Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2019)

“Things happen to everyone” the hero of Hideyuki Hirayama’s Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Heisa Byoutou: Sorezore no Asa, AKA Closed Ward) explains, not in an accusatory sense or attempt to limit someone else’s trauma response but in a gentle spirit of empathy, a reminder that everyone has their own load to carry and theirs are heavier than most. Empathy is indeed a minor theme of Hirayama’s drama as his wounded protagonists eventually find the strength to allow themselves to live again in the unconditional solidarity of their newly found family in defiance of the internalised shame and external stigma that plagues them in an admittedly conformist society. 

Hirayama opens with a flashback, shot in muted colour, as a man, Hide (Tsurube Shofukutei), is marched slowly towards the execution chamber where he is eventually hanged but, inconveniently for the prison authorities, does not die. Lacking a clear precedent for such an unusual event, they are at a loss as to how to proceed while Hide does not exactly seem overjoyed in his improbable survival. As hanging him again would be cruel and simply letting him off as if reborn to live a new life they feel not in the interests of justice, they opt for a fudge, palming the now wheelchair-using Hide off on the hospitals system by placing him in the secure ward of a psychiatric institution. 

A quiet man keeping himself to himself, Hide patiently crafts ceramics and meditates on his crime keeping others at arm’s length as if believing himself unworthy of human society. He may have been sentenced to death for something truly unforgivable, but he is not mentally ill and does not really belong in the hospital whereas many of the other patients are self-committals who are technically free to leave at a time of their own choosing. Chuya (Go Ayano), a young man with schizophrenia, has more or less learned to live with his condition and exercises a greater degree of personal freedom, often venturing into town and bringing back various items he cynically sells to others on the ward. He could leave if he wanted to, but stays partly out of a sense of internalised shame and partly in fear of the outside world. Yuki (Nana Komatsu), meanwhile, an 18-year-old woman committed by her mother (Reiko Kataoka) after becoming worryingly withdrawn, has little personal agency, first placed on the ward and then removed from it neither with her full consent. 

Though we can see that the hospital is a largely positive, supportive place where the patients are well cared for we do not see a great deal of treatment practices and it is in someways surprising that Yuki is allowed to leave in the company of a man who is quite clearly violent and abusive even if we can also infer that she herself has remained largely silent as regards the nature of her trauma. Her silence is perhaps her means of both defence and resistance with her first words offered to Hide largely because he does not ask her for them, merely sitting by giving her the space to choose to speak or not to. Despite his caution that the longer one stays on the ward the more one begins to think of oneself as a patient, she begins to think of the hospital of her safe place and the other patients as her surrogate family, touched by an old woman’s radiant happiness as she helps her back to her room mistaking her for her granddaughter. 

Yet as much as the hospital works for her, it does not necessarily work for others as in the case of Shigemune (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) whose antisocial and violent tendencies often endanger other patients not least because of lax supervision and questionable decisions made by members of staff. A direct parallel is perhaps being drawn between the jail and the ward, Chuya frightened he may never leave while Hide believes he does not deserve to and Yuki longs to stay only to have her new safe place ruined by another predatory man of violence. Yet there is also a sense that society views the hospital as a place to dump those it feels to be problematic, Hide hidden away in embarrassment, Chuya rejected by his family, and Yuki betrayed by a mother who has come to see her as a rival. Shopkeepers look at them askance, not altogether happy that “even crazy people have rights these days” while the trio struggle to accept themselves as having a right to a happier future even as they begin to bond in a newfound sense of family. While the closing scenes may engage in an uncomfortable ableism, there is an undoubtable sense of warmth and compassion in Hirayama’s egalitarian sense of solidarity as his wounded protagonists find strength in faith reflected in others to shake off their sense of internalised shame and claim their right to life in an often hostile society. 


Family of Strangers streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sonatine (ソナチネ, Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

The problem with being a yakuza is that there is never any rest. Staying alive means constant vigilance, make a mistake and it could be the end of you or, conversely, get too good at your job and place a target on your own back. The hero of Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine (ソナチネ) declares himself tired, not just of the life but life itself. By his fourth picture, Kitano was perhaps feeling something similar, later describing the near-fatal motorcycle accident he encountered some months after the film’s completion as an unconscious suicide attempt. For years he’d been one of Japan’s top TV personalities working a breakneck schedule that left him little time for other outlets such as painting, novels, and acting for others, but still he longed to be taken more seriously as an artist in his home nation where audiences largely stayed away from his “serious” films, as they did with Sonatine which flopped at the box office and put an end to his arrangement with Shochiku who had distributed his first two features in which he had also starred. 

