Fukushima 50 (フクシマ50, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2020)

The “Fukushima 50” (フクシマ50), as the film points out, was a term coined by the international media to refer to the men and women who stayed behind to deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Loosely inspired by Ryusho Kadota’s non-fiction book On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi which featured extensive interviews with those connected to the incident, Setsuro Wakamatsu’s high production value film adaptation arrived to mark the ninth anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which occurred on 11th March, 2011 and closes with a poignant callback to the plant’s role in Japan’s post-war reconstruction as the nation once again prepares to host the (now postponed) Olympics with a torch relay beginning at Fukushima as a beacon of hope as the country continues to rebuild in the wake of the disaster. 

Though inspired by real events Wakamatsu’s dramatisation is heavily fictionalised and while surprisingly frank for a mainstream film in its criticism of the official reaction to the disaster, is also quietly nationalistic while doing its best to pay tribute to the selfless sacrifice of the plant workers who stayed behind to do what they could many of whom had little expectation of surviving. Chief among them would be Izaki (Koichi Sato), an imperfect family man and veteran section chief, and the plant’s superintendent Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) who are both local men and old friends. Local, it seems, is later key with multiple appeals to the furusato spirit as each is at pains to point out that they stay not only to prevent a catastrophic meltdown that would leave most of central Honshu including Tokyo uninhabitable, but because they feel a greater duty to protect their hometown and the people in it. 

Meanwhile, they find themselves burdened rather than assisted by official support as government bodies’ political decision making undermines their attempts to avert disaster while the boardroom of TEPCO who operate the plant reacts with business concerns in mind. A few hours in the prime minister (Shiro Sano) decides to make a visit, in political terms he can’t not national leaders who don’t visit sites of crisis are never forgiven, but his presence actively hinders the recovery efforts. Referred to only as the PM, Wakamatsu’s film presents the man leading the nation as an ignorant bully overly obsessed with his personal image. He has little understanding of nuclear matters or the implications of the disaster, refuses to abide by the regular safety procedures required at the plant, and mostly governs through shouting. Beginning to lose his temper, Yoshida does his best to remain calm but resents the constant interference from those sitting in their offices far away from immediate danger while he does his best to contend with the increasingly adverse conditions on the ground, mindful of his responsibilities firstly to his employees and secondly to those living in the immediate vicinity of the plant who will be most at risk when measures taken to prevent meltdown will lead to an inevitable radiation leak. 

Yoshida’s hero moment comes when he ignores a direct order from the government to stop using seawater to cool the reactors, knowing that he has no other remaining options. Meanwhile, the government refuse offers of help from the Americans, who eventually make a strangely heroic arrival with Operation Tomodachi, discussing plans to move their families to safety while their commander reflects on his post-war childhood on a military base near the site of the nuclear plant. Japan’s SDF also gets an especial nod, granted permission to leave by Yoshida who is beginning to think he’s running out of time but vowing to stay and do their duty in protecting civilians in need. 

In essence, the drama lies in how they coped rather than the various ways in which they didn’t. The conclusion is that the existence of the plant was in itself hubristic, they are paying the price for “underestimating the power of nature” in failing to calculate that such a devastating tsunami was possible. They thought they were safe, but they weren’t. Perhaps uncomfortably, Wakamatsu mimics the imagery of the atomic bomb to imagine a nuclear fallout in Tokyo, harking back to ironic signage which simultaneously declares that the energy of the future is atomic while the plant workers reflect on the sense of wonder they felt as young people blinded by science back in the more hopeful ‘70s as the nation pushed its way towards economic prosperity. Frank for a mainstream film but then again perhaps not frank enough, Fukushima 50 is both an urgent anti-nuclear plea and an earnest thank you letter to those who stayed when all looked hopeless, suggesting that if the sakura still bloom in Fukushima it is because of the sacrifices they made.


Fukushima 50 is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Parallel World Love Story (パラレルワールド・ラブストーリー, Yoshitaka Mori, 2019)

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re going out of your mind? Something just doesn’t feel right, your sense of perception and memory of the past don’t match the “reality” you’re currently experiencing but you have no way of knowing what’s at fault, you or the world. The hero of Parallel World Love Story (パラレルワールド・ラブストーリー) finds himself in just this situation as he begins to experience two very different states of being, one in which he’s living happily with the love of his life, and another where she’s dating his childhood friend. Is he a love crazed fool, or is someone messing with his head?

Travelling the same train into college every day, Takashi (Yuta Tamamori) fell in deep silent love with a young woman whose train crossed his every Tuesday morning. On his very last Tuesday, he decided he’d switch trains and try to find her, but she did exactly the same thing and so they missed each other, leaving Takashi feeling as if his fated romance was matter for another universe. He is then shocked when an old friend from middle school, Tomohiko (Shota Sometani), introduces that same young woman, Mayuko (Riho Yoshioka), as his girlfriend some time later. A little resentful at this twist of fate, Takashi tries his best to keep his feelings hidden. Meanwhile we see him “wake up” in his own apartment where Mayuko, who lives with him, is lovingly making him breakfast. He has a vague recollection of Tomohiko turning up in his dream, but can’t seem to remember what it is he’s doing these days. In this “reality”, Tomohiko introduced Mayuko to Takashi, and has abruptly moved to LA without even saying a proper goodbye, apparently working on a top secret research operation which keeps him entirely out of contact. 

Both men are involved with the research of perception and memory. Talking to another friend before “meeting” Mayuko, Takashi points out that it’s your brain which constructs the current reality from your sense perception. He grasps her hand and her brain tells her she feels it, but she’d feel the same thing if he isolated and activated the relevant sectors of her brain which tell her her hand is being grasped. Tomohiko, meanwhile, has gone one step further. He’s discovered that it’s neural networks rather than the brain which store memories and that, by stimulating those neural receptors in a particular way, memory can be rewritten or fake memories introduced. He proves this by illegally experimenting on a friend, making him think he’s from Tokyo when he’s really from Hiroshima, and reconstructing the image of an old teacher so that she’s now a pretty young woman and not a portly old man. 

The gap between what you want to be true and the “reality” is shrinking. It turns out that it’s easy enough to trick yourself into thinking something is true when it isn’t when you really want it to be. According to Tomohiko, once your brain has decided to approve the “fake” reality, cognitive dissonance is overcome by everything else being forced to fit into your new conception of the world. Takashi, however, is struggling to integrate his two parallel lives, one bleeding inconveniently into the other leaving him wondering which one is the “reality” and which the “dream”. 

Takashi’s less palatable qualities, however, exist firmly in the recent past of reality A in which romantic jealousy appears to have driven him half out of his mind, causing him to semi-stalk the innocent Mayuko and consider betraying his childhood friend by stealing the woman he loves. Takashi’s sole justification for his behaviour is the unspoken romantic connection which brought them together on the train, a connection he is “certain” she remembers without being given any particular encouragement from her side. Reality B Takashi, who lives with Mayuko, similarly becomes obsessed with the idea that Mayuko in some way belongs to Tomohiko, awakening an unpleasant sense of misogyny in his desire to prove that Mayuko is his because he saw her first on the train. 

Meanwhile back in Reality A, he starts to suspect that Tomohiko is up to no good pursuing unethical research practices and working towards a sinister goal. It’s unfortunate that Tomohiko also has a prominent limp from a lame leg, playing into the unpleasant association of villainy and disability. Even Takashi, having turned dark, accuses Mayuko of dating him out of pity, while Tomohiko describes him as a “hero” for having rescued him from childhood bullies. Takashi starts to suspect him, not only of being a mad scientist, but perhaps actively hostile and plotting revenge against him for stealing Mayuko. In a particularly Higashino-esque touch, Tomohiko’s motives turn out to be kinder than they might at first seem even if they’re a little on the extreme side, leaving Takashi pushed to make a similarly extreme yet strangely counterproductive move by his infinitely shady boss who is also exploiting the increasingly conflicted Mayuko. Yet, aside from all the philosophical musings on the nature of reality, the interplay of desire and memory, and the ethics of manipulating the perception of others, this is in essence a love story between two people who gazed at each other from passing trains. If you find each other once, you can find each other twice, and, in love, reality might not be so important.


Original trailer (hit subtitle button for English subs)

Sada (SADA〜戯作・阿部定の生涯, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998)

Sada poster“Facts can easily become fiction when recounted by someone, even by oneself. But with a bit of sincerity lies can become truth”, our genial guide explains, paradoxically telling us that the heroine, a woman he regards as a loveable kid sister, wants to tell us her story herself. Apologising in advance for her “rudeness”,  he reveals to us that the woman is none other than the “notorious” Sada Abe, a woman who, apparently now forgotten, was once a front page sensation for having killed her lover and cut off his penis to carry him with her always.

