The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Satoko Yokohama, 2016)

“There are no small parts, only small actors” according to the mantra of the bit part player, but perhaps deep down everyone wants to play the lead. Most jobbing actors will tell you that they’re happy to be working and if you work as much the dejected hero of Satoko Yokohama’s The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Haiyu Kameoka Takuji), you can make a pretty decent living with a little more job security than a big name star whose career will inevitably hit the odd dry spell. Yet, who doesn’t want to at least feel that they’re the lead in their own life story? Spending all your time being other people can make you lose sight of who you really are and live your life with a sense of cinematic romanticism forever at odds with accepted reality. 

Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) is a classic background actor, turning up in small roles in TV dramas, often playing the villain of the week or appearing as a prominent extra. Meanwhile, his offscreen life seems to be lived in a booze-soaked haze, hanging out in his favourite bar surrounded by similarly dejected middle-aged men or occasionally meeting up with colleagues. Even his agent expects him to be sozzled when she rings to confirm new jobs though to be fair she doesn’t seem too bothered about it. 

Kameoka has perhaps made his peace with the kind of actor he is, but there’s also an inbuilt anxiety in waiting for people to ask what it is he does, knowing that it sounds glamorous and exciting when, to him at least, it’s anything but. Chatting with a pretty young woman, Azumi (Kumiko Aso), working behind a bar in a small town where he’s filming, Kameoka spins her a yarn about being a bowling ball salesman rather than be forced into a conversation about the life of a jobbing actor which might perhaps depress him more. Alone in the bar, the pair of them strike up a rapport over shared sake, but Kameoka forgets that in essence she’s just the same as him – acting, performing her role as the cheerful hostess, keeping him happy to sell more drinks. Later, she tells him that she’s switching roles, “recasting” herself as a good wife and mother, pointing again towards the unavoidable performative quality of conforming to socially defined labels such as “wife”, “mother”, “landlady”, “actor” or “man”. 

Everyone is, to some degree, acting, forced to perform a role in which they may privately feel miscast but are unable to reject. Kameoka is losing sight of who he is and so his life begins to feel increasingly like a movie, obeying narrative logic rather than that of “reality” while he often drifts off into flights of fancy in which he gets to play not the lead but a slightly bigger supporting part, recasts himself as the star of a favourite film, or finds himself momentarily in a film noir. Real or imagined, his directors have nothing but praise for him to the degree that it somehow feels ironic. He’s brought in to show the rookie leads how it’s done, an accidental master at dropping dead on camera, but as the landlady at his local says of another actor on TV, he just doesn’t have that leading man sparkle. Of course, not having that kind of presence is perfect for being a background player but a great shame when he has the talent to succeed, just without the burden of “star quality”. 

Then again, his talent is uncertain. Despite telling his agent that he doesn’t do stage, he agrees to work with a famous actress/director on an avant-garde theatre piece. Though she’s much harder on the young female star, Matsumura (Yoshiko Mita) rarely compliments his acting and eventually advises him that he’s unsuited to stage work because he has “film timing”. Privately, he might agree, but a job’s a job. Ironically enough, the performance that Matsumura failed to bring out in him is vividly brought to life during a very weird audition for a Spanish director who happens to be one of Kameoka’s favourites. He inhabits the role so strongly as to completely become it to the extent that its world rises all around him, but all too soon the audition is over with a simple “that’s great, thank you – we’ll be in touch”. Kameoka even suffers the indignity of crawling under the frozen shutters to exit the building while the next hopeful, a top TV actor he worked with on a previous job, makes his way inside. 

The woman in Kameoka’s audition fantasy is clearly Azumi, something that becomes clearer to him still during another flight of fancy that recasts him as a romantic hero making the grand gesture of a rain soaked dash, motorcycle filmed against rear projection, as he prepares for the inevitable “happy ending”. Reality, however, triumphs once again. Lovelorn, Kameoka declares himself lonely and indeed is always alone, not one of the “main cast” just a “bit player” hanging round until his scene and then moving on to the next project. He waves at women who weren’t waving at him, sympathises with a failed singer turned bar hostess, and celebrates the unexpected marriage of a friend but in a strange sense perhaps misses “himself”, gradually eclipsed by all the roles he plays onscreen and off. “Who are you?”, the Spanish director’s interpreter asks. “Takuji Kameoka, Japanese Actor”, is as good an answer as any. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yuya Ishii, 2017)

tokyo night sky posterLearning to love Tokyo is a kind of suicide, according to the heroine of Yuya Ishii’s love/hate letter to the Japanese capital, The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da). This city is a mess of contradictions, a huge sprawling metropolis filled with the anonymous masses and at the same time so tiny you can find yourself running into the same people over and over again. Inspired by the poems of Tahi Saihate, The Tokyo Night Sky is at once a meditative contemplation of city life and an awkward love story between two lost souls who somehow find each other in its crowded backstreets.