For this third film, A Scene at the Sea, Kitano remained behind the camera and distanced himself from the themes of crime and violence which defined his early career, crafting instead an intensely melancholy tone poem about a deaf surfer falling in love with the ocean. In Sonatine he casts himself as the lead for the first time since Violent Cop, this time as a gangster experiencing extreme existential malaise when confronted with the futility and emptiness of his life in organised crime. Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) is aware he has probably reached the zenith of his career as a mid-tier gang boss working as a, by all accounts, unexpectedly successful enforcer in a rundown area of the city. His first crisis concerns the owner of a mahjong parlour who thinks the yakuza are an outdated institution and refuses to take their threats seriously. He sees no need to pay them the customary protection money and assumes they’ll back off he simply tells them he’s not interested, but he is very wrong. Murakawa has him kidnapped to teach him a lesson, observing while his minions attach him to a crane and threaten him by dunking him in a large pool of water. Immediately apologetic, the man sees the error of his ways, but Murakawa doesn’t really care about the money anymore and so they dunk him again to see how long it takes a man to drown, barely shrugging as they realise he really died. 

Either because he’s an unusual man, or because he is simply tired of everything, Murakawa no longer bothers to abide by the rules of petty gangsterdom. He doesn’t do deference, smoking away long before his boss offers permission to do so and feeling unafraid to voice his reluctance when he’s ordered to take some of his guys to Okinawa to settle a nascent gang war involving one of their affiliates. Murakawa doesn’t want to go because he lost three men in a similar job in Hokkaido, but in reality has little choice. Later events prove he was right to be suspicious. The Okinawan gang boss tells him that he reported some minor friction with another gang out of courtesy and is confused he’s been sent reinforcements, not that he’s not glad to see them. As soon as they arrive, however, the tension rises and Murakawa and the guys are forced into hiding, holing up at the beach as they await orders from head office or word on a possible truce. 

Murakawa, his two right-hand men, and the Okinawan gangsters adjust to tranquil island life, playing on the beach and taking the time to master the art of Okinawan folk dance, but the grim spectres of death and violence present themselves even here in empty games of Russian roulette and Murakawa’s childish prank of digging sand traps for the guys to fall into as if into their graves. While he’s busy admiring the night sky, the silence is ruptured by a local tough chasing a young woman onto the beach where he proceeds to rape her. Murakawa doesn’t intervene but is challenged anyway and then forced to kill the puffed up youngster while the young woman, Miyuki (Aya Kokumai), becomes strangely attached to him, impressed by his cool dispatch of her attacker. 

Murakawa’s somehow innocent relationship with the young woman creates a minor rift with his men who resent the absence of his leadership at a time of crisis while he ponders alternate futures outside of the gangster brotherhood. But deep down he knows that his idyllic beach holiday cannot last forever and that he will have to leave this liminal space eventually for a destination of which he is all too aware. As he explains to Miyuki, when you fear death so intensely you begin to long for it if only for an end to its terrible anxiety. 

The title “Sonatine” is apparently inspired by the “sonatina”, a short, tripartite piece piano players attempt to mark an attainment of skills before choosing the future direction of their musical career. Murakawa undergoes three distinct arcs, from the city to the beach and back again, but perhaps knows there is no future direction in which for him to travel only the nihilistic fatalism of a life of violence. As for Kitano, it does perhaps draw a line in the sand marking the end of an apprenticeship and its associated compromises as he fully embraces an authentic personal style, like Murakawa no longer prepared to be deferent in an admittedly exhausting world. 


Sonatine is the third of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chris D recorded in 2008. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring an essay on Sonatine and introduction to Kitano’s career by Jasper Sharp,  an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, Kenji Katagiri, 2019)

A dejected young woman finds herself conflicted in her memories of the father who failed her in Kenji Katagiri’s A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai). Drawing inspiration from the webcomic by Mariko Kikuchi, Katagiri’s whimsical drama does its best to put a comical spin on the extended trauma of living with an alcoholic dad while laying the blame squarely at the the feet of a society with an entrenched drinking culture in which refusing to imbibe is all but unthinkable. 

The heroine, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto), begins her tale in the late ‘90s when she is only eight years old and unaware that her family circumstances are not exactly normal. Tadokoro (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her salaryman dad, usually rolls in late and collapses in the hall after staying out all night drinking. This is such a common occurrence that Saki and her younger sister Fumi are completely unfazed by it, marking off dad’s drunken days with a big red X on the calendar and cheerfully helping their mum drag him back into the house. Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), their mother, tries to put a brave face on it, and to the girls it probably still seems a little bit funny, but as she gets older Saki begins to see the toll her father’s drinking has taken on her mother not only in practical terms but emotional in realising that he drinks largely as a means of escaping his responsibility which includes that towards his family. 