Despite the narrator’s claims that Sada’s fame has faded, her story has proved fertile cinematic ground, most famously inspiring Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses which sees her claustrophobic descent into sexual obsession as a reaction to the intense austerity of militarism. Obayashi, however, is keen to remember that that aside from the newspaper headlines, the salaciousness and peculiar romanticism of her story, Sada was a real woman who suffered in an intensely patriarchal society and was perhaps seeking something that the world was unable to give her.

As she reminds us, Sada too had a childhood. Obayashi opens the film with a young Sada innocently throwing hoops over a tall phallic object. Six years later, her life changes when a college boy drags her off the street into a nearby inn and rapes her, claiming that she is well known as a good time girl and that he is perfectly entitled to behave in the way he is behaving. Deed done, the college boy leaves but Sada (Hitomi Kuroki) is rescued by the gentlemanly figure of sickly medical student Okada (Kippei Shina) who has a patch over his eye and a romantic disposition. Okada gives her not only a lifelong and strangely erotic attachment to donuts, but a junai foundation in an eternally unrealisable longing for a pure and innocent love.

Okada, as Obayashi later tells us, is also a “real” person though he has no real evidence that he and Sada ever crossed paths. He gives her the knife she will later use to sever her lover’s penis and tells her to use it to cut out his heart, which belongs to her. Okada, claiming that he will forever watch over her, introduces a secondary theme in that he is a sufferer of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, then thought incurable and “treated” only by exile. Sada loses her pure love and never knows why, but sadly chooses not take his advice to remember that she is an honest girl and refuse to be corrupted by her trauma. Now unable to marry and it remaining a virtual impossibility to enter any other kind of profession, Sada becomes a geisha, later giving that up for the more lucrative world of casual sex work.

Perhaps ironically, it’s through her life as a sex worker that Sada begins to find a degree of freedom amidst the impassioned atmosphere of increasing militarism. While the men are caught up in destructive games of martial glory, Sada is just trying to live her many lives and dreaming her dream of love. It’s that dream of love that brings her to Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a married, poetic ladies’ man with whom she eventually retreats into an isolationist kingdom of two. Yet their intensely co-dependent relationship is never quite enough for her because it fails to marry her physical need with the emotional, and the figure of Okada, the innocent, romanticised white knight of her youth, lingers in her mind. Sada kills Tatsuzo not quite by accident, attempting to take ownership of something which can never be hers in her fiercely patriarchal world where her clients coldly chide her for not being “polite” enough and despite the earning potential of her profession, she remains dependent on men to escape it.

Sada’s “crime” might not quite be revenge for all she’s suffered but it is a pointed act of rebellion towards a conformist society. She laments that her notoriety soon faded, that if being forgotten is like dying then she died long ago, but for a short time all of Japan was captivated not by the outrageous horror of her transgression but by an idea of “romance” that stood behind it as if Sada had moved beyond double suicide into new territories of eternal love through seeking to possess her lover even in death. The narrator, Sada’s sometime pimp, tells us that few remember Sada now and suggests that Japan is once again in a dark age, stopping only to remark that people were beautiful then too despite or perhaps because of the darkness. Fittingly the figure of the “real” Sada retreats and we’re left again with her legend, an imagined future for a woman who faded into pre-war tragedy as a symbol of its dangerous intensity. Even so, Obayashi is intent to show us that there was indeed a woman named Sada Abe who found herself at the mercy of her times but tried to live all the same, dreaming of impossible love in a world of corruption.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Neko Atsume House (ねこあつめの家, Masatoshi Kurakata, 2017)

mihon_neko_chirashi_BzenIt’s important to note that cats are living beings and not playthings for humans though they do seem know just what it takes to manipulate our affections. Neko Atsume started life as a popular smartphone game in which the aim is to “seduce” various types of cats to come into your garden so you can catalogue them. The game is just about collecting things and otherwise has no real narrative so it’s not the first one you’d think of for a movie adaptation, but then it does have the all powerful allure of cats being cats.

