Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート, Michael Arias, 2006)

A pair of orphaned street kids attempt to defend backstreet life from the ravages of progress in Michael Arias’ adaptation of the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート). Though the manga was first published in the early ‘90s which is to say at the beginning of the post-Bubble era, the film looks back to a scrappy post-war Japan embodied by the moribund Treasure Town, once a lively city filled with the promise its name implies but now according to some a lawless slum ruled over by the “Cats” and contested by yakuza determined to turn it into another “Kids Kastle” theme park. 

There is something particularly ironic in the desire to turn Treasure Town, a literal playground for orphans Black (Kazunari Ninomiya) and White (Yu Aoi) collectively known as the Cats, into a walled city taking something that should be free and charging for it while displacing the street kids who live there so that those whose parents can pay can be given a temporary illusion of freedom. To Black, this is his city and he will defend it along with protecting White who has an otherworldly simplicity and makes radio calls to the universe reporting that he has preserved peace on Earth for another day. In a way he has because it becomes clear that the two boys are a two halves of one whole maintaining balance and keeping each other in check. Innocent and naive beyond his years White cannot survive alone, but without White, Black would have nothing to live for. His inner darkness would become all consuming and present a threat to all those who cross his path. 

In a piece of poignant symbolism, White attempts to grow an apple tree by planting a seed in the junk yard where they live but is disappointed that it does not seem to sprout little realising that it cannot grow where it is planted because the conditions are adverse to its development. The same might be said of he and Black who have been abandoned by their society and are cared for only by a wise old man who gives them occasional advice. Their only desire to is protect their town in a bid to avoid yet another displacement this time at the hands of corporatised yakuza who see Treasure Town only as a relic of a previous era sitting on valuable land which must be seized and monetised. Only old school gangster Rat ironically enough agrees with the Cats, confused by the desire to erase community and history riding roughshod over the feelings of all those who have ever called Treasure Town home. 

Rat’s battleground is located in the soul of his protege, Kimura (Yusuke Iseya), who first says that he doesn’t believe in anything only for Rat to tell him that he should at least believe in love. Seduced by the consumerist promises of the duplicitous Snake (Masahiro Motoki) and his giant alien minions, Kimura nevertheless comes around to Rat’s way of thinking on learning that he will soon be a father. Like Black and White, he dreams of escaping Treasure Town for a house by the sea where he could live a peaceful life with his child but is trapped by contrary codes of gangsterdom if even if eventually realising that the two things he believes in are truth and love neither of which are very important to Mr. Snake. Black meanwhile is torn between his inner darkness and his belief in White, caught between nihilistic violence and the desire to plant a seed and watch it grow even on shaky ground. 

Designed by Shinji Kimura, the backstreets of Treasure Town are a Showa-era paradise perhaps stuck in the past in the view from early Heisei but embodying a scrappy sense of possibility. It has an uncanny reality as an organic space built and lived in by human hands that is at an odds with the slick uniformity of the gangster developers who want to turn it into a children’s theme park, the very embodiment of a constructed paradise that will halt the natural growth that Rat describes in reminding Black that Treasure Town will never be what it was but will continue on with or without them. Bringing this place fully to life, Arias’ surprising, inventive direction gives full vent to the anarchy of the source material but is in the end about the heart of a place along with the bond between its two protectors keeping the peace through complementary balance.


Tekkonkinkreet screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 16 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Harmful Insect (害虫, Akihiko Shiota, 2001)

“We’re only in seventh grade, why does Sachi have to suffer so much?” a well-meaning friend eventually asks as she comforts the heroine of Akihiko Shiota’s Harmful Insect (害虫, Gaichu), even as her mother turns away from her too fragile herself to be of much use. Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki) does indeed suffer, continually victimised by the world in which she lives and having that victimisation used against her, rejected by her peers and almost blamed for the misfortunes which befall her as if she were the one at fault simply for existing. 

Shortly after the opening scene in which 13-year-old Sachiko’s mother (Ryo) attempts to take her own life, we see the girls at school gossiping about her while she’s still in earshot not entirely sympathetic as they remark on the fact her father left the family while implying that her mother is some kind of broken-hearted love fool driven to suicide over the loss of a man. Sachiko quickly becomes the woman of rumour, but in a motif which will be repeated the teens talk but never listen swapping stories between themselves and embellishing them as they go. It’s uncertain how much truth there is in the legend of Sachiko but it’s clear that they disapprove of her, adopting a puritanical moralising mindset in which they simply shun her for being something other. Only Natsuko (Yu Aoi) tries to stop them, reaching out to Sachiko even as Sachiko rejects her but is ultimately able to offer little help when even Sachiko’s mother is ill-equipped to protect her. 