Saki asks her mum why dad’s three friends keep coming round to drink while playing mahjong but the only explanation she can offer is that adults need to socialise. Socialisation does it seems revolve around alcohol, and to that extent perpetuates deeply entrenched patriarchal social codes in largely remaining a homosocial activity with the only women present those that run the bar (the wives of Tadokoro’s friends make a point of thanking Saeko for allowing their husbands to drink at her house, they it seems are not invited). Tadokoro’s excuse for his drinking is that it’s a necessary business activity, that you can’t get by as a salaryman without figuring out how to have fun at a nomikai and bond with your clients over sake. His office best friend later discovers this to be true as a teetotaller given the banishment room treatment he attributes to the fact he doesn’t drink which is why his bosses don’t trust him as member of the team. 

Tadokoro might think he’s serving his family through his career, but it’s clear that he neglects them physically and emotionally by refusing to moderate his drinking. He breaks promises to his kids to take them to the pool because he’s still hung over from the night before while his wife finds herself at the end of her tether with his continued indifference later telling the little Saki that she wanted to divorce him even before the kids were born but it’s too late for that now. Saeko escapes from the burden of her life through religion, adhering to a shady Christian-leaning cult which preaches that endurance builds character and character leads to hope, all of which presumably convinces her that she is supposed to just put up with Tadokoro’s problematic behaviour rather than reassuring her that there is no sin in leaving him. 

Saki fears making her mother’s mistake, traumatised by her childhood experiences and drawn into an abusive relationship of her own out of loneliness and low self esteem. She resents her father but also feels bad about it, simultaneously thankful when he takes a temporary break from drinking and mahjong but also aware of how sad it is that she is grateful for things that other families would consider normal. Tadokoro proves unable to quit drinking, and Saki wonders if she’s right to even ask him if, as others say, drinking is his mechanism for escaping loneliness, but also reflects on the sadness she now understands in her mother as stemming from her father’s abnegation of his responsibilities and the loneliness it must have provoked in her. Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), trying to explain why Saki should break up with her abusive boyfriend (Shogo Hama), tells her of an experiment she read about in which a rat was trapped in a box and randomly given electric shocks. At first, it tried to escape, but eventually became resigned to its fate and settled for learning to endure the pain. Saki is perhaps much the same, trapped by filiality in finding herself unable to either forgive or reject the memory of the father who so resolutely failed to live up to the name.


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)

Bright future posterThe cinema of the late ‘90s and early 2000s is one defined by alienated youth kicking back against a stagnant society in which they see no place for themselves now that the dull and conventional salaryman world of their parents can no longer offer security in place of fulfilment. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early masterpieces had edged towards the nihilistic, embracing this sense of generational hopelessness but finding perhaps glimmers of possibility in the longing for escape no matter how far off. Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Akarui Mirai), shifting away from the genre fare which had made his name, does something much the same but perhaps even bleaker in its melancholy acceptance of intergenerational disconnection.

Our two heroes, Yuji (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), have workaday jobs at a factory which they find fulfilling only in their emptiness. The guys have found a fan in the factory’s ageing boss, Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano), who begins giving them special jobs and trying to hang out with them while promising a special signing bonus should they agree to become regularised employees. Bonding in their resentment towards men of Fujiwara’s age who romanticise their youth while exercising paternal authority and entitlement, the two hatch their revenge on an unforgiving society through the strange plan to acclimatise their pet jellyfish to life in modern Tokyo.

The jellyfish, closely associated with the ethereal Yuji, becomes a kind of symbol of the “bright future” the two young men fear will elude them. They, like the jellyfish, have tried to acclimatise themselves to living in the otherwise hostile environment of contemporary Tokyo but also accept that the ability to survive may not be enough and it may eventually be necessary to remove oneself from an unforgiving society until such time as it is possible to return.

This or something like it seems to be Mamoru’s key philosophy as the owner of the jellyfish and the chief architect of the “bright future” both men dream of – literally in the case of Yuji who is the idea’s unwilling prophet. Mamoru has, for reasons unknown, decided to take the strangely melancholic Yuji under his wing, eventually entrusting sole custody of the jellyfish to him in an attempt to force him to look after “himself”. In service of this ideal and perhaps of Yuji’s unwilling visions, Mamoru takes more immediate revenge against the literal Fujiwara – murdering his boss and his wife (Marumi Shiraishi) in their well appointed middle-class home (only their small daughter is spared). Yuji interprets this gesture as protective seeing as he himself had found the bodies after wandering into the Fujiwara home with violence on his mind, but misinterprets Mamoru’s intentions for him in disappointing his mentor by insisting that he is prepared to “wait” for him rather than take this cue to step up and take control of his own life’s direction. 

