The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Yuya Ishii, 2021)

A collection of lonely souls is brought together by angelic intervention in Yuya Ishii’s grief-stricken appeal for “mutual understanding”, The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Asia no Tenshi). Brokering the sometimes difficult subject of Japan-Korea relations, Ishii makes a plaintive case for a pan-Asian family while his wounded protagonists each search for meaning and possibility in the wake of heartbreak and disappointment. Yet what they discover is less the urge to move forward than the gentle power of solidarity, bonding in shared sense of displacement and forging a new home from an apparently fated connection. 

Displacement is a feeling which immediately hits struggling author Tsuyoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) as he struggles to make himself understood to a grumpy Seoul taxi driver after taking his brother up on an offer to relocate to Korea with his young son following the death of his wife some time previously. Toru (Joe Odagiri), however, has not quite been honest about his life in the Korean capital, housed above a church where they always seem to be rehearsing the hymn Angels We Have Heard on High. Wandering into the apartment, Tsuyoshi is physically thrown out by Toru’s grumpy business partner (Park Jung-bum) obviously unaware they were coming as even Toru himself seems to have forgotten inviting them. In any case, the trio eventually find themselves on the street after Toru’s Korean friend with whom he’d started an illicit business smuggling cosmetics betrays them. 

Meanwhile, across town melancholy songstress Sol (Choi Moon) has been supporting her brother and sister with her music career which seems to be on the slide with a faintly humiliating gig in a shopping mall which briefly brings her into contact with Tsuyoshi, apparently captivated by her sadness. Abruptly informed her contract has been terminated, she tries to take the matter up with her manager/lover but gradually realises she’s merely one of several ladies on his books. Feeling lost, she agrees to follow up on a suggestion from her brother Jun-woo (Kim Min-jae) to pay a visit to the grave of their parents who passed away while she was only a child. 

Running into each other on the train after Toru talks Tsuyoshi into a possible seaweed venture in Gangwon, the two trios end up travelling together if originally struggling to find the “mutual understanding” that Tsuyoshi had been looking for. The first message Tsuyoshi sees on his phone on after arriving informs him that Korean-Japanese relations are at an all time low, though perhaps one would think national tension might not descend to the interpersonal level even if he appears to feel slightly awkward as a Japanese man in Korea aside from his inability to speak the language, but after a few too many drinks at a Chinese restaurant Jun-woo starts in on how 69.4% percent of Koreans apparently disapprove of Japan while 61% of Japanese apparently disapprove of Korea which is one reason he wouldn’t be keen on his sisters dating a Japanese guy. Describing himself as a “progressive”, he claims it’s the relatives who wouldn’t accept it but ends the conversation by cheerfully looking forward to when they can finally “part from these Japanese forever”. 

Yet, they do not part despite several opportunities and in fact end up travelling together for a significant distance during which they begin to bond, discovering that they have much in common including the loss of loved ones to cancer and the improbable sighting of angels who appear not like those on the Christmas cards but a weird old Asian man with a tendency to bite. Several times they are told they shouldn’t be together, Toru lamenting that love between Japanese and Koreans is as impossible as that between angels and humans while a police officer later bemusedly remarks that they don’t look like a family but family is in a sense what they become as they each sort out their respective traumas and resentments to reach a healthy equilibrium. Perhaps you couldn’t quite call it love, but almost and it might be someday if only you let it. “Seeing the world through your eyes I might come to like it a little more” Tsuyoshi admits, while Sol too begins to awaken to a new sense of freedom and possibility brokered by an angelic intervention. Marrying the melancholy poetry of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue with the gently surreal sense of humour of his earlier work, Ishii’s deeply moving drama makes a quiet plea for a little more “mutual understanding” between peoples but also for the simple power of human connection as evidence of the divine. 