The truth is that Sachiko is never safe anywhere. Everywhere she goes, she becomes a target for predatory men of all ages. A schoolboy on a bike harasses her by asking childish questions about her period, while sleazy salarymen repeatedly proposition her for sex, and even her mother’s new boyfriend in a doubly destructive act of betrayal cannot be trusted. She says little and keeps to herself, her silence and her isolation a kind of defiance and defence mechanism. After dropping out of school, she starts hanging around with a drop out 20-something (Tetsu Sawaki) and his homeless friend (Koji Ishikawa) who seems to have learning difficulties, discovering that they support themselves through staging accidents for compensation money. She considers doing the same thing, not for the money but craving the thrill of a near death experience only to find herself unable to go through with it. 

Meanwhile, she continues a letter-based correspondence with her former teacher with whom she is rumoured to have had an affair. Mr. Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe) later resigned for obvious reasons and now has a low-grade job at a nuclear plant. He answers her letters when he can, mostly offering paternalistic platitudes but like her absent parents is unable to provide her with the guidance she is seeking. What she seems to be looking for is the kind of parental input that would allow her to feel protected, safe, but no one is really there for her. She resents her mother’s emotional dependency and tendency to involve herself with unsuitable men, but worries she’s becoming the same striking out for an early independence but discovering only danger and futility. 

She asks herself if vice is the essence of human existence, then is goodness only the quality of not being entirely bad? Her view of the world already coloured with nihilistic despair. The men who misuse her feel they have no real need to justify their actions, but simultaneously blame her for tempting them though she does nothing other than exist remaining silent in order to avoid attracting attention. Then again even she doesn’t quite understand, asking her teacher why it is he can’t forgive himself simultaneously accepting that what happened between them, whatever that was, was wrong enough to warrant forgiveness but unable to grasp why he cannot let go of his guilt, continuing with this half-hearted correspondence unable to grant her the care that she is seeking. Wandering between flashbacks and brief vignettes of her life, Shiota captures Sachiko’s sense of total aloneness as even her sole source of sanctuary is taken from her leading to an explosive act of partially self-destructive violence that sends her forever on the run. The choice she makes at the film’s conclusion, be it in submission or defiance, is hers alone but in its own way a tragedy dragging her deeper into dangerous despair with escape an ever distant possibility.


Harmful Insect streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2002 NIKKATSU / TBS / SONY PCL

Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“I never thought my life would come to such a lonely autumn” an old woman laments in Shuichi Okita’s touching adaptation of the novel by Chisako Wakatake Ora, Ora, Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Ora Ora de Hitori Igumo), her husband now gone, a son so estranged he may as well be too, and a daughter (Tomoko Tabata) who only stops by to ask for money. What’s it all for? In an increasingly ageing Japan, later life loneliness has become a pressing issue, but for Momoko (at 75: Yuko Tanaka, at 20 – 34: Yu Aoi) the problem may be that she’s beginning to find her own company oppressive mainly because she’s become plagued by a trio of mental sprites dressed in regular old lady clothes who speak to her in her native Tohoko dialect and force her to think about the realities of her life. 

And then there’s the other guy who looks really like the guy she was briefly engaged to before running out on an arranged marriage only dressed in her pyjamas and telling her there’s no point getting out of bed because every day is the same and she doesn’t have anything to do anyway. Meanwhile, she finds herself pulled back towards memories of happier times when her children were small. All of this has Momoko wondering if she’s sliding into dementia, or if perhaps she’s merely beginning to go out of her mind with grief, loneliness, and existential futility. 

It’s also clear that like everyone else her age despite having led a happy life, Momoko has doubts and regrets. When she ran out on her arranged marriage inspired by the Olympic buzz of Tokyo in 1964, she thought she was striking out for freedom and independence, that she was a “new woman” of the post-war era and she was going to live her own life the way she wanted it. Yet in Tokyo the first friend she makes is someone from the same area who’s managed to completely shed their regional accent, and then she met a man who refused to lose his (Masahiro Higashide) and fell in love with him. She doesn’t regret her life, but feels in a sense disappointed that she ended up falling into the same patriarchal patterns she tried so hard to escape as a conventional housewife and mother dedicating herself to supporting the man she loved. Her friend, Toko (Toko Miura), points out that she always hesitates when she refers to herself as “watashi” rather than the familiar “ora” in the Tohoku dialect as if shamed by the inauthenticity and resentful that her accent, her essential identity, is something she has to lose in order to blend in to Tokyo society. 

