37 Seconds (Hikari, 2019)

37 Seconds poster“We’re just like everybody else” the heroine of Hikari’s debut feature 37 Seconds replies in bemusement when a prospective date confesses he never thought he’d feel comfortable with “someone like” her. Quietly meditating on societal prejudice against disability, 37 Seconds takes its heroine on a journey of self discovery as a series of disappointments pushes her towards embracing a new side of herself as an individual in defiance of those who might feel they know what is best, or perhaps just most “appropriate”, for “someone like” her without bothering to consider how she might feel.

Softly spoken, 23-year-old Yuma (Mei Kayama) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair to get around. Although she has a degree of independence with a job as an assistant to a manga artist, her friend Sayaka now a giant YouTube star, to which she travels alone by train, Yuma otherwise has little life outside the home she shares with her increasingly overprotective mother Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno). Yuma’s dreams of becoming a manga artist in her own right are dealt a blow when she’s told that her style is too close to Sayaka’s, only Sayaka’s style is Yuma’s because Yuma is doing all the work while her friend steals the credit and gleefully gives interviews claiming she is 100% indie and has no assistants. Beginning to realise she’s being exploited, Yuma gets an idea when she spots some erotic manga abandoned in the park and starts ringing up magazines for work. One bites and likes her stuff but worries that her sex scenes lack authenticity because of her lack of experience. 

Though previously unbothered, Yuma decides to embrace her sexuality in the name of art but finds a series of obstacles in her way, not least among them her mother who continues to infantilise her claiming that she is too vulnerable to be allowed out alone because there are too many strange people in the world. Kyoko won’t let Yuma wear pretty dresses, or makeup, or go out in the same way other girls her age might, refusing to accept that her little girl has grown up and has the same desires as any other young woman including that to be independent. Unable to escape her mother’s control, Yuma begins lying to her to meet prospective dates but finds them all unsuitable until finally trying to hire a sex worker only for that to go horribly wrong too. It does however introduce her to the people who will change her life – empathetic sex worker Mai (Makiko Watanabe), and her assistant Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito), whom she meets in a love hotel corridor while waiting for a broken lift.

When Yuma first meets Mai, she’s in the company of another man with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair, Kuma – played by Yoshihiko Kumashiro, a real life activist raising awareness about sexuality in the disabled community whose life inspired Junpei Matsumoto’s 2017 feature Perfect Revolution. Seeing the warm and genuine relationship between Mai and Kuma gives Yuma a new hope that a different kind of life is possible, especially as Mai offers to take her under her wing. Having an older woman to confide in about things she could never discuss with her mother allows Yuma to explore her newfound desires with confidence knowing that there are people looking out for her and always ready to offer advice.

Not everyone, however, is quite so enlightened and Yuma’s problems are largely to do with the persistent social stigma she faces from the world around her as well as a resultant sense of internalised inferiority. Sayaka, her “friend”, views her as a kind of cash cow, taking advantage of her skills but denying her existence while Sayaka’s agent swings in the other direction by telling her she should go public because she’d get a lot of press once people know she employs a disabled woman as an assistant. The first place Yuma gets any kind of respect is the office of the erotic manga magazine where the boss treats her like any other prospective hire and offers her constructive advice. From the awful dates and bad faith friends to her mother’s well-meaning yet problematic attempts to trap her in childhood, Yuma struggles to find a sense of self-worth when everyone is telling her that her life is limited and she must conform to their stereotypical ideas of how “someone like” her should live.

Thanks to Mai and Toshiya, Yuma eventually gains the confidence to assert herself, but also the ability to accept that her mother’s actions, however misguided, came from a place of love tempered by regret and sadness she was unable to understand without engaging with her mother’s history. A beautifully empathetic exploration of a young woman’s gradual blossoming under the light of genuine connection, 37 Seconds is a unsubtle rebuke of a fiercely conformist society unwilling to accommodate difference but also a quiet hymn to defiance as its heroine learns to shake off the labels placed on her and claim her independence no matter what anyone else might have to say about it.