Yuji is indeed, like the majority of heroes in turn of the century Japanese cinema, entirely directionless. He appears to have no surviving family in the older generation, only an exasperated sister who does her best to help but doesn’t know how, attempting to straightjacket him into a salaryman world of conventional success with an office boy job at her understanding company. A strange young man, Yuji has has vivid dreams and a need for control and routine – it’s the closure of the local bowling lanes which sends him round to the Fujiwara’s in a calm yet violent rage while repeatedly losing in a video arcade to his sister’s boyfriend also sends his insecurity into overdrive. He once dreamt of a “bright future” but now sees only darkness. Stepping up onto the roof of a building in which he is learning to find a home, he is forced to admit that despite attempting to look far into the distance he can’t see much of anything at all from where he is right now.

Yet for all his resentment towards men like Fujiwara, it’s a father figure which eventually begins to push him in a more positive direction. Mamoru’s father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji) takes his son’s vulnerable best friend under his wing, giving him a home and a purpose as he begins to teach him how to repair things that might ordinarily be thrown away. Shinichiro’s previous assistant quit because he saw no future in this line of work, but Yuji seems to delight in the repurposing of the previously useless for arcane ends even if his chief contribution is a continuation of his jellyfish experiments. Shinichiro, superficially supportive, cannot understand the obsession with the jellyfish. Attempting to reassure a thwarted Yuji, he asks him what exactly the jellyfish could achieve in a world so resistant to real change yet he also berates him with the impassioned impotence of age in decrying his contemptuous dismissal of the reality which, after all, belongs to men like Shinichiro who will demand respect while offering very little in return.

The jellyfish find they can’t live in Tokyo, but youth adopts a different solution as it runs rampant with out purpose or direction but seemingly delighting in meaningless anarchy. A group of teens Yuji runs into wear identical Che Guevara T-shirts while sporting light-up microphone headsets as they wander round the city kicking cardboard boxes and laughing as they go, like overgrown children with no clear forward path before them. Age and youth seem primed to exist in differing realities, perpetually unable to understand each other while youth struggles to find direction in the absence of parental guidance. Ironic in the extreme, the “bright future” here seems to exist only as a vague hope but, perhaps, the only guiding light in an ever darkening world.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Golden Orchestra! (オケ老人!, Toru Hosokawa, 2016)

ƒIƒP˜Vl_ƒeƒBƒU[ƒ`ƒ‰ƒV•1C³_ƒAƒEƒg‚È‚µIt might never be too late to follow your dreams, but if following your dreams makes you very unhappy perhaps you need to spend some more time figuring out what they are. Golden Orchestra (オケ老人!,  Oke Rojin!) is one in a long line of Japanese fish out of water / underdog comedies, but addresses some very contemporary concerns from the ageing society to a perceived loss of community in the face of soulless commercialism. Our stuck-up school teacher is about to learn a few lessons, chief among them being that it’s much better just having fun with nice people than being caught up in a vicious and unwinnable game of elitism with a bunch of permanently scowling snobs.

20-something school teacher Chizuru (Anne Watanabe) harbours a longstanding dream of playing in an orchestra but gave up the violin when she got a job. A visit to a classical music concert in provincial Umegaoka reignites her musical passion and she quickly becomes determined to dust off her instrument and ask for an audition. However, as she was so excited she can’t quite remember the orchestra’s name and, assuming there couldn’t be two in this tiny town, signs up for the wrong one. Only realising her mistake when a bunch of old people turn up instead of the well turned out collection of musicians she was expecting, Chizuru tries to back out but the old people are so happy to have her that she can’t quite work up the courage to tell them no.

As it happens there’s a People’s Front of Judea situation going on between Ume-sym and Ume-phil. The conductor of Ume-sym, Nonomura (Takashi Sasano), is also the owner of a family-run electronics shop – a relic of a bygone era made all the more lonely by the flashy electronics superstore that’s been set up right next door. The owner of the electronics superstore, Osawa (Ken Mitsuishi), used to be a member of Ume-sym but stormed out to form his own orchestra – Ume-phil, so he’s betrayed Nonomura twice over and there’s bad blood between them which isn’t helped by Osawa’s constant overtures to Nonomura’s son about buying up the shop in order to close it down.