Heartbreakingly, we witness her bamboozled into leasing a new car, a symbol of freedom and independence, from a young man who seems nice but is obviously intent on leveraging her loneliness, addressing her as “mother” (not an unusual way to refer to the woman of a house but definitely a deliberate avoidance of “granny”) and encouraging her to think of him as a son. Ironically, while he’s there the phone rings but it’s an “ore ore” scam claiming that her son’s in trouble and needs money. She laughs it off and tells the salesman she’s not silly enough to fall for something like that just as she signs on the dotted line, but later we discover that she did indeed fall prey to it sometime earlier in desperation for the son who, as she had, left home young and never looked back. Her daughter meanwhile, stops by after hearing about the car but mostly so she can ask for money to pay for art lessons for her son. 

Thinking back on their days as a family, Momoko can’t reconcile herself to this sense of parental rejection but meditates on her relationship with her own grandmother realising she too must have been desperately lonely but she was “young and stupid” and didn’t understand. Her interior monologue with her trio of sprites is recited entirely in the voice of her younger self, and at one point she even tries throwing beans at them like demons during Setsubun, but eventually accepts them enough to talk out loud which is either a sign that she’s really losing it or a kind of liberation. “How will I carry on by myself?” she asks, meditating on this new kind of “independence” which might itself soon be taken from her whether she wants it or not. Nevertheless, what she discovers is that she might not be as alone as she thought she was and more has been passed on than she assumed but if you have to go alone then that’s alright too.


Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 series alongside Shuichi Okita’s debut Chef of South Polar as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wife of a Spy (スパイの妻, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2020)

“If the times have changed you, couldn’t you have changed the times?” the spy’s wife not unreasonably asks of a man she knew to be good and kind yet has done terrible things, perhaps, as has she, out of a misplaced love. Travelling from death is eternal loneliness to love is our salvation, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy (スパイの妻, Spy no Tsuma), co-scripted by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara, picks up a thread from Before We Vanish TV companion Yocho (Foreboding) to suggest that love can in fact be as destructive as hate in its all encompassing single-mindedness as an ordinary housewife uninterested in politics is caught between her progressive, compassionate and aristocratic husband and a childhood friend with an unrequited crush who has since become an ardent militarist. 

Set in Kobe in 1940, the film opens with a portly British textile merchant, Drummond, dragged from a silk inspection centre by the military police on the suspicion of being a foreign spy. This is appears not to be the case, but as in much of the narrative little is as it seems. The British merchant is a friend and associate of Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi), the chairman of a family-owned textile company whose main objection to the idea that Drummond is a spy seems to be that a man of such copious proportions hardly fits his mental image of the word. Yusaku is nevertheless questioned by the local squad leader, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), who happens to be a childhood friend of his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi), and later risks implication by paying Drummond’s bail. Satoko approves of this decision even if it may be politically unwise, confessing that she thought it “heartless” that Yusaku was messing about making a silent movie in which she starred as a femme fatale spy eventually killed by her lover/rival while his friend was in custody. “You’re always looking so far ahead of me, I feel like a fool” she reflects though as we’ll see she’ll soon be taking him on at his own game, the couple dancing around each other in a deadly waltz of love and betrayal. 

When Yusaku declares that he’s planning to visit Manchuria, partly for adventure and partly on behalf of a doctor friend, Satoko’s main concern is his impending absence though his return brings her little peace. After a woman he and his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando) had apparently befriended and then brought home is found dead, Satoko makes a dark discovery driven at once by jealousy in Taiji’s vague hints that Yusaku may have been romantically involved with the dead woman, and resentment in realising he is keeping something from her. That something turns out to be his intention to expose the atrocities he witnessed in Manchuria committed by doctors connected to the Kwantung Army. 

Yusaku’s motives for this are rather naive, believing that it will bring the Americans into the war and hasten a Japanese defeat bringing an end to the militarist folly. Nevertheless, the discovery forces the couple into an ideological confrontation, Yusaku insisting that he is a “cosmopolitan” whose allegiance lies in “universal justice” rather to than any nation. To him happiness founded on injustice is an impossibility, while Satoko declares herself able to unsee the inconvenient truth in order to preserve the status quo reasonably pointing out that Yusaku’s “justice” will necessarily result in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. It’s at this point, however, that the tables turn, Satoko setting in motion a series of machinations which at first appear naive and counterproductive but are in fact infinitely ruthless. 