37 Seconds was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Keishi Ohtomo, 2017)

march comes in like a lion posterShogi seems to have entered the spotlight of late. Not only is there a new teenage challenger hitting the headlines in Japan, but 2017 has even seen two tentpole Japanese pictures dedicated to the cerebral sport. Following the real life biopic Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) adapts the popular manga by Chica Umino in which an orphaned boy attempts to block out his emotional pain through the taxing strategising becoming a top player entails. Shogi, however, turns out to be a dangerous addiction, ruining lives and hearts left, right and centre but, then again, it’s not so much “shogi” which causes problems but the emotional volatility its intense rigidity is often masking.

Rei Kiriyama (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lost his family at a young age when both parents and his little sister were tragically killed in a car accident. Taken in by a family friend, Rei takes up shogi (a game also apparently beloved by his late father) in the hope of being accepted in his new home. A few year’s later, Rei’s plan has worked too well. Better than either of his foster-siblings, Kyoko (Kasumi Arimura) and Ayumu, Rei has become his foster-father’s favourite child causing resentment and disconnection in the family home. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence among those he loves (even if he suspects they still do not love him), Rei removes himself by deciding to live independently, shunning all personal relationships and dedicating his life to the art of shogi.

Everything changes when Rei is taken for a night out by some senior colleagues and is encouraged to drink alcohol for the first time despite being underage. A kindly young woman who lives nearby finds Rei collapsed in the street and takes him home to sleep things off. The oldest of three sisters, Akari (Kana Kurashina) has a habit of picking up strays and determines to welcome the lonely high schooler into her happy home. Suddenly experiencing a positive familial environment, Rei’s views on interpersonal connection begin to shift but people are not like shogi and you can’t you can’t expect them to just fall into place like a well played tile. 

Like Satoshi, the real life subject of which is also echoed in March through the performance of an unrecognisable Shota Sometani who piles on the pounds to play the sickly yet intense shogi enthusiast and Rei supporter Harunobu Nikaido, March dares to suggest that shogi is not an altogether healthy obsession. Koda (Etsushi Toyokawa), Rei’s foster-father, is a shogi master who trained both his children to follow in his footsteps only to pull the rug from under them by ordering the pair to give up the game because they’ll never be as good as Rei. Thinking only of shogi, he thinks nothing of the effect this complete rejection will have on his family, seeming surprised when neither of his children want much more to do with him and have been unable to move forward with their own lives because of the crushing blow to their self confidence and emotional well being that he has dealt them.

Kyoko, Rei’s big sister figure, remains resentful and hurt, embarking on an unwise affair with a married shogi master (Hideaki Ito) who is also emotionally closed off to her because he too is using shogi as a kind of drug to numb the pain of having a wife in a longterm coma. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence who brings ruin to everything he touches, Rei has decided that shogi is his safe place in which he can do no harm to others whilst protecting himself through intense forethought. He is, however, very affected by the results of his victories and failures, feeling guilty about the negative effects of defeat on losing challengers whilst knowing that loss is a part of the game.

Drawing closer to the three Kawamoto sisters, Rei rediscovers the joy of connection but he’s slow to follow that thread to its natural conclusion. His shogi game struggles to progress precisely because of his rigid tunnel vision. Time and again he either fails to see or misreads his opponents, only belatedly coming to realise that strategy and psychology are inextricably linked. Yet in his quest to become more open, he eventually overplays his hand in failing to realise that his viewpoint is essentially self-centred – he learned shogi to fit in with the Kodas, now he’s learning warmth to be a Kawamoto but applying the rules of shogi to interpersonal relationships provokes only more hurt and shame sending Rei right back into the self imposed black hole he’d created for himself immersed in the superficial safety of the shogi world.

As Koda explains to Kyoko (somewhat insensitively) it’s not shogi which ruins lives, but the lack of confidence in oneself that it often exposes. Rei’s problem is less one of intellectual self belief than a continuing refusal to deal with the emotional trauma of losing his birth family followed by the lingering suspicion that he is a toxic presence to everyone he loves. Only in his final battle does the realisation that his relationships with his new found friends are a strength and not a weakness finally allow him to move forward, both personally and in terms of his game. Rei may have come in like a lion, all superficial roar and bluster, but he’s going out like a lamb – softer and happier but also stronger and more secure. Only now is he ready to face his greatest rival, with his various families waiting in his corner silently cheering him on as finally learns to accept that even in shogi one is never truly alone.