The Asian Angel screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (c) 2021 The Asian Angel Film Partners

Over the Town (街の上で, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

Frustrated youngsters chase an unrealisable dream of idealised romance in Rikiya Imaizumi’s ode to Shimokitazawa, Over the Town (街の上で, Machi no Uede). For the moment at least known as the bohemian, avant-garde artists quarter of the contemporary capital beloved for its slightly retro quality replete as it is with narrow lanes and period buildings, Shimokitazawa is also a place of constant change but as the hero later points out even if “parts change and disappear that doesn’t mean they never existed”. Nevertheless, he seems to be marked by a particular anxiety, as do many of his age struggling to make meaningful connections in an ever shifting world. 

Ao’s (Ryuya Wakaba) world begins to crumble when he’s unexpectedly dumped by his beloved girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), on her birthday. Unceremoniously telling him that she’s met someone else, Yuki rationalises that breaking up is the only option but Ao tries to resist only for her to tell him that he can go on deluding himself that he still has a girlfriend but from now on she’ll be hanging out with someone new. From then on, Ao seems to be surrounded by frustrated couples and worryingly outdated ideas of romantic politics such as those of the students who drop into the vintage clothing shop where he works. Ao assumes they’re a couple, but a row slowly brews as the girl, Asako, declares herself bored with helping the guy, Shigeru, try on clothes that turn out to be for the purpose of impressing a different girl altogether despite knowing that Asako fancies him. Eventually Shigeru makes a highly inappropriate suggestion, almost akin to a bet, that if the woman he has a crush on rejects him he’ll deign to dating her even though Asako is “a distant second” in his heart. The shocking thing is that Asako agrees, a slightly mournful look in her eyes as she finally reaffirms that she really hopes it works out with the other girl. 

Throughout the exchange during which Ao looks on as an awkward bystander, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s so great about Shigeru. Meanwhile, not even Ao comes off particularly well, struggling to deal with his breakup and refusing to accept Yuki has moved on. So hung up on her is he that she eventually ends up contacting the barman at his favourite haunt to ask him to have a word, explaining that it’s inappropriate to go on texting your ex even if she doesn’t reply. Meanwhile, he finds himself at the centre of romantic missed connection, captivated by a sad woman at a concert who gives him a menthol cigarette he keeps in his ashtray as a kind of talisman for the rest of the picture. Infinitely awkward, he talks himself out a potential date with the cute girl at his favourite used bookstore (Kotone Furukawa) by asking an inappropriate question, later doing something similar to a woman (Seina Nakata) with whom he makes a more platonic connection as they each reflect that for some strange reason it’s much easier to open up to someone you have no romantic interest in. 

Perhaps that’s why a melancholy policeman keeps stopping random people in the street to ask their advice on his peculiar romantic dilemma in having inconveniently fallen in love with his “niece” (by marriage and the same age as he is, so maybe it’s “OK”, he’d like to think). Shimokitazawa, which Ao rarely leaves, is indeed a small world, the various strands of his romantic entanglements strangely connected from a young woman’s unrequited longing for her sumo wrestler childhood sweetheart to a TV actor’s (Ryo Narita) troubled love life and a young film director’s (Minori Hagiwara) attempt to deflect her own sense of romantic disaffection. Just as Yuki used another man as an excuse to break up with Ao, Ao finds himself recruited as a fake boyfriend to help a young woman shake off a controlling ex whose refusal to accept the relationship is over in the absence of another man skews even darker than his own signalling perhaps like that first vintage shop exchange the dangerously outdated sexual politics which continue to underpin modern dating. Perhaps boring love is the real kind of fun, comfortable and balanced marked by true connection and mutual vulnerability rather than a giddy anxiety. A stubborn holdout where everything’s secondhand in a continual circulatory process of exchange and return, Shimokitazawa is the kind of place where love finds you even if it takes a while to wander on its way. A charming ode to this timeless yet ever-changing district, Imaizumi’s quirky dramedy keeps the neurosis of young love on the horizon but suggests that romance, like a well baked cake, keeps much better than you’d think when cooled.


