My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Sho Tsukikawa, 2018)

A wilfully self-contained high school girl falls for a big-hearted classmate, but struggles to understand that they are in essence fighting different battles in their parallel quests for acceptance. Adapted from the hit shojo manga by Robico, Sho Tsukikawa’s My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is in many ways a typical high school rom-com in which a repressed young woman begins to deal with her abandonment issues essentially by mothering a displaced young man whose “problematic” big-heartedness sees him regarded as a “monster” by a still conservative society. 

Opening with a flashback presumably set in the present day, an older Shizuku (Tao Tsuchiya) now wearing a lawyer’s pin listens wistfully to Kana Nishino’s 2010 hit Best Friend and reflects on a time when all she cared about was studying, rejecting all human connection. Until that is she met the titular “monster” Haru (Masaki Suda) and suddenly found herself surrounded by people. Haru, as we discover, got into a fight on the first day of school and never actually showed up for classes. Because Shizuku should have been his desk neighbour, the panicked teacher asks her to take the handouts etc to his home in the hope he’ll one day return. Shizuku has no interest in doing as the teacher has tasked her but fulfils her duty, only to unexpectedly encounter Haru who then decides they must be “friends” based on a primary school understanding that friends take each other notes and homework when one of them is sick. 

It turns out that Haru hasn’t been coming to school because it bothers him that everyone finds him scary because of his lack of impulse control. He desperately wants to make friends and thinks he has some in a trio of local boys but Shizuku can see right away that they are essentially bullying him for money and tries to explain that “real” friends don’t sponge off each other. Perhaps because of his innate kindness, Haru is completely guileless and sees the best in everyone unable to understand when he’s being taken advantage of. Despite herself, Shizuku begins to feel protective assuring Haru that he will one day be surrounded by people who understand him unwittingly echoing the words of his late aunt who was the only other person who’d ever rooted for him. Straightforward as ever, Haru immediately confesses his love and so their awkward high school romance begins. 

Shizuku, however, is still largely uninterested in love. She has devoted herself to studying and only cares about coming top in the school exams. As we discover this is less because of academic ambition than practical application. She studies hard and immediately sees results. It’s the sure thing, something which is completely within her own control, unlike other people’s feelings which are necessarily messy and unpredictable. There is however an uncomfortable conservatism in the centring of Shizuku’s trauma solely in the fact that her mother works outside the home and is therefore not present in her life in the way that mothers are expected to be in a patriarchal society while her family set up is regarded as unusual in that her father, having failed several times in business, is a househusband. 

Meanwhile, she remains fairly blinkered to Haru’s parallel familial disconnection in that he has apparently been disowned by his authoritarian father for his free-spirited ways. Taken to a birthday party held for Haru’s older brother Yuzan (Yuki Furukawa), Shizuku begins to realise there is a large class difference between them but reacts badly, confused that he is rejecting the very things she’s striving for in refusing to reconnect with his father, ignoring the fact that he has separated from him because he is essentially abusive. He refuses to let Haru be Haru, trying to straight-jacket him into conventionality by forcing him to clamp down on his noisy impulsivity, something which he seems unable to do even if he wanted to. Shizuku fails to realise the hurt she deals him in refusing to understand his reluctance, unable to see that it amounts to a rejection from the one person he assumed had completely accepted him. 

What she discovers is that you won’t always be forgiven for momentary thoughtlessness and in the end you have to let people be what they are, which throws into light the problematic “monster” of the title which is how Haru is often seen by others, a quality brought to vivid life in Suda’s manic performance. A rival suitor, Yamaken (Yuki Yamada), selling himself as the slow and steady candidate perhaps more suited to Shizuku in being more like herself, describes their relationship as a “make-believe friendship” rather than a real romance, something she has to accept may have a grain of truth in it in her inability to fully understand the person she claims to love, but nevertheless comes to the conclusion that while Yamaken may make her feel at ease in herself it’s the stressful stimulation with the intense yet passionate Haru that she truly craves. That aside, their romance is a fairly cool affair and its resolution too contrived to have any kind of impact which is perhaps why Tsukikawa resorts to anime-style imagery including a flying leap of love accompanied by bright sunshine flooding in from behind. Nevertheless, in true shojo fashion My Little Monster celebrates not only its heroine’s gradual path towards an embrace of the chaos of being alive, but also the power of friendship and acceptance as the gang find a place to belong in each other and with it a more concrete sense of self.