Released in two parts – 3月のライオン 前編 (Sangatsu no Lion Zenpen, March Comes in Like a Lion) / 3月のライオン 後編 (Sangatsu no Lion Kouhen, March Goes Out Like a Lamb).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rain of Light (光の雨, Banmei Takahashi, 2001)

In the closing voice over of Banmei Takahashi’s Rain of Light (光の雨, Hikari no Ame), the elderly narrator thanks us, the younger generation, for listening to this long, sad story. The death of the leftist movement in Japan has never been a subject far from Japanese screens whether from contemporary laments for a perceived failure as the still young protestors swapped revolution for the rat race or a more recent and rigorous desire to examine why it all ended in such a dark place. Rain of Light is an attempt to look at the Asama-Sanso Incident through the eyes of the youth of today and by implication ask a few hard questions about the nature of revolution and social change and if either of those two things have any place in the Japan these young people now live in. Takahashi reframes the tale as docudrama in which his young actors and actresses, along with their increasingly conflicted director, attempt to solve these problems through recreation and role play, bridging the gap between the generations with a warning from those who dreamed of a better world that was never to be.

After beginning with a voice-over and archive footage of the original protests beginning in the ‘60s, Takahashi introduces us to the main thrust of the conceit as veteran TV commercial director Tarumi (Ren Osugi) announces his intention to make a film about the Asama-Sanso Incident and hires indie film director Anan (Masato Hagiwara) as an AD who will also film behind the scenes footage. From here on in we swap between the various levels of the film as we meet the young men and women who will inhabit the roles of the student radicals of 40 years before and then witness the tragic events which befell them eventually culminating in the famous siege which became Japan’s first live broadcast news event gathering a record number of viewers across its ten hour duration.

This is a sad story and a difficult one to watch. As the student movement dwindled in the early 1970s, factionalism was rife and the scene chaotic. Two different factions merged to become known as the United Red Army and retreated to a secret mountain camp where they would train for the coming revolution, believing that only armed insurrection could destroy the old order and allow them to build the bright new socialist future for which they were fighting. However, in the extreme paranoia surrounding the underground movement, there had already been two murders of suspected traitors and suspicion was everywhere. Led by Kurashige (Taro Yamamoto) and Uesugi (Nae Yuki) the mountain lodge quickly becomes a place of fear and rigidity as dogmatic maoist slogans take on near religious significance. Pushing the “soldiers” through the process of continuous “self criticism”, the group places personal revolution as a paramount necessity for social change. Using the system to ease personal grudges or clear the political air, Kurashige and Uesugi bring about the deaths of several cadre members through beatings, exposure, or starvation before resorting to bare faced murder all in the name of “reform”.

Less interested in simply reviewing events, Takahashi’s treatment attempts to speak directly to the young people of today who, at least according to the video interviews conducted by Anan, know little of this traumatic era which presumably formed the backdrop to their parents’ lives. As time moves on it transpires that Tarumi has a much more personal connection to the material than he’d previously been able to admit and one which eventually sees him attempt to absent himself from the film’s completion. In the absence of their director, the cast take on the attributes of their characters in trying to understand his actions. Beginning to self criticise themselves, the actors attempt to find the fault that has driven their leader away despite the fact that his reasoning is entirely personal.

The young discuss the various merits of change and revolution but find their forebears hard to grasp. It is, indeed, impossible and all too possible to understand how this happened. Young men and women who wanted to change the world found their ideals misused, driven half mad by a kind of quasi-religious cultism which demanded nothing less than total commitment the rules of which were entirely decided by a deluded madman terrified of losing his own grip on power. Though some of the performers come to sympathise with their roles, this era of heavily politicised thought and activism is so entirely alien to them as to seem arcane.

