Prior Convictions (前科者, Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2022)

An earnest young woman finds herself questioning her way of life after one of her charges is implicated in a spate of murders in Yoshiyuki Kishi’s social drama Prior Convictions (前科者, Zenkamono). As the double meaning of the English title implies, the issue is as much about preconceived notions and unfair judgements as it is about “crime”, its causes and legacies, while ultimately arguing for a more compassionate approach to law enforcement which prizes healing and rehabilitation over meaningless punishment. 

Kayo (Kasumi Arimura) is what’s known as a volunteer probation officer which is to say that she assists those who’ve recently been released from prison to reintegrate into mainstream society so that they can live comfortable lives within the law. She is not however a civil servant and though making regular reports to an official probation officer has very little power and no pay for her work which can at times be difficult and emotionally draining especially considering that she also needs to work a regular job in a convenience store to support herself. In what seems like a very poor safeguarding decision, she meets most of her clients in her own home where she lives alone one of them even breaking in while she’s not there for an impromptu hotpot party. 

While she is exasperated by some of her charges such as a woman who can’t seem to stick to a regular job no matter how many she finds her, Kayo is incredibly proud of her work with Kudo (Go Morita), a quiet and soulful middle-aged man who was convicted of murder after stabbing a co-worker who had been bullying him so badly that he lost the hearing in one ear. Kudo had been struggling to reconcile himself to his crime, intensely worried that while unable to understand why he did it he might end up doing it again. When Kudo suddenly disappears after being linked to a series of suspicious deaths most assume the worst, but Kayo alone refuses to believe that Kudo could be the killer and is determined to find out what’s really going on if only to vindicate her conviction that her work is good and useful rather than naive and misguided as some including intense police officer Takimoto (Hayato Isomura) seem to see it. 

As Kayo later reveals she’s carrying some baggage herself which contributed to her decision to begin working with those who’ve been convicted of crimes, but is doing it with the aim of reducing suffering and ending the cycle so that there are no more victims or victimisers. Also wounded, Takimoto tells her that murderers aren’t human and can never be rehabilitated, while she’s forced to consider the problem from all angles meeting with a lawyer (Tae Kimura) who defended an abusive husband who murdered his wife and learning that she did so for similar reasons to herself certain that he too deserved a second chance and could perhaps be reformed if given the proper treatment. Kayo sees that many of the people she meets ended up committing crimes because of traumatic personal circumstances and if someone had helped them earlier they may not have offended in the first place. She can’t change the past but at least in helping them now she might prevent further crimes in the future while giving them a source of stability as they attempt to root themselves more firmly in mainstream society. 

Inspired by Masahito Kagawa’s manga, Prior Convictions was previously adapted into six-part WOWWOW TV drama to which the film is technically a sequel though fairly stand alone in its gentle unpacking of Kayo’s own unresolved trauma and subsequent epiphanies as regards her relationships with those she’s trying to help. As one young woman puts it, they find her vulnerability reassuring in contrast to the often authoritarian, didactic approaches taken by law enforcement and social services who only talk down to them from a condescending place of superiority rather than trying to meet them on a more human level. In the end it’s about healing, trying to find an accommodation with the traumatic past and limiting its legacy to break the cycle of pain and violence. The prior convictions which most need addressing are those of a judgemental society that all too often contributes to the mechanisms of violence in seeking to punish rather than to help.


Prior Convictions screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I’m Flash! (Toshiaki Toyoda, 2012)

A conflicted cult leader’s existential crisis plays havoc with the “family business” he’s unwillingly inherited in Toshiaki Toyoda’s ironic contemplation of life, death, and everything in-between, I’m Flash!. Taken from a Sheena & The Rokkets song, the slightly awkward title refers not to the hero’s taste for visible wealth, but to the briefness of life. Shot in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, Toyoda apparently intended the film to “shake off death” but ultimately casts off only its shadow while suggesting once again that “death is the ultimate salvation” and the only true path to freedom. 

