Midnight Bus (ミッドナイト・バス, Masao Takeshita, 2018)

midnight bus posterYou know how it is, you coast along empty inside for what seems like a millennia until you finally decide to change your life and life says no, not like that. The hero of Masao Takeshita’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize nominated novel by Yuki Ibuki Midnight Bus (ミッドナイト・バス) must be well acquainted with phenomenon as his attempts to move a new relationship to the next level are scuppered by the unexpected arrival of not only boomerang children, but an estranged ex-wife and in-laws to boot. Caught between two places, two families, and a number of possible futures it might be time to head off road but the courage to leave the familiar route behind is a hard thing to find when you’ve been used to the security of travelling in tunnels.

Riichi Takamiya (Taizo Harada) drives the overnight bus from Niigata to Tokyo. In the capital, he has a tentative relationship with a younger woman, Shiho (Manami Konishi), who runs a small cafe/bar but his attempts to introduce her to his home life back in the country run aground when grown-up son, Reiiji (Ko Nanase), picks exactly the wrong moment to come home after having abruptly given up his lucrative IT job and moved out of his Tokyo flat. Meanwhile, Riichi’s daughter, Ayana (Wakana Aoi), has embarked on a wacky cosplay career and is thinking about marrying her longterm boyfriend. At this extremely sensitive time, Riichi spots a familiar face on the bus one day – his estranged former wife, Miyuki (Mirai Yamamoto), who has returned to Niigata to visit her ailing father and take care of “family” business.

All three Takamiyas are in a sense adrift, never having properly dealt with the abrupt exit of Miyuki who left when both the children were small. As a young scrappy couple in post-bubble Tokyo, Riichi and Miyuki had been happy but when Riichi decided to move the family back to Niigata for a “less stressful” existence everything began to go wrong, largely because of Riichi’s unforgiving mother who made her daughter-in-law’s life a misery. Now Reiji is facing a similar dilemma in finding city life too demanding, but unlike his father he can afford the time to take a break and figure things out seeing as he is single and unburdened by the need to support a family. Ayana, meanwhile, is about to find herself in a similar position to her mother as she discovers when she plans to introduce her intended to her father only to have him bring his snooty parents along unannounced and change the venue to an upscale restaurant more in keeping with their tastes. Poking into family details, looking down on Riichi’s job, and finally making a pointed comment about Reiji’s stress-related skin condition and a “concern” regarding her son’s children being “contaminated”, it’s obvious Ayana and her boyfriend’s mother will never get on.

Riichi is a kind and patient man, though sometimes a little insensitive in his far seeing plan to ensure everybody’s happiness. He bears no ill will towards Miyuki and hopes that she will be able to rebuild a relationship with her children, engineering a plan to bring them together while he helps her cope with the events that have brought her back to Niigata. Meanwhile, he also tries to keep things going with Shiho who has been hurt before and understands the reasons for Riichi’s hot and cold attitudes but is increasingly frustrated by the abrupt changes in his feelings and intensions. Riichi will have to make a choice between past and future, but if he chooses to put his family back together again it must be short lived as he prepares to push his children back out into the world with a little more direction and confidence after having addressed their deep seated familial traumas.

The bus journey becomes a point of transition in more ways than one – between city and country but also between two personas and two ways of being. In Niigata Riichi is “dad”, the family lynchpin, while Tokyo affords him the opportunity to be a “man” in relative freedom, free to pursue a second chance at romance with all his baggage safely stored at home. Like his children he will need to find a way to integrate his past self with his future one if he wants to forge a way forward, but in order to do that he’ll have to accept the risks a putative future entails and make peace with his old life in order to start all over again. A sometimes poignant family drama, Midnight Bus is a restrained affair but one filled with empathy and a generosity of spirit as its various protagonists learn to free themselves from familial legacy in order to pursue their individual destinies with kind eyes and clear hearts. 


Midnight Bus screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 11th July at 6pm.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Takahiro Miki, 2013)

girl in the sunny placeThe “jun-ai” boom might have been well and truly over by the time Takahiro Miki’s Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Hidamari no Kanojo) hit the screen, but tales of true love doomed are unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon. Based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya, Girl in the Sunny Place is another genial romance in which teenage friends are separated, find each other again, become happy and then have that happiness threatened, but it’s also one that hinges on a strange magical realism born of the affinity between humans and cats.

