My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Kozue Nomoto, 2020)

A dejected, self-involved TV producer is forced into a moment of introspection when dealing with relationship breakdown and career setback in Kozue Nomoto’s ironic character study My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Ai no Kudaranai). Examining a number of social issues from women in the workplace to attitudes to LGBTQ+ people in contemporary Japan, Nomoto’s unflinching drama never lets its abrasive heroine off the hook even as she begins to realise that her own less than admirable behaviour has contributed to her present sense of despair and impossibility. 

Kei (Maki Fujiwara) has been in a relationship with former comedian Yoshi (Akiyoshi Okayasu) for the last five years, but it’s clear that she is beginning to tire of him. The couple are supposedly trying for a baby, but Kei has been taking contraceptive medicine behind Yoshi’s back while complaining that she doesn’t understand why he insists on getting pregnant before getting married when he hasn’t even met her parents. At work meanwhile she’s beginning to feel left behind, secretly jealous when a slightly younger female colleague reveals she’s been promoted to become the lead producer on a variety show and a little resentful when her idea for a programme focusing on the lives of ordinary people as opposed to celebrities is turned down by her bosses. The idea does however bring her to the attention of indie exec Kinjo (Takuma Nagao) who wants to bring her on board to produce a web series he’s about to launch along the same lines. And then, Yoshi drops the bombshell that he thinks he’s pregnant which is, to say the least, unexpected. 

Yoshi’s surprise announcement signals in a sense a reversal of traditional gender roles within their relationship with the man the nester and woman reluctant commitmentphobe. Kei is also the main financial provider, but on some level both resents and looks down on Yoshi for his lack of conventional masculinity having given up his comedy career to work part-time in a supermarket, obsessing over discount produce like the pettiest of housewives but often indulging in false economies such as reduced price yet still extravagant sake. Strangely, Kei goes along with Yoshi’s delusion taking him to a fertility clinic where she assumes they’ll set him straight but thereafter begins staying with a friend who ironically has an infant child and may be experiencing some difficulties in her marriage to which Kei remains entirely oblivious. 

Despite her journalistic desire to witness everyday stories, Kei is often blind to those around her never stopping to wonder if Yoshi is trying to tell her something through his bizarre pregnancy delusion or if her friend might need someone to talk to. She does something similar on spotting the office courier (Yukino Murakami) whom many of the ladies have a crush on using the ladies’ bathroom. Assuming the delivery guy is a lesbian she asks him about coming on the webshow, becoming even more excited when he explains that he’s a transman after inviting Kei to an LGBTQ+ friendly bar where he works part-time. Kei doesn’t realise that her throwaway comment that “that sort of thing is popular now” hurts Shiori’s feelings and leaves him feeling exploited as much as he would like to appear on the programme to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues. 

For her part, Kei is obviously not homophobic but does undoubtedly treat Shiori and his friends with a degree of exoticism, declaring that she’s never met anyone like them before while staring wide eyed in wonder as if these concepts are entirely new to her. Kinjo, the producer of the web series, is squeamish when Kei raises the idea, introducing her to a male scriptwriter who obviously already has his own concepts in mind, rudely ignoring Kei’s input while dismissively allowing his drink to drip on her proposal. The studio turn the idea down on the grounds that LGBTQ+ topics are “inappropriate” because there may be children watching and parents won’t want to explain words like “gay” or “lesbian” to their kids. Kei is rightly outraged, but she’s also a hypocrite because her intentions were essentially exploitative and self-interested. She wasn’t interested in furthering LGBTQ+ rights, she just wanted to chase ratings. 

Kinjo dresses up his personal distaste as a dictate from above but it’s clear that he doesn’t really value Kei’s input and continues to treat her poorly for the entirety of the project, blaming her for everything that goes wrong and expecting her to fix it on her own. There’s even an awful moment when Kei’s friend Tsubaki (Sayaka Hashimoto) shows up with her baby and one suspects they may be about to rope her in as a replacement guest, but the result is even worse as Kinjo stares into the pushchair and then throws the pair out while embarrassing Kei in the process. 

“Being busy’s no excuse for being unreliable” Tsubaki sympathetically tells her though it takes a few more setbacks before Kei begins to realise that she’s been unfair and to be honest generally unpleasant to those those around her. Feeling inferior, she makes a point of bumping into an elderly male janitor, treating him with contempt even when he stops to try and help her after she collapses in the office. Only through an ironic moment of emotional honesty which allows her to come to an understanding of her relationships does Kei begin to piece things together, reflect on her own mistakes and anxieties, and realise what it is she really wants. A contemplative reconsideration of accepted gender norms, Nomoto’s gently humorous drama never lets its heroine off the hook but does allow her to find new direction if only through confronting herself and the world in which she lives. 


My Sorry Life streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sacrifice (サクリファイス, Taku Tsuboi, 2019)

Taku Tsuboi meditates on coming disaster in his evocative debut feature, Sacrifice (サクリファイス). Post-earthquake anxiety meets its opposite number in doomsday cult as an Aum-esque sect rejects and then embraces a contrary prophecy of the end of the world ushered in by a giant worm already burrowing menacingly under our feet. Putative apocalypses however pale in comparison to the incurable threat of other people and it may not be an earthquake or a war or a terrorist attack that puts an end to us so much as our inability or perhaps refusal to overcome our fear. 

“Forgiveness transcends revenge” a young man claims during a debate about the death penalty, “the cycle of hate must be broken”, only he later confesses that he didn’t quite mean what he was saying. He opposed the death penalty but less for humanitarian reasons than curiosity. Okita (Yuzu Aoki) wants to know the why, what the killer was feeling when they did what they did. Fellow student Toko (Miki Handa) has been patiently watching Okita, suspicious of him because when he thinks no-one’s watching, he drops his mask. She’s convinced that he is responsible for a notorious series of ritualised cat killings, as well as the death of fellow student Sora (Hana Shimomura) who was apparently investigating them and had presumably gotten too close to the truth. Toko’s suspicions are confirmed when she raids Okita’s backpack and discovers an incriminating file, essentially blackmailing him to become her friend in the hope that, unlike her boyfriend the straight-laced job hunter Masaya (Kosuke Fujita), he can buy her a ticket out of her maddeningly “normal” life. Meanwhile, Okita also becomes an unexpected protector for another student, Midori (Michiko Gomi), who finds herself targeted by a young man in camouflage (Yasuyuki Sakurai), apparently a member of a cult, Shinwa, successor to the defunct Sacred Tide and the first private army in Japan. 

Midori was once a cult member herself, unwillingly inducted by her mother, and is plagued by strange visions after having foreseen the devastating March 2011 earthquake in a dream and subsequently targeted for elimination by those who feared her power. The cat murders are numbered and apparently counting down from 311 leading some to conclude they have something to do with the earthquake, some kind of “sacrifice” in the face of coming disaster. “The world needs sacrifices” a true believer later affirms, but has no reason why it should, only insisting that they are following the teachings of Mr. Sazanami, the mercenary turned cult leader. Some become soldiers, others kill cats in Japan without knowing why. 

“Seeking reason makes you weak” Sazanami conveniently claims, “view the world without the blindfold of humanity, then you can understand my vision”. Toko is drawn to Okita precisely because of his lack of human feeling, “You see people only as objects”, she tells him with admiration not caring if he killed or not only hoping that his difference will help her escape a life of crushing mundanity. She thought the earthquake would change something. Everyone was talking of new beginnings and great renewals but in the end nothing really happened and her adolescence has been one of disappointment coloured with anxiety. She resents being “the only normal one” trapped in “a world of normality” and longs to throw herself into this strange world of conspiracy and ritual in order to give her life the greater meaning she craves. 

Midori, however, craves that kind of normality. Her mother ironically lost faith in the idea of salvation after facing death in the wake of disaster, while she struggles to escape from an unfair sense of responsibility for the fate of the world seeing too much and not enough at the same time. Yet in a strange way it is faith that sustains her. “All I can do is run” she affirms, hoping that she will one day re-encounter the person who claims his life found meaning only when he found her. She refuses to discard her “blindfold of humanity”, living in the shadow of future catastrophe but living all the same. An accomplished feature debut, Tsuboi’s broody drama wrings all the dread out of its eerie settings from churches disused and not to abandoned buildings and the bleakness of a somehow comforting dreamscape while offering his beleaguered youngsters a tentative sense of hope if only in the ability to normalise a sense of existential anxiety.


Sacrifice streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)