The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Mitsuaki Iwago, 2019)

Island of Cats Poster“The best is yet to come” resolves 70-year-old Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa) at the conclusion of The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Neko to Jiichan). Inspired by the manga by the appropriately named Nekomaki, the debut feature from wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago is a decidedly laidback affair, neatly fusing two genres of Japanese comfort cinema – cats and cuisine. It’s also another in the recent run of films deliberately targeting the older generation in its quiet celebration of community and late life serenity, but it’s very existence is also perhaps a mild dig at cold and frenetic Tokyo which can’t help but pale next to the island’s inherent charms.

Daikichi has lived alone with his cat, Tama (who neatly introduces himself using the exalted “Wagahai” in a reference to Soseki’s famous novel), since his wife Yoshie (Yuko Tanaka) passed away two years previously. He has a grown-up son (Takashi Yamanaka) who is married with a teenage daughter of his own in Tokyo, but mostly spends his life hanging out with his old friends and playing with the island’s many cats. His peaceful days begin to change, however, when a pretty middle-aged (“young” to Daikichi and his friends) woman, Michiko (Kou Shibasaki), arrives from Tokyo and opens a cafe – the island’s first. In fact, the older generation find the cafe slightly intimidating, thinking such modern innovations are only for the youngsters, but are finally tempted in when directly invited by Michiko herself who serves up a selection of cream sodas and tasty ice creams in addition to slightly more rarefied treats like fish carpaccio.

In contrast to many an island drama, though the bulk of the population is older there are a fair few youngsters around and plenty of children too – at least enough to keep the local school open and the ferries running frequently. It is true however that most leave when they come of age either heading off to university on the mainland or seeking their fortunes in the cities. Nevertheless, the despite the absence of family the elderly are well cared for by the recently arrived young doctor (Tasuku Emoto) who takes his responsibility extremely seriously and is grateful for the opportunity to come to the island because it’s enabled him to become the kind of doctor he always wanted to be.

Michiko, meanwhile, has come to the island in search of relief from city life which she felt was gradually crushing her. An instant hit with the local cats as well as Daikichi and his friends, her presence adds a new energy to the island as the older generation start to enjoy both trying new things they thought perhaps were “inappropriate” when you’re old, and revisiting those they missed out on in their youth. Friends reconnect, bickering is exposed as an odd kind of affection, and cats just generally make everything better. The island may be dull compared to the bright lights of Tokyo, but it has its charms and those that live there are one big family taking care of each other and enjoying the laidback rhythms of coastal life.

Daikichi’s son, visiting when he can, is keen for him to come and live with the family in Tokyo but he and Tama are happy enough on the island just muddling through the way they always have surrounded by friends and happy memories. Reconnecting with his late wife through the recipe book she left behind, he resolves to learn a few dishes of his own – filling the rest of the pages with recipes learned from Michiko, his friends, newspapers and TV, determined to go on learning as long as he can. Sharing his life with others on the island, Daikichi too finds a new zest for living even as his days pass much as before, resolving that there is still plenty more to enjoy as he enters his twilight years. Gentle and mellow in the extreme, The Island of Cats is not promising much more than living up to its name but does its best to sell the charms of serene island life as Daikichi and his friends rejoice in the simple pleasures of shared cuisine and admiring “everybody’s” cats as they continue to do pretty much whatever they please while warming the hearts of the kindly islanders as they enjoy their days of fun and sunshine with nary a care in the world.


The Island of Cats screens in New York on July 20 as part of Japan Cuts 2019. It will also screen in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on July 28.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

SR2_teaserWhere now the dreams of youth? Japanese cinema seems to have been asking that very question since its inception but the answer remains as elusive as ever. The heroine(s) of Ryuichi Hiroki’s adaptation of a series of short stories by Mariko Yamauchi, It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Koko wa Taikutsu Mukae ni Kite), idolise Audrey Hepburn and long for urban sophistication only to find themselves hung up on unfulfilled high school promise and unable escape the wholesome romanticisation of their small-town youth to embrace the demands and possibilities of adulthood.

Hiroki follows his small-town high schoolers from 2004 to 2013, jumping freely between time periods as memories spark one another in emotional rather than chronological order. We begin with the unnamed protagonist, “I” (Ai Hashimoto), who has returned to her hometown after 10 (seemingly disappointing) years in Tokyo and now works as a freelance journalist for the provincial paper writing local culture articles on ramen shops and patisseries. She has contacted only one friend since her return, Satsuki (Yurina Yanagi), who has suggested, rather tongue in cheek, that they reconnect with former high school crush Shiina (Ryo Narita).

Back in high school, Shiina was like some kind of untouchable god. Everyone just wanted to be around him as if he alone made the sun shine. All the girls were in love with him, and the all boys wanted his approval. Asked about his hopes and dreams, Shiina just wants high school to go on forever, perhaps realising that he’ll never have it so good again. “I” meanwhile, claims that she wants to “become someone”. A small town girl who didn’t fit in, she hoped to find herself amid the hustle and bustle of the big the city but has returned with an even deeper sense of alienation than when she left with only the bright memory of her brief time as a chosen member of Shiina’s after school posse to cling to.

