You’re Not Normal, Either! (まともじゃないのは君も一緒, Koji Maeda, 2021)

What’s so great about being “normal” anyway? As the title of Koji Maeda’s quirky screwball comedy You’re Not Normal, Either! (まともじゃないのは君も一緒, Matomo Janai no wa Kimi mo Issho) suggests neither of its heroes is quite in tune with the world around them but then again, is there really such a thing as “normal” or is it more that most people are making themselves unhappy by settling for less simply because they think that’s just how things are and resistance only makes you seem awkward? 

Nerdy cram school maths teacher Yasuomi (Ryo Narita) thought he was OK with being a little different, but just recently he’s begun to feel lonely and fears the possibility of being alone for the rest of his life. Perhaps inappropriately, he looks to one of his students, forthright high schooler Kasumi (Kaya Kiyohara), for romantic and life advice hoping that she will teach him how to be, or at least present as, more “normal”. Unbeknownst to him, however, Kasumi is not quite “normal” herself and is in fact obsessed with a tech entrepreneur, Isao (Kotaro Koizumi), who is all about a new and freer future in which humanity is freed from the burden of labour. Finding out that her crush is already engaged to Minako (Rika Izumi) the daughter of a hotel magnate, Kasumi hatches a plan to break them up while training Yasuomi in the art of seduction. 

Kasumi’s insecurities seem to be down to her failure in her middle school exams, attracted to Isao’s philosophies because they offer a possibility of freedom outside the rigid demands of academic success in Japan. She tells Isao in a not quite by chance meeting that she wants to become a teacher in order to expand children’s minds rather than force them into a fixed perspective as the rather authoritarian, rote learning system of education often does. Yet she also feels out of place among her peers whom she sees as vacuous always gossiping about part-time jobs and boys. She frowns at Yasuomi when he accidentally cuts the conversation dead with an awkward comment while attempting to chat up a pair of bubbly office workers in a bar, but often does the same thing herself while sitting with her high school girl friends who fall silent and then change the subject after she injects a little realism into their mindless chatter. 

Yasuomi had viewed himself as “normal” and never understood why others didn’t, noticing that people often stopped associating with him but not knowing the reason why. Obsessed with pure mathematics, over literal, and overstimulated by the complications of life he takes refuge in the forest and the sensory overload of its nocturnal creatures speaking quite eloquently about the beauty of numbers and actually fairly emotionally intelligent in his understanding of the two women. Resolutely failing at Kasumi’s Cyrano act, he comes into himself only when speaking more honesty much to Kasumi’s annoyance actually hitting it off with Minako who is herself just as lonely and alienated but perhaps wilfully trapped. 

Predictably enough, Isao isn’t exactly “normal” either or perhaps he is but only in the most depressing of ways, his rosy vision of the future delivered with more than a little snake oil and just as much sleaze. Minako may know what sort of man Isao is, that her marriage is largely a dynastic affair set up by her overbearing, authoritarian father, but she too may think this is “normal” and might have preferred not to have to confront her sense of existential disappointment while attempting to fulfil the role of a “normal” woman content with creating a comfortable space in which her husband can thrive.  

Romantically naive, Kasumi wonders how people come to fall in love informed by two relatively mature classmates that for them at least falling in love is a gradual process of increasing intimacy generated through casual conversation. This turns out to be pretty much true for Kasumi too, though in ways she didn’t quite expect watching as Yasuomi opens up to Minako and finding herself unexpectedly jealous while reluctant to let go of the idealised vision she had of Isao as some kind of messiah for a better Japan. There is something a little uncomfortable in the potentially inappropriate relationship between a student and her teacher even as the roles are, on one level at least, reversed but there’s also a kind of innocence in their childish friendship and later determination to start small and let things grow while abandoning the idea of the “normal” altogether to embrace their true selves in a freer future of their own creation. 