Singapore release trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Kana Nishino – Best Friend

Colors of Wind (風の色, Kwak Jae-yong, 2017)

colors of windCan there be two people in the world who so exactly resemble each other but have entirely indifferent, interwoven fates? They say that if you meet your doppelgänger one of you will die, that the world cannot permit two such persons to live. Colors of Wind (風の色, Kaze no Iro), the second Japanese language film directed by The Classic’s Kwak Jae-yong is not sure about doppelgänger theory but is certifiably obsessed with dualities and most particularly in the way that they relate to romantic fulfilment and the necessary shifts in identity that it often entails.

In the present, the melancholy Ryo (Yuki Furukawa) has locked himself away for the past 100 days in mourning for his girlfriend who ghosted him and then apparently took her own life in snowy Hokkaido. Yuri (Takemi Fujii) had always had a kind of fragility about her, insisting that she’d soon “disappear” but that there was another girl who looked like her living in Hokkaido who was far happier and far cleverer than she would ever be. After she died and Ryo “cocooned” himself away, he wakes up and walks into his favourite restaurant only to find the old couple that ran it have retired and the place is reopening as a magic club. Not only that, the previous owners were keeping a suitcase for him which they instructed the new barman to pass on with the caveat that Ryo would probably not even remember that he left it there. The case turns out to be full of clues to a life a he never knew – pictures of a girl of who looks like Yuri, a diary, and a handful of other trinkets. Newly taken with the world of magic, Ryo trains himself to become a top magician before setting off for Hokkaido and encountering another Yuri, only calling herself Aya, who thinks that he is returned spirit of her former boyfriend Ryu – a magician who went missing during a complicated magic trick three years previously.

Colors of Wind hinges on the notion of love as the greatest act of magic, by which it presumably means something inexplicable and wondrous rather than an insincere act of ostentation. Love, it seems to say, fundamentally rewrites the identity of the lover but then again, if one is really “in love” perhaps “identity” in any real sense ceases to matter aside from a need for integration that allows the formation of a new self which can accommodate the extreme selflessness which true love requires.

Love as an act of transformation is a motif which recurs throughout. Grief-stricken, Ryo “cocoons” himself away for 100 days as if waiting to emerge as something else, a new man with a clean slate waiting for a new identity. Meanwhile, Aya continues to pine for her missing magician, half convincing herself that Ryo is Ryu while her mind fractures itself in wondering if her new love is a betrayal of her old. Unable to accommodate the romantic impurity of falling in love with two different men, albeit ones who look identical and have much more than that in common, Aya’s loves create two mutually exclusive souls doing battle for headspace while all Ryo can do is watch as he too battles ghosts on all sides, pining for Yuri while falling for Aya as she yearns only for Ryu.

As the magician behind the bar affirms, meeting one’s doppelgänger does not necessarily spell death – there are many ways for two of the same to survive if only you want to find them, but then love often requires a sacrifice and one thing must fall if another is to rise. These “dopplegängers” are of a more spiritual kind, souls which wander and must be brought home, but in order to love the self must be whole. To escape their cycles of melancholy rumination, the pair decide on new identities for their new love, pinching the roles of Leon and Mathilda from the classic hitman movie in an attempt to bid Aya/Yuri and Ryo/Ryu goodbye but a deeper integration of a more authentic self will be necessary for a concrete resolution, requiring a series of choices and selfless, altruistic love.

Shot entirely in Japan and with an entirely Japanese cast, Colors of Wind nevertheless has a recognisably Korean sensibility in its melancholy, philosophy-tinged melodrama which hinges on the ineffabilities of love and identity. Trapped and drowning, Ryo has to literally unchain his heart and open the door to his soul to let the love flood in but does so perhaps at a price, permitting another identity to merge with his own as he prepares to integrate past loves and new into one romantic whole. Beautiful, if occasionally obscure, Colors of Wind fully succeeds in Kwak’s goal of paying tribute to classic melodrama in its tale of love and sacrifice, self and selflessness, and the transformative qualities of romance, but does so with a playful heart as it takes in the picturesque snows of Hokkaido and the contrived charms of man made magic.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Eternal Zero 永遠の0

eternal_zero

It’s difficult to think of a recent film that’s caused quite as much controversy as The Eternal Zero (save perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s own World War II epic The Wind Rises). Written by a right wing pundit and close ally of current Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Naoki Hyakuta, The Eternal Zero definitely has an ambiguous stance on several things that most people just don’t really want to talk about. However, it would also be fallacy to pretend that anybody else’s war movies are completely unbiased, or willing to look at the complexities of any given war beyond jingoistic drum beating which has often been the point of a war film. In truth, The Eternal Zero is actually more or less a-political for most of its running time save a possibly misjudged epilogue which does its best to undo the entirety of the film’s message up until right before the fatal flaw. Setting politics to one side, how does The Eternal Zero fare when it comes to taking this most American of subjects, in the most American of ways? Pretty OK, to be frank, not bad at all.