Takahashi delineates each of the various media through differing camera effects and aspect ratios from the mid-range digital of the film within the film to the low grade video of the direct to camera “behind the scenes” footage. The film is itself the bridge which the director claims he wants to make yet eventually backs away from as his own painful past becomes the subject he does not want to address. Anan, the AD, pleads with the director to deliver his message to the young. The old, he says, talk about the past like it’s yesterday but refuse offer anything of real substance to those who have come after them. Tarumi does indeed tell his story in all of its pain and sadness, stopping to remind us, as the troupe of actors gleefully start throwing snowballs around, that this was a children’s revolution begun by young men and women who wanted nothing other than to build a better world. So what of the youth of today? Is such idealism still present, and if it is could it ever be as frustrated and misused as the unhappy revolutionaries of the post ’68 generation? The answer seems to be no, but then nothing came of the grand gestures and political posturing of 40 years ago, perhaps the genial, everyday goodness of the youth of today will have more luck.


 

A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Kenji Uchida, 2005)

stranger of mineSometimes life throws you a pretty crazy night but unbeknownst to you the whole world has gone crazy too. For the disparate group of people at the centre of Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Unmei Janai Hito) , this proves to be more than usually true. A cute romantic encounter may end up going in a less than cinematic direction while ex-girlfriends, detectives and even the yakuza all conspire to frustrate the lovelorn dreams of a nice guy businessman who never even realises the total chaos which is ensuing all around him.

The film begins with a sad scene of a woman, Maki, carrying large bags and forlornly dropping a key through a letter box. She pawns what looks like an engagement ring and thinks about what to do next. Whilst sitting alone in a restaurant, a man asks her to join him and she is overjoyed to find some company. The man is Kanda, a small time detective and childhood friend of businessman Miyata who is also broken hearted as his girlfriend has left him. The girlfriend, “Ayumi”, is not all she seems and is already mixed up with yakuza boss Asai. Mix in a MacGuffin of some missing money and one ordinary night among millions just got very complicated indeed!

Uchida starts out with a fairly standard indie rom-com approach as the two brokenhearted jilted lovers Maki and Miyata are brought together by Kanda’s machinations but just as we think we’re about to head into some kind of Before Sunset scenario our perspective shifts and we find out just why it is that Kanda seems to be acting so manically. In fact, he’s been looking out for his friend all along but it’s getting kind of complicated at his end and the one thing he 100% does not want is for the rather innocent Miyata to figure out that he’s at the centre of dangerous mob caper because his ex-girlfriend, whom he still think is an angel, is really not the innocent flower he thought she was.

Just another night in the city, the point of view shifts around these five characters whose lives intersect like cogs turning some giant, unseen machine. We’re shown one set of events only to have our understanding of them undercut by seeing them again from another angle. Everything is a coincidence, or maybe nothing is, but each of these five characters wade into each other’s story leaving a drama filled wake with only poor Miyata seemingly oblivious to what’s really going on.

A Stranger of Mine plays like an extremely complex farce in which fate conspires to have some fun with five ordinary people and Uchida mines the situation for all the (sometimes dark) humour it can offer. Loosely split into three sections divided by title cards bearing the names of the characters, the film takes inspiration from classic Hollywood screwball comedies and film noir whilst adding a more modern, non-linear approach as Uchida plays and replays his scenes to make us see that things are not always the way they look at first glance.

While obviously a low budget, independent effort, A Stranger of Mine offers surprisingly high production values and boasts excellent performances from its tightly composed cast. The script is fiendishly complicated and exacting yet Uchida pulls it off with a keenly observed eye. Though improbable, the events are never implausible and play out with a kind of off beat inevitability that further underlines the film’s mildly ironic, comic tone. Gleefully playful, A Stranger of Mine may appear a little slight on the surface, but just as its multi-layered narrative suggests, the perspective only deepens on a closer look.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Our Family (ぼくたちの家族, Yuya Ishii, 2014)

Our FamilyYuya Ishii’s early work generally took the form of quirky social comedies, but underlying them all was that classic bastion of Japanese cinema, the family drama. If Ishii was in some senses subverting this iconic genre in his youthful exuberance, recent efforts have seen him come around to a more conventional take on the form which is often thought to symbolise his nation’s cinema. In Our Family Ishii is making specific reference to the familial relations of a father and two sons who orbit around the mother but also hints at wider concerns in a state of the nation address as regards the contemporary Japanese family.

