Wild Berries (蛇イチゴ, Miwa Nishikawa, 2003)

wild berries posterThe family drama was once the representative genre of Japanese cinema. In the turbulent post-war world, the one unchanging, unbreakable touchstone was the bonds between parents and their children even if it must also be realised that those bonds will necessarily change over time. Tiny cracks might have been visible even in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the growing disconnection between the old folks in the country and their city kids, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s when Japan’s economic recovery had fully taken hold that the family itself began to come under fire. Yoshimitu Morita’s The Family Game kickstarted a trend of family implosion movies which implied that familial bonds were more social affectation than genuine connection, but post-bubble the tables turned again. These days, Hirokazu Koreeda has picked up the family drama mantle, depicting broadly positive pictures of normal family life. It is then all the stranger that his protege, Miwa Nishikawa, should be the one to ask again if family really is all it’s cracked up to be.

An ordinary breakfast in the Akechi household. Grandpa (Matsunosuke Shofukutei ) is dipping his toast in the coffee again while salaryman dad Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi) reads his paper. Schoolteacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki) barely has time to look at her breakfast before her mother, Akiko (Naoko Otani), reminds her that today is “Wednesday” – not only does she need her PE kit, but it’s also the day that her fiancé, Kamata (Toru Tezuka), is coming round to tea to meet the folks. The atmosphere is pleasant, genial, but why has Yoshiro had his mobile phone cut off and is the bald spot Akiko has just discovered on the top of her head really anything to worry about?

The Akechis are the archetype of a modern middle-class family, living a comfortable life in a nice home while dad goes out to work and mum does everything else. It is not, however, quite as it seems. Yoshiro’s phone has been cut off because he hasn’t paid the bill. He hasn’t paid the bill because he’s lost his job. He hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job because he’s too ashamed, so he’s taken out vast loans from gangsters rather than trying to find a more honest solution. Mum Akiko plays the dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning, putting up with Yoshiro’s imperious behaviour and looking after grandpa who has advanced dementia and thinks he’s still at war. In reality she’s bored and resentful, tired of the burden of looking after her husband’s ungrateful father and longing to have some time for herself. The only uncorrupted member of the family is schoolteacher Tomoko who finds herself giving a strange lesson on the evils of lying to her class of small children. Tomoko is perhaps too uncorrupted, prim as a schoolmarm but dull with it.

When grandpa meets an unfortunate end, the longstanding family secret is revealed – Tomoko is not an only child, she had an older brother, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who had been expelled from the family for his immoral ways – i.e, lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, Shuji’s return was an accident – his main job is stealing the condolence money from funerals and he just happened to be at the one next door. Shuji’s conman credentials might be just what the family needs, but could they and should they let him save them and is “saving” the family that rejected him really a part of Shuji’s grand plan?

Japan’s rapid economic recovery is usually blamed for the collapse of the family, sending sons away from the villages and prizing the commercial over the spiritual. Tomoko’s fiance, Kamata, has a slightly different take on the problem. After his first meal with the Akechis he’s touched by the warm and friendly family atmosphere, comparing them favourably with his own upperclass family which he feels to be cold and austere. The class difference and Kamata’s obvious discomfort surrounding it is one problem as is his problematic characterisation of Tomoko’s family as earnest and hardworking as, perhaps, he thinks people without inherited wealth ought to be is another, but the real irony is reserved for Kamata’s eventual reaction to discovering the truth. Yoshiro didn’t take to Kamata because he thought him “unconventional” with his unkempt hair and pretentious tastes, but Kamata proves himself the most conventional of all in his cruel rejection of his fiancée over what he sees as a betrayal by her family.

Wild berries, once they take root, quickly take over, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Secrets, and the need to keep them, have eaten away at the foundations of the Akechi family but which is the best way to repair them – starting all over again and working hard to put things right, as Tomoko would have it, or opting for Shuji’s dishonest quick fix? The youngsters battle it out amongst themselves for the soul of the family unit while mum and dad are just too world weary to even care anymore. Faith in the family may be running at an all time low, but Nishikawa at least manages to mine the situation for all of its bleak irony, laughing along knowingly with each dark revelation or small tragedy.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker (アヒルと鴨のコインロッカー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2007)

YgoLt - ImgurReview of The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker over at uk-anime.net I really enjoyed this one – great movie!


