Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Yoichi Higashi, 2016)

someones-xylophoneYoichi Higashi has had a long and varied career, deliberately rejecting a particular style or home genre which is one reason he’s never become quite as well known internationally as some of his contemporaries. This slightly anonymous quality serves the veteran director well in his adaptation of Arane Inoue’s novel which takes a long hard look at those living lives of quiet desperation in modern Japan. Though sometimes filled with a strange sense of dread, the world of Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Dareka no Mokkin) is a gentle and forgiving one in which people are basically good though driven to the brink by loneliness and disconnection.

Middle aged housewife Sayoko (Takako Tokiwa) has just moved into a new area with her security alarm salesman husband, Kotaro (Masanobu Katsumura), and teenage daughter, Kanna (Mikoto Kimura). By all appearances the home seems to be a happy one, and the atmosphere is pleasant, if ordinary. Even so, stopping into an upscale salon one day Sayoko gets a haircut from the very good looking and warm hearted hairdresser Kaito (Sosuke Ikematsu). Hoping for repeat business Kaito gives her a business card and she reciprocates with one of her own so that she can be added to the mailing list. After some awkward chitchat, she leaves but when she gets a typical “thank you for visiting, please come again” text message, Sayoko makes the unusual decision to reply. Not wanting to seem rude, Kaito continues the strange text correspondence but Sayoko’s growing interest in the good looking young man, and later even in his girlfriend, soon crosses the line from harmless fixation to inappropriate obsession, threatening to derail her otherwise “normal” happy family life.

Higashi begins the film with a naturalistic sequence travelling from early morning light to bright sunshine as Kaito takes his bike out for a ride before returning to make breakfast for his still sleeping girlfriend, Yui (Aimi Satsukawa) – a model/store assistant at the upscale Lolita brand Baby the Stars Shine Bright. Accompanied by a thrumming, modern jazz funk soundtrack, these scenes reflect the film’s baseline reality. Kaito and Yui may live in the real world, to a point at least, whereas Sayoko has her head in the clouds and almost lives there too. A middle aged housewife, her life has begun to lose its purpose now that her daughter is almost grown and needs her much less than she ever has before. Though Sayoko and her husband appear to have a good relationship, she seems to want something more – bored with his caresses and long since past the point where there is nothing left to talk about.

The delivery of a new bed prompts a very particular fantasy of being fondled by both men at the same time though what exactly she wants from Kaito remains unclear. If her original decision to reply to a standard confirmation email could be dismissed as friendly innocence, sending a picture of your new bed to someone you just met is decidedly strange. Nevertheless, Kaito feels the need to keep replying even once it becomes clear that Sayoko has also tracked down his apartment and seems intent on further infiltrating his life. When she takes the decision to visit Yui at her work (the brand is not one which ordinarily caters to women of Sayoko’s age), the younger woman starts to get worried and eventually takes some direct action of her own.

Sayoko remains something of a cypher, a woman who can’t seem to figure herself out. The xylophone of the title refers to a dream or vision she has of a girl in far off window banging away at the instrument but never quite getting the tune – eventually she realises the girl is her, still trying to find her inner rhythm all these years later. Kotaro, by contrast, seems to have more worldly anxieties despite his outwardly calm and kindly manner. When his daughter asks him if they really need the security system they have at home he tells her about a long unsolved family murder before explaining that it just makes him feel safer when he can’t be there in person to protect his wife and daughter. Kanna, a bright child, points out that more threat is posed by accidents in the home than by intruders – to which Kotaro is forced to agree, lamenting that there is no alarm system to prevent a domestic accident. Thus when Kanna calls him to say that there has been an “incident” at home, the metaphor is an apt one – nobody was looking, and now everything’s falling apart.