Reiko (Mieko Harada) is an ordinary Japanese housewife in late middle age with a husband still working and two grown up children. She’s been worrying lately that she seems to forget things and she also has periodic trances almost like someone pressed the paused button. This all comes to a head when she and her husband Katsuaki attend a family dinner with their in-laws to celebrate the news that their eldest son, Kousuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and his wife are expecting their first child. Having behaved quite strangely all night long, Reiko finally ends by repeatedly addressing her daughter in law by the wrong name and muddling up details about the baby. Reiko’s still young but the natural assumption is perhaps that she’s slipping into senility, dementia or possibly even Alzheimer’s but a visit to the doctor turns up something that no one was expecting as they’re eventually made to understand that Reiko may only have a week left to live.

This devastating news of course sends shock waves through each member of the family and not least Kousuke who’s just learned he’s about to become a father. One of the things Reiko was most distressed about was that she’d wake up one day and her family would have fallen apart. It seems she grew up in an unhappy home and was determined not to replicate the experience for her children. Perhaps she did have cause to worry as there were definite cracks in the foundation of this household even before Reiko’s illness in that youngest son Shunpei (Sosuke Ikematsu) seems to have had a strained relationship with both his father and his older brother. In contrast to the other two men, Shunpei, still a student, is much more laid back and easy going though his father perhaps thinks him feckless and irresponsible. He meets his mother sometimes and she lends him money behind the father’s back but they talk more like friends than a mother and son.

Perhaps this division between the men in her life has been playing on Reiko’s mind but there are other problems too. Part of the bubble generation, Reiko and Katsuaki have been living well beyond their means for years and have amassed considerable personal debt. In fact, Katsuaki remortgaged the house a while back and made Kousuke a guarantor on their loan. Their best option would be to file for bankruptcy but doing that would leave Kosuke liable for the return of the mortgage so Katsuaki is reluctant to pursue that option. Now that Reiko’s in hospital money is at the forefront of everyone’s mind as they contemplate paying not only astronomical medical fees but potentially also paying for a funeral too.

This financial strain spills over into Kousuke’s new family as, when talking to his wife about needing to help out his parents, Kousuke discovers that Miyuki is just about as unsupportive as one could be. She brands Kousuke’s parents as irresponsible dreamers still living in the bubble era and suggests their predicament is both their own fault and their responsibility as, at their age, they should have been saving money for just these kinds of situations. Scornfully she insists that she doesn’t want to be “that kind of parent” and retires to bed in outrage. Having also refused to even accompany Kosuke to visit his mother in hospital (seeming to miss the point that he might be looking for her support rather than asking for appearance’s sake), poor Kousuke is left all alone trying to deal with the impending birth of his child and death of his mother all in a few short weeks.

The crisis does, at least, bring the three men a little closer together as it requires a kind of unilateral action that pushes previous resentments and ill feeling into the background. Reiko’s condition also means that she says some things that she would never have revealed directly to her family which both hint at some of her suffering over the last thirty years but also the deep love she has for her them. Katsuaki is revealed as a fairly ineffectual man who cares deeply but is blindsided by his wife’s condition and unable to face the facts leaving the bulk of responsibility to his oldest son. This kind of family abnegation is anathema in Japan – one would never want to be a burden to one’s children but Katsuaki is now both financially and morally dependent on Kousuke. Kousuke himself is not quite mature enough for this level of responsibility despite his impending fatherhood and his younger brother Shunpei may appear indifferent to everything but is merely putting a brave face on things though he may be the most dependable (and emotionally intelligent) of the three.

By the end, there is a glimmer of hope. The family can be repaired if you’re willing to work at it which means being willing to face the problems together and without any secrecy. Everyone, including the older generation, has in some senses “grown up”, facing the future together having accepted themselves and each other for who they are. Like applying a touch of kintsugi, their glittering wounds have only made them stronger and made each refocus on what’s really important. Neatly moving into a more dramatic arena, Ishii proves he’s still among Japan’s most promising young directors able to marry an idiosyncratic indie spirit with a more mainstream mentality.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release of Our Family includes English Subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: