Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

“This society pampers men too much, no matter their age” according to a middle-aged woman searching for her missing son, yet in many ways it’s the primacy of the mother and maternal neglect that drive Mayu Nakamura’s eerie psychological chiller, Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Shinmitsuna Tanin). Perhaps in some ways, that’s what a mother and a son should become, of course close and loving yet each with their own lives unknown to one another but for Mrs Ishikawa those boundaries have perhaps become corrupt in her overwhelming need to embody the maternal ideal. 

Mrs Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa) lives alone and is searching for her grown-up son, Shinpei, who went missing a year ago. She has a job in shop selling baby clothes and accessories but is described by other staff members as a bit strange though they continue to invite her to afterwork gatherings knowing she won’t come. One day she gets a call from a young man, Yuji (Fuju Kamio), who says he has information about Shinpei but in reality is part of a gang running “ore ore” scams who are also looking for him because he previously worked with them. Yuji’s purpose in approaching Mrs Ishikawa is to get info out of her, but she’s a little bit ahead of him and manages to plant the seeds of a dark seduction. 

Seduced is what Yuji eventually is in a discomforting mix of the erotic and the maternal. Casting shades of Vertigo, Mrs Ishikawa persuades him to move into her apartment, sleep in Shinpei’s room, and wear his clothes keeping him a virtual prisoner while forcing him into the role of her surrogate son. As we later discover, Yuji was a teenage runaway seemingly abandoned by his mother and craves maternal affection but is ashamed of admitting and fearful of accepting it all of which would make him ideal prey for a woman like Mrs Ishikawa who at all rates seems to need a son to feel herself complete. 

At the shop where she works, Mrs Ishikawa transgressively sniffs and fondles clothes for newborn infants while at one point driven to distraction by a crying child temporarily separated from its mother to the point that she inappropriately picks it up. She appears to be totally consumed by the maternal image and to that extent or else because of some previous trauma becomes extremely hostile when confronted with her sexuality. Her horror on being picked up by a gigalo when expecting to meet a man with info about Shinpei might be understandable, but the glee on her face after slashing a man with a straight razor when he attempted to attack her is less so while Yuji’s eventual confusion about the nature of their connection highlights the discomforting intersection of the maternal and the erotic. 

We have to wonder if Shinpei simply decided to escape the grasp of an overbearing mother who could not bear to accept that her son was now a man, or if Yuji’s suspicions that he may have met a darker fate are more than mere reflections of his own fear of maternal connection. Yet like story of the bluebird of happiness that Shinpei was apparently fond of telling, perhaps each of them for a time found what they needed in the other only to lose it again on identifying the darkness that underlines their relationship. 

Listening to a report on the news, Mrs Ishikawa explains that “ore ore” scams only happen in Japan because nowhere else would a parent drop everything and run cash in hand when told a grownup son is in financial trouble which might in a sense be unfair save for the urgency, similar scams circulate via text and messaging apps in many countries. Yet the scam hints at this same level of disconnection, that the often elderly targets cannot tell that it is not their son or grandson’s voice on the phone nor realise that the information they’re being given does not make sense so estranged have families become. The coronavirus pandemic meanwhile only makes the scammers’ job easier given the loneliness of enforced isolation coupled with generalised masking which decreases the level of intimacy on both sides dehumanising the target while allowing the scammer to further conceal their identity. 

Mrs Ishikawa is in a sense wearing a permanent mask, consumed by the maternal ideal and unable to conceive of herself as anything outside of a mother. There is something unsettling and vampiric in her need as she at one point sucks blood from her finger and wields her razor with dangerous affection when offering Yuji the closest shave he’ll ever have but also a deep sadness that like the bluebird of happiness that which she most wants is always going to fly away from her one way or another. The uncanniness of the desaturated colour palate adds a further note of dread to the noirish tale of a young man seduced by Oedipal desire and drawn as much towards death as love.


