The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Shiro Tokiwa, 2019)

“Family” – what does it mean? The concept itself has been under examination for some time, at least as far as the “family drama” goes, but Shiro Tokiwa’s The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Saisho no Bansan) has it more positive than most as its somewhat emotionally distant hero begins to piece his back together and rediscover his place within it. He does so largely through the Proustian power of food as his lonely step-mother does her best to unite the family by reviving warm memories of the various meals they shared together. 

Yet, as Rintaro (Junya Maki / Shota Sometani), a Tokyo-based freelance photographer grappling with the art/commerce divide, is insensitively told at his father’s funeral, his is not an “ordinary” family. That would be (partly) because it was a blended one. Rintaro and his sister Miyako (Nana Mori / Erika Toda) were being brought up by their single father, Hitoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), their mother having apparently left the family, before he brought Akiko (Yuki Saito) and her teenage son Shun (Raiku / Yosuke Kubozuka) to live with them. As a grown man, Rintaro still claims not to be able to understand what his father was thinking, why he wanted to start a “new” family by bringing Akiko and Shun into their home, especially as it led to him giving up his lifelong love of mountaineering to get a steady job in a factory. It never seems to occur to him that perhaps his father simply fell in love again and wanted to share his life with a woman who loved him, becoming a father figure to her teenage son in welcoming an expansion to their family. 

There is, perhaps, still a resistance to the entire idea of blended families or even remarriages especially in the more conservative countryside. Dealing with an offensive uncle, Rintaro fires back that this kind of thing is perfectly normal and no kind of issue at all in Tokyo, so he’s not sure what the problem is but it’s clear that there is still a degree of disapproval of Hitoshi and Akiko’s union even 20 years later. Part of that might be to do with the circumstances of their meeting which we later discover had their share of moral ambiguity. That central secret, and the ones which spur off it, is the reason that Rintaro has never quite been able to put his family together, while Miyako, married at a young age and now the mother of two daughters, is experiencing a degree of marital strife with her mild-mannered husband (Shinsuke Kato) who accuses her of cheating with an old classmate at a reunion. 

Akiko stuns them all by abruptly announcing that she’s cancelled the caterers for the wake and is planning to cook herself, serving up a selection of dishes one wouldn’t usually expect at a funeral but which she claims are taken directly from Hitoshi’s will and each reflect a particular memory of their life together as a family. There is a gaping hole, however, in that we don’t see Shun. “Why should he come?” Miyako replies to Rintaro’s questions, “He’s an outsider here”. A rather cold cut-off for a step-brother, even one you haven’t seen in a long time, and a partial negation of the idea of families not bound by blood even if it’s snapped partly out of hurt. 

While Miyako struggles to reconcile herself to her place within her new family and her decision to form it, Rintaro chats on the phone to his sympathetic girlfriend, Rie (Hyunri), who has, perhaps surprisingly, not accompanied him on this emotionally difficult occasion. The problem seems to be, however, that he’s told her not to come even though she’d have liked to be there and it doesn’t seem as if anyone would have objected. An agent ringing him at a spectacularly bad time to tell him he hasn’t won a competition is forced to reveal, in the nicest possible way, that he narrowly lost out because his pictures are “cold”, he has no affection for his subjects and it shows. He remains diffident in his relationship with Rie because he hasn’t worked out this whole family thing for himself and is worried he simply doesn’t know how to fit into one. 

Through re-experiencing his childhood through the meals shared with his father, Rintaro begins to regain a sense of belonging, discovering what it was that lay at the heart of his family drama and why it eventually led to a painful breakup. Before all that, however, they’d been happy. Trying to quell a spat between Miyako and Shun over different kinds of miso soup not long after they moved in, Akiko declares that from now on she’s only making one, “blended”, kind for everyone though the choice is theirs whether or not they choose to eat it. Truths are shared, new understandings are reached, and the family is in some sense restored. Their childhoods explained, Miyako and Rintaro begin see a path forwards towards a happy family life of their own while taking their bittersweet memories with them, no longer burdened by anxious insecurity but strengthened by a new sense of belonging that has nothing to do with blood.


The First Supper screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Masanori Tominaga, 2009)

Pandora's BoxOsamu Dazai is one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. Beginning his career as a student before the war, Dazai found himself at a loss after the suicide of his idol Ryunosuke Akutagawa and descended into a spiral of hedonistic depression that was to mark the rest of his life culminating in his eventual drowning alongside his mistress Tomie in a shallow river in 1948. 2009 marked the centenary of his birth and so there were the usual tributes including a series of films inspired by his works. In this respect, Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Pandora no Hako) is a slightly odd choice as it ranks among his minor, lesser known pieces but it is certainly much more upbeat than the nihilistic Fallen Angel or the fatalistic Villon’s Wife. Masanori Tominaga had made an impact with his debut film The Pavillion Salamandre and seemed to be a perfect fit for the quirkier, darkly comic Pandora’s Box but perhaps in the end it was too perfect a fit.

Inspired by events from Dazai’s own life, the story centres around a young man at the end of the second world war who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time but kept quiet about it expecting to die soon and remove the burden on his family. However, when the war finally ends Risuke (Shota Sometani) inherits a new will to live and commits himself to a sanatorium to treat his lung condition. Whilst in the hospital he comes into contact with writers and poets as well as pretty nurses all the while proceeding with his plan to become a “new man” for this “new era”.

