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)

Domains (王国(あるいはその家について), Natsuka Kusano, 2019)

domains posterMost of us like to feel as if we’re connected to something. Not merely floating islands, but anchored to the world by strong connections to others – only when we feel as if the world is not holding on as tightly as we’d like do we begin to feel as if perhaps there are as many worlds as people and many of them barred to those who have no right to enter. Natsuka Kusano’s second feature, Domains (王国(あるいはその家について), Okoku (Arui wa Sono Ie ni Tsuite)), tackles this conflict head on in a tragic tale of rage, madness, and jealousy driven by a series of mutual resentments as a collection of middle-aged men and women struggle to accept the “intrusion” of an unwanted third party into the kingdom of their intimate relationships.

Kusano opens boldly with the film’s most straightforward, though infinitely shocking, scene as a woman in her late 20s, Aki (Asami Shibuya), sits impassively while a police officer (Ryu Kenta) politely tries to explain to her that she is being held on suspicion of murder. Not quite present, Aki accepts all the charges against her and admits her crime though is puzzled by the policeman’s assertion that she has been “brought to justice”, explaining that she already feels herself to have been “brought to justice” by “something like time”. In any case, she has already said everything she wishes to say in a letter to the mother of her victim. In a brief moment of madness, Aki pushed the three year old daughter of her childhood best friend into a swelling river in the midst of a typhoon.

Leaving us with this disturbing moment, Kusano then shifts back to what looks like a rehearsal room where the woman we have just seen is now dressed in more casual clothing and seated at a table next to another woman who will read in the lines of Aki’s childhood best friend and later mother of the murdered little girl, Honoka, Nodoka (Tomo Kasajima). Travelling back a few months before the incident, the two women read over the undramatic events which led up to it as if engaged in an act of emotional excavation.

The strange fact that had fascinated the policeman in Aki’s written testimony was her seemingly random allusion to a castle made out sheets and chairs the mention of which sends her into a refrain of the gloomy Japanese folksong Moon over Ruined Castle. As we later ascertain, the the make-believe castle, constructed in her childhood home with soon-to-be best friend Nodoka, became something like a safe place, the eye of typhoon raging in her mind. Aki saw the castle as her rightful “kingdom”, a sacred space into which only she and Nodoka were permitted to enter and which was permanently available to each wherever they happened to be.

Nodoka, however, has moved on – formed a new kingdom with a husband and a child into which Aki has no right to step. After having something like a breakdown and returning to her hometown, Aki reconnected with Nodoka whom she had not seen since her wedding to her husband Naota (Tomomitsu Adachi) – a mutual friend from university, four years previously. Naota, now a school teacher, like Aki is intensely jealous of his own kingdom which he has given physical form in the solid existence of his house. Aki noticed this fact immediately in the pitch perfect attention to temperature and humidity of Nodoka’s new home, but she couldn’t help seeing that her friend now looked tired, harried, and that the marriage was perhaps only a superficial act of performance rather than a real emotional connection.

Ironically enough, it’s Naota himself who accidentally brings this up when explaining that a family can collapse without warning and revert to being merely a collection of individuals living under the same roof. Nodoka accuses him of using a schoolteacher’s logic to rule his home, and there is certainly some of that in there as his rigid authoritarianism seems primed to hold on so tight that it squeezes the life out of the very thing he’s trying to protect, but there’s an ugly kind of conservatism in it too as he angrily tries to expel the unwelcome intrusion of Aki into their lives, blaming her for the cracks in his marriage which her presence has perhaps exposed.

Naota wants Aki gone because he thinks she’s a bad influence, a shirker or a mad woman who will eventually infect his house with whatever it is she has like some kind of ill will virus. In an odd and terrifying way he may be “right”, but his resentment runs deeper in that he, like Aki, cannot accept that Nodoka once belonged in someone else’s kingdom to which he has no access. He resents that the two women are so close as to have largely abandoned language and share a much longer history than he and his wife, while Aki perhaps resents the presence of Honoka who represents a bond between Naota and Nodoka that she could never match even if her concern over the coldness of her friend’s new life and her seemingly hidden misery is nothing but altruistic.

Aki surveyed the kingdom of her friend and discovered it was flawed and vulnerable, that the kingdom she and her husband were building would eventually destroy them. Yet the overwhelming force which compelled her towards her unforgivable transgression was not so much resentment, or loneliness, or jealousy, or even a desire for freedom, as embarrassment. She felt as if she had betrayed her kingdom’s existence to someone who was not supposed to see it and acted without thinking in order to cover up an emotional crime, little realising the pain and destruction her act would cause.

Words encircle Aki like a typhoon, leaving her permanently in its eye trying to make sense of what has happened. Kusano stages a rehearsal after the fact, reading over the same lines with added nuance, occasionally digging deeper to expose a new clue either so trivial as not to be worth remembering or so delicate as not to be remembered out loud. To Aki, the spoken has no weight – her kingdom is made is feelings, but for Naota the reverse is true. Nodoka remains caught in the middle, perhaps secretly and uncomfortably yearning for freedom and a kingdom of her own while the storm clouds gather all around her and all that remains is the inescapable impossibility of an unselfish yet whole connection.


Domains made its world premiere at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam and is available to stream online via Festival Scope until 24th February.

Rotterdam trailer (English subtitles)

The Sower (種をまく人, Yosuke Takeuchi, 2016)

the sower stillWhen tragedy strikes the one thing you ought to be able to rely on is your family, but when the tragedy occurs within that sacred space which exits between you what is to be done? Yosuke Takeuchi’s The Sower (種をまく人, Tane wo Maku Hito) attempts to provide an answer whilst putting one very ordinary, loving and forgiving family through a series of tests and tragedies. Lies, regret, and despair conspire to ruin the lives of four once happy people but even in the midst of such a shocking, unexpected event there is still time to turn towards the sun rather than continuing in the darkness.

Mitsuo has just been released from a mental hospital where he received treatment for a nervous breakdown suffered as a direct result of his time as a relief worker after the Tohoku earthquake. Returned to the home of his brother Yuta and his wife Yoko, Mitsuo’s family welcome him with open arms and he is delighted to become reacquainted with his niece Chie as well as meet her younger sister, Itsuki, for the first time. Yoko’s mother was supposed to be coming to help out with the children but has let them down once again. Uncle Mitsuo seems like the perfect solution but tragedy strikes when he leaves the girls on their own to use the bathroom and comes back to discover that Chie has dropped her sister causing her to hit her head on a curb stone surrounding the play area. Mitsuo rushes to the hospital but Itsuki sadly passes away. Chie, overcome with guilt and fear hastily blurts out that her uncle dropped her sister while Mitsuo remains silent.

Chie’s claim sparks a series of consequences, the most serious being the intervention of the police investigating the case who are very keen to poke into each and every dark corner of this ordinary family. Despite the fact that Mitsuo has only been staying with them a few days, the police almost push Chie into accusing Mitsuo of abuse of herself or her sister, trying to paint him as some kind of deranged threat to children everywhere. Feeling guilty about her lie and fearing discovery Chie wisely says nothing, refusing to further incriminate her uncle save for a brief indication that he dropped Itsuki on purpose.

The police are confused, there is no evidence to support the idea of Mitsuo having behaved suspiciously towards either of the girls or anyone else for that matter. There would seem to be no motive for him to intentionally harm his niece, though they don’t want to accuse a grieving little girl of making things up, either. Conscious that making Chie give evidence in court, especially if she is going to lie, may have terrible consequences for her future the police urge Yuta to talk seriously with his daughter and try to get to the truth through more gentle means.

The swarm of tragedy has, however, already begun to drive a wedge between husband and wife. Even at the funeral, Yoko’s mother, forgetting that much of this is her fault for letting the family down in the first place, overtly criticises their decision to take in someone just released from a mental hospital and then leave him in charge of small children. Yuta loves his brother unconditionally, knows he is a good person and does not blame him for his daughter’s death. Yoko cannot bring herself to understand her husband’s reaction, accusing him of choosing his brother over their little girl. Mitsuo’s mental state is repeatedly offered as an explanation for what happened despite the fact that his condition is down to an excess of compassion rather than any violent or destructive impulses.

This same kindness means that he never speaks out or tries to appeal to Chie to tell the truth, shouldering the burden of her guilt and perhaps feeling responsible for having left her alone with her sister even if it was only for a few short minutes. Chie, terrified and remorseful, deeply regrets her original lie but is too afraid to tell the truth. When she finally does decide to confide in someone she is instantly told to keep quiet about it, placing an additional burden on this already fragile little girl in asking her to keep two terrible secrets perhaps for the rest of her life.

As the family falls apart, Mitsuo retreats to the woods, planting sunflowers which Itsuki loved in every conceivable place. Literally trying to plant the seeds of hope, Mitsuo spreads his sunflowers far and wide bringing colour and life to a landscape of desolation but it may take more than flowers to light the way out of this hellish, inescapable tragedy.


The Sower was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)