I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

i-am-a-heroJapan has never quite got the zombie movie. That’s not to say they haven’t tried, from the arty Miss Zombie to the splatter leaning exploitation fare of Helldriver, zombies have never been far from the scene even if they looked and behaved a littler differently than their American cousins. Shinsuke Sato’s adaptation of Kengo Hanazawa’s manga I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー) is unapologetically married to the Romero universe even if filtered through 28 Days Later and, perhaps more importantly, Shaun of the Dead. These “ZQN” jerk and scuttle like the monsters you always feared were in the darkness, but as much as the undead threat lingers with outstretched hands of dread, Sato mines the situation for all the humour on offer creating that rarest of beasts – a horror comedy that’s both scary and funny but crucially also weighty enough to prove emotionally effective.

Strange things are happening in Tokyo. The news has just had to make a correction to their previous item – apparently, it was the woman who bit the dog and no, they don’t as yet know why. Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi), sitting in the corner apart from his sardonic colleagues, is a 35 year old manga assistant with dreams of creating his very own franchised series. Sadly, his ideas are always shot down by the publisher who barely remembers his name but does note that there’s always the same problem with his protagonists. They’re just too…”normal’? Returning home to his previously patient girlfriend with the news that he has, once again, failed, Hideo is unceremoniously thrown out as Tekko (Nana Katase) charges him with exactly the same complaint as his publisher had – only special people can achieve their dreams, she says. You’re not special, you’re just ordinary. Throwing out his ridiculous shotgun purchased for “research” alongside him, Tekko slams the door with an air of frustrated finality.

A short time later, some of Hideo’s co-workers are feeling unwell, as is Tekko who calls him to apologise but when he arrives at her flat what he finds there is obviously not Tekko anymore. Returning to work, Hideo also finds one of his colleagues wielding a bloody bat next to the body of another assistant. Heroically cutting his own throat on realising he’s been bitten, his friend passes the bat(on) to Hideo, now on the run from a falling city. Teaming up with high school girl, Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura), he heads for Mt. Fuji where it’s hoped the virus may not be able to survive but the pair eventually run into another group of survivors holed up in a outlet mall where the undead may be the last of their worries.

Sato gleefully ignores the genre norms, refusing to give in to cinematic rules by consistently moving in unexpected directions. Thus, Hideo remains a cowardly fantasist throughout much of the film. In an odd kind of way, this refusal to engage is his manner of heroism. Though he is afraid and avoids reality through frequently trying write his way out of a situation, cleverly manifested by nicely integrated fantasy sequences, Hideo does not run away and consistently refuses to abandon those around him even if might be to his own advantage. Eventually he does get his hero moment, finally finding the courage to fire the shotgun which has so far remained an empty symbol of his unattainable dreams, stopping to pick up his all important hat as every bona fide hero must, but his true moment of realisation comes when he’s forced to acknowledge his own ordinariness. Having been accustomed to introduce himself with the false bravado that his name is Hideo – written with the character for hero, his post-zombie warrior persona can finally consent to just being “the regular kind of Hideo”. Heroes are not a magic breed, they’re regular guys who are OK with who they are and are prepared to risk all for someone or something else.

The fact that Hideo has a gun at all is a strange one when guns are so rare in Japan though his devotion to the precise rules of his license even in this quite obviously lawless environment proves an ongoing source of comedy. It also makes him an unwitting target for the unscrupulous and puts him in danger with the unpredictable leader of the survivor community he accidentally wanders into. As with any good zombie tale, the undead are one thing but it’s the living you have to watch out for. Holing up in an outlet store of all places can’t help but recall Dawn of the Dead and Sato does, indeed, make a little of its anti-consumerist message as expensive trinkets firstly seem pointless trophies, unceremoniously heaped together in Tupperware, but ultimately prove a kind of armour against zombie attack.

The ZQN are classic zombies in many ways – you need to remove the head or destroy the brain, but they’re also super strong and have a poignant tendency to engage in repetitive actions from their former lives or repeatedly make reference to something which was obviously in their mind as they died. Thus Tekko has enough time to ring Hideo before the virus takes hold and a politician to vent about the incompetence of his colleagues but the ZQN turns salarymen into babbling choruses of “thanks for everything”, dooms shop assistants to exclaim “welcome” for eternity and leaves baristas stuck with “What can I get you today?”. Unlike your usual zombies, the ZQN retain some buried consciousness of their inner selves, able to recognise those close to them but condemned to devour them anyway.

Placing character development ahead of the expected genre trajectory, Sato weaves a nuanced essay on the nature of heroism and humanity as Hideo is forced to confront himself in order to survive. Though he tantalises with a possible deus ex machina, Sato never gives in to its use – if our heroes are going to survive, they have to save themselves rather than wait for someone with the hero genes to suddenly appear. Of course, they do so in an elaborate blood soaked finale which more than satisfies in the zombie action stakes. Witty yet heartfelt, if I am a Hero has a message it’s that if I am a Hero then you can be too – no one is coming to save us, except us, but if we’re going to do so then we have to conquer ourselves first so that we might help each other.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1995)

Like grains of sand posterAdolescent romance is complicated enough at the best of times but the barriers are ever higher if you happen to be gay in a less than tolerant society. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s second feature Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Nagisa no Sinbad) takes a slight step back in time from A Touch of Fever but retains its very ordinary world as a collection of boys and girls embark on a process of self discovery whilst also locked into the unbreakable straightjacket of the high school world.

Ito (Yoshinori Okada) is an ordinary high school boy with a crush on his oblivious best friend, Yoshida (Kouta Kusano). Though Yoshida defends him from the homophobic bullies in his class, he seems confused about his true feelings, at once stating that what he feels for Ito is more that friendship but also unwilling to address what that “more” may mean. After Ito’s father intercepts a reply to a personal ad he placed hoping to meet older men, Ito ends up at a psychiatrist’s office where his father hopes he might be “cured” though the doctor is quick to point out that they no longer view homosexuality as a medical matter.

Whilst at the clinic, Ito strikes a up a friendship with another girl from his class, Aihara (Ayumi Hamasaki) – a recent transfer student, who, we learn, has experienced a traumatic event which is also the reason she had to leave her previous place of education. Aihara is the only person with whom Ito can discuss his sexuality honestly though he’s also sure to “protect” Yoshida by claiming he rejected his advances outright rather than explaining the confusing series of events as they actually occurred. When Aihara and Ito accidentally end up on an awkward double date with Yoshida and his girlfriend Shimizu (Kumi Takada), Yoshida also begins to develop an (unreturned) attraction to Aihara which only further complicates the delicate nature of the growing emotional ties among this small group of young people.

A real step up from the promising yet flawed A Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand proves Hashiguchi’s skill in building an extremely natural environment filled with believable well rounded characters. The high school world is a cruel one populated by unsteady teenagers, each by times rebellious and insecure. Aihara, as a recent transfer student, is already an outsider but finds herself excluded even further thanks to her direct and aloof character. Early on in the film two of the other girls, evidently the popular set, begin running a bizarre extortion scam in which they claim a friend of theirs has fallen pregnant and needs to get an abortion right away so they’re collecting money to help her. Shimizu doesn’t seem to buy their explanation but is bamboozled into paying up to not cause offence. Aihara, however, brands the pair “sympathy fascists” and abruptly walks away.

Ito is also an outsider, though partially a self-exile, longing yet fearful. At the beginning of the film he’s overwhelmed watching the unexpectedly sensual action of Yoshida pouring a bag of sand into a container destined for the sports field. After they’ve finished, Ito faints right in front of his fellow schoolmates, though at least the convenient hot weather might prove his ally. When the other boys draw a lewd drawing on the blackboard and start teasing Ito, Yoshida comes to his rescue even though he knows that’s likely to cause trouble for himself. Reassuring his friend that it would be OK even if it was true, Yoshida continues to act in a non committal manner. Ito confesses, Yoshida accepts the confession but at the same time is uncertain permitting both a kiss and an embrace before pushing his friend away and leaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

After an impromptu hug on a rooftop, Shimizu makes attempt to ask Aihara is she’s gay with no particular judgement attached except a slight reticence in terms of language. Aihara seems slightly confused, replying only that Shimizu is preoccupied with the wrong questions. Later, Ito ends up escorting the smitten Yoshida to Aihara’s childhood home where things come to a climax during an intense finale on a secluded beach. Night is falling and Ito has put on Aihara’s white dress and hat while she goes for a swim just as Yoshida returns for a second stab at confessions. Hiding behind a rock while Yoshida thinks Ito is her, Aihara continues to conduct a philosophically based dissection of Yoshida’s approach to sexuality. She asks him, would you still love me if I were a man, and if not, is it more that what you want is a woman and not really “me” at all, along with other questions designed to prompt a response as to the importance of gender when it comes to love. That all this happens as a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac-like three way sequence with Ito dressed as Aihara, and Yoshida talking to Aihara through someone else only lends to the surreal, increasingly symbolic atmosphere.