Director Yoshihiro Nakamura once again returns with another adaptation of a Kotaro Isaka novel, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker (アヒルと鴨のコインロッカー, Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker). Having previously adapted Fish Story (also available from Third Window in the UK and itself a very fine film) and Golden Slumber, Nakamura and Isaka seem to have formed a very effective working relationship and this latest effort is another very welcome instalment from the duo. Elliptical, melancholic and thought provoking The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker is a minor gem and every bit as whimsical as its name would suggest.

Shiina (Gaku Hamada) has just left the small town shoe shop his parents own to study law in Sendai. Moving into his new apartment he attracts the attention of his neighbour, Kawasaki (Eita), who overhears him signing Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind. Kawasaki is himself a great admirer of Dylan remarking that his is ‘the voice of God’. Aloof, cold, at once dominating and indifferent the prospect of developing a friendship with the mild mannered, short and shy Shiina seems an odd one but nevertheless the two seem to develop a bond. Kawasaki therefore proposes Shiina help him with a rather peculiar problem.

Shiina’s other neighbour, who rudely rebuffed Shina’s introduction and moving in present, is apparently a foreigner – Bhutanese to be precise – and although speaks fluent Japanese cannot read. He’s particularly perplexed by the different between ‘ahiru’ – the native duck, and ‘kamo’ – the foreign duck, and is sure that if he had a good dictionary he’d be able to understand the two fully and thus perfect his Japanese. To this end Kawasaki has decided to steal a Kanji Garden Dictionary for him and wants Shiina to help. Understandably confused Shiina originally declines but is soon bamboozled into helping anyway. There’s a lot more to all of this than a simple semantic quandary though and the only thing that’s clear is that Shiina has gone and gotten himself embroiled in someone else’s story.

‘That sounds like something you just made up’ is one of the first things Shiina says to Kawasaki and indeed everything about him seems studied or affected in someway as if he were reciting someone else’s lines – essentially performing the role of himself. Half of the crazy stuff he comes up with, like his warning Shiina to avoid a particular pet shop owner completely out of the blue, sounds as if he’s just invented it on the spot for a laugh were it not for his distant and humourless manner. Without spoiling the plot too much, you start to get the feeling that there’s really something slightly off about everything you’re being told, that crazy as it seems it is the truth in one sense but perhaps not in another. This is where the mystery element of the film begins to kick in – who is Kawasaki really? What is he on about? Is any of this really happening?

Wistful in tone, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker is only partly a mystery, it’s also a bittersweet coming of age tale and an, admittedly light, examination of the Japanese attitude to foreignness. Away from home for the first time Shiina is obviously keen to strike out on his own and be his own his own person but at the same time wants to fit in and be liked by his classmates. A particularly telling incident occurs when a confused Indian woman tries to get some information at a bus stop only to be ignored by those waiting. Shiina seems to feel as if he ought to help her but having just heard two of his classmates complaining about ‘stupid foreigners’ does nothing. Feeling guilty he tries to reach out to his Bhutanese neighbour but is again rebuffed. Kawasaki wants to know the difference between the foreign duck and the native one – is there such a fundamental difference? As one character says ‘you wouldn’t have talked to me if you’d known I was a foreigner’ ‘Of course I would’ Shiina replies ‘no, you wouldn’t have’ his friend responds with resignation. Isn’t it better to just help those who need it, whoever or whatever they happen to be?

The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker maybe a little darker than its title suggests but its tone is definitely to the wistful/whimsical side – this juxtaposition might irritate some who’d rather a more straightforward mystery or a lighter, more conventional comedy but its refusal to conform is precisely what makes it so charming. That it also manages to pack in a decent amount of social commentary in an interesting way is to its credit as is its ability to make the totally bizarre seem perfectly natural. The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin locker is another impressive feature from the creators of Fish Story and fans of that earlier film will certainly not be disappointed by their latest work.


Original trailer (English subtitles)