Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?, Masayuki Suo, 1996)

If your life has gone pretty well and you’ve more or less achieved conventional success but you’re still somehow unhappy then what is it that you’re supposed to do? Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), the hero of Masayuki Suo’s charming ballroom dancing dramedy Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?) is beginning to wonder, after all he’s a “serious” man as his wife repeatedly describes him but is it really acceptable for a middle-aged husband and father to chase emotional fulfilment or would he be cheating on the salaryman dream in daring to nourish his soul?

As he later says, Sugiyama has followed a conventional path in life. He has a respectable job as an accountant, married at 28 and had a child at 30. By 40 he was able to buy a family home, but also acknowledges that he sold his soul to the company to do so seeing as with the mortgage hanging over his head he is now fully locked in to the corporate system and couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. Yet he’s not quite like his co-workers, an early scene sees the roles somewhat reversed as he, the boss, declines the invitations of a drunken subordinate to stay out longer after an effectively compulsory after work drinking session to return to his family home at only 9pm but going straight to bed when he gets there. He and his wife Masako (Hideko Hara) share a room but sleep in separate beds presumably so he doesn’t wake her when he gets up early to go to the office making his own breakfast before he leaves. 

“It’s not a matter of like or dislike, it’s work” Sugiyama tells his co-worker as she complains that the more glamorous sales department gets all the best perks and she’s sick of working in accounts, hinting at his inner malaise in his relentlessly corporate life. That’s one reason he’s captivated by the sight of a beautiful yet sad woman gazing out of a window from a building above on his train journey home. When he gets off the train to look for her, he in one sense leaves the salaryman rails breaking with the conventions that he is expected to fulfil in search of something more. Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a former ballroom dancer taking a temporary sabbatical from competitive sport teaching at her father’s studio, is just as unhappy as he is but for contrary reasons. She has lost the joy of dance, for her it has become as soulless a job as Sugiyama’s accountancy and she too struggles with the image she has of a dancer and what that means for her in terms of personal fulfilment. 

Yet as Sugiyama explains in his opening voiceover, ballroom dancing is viewed as something of a naff hobby mostly associated with sleazy old men only there for the opportunity of physical contact with women of varying ages. When he spots his co-worker Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) at the dance class it’s embarrassing for both of them, each promising not to say anything to anyone at work, the floor later erupting in laughter when someone finds a picture of Aoki taken at a competition in the newspaper. Developing an interest in the sport, Sugiyama buys a ballroom dancing magazine but interrupted by his daughter quickly hides it as if he had been looking at pornography or some other material he feels to be shameful. 

The irony is that Masako had wished Sugiyama would go out more, realising that he’s selflessly dedicated himself to the salaryman dream in order to provide for their family, but then becomes suspicious and resentful as he leaves her alone to pursue his new hobby which he cannot disclose to her out of embarrassment. She in turn sniffing perfume on his shirts fears he’s having an affair, but is unable to ask him about it directly preferring to hire a private detective (Akira Emoto) instead. Leaving aside that each of them ends up secretly spending money when they’re supposed to be saving for the mortgage, the oppressive social conformity of the salaryman existence is beginning to erode their relationship. Forced into the role of the conventional housewife, Masako too is lonely expected to find fulfilment only in home and family while preparing to re-enter the world of work now her daughter is old enough to care for herself because of the financial burden of the mortgage rather than her own desire to fulfil herself. Sugiyama isn’t having an affair, but still she feels betrayed because he left her behind to chase emotional liberation on his own rather than taking her with him never really noticing her loneliness. 

Yet as Sugiyama is repeatedly told, dancing, unlike the salaryman game, is about more than learning the steps, it’s about feeling the music and finding joy in movement. That’s something Mai has also lost sight of, finally realising that she too was a selfish dancer who’d been dancing alone all along unable to fully trust her partner rediscovering her joy in dance as she coaches not only Sugiyama but his classmates towards their own liberation. Sugiyama remains conflicted because the excessively corporatised society leads him to believe that it’s taboo to devote oneself to anything other than work or in essence to experience joy that is not directly related to productivity, that he should be wholly “salaryman” and nothing else, just his wife should be nothing more than that. It’s this oppressive conformity that undermines their conventional marriage rather than Sugiyama’s transgressive decision to get off the salaryman train, put down his briefcase, and embrace his desire for personal fulfilment. Only through this act of mutual emotional authenticity can they restore familial harmony. A minor meditation on the emptiness of the increasingly elusive salaryman dream in the economically stagnant ’90s, Suo’s charming drama insists on joy as a basic human need in a society which often trivialises personal happiness.


Shall We Dance? screens at the BFI on 21/30 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fancy Dance (ファンシイダンス, Masayuki Suo, 1989)

Thematically speaking, the films of Masayuki Suo have two main focuses either dealing with esoteric ways of life in contemporary Japan such as sumo wrestling in Sumo Do Sumo Don’t, ballroom dancing in Shall We Dance?, and geisha in Lady Maiko, or pressing social issues such the operation of the justice system in I Just Didn’t Do It or euthanasia in A Terminal Trust. After making his debut with pink film Abnormal Family: Older Brother’s Bride, Suo’s first mainstream feature Fancy Dance (ファンシイダンス) belongs to the former category as a Bubble-era punk rocker finds himself entering a temple to honour a familial legacy. 

As the film opens, Yohei (Masahiro Motoki) is onstage singing a very polite and respectable version of a classic song, Wakamonotachi (lit. the young), made popular as the theme to a television drama in the mid-1960s, before suddenly turning around, the other half of his head already shaved continuing with the same song but now in an anarchic punk rock arrangement. The son of Buddhist temple, he is expected to become a monk and take over the family business but he’s also a young man coming of age in the ultra-materialist Bubble era raised in the city and with little inclination towards the ideals of Zen. In fact, we learn he’d long resisted the idea of entering a monastery and has only recently given in intending to stick it out for a year in order to please his parents and then return to to his Tokyo life. 

His hair reflects an inner duality, torn between his duty to take up Zen and his desire for personal freedom. Yet as he’s repeatedly told by his razor-wielding office lady girlfriend Masoho (Honami Suzuki), in the end he’s going to have to choose which from her point of view means choosing between her and the temple. Though there is obviously no prohibition on monks getting married, Yohei is the son of a monk after all, girlfriends are one of many things not really allowed during his initiatory period though as we’ll see the monastic life is often more about knowing how to game the system than it is about actually sticking to the rules. It’s a minor irony that temples, Buddhist or Shinto, are actually one of the most lucrative businesses in Japanese society and despite apparently rejecting material desire many monks are fantastically wealthy. Yohei’s fellow noviciate Eishun (Hikomaro) is dropped off by a young woman in a bright red sports car who turns out to be the daughter of a monk, Eishun only entering the temple to please her family so that he can marry her, committing himself out of love but also admitting it’s nice work if you can get it. 

Yohei’s brother Ikuo (Ken Ohsawa) is also fine with the idea of becoming a monk, describing it perhaps surprisingly as an “easy life”. Ikuo’s presence is initially a little irritating to Yohei, he only agreed because he was under the impression Ikuo had also declined to enter the temple and feels that he’s been tricked when he could have just let him train to take over the family “business”. The treatment they receive is often surprisingly harsh with a high level of physical violence administered by their superiors, in particular the more experienced Koki (Naoto Takenaka) who has it seems figured out how to break the rules in an acceptable fashion carrying on a secret romance with a young woman who often attends the temple while visiting hostess bars in the town in disguise, wearing a wig to cover his distinctive monastic hairstyle. Meanwhile, even the supposedly austere master of asceticism Shoei (Miyako Koda) has a secret stash of sweets in their room. The message seems to be that once you “graduate” from the junior ranks you too are free to interpret the tenets of a Zen life however you see fit. 

Yet despite himself, Yohei comes to appreciate the trappings of monasticism most particularly in its graceful movements and the aesthetic quality of the outfits. The temple may not be free of the consumerist corruptions of the Bubble era, but perhaps there is something it for a man like Yohei, a different kind of “freedom” than he’d envisioned but freedom all the same even within the constraints of a superficial asceticism. Masoho meanwhile rejects her own fancy dance in refusing to play the part of the conventional office lady no longer smiling sweetly cute and invisible but dressing in her own individual style and defiantly taking command of the room. The strains of Wakamonotachi recur throughout hinting at Yohei’s youthful confusion as he tries to decide on his path in or out of the temple while finding himself “swimming in a sea of desire between Masoho and Zen”, perhaps concluding that his own endless journey has only just begun.


