The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Flowers (フラワーズ, Norihiro Koizumi, 2010)

flowersThe rate of social change in the second half of the twentieth century was extreme throughout much of the world, but given that Japan had only emerged from centuries of isolation a hundred years before it’s almost as if they were riding their own bullet train into the future. Norihiro Koizumi’s Flowers (フラワーズ) attempts to chart these momentous times through examining the lives of three generations of women, from 1936 to 2009, or through Showa to Heisei, as the choices and responsibilities open to each of them grow and change with new freedoms offered in the post-war world. Or, at least, up to a point.

In 1936, oldest sister Rin (Yu Aoi) is to be married off against her will to a man picked by her father and whom she has never actually met. Bold and wilful, Rin finds herself more than usually torn between her intense resentment at being forced into a one time only life changing event simply on her father’s say so, and the guilt of rejecting centuries of tradition in rejecting her father’s authority. Minutes before the ceremony Rin makes a break for it fully done up in her wedding dress and makeup.

Flashing forward to her funeral in 2009, we learn that Rin did marry (someone, at least) and had three daughters. It’s her granddaughters we’re interested in now – happy mother Kei (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerful even at a wake, and the depressed Kanna (Kyoka Suzuki) – an unmarried former concert pianist who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant and is unsure what to do. In order to understand them we have to flashback a little again – to 1969, 1964, and 1977 to find out what happened to Rin’s three daughters – Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka), and Sato (Yukie Nakama).

Koizumi makes the most of his shifts in time periods to experiment with technical effects recreating the look of classic films of the era. Hence, 1936 is a desaturated monotone filled with classic silent movie compositions, seemingly owing a large debt to Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi. The difference between 1964 and 1969 might be thought slight but partly down to the different genre elements in the two vignettes, the contrast is marked with 1964 taking on the classic romantic melodramas of the period, and 1969 embracing bright and colourful salaryman comedy – only this time it’s a salary woman embarking on the era of having it all (though perhaps, tragically, ten too years to early to make the most of it). 1977 brings us back down with bump of realism as Sato lives an ordinary suburban life as a housewife and mother. Imbuing each of his eras with the warmth of nostalgia backed up with rich period detail, Koizumi has indeed framed his passage of womanhood narrative with an impressive degree of grounding.

This has been a period of intense social change, entirely for the better even if there is still a long way to go. Though marriages of 1936 were referred to as semi-arranged, families could and did place intense pressure on their children to consent or refuse to accept their refusal to do so (perhaps as true for sons as daughters, though sons were unlikely to find themselves in such a difficult position when things went wrong). Thus the course of Rin’s life is decided by her rigid, austere father leaving her with no possibility of choice in a world entirely controlled by men. Her daughters have more freedom and opportunities, marrying for love and choosing careers and/or motherhood as they see fit.

Midori, the most headstrong of the three sisters takes a job at a publishing house where she is the only female employee. Receiving a marriage proposal leads her to question her choices once again, wondering if accepting means jumping off the career ladder altogether. Wanting to get ahead, Midori has been behaving like her male colleagues – dressing in less feminine clothes and in subdued colours, heading off the inevitable sexist comments with aggression and violence but, eventually emboldened, she she finds herself blossoming when embracing her femininity within the workplace.

The world has moved on – women cannot be pushed in the same way Rin was pushed even if social mores can still be used to cajole them into conformity. The one big recent social change is in Kanna’s decision to proceed as a single mother. Though the question is still raised, there is broad approval for the idea which is met with no obvious stigma and only love and support from her immediate family. However, some things apparently don’t change as even if not all roads lead to marriage they all point towards motherhood which is still presented as the only marker of success as a woman. In this respect the closing montage accompanied by the odd choice of Olivia Newton John’s Have You Even Felt Mellow feels ill judged as the sister who’s experienced the ultimate heartbreak bounces around recreating the opening of Georgy Girl (only more successfully) with a new haircut and indulging in an ice-cream as a sort of antidote to eternal widowhood.