The movie revolves around blocked writer Masaru (Atsushi Ito) who scored a big hit with his debut work but is floundering in the high pressure world of serialised novels and has already skipped the last two editions. His editors are getting antsy – the truth is the series is boring, a simple college love story the like of which has been seen a million times before. What the suits think is…Masaru should turn his protagonist into a zombie! Understandably, he is not very keen on the idea, and neither is his junior editor Michiru (Shioli Kutsuna), but they need ideas and they need them fast. Unfortunately, Masaru doesn’t have any and so, after a strange meeting with a “fortune teller”, he decides to move to the country to get away from it all. The only problem is, his new home seems to be full of stray cats…

Neko Atsume House (ねこあつめの家, Neko Atsume no Ie) isn’t particularly trying to do very much beyond its rather restrictive title, though it does its best to set up Masaru’s internal dilemmas before he finds himself becoming a crazy cat man out in the middle of nowhere. Like many a youngster he’s been beaten down by early success and the subsequent pressure to repeat it. Where he’s going round in circles with a cliched story of young love, his contemporary who put out a less successful debut at the same time as Masaru’s, has gone on to score billboard worthy hits and become a rising star of the literary scene. At a particularly low point, Masaru even tries to add a few positive comments underneath his own work in the hope of digging up fans but only kicks the hornets nest of abuse as the mean spirited readers seem to know right away the only person who would say anything nice about his work is Masaru himself.

In touch of the meta, it’s Masaru who is the zombie, chowing down on the remains of his artistic integrity in order to save some semblance of a career. Of course, it doesn’t work. Unable to get any real writing done, Masaru becomes increasingly obsessed with the stray cats outside, eventually building them an entire mini paradise so they’ll come and keep him company while he’s busy not writing. In true fatalistic fashion, it turns out that Masaru has loved cats all along. He just forgot about it, and that’s one of the reasons he can’t write. Then again, perhaps it was just as Michiru, who never lost her faith in him, had said – he had to learn to be free like the cats in the garden in order to get his creative juices flowing again. At any rate, an up close observation of the lazy lives of pampered kitties begins to bring him closer to the human world, especially when he ends up working for the crazy (in a nice way) lady (Tae Kimura) who runs the local feline grooming centre and has to up his people skills as well as his cat man ones.

The latest in a long line of low budget dramas in which a conflicted creative exiles themselves from “real” life to get their mojo back, Neko Atsume House is at least the nicest in which Masaru’s petulance only really stretches to one unkind conversation with Michiru before he begins figuring out how to fix his many and various personal problems. Otherwise, the draw is the cats who are generally content to let it all hang out. Superficial, if charming, Neko Atsume House knows its target audience and proves a delectable enough treat to attract its very own cohort of cat collectors ready for cataloguing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Takashi Minamoto, 2005)

Until the Lights Come Back posterChristmas is, among other things, conveniently held on the same day every year. As such, it can’t help but become a moment of minor introspection inviting a thorough investigation of a life’s trajectory. In Japan, Christmas is also about romance which means it can also be an intense or melancholy occasion in which relationships past and present come up for reappraisal. Takashi Minamoto’s ensemble drama Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Daiteiden no Yoru ni) spins a tale of city life as it catches hold of a number of accidentally connected souls and puts them through the emotional ringer thanks to an artificial psychological pause engineered by a power cut on Christmas Eve,

A melancholy barman sets a record going. A boy tracking satellites sees a girl hovering dangerously close to edge of the roof opposite. A conflicted salaryman finds out a dark family secret. A mistress is dumped while a wife wonders how much longer she should wait. A pregnant woman is chased by a yakuza, and an old lady gets an unexpected phone call.

Somehow, all of these events are connected though it takes a moment to figure out how. Christmas is a time for romance, but for the dejected salaryman, Ryotaro (Tomorowo Taguchi), it’s about to become a very difficult day indeed. When his terminally ill father decides to tell him the secrets of his birth, it prompts him into a mild bout of introspection concerning his own familial relationships. Ten years with the patient Shizue (Tomoyo Harada) haven’t cured his philandering and the marriage is strained to breaking point. Still, he thinks nothing of cancelling their special Christmas Eve dinner together to go meet his mistress even if his true purpose is to end things before they get any more complicated.

