The Other Home (向こうの家, Tatsuro Nishikawa, 2018)

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they start to realise that things are not always as they appear and no matter how happy and settled your family life might seem, your parents aren’t perfect though they are probably doing their best. For Hagi (Ayumu Mochizuki), that moment comes at 16 when he gets fed up with school and takes some time off believing he might be able to learn more outside of the classroom than in. An unconventional coming-of-age tale, Tatsuro Nishikawa’s graduation project The Other Home (向こうの家, Mukou no Ie) is also a meditation on the modern family and the patriarchal order. 

Getting back to school after the summer break gets off to a rocky start when Hagi and his friend are told that the fishing club of which they are members is being shut down as the teacher who was in charge of it is scaling back her workload because she’s just got engaged and will eventually be leaving to get married. Hagi takes this in his stride, mostly at a loss over where to eat his lunch because his girlfriend, Naruse (Mahiru Ueta), for some reason thinks it’s embarrassing to eat alone in the classroom. In any case, Hagi reacts by deciding not to go to school at all. His parents don’t approve, but decide to give him some space to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, he’s beginning to wonder if it’s odd that his family never fight, his parents committed to talking things through peacefully rather than resentfully hiding their true feelings. 

Or, so he thought. There is something childishly naive in his conviction that because his parents never fight in front of him they never fight at all, though it’s true enough that he comes from a talking about things family in which his mother Naoko (Mana Minamihisamatsu), in particular, is keen that they share their thoughts and feelings honestly, looking forward to her husband Yoshiro (Toru Kizu) returning home each day after which they share a drink and make time to talk. It comes to something of a surprise to him then when his dad asks him to pick up a set of keys he’s forgotten and bring them to a cafe near where he works without letting his mother know. Hagi does as he’s told only to learn the keys are for a cheerful cottage by the sea which he’s been renting for his mistress, Toko (Mai Ohtani), with whom he now wants to break up preferably before the lease is due for renewal. Too cowardly to do it himself, Yoshiro enlists his teenage son’s help to break up with the woman he’s been cheating on his family with. 

Strangely, this revelation does not seem to sour him on his dad even if he realises the threat it poses to their happy family life. “Protecting the family peace. Men must uphold that promise” Yoshiro unironically tells his son, problematically implying that the way to do that is by covering up affairs rather than simply not having them. Dutifully Hagi heads over to “the other home”, only to be thrown out by Mr. Chiba (Denden), a friend of Toko’s who not unreasonably tells him that this is something his father should be dealing with himself rather than sending his teenage son to guilt his mistress into moving out of her house. Failing to engage with his father’s betrayal, Hagi nevertheless comes to sympathise with Toko who is about to be rendered homeless thanks to his father’s moral cowardice, staying with her in the cottage while lying to his mother that he’s doing an internship at his father’s company. 

Nevertheless, each of his parents is eventually found wanting as Toko teaches him the things they perhaps should have including how to ride a bike, an embarrassing oversight which had seen him deemed “uncool” by his exasperated girlfriend. The film has little time for Naoko’s talking about things philosophy, her husband merely lying to her while engaging in the same patriarchal double standards simultaneously insisting it’s a man’s duty to “protect family peace” while deliberately endangering it through an extramarital affair. Hagi too perhaps picks up these uncomfortably old fashioned ideas partly from his teacher who proudly shows off her engagement ring boasting that it cost her fiancé three months’ salary, the expense apparently proof that he intends to look after her well for the rest of her life as if she couldn’t do that herself. He begins to feel sorry for Toko as she outlines her life as a kept woman, a backroom full of unwanted presents from various men who too looked after her for a time, but in the end merely offers to look after her himself by quitting school to get a job so he can renew the lease to make up for his father’s moral cowardice.

The reason they were so happy, it seems, is that Yoshiro gave himself an escape valve. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to be dad” he admits, apologising for his inability to share his burdens honestly, his male failure neatly undercutting the tacit acceptance of the patriarchal authority which stands in contrast to Naoko’s ideal of a healthy relationship founded on emotional authenticity. Finally learning to ride a bike, Hagi finds himself entering a less innocent world as a young man now fully aware of the universe’s moral greyness if perhaps not quite so enlightened as he might feel himself to be.