Over the Town screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Yuya Ishii, 2020)

The broken dreams of youth and middle-aged malaise push a trio of former high school friends towards existential crisis in Yuya Ishii’s melancholy exploration of emotional distance,  All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Ikichatta). Commissioned as part of the B2B A Love Supreme project created by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures which tasked six Asian filmmakers with the task of proving that high quality films can still be made on a micro-budget, Ishii’s latest finds him in the same register as his poetic take on urban angst The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue as his frustrated protagonists each pay a heavy price for the seeming inability to communicate their true feelings honestly. 

Opening with an idyllic scene of three high school friends enjoying a breezy summer day, Ishii cuts abruptly to the present, interrupting the wistful love song playing in the background mid-flow. Now in his 30s, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) is a married father whose only dream is to be able to afford a nice house with a garden for his wife and daughter, maybe even get a dog. To this end, he’s been taking lessons in English and Mandarin with high school friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) with the intention of one day starting their own business though they once dreamed of becoming musicians. All of that comes to nothing, however, when he begins to feel dizzy at work one day and returns home early to find his wife, Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), with another man. Unable to offer any real sound of protest, he accidentally smashes a panel on the glass door to their bedroom, apologises for interrupting, and leaves in a daze to pick up his young daughter Suzu (Yuno Ota) from school. 

Natsumi’s infidelity evidently comes as a complete surprise, though it seems obvious that their marriage is far from perfect. “My life is just stress and getting fatter” Natsumi openly complains to Takeda, her sense of inertia and impossibility seemingly more than simple dissatisfaction with her life as an ordinary housewife. For his part, Atsuhisa is as emotionally distant as they come, a near silent zombie dead eyed and permanently absent from himself. He is continually preoccupied by the absence of his late grandfather, now nothing more than an increasingly anonymous photograph on an altar as if he never existed at all. Atsuhisa asks himself if his grandfather really lived as a way of avoiding the same question in himself as he sleepwalks through a conventional life that proves infinitely unsatisfying while he chases elusive dreams of comfort and security. 

Natsumi’s revelation that she’s been completely miserable for the entirety of their married life because she’s never felt loved likewise shocks him, but if her intent was to provoke emotional honesty in her husband it fails. She pushes him to fight, to offer some kind of resistance but he simply accepts her decision to end the marriage. The sense of impotence is palpable, Natsumi turning off the TV set because she can hardly do anything about the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi so what’s the point in knowing about them. “How else can we live?” someone else later adds, other than to simply decide not to think about the things you cannot change. Atsuhisa tells himself that it’s meaningless anyway, it will all “fade away” in the end so there’s no sense in trying to resist. 

Yet he continues to struggle, wondering in a sense if he could perhaps claim agency over his life if only he could learn to communicate his true feelings honestly. He asks himself if it’s because he’s Japanese that he can’t, if his culture actively prevents him from speaking freely when it comes to desire. Of course, everyone else is Japanese too which perhaps makes his question moot, but those around him do indeed seem to suffer from the same sense of wilful repression, even Natsumi tragically withholding her real feelings and ultimately working against herself out of a mistaken sense of guilt. “You don’t love me, that’s why you can be honest” an ex of Atsuhisa’s points out during an emotional farewell, cutting to the quick in suggesting that his problem is that he fears the risks of emotional intimacy. 

Two boys and one girl is always going to be a story tinged with a degree of sadness no matter how it turns out, but on that idyllic summer day no one could ever have thought it would end like this. Takeda, manfully keeping his true desires under wraps perhaps in love with Natsumi himself but too diffident to have said anything or overly mindful of his friends’ feelings, does his best to be the emotional buffer supporting both halves of a couple rapidly spiralling away from themselves but is ultimately unable to prevent them from making decisions they may regret even as they are are made. “My love wasn’t good enough” Atsuhisa laments in his inability to make it felt, finding proof of life only in absence through the memory of those shining summer days. A little rough and ready around the edges but filled with a raw poetry Ishii’s melancholy drama puts its hero through the emotional wringer but in the end perhaps sets him free to speak his heart even if others are too ashamed to look.


