Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Hiroshi Ando, 2017)

Moon and Thunder posterThe family is coming in for another round of fierce criticism in Japanese cinema where the “family drama” has long been revered as a representative genre. Hiroshi Ando who has hitherto been more interested in atypical romantic relationships is the latest to reconsider whether family is really all it’s cracked up to be in adapting Mitsuyo Kakuta’s novel, Moon and Thunder (月と雷, Tsuki to Kaminari). Two children from dysfunctional homes now fully grown struggle to adapt themselves to the nature of adult society, unsure if they should remove themselves from it entirely or force themselves into the socially expected roles they fear they don’t know how to play. Yet perhaps what they find in the end is not so much a talent for conventionality as an acceptance of life’s many imperfections.

20-something Yasuko (Eriko Hatsune) lives alone in her family home following the death of her father (Jun Murakami). She has an unsatisfying job in the local supermarket and is in an unsatisfying relationship with a co-worker who wants to get married but she isn’t convinced. Yasuko’s striving for an “ordinary” life is disrupted when Satoru (Kengo Kora), the son of one her father’s former girlfriends who lived with them for a few months 20 years ago, suddenly tracks her down. The reconnection between them is instant and easy but also confused, somewhere between siblings and lovers as they resume the physical intimacy they shared as children but on an adult level.

Satoru, a drifter like his flighty mother (Tamiyo Kusakari), pushes Yasuko towards a consideration of the idea of family which she’d long been resisting. She becomes determined to track down the biological mother who abandoned her when she was just a toddler, hoping to find some kind of answer to the great riddle of her life. Her birth mother, however, fails her once again. Kazuyo, faking tears for the reality show cameras reuniting her with her daughter, is a selfish woman who claims she left her country home because it was boring and that she left her daughter behind because she said she didn’t want to go. Feeling as if she’s being blamed for her own abandonment Yasuko is left with only more confusion and resentment but does at least discover something by accidentally encountering her younger half-sister, Arisa (Takemi Fujii), who shows her that life with her mother might not have been very much different than without.

Yasuko and Satoru revert to their childhood selves because that brief period 20 years ago is the only time either of them ever experienced what they felt to be a “normal” family life as they played together happily and were well fed and cared for by adults acting responsibly. It was however all over too soon – Naoko, Satoru’s drifting mother, upped and left just as she always does. Someone probably left her years ago, and now she makes sure to leave them first before she can be can rejected. Naoko is the only “mother” Yasuko can remember, and her abandonment the most painful in her long memory of abandonments. First came Satoru, and then Arisa her sister, and finally Naoko too returning, filling Yasuko’s home with an instant family that at times seems too perverse and difficult to bear.

Yet she struggles with the idea of “family” itself as something she’s supposed to want but perhaps doesn’t out of fear it will fail her. She considers marrying her workplace boyfriend even though it appears she doesn’t particularly like him and they aren’t suited, solely because his proposal offers her the “normal”, “conventional” kind of life she both fears and longs for. With Satoru she has found a kind of love that is more complicated than most, two lonely children looking for a home and finding it in each other but each fearing that they will not be able to bear the anxiety of its potential end. Yet rather than continue onward along the same dull path she’d walked before, longing for soulless normality, what Yasuko discovers is that she’ll be OK on her own even if things don’t work out in the way that most would consider “normal”. Abandoning past and future, Yasuko begins to accept her presence in the present as a woman with possibilities rather than a passive object clinging onto the life raft of “normality”, accepting that nothing is forever but that once something starts it never really ends.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録, Kei Ishikawa, 2017)

gukoroku posterGenerally speaking, murder mysteries progress along a clearly defined path at the end of which stands the killer. The path to reach him is his motive, a rational explanation for an irrational act. Yet, looking deeper there’s usually something else going on. It’s easy to blame society, or politics, or the economy but all of these things can be mitigating factors when it comes to considering the motives for a crime. Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録), the debut feature from Kei Ishikawa and an adaptation of a novel by Tokuro Nukui, shows us a world defined by unfairness and injustice, in which there are no good people, only the embittered, the jealous, and the hopelessly broken. Less about the murder of a family than the murder of the family, Gukoroku’s social prognosis is a bleak one which leaves little room for hope in an increasingly unfair society.

When we first meet Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) he’s riding a bus. Ominous music plays as a happy family gets off but the real drama starts when another passenger irritatedly instructs Tanaka to give up his seat so an elderly lady can sit down. He snorts a little but gets up only to fall down next to the steps to the doors and subsequently walk off with a heavy limp. The man who told him to move looks sheepish and embarrassed, but as soon as the bus passes from view Tanaka starts walking normally, an odd kind of smirk on his face in thought of his petty revenge.

In one sense the fact that Tanaka faked a disability is irrelevant, the man did not consider that Tanaka may himself have needed a seat despite looking like a healthy man approaching early middle age. Perhaps, he’ll think twice about making such assumptions next time – then again appearances and assumptions are the lifeblood of this mysteriously complicated case.

Tanaka has a lot on his plate – his younger sister, Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima), has been arrested for neglecting her daughter who remains in intensive care dangerously underweight from starvation. In between meeting with her lawyer and checking on his niece, he’s also working on an in-depth piece of investigative reporting centring on a year old still unsolved case of a brutal family murder. Tanaka begins by interviewing friends of the husband before moving onto the wife who proves much more interesting. Made for each other in many ways, this husband and wife duo had made their share of enemies any of whom might have had good reason for taking bloody vengeance.