Despite the expectation for grand scenes or bloody violence, Someone’s Xylophone consistently refuses to follow the signposted direction preferring a more adult resolution born of self reflection and mutual understanding. A subplot involving a very particular young man who comes to the salon solely for female contact hints at a darker path for unresolved loneliness and repressed emotion, but even if Sayoko and Kotaro make ill advised decisions in search of closeness their sojourns in alternate realities ultimately allow them to rediscover their mutual universe (for a time, at least). The xylophone finally plays out a recognisable tune as a more settled Sayoko fantasises about a phantom blanket rather than an illicit ménage à trois but whether this craving for warmth will provoke a similar crisis as the need for passion remains to be seen.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Little House (小さいおうち, Yoji Yamada, 2014)

the-little-houseIf there is a frequent criticism directed at the always bankable director Yoji Yamada, it’s that his approach is one which continues to value the past over the future. Recent years have seen him looking back, literally, in terms of both themes and style with remakes of films by two Japanese masters – Ozu in his Tokyo Story homage Tokyo Family, and Kon Ichikawa in Her Brother. While he chose to update both of those pieces for the modern day, 2008’s Kabei sent him back to the traumatic years of militarism and warfare for a story of maternal sacrifice and national tragedy. The Little House (小さいおうち, Chiisai Ouchi) brings this recent meandering around the past full circle with its deliberately Ozu-esque aesthetic and flashback tale of atonement as one woman leaves the truth she could never bear to speak on paper as a last dying confession.

After the death of his great-aunt Taki (Chieko Baisho), who never married and has no other family besides himself, his sister, and father, Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) discovers a biscuit box with his name on it filled with keepsakes and the conclusion of a kind of autobiography he’d been encouraging Taki to write in the last few months of her life. Cutting back and forth between the contemporary interactions of the older Taki and her great-nephew, and the younger Taki’s (Haru Kuroki) life as a Tokyo maid from the mid-1930s to the end of the war, The Little House takes its cues from The Go Between as an innocent bystander becomes the unwilling guardian of a secret the holding of which will prove to be a lifelong burden.

An 18 year old girl in 1935 from a poor family in Japan’s frozen North, Taki’s options are few – early marriage, geisha house, or maid. All things considered, maid is the best option and Taki is thrilled to be travelling to the big city with all of its untold excitements. After a spell working for a famous novelist, Taki becomes the housekeeper of the “Little House” – a curiously cute Western style cottage with a bright red roof out in the suburbs. Her mistress, Tokiko (Takako Matsu), is an oddly flighty woman, fiercely independent of spirit but living within the confines of her time. Crisis approaches the family not with the onset of war but with the arrival of Mr. Hirai’s sensitive, artistic, colleague, Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), whose softly spoken ways quickly find their way into Tokiko’s heart.

In fact, The Little House, is not a million miles away from an expansion of a similar narrative device previously employed in Kabei but this time Tokiko is no pillar of strength, singlehandedly upholding the traditionally saintly virtues of the Japanese mother but a flesh and blood woman caught in the storm of a turbulent era. Taki becomes our passive observer as she sits, almost invisibly, in the corner of every scene, unwilling chaperone or accidental accomplice. As she witnesses the growing attraction between Tokiko and Shoji begin to spark into something more dangerous she finds herself conflicted, not knowing the best way to help her mistress. Should Tokiko be discovered, it wouldn’t just be a scandal leading to the end of a marriage, but considering the stringency of the times the outcome could be far more serious for all concerned.

When Takeshi eventually meets Tokiko’s son Kyoichi (Masakane Yonekura), he echoes many of the older Taki’s sentiments but adds that it was an era in which everyone was “forced to make an unwilling choice”. Taki finds herself forced to choose between action and inaction and does something she thinks is for the best, but is then forced to live with the suffering of wondering if she did the right thing.