“I’m not afraid of capture or death, I’m only afraid of being separated from you” Satoko insists, willing to burn the world to save her love if also later moved on “seeing” for herself the reality of Japanese abuses in Manchuria. Taking on the role she had played in their silent movie, Satoko becomes the spy revelling in her ruthlessness yet this spy game revolves around the ability to correctly read the emotional lives of others. Having been “warned” by the austere Taiji that she and her husband were too Westernised for the times with their expensive foreign whiskey and international fashions, Satoko puts on kimono in order to curry favour with him hoping to leverage his unrequited love for her. Yusaku meanwhile perhaps banks on something similar, each of them ironically manipulating the apparently conflicted militarist in the conviction that his love is pure and he will therefore continue to protect Satoko, and by extension her husband, as a means of protecting himself. 

Early on, Taiji had confessed to Yusaku that he disliked arresting people which may have been a thinly veiled threat, but also bears out Satoko’s conviction that he is at heart a gentle person though we’ve not long seen him rip out one man’s fingernails in order to present them to another as a warning. Unrequited love has perhaps thrown him into the arms of militarist austerity, hardening his heart while his ardour is sublimated into a misplaced love of country that allows him to justify such heinous acts of inhumanity.  “Hard choices must be made to achieve greet deeds” Satoko herself had said in order to excuse her own act of injustice in sacrificing another man on Yusaku’s behalf, only to later face the same fate in an ironic turn of events either vengeful betrayal or protective act of love depending on how you read the emotional intentions behind them. 

Just as in the silent movie, incongruously scored with a poignant Japanese cover of Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II’s Make Believe, everyone is playing a role, engaging in an act of deception if only self-directed, yet their act perhaps exposes the truth they were attempting to hide, the spy’s wife becoming the spy but beaten at her own game unable to see the entirety of the board. Commissioned as an 8K feature for a Japanese TV channel, the incongruity of the hyperreal digital photography deepens the sense of the uncanny in the unexpected naturalism of the period setting, a world of constant anxiety with soldiers on the streets and the feeling of being forever watched in the oppressive atmosphere of authoritarian militarism, while standing in strong contrast with the unreality presented by the films within the film both that made by the couple and the brief yet ironic inclusion of Sadao Yamanaka’s Priest of Darkness, another tale of infinite duplicities, given that the director had himself become a casualty of war on the Manchurian front two years previously. Ironically titled, Wife of a Spy situates itself in a state of permanent paranoia in which nothing and no-one is as it seems and love may in its own way be the most destructive force of all while containing within itself the only possible source of salvation no matter its veracity.  


Wife of a Spy  screens on Aug. 27 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Karisome no Koi (“fleeting love”) – Chiyoko Kobayashi (1936)

Romance Doll (ロマンスドール, Yuki Tanada, 2020)

According to an assistant at the factory where the hero of Yuki Tanada’s Romance Doll (ロマンスドール) is eventually employed, what were once called “sex dolls” or the euphemistic “Dutch Wives” (apparently named for a kind of bolster used by sailors) are now marketed as “love dolls”. The difference may be largely semantic, subsuming the physical within the emotional, but speaks to a discomforting dehumanisation of the female form something which barely occurs to the sculptor even as he slowly chips away at his patient wife, gradually erasing her as he dedicates himself to crafting the perfect love doll which is, it has to be said, a woman devoid of agency who can never talk back, challenge male authority, or wound the male ego. 

It’s this insecure fear of intimacy which eventually creates distance and loneliness in the marriage of the sculptor Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi) who hides the fact that he sculpts sex dolls for a living from his wife Sonoko (Yu Aoi) for fear that she will reject him. Tetsuo was himself “tricked” into taking the job as an unemployed graduate in need of work. He does so because he needs the money but also feels guilty, not because he finds the work morally objectionable, but because he has no investment in sex dolls as a craft while the man who’s just employed him, Kinji (Kitaro), has made the creation of the perfect model his life’s dream. 

One the one hand, Tetsuo and Kinji are craftsmen and so the fact of what they’re crafting is largely irrelevant, the important thing being the earnest pursuit of artistry in building beautiful devices whether they be sex aids or sewing machines. But others might not see it that way and in fact the dolls can only be sold as novelties with strict regulations in place to prevent “obscenity”. Concerned that the models lack realism, Kinji comes up with the idea of taking a mould of a real woman’s breasts but given all of the above they can hardly advertise what it’s for. Sonoko answers the ad because she thinks it’s for medical prosthetics, that she’ll be helping other women not providing masturbatory aids for lonely men. The moment Tetsuo touches her breasts he’s hit with a kind of epiphany and is moved to confess his real feelings as he says possibly for the first and last time in his life, while Sonoko too recounts that in his touch she could innately feel that he was an awkward but kind person which is why she fell in love with him. They marry and are happy, but he keeps the nature of his work a secret and becomes so consumed with the idea of capturing the perfection of the female form that he never looks beyond the surface of his wife and, ironically, begins to neglect her physically. 

It’s the secret keeping, the miscommunication and the fear of intimacy that eventually begin to drive them apart. She wants to tell him something important, but he doesn’t listen to her, never notices that she is unhappy or suffering and becomes petulant and resentful on realising that she has lied to him about where she was while she was away from home not realising that she felt unable to tell him because he is not and never has been emotionally available to her. He pours his “love” into the doll, and by doing so he depletes her. Sonoko becomes merely fuel for her husband’s artistic fulfilment until her metamorphosis into a doll is finally complete.

Told entirely from Tetsuo’s perspective, Tanada’s screenplay leans unexpectedly hard into a series of outdated patriarchal social codes which it ultimately reinforces rather than critiques. Tetsuo’s marital dilemma is reframed as a workplace conundrum over whether to pursue the new frontiers of elastomer or stick with the tried and tested silicone which is apparently fragile yet beautiful much like life as Tetsuo is forced to reflect on the transience of all things including love and romance. Something can be beautiful even as it rots, cherry trees still blossom even while they’re dying and there’s nothing that lasts “forever” except perhaps loss. Tetsuo tells himself that others saw Sonoko as the “ideal wife” in that she was “beautiful, a good cook, pristine, modest, and respects her husband” but apparently only he knew that she was also “nice and horny” which even if charitably taken as reclaiming her right to sexual agency is still a crass statement in the circumstances given that he has just reduced her to a literal receptacle for male desire. 

Tetsuo may feel a smattering of conflict when an early model proves successful enough to hit the mainstream media, a happy customer declaring that he’s giving up on real women, but continues to pursue his craft even while reflecting on the poetic symmetry that his wife is disappearing as his creation grows. It’s impossible to avoid the implication that what men want is a sex doll who can cook and clean, a vacant automaton who caters entirely to their desires with no interior life of her own because they are too insecure to want to deal with a real woman who is capable of hurting them emotionally. Straying uncomfortably towards a kind of sublimated necrophilia, Tetsuo only belatedly realises that his wife was more than mere object in the uncomfortable vacancy of the unresponsive silicone. Kinji had wanted to create a doll which looked as if it may come to life, as if it almost had a soul, but the key is in the almost. Rather than a meditation on the destructive effects of miscommunication and emotional insecurity, we’re left with a contemplation of art and the artist in which a man’s artistic fulfilment is valued above a woman’s life, his destruction of her permissible in the perfection of his art. Some things it seems don’t change, women are mere “romance dolls” valued only for their response to male desire be it in art or in “love”.


Romance Doll is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2019)

Three years after Destruction Babies, Tetsuya Mariko returns with another ultra-violent though strangely humorous masculinity drama as a mild-mannered salaryman embarks on a quest to win the heart of his one true love by proving himself a man even if aware that his efforts are entirely meaningless while he strikes out where it counts. Inspired by Hideki Arai’s manga, Mariko previously adapted Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Miyamoto kara Kimi e) as a late night TV drama with the majority of the cast reprising their roles for the big screen feature.

As the film opens, the titular Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) is walking bruised and bloodied through a children’s park, staring at his unrecognisable face in the hazy mirror of a public bathroom. A regular salaryman, he’s later taken to task by his boss (Kanji Furutachi). After all, how does he expect people to do business with him when he’s lost all his front teeth and has his arm in a sling? His boss reminds him he’s about to be married and will soon be a father so perhaps a little more forward-thinking responsibility is in order. It seems that Miyamoto got into some kind of fight and improbably enough he won, the other guy apparently in hospital not to recover for months though thankfully he does not want to press charges. Nevertheless, Miyamoto seems strangely cheerful, happy in himself as he takes his bride to be, Yasuko (Yu Aoi), home to meet his parents who don’t disapprove but are extremely put out by his continued secrecy especially as Yasuko is already pregnant though something tells us there’s much more to this than your average shotgun wedding.  

Skipping back between the present day of the happily settled couple and the various stages of their courtship we begin to see a pattern developing as the hapless young salaryman falls for the pretty office lady only to discover she was technically using him to break up with an obsessive ex struggling to accept that their relationship is over. Challenged by bohemian playboy Yuji (Arata Iura), Miyamoto instinctively barks out that Yasuko is a special woman and he will protect her at all costs though the jury’s out on how exactly he plans to do that. In any case, Yuji exits and even if unconvinced, Yasuko is taken in by the idea of finding a protector. But Miyamoto is less than true to his word. When it really counts, he lets her down, passed out drunk as she’s assaulted by a friend from his rugby team (Wataru Ichinose). What ensues is partly, in his mind, a means of making amends to her by getting his revenge and a quest to reclaim his self-respect by asserting his masculinity in besting his girlfriend’s rapist in a fight. “It was me he insulted” Miyamoto somewhat problematically insists, rage shovelling rice into his mouth directly from the cooker while Yasuko can barely contain her resentment and exasperation with his continued failure to follow through while painting himself as the victim in her rape. 

Consumed by toxic masculinity, Miyamoto does indeed frame everything through the prism of his fracturing manhood, never jealous or abusive but comparing himself unfavourably to the other men in Yasuko’s life and convincing himself the way to beat them all is by proving himself the most manly through the medium of pugilism. Meanwhile, he emotionally neglects the woman he claims to love and promised to protect, temporarily distancing himself from her while he embarks on his quest, leaving her entirely alone to deal with her trauma. Yasuko makes it clear that she doesn’t care about his pointless and idiotic need to validate himself through male violence, but he does it anyway and then expects her to be impressed (which she isn’t, really). In any case he freely admits he did it all for himself, literally shredding his rival’s manhood in order to retake his own in addition to gaining an extremely ironic form of revenge.  

Absurd and ridiculous as it is, Miyamoto’s quest does at least allow him to gain the self-confidence which will eventually allow him to patch things up with Yasuko, ironically by affirming that he no longer sees the need to look for approval and will protect her and their new family forevermore. A dark satire of fragile masculinity filled with cartoonish yet surprisingly graphic violence, Mariko’s third feature nevertheless retreats from the pure nihilism of Destruction Babies towards a more positive if perhaps equally uncomfortable resolution as the no longer quite so insecure Miyamoto prepares to enter a new phase of his life as a paternal figure and protector of a family.


Miyamoto streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Ryota Nakano, 2019)

Contemporary Japanese cinema has gone lukewarm on the idea of family, presenting it more often as a toxic rather than supporting presence. Among the few remaining positive voices, Ryota Nakano’s previous films Capturing Dad and Her Love Boils Bathwater never made any attempt to pretend that families are always perfect or that the family as a concept is one which must always be defended, but ultimately found warmth and solace in the mutual act of pulling together as the sometimes wounded protagonists found strength rather than suffocation in unconditional love. 

A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Nagai Owakare) finds something much the same as three women are forced to deal in different ways with their relationships with austere father Shohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), once an authoritarian head master but now suffering from dementia and rapidly losing the ability to read. The first signs of decline are felt in 2007, prompting mum Yoko (Chieko Matsubara) to ring both of her increasingly distant, almost middle-aged daughters, and invite them to their father’s 70th birthday party, 

33-year-old Fumi (Yu Aoi) is in the middle of breaking up with a boyfriend who’s giving up on his dreams of being a novelist to take over the family potato farm. Fumi’s dream is owning her own restaurant, but somehow it seems a long way off. Older sister Mari (Yuko Takeuchi), meanwhile, is a housewife and mother living with her fish scientist husband Shin (Yukiya Kitamura) and son Takashi (Yuito Kamata) in California. Lonely in her marriage, Mari struggles with her English and finds it difficult to make friends with her husband’s colleagues who openly criticise her language skills from across the room while Shin makes no attempt to defend her. 

Meanwhile, Yoko carries the heaviest burden alone in trying to manage her husband’s decline even as he begins to wander off, forever asking to go “home” even when he is already there. The concept of “home” however may be difficult to define in a rapidly changing society. All the way across the sea, Mari frets about her parents and feels guilty that, as the older sister, she should be doing more and has unfairly left everything to Fumi just because she happens to be in closer proximity. She is then slightly perturbed to realise that Fumi hasn’t seen their parents since the previous New Year and is equally shocked at the noticeable change in her father who goes off on random tangents and suddenly loses his temper over trivial things. 

Mari flies back to Japan when crises occur but her husband is not as understanding as one might expect. His research concerns fish which adapt to their environment and it’s clear he’s begun to follow their example, falling wholesale for Western individualism. He criticises Mari’s anxiety for her parents’ health by reminding her that her “family” is her husband and son, bearing no responsibility for additional relatives. Shin now believes strongly in individual responsibility, that Shohei and Yoko need to look after themselves. As such he takes little interest in his family leaving all the childcare duties to Mari in somehow believing that children raise themselves. When the teenage Takashi (Rairu Sugita) goes off the rails and starts skipping school, Mari turns to the time old philosophy that he needs a good talking to from his father, but all Shin can come up with is that his son’s his own man and he’s sure he has his reasons. 

The young Takashi is acclimatising too, getting himself a red-haired Californian girlfriend who’s obsessed with J-pop and kanji, but later replaces him with another Asian guy when he goes back to Japan to spend time with Shohei while he’s still somewhat present. Meanwhile, Fumi works hard to realise her dream but encounters a series of disappointments both romantic and professional as she too reconsiders the idea of family and whether it’s truly possible to slide into one that has already fractured. Becoming responsible for her parents’ care shifts her into a maternal role she might not have expected, maturing in a slightly different direction while Mari remains trapped and lonely, neglected by her newly individualist husband who only cares about his research and shut out by her understandably angsty teenage son. 

Crises are, however, good for bringing people back together. Shohei it seems was a typical father of his times, distant and authoritarian, perhaps not always easy to be around. Fumi worries that she disappointed him, not becoming a teacher as he’d hoped while also failing to achieve her dreams of becoming a restaurateur, while Mari just wants what her parents had in a loving and supportive marriage surrounded by the warmth of  family. Shohei might not always have shown it, but there’s a lot unsaid in his constant desire to go “home” back to the time his kids were small. Home is where the heart is after all, even if you don’t quite remember the way. 


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Killing (斬、, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2018)

Killing posterOppressed peasantry abandoned by their lords and under threat of violence have only ronin to turn to – it’s a familiar, some might say even the archetypal, jidaigeki story. Forever the iconoclast, Shinya Tsukamoto makes his first foray into the world of the samurai, Killing (斬、, Zan,), in typically contrary fashion, turning the classic formula on its head as samurai “justice” brings only more chaos, blood, and terror to the otherwise peaceful fields of ordinary farmers in Bakumatsu-era Japan.

In return for food and lodging, Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu), a young masterless samurai, has been living alongside a village of kindly farmers who, while deferent to his status, are grateful to have him around because they are desperately short of hands. In addition to helping out with farm work, he’s also been sharing his sword skills with local boy Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) who has developed delusions of grandeur that he might one day be allowed to hold a sword of his own. Ichinosuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi), meanwhile, has become fond of the handsome samurai but is conflicted by his corruption of her brother with “samurai” values he can never hope to aspire to while she also must know that whatever she might feel nothing good can come of it because a samurai will not marry a farmer’s daughter.

The problems begin when twin threats descend on the village – first the appearance of cooler than ice ronin Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to recruit Mokunoshin for his mission to support the rule of the Shogun in Edo and Kyoto, and the second a group of bandits hovering menacingly on the horizon but as yet doing no real harm. A pragmatist at heart, Mokunoshin prefers diplomacy to action and so he talks to the bandits and rates them as minimally dangerous as long as they’re treated fairly. Unfortunately, fairness is not what they get from hotheaded Ichisuke whose small conflict with them soon sparks into a conflagration when Sawamura starts wielding the sword of justice and doing it imperfectly, bringing yet more chaos down on all their heads.

Violence spreads like a virus contracted by the sword. A victim of his ideology, Sawamura sees his blade as his whole being and the embodiment of his right to act with honour and authority. He thinks the answer is to stamp out the bandits, whereas Mokunoshin knows there are always more than it first seems and to strike at them simply means there will never be an end to the petty tit for tat reprisals. His solution is to let it lie, but to Sawamura that simply looks like cowardice and dereliction of duty.

Despite the prevailing ideology of the world in which he lives, Mokunoshin is opposed to the idea of killing yet if pressed his reasoning is less humanistic pacifism than personal discomfort. Mokunoshin may be a samurai and a fine swordsman, but he has never killed and it seems is afraid to do so. He sees those around him whom he has come to love endangered but cannot act, refusing to raise his sword while the bandits do as they please with none of the existential confusion which cripples Mokunoshin’s ability to serve his own ideals. Rather than insist on an end to the rule of the sword, Mokunoshin resents himself for wishing he could kill as easily as Sawamura and be like the other men of his age.

Yu meanwhile looks on from the sidelines as the samurai code of violence tears her world apart and finally infects her too as she finds herself, far from pleading with him not to die as a substitute for asking him not to leave, insisting that Mokunoshin be the one to fix the mess he made by infecting her brother with a samurai’s lust for glory. Sawamura, meanwhile, becomes fixated on the notion of fixing Mokunoshin through a duel to death in which it is kill or be killed. He is prepared to die for his ideal and hopes that Mokunoshin will in the end choose his life over his soul and become the prized warrior for the Shogun that he knows he is destined to be.