Gentle and softly nuanced, Like Grains of Sand is a delicate exploration of ordinary young people caught in a confusing storm of emotions as they each address their burgeoning sexuality. Rich with complexity yet also effortlessly straightforward, Hashiguchi has created a beautifully naturalistic portrait of adolescence in flux which is filled with empathy and acceptance for each of its angst ridden teens and even for their less forgiving friends and relatives. A noticeable progression from Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand further proves Hashiguchi’s skill for character drama and marks him as one of the most incisive writer/directors working today.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Japanese title of the film, Nagisa no Sinbad, is also the title of a hit single by 1970s super duo Pink Lady! (Beware – extremely catchy)

Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Naoto Kumazawa, 2009)

otonariSometimes when you live in the city it’s difficult to build meaningful connections with other people. You might find yourself a little lost, caught between the rat race and what it was that brought you to the city in the first place, but if you just close your eyes and listen, you can hear that you’re not alone. Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Oto-na-ri) is the story of two such people who build up a strange connection even though they’ve never really met.

Satoshi (Junichi Okada) and Nanao (Kumiko Aso) are next door neighbours in a small apartment block where the walls are paper thin. They’re both vaguely aware that a person of the opposite sex and around the same age lives next door, but they don’t know each other – in fact, they wouldn’t even recognise each other if they passed in the street. Still, they’re each aware of the other person through their particular soundscapes – Nanao hears Satoshi’s keys jangling on his belt as he leaves each morning and his rice cooker beeping in the evening, where as he thinks of Nanao as the humming girl and enjoys getting a free French lesson as he hears her language tapes through the wall.

Both are beginning to get frustrated with their lives in the city. Satoshi is a professional photographer doing fashion shoots but his real passion is landscape photography. He’s planning to go to Canada for a photo project but keeps getting held back as he only got into the fashion stuff because his childhood friend became a model and the two have now become entirely dependent on each other to keep working. When the friend, Shingo, finds out about Satoshi’s Canada plans, he goes missing causing his pregnant girlfriend Akane to come crashing into Satoshi’s life for a while.

Likewise Nanao is a lonely woman in her early thirties who works in a florist’s shop and plans to go to France to study flower arrangement after she’s passed the highest rank of exams. The guy at the local combini she often shops at seems to have developed a crush on her and Nanao isn’t really sure what to do with that but uses all of her time pursuing her dream of becoming a top florist.

Satoshi and Nanao are both feeling adrift, as if their lives are passing them by and it’s getting too late to not be getting anywhere. Just hearing the familiar sounds coming through the wall provides a comforting presence to not feel so alone. Though they don’t know each other, each has perhaps built up an image in their minds of the other person based on the sounds they create – keys, coffee, cooking vs French, classical music and humming an all too familiar song. Feeling the other person’s presence becomes reassuring and an absence of a familiar sound at its expected hour is unexpectedly disconcerting even if you really have no right to expect it.

Though Nanao is annoyed by the noisy and unprecedented arrival of Akane (who is not a good match for the rather uptight Satoshi) and slightly confused by her friendly greeting from the adjacent balcony, she still continues to derive comfort from the gentle presence of her neighbour. After having undergone a cruel humiliation and in something of a crisis, Nanao breaks down inside her apartment. Hearing her distress, Satoshi places his hand on the wall as if in comfort but rather than going next door to see if everything’s OK, he begins to hum and then sing the song he’s heard Nanao humming all along and eventually she too comes to sit beside the wall singing the song back to him.

As implied in the film’s English title, Romantic Prelude, music, and more particularly the symphony of sound that makes up a city, is the film’s major motif. This is further brought out by the original Japanese title which is a perfectly composed sonata of its own – Oto-na-ri. “Otonari” is Japanese for neighbour but the syllables which make up the word also have their own distinct meanings in that “oto” on its own means “sound” but put together “otona” means adult and then “nari” can also mean “to become”. Satoshi and Nanao are engaged in a blind slow dance where they’re falling in love with a stranger based on nothing other than a feeling of connection coupled with bond created by their shared soundscape.

Less a romance than an urban character study, Romantic Prelude is that rare case of a genuinely intriguing love story in which you’re really not sure which way things are going to go. This could just be another story of a tragic missed connection where Nanao heads off to France and Satoshi to Canada and they never even meet or it could give the audience the satisfying true love ending that it almost certainly wants but could have made either direction work. In the end, the important thing is seeing the pair work through their own difficulties and sort things out for themselves in the absence of each other before they finally begin to live the lives they’ve been yearning to lead.


The Japanese release of Romantic Prelude contains English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s the song they both keep singing – Kaze wo Atsumete by Happy End

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.