The film does not seem entirely clear on her motives for her choice – it half commits to a possible love triangle between Taki, Tokiko, and Shoji by emphasising Taki and Shoji’s shared Northern roots and by Shoji’s subsequent inclusion of both women in his artwork. Taki, however, seems to be looking more to her mistress than her suitor, wanting nothing other than to stay in the Little House with Tokiko and Kyoichi for evermore. A later scene featuring a “mannish” university friend of Tokiko seems to reinforce the directions of Taki’s unspoken desire, though if her declaration of loyalty to the Little House following a disastrous marriage proposal was intended to voice it, it falls on deaf ears.

This being the case, Taki and Shoji become almost mirrors of each other – each somehow on pause, still living inside the Little House long after it ceased to exist. The loss of the Little House is not just the destruction of a building but the obliteration of everything it stood for, not only in terms of Taki’s investment in the family who live there, but in its evocation of early Showa dreams, individuality and innocence.

As the well educated Takeshi points out, Taki’s memories are often too rosy to tally with the history books, but even given the grimness of the times as they seem in hindsight, she has a right to the romanticism of her youth. The increasingly difficult political circumstances rarely impinge on the female centred domestic environment, but are made felt firstly through the husband’s toy business which begins by chasing the Chinese market and then is reduced to making wooden toys only and trying to marry off its eligible employees to woo more investment, and through the family’s excitement about the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games which are subsequently canceled. Tokiko’s later exclamation of “Isn’t it awful everything’s disappearing” does not just refer to the sudden absence of luxury from soaps to previously ordinary foodstuffs, but to her whole bourgeois way of life suddenly brought crashing down by a series of events she has no control over.

Yamada channels Ozu with initially distracting obviousness both in the contemporary and period sequences, matching his famous compositions from the straight to camera dialogue to the mid level tatami mat view and propensity for shooting through corridors and doorways. The world of the Little House is a curiously artificial one as Yamada shoots on an obvious stage set complete with tiny twinkling lights for stars which both looks forward to the artwork at the film’s conclusion and signals its nature as an unreal, constructed, environment existing only within Taki’s memory. Were it not that the Ozu compositions creep into the contemporary sequences, it could almost be read as a representation of Takeshi’s internal dramatisation of Taki’s memoirs as mediated through classic cinema.

The Little House is, indeed, resolutely old fashioned. Far too subtle for its own good (an extremely rare quality in a Yamada film), The Little House is an exercise in restraint in which the central love triangle never even hits the simmer, let alone the boil. Given the well trodden nature of the narrative, even the most inattentive viewer will have correctly guessed the big reveal well before Takeshi puts two and two together, rendering the final explanatory segment entirely redundant. Never quite as affecting as it would like to be, The Little House is a muted experience, perpetually pulling back each time it approaches doing something more interesting with its material. Nevertheless, it does provide an interesting perspective on its period setting as its collection of tragically romantic heroes march forward blindly into a maelstrom of oncoming destruction.


HK trailer (English/traditional Chinese subs)

No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない!, Yojiro Takita, 1986)

No More ComicsThe word “paparazzo” might have been born with La Dolce Vita but the gossip hungry newshound has been with us since long before the invention of the camera. Yojiro Takita’s 1986 film No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない, Komikku zasshi nanka iranai AKA Comic Magazine) proves that the media’s obsession with celebrity and “first on the scene” coverage is not a new phenomenon nor one which is likely to change any time soon.

Kinameri (Yuya Uchida) is a hack reporter on a gossipy news magazine programme which reports on all the sordid personal details of the private lives of celebrities. In a bit of neat meta commentary, we first meet him when he’s doggedly following real life top actress of the time Kaori Momoi (making a brief self cameo) as she tries to board a plane at the airport. Kinameri keeps on asking his inappropriate questions about her alleged relationship with a screenwriter whilst Momoi successfully ignores him before finally reaching the relative sanctuary of the security cordon preventing Kinameri from actually boarding the plane with her. Of course, his interview attempt has failed but he plays the footage on the programme anyway justifying her silence as a lack of denial and that he has therefore “proved” that the rumours are true.

Kinameri is both respected and ridiculed by his colleagues who praise his probing journalistic techniques which see him doggedly refusing to give up on a story but also find his intensity amusing seeing as he’s mostly chasing cheating spouses rather than uncovering the next great political scandal like his heroes who exposed Watergate. Having graduated from a top Japanese university in political sciences, this is far from the line of work Kinameri would want to be doing and its vacuity coupled with his own failed ambitions push him further and further into a spiral of self loathing and depression.

It’s not only celebrities either. Even if you could make a case that those in the entertainment industry have entered into a pact with the media and are, therefore, fair game, civilians and particularly victims of crime should be off limits. Kinameri will literally stop at nothing to scratch a up a story including attending the funeral of a murdered 14 year old girl and quizzing her mother over the rumours that the girl had been engaging in prostitution to try and elicit some kind of social commentary about the youth of today. After his programming starts to decline in popularity he’s relegated to the late night slot which involves visiting various shady places such as strip clubs, snack bars that are actually yakuza hang outs, and even the set of a porn film where he gets a cameo feeling up the lead actress in the front of a convertible.

While all of this is going on, Kinameri is also receiving some bothersome cold calls offering to sell him gold as an investment proposal. His elderly neighbour is visited by a woman from the company and does actually buy some but Kinameri smells a rat and his journalistic instincts kick back in. His bosses at the network aren’t convinced though – dodgy gold dealers doesn’t sound like a ratings winner after all and even when Kinameri agrees to even shadier assignments so he can pursue his leads, they still aren’t really behind him. Eventually they catch up but it’s almost too late.

Kinameri keeps doing what he’s paid to do, even if he clearly despises everything about it. Asking trivial and ridiculous questions and being ignored anyway, conducting a vacuous meet and greet with a gang of up and coming idol stars, even posing as a gigolo – there are no lengths to which he will not sink in pursuit of his story. By the film’s finale he’s still the frontline reporter, looking on while a vicious yakuza (played by a young Takeshi Kitano) commits a brutal murder right in front of the cameras. No one is moving, no one is trying to stop this, everyone is manoeuvring to get the best coverage. Kinameri has had enough and, with a look of rage and contempt on his face, he launches himself through the widow in a last minute attempt to make a difference but once again, lands up flat on his face and, finally, excluded from the action.

Years ahead of its time, No More Comics! takes an ironic look at invasive media coverage of celebrity gossip which clogs the airwaves while the real story is wilfully ignored. Ironically, Kinameri even becomes something of a celebrity himself, well known for his dogged interviewing style. He receives countless answerphone messages from “fans” (somehow ringing his personal phone number) either praising his efforts or berating him for not pushing his targets harder. When a young aspiring journalist stops him in the street and asks for advice, Kinameri doesn’t even answer but just walks away with a look of contempt and sadness on his face. Finally, after his mad dash into a crime scene in the final reel, he becomes the news himself. All of his fellow reporters suddenly want to know “what happened”, “what was it like”, “did you go in to save him or for the story?” etc. Still stunned and probably in need of medical attention, Kinameri looks directly into the camera, puts his hand across the lens and states “I can’t speak fucking Japanese”.

Filled with rage and shame, No More Comics! is a Network-esque satire on the world of live broadcast reporting exposing the seedier sides of journalistic desperation. Ahead of its time and sadly still timely in the age of 24hr coverage which mainly consists of the same trivial stories repeated ad nauseum, its messages are needed more than ever.


Unsubtitled trailer:

 

Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoichi Higashi, 2010)

wandering homeAlcoholism is not a theme which has exactly been absent from the history of cinema. From the booze drenched regret of Days of Wine and Roses to the melancholic inevitability of Leaving Las Vegas and the disdaining irony of Barfly, there has been no shortage of unsympathetic portrayals of drunkenness when it comes to the silver screen. Yoichi Higashi’s Wandering Home (酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう, Yoi Ga Sametara, Uchi Ni Kaerou) walks something of a middle road here as it embraces the classic “issue drama” mould but also aims for a naturalistic character study in adapting the true life memoirs of photojournalist Yutaka Kamoshida (husband of well known mangaka Reiko Saibara).

The film begins with a touch of magical realism as Tsukahara (Tadanobu Asano) literally falls off his barstool and has a vision of his wife and two children urging him to get up. Of course, they aren’t “real”. Tsukara lives with his mother after his marriage to a successful mangaka broke down due to his alcoholism. Returning home and ignoring his mother’s advice to get something to eat, Tsukarahara has another drink whilst swearing that this time he’ll be sober when he sees his kids but shortly after retreats to the bathroom to vomit where he experiences a massive haemorrhage and is taken to hospital. Things have already gone too far, he’s told he’s lucky to be alive and the next time this happens he will die.

Swearing to finally come off the booze, Tsukahara goes home but is immediately tempted by a side dish in a restaurant which contains alcohol. He makes the wise choice not to buy the vodka in the off-licence but eventually talks himself into buying beer which he drinks right away and then falls over and hits his head on the way home. His ex-wife, Yuki (Hiromi Nagasaku), and his long suffering mother have gone through this too many times before to even be disappointed. Eventually, they ship Tsukahara off to a residential facility in the hope that they can finally help him beat the booze for good.

Wandering Home is inspired by the real life story of a photojournalist which has also inspired a few other films including the following year’s Kaasan which told the same story from the point of view of Kamoshida’s mangaka wife. Therefore, the ending of this story might perhaps be known to you already but needless to say it isn’t an altogether happy one. The film doesn’t go into the reasons Tsukahara started drinking save for emphasising that it’s rarely one root cause that starts someone on the road to alcohol addiction. Tsukahara’s father had been an alcoholic and had also behaved violently in the home – something which Tsukahara despised and yet he ultimately became exactly like his dad. Having started to drink as a young teenager he drifted into an aimless life and then witnessed a number of traumatic events in his career as a photojournalist which also left their mark on him.

Though the film is never shy about the disruption Tsukahara’s drunkeness causes to his family, it mitigates the effects by casting them as surreal episodes such as the only scene in the film where Tsukahara is shown to be violent towards his wife in which another soot covered version of himself emerges from a zipper in his back to shout abuse and trash the place as his children retreat in horror to their bedroom. It’s not Tsukahara, it’s the alcohol, the film tries to say but actually lays the message on a little thick and often neglects the trauma that his behaviour is, in turn, causing to his own son and daughter.

That said, there is remarkably little animosity between Yuki and her ex-husband despite the way that he has behaved. Yes, the pair are divorced but Yuki is called right away when Tsukahara is taken to hospital and when she brings the children to visit him the couple talk warmly with no bitterness or recrimination. The children too are happy to see their father and do not seem afraid of him in any way at all.

Higashi does, however, fall into standard “issue drama” tropes and perhaps spends too much time exploring the rehab facility where Tsukahara is sent for treatment. Though hearing something of the other characters’ paths to alcohol dependency is enlightening, it can’t help but feel more like a public information film at times than the affecting character drama it should be. Small touches like Tsukahara’s longing for something a simple as being able to enjoy curry again like everyone else on the ward or his more frequent difficulties of being able to distinguish a hallucination from something he’s doing for real lend weight to the central story but they can’t quite save it.

Higashi’s tone is generally straightforward and mostly avoids melodrama or sentimentality except during the film’s ending. This sounds like a strength but turns out to be a weakness as something about Tsukahara’s plight never quite grabs the heartstrings in the way it seems to want to. The film’s unsentimental depiction of alcohol dependency and one man’s struggle to try and regain his place within his own family is an admirable one, but Wandering Home ultimately falls far short of its intended destination.


The Japanese dvd/blu-ray release of Wandering Home includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer:

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.