Like a lot of Japanese films tackling the recent past, the film starts in the present with little lost boy Kentaro (Haruma Miura) attending the funeral of his grandmother whereupon he discovers the heartbroken man he’d assumed to be his biological grandfather (Isao Natsuyagi) was in fact his grandmother’s second husband and not his mother’s true father at all. Mind truly blown, Kentaro is talked into further investigations by his older sister in which he discovers his biological grandfather was an air force pilot who died in a kamikaze mission during the war. On talking to some of his fellow officers, Kentaro and sister first hear that their grandfather was a coward, a supposedly skilled pilot who hid in the clouds during sorties and endangered the lives of his comrades through his negligence. Until that is, they chance upon those closest to him who tell a different story – that Kyuzo Miyabe (Junichi Okada) was the bravest of men. A man who knew the war was pointless and wasn’t afraid to say so, who simply wanted to survive and get back to protecting what was most important to him – his wife and child. Why then, would this man who was so desperate to survive finally give his life in a suicide mission for something he did not believe in?

To deal with the most obvious question first – no, The Eternal Zero is not “a propaganda film” in the truest sense of the term. Yes, it ignores the external context because it simply wants to focus on the nature of war and what it does to those who conduct it (as well as those who only stand and wait) which *is* a form of propaganda in a sense because of all the things that it refuses to acknowledge. However, for 90% of the running time, the film has a thoroughly modern sensibility where the overriding feeling is absurdity, that this war is a crazy waste of youth that no one should have to have gone through. The original group of pilots that brand Miyabe a “coward” are shown up for a group of brainwashed idiots and Miyabe portrayed as the soul prophet who sees things as they are and has the courage to speak his mind. Later, there are other headstrong boys who think they’re men and don’t understand what they’re getting themselves into but the main thing is just how stupid all of these ideas of honour and sacrifice really are when all it will likely mean is leaving destitute women crying and starving at a home you’ve failed to protect. However, all of these more “liberal” ideas are totally undercut in the last five minutes of the film which seeks to glorify an act that the previous two hours have branded an idiotic waste of life. Politically confused, Eternal Zero doesn’t quite know where to put itself when acknowledging the tremendous sacrifice that was made by an entire generation without quite wanting to see just what those sacrifices were in name of.

To be fair to it, it isn’t as if most most Hollywood war movies don’t also do the same thing to a similar extent – present the heroism and perhaps the personal conflict without acknowledging all that goes with it. In truth, what The Eternal Zero most resembles is a classic Hollywood war film which is quite invested in remorse for the loss of life (and sometimes even for that on all sides) but also in not wanting feel any lives were lost in vain. Thus there is a feeling towards the end of the film that young people of today still owe a debt to these men, that they owe it to them in return for the sacrifice that was made to live their lives freely and to the utmost. To spend so long saying that war is a cruel game that makes pawns of young men’s lives only to turn around and say it’s the job of the youngsters of today to make those pawns kings is a little perverse, but understandable on a human level.

The Eternal Zero is blockbuster movie in every sense, the budget and shooting style are also aping your typical Hollywood epic though doing it fairly well. The script is clunky with its inelegant switching between time periods and to be frank the entire “modern” section feels a little superfluous and underwritten.  It’s a little long at over two and a half hours and does occasionally fall into a televisual rhythm – there is a great deal of talking and explaining which probably would have had more impact if it were done in a less bald way. Nevertheless, what The Eternal Zero sets out to do, it does pretty well. It may speak to something dangerous, but it is not dangerous in and of itself. For the most part excellently filmed with its fair share of stand out sequences, The Eternal Zero will appeal most to fans of old-fashioned (and uncomplicated unless you want to really think about it) war films but may struggle to maintain the interest of more jaded viewers.