Fancy Dance streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 alongside Suo’s 2019 Taisho-era drama Talking the Pictures as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Wakamonotachi TV drama theme by The Broadside Four (1966)

Music video for the updated theme from the 2014 TV drama remake (known as All About My Siblings) performed by Naotaro Moriyama

The New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Naoto Yamakawa, 1986)

“Isn’t this style called surrealism?” a little girl asks, watching a WWII GI giving John Ford’s Monument Valley a post-modern makeover depicting John Lennon and a Martian in preparation for a live concert by hip girlband ZELDA. Arriving at the beginning of the Bubble era, Naoto Yamakawa’s 35mm commercial feature debut The New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Billy the Kid no Atarashii Yoake) was the first film to be produced by the entertainment arm of department store chain Parco (along with record label Vap) which also distributed and draws inspiration from several stories by genre pioneer Genichiro Takahashi who at one point appears on screen proclaiming singer-songwriter Miyuki Nakajima, a version of whom appears as a character, as one of the three greatest Japanese poets of the age. What transpires is largely surreal, but also a kind of post-modern allegory in which the world is beset by the “anxiety and destruction” of salaryman society. 

Yamakawa opens in black and white and in Monument Valley in which only the figure of a young man in a cowboy outfit is in vivid colour while a voiceover from the American President warns that a savage band of gangsters is currently holding the world to ransom. Yet “Monument Valley” turns out to be only an image filling the wall of Bar Slaughterhouse, the cowboy, Billy the Kid (Hiroshi Mikami) stepping out of the painting having lost his horse and apparently in search of a job. The barman (Renji Ishibashi) is reluctant to give him one, after all he has six bodyguards already ranging from the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi to an anthropomorphism of Directory Enquiries, 104 (LaSalle Ishii). Nevertheless, after threatening to leave (through the front door) Billy asks for a job as a waiter instead in return for food and board while collecting the bounty for any gangsters he kills in the course of his duties. 

The bar is in some senses an imaginary place, or at least a space of the imagination, the sanctuary of “construction and creation” where half-remembered pop culture references mingle freely. In that sense it stands in direct opposition to the salaryman reality of Bubble-era Japan where everyone works all the time and the only interests which matter are corporate. Billy takes a liking to a young office lady, “Charlotte Rampling” (Kimie Shingyoji), who complains that she’s overcome with a sense of anxiety in the crushing sameness of her life, often woken by the sound of herself grinding her teeth that is when she’s not too tired to fall asleep. The “gangsters” which eventually crash in (literally) are businessmen and authority figures, one revealing as he raids the till that he’s a dissatisfied civil servant who determined that in order to become the best of the salarymen you need an “interesting” hobby so his is being in a gang. Another later gives a speech remarking again on this sense of inner anxiety that in their soulless desk jobs they’re moving further and further away from this world of “creation and construction”, and that the sacrifice of their individuality has provoked the kind of violent madness which enables this nihilistic “terrorist” enforcement of the corporatist society against which Miyuki (Shigeru Muroi), another of the bodyguards dressed as a retro 50s-style roller diner waitress, rebels through her poetry. 

Envisioned as a single set drama (save the bookending Monument Valley scenes apparently filmed on location in Arizona) Yamanaka’s drama is infinitely meta, in part a minor parody of Seven Samurai featuring a Miyamoto Musashi inspired by Kurosawa’s Kyuzo who was himself inspired by Miyamoto Musashi as the seven pop culture bodyguards stand guard over a saloon-style cafe bar beset by the forces of “order” turned modern-day bandits intent on crushing the artistic spirit in order to facilitate the rise of a boring salaryman corporate drone society. Yet for all of its absurdist humour, Harry Callahan (Yoshio Harada) telling a strange story about being a race horse, there is something quietly moving in Yamakawa’s ethereal transitions, the camera gently pulling back as a little girl who wanted to travel is suddenly surrounded by snow or the face of anxious young office lady fading into that of a prairie woman telling a bizarre tale of her life with a venomous snake. Equally a vehicle for girlband ZELDA whose music recurs throughout, the first stage number a hippyish affair set in a summer garden and the second an emo goth aesthetic more suited to what’s about to happen, Yamakawa’s zeitgeisty, post-modern drama is an advocation for the importance of the creative spirit if in another meta touch itself a rebellion against the corporate and consumerist emptiness of Bubble-era Japan. 