25 year old Kosuke (Jun Matsumoto) is a diffident advertising executive living a dull if not unhappy life. Discovering he’s left it too late to ask out a colleague, Kousuke is feeling depressed but an unexpected meeting with a client brightens his day. The pretty woman standing in the doorway with the afternoon sun neatly lighting her from behind is an old middle school classmate – Mao (Juri Ueno), whom Kosuke has not seen in over ten years since he moved away from his from town and the pair were separated. Eventually the two get to know each other again, fall in love, and get married but Mao is hiding an unusual secret which may bring an end to their fairytale romance.

Filmed with a breezy sunniness, Girl in the Sunny Place straddles the line between quirky romance and the heartrending tragedy which defines jun-ai, though, more fairytale than melodrama, there is still room for bittersweet happy endings even in the inevitability of tragedy. Following the pattern of many a tragic love story, Miki moves between the present day and the middle school past in which Kosuke became Mao’s only protector when she was mercilessly bullied for being “weird”. Mao’s past is necessarily mysterious – adopted by a policeman (Sansei Shiomi) who found her wandering alone at night, Mao has no memory of her life before the age of 13 and lacks the self awareness of many of the other girls, turning up with messy hair and dressed idiosyncratically. When Kousuke stands up to the popular/delinquent kids making her life a misery, the pair become inseparable and embark on their first romance only to be separated when Kosuke’s family moves away from their hometown of Enoshima.

“Miraculously” meeting again they enjoy a typically cute love story as they work on the ad campaign for a new brassiere collection which everyone else seems to find quite embarrassing. As time moves on it becomes apparent that there’s something more than kookiness in Mao’s strange energy and sure enough, the signs become clear as Mao’s energy fades and her behaviour becomes less and less normal.

The final twist, well signposted as it is, may leave some baffled but is in the best fairytale tradition. Maki films with a well placed warmth, finding the sun wherever it hides and bathing everything in the fuzzy glow of a late summer evening in which all is destined go on pleasantly just as before. Though the (first) ending may seem cruel, the tone is one of happiness and possibility, of partings and reunions, and of the transformative powers of love which endure even if everything else has been forgotten. Beautifully shot and anchored by strong performances from Juri Ueno and Jun Matsumoto, Girl in the Sunny Place neatly sidesteps its melodramatic premise for a cheerfully affecting love story even if it’s the kind that may float away on the breeze.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2017)

survival family posterModern life is full of conveniences, but perhaps they come at a price. Shinobu Yaguchi has made something of a career out of showing the various ways nice people can come together to overcome their problems, but as the problem in Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー) is post-apocalyptic dystopia, being nice might not be the best way to solve it. Nevertheless, the Suzukis can’t help trying as they deal with the cracks already present in their relationships whilst trying to figure out a way to survive in the new, post-electric world.

Receiving a package from grandpa fills the Suzukis with horror more than gratitude. Mum Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu) can’t bring herself to cut the head off a fish and the sight of the giant bug that crawls out of the lettuce is just too much to bear. Her teenage daughter, Yui (Wakana Aoi), is not very excited either, tapping her smartphone with her fake nails, while her son Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) spends all his time alone in his room with headphones permanently attached. Mr. Suzuki, Yoshiyuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) – the family patriarch, is a typical salaryman, obsessed with work and often in bed early.

All that changes one day when Yoshiyuki’s alarm clock does not go off. There’s been a power outage – nothing works, not the TV, not the phone, not even the tower block’s elevator. Being the salaryman champ he is, Yoshiyuki tries to make it into to work in other ways but the power’s out across the city and there’s nothing to be done. Everyone is sure the power will come back on soon, but days pass with the consequences only increasing as supermarket shelves become bare and water frighteningly scarce. After his boss decides to take his chances in the mountains and a neighbour dies as a direct result of the ongoing power shortage, Yoshihyuki decides to take the family on the road to find Mitsue’s country bumpkin father in the hope that he will have a better idea of how to survive this brave new world.

Yaguchi is quick to remind us all of the ways electricity defines our lives, even if we’ve begun to forget them. Not only is it a question of mobile phones being out and lifts being out of order, but gas appliances are also electric ignition as are the pumps which drive the water system. So used to the constant stream of electricity, no one quite realises what its absence means hence Yoshiyuki’s big idea is to get a plane from Haneda airport. Ridiculous as it may seem, he’s not the only one to have underestimated the part electricity plays in flight and the aviation industry as the airport is swamped by people trying to escape the rapidly disintegrating city. Credit cards no longer work leading to long checkout lines as the old ladies with their abacuses make a startling return to checkouts while bemused shoppers attempt to use the ATM machine to get more cash.