Nevertheless, Flowers does present a warm and broadly inspirational ode to the healing power of family and unbreakable female resilience even in the midst of such extreme social change. Painted with a keen eye for period detail and a deeply nostalgic longing for comforts long since passed, Koizumi’s exploration of womanhood through the ages is quick to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice experienced by women of all generations but is, in the end, too ready to accept it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2010)

•Žm‚̉ƌv•ë•The stories of samurai whose soul is placed not in the sword but in another tool are quickly becoming a genre all of their own. Coming from the same screen writer as A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, Abacus and Sword is a similarly structured tale of penny pinching samurai accountants and a pean to the undersung heroes of the admin department without whom everything would fall apart.

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Bushi no Kakeibo) could almost be titled “a story of my father” as it begins with a voice over by the youngest adult generation seen in the film, Nariyuki Inoyama, who is at the time of speaking a naval accountant in the new post restoration world. As good an account as he is (and he must be, given his position), he feels he pales in comparison to his father, Naoyuki, whose skills with the abacus were somewhat legendary even if his people skills were often not on the same level.

Dubbed an abacus fanatic by his colleagues, Naoyuki’s top maths abilities get him into trouble right away when he notices an extreme discrepancy in the accounts details for the imperial rice dole. Around this time there are riots from farmers who are being squeezed to deliver more grain to the authorities during a time of famine but not seeing enough returned to them as well as starving people petitioning for food in the streets, so when Naoyuki asks why around a third of the rice is disappearing from the accounts or listed as “reserved” his superiors start getting nervous. As a mini underling, Naoyuki is not in a position to stop his bosses from exploiting their authority in the most devious of ways – creating a food panic and then profiting on the side through black market trading, and is simply instructed to “ensure the final accounts balance”. Unwilling to falsify his precious calculations, Naoyuki finds himself facing the possibility of exile from the imperial centre but eventually finds his persistence rewarded when the scam is finally uncovered by a higher level.

Accountants are often not respected in this era of samurai warriors who place an almost religious faith in the power of the sword. Their pay is low, hours long and taxing, and they have little prospects of advancement. After hearing the story of Naoyuki’s career Nariyuki returns to the subject of himself a little more as the conflict between austere father and wayward son takes centre stage. Naoyuki is a pragmatic man, he sees their family debts are unsustainable and embarks of prolonged plan of austerity in which he forces the entire extended family to sell all their non essential possessions and live as cheaply as possible until the debts reach a more manageable level so they can at least keep the social position their larger family home affords them rather than being moved to something less prestigious. This is an unusual move in status driven samurai circles and proves embarrassing for the rest of the family such as in one episode where Naoyuki can’t afford to buy fish for his son’s coming of age ceremony so simply puts a painting of a fish at each place setting. Creative accounting at its finest!

Nariyuki, however, can’t quite give up on the idea of the sword and goes off to fight in the various civil wars which erupt during the Meiji Restoration causing great worry to his parents, wife and children. He too becomes an accountant and is at first disappointed that it’s his skills with an abacus that can best serve the country rather than those needed on the frontlines but later comes to understand the tactical importance of maintaining the smooth financial functioning of an army.

A late career effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Abacus and Sword is an uneven experience which is more or less devoid of the director’s usual attempts at experimentation pushing for a more general, sometimes even televisual approach to storytelling. At heart the film praises the virtues of living a thrifty, honest, and balanced life in which hard work is always fairly rewarded in the end and even when not provides its own set of rewards. However, virtuous as it is to live honestly and simply in tune with the clack of an abacus, it can prove fairly dull which is unfortunately also true of Abacus and Sword which despite brief episodes of light humour never quite engages with its twin dynamics of father son conflict which echoes that of the changing world as it emerges into the new Meiji era, and of shining a light on the forgotten admin workers who keep the world turning when everything else is falling apart. Morita’s anti-consumerist, transparency in government sympathies come to the fore and are once again timely, but like Naoyuki he fails to make his complaints sufficiently engaging to ensure his messages are received by those with the ability to take action.


English subtitled trailer: