with her continuing to work after marriage but didn’t really mean it, coming up with excuses why she shouldn’t even though Midori is now in regular school. He tells her she can give work a go, but views it as little more than a hobby he assumes she’ll fail, later instructing her to stop because his parents want a second grandchild and, tellingly, he would like a son. Toko, meanwhile, is beginning to feel trapped but conflicted, convincing herself this is the life that she should want while simultaneously accepting that it makes her miserable. 

A third potential man at her place of work, Kodaka (Tasuku Emoto), also quite sexist and a little bit creepy but perhaps ironically so, strikes at the heart of the matter in bringing up her family background. Like seemingly everyone else, she grew up without a father because her parents are divorced, something she’s kept a secret from her conservative in-laws. Toko’s far less conventional mother (Kimiko Yo), sick of keeping up the pretence, brands her daughter’s life choices as “pathetic”, disappointed that she’s deluding herself she’s happy “living a lie” with a man she doesn’t even love.

Yet as fiercely as her newly awaked desire burns, she isn’t convinced by Kurata. Kodaka tells her that she and Kurata are two of a pair, off in their own worlds not really caring about anything, while pointing out that if Kurata has an empty space inside him he refuses to let anyone fill then the reason she sees it is that she does too. The pair work together symbolically rebuilding an imagined future through designing their idealised home, Toko eventually deciding that the windows need to be bigger because she wants to see more, literally broadening her horizons. What she’s deciding is that she wants more of life, but struggles to free herself of the old patriarchal ideas which convince her she’s betraying something by choosing herself. 

Once upon a time, a film like Shape of Red might have punished its heroine for her pursuit of passion, pushing her back towards a life of traditional respectability in forcing her to accept her maternity at the cost of her personal happiness or accept that her only freedom lies in death. Times have changed, if not as much as you’d think. You still can’t have it all, a choice has to be made and largely the choice is the same as Nora’s – stay and live the lie, or leave and accept that social censure is the price of authenticity. “I’ve a feeling we’ll be trapped like this forever” Toko exclaims driving down a seemingly endless tunnel lit by the warm red glow of security lights. Sooner or later you have to choose where you want to live, the superficially cosy show home with tiny windows and no soul, or the drafty opportunity of a room with a view opening out onto wide open vistas of infinite possibility.


Shape of Red is available to stream in Germany from June 9 to 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. It was also due to be screened as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema prior to its suspension.

International trailer (English 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)

And Your Bird Can Sing (きみの鳥はうたえる, Sho Miyake, 2018)

And Your Bird Can Sing poster 1Yasushi Sato, an author closely associated with the port town of Hakodate who took his own life in 1990, has been enjoying something of a cinematic renaissance in the last few years with adaptations of some of his best known works in The Light Shines Only There, Over the Fence, and Sketches of Kaitan City. And Your Bird Can Sing (きみの鳥はうたえる, Kimi no Tori wa Utaeru), taking its title from the classic Beatles song, was his literary debut and won him a nomination for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1981. Unlike the majority of his output, And Your Bird Can Sing was set in pre-bubble Tokyo but perhaps signals something of a recurring theme in its positioning of awkward romance as a potential way out of urban ennui and existential confusion.

Sho Miyake’s adaptation shifts the action back to Hakodate and the into present day but maintains the awkward triangularity of Sato’s book. The unnamed narrator (Tasuku Emoto), the “Boku” of this “I Novel”, is an apathetic slacker with a part-time job in a book store he can’t really be bothered to go to. After not showing up all day, he wanders past the store at closing time which brings him into contact with co-worker Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi) who appears to be leaving with the boss (Masato Hagiwara) but blows him off to come back and flirt with Boku who makes a date with her at a cute bar but falls asleep after getting home and (accidentally) stands her up, drinking all night with his unemployed roommate Shizuo (Shota Sometani) instead. Luckily for Boku, Sachiko forgives him and an awkward romance develops but their relationship becomes still more complicated when Boku introduces Sachiko to Shizuo with whom she proves an instant hit.

This is not, however, the story of an awkward love triangle but the easy fluidity of youth in which unselfishness can prove accidentally destructive. Boku, for all his rejection of conventionality, is more smitten with Sachiko than he’s willing to admit. He counts to 120 waiting for her return, refusing to make a move himself but somehow believing she is choosing him with an odd kind of synchronised telepathy. She pushes forward, he holds back. Boku encourages Shizuo to pursue Sachiko, insisting that she is free to make her choices, and if jealous does his best to hide it. Shizuo, meanwhile, is uncertain. Attracted to Sachiko he sees she prefers Boku but weighs the positivities of being second choice to a man dressing up his fear of intimacy as egalitarianism.

Boku tells us that he wanted the summer to last forever, but in truth his youth is fading. Like Sachiko and Shizuo, he is drifting aimlessly without direction – much to the annoyance of an earnest employee at the store (Tomomitsu Adachi) who prizes rules and order above all else and finds the existence of a man like Boku extremely offensive. Sachiko, meanwhile, has drifted into an affair with her boss who, against the odds, actually seems like a decent guy if one who is perhaps just as lost as our trio and living with no more clarity despite his greater experience. Like Boku, Shizuo too is largely living on alienation as he strenuously resists the fierce love of his admittedly problematic mother (Makiko Watanabe).

“What is love?” one of Sachiko’s seemingly less complicated friends (Ai Yamamoto) asks, “why does everybody lie?”. Everybody is indeed lying, but more to themselves than to others. Fearing rejection they deny their true feelings and bury themselves in temporary, hedonistic pleasures. Boku reveals that he hoped Sachiko and Shizuo would fall in love so that he would get to know a different side to Sachiko through his friend, as if he could hover around them like transparent air. The problem is Boku doesn’t quite want to exist, and what is loving and being loved other than a proof of existence? Sachiko prompts, and she waits, and then she wonders if she should take Boku at his word and settle for Shizuo only for Boku to reach his sudden moment of clarity at summer’s end. A melancholy exploration of youthful ennui and existential anxiety, And Your Bird Can Sing is a beautifully pitched evocation of the eternal summer and the awkward, tentative bonds which finally give it meaning.


And Your Bird Can Sing was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)