You’re Not Normal, Either! screens in Chicago on Oct. 7 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema 

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  


A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Take Over Zone (テイクオーバーゾーン, Shinpei Yamasaki, 2019)

The Take Over Zone (テイクオーバーゾーン) is where the heroine of Shinpei Yamasaki’s coming-of-age drama finds herself trapped, resentfully mired in adolescent confusion torn between the childish delusion of familial reunion and an adult acceptance of change. Sari (Riru Yoshina) is indeed on the run, a lonely loner convincing herself that freedom lies only in total independence while simultaneously justifying her new found appreciation for a team sport in insisting that they need her, basking in their gratitude when they win only thanks to her. 

Running may be the only bright spot in Sari’s life, though she can hardly be bothered even with that anymore. Two years previously her parents divorced. Sari’s mother Fumi (Chika Uchida) left with her younger brother Toma while she stayed behind with her feckless father Kenichi (Yota Kawase), a construction worker with a gambling problem. Forced to grow up all too soon, Sari is more or less looking after herself. Finding only beer in the fridge and a betting slip in the bin which explains why the cash jar is empty, she’s forced to raid her piggy bank for food while the house is a permanent mess. Understandably resentful, Sari is rude and petulant, talking back not only to her dad but to her teachers too. At school she’s a bullying delinquent, hanging out with the cool kids and picking on the captain of her track team, Yukina (Nanaha Itose). Seeking escape from her disappointing life, she tells her teacher she’s no interest in high school and plans to get a job, arrogantly refusing to train with her teammates preferring to hang out with the boys playing cards in the shed. 

A chance encounter with Toma in a local supermarket, however, begins to change her perspective. Her polar opposite, Toma is quiet and polite, though his awkward formality perhaps upsets her in his wilful distance after two years apart. Before long she runs into her mother too, discovering not only that her father hid from her the fact that she had remarried and returned to the area, but that she is actually married to Yukina’s dad which is somewhat pouring salt on the wound. Not only is her mother apparently happy, leading the kind of life she wanted to lead as a middle-class housewife, but she has a replacement daughter in Yukina who is everything she currently is not, the archetypal good girl. Bonding with Toma who is overburdened by his mother’s well-meaning ambition for him and dejected that the other kids don’t let him play because he’s no good at sports, Sari decides to run away childishly believing that the two of them can simply move in with grandma to be a family in rejection of their “selfish” parents. 

Sari resented her mother because she was always hounding her to study, perhaps a reflection of her dissatisfaction with their working class existence wanting to ensure her children enjoyed a more comfortable standard of life. Economic pressures do indeed seem to have been the motivating factor in the breakdown of the marriage, Fumi irritated by the exact same qualities in Kenichi which are beginning to drive Sari away, convincing her she’s better off alone than with her irresponsible father who has only casual employment with no prospect of advancement. She yearns for independence, not only for practical freedoms but for the emotional to simply not need to be burdened by disappointment or hurt. “Teams just hold you back” she snaps at her teacher threatening to quit the relay in favour of the solo race. 

Yukina meanwhile has problems of her own, missing her mother who passed away from illness while struggling to accept Fumi’s intrusion into her family home. A climactic event sees her moving towards the centre, claiming Toma as her own little brother while positioning herself as Fumi’s rightful daughter leaving Sari feeling further exiled, unable to process her resentment towards her mother for her abandonment while struggling to accept that her childish belief her parents would get back together and the family would be repaired will not come to pass. Yet it’s their shared love of running which eventually brings the two young women together, no longer rivals but teammates, later perhaps friends and then sisters as Sari comes to acceptance of her complicated family circumstances while realising just how unpleasant she has often been to those around her out of a mistaken attempt to push them all away. “I always ran like I was all alone” Sari admits, no longer running away but passing through her own take over zone, ready to face herself and her grief as she steps into the next stage of the relay race that is life.