Opening in flames as if to imply the sword is a weapon forged in hell, Killing centres itself not so much on the act but on its repercussions. The bandits too are a product of the inequalities of their times, and if they visually resemble the ragged soldiers of Fires on the Plain it is probably no accident. The code of violence spreads from one generation to the next with inexorable inevitability. Ending in a wail of despair, Killing finds little cause for hope in its relentlessly bleak conclusion which sees no release from the meaningless cycle of violence while humanity refuses to reject the cruel and oppressive social codes which fuel its existence.


Killing was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Masahiro Takada, 2006)

honey and clover blu-rayAh youth! Chica Umino’s phenomenally popular manga Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Hachimitsu to Clover) is, essentially, a coming of age story in which love, requited and otherwise, plays a significant part. Masahiro Takada’s adaptation is no different in this respect as its central group of friends learn to come into themselves through various different kinds of heart break leading to soul searching and eventual self actualisation. The path to adulthood is rocky and strewn with anxieties, but has its own charms as our self branded Mr. Youth seems to have figured out, romanticising his own adolescence even while he lives it.

The action kicks off at an art college in Tokyo where a circle of friends is temporarily shaken by the arrival of a new student – a distant relative of a popular professor, Hanamoto (Masato Sakai). Our youth loving hero, Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), falls instantly in love with Hagu (Yu Aoi) – a genius self-taught painter with a dreamy, ethereal personality and negligible interpersonal skills. Hagu, however, seems to have developed a strange connection with conceited sculptor Morita (Yusuke Iseya) who continues to struggle with his conflicting interests in art and commerce. Meanwhile, geeky design student Mayama (Ryo Kase) has a problematic crush on his boss, Rika (Naomi Nishida), whose husband went missing some years ago, and has begun semi-stalking her. Unbeknownst to him, Mayama is also being semi-stalked by Yamada (Megumi Seki) – a spiky ceramicist who refuses to give up on her unrequited crush despite being fully aware of his one sided love for a brokenhearted middle-aged woman.

In actuality all of our protagonists are a little older than one might assume – all past the regular age for graduating college and either hanging around after being unable to complete their studies or pursuing additional training in the hope of furthering their art. They are all also hopelessly lost in terms of figuring out who they are – perhaps why they haven’t quite got a handle on their art, either. Hagu, younger than the others, seems to have an additional problem in existing outside of the mainstream, experiencing difficulties with communication and needing some additional help to get into the swing of college life. Perhaps for this reason, maverick professor Hanamoto palms her off on the “least arty” (read “most responsible”) of his students, Takemoto, who is tasked with accompanying her for meals – something for which he is quite grateful given his first brush with love on catching sight of her at her easel.

Hagu is also, however, the most sensitive and perceptive of the students even if she can only truly express herself through canvas. Her most instantaneous connection is with Morita, whose instinctive approach perhaps most closely mirrors her own though where Hagu is quiet and soulful, Morita is loud and impetuous. Watching him creating his centrepiece sculpture, Hagu is honest enough to tell Morita that he’s overdone it. Morita agrees but ends up exhibiting the piece anyway and not only that – he sells it for a serious amount of money despite knowing that it lacks artistic integrity. Hagu is unimpressed and her disapproval only adds to Morita’s sense of self loathing in his ambivalence towards to the fleeting rewards of superficial success versus the creation of artistic truth.

A similar sense of ambivalence imbues the romantic difficulties which neatly divide the group into a series of concentric love triangles. Takemoto, the selfless hero, realises the best thing he can do for Hagu is try to help Morita be less of a self-centred idiot while simultaneously dwelling on his fleeting youth and actively pursuing himself while debating whether or not to hit the road and leave his lovelorn friends to it. Mayama and Yamada, by contrast, are content to dance around each other, understanding the irony of their respective unreturned crushes while not quite bonding over them but both determined not to give up on their dreams (romantic and professional).

Despite the central positioning of our shy hero as he walks towards the end goal of being able to state his feelings plainly, the drama revolves around the enigmatic Hagu whose descent into an intense depression after an ill-advised moment on a beach is only eased by the careful attentions of her new friends finally realising that their artistic souls benefit from compassion for others rather than remaining solipsistically obsessed with their own romantic heartbreak. Despite its noble intentions, Honey and Clover misses the mark in charting the heady days of youth though our confused heroes do eventually manage to find themselves and each other along the road to adulthood as they chase down disappointments romantic and professional and discover what is they really want in the process.


Original trailer (no subtitles)