Intimate Stranger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © Siglo/Omphalos Pictures

Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Takuya Kato, 2022)

“You’re a grown-up. If something’s wrong you gotta handle it” the passive aggressively condescending hero of Takuya Kato’s Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Watashitachi wa Otona) chastises, but what even really is being “grown-up” when you find yourself in a situation which is emotionally difficult and will define the future course of your life. Shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 and told in a non-linear fashion, Kato’s intense drama lays bare the inequalities of a patriarchal society in which in a sense there are no real grown-ups because no one is ever comfortable enough with anyone else to be able to speak their real feelings honestly. 

This becomes a particular problem for college student Yumi (Mai Kiryu) who discovers that she is pregnant but is uncertain as to who the father might be having had a one night stand during the time her live-in boyfriend Naoya (Kisetsu Fujiwara) had broken up with her. Yumi immediately tells Naoya that there’s a chance the baby isn’t his, but remains otherwise reticent unwilling to talk about what might have happened while filled with an internal panic. Naoya thinks he’s being grown-up about the situation by deciding to accept responsibility given the probability that he is the father but despite pledging that he would accept the baby even if it turned out he wasn’t can’t stop trying to pressure Yumi into a DNA test for peace of mind. 

The irony is that even Naoya, who was Yumi’s first sexual partner, refused to wear a condom and joked about contraception before making her go on the pill when he moved in with her. Later we learn that the one night stand violated her consent by again refusing to wear a condom and ignoring her objections, later joking about it that the chances of conception are incredibly small while making it clear that men in general don’t consider pregnancy as something that happens to them and because, as one of Yumi’s friends puts it, they only chase “innocent” girls they don’t seem to worry about the possibility of contracting an STI. Meanwhile, Yumi is constantly stalked by a fellow student she briefly dated who presents her with a memory book of their relationship and is always creepily hanging around waiting to give her gifts, but all her friends can seem to talk about is boyfriends implying that a bad boyfriend might be better than none. 

Yet Yumi seems to have intimacy issues that run even deeper, for some reason not even telling Naoya that her mother has passed away leaving him to think she has run away from their problems by returning home just when he’s ready to tell her his decision about their future. When her father asks about boyfriends she brushes the question off though perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her relationship status with Naoya or what she’s going to do about the baby. She calls her friend to hear a friendly voice after hearing her mother has died but gets little sympathy, the same friend later abruptly hanging up on her after getting a boyfriend of her own while knowing of Yumi’s romantic troubles. 

Then again, it’s hard to know whether Naoya was really interested in her or in her lovely duplex apartment. When they started dating he was still living with his ex and it’s obvious that Yumi fully conforms to the feminine ideal taking care of all the domestic tasks while it isn’t even clear if Naoya is contributing in any way to the household. The film both begins and ends with Yumi making breakfast, firstly toasting the last slice of bread for Naoya while suffering with what turns out to be morning sickness, and finally making herself something to eat in the early light of dawn. Naoya says he’s give up on his dreams of working in theatre to get a regular job, again conforming to an outdated patriarchal ideal, but of course resents it particularly because he doubts the child is his while Yumi isn’t really sure she wants to go through with it either for some of the same reasons but is swayed by Naoya’s determination to make all their decisions for them unable to say out loud that she might not be ready to become a mother. 

Naoya is always trying to be grown-up about everything, but more often than not his understanding approach is partway towards passive aggressive control in insisting that Yumi is being childish in her anxiety and confusion while simultaneously avoiding having to admit that he isn’t really ready either. Early in their relationship he breaks up with her by simply returning her apartment key and refusing to elaborate, failing to treat her with respect or maturity and once again leaving her to deal with the fallout of their relationship all alone. Then again, Yumi’s determination to convince him that green peas are good may signal that the relationship was always doomed when they couldn’t even reach a grown-up understanding over something as trivial as taste in veg. A raw examination of what it is to be young and faced with a decision that will define the rest of your life, Kato’s naturalistic drama perhaps suggests that it never really gets any easier to say how you really feel when you feel that someone is judging you all the way. 


Grown-ups screens at Lincoln Center 23d July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022“Grown-ups” Production Committee

Forgiven Children (許された子どもたち, Eisuke Naito, 2020)

“You can’t steal a life and get off the hook” a sheepish young man is told by an unsympathetic police officer pushing him to confess his crime, but the “justice” he will later face will be of a less official kind. Eisuke Naito’s ironically named Forgiven Children (許された子どもたち, Yurusareta Kodomotachi) is, in some ways, a tale of sympathy for the bully in the acknowledgement that a bully can be a victim too, but it’s also a condemnation of a bullying society defined by pent up, misdirected rage in which wounded people take out their hurts for thousands of petty humiliations on those they see as in some way vulnerable in an attempt to prove that they are not. 

The “hero”, Kira (Yu Uemura), was mercilessly bullied in primary school. The first time we meet him he is wandering wounded, bleeding profusely while stumbling home without shoes. Some years later, now 13, Kira has a scar on his cheek and a mean look in his eye. At school he’s an angry young man and petty delinquent while at home a dutiful son cheerfully singing karaoke with his loving parents. Everything changes one day when he bullies another boy into bringing a homemade crossbow to the riverbank. Without really knowing why, Kira fires it and pierces him through the neck. Terrified, the other boys flee leaving Itsuki (Takuya Abe) to die alone by the water undiscovered for hours. 

Kira and the others are not that smart. They’re on CCTV heading to the riverbank, and there are messages on Itsuki’s phone from Kira telling him to meet them there. It is obvious they are involved though in legal terms the evidence is circumstantial. The policeman who visits encourages Kira to confess, implying it was an accident, or risk further punishment if he says he’s innocent and is later found not to be. Kira confesses, but his overprotective mother (Yoshi Kuroiwa) convinces him to recant, hires a fancy lawyer who bullies the only one of the other boys brave enough to tell the truth into straightening his story, and gets him off but the right wing internet trolls have already gone into overdrive and guilty or not Kira will not be allowed forget his crime. 

This is of course ironically another kind of bullying. The constant through-line is that Kira is the way he is because of the bullying he endured in primary school. He is a young man consumed by rage and taking revenge for being made to feel small and vulnerable by making others feel the same. After being forced to move around a few times, Kira ends up in a new school where they’re supposed to discuss how to address the bullying problem but worryingly most of the other kids have no desire to solve it. Rather than ask why people bully others, they universally blame the victims, insisting that it is their own fault simply for being the sort of people who get bullied. That might be because they are in some way different or vulnerable, but oftentimes is just a cosmic quirk of personality. Of course, bullies rarely think of themselves in those terms, which might be why one particularly vindictive young man voices the worrying principle of “justifiable bullying”, branding himself as a hero of justice as he prepares to unmask Kira as a murderer in hiding. 

Kira meanwhile remains conflicted, unable to come to terms with his crime or his internalised rage. Some might feel his bullying is indeed “justifiable” because in this case he is guilty and could make some of it at least stop by engaging in dialogue with Itsuki’s parents even if he cannot expect to be forgiven and must consent to carry the burden of his crime for the rest of his life, but it does not excuse the wholesale hounding of himself and family which prevents any kind of future restitution. Why is this society so angry that people go online to issue death threats against a 13-year-old boy over a crime that has absolutely nothing to do with them, what it is that they are really so outraged about? Kira is merely a product of an inescapable spiral of misdirected rage and emotional austerity. 

The children turn a blind eye to the bullying of others, or are encouraged to join in to avoid becoming victims themselves while adults claim to want to help but only contribute to the stigmatisation of those who are bullied. Kira says he thinks that he had a reason for doing what he did, but no longer remembers, later refocussing his rage on bullies to avoid having to recognise the bully in himself. But society is itself a bully, consumed by misdirected rage and a socially conservative tendency to blame and exclude rather than understand which ensures that there can be no end to the cycle of violence and abuse until society learns to look within itself. 


Forgiven Children was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)