The Other Home screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Life: Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Kana Yamada, 2019)

“Killing is easy. Revive me instead!” The heroine of Kana Yamada’s Life Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Title: Kyozetsu) exclaims during a climactic argument, trying to find meaning in a life of ceaseless transaction. Adapting her own play, Yamada sets her tale of existential disappointment in an apartment used as an HQ for a group of call girls, each with their own problems but trying to live as best they can within the compromising environment of a patriarchal society which offers them little in the way of hope for a less depressing future. 

According to the agency’s top girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) “everyone here is a failure of society”. Asking herself whether her painfully “ordinary” life was worth much of anything, Kano (Sairi Ito) resolved to become the hare rather than the tortoise, put on her recruit suit and submitted her CV to “Crazy Bunny”, a “delivery” company offering services only hinted at on the menu. Discovering that sex work was something she couldn’t handle, she managed to switch sides, becoming part of the management team taking “orders” and dispatching other women to various love hotels in the surrounding area, which means of course that she is privy to most of the interoffice drama even if she has little knowledge of these women’s external lives beyond that which they offer up freely as part of their work. 

The women who work at the agency, if you can call it that, are a varied bunch almost as if Yamashita, the thuggish boss running the operation on behalf of an older man (Denden), has made an effort to cater to all tastes. Three of the ladies gossip about ridiculous clients and their excuses for not wanting to use protection (including a fake medical certificate), while openly taking potshots at an older woman, Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who has been selected as a substitute for the in demand Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu). Older women are cheaper they giggle, though the oldest of them, Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), is not so young herself and perhaps aware that she’s reaching a crisis point as she ages of out of the “most desirable” demographic. Kano thinks of Mahiru as the office’s hare in comparison to her patient tortoise, an embodiment of faceless desire wanted by all known by none. 

Mahiru too is well aware of her appeal and an expert in manipulating it. She loves money, she says, because she wants to use it to “buy someone’s life to burn the garbage inside me”, later vowing to “buy a person who can serve me for life”.  Carrying the burden of childhood trauma and sexualised from an early age, Mahiru is distrustful of relationships not based on transaction but perhaps craving something deeper while darkly yearning to burn the city of Tokyo to the ground. As it happens she is not the only one yearning to raze this society for the various ways in which it condemns women like her to a kind of underclass while men continue to live by a double standard that allows them to “buy” female bodies but resents the women who “sell” them. 

Another young woman, Kyoko (Kokoro Morita), finds this out to her cost in her difficult romance with the agency’s driver Ryota (Syunsuke Tanaka) with whom she slept for free while they were both drunk. She claims to understand him, that they are really both alike, soft people trying to look hard in order to survive in a cruel society. But he rejects her, asking who’d want to date a “hooker” like her, echoing Riyu’s words that she is “utterly worthless” by virtue of her life in sex work. Kyoko may be right and he likes her too, but he can’t let go of the idea that there is something “humiliating” about being romantically involved with a woman who has sex with men for money. 

Yamashita, meanwhile, is breaking all the rules of the trade by having sex with the girls he runs sometimes paying but perhaps sometimes not, wielding his position of power for sexual gratification before finally unmasking himself in describing the women as “garbage waiting to be thrown away”, disposable merchandise to be used and discarded once no longer useful to men like him. Kano might have been under no illusions as to Yamashita’s character, but the depths of his callousness surprise her. She’d developed a fondness for his underling, Hagio. (Hagio), who seemed sensitive and kind but turns out to have more than she’d expected in common with the girls while continuing to engage in the double standard, insisting that those who pay for sex are stupid, deluded for falling in love with those who only want money. 

Kano thought her “ordinary” life was “pathetic” and wanted to know if a “tortoise” like her could become the protagonist of her own story only to remain on the sidelines, a patient observer of these women’s lives while not quite as conflicted as you might expect her to be in her complicity with their exploitation. “A woman who ran away wouldn’t understand” Riyu fires back on being pushed for her refusal to entertain an unpleasant client, and perhaps it’s true, she wouldn’t because she works for the other side. She decides that perhaps it’s alright for her life not to have a “title”, meandering aimlessly without clear purpose but continuing all the same while the women take their particular kinds of revenge against a misogynistic and oppressive society ruled by male violence. Fully taking the play off the stage, Yamada depicts the lives of sex workers with a melancholy empathy quietly enraged at the society which forced them into lives they may not have asked for or wanted but discriminates against them simply for doing a job which is in essence like any other. “It’s not my fault” a high school girl instantly answers when questioned by a policeman, and you know, it really isn’t. 