Cash itself still has worth, at least for a time. Eventually the barter system takes over as food and water become top price commodities. A very flash looking man tries to trade genuine Rolex gold watch and later the keys to his Maserati for food but is roundly informed that none of his hard won prizes is worth anything in this new back to basics era. Thanks to Mitsue’s housewife skills of frugality and haggling, the family are able to get themselves a small stockplie of resources but find themselves tested when the less fortunate ask them for help.

The crisis brings out both the best and the worst in humanity. As the family make their escape from the city on a series of bicycles, they pass a succession of salesmen all upping the price of bottled water by 100% each time. Profiteering is rife as the unscrupulous procure ordinary foodstuffs to be sold for vast amounts of money. Yet the Suzukis rarely find themselves on the wrong side of trickery and even encounter a few kindly souls willing to help them on their journey such as a gang of cycle wear clad survival experts and a very forgiving farmer who takes the family in when they help themselves to one of his escaped pigs (a sequence which allows Yaguchi to go on another Swing Girls-style pig chase only without the slo-mo and classical music).

Forced to reconnect, the family become closer, gradually coming to know and accept each other whilst finding new and unknown talents. Living simply and harmoniously has its charms, ones that don’t necessarily need to disappear if the power ever comes back on. The only certainty is that you can’t survive alone, and who can you count on if you can’t count on family?


Screened as the opening night movie of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Assassination Classroom (映画 暗殺教室, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

photo_4First Published on UK Anime Network in November 2015.


You might make the mistake of thinking that the E in class 3E just means it’s the 5th 3rd year class, or that it stands for “elite” and contains some of the top students in the school. You’d be wrong, “E” stands for “end” because these are the no hoper kids that everyone’s already written off as having no future. However, it’s precisely these kids that a mysterious extraterrestrial being insists on becoming the teacher of in return for not destroying the Earth (just yet). Nicknamed UT (unkillable teacher), the giant yellow octopus-like creature has already destroyed 30% of the moon just for kicks and has now set the challenge that if the boys and girls of class 3E fail to assassinate him before graduation he’ll destroy the Earth too.

The ironic thing is, UT is the best teacher they’ve ever had, but to pass the course (and save the world) they have to kill him. The high schoolers are also under the tutelage of a self defence forces officer for their military training and a sexy assassin who randomly ends up becoming their English teacher (and giving them one of the least appropriate English lessons ever recorded on film). Every morning they bow and then pull out their various kinds of firearms as UT takes the register whilst flitting about dodging bullets. Despite wanting to destroy the Earth, UT is 100% committed to training his students both in the arts of assassination and in the more regular subjects. Because of his super speed and ability to be in several places at once he has time for everybody and is quick to work out each of his charge’s specific weaknesses and help them work on those to become better people as well as ace students.

Still, the students are supposed to kill their teacher and there’s a little bit of sadness creeping in as they inevitably grow closer to UT and his quirky antics. Up ’til now everyone has given up on them and now they’re supposed to kill the one person who’s actually trying to help. Of course, even while this surreal situation is going on these are just regular high school kids undergoing regular high school stuff like wanting to sneak into the girls’ changing rooms or having a crush on someone who hasn’t even noticed you. Despite the impending end of the world, the kids of Class 3E are just enjoying their time trying to work out ever more complex ways of trying assassinate their seemingly invincible teacher.

UT himself is strangely adorable with his giant yellow smiley face style head and bizarre little laugh. He also changes color according to his mood and has a tendency to go off on tangents with one notable example which turns into a long form ‘80s style melodrama about abandoned single mothers before being politely shut down by the bored students. Assassination Classroom is undoubtedly bizarre, surreal and full of absurd humour but all the better for it. It’s just very silly but has an undeniably clever and very witty script that proves near impossible to resist.

To put it mildly, Assassination Classroom is just heaps of zany, crazy fun. It also manages to be genuinely heartfelt as we come to care for this rag-tag bunch of no hopers but also for UT himself as we start to hope the kids will somehow fail and succeed at the same time so we can save both the world and UT. The film drops us a few hints about UT’s backstory but stops short of offering a full explanation for the crazy goings on. Thankfully a sequel, Assassination Classroom: Graduation Day is already in production and even if it doesn’t offer any answers, Assassination Classroom is already one of the most enjoyably absurd offerings to come out of Japan this year.


Assassination Classroom receives its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival on 15th November 2015.

Look out for a review of Tag which is also playing at the festival as it Happy Hour, and Our Little Sister.