Satsuki, meanwhile, stayed behind but seems equally hung up on unfinished high school business. Having never been to Tokyo she is envious of her friend’s experiences and longs for the anonymity of the city. If you mess up in Tokyo, she claims, people will eventually forget whereas if you make a mistake in the country it’s all anyone will talk about for the rest of your life. That certainly seems to be true for another of the girls’ contemporaries (Rio Uchida) who left to become an idol only for it all to go wrong and come home branded as a loose woman. Cynical and calculating, she decides on an arranged marriage only to find herself shackled to an old man she doesn’t like very much while her shy friend (Yukino Kishii) seems to have found love by stealth and apparently won the jackpot without even knowing it.

Continuously travelling, the now almost-middle-aged high schoolers meander without direction as if circling around the locus of their departing youth and the sense of possibility disappearing with it. Running into another classmate, Shinpo (Daichi Watanabe), also connected with Shiina, I and Satsuki get a few more clues about their high school crush who apparently now lives a fairly ordinary life as a driving instructor thanks to Shinpo’s recommendation without which he was set to hit rock bottom after some kind of breakdown while failing to make it in Osaka. Nicknamed “Chinpo” (which means “willy”) in school, Shinpo’s dream for the future was to exist alongside someone that he loved but he seems to have given up even on this depressingly compromised desire and resigned himself to loneliness and lovelorn misery as someone who will never be able to find his place in a conservative and conformist society.

I meanwhile, like a similarly unnamed counterpart (Mugi Kadowaki) who really did date Shiina until he cruelly cast her aside, is finally able to burst her high school bubble by confronting it directly and seeing the reality rather than her romanticised impression of it. Those shining days of fun and friendship with everything still ahead will never come again, and so the memory of them remains bittersweet at best. Adult life is dull and disappointing, but there is perhaps melancholy happiness to be found in learning to embrace the present moment rather than harping on a largely imagined past or idealised future. 


It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Inuyashiki (いぬやしき, Shinsuke Sato, 2018)

inuyashiki_poster_B1_0206D_fin_ol_3Japanese cinema has long been preoccupied by the conflict between age and youth though it usually comes down on the side of the youngsters, even when rebuking them for their selfish immorality. Inuyashiki (いぬやしき), adapted from the manga by Hiroya Oku, is similarly understanding but makes a hero of its sad dad protagonist whose adult life has been a socially acceptable disaster, while finding sympathy for his villainous teenage counterpart who resents his lack of possibilities in an already unfair world.

Unsuccessful salaryman Inuyashiki (Noritake Kinashi) has just moved into a new house of which he is very proud but his wife (Mari Hamada) and children find small and old fashioned. He’s bought sushi to celebrate the occasion, but the other family members ignore him and head out for dinner on their own. Held in contempt at home, Inuyashiki’s working life is also something of a disaster in which he is publicly berated by his boss who threatens to fire him, leaving Inuyashiki kneeling in supplication just to be allowed to work until retirement so he can keep up the mortgage payments on that new house (which he bought for his family who all hate him).

To make matters worse, Inuyashiki has also just received the news that he is suffering from terminal cancer and has only a few months to live. His only ray of sunshine appears when he finds an abandoned dog, Hanako, and decides to adopt her but his wife orders him to throw the dog out in case it messes up the house (that she already hates). Sadly walking Hanako to the park with the intention of sending her on her way, Inuyashiki is struck by a mysterious blast and later wakes up to discover he has become an all powerful cyborg with booster rockets on his back and guns in his arms.

Inuyashiki’s first instinct is that he can use his new found powers to save people. Contemplating his mortality, Inuyashiki was made to feel that his life had been a failure; he’d never done anything of consequence and had never been able to protect anyone. Reviving a wounded bird in the street, he realises he has the power to heal along with super sensitive hearing which allows him to hear the cries of those in peril.

Meanwhile, the teenager caught in the same blast, Shishigami (Takeru Satoh), is heading in the opposite direction. Shishigami is also filled with resentment though mostly as regards his poverty and comparative lack of possibilities. He hates that his single-mother (Yuki Saito) has to work herself to the bone because his father (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) left the family for another woman with whom he has built another home and become extremely wealthy. He hates that his video game otaku friend (Kanata Hongo) is mercilessly bullied and has stopped coming to school altogether rather than fight back. Filled with a young man’s rage and a mild kind of psychopathy, Shishigami doesn’t see why it’s wrong to become a bully rather than fighting them. Frustrated beyond reason he declares war on an uncaring society and sentences everyone in Japan to death for their indifference to their fellow citizens.

The conflict between the angel and the devil concludes in predictably bombastic fashion as our two cyborgs go head to head in a climactic battle for the soul of Japan. Strangely enough both men are motivated by love even if one’s actions are darker than the other’s. Inuyashiki wants to protect, to be someone his family can respect and depend on – he flees the scenes of his miracles because he isn’t interested in being a “hero”, just in being of use. Shishigami, by contrast, is motivated by love for his mother whose continuing suffering proves too much for him to bear though his attempts to take revenge only end in more tragedy. Mustering all the technology of the age from smartphones to live broadcasts, Shishigami makes himself a familiar face on TV sets and LCD screens across the country to preach his message of hate as a declaration of war.

Shishigami proclaims that Inuyashiki’s sense of justice is no match for his hate, but there is a definite irony in the squaring off of two men from different generations trying to figure out their differences by pounding the living hell out of each other and destroying half of Tokyo in the process. Still, that is in many ways the point as these two “gods” actively choose the sides of light and darkness, vying for the right to rule the future as forces of destruction or salvation.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)