The heroine, Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), works as a nurse by day and supplements her income by night as a bar tender in a “girls bar” (basically a normal bar where all the bartenders are female and you have to pay an entrance fee on top of your overpriced drinks). Depressed and anxious, she wanders the city with a poetic interior monologue expressing her constant loathing for its indifferent soullessness. Meanwhile, Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a casual day labourer working on various projects in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. He describes himself as odd and is over sensitive about being blind in one eye. Unlike his friends and colleagues, Shinji prefers literature to parties and solitude to company.

The two first catch sight of each other in a crowded bar where Mika is trying to buy time before having to head back to a dull double date with her drunken friend and the lewd guys she’s invited to come along, and Shinji is trying to read away from the noise and chaos of his lodging house. They meet again when one of Shinji’s colleagues suggests going to the girls bar, and then seem to be constantly running into one another for no particular reason.

Though romance would seem to be the natural outcome of the “pointless miracle” of their repeated meetings, the process is a slow one. It’s obvious the pair share a deep, innate understanding of each other but they each have various problems which conspire to keep them apart. Shinji, describing himself as odd and assuming he’s annoying, is prone to nervous babbling which Mika correctly guesses is less down to a love of his own voice than a fear of awkward silence. For her part Mika is anxious all the time, brittle and insecure she instinctively rejects attempts at intimacy but somehow warms to Shinji responding to his confession of oddness with a comforting “well then, you’re just like me.”

The pair advance and retreat as they wander around the city they both claim to hate but as much as they keep each other at a distance their lives begin to overlap and run in parallel. Mika receives a text from an ex (Takahiro Miura) with a confused declaration of love while Shinji receives one from an old high school classmate (Ryo Sato) with much the same effect. Mika insists that love makes you boring, that you’ll never find someone who is prepared to love the most pitiable part of you, and that there is no such thing as love on this planet, but her protestations point more towards a kind of soul-searching and buried hope than they do of active rejection.

Ishii marries the romantic undercurrent with an ambivalent portrait of the stratified city. Mika, a nurse by profession, needs to take a second job to make ends meet while the more traditionally working class Shinji is a sensitive intellectual relegated to dangerous and insecure employment. As a day labourer he gets no employment benefits like sick pay or insurance – hence when he’s injured on the job he avoids letting anyone know for as long as possible because it means both loss of wages and a doctor’s bill. An older friend (Tetsushi Tanaka) has ruined his back through long years of overwork and is now left with nothing while a Filipino migrant worker (Paul Magsign) pines for home and the wife and child waiting for him there.

Shinji’s anxieties are partly economic – trapped in insecure employment which may well, as his older friend points out, dry up once the Olympics rolls around but the greater problem is inertia. During their journeys around the city, Shinji and Mika run into the same busker (Yoshimi Nozaki) who is always singing the same strange song about her underarms sweating which seems to echo their shared anxiety. Yet the song she offers them also provides a note of hope as she enthusiastically reaches the “Ganbare!” chorus, cheering the pair of frightened lovers on and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and desires rather than waiting around for something to happen.

Waiting has been Mika’s problem. Saddled with intense abandonment issues stemming from childhood trauma, Mika is always sure something bad is about to happen. Shinji partly shares her anxiety often claiming that he has “a bad feeling” about something or other but conversely, he begins to believe that the “something” could be good as well as bad. Rather than try and argue with her, Shinji concedes most of Mika’s points, nobody knows what will happen in the future, nobody can make any promises, and everything ends someday but that’s OK – it’s only life.

Ishii’s Tokyo is a soulless place filled with the melancholy and the empty but there’s beauty here too, if only people would look up from their smartphones every now and then to see it. Mika is afraid of being swallowed by the city and becoming one of its faceless masses but her listlessness and depression stand for the city itself as she refuses and rejects the process of living with all of its attendant risks. Ishii paints the city in all the colours of the night, but for all of its beautiful sadness it’s also a place of noise and chaos where existence is exhausting and the price of living high. It is, however, also a place of ordinary miracles offering hope to the hopeless if only they are willing to accept it.


The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)