Chizuru is, it has to be said, a somewhat clueless woman approaching middle age who is also a bit of a snob. She’s harboured musical dreams ever since she can remember, giving them up because, after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do in order to accept a conventional, ordered life. If playing music was all she wanted to do, there was nothing stopping her doing it at home in her free time, but Chizuru wants to be among the best. She looks down on the old people in the orchestra – firstly because they’re “old” and therefore “bothersome” (as she notes turning off a tap left running by an absent-minded older lady), and then because they’re just not any good, and finally because their aim isn’t really becoming a successful orchestra so much as it is participating in a community activity. The old ladies have brought snacks which must be indulged and appreciated, while the old men all enjoy the after practice drinking sessions perhaps more than they do the music.

Turning her back on this anarchic friendliness, Chizuru practices night and day to get into Ume-phil, but Ume-phil isn’t about love of music either, it’s just about being superior and giving yourself an excuse to look down on people. Chizuru finds out for herself how stressful and unpleasant it can be as a “member” of just such a community when they grudgingly grant her a spot. Ume-phil runs on a survival of the fittest policy – not everyone gets to play, only whoever is deemed most worthy. When push comes to shove, Osawa buys himself success by hiring a world-famous French conductor for the biggest concert of the year. Only the professional conductor is true music lover and quickly quits Osawa’s ersatz orchestra, charmed by the down-home wisdom of Mr. Nonomura who manages to fix his treasured cassette player when Osawa advised him to throw it out and buy something more up-to-date. Some people just can’t see what’s really important.

As expected, Chizuru finally realises that it’s just much nicer (not to mention less stressful) having fun making music with the old people rather than putting up with the soulless rigour of the Osawa brigade for whom nothing will ever be good enough. In the end Ume-sym decides to practice Dvorak’s Largo which is, as anyone who’s seen a Japanese film knows, an instantly warm and nostalgic tune familiar as the inspiration for (in some cities at least) Japan’s five ‘o clock chimes (British viewers may well experience the same surge of wistful melancholy thanks to the same tune’s iconic use in a series of Hovis adverts from the ‘70s and ‘80s). It’s an apt choice for a film which harks back to a simpler time when people took care of each other and rejoiced in ordinary pleasures like home-made pickles and fixing things that were broken rather than throwing them out to buy new ones. In true community spirit, it’s not so much that one side wins and another loses, so much as that the joy of sharing a dream with others becomes infectious, producing a rapprochement between the old and the new which allows a peaceful coexistence of the two. Cosy cinema at its finest, Golden Orchestra may not offer anything new to a well-worn formula but in many ways that is the point and its harmonious charms prove hard to resist.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The original Hovis ad from 1973 (which was directed by Ridley Scott)

Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2017)

survival family posterModern life is full of conveniences, but perhaps they come at a price. Shinobu Yaguchi has made something of a career out of showing the various ways nice people can come together to overcome their problems, but as the problem in Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー) is post-apocalyptic dystopia, being nice might not be the best way to solve it. Nevertheless, the Suzukis can’t help trying as they deal with the cracks already present in their relationships whilst trying to figure out a way to survive in the new, post-electric world.

Receiving a package from grandpa fills the Suzukis with horror more than gratitude. Mum Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu) can’t bring herself to cut the head off a fish and the sight of the giant bug that crawls out of the lettuce is just too much to bear. Her teenage daughter, Yui (Wakana Aoi), is not very excited either, tapping her smartphone with her fake nails, while her son Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) spends all his time alone in his room with headphones permanently attached. Mr. Suzuki, Yoshiyuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) – the family patriarch, is a typical salaryman, obsessed with work and often in bed early.

All that changes one day when Yoshiyuki’s alarm clock does not go off. There’s been a power outage – nothing works, not the TV, not the phone, not even the tower block’s elevator. Being the salaryman champ he is, Yoshiyuki tries to make it into to work in other ways but the power’s out across the city and there’s nothing to be done. Everyone is sure the power will come back on soon, but days pass with the consequences only increasing as supermarket shelves become bare and water frighteningly scarce. After his boss decides to take his chances in the mountains and a neighbour dies as a direct result of the ongoing power shortage, Yoshihyuki decides to take the family on the road to find Mitsue’s country bumpkin father in the hope that he will have a better idea of how to survive this brave new world.

Yaguchi is quick to remind us all of the ways electricity defines our lives, even if we’ve begun to forget them. Not only is it a question of mobile phones being out and lifts being out of order, but gas appliances are also electric ignition as are the pumps which drive the water system. So used to the constant stream of electricity, no one quite realises what its absence means hence Yoshiyuki’s big idea is to get a plane from Haneda airport. Ridiculous as it may seem, he’s not the only one to have underestimated the part electricity plays in flight and the aviation industry as the airport is swamped by people trying to escape the rapidly disintegrating city. Credit cards no longer work leading to long checkout lines as the old ladies with their abacuses make a startling return to checkouts while bemused shoppers attempt to use the ATM machine to get more cash.

Cash itself still has worth, at least for a time. Eventually the barter system takes over as food and water become top price commodities. A very flash looking man tries to trade genuine Rolex gold watch and later the keys to his Maserati for food but is roundly informed that none of his hard won prizes is worth anything in this new back to basics era. Thanks to Mitsue’s housewife skills of frugality and haggling, the family are able to get themselves a small stockplie of resources but find themselves tested when the less fortunate ask them for help.

The crisis brings out both the best and the worst in humanity. As the family make their escape from the city on a series of bicycles, they pass a succession of salesmen all upping the price of bottled water by 100% each time. Profiteering is rife as the unscrupulous procure ordinary foodstuffs to be sold for vast amounts of money. Yet the Suzukis rarely find themselves on the wrong side of trickery and even encounter a few kindly souls willing to help them on their journey such as a gang of cycle wear clad survival experts and a very forgiving farmer who takes the family in when they help themselves to one of his escaped pigs (a sequence which allows Yaguchi to go on another Swing Girls-style pig chase only without the slo-mo and classical music).

Forced to reconnect, the family become closer, gradually coming to know and accept each other whilst finding new and unknown talents. Living simply and harmoniously has its charms, ones that don’t necessarily need to disappear if the power ever comes back on. The only certainty is that you can’t survive alone, and who can you count on if you can’t count on family?


Screened as the opening night movie of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Daishi Matsunaga, 2015)

pieta-in-the-toiletSomewhere near the beginning of Daishi Matsunaga’s debut feature, Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Toire no Pieta), the high rise window washing hero is attempting to school a nervous newbie by “reassuring” him that the worst thing that could happen up here is that you could die. This early attempt at black humour signals Hiroshi’s already aloof and standoffish nature but his fateful remark comes back to haunt him after he is diagnosed with an aggressive and debilitating condition of his own. Noticeably restrained in contrast with the often melodramatic approach of similarly themed mainstream pictures, Pieta in the Toilet is less a contemplation of death than of life, its purpose and its possibilities.

Having left his country home for Tokyo to become a painter, Hiroshi (Yojiro Noda) has become a bitter man, wilfully drowning in his own broken dreams. A chance encounter with an old flame, Satstuki (Saya Ichikawa), further deepens Hiroshi’s sense of inadequacy – she is about to open a solo exhibition in the very building which Hiroshi is currently engaged in washing the windows of. After having so sarcastically made fun of his new colleague’s fear of the rig, it’s Hiroshi who finds himself collapsing on the job and requiring medical treatment.

Seeing as the hospital have requested he bring a family member along with him for the results of the examination, it’s probably not good news. Not wanting to involve his parents, Hiroshi persuades Satsuki to masquerade as his younger sister only to restart an old argument in the waiting room prompting his former love to remember why they aren’t together anymore and hightail it out of there. Spotting a high school girl arguing with a salaryman she says has torn her uniform, Hiroshi decides to offer the job to her. Mai (Hana Sugisaki) plays her part to perfection but the news is even worse than he’d feared – aggressive stomach cancer requiring immediate hospitalisation and sustained chemotherapy if he is to have any chance at all of surviving more than a couple of months at most.

Prior to his illness, Hiroshi is a difficult man, permanently grumpy and irritated as if carrying a great sense of injustice. Despite several different voices reminding him that he had talent, Hiroshi has given up drawing in the belief that his artistic career was always doomed to failure. Intent on punishing himself for just not being good enough to succeed, Hiroshi’s decision to make window washing his career signals his lack of personal ambition, content to simply keep existing while a silent rage bubbles under the surface.

After the original failed reconnection with Satsuki who, we later discover, has moved in another direction using her society connections to advance her career in a way of which Hiroshi does not approve, Hiroshi’s illness brings him into contact with a number of people who each do their bit to reopen his heart. The most important of these is the feisty high school girl, Mai, who refuses to simply disappear from Hiroshi’s life after the awkward bonding experience of being present at the cancer diagnosis of a total stranger. As angry and defeated as Hiroshi, Mai’s difficult homelife has brought her untold suffering but unlike the brooding painter, hers in an externalised rage which sends her reeling into the world, looking for reaction and recognition rather than the introspective craving for disappointment and indifference which marks Hiroshi’s approach to his internalised sense of inadequacy.

Hiroshi’s hospital stay produces twin motivators from both ends of the spectrum in the form of an older man in the next bed, Yokota (Lily Franky), who enjoys taking photographs (especially of pretty girls), and a terminally ill little boy who remains cheerful, polite and friendly despite Hiroshi’s rather rude attempt to shake him off. It’s on a visit to the hospital chapel with the boy, Takuto (Riku Sawada), and his mother (Rie Miyazawa) that Hiroshi first comes across the statue of the pieta which inspires his ultimate, life affirming act which sees him turn the smallest room of the house into a new Sistine Chapel with a large scale installation recasting Mai as Mary, arms outstretched ready to receive her sorrowful burden.

Hiroshi’s life had been mere existence but reaching an acceptance of its end forces him into a process of more positive self reflection and a desire to leave something more permanent behind. Inspired by a few words found on the final page of the diary kept by the godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, himself battling stomach cancer at the time, Pieta in the Toilet puts art at the core of life as Hiroshi picks up his paint brush, Yokota his camera (albeit with slightly less than artful intentions), and Takuto his painstakingly collected colour-in heroes. Necessarily melancholy yet somehow life affirming Pieta in the Toilet offers a nuanced though no less powerful contemplation of life, death and art in which each gives meaning to the other, ensuring the richness of a life fully lived.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Border Line (Lee Sang-il, 2002)

border lineThroughout his career Lee Sang-il has shown himself adept at creating ensemble character dramas but nowhere is this as much in evidence as in his well crafted debut, Border Line. Focussing on the unlikely overlapping stories of a number of people who each find themselves crossing a threshold of a more spiritual nature, Border Line traces back each of the fractures in contemporary society to the broken cord of the parental bond.

We begin with teenage technical school student Matsuda (Sawaki Tetsu) who’s been in trouble for refusing to wear the required overalls. Later he runs away after his father is murdered only to be knocked down by drunken taxi driver Kurosawa (Murakami Jun) who ends up driving him half way to Hokkaido which is where he said he was from. Meanwhile, housewife Aikawa (Aso Yumi) has just started a new job at the combini but her son keeps skipping school and she soon realises it’s down to aggressive bullying. If that wasn’t enough, her husband has gone incommunicado after abruptly revealing via telephone that he lost his job a month ago and hasn’t found another one. Taking a step down to the underworld, we also meet low life gangster Miyaji (Mitsuishi Ken) who’s having a very bad as his partner ran off with the takings from a pachinko parlour to pay for expensive medical treatment for his daughter.

These are the lives of ordinary modern day people each facing extreme stress from all angles be they financial, societal, or existential. Matsuda is a young man and it’s only natural that he rebels a little to try and figure out who he is but it seems there may have been more going on in his life than just not wanting to wear a uniform. His mother left when he was a child and we don’t find out much about his relationship with his father but he spends the rest of the film looking for parental figures to essentially give him the permission to become an adult. The first of these is the taxi driver, Kurosawa, who, for various reasons isn’t able to help him (and only really decides he wanted to when it was too late). Finally, after a series of coincidences, he runs into Miyaji who is still grieving over having lost contact with his daughter after running out on his suicidal wife. Miyaji is not a great role model in many ways but still has some wisdom to impart to the younger man which may save his life in ways both literal and figural.

Miyaji and Aikawa are both coming from the other direction but struggling with their parental responsibilities. Aikawa has taken the job at the combini to help pay their mortgage – the house is very important to her as she was always ashamed of the modest home she grew up in with her parents. Like Miyaji, her husband seems to have more or less abandoned his family in his shame over losing his job, leaving Aikawa to bear all the responsibility for herself and her son. Eventually the pressure becomes so intense that Aikawa’s typical Japanese housewife persona starts to crumble resulting firstly in fantasies of violence before a crime filled rampage and kidnapping plot threaten to destroy what’s left of her life.

Back with the kids, another coincidence turns up Miyaji’s estranged high school aged daughter now also orphaned following the death of her mother leaving her with no other option than visiting hotel rooms with dodgy businessmen. Shunned at school and alone at home, hers is a lonely life marred by the failure of her parents. Both she and Matsuda, whom she eventually meets through another set of random coincidences, have had their futures ruined by poor parenting but, ironically, it maybe Miyaji who is able to help them even in his continued absence.

For a debut film, Border Line is a remarkably assured affair. Elegantly shot with decent production values, it handles its complicated set up with ease affording each of its distressed protagonists a degree of sympathy and understanding without the necessity of moral judgement. However, Lee does seem to want to lay the ills of modern society at the feet of the crumbling family unit only to present his younger protagonists with the idea of salvation as self actualisation. Decidedly low key, Lee’s debut film has a less commercial, deeper sensitivity than his subsequent efforts but still offers the compassionate sense of humanity which continues to inform his filmmaking.