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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kontora (コントラ, Anshul Chauhan, 2019)

Copyright © 2020 Kowatanda Films

Life is a series of oppositions, the past conflicting with the future, the young with the old, selfishness with altruism, but without conflict there can be no sense of forward motion. That’s largely where the heroine of Anshul Chauhan’s second feature Kontora (コントラ) has found herself, stuck in a “one horse” town with no sense of excitement, longing for the bright lights of Tokyo while fiercely rejecting her distant father in favour of gentle companionship with her compassionate grandad. It’s not until after he passes away, however, that she begins to realise there were things in his life that he was never able to tell her. 

Teenager Sora (Wan Marui), in her final year of high school, discovers this on finding her grandfather’s body. Understandably panicked she looks over the box of World War Two mementos he appeared to have been poring over just before died and hurriedly hides them so her father (Takuzo Shimizu) won’t see. After the funeral she finds herself fondling his old pilot’s helmet and goggles while reading his war diary, filled with beautifully drawn illustrations and terrible memories of torture and privation. Writing such a diary must have been quite a risk, seeing as Sora’s grandfather recounts only fear and dissatisfaction, envious of the young men who failed the draft and got to continue with their student lives while he is lonely and desperate but claims no longer to be able to understand love. For Sora, however, the most important thing is that her grandfather mentions burying his “metal arm” in the forest. She commits herself to finding it, bunking off school to go digging on a nearby mountain. 

Meanwhile, she also begins spotting a strange young man (Hidemasa Mase) around town who is dressed in rags and seemingly can only walk backwards. The man enters her life in a more concrete sense when he literally collides with her father’s car while the pair are returning from a fairly disastrous family dinner over which her father’s cousin Yoshiji (Takuzo Shimizu) had made an inappropriate bid to get him to sell the family home so he could use it to house workers at his factory, even offering to give Sora a job to make sure she’s looked after. Questioned about her future plans, Sora had mentioned hoping to go to Tokyo, which comes as a shock to her dad and is abruptly shutdown by Yoshiji who can’t see what the point in that would be. His own daughter, Haru (Seira Kojima), went to Tokyo to become a dancer but seems to have returned somewhat chastened and now works in his factory, as if proving his point that there is no future for girls like Sora other than shifting straight into small-town life seconds after graduating high school. 

Sora’s dad leaves the gathering drunk and angry, which is why his first thought is abandoning the injured man on the roadside so he won’t have to deal with a drunk driving charge. Sora, however, refuses to abnegate her responsibly and insists on making sure the man is OK, leading to a compromise in which they take him home to monitor overnight. Still unconvinced, Sora’s dad kicks him out in the morning, but Sora chases him down and brings him back, dressing him in grandad’s clothes and stunned when she hears him singing one of grandad’s songs. 

The man’s presence highlights a key difference between Sora and her distant father. Sora is intrigued and unafraid, she tries to talk to the man and is very interested to find out why he only walks backwards but is also accepting of his silence. Her father meanwhile sees only danger. His first thoughts are only to expel the man by whatever means possible, eventually jumping to conclusions born of prejudice that he may have somehow harmed Sora. Sora, meanwhile, jealously keeps the diary to herself, never sharing her newfound quest with her father until forced into the open at which point she tells him that the diary had given her life a sense of purpose that she was reluctant to share with anyone else. Secrets revealed, the rift between father and daughter begins to heal while the mysterious man looks on in silence, perhaps knowing that grandad had other messages to give that are still waiting to be uncovered. 

Strangely, no one seems to stop to consider that grandad may have buried his “metal arm” for good reason, and that it should perhaps stay that way (especially if a heartless arch capitalist like Yoshiji ends up getting his hands on it). Nevertheless, unearthing the buried past begins to solve the mystery of grandad and enable a kind of healing. The man keeps walking round and round in circles, backwards as if walking against the future, caught on a treadmill of repetitive anxieties and unable to move forward. Sora may be at that point herself, stuck in a moment of adolescent confusion unable to step into adulthood and having lost her only guide and confidant. It may be, in some ways, troubling that she finds her direction through embracing a violent past, but there is indeed a moment of healing in two eras meeting which allows time to reassume its proper flow. Ethereal and mysterious, Kontora is both coming-of-age tale and a melancholy fable of griefs both national and personal in which forward motion is possible but only in facing the past head on and waving it goodbye as you turn around to walk towards a more positive future.

Kontora screens on March 12/13 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)