Missed connections and frustrated love stories continue to dominate. The mistress, Misuzo (Haruka Igawa), gets into a lift with Chinese bellboy Dongdong (Tsuyoshi Abe) who was supposed to be going back to Shanghai to visit his long-distance girlfriend who he worries is losing interest. Meanwhile, the melancholy barman, Mr. Kido (Etsushi Toyokawa), is pining for a failed love of his own – a woman he foolishly abandoned and then tried to pick back up again only to learn she had married someone else and that the marriage was unhappy. Mr. Kido gave up his musical dreams to open a jazz bar in the hope his love would someday return to him, only to be visited by “hope” in a different form – that of the strange young woman, Nozomi (Tomoko Tabata), from the across the way who’s about to have a very big business night in her off the beaten track artisanal candle shop.

Meanwhile, the recently released ex-yakuza, Gin (Koji Kikkawa), pines for his lost love in the form of the heavily pregnant Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) who swore to wait for him but eventually drifted away and married someone else though she seems to be happy enough which, strangely, he seems to find a comfort. When the lights go out there’s nothing much else to do but talk and think and so each of our wounded protagonists is forced to put their pain into focus, considering the wider context of an emotional landscape and attempting to find accommodation within it. Mr. Kido can’t quite let go of his failed love, however much he might want to, but Gin can perhaps learn to be thankful that the woman he loved found someone nice who looked after her when he couldn’t.

While the older generation swap stories of the eerie wartime blackouts and those of the comparatively less worrying power outages born of an inability to keep up with a rapidly recovering economy, the young make the best of it – swapping the twinkling lights of Christmas displays for the wonder of the stars. Candlelight and unexpected friendships give birth to new ways of thinking and create their very own Christmas miracles which seem set to pave a way towards a happier future for all in which forgiveness and understanding rule. Strangely warm yet never sentimental, Until the Lights Come Back captures a brief moment of stillness in a lonely city as its disconnected heroes find themselves pulled into a series of concentric epiphanies, putting the past to rest while learning to embrace an as yet unseen future.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2005)

It's Only Talk poster“I’m scared of wanting to die” the heroine of Ryuichi Hiroki’s It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Yawarakai Seikatsu) confesses during an awkward car ride with a childhood friend, perhaps one of the only absolute truths she offers in her infinite quest to escape existential loneliness through the false connection of mass tragedy. Yuko (Shinobu Terajima) tells people that her parents died in the Kobe Earthquake, but they actually died in a house fire a few years later. She tells people that her best friend died in 9/11 (she died in New York in the early 2000s but in a car accident), and that her former lover died during the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway (this one might even be true, but who really can say). She lies, not about facts only details, in the belief that her private pain is somehow not relatable enough and if she ties herself into a wider sense of national or global tragedies then others can share in her grief and she won’t be so alone in her sadness.

Following the deaths of her parents when she was 29, Yuko was diagnosed with bipolar and has been in and out of hospitals for the past six years. Now 35, single, and unemployed, Yuko has found herself cast out from mainstream society and fulfils her (minimal) needs for human connection through meeting “perverts” on specialist message-boards. Through one of these illicit connections she meets K. (Tomorowo Taguchi) – a 50-year-old husband and father who drives her all the way out to provincial suburb Kamata to ensure the liaison (which extends only to watching a porn film together in a public cinema and a cup of tea afterwards) remains secret. Taken with the suburb’s retro charm and unassuming air of faded grandeur, she decides to move and starts life over again in the somewhat nostalgic past which brings her into contact with two men from her youth and another still battling his own.

A portrait of inescapable loneliness, Yuko’s life is both as frozen as the photographs she takes of local landmarks to post on her fledgling blog and permanently in flux as she tries to navigate the constantly shifting tides of her condition. After moving to Kamata she unexpectedly reencounters an old university friend who recalls their spirited discussions of world politics from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square when they were both bright and engaged students. Like Yuko, Honma (Shunsuke Matsuoka) has wound up in Kamata as a kind of retreat from the harshness of life in Tokyo. Unwilling to embrace life in the public eye, he’s decided to concentrate on a career in local politics instead hoping to work his way into the ministry of education as a civil servant. He is also unmarried – partly as a result of debts accrued during unsuccessful electoral campaigns, and, as we later find out, erectile dysfunction. Honma reintroduces Yuko to another old friend, “Bach” (Nao Omori) who has gone the opposite way and become a venture capitalist but apparently still holds a torch for the young Yuko all these years later. Meanwhile, she’s been meeting up with a lonely yakuza, Noboru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who also has bipolar and longs for the world of childhood safety and innocence he associates with the strange Godzilla tyre park Yuko photographed and put on her blog.

The most significant relationship in her short-lived period of connection is in fact with her childhood friend and cousin, Shoichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), who abruptly turns up at her flat unannounced. Shoichi, also depressed but perhaps in a less extreme way and hiding it much better, left his marriage because he felt pushed out when the baby was born and then ran after a younger woman who went to Tokyo but ultimately did not want him. The two share a strange sort of intimacy born of their long history which is almost fraternal but laced with minor awkwardness and ancient resentments. Though his wife berated him for his refusal to help out at home, Shoichi tenderly cares for Yuko just as she is at her most vulnerable having entered an extreme depressive episode – washing her hair, doing her laundry, and picking up her medication while trying to remain patient even when Yuko rejects his gestures of help. The giving and receiving of care provides each with a new sense of purpose and connection but their paths are perhaps set on different courses in the immediacy of the need to deal with the unresolved past.

Waking up from her depression, Yuko discovers life has delivered her yet another cruel blow, witnessing others moving on in one way or another and leaving her once again all alone marooned on the sidelines. Yet she lives on, “scared of wanting to die” but daring to remove the towel which hides an ugly scar from a previous suicide attempt to revisit a public bath which holds a memory perhaps both happy and sad. Melancholy in the extreme, It’s Only Talk is not a tragedy but an aching portrait of spiritual loneliness in a society only too happy to exclude.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, SABU, 1996)

Dangan Runner posterIt’s not difficult to see what might send three young men running like stray bullets from a random gun in the Japan of the mid-90s, but each of the various protagonists of SABU’s debut feature Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, AKA Non-Stop) is reaching for a different target. Like much of the director’s later work, Dangan Runner pivots on random circumstance which somehow conspires to bring our three runners together as if bound by cosmic thread while they too are chased by an oncoming storm in the form of vengeful yakuza and the bumbling cops hot on their trail.

Kickstarting the whole affair, lowly restaurant worker Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), fed up with the petty humiliations of his life, decides to rob a bank. He has everything planned, even rehearsed and choreographed down to the second, but when the time comes he makes a mistake. Having left his mask at home, he decides to buy one from a local combini but panics and accidentally shoplifts instead, attracting the attentions of bullet two – Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), who is wounded in the arm by Yasuda’s nervous shot when his gun accidentally goes off. A drug addict and former rockstar, Aizawa, intent on revenge for the disrespect he’s just been paid, retrieves the gun dropped by Yasuda and chases him through the streets of Tokyo. Aizawa in turn continues the chain reaction when he bumps into a yakuza, Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is “triggered” by a deep seated trauma into chasing off after Aizawa, knife in hand. Meanwhile, a rival yakuza clan is also after Takeda because of gangland politics while they too are being monitored by the police who have gotten wind of a gang war in the offing.

Though SABU’s film is not in the least political, it is like much of his work a mild satire even if its sympathy lies firmly with its three central heroes each desperately trying and failing to outrun themselves. Yasuda, a small man with a slight frame, is the lowest of the low. He has a terrible job as a kitchen assistant in a small restaurant where he is constantly bullied by the head chef and belittled by the other kitchen staff who are all much taller and stronger than he is. It’s not difficult to see why he might bristle so much when one calls him “good for nothing”, yet he’s not the type to offer more than an angry stare in return. To make matters worse, he runs into an old girlfriend who appears to have moved on and up. Walking arm in arm with a wealthy salaryman, she has apparently jettisoned the “common” name of “Midori” for the relatively more sophisticated one of “Yasuko”, presumably hoping to hook someone who is indeed the polar opposite of a “loser” like Yasuda.

Aizawa also has his share of woman troubles though his are of an opposing dimension. A failed musician with a drug problem, Aizawa alienated his loving girlfriend while hoping his addiction would save him from his unattainable dreams. Of course, it’s an entirely different “shot in the arm” that starts him running, but like Yasuda in the end all he can think of is the girl and how he did everything wrong. Takeda, by contrast, is a yakuza through and through. His regrets are bound up with homosocial bonding and male loyalty, mourning the death of the trusted superior he failed to save in dodging the blows of a random assassin. Yet as his superior tells him, all living beings run towards the same thing. A yakuza cannot control his death but he can control his life and the effect he has on others. He urges Takeda to run and find life in the process, but perhaps Takeda’s destination is the run itself rather than where it will eventually take him.

Indeed, Yasuda, accidentally landing up in the middle of the yakuza gang war, affirms that he never felt so alive as when he was running for his life. All three men, running fast from failure, finally achieve the freedom they’d dreamed of through the intense exertion of their flight which later literally becomes orgasmic as all three fantasise about a pretty woman seen on the side of the road. Like bullets fired from a gun powered by social impossibility, each is destined to explode on reaching its chosen target. Like many of SABU’s later protagonists, these are men brought low by life and circumstance, driven slowly mad by a conspiracy of cosmic coincidence, mere playthings of fate without power or agency. Angry young men are a powder keg waiting to ignite, but in SABU’s whimsically surreal universe they usually sort things out amongst themselves. For the Dangan Runners, they only need to look in the mirror to figure out where it is they need to go.


Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films. On disc extras include a video essay on the history of V Cinema from film scholar Tom Mes, and an expansive audio commentary by Jasper Sharp providing detailed background on SABU’s career and the Japanese cinema landscape of the mid-90s.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Violence Voyager (バイオレンス・ボイジャー, Ujicha, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

violence voyager posterWeird stuff happens out in the mountains, stuff you wouldn’t even believe. Ujicha’s Burning Buddha Man followup Violence Voyager (バイオレンス・ボイジャー) is a pleasantly retro treat, set sometime in the more innocent past when the landscape still held hidden mysteries for small boys to find and anything goes so long as you’re home in time for tea. There are some mysteries, however, that it’s better not to solve and if something seems too good to be true, that’s usually because it is. Little Bobby (Aoi Yuki) is about to become a hero, but his journey will be a one way trip of unwelcome transformations, losses, and betrayals.

Bobby, an American boy with a blond bowl cut living in a little rural town with his distant dad and bedridden mum for otherwise unexplained reasons, has impressed his best friend Akkun (Shigeo Takahashi) with his high-tech pinball baseball computer console he made for the science fair, even if it has put the strange monster toys Akkun and his brother Yakkun entered with the intention of masking a lack of skill with pure strangeness to shame. Ostracised by the other kids, Bobby and Akkun long to cross the mountain and find their other friend, Takaaki (Daisuke Ono), who moved away to the next village. Akkun has heard tell of a secret mountain path which would take them there for free and it’s only *slightly* dangerous even if it does take time. Luckily it’s the summer holidays so time is something the boys have plenty of.

Setting off despite the warnings of Old Man Lucky Monkey (who actually lives with a chimpanzee as a “friend”), the boys are sidetracked when Bobby spots a fallen sign for something called “Violence Voyager” which sounds like too good an opportunity to miss. Ending up at an abandoned theme park, the boys are surprised to find the proprietor (Tomorowo Taguchi) still hanging around and overjoyed when he offers to let them in for free seeing as he rarely gets any business owing to the rapidly declining number of children in the area (alarm bells should be ringing right about now). Handed a “voyager suit” (an anorak and pair of wellies), the boys are shown an informational video explaining that the world has been invaded by aliens in the form of robot soldiers who shoot alkaline from their plant-like hands. Choosing a “weapon” (water pistol) each (Bobby a rifle, Akkun a tiny little dolphin), the boys set off but it’s not long before they start to suspect something isn’t quite right. Discovering another little girl lying injured, Bobby and Akkun plan an escape only to find their bullying classmates also facing the same dilemma.

It will come as no surprise that there really is something not quite right going at Violence Voyager. Like a combination of Westworld and Soylent Green, the park exists to strip the young of their innocence by exploiting it. A mad scientist desperately trying to save his only family is literally eating his young – sacrificing the souls of innocent children and “remaking” them in his own image to feed his ruined son. Meanwhile, Bobby’s dad fights equally hard to track down and rescue his own errant boy from an obviously bad situation.

Bobby emerges scarred and fundamentally “changed” mentally and physically but with his humanity fully intact, carrying a pretty bunch of flowers to take to his mum to cheer up her sickbed (and presumably lessen the shock of seeing him as he now is). An extreme coming of age tale, Violence Voyager runs from exposing the cynicism of businesses aimed at children to the desperation faced by a parent prepared to protect their offspring at all costs (including their remaining family).

Ujicha’s trademark “geki-animation” is a perfect fit for the bizarre tale at hand, filled with beautiful hand painted backgrounds and accompanied by the sonorous narration of comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto (Symbol, Big Man Japan). The retro design from Bobby’s bowl cut to the ‘70s musical score and noticeably old-fashioned composition (one shot even seems to reference the poster for Fukasaku’s Virus) allows the warmth of nostalgia to mix with its less positive elements all while indulging in a surreal B-movie adventure which starts with “aliens” and ends with the horror that men do. Whether a metaphor for the conformist meat grinder which strips children of their individuality to trap them in the straight jacket of the salaryman world, the ravages of grief, or just a B-movie body horror adventure, Violence Voyager is a surreal fever dream of bodily corruption but undercut with its own sense of fantastical whimsy and an oddly innocent heart for so dark a tale.


Violence Voyager was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Room Laundering (ルームロンダリング, Kenji Katagiri, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Room Laundering posterIn the olden days, when there had been a traumatic incident, holy people would be brought in to perform some kind of ritual to “purify” the air so life could go back to “normal”. These days people don’t believe in ghosts, or at least not in ghosts of that kind, but there is still a degree of discomfort involved in spending time in a place where something unpleasant has happened. Japanese rental laws state that a prospective renter/buyer should be informed if something untoward has occurred in the property, but the law only requires you to tell the next person in line. Therefore, if you can find a person willing to spend a few days in an apartment with a troubled past, they could be quite a useful asset to the unscrupulous estate agent.

Miko Yakumo (Elaiza Ikeda) is just such a woman and has therefore found herself falling into a “room laundering” career thanks to her uncle Goro (Joe Odagiri), a roguish real-estate-broker-cum-underworld-fixer with a sideline in fake IDs for undocumented migrants. Miko’s father died when she was five, and her mother disappeared without warning a few years later leaving her with her grandmother who died when Miko was 18. She’s now 20 and is nominally in her uncle’s care but having dealt with so much loss and abandonment, she prefers to keep to herself, always closed off with a pair of headphones blocking her ears, speaking to no one. The apartment “job” therefore suits her well enough with its clear stipulation to avoid mixing with the neighbours, but there’s one big drawback. Miko has recently developed the ability to see ghosts which is sometimes a problem given the circumstances her new places of residence became vacant.

A tale of learning to deal with the past, Room Laundering (ルームロンダリング) takes its heroine on some long, strange journeys but despite its death laden themes and Miko’s emotional numbness it has its essential warmths even if they’re sometimes harder to see. Miko’s travels chart a course of modern loneliness as she encounters those who’ve found themselves passing away alone, in pain and in sadness – old ladies whose bodies weren’t found until they’d almost all rotted away, neglected children who starved to death after being abandoned, businessmen who killed themselves after getting into debt, a catalogue of human misery seemingly without end. Miko doesn’t find the ghosts scary because she thinks real people are scarier. They lie, and they leave, and they let you down. At least the ghosts will stick around even if you wish they wouldn’t.

Even so, interacting with the recently deceased begins to reawaken Miko’s sense of vitality. Drinking with (or more accurately on behalf of) an insecure punk rocker (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who took his own life before sending off his demo tape proves an oddly fulfilling experience for the otherwise introverted young woman, while staying in the apartment of a murdered cosplayer (Kaoru Mitsumune) gives her a sense of purpose when she decides to help the unfortunate woman move on by unmasking the real killer. Meanwhile, she also breaks her non-fraternising rule to chat to the geeky boy next-door (Kentaro Ito) and starts to wonder if maybe not all the living are so bad after all.

In dealing with the legacy of abandonment while literally living a transient life, Miko is forced to confront the ghosts of her past and exorcise them in order to escape her self imposed limbo. Only by being on her own can she reach the realisation that she is not alone. Meanwhile, Uncle Goro’s originally shady looking services for migrants without the proper papers begin to look more altruistic than they first seemed. He, like Miko, is helping himself by helping others who are also trapped in a kind of limbo only a more prosaic earthbound one of rigid bureaucracies and xenophobic exploitation. Goro maybe a dodgy estate agent with a sideline in forcing grannies out of their homes to pave the way for “redevelopment” but at least he’s found a better system of room laundering than his colleague who generally just rents to foreigners and visa overstayers he can either evict or extort if things go wrong. It just goes to show a little bit of empathy goes a long way. After all, you’re a long time dead.


Room Laundering was screened as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)