Take Over Zone screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Demolition Girl (JKエレジー , Genta Matsugami, 2019)

Demolition Girl poster 1High school is tough for everyone, but some have it harder than most. Cocoa (Aya Kitai), the heroine of Genta Matsugami’s Demolition Girl (JKエレジー, JK Elegy), struggles to envisage a way out of her dead end existence in small town, rural Japan but begins to find a new sense of purpose when presented with unexpected opportunity. Circumstances, however, continue to conspire against her as she fights bravely for her right to define her own destiny while those around her all too often try to drag her down.

17 and in the last year of high school, Cocoa isn’t planning on going to uni like her friends because her family is poor. Cocoa’s mother died several years ago and her father (Yota Kawase) has been a feckless mess ever since. A gambling addict, he spends his days at the races frittering away the meagre stipend he gets through fraudulently claiming disability benefit. Meanwhile, Cocoa’s equally feckless 26-year-old brother Tokio (Ko Maehara) has come home from Tokyo after failing to make it as a comedian and spends his days lounging around at home. Cocoa is the only one working, providing for the entire family with her part-time job at a sausage stand at the amusement park. Just recently she’s started supplementing her income through starring in some “videos” her brother’s friend and former comedy double act partner Kazuo (Hiroki Ino) has been making with the hope of flogging them to the select group of people who might find footage of a girl in high school uniform stomping on things “satisfying”.

Symptomatic of the perils of small-town life, Kazuo offers the videos to an old friend who owns the local rental store, not quite realising that his old buddy Naoki (Ryohei Abe) is now what passes for a gang leader in these parts. Still, Kazuo is not a bad guy, just a naive one who realises he’s hit his wall and this small-town existence is all there is waiting for him. Knowing he’s in way over his head, he eventually tries to do the right thing and genuinely wants to see Cocoa succeed even when he knows that means his cash cow will be leaving town.

Cocoa, meanwhile, has become re-energised after a well-meaning teacher tells her she is probably bright enough to get into a national university (rather than just a private one) where the fees are much more manageable. Still unconvinced, she becomes determined when her aunt tells her that her late mother had been putting money away for her especially for university. Sadly, it turns out her wastrel father may have already burned through that, but her resolve is undampened. She’s seen a way out, and she’s going to take it no matter what it takes. As her aunt tells her, she needs to get out of that apartment otherwise she’ll be stuck there forever “caring” for her feckless family members while they sit idly by frittering her money away on easy pleasures.

Still, it won’t easy. Circumstances conspire against her from a stern school board suspicious about her extracurricular activities to the ominous presence of the petty thugs who’ve become quite interested in the potential of the videos. Cocoa’s 18th birthday (which her family didn’t even seem to really remember) turns out to be one of the saddest ever as she parties with her two friends in a karaoke box and is then forced into the realisation that they’re each standing a crossroads and likely taking different paths. Supportive as they are, her friends can’t seem to understand why she got involved with the videos in the first place. From much more comfortable backgrounds, they struggle to comprehend her desire for ready cash as a means of escape or her yearning for independence and to be free from her burdensome family who over rely on her for support but offer very little in return.

A subtle condemnation of systemic inequality and the innate unfairness of a world in which circumstances of birth determine almost everything, Demolition Girl revels in its heroine’s resilience as she decides not to be beaten down by those who tell her she cannot make it out. A beautifully lensed evocation of small-town life, Matsugami’s debut is a wonderfully observed coming of age tale in which its determined heroine learns that she can choose to do things “her own way” without compromising her sense of integrity or having to leave her friends behind.


Demolition Girl was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Leo Sato, 2018)

Kamagasaki couldron warAs far as Japanese cinema has been concerned, the city of Osaka is renowned for two very specific things – gangsters and comedy. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Tsukiyo no Kamagassen), the debut narrative feature from Leo Sato, neatly brings them both together in an anarchic tale of social inequalities and the pettiness of organised crime. A warmhearted exploration of the eponymous “invisible slum”, Kamagasaki Cauldron War delights in everyday resistance as its ordinary citizens attempt to live their ordinary lives all but forgotten in a society intent on swallowing them whole.

The drama begins with drifter Henmi – a casual labourer with a young son, Kantaro (Tumugi Monko), who dreams of joining the local yakuza gang Kamitari but is rudely rejected by its foot soldiers. In revenge, he steals their precious “kama” sake bowl which is the symbol of their clan and essential for carrying out the succession ritual. This is all the more embarrassing because the elderly boss is thinking of retiring now that his son, Tamao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), has been released from a 20-year prison stretch. Tamao, however, is secretly pleased because he doesn’t much fancy taking over while the petty yakuza who’s been running the show all this time is also quite happy because he doesn’t really want to give up control. Nevertheless, the precious Kama must be recovered at all costs or the gang will continue to face a significant loss of street cred.

Meanwhile, a bigger drama is underway. Kamagasaki is home to a significant proportion of “homeless” people, many of whom congregate around Sankaku Park where a regular soup kitchen runs next to the giant symbolic Kama cauldron in the park’s centre. It also the last remaining undeveloped post-war area and is therefore rich pickings for unscrupulous property developers such as Capital Beat who are primed to bulldoze the welfare centre to build more housing and therefore need to clear the park of the homeless in order to make the area seem attractive. Already trying to prevent the homeless from settling, the city has put up a series of insidious barriers including floral centrepieces and more obvious metal barriers but is nervous of taking direct action such as physical evictions. Which is where the yakuza come in. Working with Capital Beat and corrupt police, the yakuza take clubs to the soup kitchen and get vulnerable people to commit arson by setting fire to live rats and having them run into “derelict” buildings.

At the centre of events, orphan Nikichi (Yota Kawase) tries to keep himself afloat when the only gigs going are transfers to Turkish nuclear power plants by taking advantage of the Kama crisis and getting his hands on as many as possible little knowing that he is actually in possession of the Kamitari sake bowl thanks to little Kantaro whom he has been persuaded to adopt with his sex worker girlfriend Mei (Naori Ota) who grew up with him in the same orphanage. Coincidentally, the pair were also childhood friends with Tamao who has apparently been holding a torch for Mei all these years as well as grudge against Nikichi for an embarrassing injury caused during a sports contest at school. While they’re busy scrapping it out, the local area decides to fight back against Capital Beat by protesting the city’s treatment of the homeless leaving Nikichi an accidental figurehead for a campaign he doesn’t quite believe in and is only tangentially involved with.

Decrying that there is “no place to rest in the whole world” some enterprising homeless guys have built a tunnel under the giant Kama while others attempt to repurpose their penury by declaring that “garbage is the weapon of the people”. Recalling the anarchic spirit of the student protests (including a surprising cameo by Masao Adachi), the residents of Kamagasaki rise up against social intransigence by taking on the yakuza armed with pots and pans before the police stick their oar in and end up becoming a mutual point of irritation. Filmed on retro 16mm, Kamagasaki Cauldron War offers no real solutions to its various problems but delights in the everyday anarchism of its workaday world in which its scrappy residents do their best to get by in an often hostile environment, finding whatever ways they can to resist societal oppression while maintaining a sense of humour and world weary hope for the future.


The Kamagasaki Cauldron War was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine poster 1“I see it now, we can’t change anything” a despondent would-be-revolutionary decries in a moment of despair. Almost 100 years later, you might have to concede they have a point when the world finds itself on a tipping point once again and the same old prejudices refuse to disappear. Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Kiku to Guillotine Onna Zumo to Anarchism) casts an unflinching eye back towards the Japan of 1923 caught in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster which followed on from a chaotic era of rapid social change and bewildering modernisation during which a series of battles were being fought for the future direction of a nation still trying to define itself in world dominated by empires.

When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck claiming mass loss of life and extreme damage to infrastructure, the ensuing chaos gave rise to a vicious rumour that Koreans were taking advantage of the situation to foment the independence movement by poisoning wells and committing arson leading to a pogrom against anyone who failed to prove themselves Japanese enough to satisfy the mob. Meanwhile, the same forces also turned on political opponents whose influence they perceived as destructive to their own aims culminating in the murder of prominent anarchist Sanae Osugi along with his feminist wife Noe Ito and their six-year-old nephew.

We begin, however, with a different band of outsiders in the Tamaiwa itinerant female sumo wrestler troupe many of whom have taken refuge in an isolated world of female solidarity in order to escape abusive relationships. Kiku (Mai Kiryu) is one such woman who found the courage to run away from a violent husband on catching sight of the powerful female wrestlers who made her realise that she too could become strong like them. Having accepted that “weak people can’t change anything”, Kiku has vowed to become “strong” in order to claim her own agency and ensure that she can’t be pushed around ever again.

Meanwhile, an anarchist sect known as the Guillotines are fomenting a more general kind of revolution but have not been very successful and are now on the run from the authorities which is how they end up running into the female wrestlers and more or less bringing them into the struggle. Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries. They rob the rich to fund their “activism” but spend most of the money on sex and drink while plotting revenge for the murder of Osugi with various schemes which imply that at heart they aren’t so different from that which they hate.

Nevertheless, the forces of darkness are rising and history tells us that, temporally at least, they will win. The vigilante militias which carried out the massacres were largely made-up of farmer soldiers who’d served in Russia and experienced terrible hardship. Unable to bear the idea that their traumatic wartime experiences had been a senseless waste, they doubled down on militarist ideology and insisted on their nationalistic superiority. This led them to hate, to regard anything that lay outside of their code as inferior and dangerous. Though the massacres were condemned by the government and the perpetrators prosecuted for their crimes, the convictions were largely quashed a short time later which is why we see our major villains rewarded by the state and our revolutionary “heroes” imprisoned for their resistance towards state oppression and desire to create a fairer, more equal society.

Ironically enough, Nakahama’s big utopian idea is an overly idealistic vision for a future Manchuria which in hindsight proves extremely uncomfortable but is perhaps an indication of the naivety of the times. Even so, the Guillotines for all their romanticism are essentially progressive in their thinking and in full support of sexual equality, insisting on the necessity of the wrestlers to embrace their physical capabilities in order to defend themselves against an oppressive and patriarchal society fuelled by male violence. Though this in itself might be mildly problematic in implying that in order to become “equal” women must learn to be more like men, it also plays into the film’s subtle sense of irony in which the tools of militarism are being subverted in order to oppose it. The “intellectual” Guillotines find their revolutions failing, while fighting fire with fire may be the only surefire way to win even if it legitimises the problematic act of violence in the process. Then again, as another of the Guillotines puts it, the truly strong are those who have no need of killing. 

In any case, the Tamaiwa stable becomes a tiny enclave of progressive values built on female solidarity though they ultimately discover that solidarity is not quite enough and they cannot protect each other from the ravages of the times without external assistance. Even so, they attempt to hold the line, literally pushing back against the fascist incursion while insisting on their right to resist as human beings with will and agency. The prognosis seems bleak. 100 years later the same battles are still being fought and the same tensions rising in the wake of new disasters yet there are also those who will continue to resist and like the Tamaiwa wrestlers refuse to give in to those who threaten to restrict their freedom.


The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Being Natural (天然☆生活, Tadashi Nagayama, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Being Natural posterModern life is stressful and perhaps does not offer the kinds of material rewards that previous generations took for granted. Moving back to the country to experience a simpler, more sincere kind of life has become a mini trope in contemporary Japanese cinema as the young men and women of Japan become disillusioned with a stagnating economy and, feeling trapped within a conformist society, decide to embark on a life of self sufficiency free of material burdens. What such stories have not yet asked is if the influx of outsiders from the city amounts to a colonisation of so far untouched land as the newcomers bring with them their newfangled desires and attitudes. Tadashi Nagayama’s gentle satire Being Natural (天然☆生活, Tennen Seikatsu) is partly an attack on rampart xenophobia and small scale colonialism but also a mild condemnation of corporatised hippiedom and its tendency to destroy the thing it claims to honour in remaking it to fit a city dweller’s ideal of idyllic country life.

Shy and awkward, Taka (Yota Kawase) is an unemployed middle-aged man who lives with his elderly uncle in the ancestral family home. Taka’s uncle suffers from dementia and, it seems, was always a “difficult” person even in his youth which is perhaps why the rest of the family have abandoned him with only the gentle Taka prepared to stay behind and look after the ageing patriarch. When his uncle dies, Taka’s world threatens to collapse but thankfully his embittered cousin Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa) is talked round by his sister and decides to let Taka stay in the family home as a thank you for taking care of everything for so long. Not only that, Mitsuaki also gets Taka a job working at the local fishing pool alongside another old friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru).

Reverting to childhood, the three men generate an easy camaraderie, looking after turtles, having barbecues, and making music together under the moonlight. The idyllic days are not to last, however. The harbingers of doom are a hippyish family from Tokyo who moved into the village with the intention of opening a coffee shop. The Kuriharas – Keigo (Kanji Tsuda), his wife Satomi (Natsuki Mieda), and daughter Itsumi (Kazua Akieda), are into the “natural” way of life and have moved from Tokyo for the benefit of their health. Rather than shop at the supermarket like everyone else, they’re keen to buy from Sho’s grocery store even when he explains to them that all his veg is old and shrivelled rather than freshly plucked from local fields. Still, the family are determined even if it means projecting their vision of “rural life” onto the evident reality.

The Kuriharas are literally intrusive – rudely opening the sliding doors of Taka’s house without permission and waking him up, offering the excuse that they were unable to find the “intercom” on this traditional Japanese house that they claim to admire so much. The original site having fallen through, they’ve set their sights on setting up shop in Taka’s home, exploiting the “traditional” architecture for their warm and welcoming cafe. This is all very well but it does of course mean displacing Taka from his natural habitat. As shy and mild mannered as he is, there’s only so much a man can take and Taka resents being evicted from his family home by a bunch of invading interlopers with commercial concerns.

While Satomi natters on about organic veg, Itsumi skips the English classes her controlling mother makes he go to and guzzles additive loaded instant ramen when she thinks no one’s looking. Wanting to preserve the “natural beauty of glorious Japan”, Keigo goes slightly nuts when he realises Taka’s pet turtles are a non-native breed, exploding with xenophobic fury over the dangerous presence of a disease laden predator whose presence threatens the safety of the true Japanese amphibian. Wondering exactly who or what is the “non native” threat, Taka launches a full scale resistance movement, papering the house in giant graffiti posters reminiscent of the student protest era reminding all that turtles, no matter where they’re from, have a right to life too and must be defended. Yet the corporately minded hippies will stop at nothing to get what they want – manipulating Mitsuaki with a new girlfriend and then turning the town against Taka by means of a heinous, life ruining rumour. 

Forced out and heading to the city, Taka is reminded that he is now the hostile foreign element – that the park is not his “home” but belongs to “everyone”. When his beloved bongos are ruptured, Taka’s rage turns radioactive and sends him off on a quest of vengeance only to recede as his better nature regains control and he commits himself to using his new found powers to improve the lives of those around him in small but important ways. A satirical take on the romanticisation of country life by self-interested city dwellers, Being Natural eventually takes a turn for the macabre that possibly undercuts rather than reinforces some of its central concerns but makes a case for according the proper respect to the natural world as well as the people who live within it rather than attempting to exploit it for oneself whilst wilfully ruining it for others.


Being Natural received its international premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Breath of Rokkasho (息衝く, Bunyo Kimura, 2017)

Breath of Rokkasho posterIndividual desire versus responsibility to the collective is something of a major theme in Japanese cinema. The fallible ideologue at the centre of Breath of Rokkasho (息衝く, Ikizuku) believes individualism is the key to world happiness, implying that a collection of fulfilled individuals would amount to a fulfilled society, but then again his logic is perhaps hard to follow when he cares so little for other people’s freedom. Taking place in the post-Fukushima world, Rokkasho wants to extend this idea through examining the complexity of the anti-nuclear movement and the political forces which advocate for it while ordinary people largely sit back in silent disapproval. The ideal society, if there even is such a thing, will probably not be built by those in power but by those who manage shake off the problematic legacy of the past in order to embrace their “individual” wills but with the collective good in mind.

Norio (Shigeki Yanagisawa), Yasuyuki (Ryuta Furuya), and Yoshi (Nana Nagao) were raised in a politicised Buddhist cult, The Seed Association, which has a strong interest in ecological affairs and therefore the anti-nuclear movement. Each lacking fatherly input, the three youngsters fell under the spell of the cult’s most prominent member, Mr. M (Satoru Jitsunashi). Mr. M however abruptly upped and left them, abandoned without hope or answers. 20 years later, Norio is a civil servant also working for the Seed Association on political campaigns while Yasuyuki has become the new golden boy whom many tout as the natural successor to Mr. M. Yoshi left the sect at a much younger age and is now a single mother in the middle of what seems to be a fairly messy divorce.

Looking up at the Tanashi Tower (also known as Sky Tower West Tokyo) – a “state of the art” radio tower completed in 1989 midway through a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and named after the town which used to stand here the name of which literally means “no rice”, the three kids ask Mr. M if it’s possible to see the Nighthawk Star from down below. He tells them he doesn’t know, but they can look for it together. Mr. M did not help them, he disappeared and left them with only more questions and an even shakier relationship with their familial pasts. Each badly let down by parental figures who either abandoned their families to join the cult out of nuclear fear, committed suicide, or were simply distant and neglectful, neither Norio, Yasuyuki, or Yoshi has been able to step into the adult world with any degree of confidence or faith in its teachings.

Only by confronting their difficult pasts can the trio begin to unblock their individual paths. A visit to the long absent Mr. M who has apparently embraced full individualism as a hermit farmer who dresses in a comical baby chick’s costume complete with squeaky claw-shaped slippers, begins to show them that their faith in his teachings may have been misplaced. Mr. M claims that the human race is not yet strong enough to live only by thinking of its own happiness, something that he feels would bring the greatest happiness to all mankind. Refusing to recognise the “selfishness” of his philosophy, Mr. M has withdrawn from society and made himself the centre of a happy nation of one.

Parental betrayal becomes a major theme, eventually extending to the paternity of the state in its repeated failures to protect and care for its children. The English title of the film references the Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing facility which has become an ongoing scandal in its 20-year series of construction delays with 23 postponements issued since its original 1997 projected date for completion. Norio, the melancholy civil servant, hails from the town himself – in fact his mother took him away from it precisely because she feared a nuclear disaster. Yet The Seed Association, or anyone else for that matter, has not been able to solve the nuclear issue even in the post-Fukushima era. Engaged in the business of “politics” the sect’s intentions have become blurred as they contemplate their survival in an ever shrinking society, subject to the same political games of manipulation and backbiting as any other party. Gradually disillusioned with the cult’s hypocrisy and didacticism, Norio considers forging his own path – something which sets him at odds with Yasuyuki whose faith is also shaken only he’s invested far too much to allow himself to acknowledge it.