As the film opens, “guru” Rui (Tatsuya Fujiwara) literally collides with destiny as the bright red sports car he’s driving meets a motorcyclist coming in the other direction. The unnamed cyclist (Tasuku Emoto) is killed instantly and thereafter callously forgotten while the girl in the passenger seat next to him (Kiko Mizuhara) who’d he’d only met that evening in a bar is now in a coma with no indication of when or if she may wake up. Rui is shaken, however, most in being confronted with the real world cost of his phoney religion something which he has perhaps been ignoring in order to continue living his life. “If you want to make serious money there’s nothing better than religion” he’d cynically joked, playing the playboy enjoying the attention his gurudom grants him, particularly with the opposite sex, while living a life of undeserved luxury built on exploiting the vulnerability of others. 

Yet as we come to realise his troubles are not only moral or spiritual but personal in realising that he is but a puppet of his own organisation which is in reality run by his pragmatic mother (Michiyo Okusu) and hard-nosed sister (Mayu Harada) to whose marketing genius he attributes the cult’s recent success. One of three bodyguards hired to protect him quips that Rui is “kind of like a mob boss”, and he’s not far off except that Rui is only the face of the organisation with no real power to affect change. The cult, which runs under the slogan “Life is Beautiful”, was apparently founded by his grandfather and can only be inherited through the male line but Rui later discovers that both his grandfather and father whose skulls sit in his ossuary may have died unnatural deaths suggesting perhaps that they too came to experience this same sense of existential impotence or fell victim to the machinations of others. Feeling emasculated, Rui was forced to become the guru when his middle sister decided to transition, joining older sister Sakura and his mother as part of the matriarchal governing body while refusing the burden Rui must now carry. 

“Everyone needs something to cling to” Rui’s mother rationalises, justifying herself that the members of the cult would merely have joined another organisation if not theirs. Veteran hitman Kamimura (Shigeru Nakano) says something similar when the bodyguards are asked to switch sides and take Rui out of the picture, insisting that if they don’t do it someone else will. Rui’s decision to dissolve the church sparked by his meeting with the girl in the bar creates a serious business problem for his mother and sisters, yet reflecting he realises that he had plenty of opportunities to change his life and let each of them pass him by. “Is life supposed to be enjoyable?” zen hitman/bodyguard Fujiwara (Ryuhei Matsuda) answers when Rui asks him if he’s happy living on the sidelines, but it’s he alone who seems to see the value of living in the present ironically embodying the cult’s central messages that it’s only the fear of death that prevents one living a happy life while also correcting Rui’s minder that the contemplation of mortality shouldn’t be as “effortless” as the solutions they offer profess.  

Rui’s only escape lies in the ocean, in a sense diving into life while swimming towards the sun in search of rebirth while Fujiwara asks himself if he’s completely free if the world is but a fleeting dream and after death everything disappears as if it never existed. The guru may have fallen victim to his own philosophy, looking for salvation in death while perhaps selfishly prioritising his own liberation rather than destroying the corrupt system of which he was a part and in which he will simply be replaced. “Not at any time will the illusion of hope be destroyed” according to an ethereal voiceover casting doubt over its own message of positivity even while its hero swims toward the light. 


I’m Flash! is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th October as part of the Toshiaki Toyoda: 2005 to 2021 box set courtesy of Third Window Films accompanied by a typically insightful commentary from Tom Mes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Koji Fukada, 2020)

“It’s hard to see weakness, especially your own” the oblivious hero of Koji Fukada’s perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic romantic melodrama The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Honki no Shirushi) is told, though it’ll be a while before he realises how annoyingly right his rival has read him. Adapted from the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato and first aired as a 10-part TV drama, Fukada’s tale of mutual salvations finds its dissatisfied heroes struggling to define themselves in a conformist culture but finding perhaps the “signpost” towards the real through a process of romantic misadventure in realising that the emotional crash of a failed connection can perhaps bounce you into a moment of self-realisation and the courage to carry it through. 