All the Things We Never Said streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019)

The high school band movie has a special place in Japanese cinema. From the anxious release of Linda Linda Linda to the laidback charms of K-On, music is that rare thing that both brings people together and enables individual expression. Adapted from the cult manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi, Kenji Iwaisawa’s highly stylised indie animation On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Ongaku) is a psychedelic ode to the transportive qualities of musical performance from either side of the stage as its laconic, tongue-tied heroes rediscover themselves through the art of song. 

Kenji (Shintaro Sakamoto) is perhaps the archetypal hero of another kind of manga, a shaven-headed delinquent stepping straight out of the pages of Crows Zero or a hundred other tales of high school hierarchies mediated through male violence. Known for his “spaghetti fist”, the monosyllabic young man is feared all around town as a ruthless fighter, engaging in petty acts of aggression with boys from neighbouring high schools, such as the mohawked Oba (Naoto Takenaka) and his identically dressed gang of young toughs who seem to be his current nemesis.

Lost in his own little world, Kenji barely notices when he finds himself in the middle of a crime scene as a thief runs past him on the street pursued by a heroic young man who, temporarily liberating himself, thrusts the guitar he is carrying into Kenji’s arms. Bemused by the chaotic scene in front of him, Kenji becomes fascinated by the strange instrument and immediately announces to his two friends, Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa), that they’ll be forming a band, picking up everything they need from the school music room and cheerfully walking off with it. Of course, they have no idea what instruments even are let alone how to play them but then that hardly matters, or as Kenji puts it might just be the “whole point”. 

Asakura comes up with a name for their musical trio, “Kobujutsu”, without quite knowing what it means (classical martial arts), later realising they have a problem because there’s already a similarly named band at school, Kobijutsu (classical fine arts). Asakura has the idea to strong-arm the other guys into changing their monicker, but in place of the expected battle of the bands the two sets of unlikely allies find unexpected common ground in musical appreciation. Kobijutsu, led by introverted music geek Morita (Kami Hiraiwa), is an old school retro folk trio, while Kenji & co are unrefined, avant-garde punk rockers, but each discovers something in the other that speaks directly to them in mutual understanding as “musicians”. 

In fact, “musicians” is how Kenji demands to be identified, explaining to the gang’s female friend Aya (Ren Komai) who was used to referring to them as the “three musketeers”,  that they’re “now obsessed with music” which is why they “don’t have time” to go fight Oba. But Kenji later finds himself depressed, declaring himself “bored” with the band much to the alarm of his two friends who’ve fully embraced their artistic sides. The young men find themselves literally transported by music, Morita seeing himself in a surrealistic scene surrounded by artefacts of misremembered traditional culture pointing to unexpected angles in Kenji’s raw musical expression which later manifest themselves in an unexpected sight gag as he reveals a different side to himself in a musical register which is both refined and naive, while Morita too begins to embrace his inner rebel with psychedelic glee complete with a fresh new look. 

Iwaisawa spent seven years on the project drawing over 40,000 images by hand largely on his own. His designs perfectly mimic the quirky minimalism of Ohashi’s manga, complete with a lowkey deadpan sensibility that is perfectly in tune with the laidback charms of its slacker heroes. Kenji lives in a slightly different temporality, his extended pauses before offering up his idiosyncratically concise replies rendered as perfectly timed still frames while the musical sequences are filled with the raw anarchic energy of something being set free as the youngsters liberate themselves through the joy of music, climaxing in a rotoscoped final concert which unites all in a shared sense of transcendental transformation. Boasting an expertly crafted, nostalgic soundtrack, Iwaisawa’s joyful celebration of the power of making music is an off-beat gem.


On-Gaku: Our Sound is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Their Distance (知らない、ふたり, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2015)

Their DistanceAh young love! So beautiful, so complicated, so retrospectively trivial. Intrigue engulfs a group of young Koreans living in Japan, their co-workers, and even their English teacher and her fiancee in Rikiya Imaizumi’s indie youth meets boyband quirky romance movie, Their Distance (知らない、ふたり, Shiranai Futari). The aptly named picture paints a vista of misdirected love, miscommunication and misjudged honesty to show how messy romance can be even when it’s intent on being cute.