The New Morning of Billy the Kid streams worldwide 3rd to 5th December with newly prepared English subtitles alongside two of Yamakawa’s earlier shorts courtesy of Matchbox Cine.

Original trailer (English subtitles available via CC button)

Miyuki Nakajima’s debut single, Azami-jo no Lullaby (1975)

ZELDA’s Ogon no Jikan

Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2001)

Japan has really taken the underdog triumphs genre of sports comedy to its heart but there can be few better examples than Shinobu Yaguchi’s 2001 teenage boys x synchronised swimming drama Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ). Where the conventional sports movie may rely on the idea of individual triumph(s), Waterboys, like many similarly themed Japanese movies, has group unity at its core as our group of disparate and previously downtrodden high school boys must find their common rhythm in order to truly be themselves. Setting high school antics to one side and attempting to subvert the normal formula as much as possible, Yaguchi presents a celebration of acceptance and assimilation as difference is never elided but allowed to add to a growing harmony as the boys discover all new sides of themselves in their quest for water borne success.

Dreamy high school boy Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is currently the only member of his high school’s swimming team, and unfortunately he’s not a particularly good swimmer. His interest is piqued when he spots a synchronised swim meet, but he forgets all about it until a new teacher arrives and pledges to revive the school’s fortunes in the pool. Seeing as their new teacher is a pretty young woman with an interest in swimming, the team suddenly becomes much more popular but when she reveals her synchronised swimmer past numbers dwindle once again. Unfortunately, the hot new teacher suddenly has to leave the school so the boys are left to fend for themselves in their new and possibly embarrassing career in a generally feminine sport.

Being teenage boys who only started this whole thing because of the pretty teacher, most of the other guys are are looking for a way out but they also don’t like to be called quitters and so they become determined to make a success of themselves. Suzuki, who secretly wanted to become a synchronised swimmer anyway, is the most committed but also, perhaps, the least confident in his choice of sport as he embarks on a tentative romance with a girl from another school – herself an enthusiast of the more masculine karate. Terrified that she will find out and laugh at him, Suzuki goes to great lengths to avoid telling her what it he really does in his club activities, possibly putting the growing romance at risk in the process.

This mild challenge to masculinity is the main joke of the film but Yaguchi neatly subverts as the guys become cool again thanks to mastering a difficult skill and creating an impressive spectacle through hard work and group mentality. The boys gain an unlikely mentor in the form of a dolphin trainer at Sea World who they hope will be able to train them in the same way he trains his marine creatures but quickly sets them off on some Karate Kid style practical training which involves a lot of menial tasks around the park before dumping them at the local arcade to play dance dance revolution until they learn the art of synchronicity through the power of idol pop. Waterboys is, essentially, a hymn to the harmonious society as the boys eventually find their common rhythm and the power that comes from many acting as one.

Unusually, this does not requite a loss of individuality or for any erasure of essential personality traits but rather a greater need for acceptance as difference merely adds to the strength of the whole. Though there are a fair few gay jokes in what is essentially a movie about high school boys in skimpy trunks, the joke is not homosexuality but reactions to it as Yaguchi adopts a “get over it” attitude and so when one of the boys does confess his love for another it’s treated with no particular reaction other than lack of surprise. Similarly the cross dressing mama-san from the local gay club (a surprising turn from Akira Emoto) becomes one of their greatest supporters and may provide comic relief but is never a figure of fun. In order to succeed the boys will need to be in tune with each other, but that in tune sounds better when it allows for harmony rather than insisting on dull monotony.

