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)

Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

over the fence posterNobuhiro Yamashita may be best known for his laid-back slacker comedies, but he’s no stranger to the darker sides of humanity as evidenced in the oddly hopeful Drudgery Train or the heartbreaking exploration of misplaced trust and disillusionment of My Back Page. One of three films inspired by Hakodate native novelist Yasushi Sato (the other two being Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City and Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There), Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス) may be among the less pessimistic adaptations of the author’s work though its cast of lonely lost souls is certainly worthy both of Yamashita’s more melancholy aspects and Sato’s deeply felt despair.

Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) wants nothing to with anything or anyone. His wife has divorced him and he doesn’t see his child but he still wears his wedding ring and feels like a married man, unable to move on from the suspended end of his marriage. Having no place else to go, Shiraiwa has come back to his home town of Hakodate – a run down harbour town on the southern point of Hokkaido. For no particular reason other than it allows him to continue claiming unemployment benefits, he’s enrolled in a back to work scheme at a vocational school which teaches carpentry skills. Keeping himself aloof and explaining to anyone that takes an interest that he’s “human scum” and they’d best keep away, Shiraiwa is eventually convinced to go drinking with fellow student Dajima (Shota Matsuda) at his favourite bar.

Dajima introduces him to a much needed motivating factor in his life, a free spirited hostess girl with the strangely manly name of Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Satoshi argues loudly with customers in the street and dances with wild abandon in the middle of a room of quiet drinkers but on getting to know her better her rapidly changeable moods and occasional fits of violent despair speak of a more serious set of problems which Satoshi herself feels as ill equipped to deal with as Shiraiwa has been with the failure of his marriage.

Failure is something which hangs heavily over the film as the grey dullness and stagnant quality of the harbour town seems to bear out its inescapability. Unsurprisingly, in one sense, everyone at the vocational school is there because they’ve already failed at something else though some of them have more success with carpentry than others. Shiraiwa takes the work seriously even if he doesn’t really see himself heading into a career as a carpenter but there’s an additional reason why the environment is so oppressive and the uniforms not unlike those of a prison. Everyone is here because they have to be and they can’t leave until they’ve completed their re-education. The teacher at the school is always quick to remind everyone how it was when he worked in the field, only he never did, he’s a failure and a prideful fantasist too.

The other men face various problems from age and dwindling possibilities, to intense pressure to succeed leading to eventual mental breakdown, and trying to build a new life after leaving the yakuza, but Shiraiwa is unique among them in the degree to which he has internalised his essential failures. Having convinced himself that he’s “human scum” Shiraiwa wants everyone else to know too as he intentionally refuses any sense of forward motion or progress in his life to reassure himself that there is no possible future for him. Satoshi has convinced herself of something similar though her dissatisfaction and fear of rejection are deeply ingrained elements of her personality which are permanent personal attributes. Pushing Shiraiwa to address the questions he could not bear to face, she helps him towards a more positive position whilst simultaneously refusing any kind of reciprocal self analysis.

There’s an additional cruelty in Satoshi’s manic declaration that Shiraiwa drove his wife insane that’s in part self directed and raises a mutual anxiety between them as Shiraiwa may be falling for a woman who already feels herself to be “mad”. Satoshi’s strange impressions of birds and animals point to her closeness to nature and separation from conventional society but also perhaps of her fear of hurting other people through her periodic descents into self destructive cruelty. As caged as the animals in the zoo where she works, Satoshi decides to try letting them out only to discover that the eagle has no desire to leave his perch.

Hakodate becomes a kind of purgatory for all as they each attempt to conquer their demons and win the right to move on to better and brighter things. Melancholy as it is, Yamashita adds in touches of his trademark surrealist humour but even in its sadness Over the Fence leaves room for hope. Climaxing in an inconsequential yet extremely important softball game the meaning of the film’s title becomes apparent – you’ll never know if you can hit that ball over the fence until you find the courage to take a swing but you may never be able to find it without the help and support of a kindred spirit.


Over the Fence was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)