The hub of the story is a small shoe repair store where Korean migrant Leon (Ren) is an apprentice. Having been involved in a traumatic incident two years previously which has left him with a huge amount of personal guilt, he’s entirely cut himself off from human interaction of any kind, leaving the store each lunchtime to eat alone and miserably on a solitary bench surrounded by concrete. Despite this, one of his Japanese colleagues, Kokaze (Fumiko Aoyagi) has developed a crush on him and is patiently waiting for him to decide it’s OK to be happy again.

Events are set in motion when he finds fellow Korean Suna (Hanae Kan) asleep on his favourite bench after a night of binge drinking to forget her troubles with boyfriend Ji-woo (JR) who’s developed a thing for his English teacher, Kanako (Haruka Kinami). Kanako, as well as being a little older, has a fiancé already, Awakawa (Tateto Serizawa), who happens to be in a wheelchair following an accident, before which he had also been cheating on her. The two Koreans are also joined by a third who works with Suna at her part-time job at a convenience store, Sangsoo (Min-hyun). Sangsoo ends up in the shoe repair store where he falls for Kokaze, completing our love…heptagon?

This is all very complicated already. Ji-woo decides to unburden himself by revealing his feelings for his teacher to Suna even though he doesn’t actually want to break up with her and the teacher turns him down for a number of very sensible reasons. His case of (probably selfish) extreme honesty sends Suna into a bout of drunken confusion during which she meets Leon and becomes semi-attached to him despite not being able to remember much about him because she was pretty much out of it the whole time.

Flitting between the innocence of a hand written love letter to quasi-stalking, and even a third layer of stalking the stalker, Their Distance has an oddly schizophrenic tone which darts between quirky comedy and serious drama without much consistency. The most interesting plot thread concerns Kanako and her fiance´ who are both a little older and ought to know what they’re doing but only seem to confuse and mislead each other even when they’re making a point of mutual honesty. Neither can be sure of why the other is still in the relationship and if the true love partner is the wheelchair itself – did she stay because she didn’t want to leave a disabled man (even though he’d been cheating on her before the accident), or did he stay with her because now he’s in the wheelchair he thinks he won’t find anyone else? Arawaka gives Kanako an out by offering to separate so she can pursue her dreams of living abroad and travelling the world but refuses to say one way or the other what his true feelings about the marriage are causing more than a little emotional confusion for the put-upon Kanako who is also getting drawn into the maelstrom of her students’ romantic problems.

Ji-woo treats Suna in a similar way by revealing his growing feelings for Kanako yet leaving all the decisions entirely in her hands. He claims he’s doing the right thing by being “honest” but actually he’s being a coward by refusing to choose (and anyway, seeing as the teacher turned him down there’s no real reason to tell her). This kind of childishness is almost forgivable in the younger guys who, after all, are still inexperienced, but in a man of Arakawa’s age, diffidence is far from an attractive quality.

Imaizumi has three members of top Korean boy band NU’EST as his gang of Korean émigrés and has half an eye on cute idol drama with the other half pointed firmly at the indie/arthouse scene. Though the performances are strong across the board, Imaizumi never quite manages to reconcile these two distinct forms and his detached, almost ironic tone may not hit home with an audience primed for pop star drama. Ultimately, Their Distance has relatively little to say, its message is very slight indeed, and it takes an awful long time to deliver. However, Imaizumi’s observations about romance through the ages have a universal and timeless quality which along with the mild humour and generosity of spirit on show make Their Distance worth the journey, though not perhaps the fare.


Their Distance is actually available now in the UK and other regions from Nikkatsu via iTunes either as an enhanced iOS app or as a regular video from the store (where it has subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese).  You can apparently rent it on Nikkatsu’s YouTube channel as well as Google Play and Vimeo (click the link to the YouTube page in the video below for a full collection of subtitle/territory specific links for each of the platforms).