Visually inventive and often hilarious, Waterboys lacks the heart of Yaguchi’s similarly plotted Swing Girls but nevertheless succeeds in its tale of inexperienced young guys working hard and achieving the impossible, growing up and discovering new things about themselves as they do. Waterboys may be lighthearted, crowd pleasing fun, but its good natured message that great things are possible when determined people work hard at them together, and that group harmony does not necessarily require social conformity, only add to its warm and gentle tone.


Korean trailer (Korean captions/subtitles only)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Suzuki Matsuo, 2007)

welcome-to-the-quiet-roomEveryone has those little moments in life where you think “how did I get here?”, but thankfully most of them do not occur strapped to a table in an entirely white, windowless room. This is, indeed, where the heroine of Suzuki Matsuo’s adaptation of his own novel Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Quiet Room ni Yokoso) finds herself after a series of events she can’t remember but which seem to have involved pills and booze. A much needed wake up call, Asuka’s spell in the Quiet Room provides a long overdue opportunity to slow down and take a long hard look at herself but self knowledge can be a heavy burden.

After her initial confusion, Asuka (Yuki Uchida) is informed by the no nonsense matron, Eguchi (Ryo), that she’s been brought in after an overdose. Everyone seems to assume it’s a suicide attempt, though Asuka can’t remember a thing. Apparently her roommate found her and called and ambulance and has now signed the committal papers which means Asuka is stuck here until the doctors say she’s fit to leave. Aside from the obvious, this is bad news because Asuka has a series of tight deadlines she’s been busting her gut to meet and is worried about losing her contracts. Whatever she might feel about it, it seems as if Asuka will have to rely on the kindness of strangers a little longer before she can finally get back to her exciting freelance world.

Aspects of Asuka’s previous life are illuminated gradually through flashback accompanied by her post-committal deadpan voiceover. After a brief career as a model, Asuka got married, divorced, and then hooked up with her present roommate, Tetsuo (Kankuro Kudo), who hooked her up with a series of freelance writing gigs which have only contributed to her stress levels with their ever present deadlines. Prior to her hospitalisation, Asuka was a rather silly, perky woman with a self confessed preference for “idiots” when it came to her circle of friends. Slowly and in the absence of her regular methods of self medication, all of Asuka’s illusions about herself and the way she was living her life begin to crumble. Finally able to cut through the noise, Asuka is forced to come to terms with a significant amount of guilt relating to a decision taken during her marriage whilst also acknowledging the effect crippling depression has had on her way of life.

Whilst in the hospital, Asuka comes in to contact with the other residents who have various needs and demands, each exemplifying the problems plaguing modern women. Tellingly, the majority of the women on the ward are younger – some just teenagers or young adults, all suffering with various kinds of eating disorders. One such patient, Miki (Yu Aoi), quickly befriends Asuka and teaches her how to survive in the increasingly surreal hospital environment. Asuka later makes friends with another recovering overdose patient around her own age, Kurita (Yuko Nakamura), but conversely finds herself harassed by the ward’s resident fixer, former adult video actress Nishino (Shinobu Ootake), while other residents make repeated escape attempts or go to great lengths to set their hair on fire.

Asuka’s Wizard of Oz inspired outfit, hair, and the silver Dorothy slippers which play into a repeated motif of Asuka’s memories of a high school culture festival, all reinforce the idea of the hospital as a strange otherworldly place in which Asuka will be residing temporarily until she completes her quest. The temporary nature of the space gives Asuka’s journey a rather melancholy atmosphere as she’s encouraged to forget all about her time there when transitioning back to the “real world” meaning that the fragile bonds and friendships created during in her hospital sojourn will have to be left behind. Finally learning to calm down and take charge of herself, Asuka rediscovers a long absent inner strength and the last image we see of her is in raucous laughter after an catching sight of an improbable event through a car window.

Matsuo opts for a less madcap treatment than the far out comedy of Otakus in Love but carefully balances an absurd sense of humour with dramatic weight as Asuka’s personal discoveries are intercut with increasingly surreal episodes. Yuki Uchida shines in a early comeback role as the two very different Asukas even if she almost has the show stolen out from her by another beautiful performance from Yu Aoi as the sensitive goth Miki. Tackling a weighty subject with warmth and good humour, Welcome to the Quiet Room is another characteristically off the wall character piece from Suzuki, but all the better for it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)