At once both hopeful and nihilistic, Pandora’s Box mixes gallows humour and denial in equal measure as the motley collection of inpatients waste their days away in this eccentric establishment which looks after them well enough but promises no real progress in terms of their health. Each of the patients receives a nickname when they enter the sanatorium so Risuke quickly becomes Hibari (sky lark). Tellingly, these nicknames overwrite real world personas – original names are recalled only at the time of death. Deaths do indeed occur but aside from these unhappy events, no one acknowledges the seriousness of their condition or the possibility that they may die from it, never leaving the hospital again. Physical pain and suffering is almost entirely absent though Risuke gives ample vent to his mental anguish through his letters to a fellow patient who has now been discharged back into the unseen chaos of the post-war world.

Indeed, the sanatorium might be a kind of idyll in this era of instability. Well fed and well cared for, the patients are far better off than many left adrift in the starving cities but the outside world rarely impinges on the isolated atmosphere of the sanatorium. Events change slightly when a friend of Risuke’s, Tsukushi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is discharged and a new nurse, Take (Mieko Kawakami), arrives stirring up various different emotions amongst the male patients in Risuke’s ward. Striking up a friendship with the younger nurse, Mabo (Riisa Naka), Risuke finds himself torn between two very different women.

Although its tone is necessarily one of depression and numbness, Pandora’s Box ends on an improbably upbeat note in which Risuke remarks that just like a climbing plant he may not know where he’s going, but it will certainly be a place of bright sunlight. A minor work filled with dark, ironic humour it’s perhaps unfair to expect the same kind of impact as Dazai’s more weighty efforts but Pandora’s Box is a lower budget affair which, although interesting enough in terms of direction, fails to make much of an impression outside of its obvious pedigree. The light jazzy score and deadbeat voice over add to the period feel whilst also lending an air of hopeless yet buoyant resignation to Risuke’s ongoing journey into the post-war world. This, in many ways, is what we’re here for – Risuke, unlike Dazai, has made a commitment to forge a way forward in which he plans to fight for the sun rather sink below the waves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Daisuke Miura, 2014)

Love's WhirpoolNo names, no strings. That’s the idea at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of his own stage play, Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Koi no Uzu). Love is an odd word here as it’s the one thing that isn’t allowed to exist in this purpose built safe space where like minded people can come together to experience the one thing they all crave – anonymous sex. From midnight to 5am this group of four guys and four girls have total freedom to indulge themselves with total discretion guaranteed.

The four couples are a disparate group which includes a primary school teacher, office lady, shy college student, and a brusque regular who apparently comes to the club five times a week. The male side consists of a slick salaryman, a freeter, a factory worker and an anxious NEET who’s cleaned out his bank account just to be here in this extremely expensive, upscale sex club. After receiving the instructions from the owner (shower first, after sex, after going to the toilet, always use a condom, and respect the women’s right to say no), the group sit awkwardly wearing only their towels waiting for someone else to kick things off.

Everyone is being extremely polite to one another, the women beginning to talk amongst themselves whilst the men do the same. Everyone has come here for the same reason but it’s not as quite as straightforward as they thought it would be. Soon enough, people start to pair up an head downstairs but after the initial ice is broken the edges sharpen, relationships change, and a kind of Bacchanalian harshness begins to take over.

Once inside the split level, trendy club style environment, the guests spend the entirety of the evening naked save for their white bath towels but this is about as far from intimacy as it’s possible to get. They may have all come for one reason, but they each had various different motives for doing so. The office lady and the school teacher are both attractive young women, confident in what they do and don’t want, and would prove a hit in any club or bar (though this is a safer option). The freeter and the salaryman could say the same though the salaryman spends half the evening phoning his wife to explain that he’s been kept out drinking with a boring colleague. College girl and Neet are both too shy to get it on independently, leaving the cynical regular and the overweight factory worker as the odd ones out. It’s not long before they’ve begun to dissect each other, ticking off the check list like remembering to buy washing powder and then discussing the merits of “Ariel” vs “Persil” with your fellow “shoppers” in the checkout line. Utilitarian as it is, as the night goes on the barriers fall away leaving both wild abandon and cruelty lying behind them.

Things are reinvigorated half way through when another couple join, a husband and wife duo who each claim to be 100% OK with how this is going to work but, as it turns out, one of them was more serious than the other. By this point, relationships have begun to solidify themselves and shy Neet has grown attached to the unexpectedly raucous, repressed college girl. Such attachments are unwise in an environment like this, and can become dangerous if everyone does not remain on the same page as to what’s going on. At the end of the evening, the guys are asked to wait so the girls can leave first – to help prevent stalking. This is no strings, remember. No names, no phone numbers, none of this ever happened.

This intense need for secrecy is understandable yet speaks something to the oddly specific conflict between repression and the open expression of erotic desire that is permitted inside the club but only if you follow its rather strict (if very sensible) rules, not to mention the arcane, underground directions needed to find it at all. For some the reason for coming here was loneliness but what they’ll find is only likely to exacerbate the aching lack of connection they already feel. The case of the college student becomes the most interesting as she fights both her own shyness and the intense shame she feels in regards to her own sexual desires. After the fact, she feels as if she’s betrayed herself, as if the “other self” that emerged during the previous night’s proceedings is a shameful doppleganger that must now go back into hiding. She wants to forget this happened, go back to being a lonely college girl but for the NEET, it’s the opposite, he feels unreal now – as if he left his “real” self behind in that unreal space.

A sophisticated take on modern human relationships, Love’s Whirlpool occasionally pulls its punches in opting for a satirical tone and only really skims the surface of why places such as these still need to exist. Stylishly shot and explicit without becoming exploitative or sleazy, Miura’s film proves a refreshingly nuanced, mature take on modern sexual behaviour even if it stops short of probing into some of the darker aspects that flicker around its edges. If Love is a whirlpool, desire is a tornado, but where a whirlpool may drag you under you’ll eventually float to the surface gasping for air. After a tornado burns through, all you’re left with is ashes and emptiness. Modern love, indeed.


English subtitled trailer (NSFW)