The killer’s identity, however, is less important than the light the crime shines on pervasive social inequality. As one character points out, Japan is a hierarchical society, not necessarily a class based one, meaning it is possible to climb the ladder. This proves true in some senses as each of our protagonists manipulates the others, trying to get the best possible outcome for themselves. These are cold and calculating people, always keeping one eye on the way they present themselves and the other on their next move – genuine emotion is a weakness or worse still, a tool to be exploited.

The key lies all the way back in university where rich kids rule the roost and poor ones work themselves to the bone just trying to keep up. There are “insiders” and “outsiders” and whatever anyone might say about it, they all secretly want in to the elite group. Here is where class comes in, no matter how hard you try for acceptance, the snobby rich kids will always look down on those they feel justified in regarding as inferior. They may let you come to their parties, take you out for fancy meals, or invite you to stay over but you’ll never be friends. The irony is that the system only endures because everyone permits it, the elites keep themselves on top by dangling the empty promise that someday you could be an elite too safe in the knowledge that they only hire in-house candidates.

Gradually Tanaka’s twin concerns begin to overlap. The traces of sin extend to his own door as he’s forced to examine the legacy of his own traumatic childhood and fractured family background. The reason the killer targeted the “happy” family is partly vengeance for a series of life ruining wrongs, but also a symbolic gesture stabbing right at the heart of society itself which repeatedly failed to protect them from harm. Betrayed at every turn, there’s only so much someone can take before their rage, pain, and disillusionment send them over the edge.

Despite the predictability of the film’s final twist, Ishikawa maintains tension and intrigue, drip feeding information as Tanaka obtains it though that early bus incident reminds us that even he is not a particularly reliable narrator. Ishikawa breaks with his grim naturalism for a series of expressionistic dream sequences in which hands paw over a woman’s body until they entirely eclipse her, a manifestation of her lifelong misuse which has all but erased her sense of self-worth. There are no good people here, only users and manipulators – even the abused eventually pass their torment on to the next victim whether they mean to or not. Later, Tanaka gets on another bus and gives up his seat willingly in what seems to be the film’s first and only instance of altruism but even this small gesture of resistance can’t shake the all-pervading sense of hopeless loneliness.


Gukoroku – Traces of Sin was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Hiroshi Ando, 2014)

Undulant FeverOne of the most surprising things about the 1978 novel When I Sense the Sea is that its author was only 18 years old when the book was published. Though the protagonist begins as a 16 year old high school girl, author Kei Nakazawa follows her on into adulthood as the damage done to her teenage psyche radiates like a series of tiny, branching chasms stretching far back into a difficult childhood. This 2015 adaptation from Hiroshi Ando, Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Umi wo Kanjiru Toki), maintains a distant and detached tone which, while not shying away from the erotic nature of the discussion, is quick to underline the unfulfilling and often utilitarian nature of the central couple’s relationship.

Beginning in the “contemporary” 1970s era of the film, Emiko (Yui Ichikawa) and Hiroshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) enjoy a strangely lonely trip to the zoo and later an intimate, if odd, love making session at home. They seem a fairly settled couple but there’s something not quite right between them. On flashing back to their teenage years we learn how they met – as members of the high school newspaper club when Hiroshi was a year above Emiko. The pair quickly embark on a messy sexual relationship but when Emiko declares her love for him, Hiroshi coldly tells her that he was never interested in her as a person but merely as an anonymous body which could easily be replaced by any other female form. Despite his harsh treatment of her and her mother’s eventual discovery of the affair, Emiko continues to pursue Hiroshi until finally he does come to feel something for her which might be described as love. However, at this late stage of the game Emiko’s notions of love, sex, and desire have become so hopelessly confused that she is unable to comprehend the emotional landscape of her life.

It would be easy to read the case of Emiko as one of the “God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later” blues (to borrow a phrase from Sondheim), but it’s a little more complicated than that. After her father died at a young age Emiko was raised alone by her widowed mother who seems to cut an austere and somewhat distant figure. Her reaction to finding out about Emiko’s relationship with Hiroshi, which only occurs in the first place due to an extreme betrayal of trust, is veering into Carrie territory and only further emphasises how little emotional support Emiko has received from her central parental figure.

After having battled so hard to win some kind of attention from her cold and distant mother, Emiko learns to allow herself to be used and abused by uncaring men in the hope of one day winning their love. Hiroshi is not the focus of the narrative and his problems are less well addressed but no less interesting. His constant pleas with Emiko to simply leave him alone because he because he doesn’t care about her take on a passive aggressive quality in which one starts to wonder if it’s an oddly sado-masochistic way of ensuring she does exactly the opposite. The more he ignores her, the more she is committed to staying by his side. Though Emiko seems to be aware of how cruelly he treats her, she is unable to stop needing him even if she ruins her own life for nothing more than the simple reward of remaining in his general vicinity.

Undulant Fever is a deeply probing exploration of sex and desire and particularly how early relationships can forge the course of a person’s life. An earnest character drama, the film moves at a considered pace which leaves ample room for its protagonists’ complicated emotions. The cold and dispassionate approach is a perfect match for the heroine’s depressed and confused emotional state which leaves her doubting her entire concept of self as she travels from unloved teenage girl to a confused adult woman approaching an unsettled middle age. The surprisingly astute observations of the novel also ring true in the film which captures the book’s late ‘70s feminist leanings whilst at the same time painting a fairly bleak picture of the troubled emotional life of a flawed and damaged modern woman caught in a confusing maelstrom of love and desire.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD of Undulant Fever includes English subtitles.