The Japanese title, by contrast, simply means to gasp for air. Trapped fast in society filled with corrupt, conflicting values each of the three struggles to find a foothold for themselves as they flounder wildly without guidance or aim. Yet in being forced to confront themselves and their pasts there is a movement towards progress, or at least a strong desire to find it. They, like their nation, have been betrayed and struggled to deal with their betrayal, but have managed to find their own essential truth even so and along with it the ability breathe deeply even when the air is thickening.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Name (名前, Akihiro Toda, 2018)

b5_olNames are a complicated business. Most people do not choose them for themselves, yet they come to define an identity or at least provide a substantial peg on which to hang one. If you give someone a fake name you are by definition shielding your essential self from view, refusing connection either in fear of discovery or intention to harm. The protagonist of Akihiro Toda’s The Name (名前, Namae) adopts several different titles as a part of his increasingly disordered everyday life in which he takes a hammer to his original identity in an ongoing act of guilt-ridden self harm. Meanwhile, his teenage would-be saviour, engages in a little role play of her own hoping to discover an essential truth about herself only to be disappointed, in one sense, and then perhaps find something better.

Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), if that is his real name, is not just leading a double life but is currently engaged in a number of iffy scams each compartmentalised under a different title and in which he plays an entirely different version of himself. Once a successful businessman, personal tragedy, marital breakdown, and bankruptcy have left him a floundering, cynical mess living in a rundown rural hovel with a pernickety neighbour and a decidedly lax approach to housekeeping. Masao’s main “job” appears to be working in a recycling plant where he’s managed to wangle a preferential contract by telling the higher-ups that his (non-existent) wife is seriously ill in hospital. Just as Masao’s scheme is about to be discovered, a mysterious teenage girl suddenly appears out of nowhere and plays along with Masao’s sob story, claiming to be his daughter come to remind him that he needs to leave earlier today because mum has been moved to a different hospital (which is why his boss’ contact had never heard of her).

Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), as we later find out, is a more authentic soul but has decided on a brief flirtation with duplicity in observing the strange and cynical life of the morally bankrupt Masao. Facing similar issues but coming from the opposite direction, the pair meet in the middle – regretful middle-age and anxious youth each doing battle with themselves to define their own identities. Like Masao, Emiko is also living in less than ideal circumstances with her bar hostess single-mother, forced into adulthood ahead of schedule through the need to take care of herself, purchasing groceries, cooking, and keeping the place tidy. Thus her approach to Masao has, ironically enough, a slightly maternal component as she tries to get him back on his feet again – cleaning the place up and giving him something more productive to do than wasting his idle moments in bars and other unsavoury environments.

Masao’s current problems are perhaps more down to a feeling of failure rather than the failure itself. Once successful, happily married and excited about the future, he felt it all crash down around his ears through no real fault of his own. Nevertheless he blamed himself – his intensive work ethic placed a strain on his relationship with his wife and his all encompassing need for success blinded him to what it was that really mattered. By the time he realised it was already too late, and so it’s no surprise that he longs to escape himself through a series of cardboard cutout personalities, enacting a bizarre kind of wish fulfilment coupled with masochistic desire for atonement.

Now cynical and morally apathetic, Masao lets Emiko in on a secret about the grown-up world – it’s all lies. You have to put on disguise or two to get by; the world will not accept you for who you really are. Teenage girls might know this better than most, though Emiko is a slow learner. She might tell Masao that pretending to be other people is fun, but the one role she hasn’t yet conquered is that of Emiko Hayama – something which particularly irritates the demanding director of the theatre club she’s been cajoled into joining. Like Masao, Emiko’s life begins to fall apart through no fault of her own as she finds herself swallowed up by a typically teenage piece of friendship drama when her best friend’s boyfriend dumps her in order to pursue Emiko. Branded a scheming harlot and ejected from her group of friends, berated by the director of the theatre troupe, and having no-one to turn to at home, Emiko finds herself increasingly dependent on the surrogate father figure of Masao who is happy enough to play along with the ruse so long as it is just that.

Through their strange paternal bond, Emiko and Masao each reach a point of self identification, figuring out who it is they really are whilst facing the various things they had been afraid to face alone. Lamenting missed opportunities while celebrating second chances, The Name makes the case for authenticity as a path to happiness in a world which often demands its opposite. Melancholy but gently optimistic, Akihiro Toda’s peaceful drama is a heartwarming tale of the power of unexpected connection and the importance of accepting oneself in order to move into a more positive future.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.