 

69 (Lee Sang-il, 2004)

69Ryu Murakami is often thought of as the foremost proponent of Japanese extreme literature with his bloody psychological thriller/horrifying love story Audition adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike which itself became the cornerstone of a certain kind of cinema. However, Murakami’s output is almost as diverse as Miike’s as can be seen in his 1987 semi-autobiographical novel 69. A comic coming of age tale set in small town Japan in 1969, 69 is a forgiving, if occasionally self mocking, look back at what it was to grow up on the periphery of massive social change.

The swinging sixties may have been in full swing in other parts of the world with free love, rock and roll and revolution the buzz words of the day but if you’re 17 years old and you live in a tiny town maybe these are all just examples of exciting things that don’t have an awful lot to do with you. If there’s one thing 69 really wants you know it’s that teenage boys are always teenage boys regardless of the era and so we follow the adventures of a typical 17 year old, Ken (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whose chief interest in life is, you guessed it, girls.

Ken has amassed a little posse around himself that he likes to amuse by making up improbable fantasies about taking off to Kyoto and sleeping with super models (oddly they almost believe him). He talks a big about Godard and Rimbaud, posturing as an intellectual, but all he’s trying to do is seem “cool”. He likes rock music (but maybe only because it’s “cool” to like rock music) and becomes obsessed with the idea of starting his own Woodstock in their tiny town but mostly only because girls get wild on drugs and take their tops off at festivals! When the object of his affection states she likes rebellious guys like the student protestors in Tokyo, Ken gets the idea of barricading the school and painting incomprehensible, vaguely leftist jargon all over the walls as a way of getting her attention (and a degree of kudos for himself).

69 is a teen coming of age comedy in the classic mould but it would almost be a mistake to read it as a period piece. Neither director Lee Sang-il nor any of the creative team are children of the ‘60s so they don’t have any of the nostalgic longing for an innocent period of youth such as perhaps Murakami had when writing the novel (Murakami himself was born in 1952). The “hero”, Ken, is a posturing buffoon in the way that many teenage boys are, but the fact that he’s so openly cynical and honest about his motivations makes him a little more likeable. Ken’s “political action” is merely a means of youthful rebellion intended to boost his own profile and provide some diversion at this relatively uninteresting period of his life before the serious business of getting into university begins and then the arduous yet dell path towards a successful adulthood.

His more intellectual, bookish and handsome buddy Adama (Masanobu Ando) does undergo something of a political awakening after the boys are suspended from school and he holes up at home reading all kinds of serious literature but even this seems like it might be more a kind of stir crazy madness than a general desire to enact the revolution at a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. Ken’s artist father seems oddly proud of his son’s actions, as if they were part of a larger performance art project rather than the idiotic, lust driven antics of a teenage boy but even if the kids pay lip service to opposing the war in Vietnam which they see on the news every night, it’s clear they don’t really care as much as about opposing a war as they do about being seen to have the “cool” opinion of the day.

Lee takes the period out of the equation a little giving it much less weight than in Murakami’s source novel which is very much about growing up in the wake of a countercultural movement that is actually happening far away from you (and consequently seems much more interesting and sophisticated). Were it not for the absence of mobile phones and a slightly more innocent atmosphere these could easily have been the teenagers of 2003 when the film was made. This isn’t to criticise 69 for a lack of aesthetic but to point out that whereas Murakami’s novel was necessarily backward looking, Lee’s film has half an eye on the future.

Indeed, there’s far less music than one would expect in the soundtrack which includes a few late ‘60s rock songs but none of the folk/protest music that the characters talk about. At one point Ken talks about Simon & Garfunkel with his crush Matsui (Rina Ohta) who reveals her love for the song At the Zoo so Ken claims to have all of the folk duo’s records and agrees to lend them to her though his immediately asking to borrow money from his parents to buy a record suggests he was just pretending to be into a band his girl likes. Here the music is just something which exists to be cool or uncool rather than an active barrier between youth and age or a talisman of a school of thought.

Lee’s emphasis is firmly with the young guys and their late adolescence growth period, even if it seems as if there’s been little progress by the end of the film. There’s no real focus on their conflict with the older generation and the movie doesn’t even try to envisage the similar transformation among the girls outside of the way the boys see them which is necessarily immature. That said, the film is trying to cast a winking, wry look back at youth in all its eager to please insincerity. It’s all so knowingly silly, posturing to enact a revolution even though there’s really no need for one in this perfectly pleasant if slightly dull backwater town. They’ll look back on all this and laugh one day that they could have cared so much about about being cool because they didn’t know who they were, and we can look back with them, and laugh at ourselves too.


Ryu Murakami’s original novel is currently available in the UK from Pushkin Press translated by Ralph McCarthy and was previously published in the US in the same translation by Kodansha USA (but seems to be out of print).

Unsubtitled trailer:

and just because I love it, Simon & Garfunkel At the Zoo