Last to experience such a moment, the hero 30-year old Tsuji (Win Morisaki) is a thoroughly bored salaryman working at a company which sells fireworks along with cheap plastic toys for children. Entirely passive, he is in two contradictory romances with a pair of diametrically opposed office ladies at his company (which has a strict rule against inter-office dating) but is emotionally invested in neither of them. His life changes one day while he’s idly buying a bottle of water at a convenience store and notices a confused woman has picked up a damaged children’s toy he was trying to get taken off the shelf by the disinterested cashier but she hardly pays attention to him changing it over for her because she’s intensely confused by a map of the local area. After his attempt to help her fails, Tsuji leaves the store but later comes across the woman again when she somehow stalls in the middle of a level crossing and is about to be hit by a train, heroically leaning through an open window to put the car in neutral and push it out of the way with mere seconds to spare. He stays with the woman, Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), until the police arrive but she panics and tries to make out he was driving before thinking better of it and coming clean. 

It’s a pattern than will often be repeated in the earlier parts of their relationship. Having tried to do something good, he finds himself incurring only infinite trouble. Bugged by the rental company who find his business card in the abandoned car, Tsuji is bamboozled into Ukiyo’s very complicated world of lies and broken promises but nevertheless feels oddly compelled to help her. “You’re too kind to everyone”, the first of his office romances Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) tells him with mild contempt, though he offers her a wry smile that suggests he doesn’t quite think of it as kindness implying his capacity for altruism may be masking a deep-seated sense of emptiness and inadequacy. When his affair with Hosokawa is exposed, he expresses consternation that she shouldn’t have to be the one to transfer simply because she’s a woman, describing himself as an average employee going through the motions while she is clearly keeping the place together, though she again accuses him of selling himself short unable to see how many people in the office look up to and depend on him precisely because of his rather dull efficiency and air of confident reliability born of having no real personality. 

In fact he seems to be in flight from the “real”, consciously or otherwise afraid of facing his authentic self and wilfully masking it by putting on the suit of the conventional salaryman. Ms. Hosokawa is much the same, having initiated the relationship on a no strings basis but secretly wanting more. Approaching middle age she finds herself suffocating under her various demands, playing the part of the dependable senior office lady but dreaming of escape through romantic salvation. Only once her relationship with Tsuji begins to implode does she rediscover a new sense of self. The other girlfriend, meanwhile, Minako (Akari Fukunaga) plays the contrasting role of the office cutie irritatingly sweet and simpleminded but after being cruelly dumped suddenly dyes her hair pink and becomes feisty and uncompromising no longer unable to stand up for herself while refusing to conform to idealised visions of youthful femininity. 

Tsuji meanwhile fixates on the idea of “saving” Ukiyo while she battles an internalised victim complex which encourages her to think that all the bad things happening to her are entirely her own fault because she is a bad person, constantly apologising for her own existence. Yet the situation is later reversed, Ukiyo repeating word for word the speech Tsuji had given to Hosokawa as she explains there’s another man she must save because he is incapable of saving himself. Investing their entire worth in the act of saving someone else, the pair attempt to paper over their lack of selfhood, but in essence find their positions reversing in pattern which seems to suggest you have to save yourself before you can find the path towards your romantic destiny. As Tsuji turns fugitive, imploding in a perceived defeat in having failed to take control over the forces of change in his life, Ukiyo finally develops the strength to take care of herself bolstered by the certainty of her love for him. 

Painted alternately as a damsel in distress and a femme fatale who ruins men and drags them to hell, Ukiyo is of course neither just, as an old friend explains, an unlucky woman subject to a series of societal prejudices. There is however something in the pair’s mutual claims that there was someone trapped who couldn’t climb out without their help even if that help is slightly less literal than they’d assumed. Even when relationships fail, or crash and burn as another puts it, they invite the possibility for growth and become perhaps signposts on the way to the “real thing”. Shot with a whimsical realism and filled with a series of twists and reversals, Fukada’s elliptical tale is less one of romantic fulfilment than a search for the true self but finally allows its heroes to find mutual salvation in staking all on love. 


The 10-episode TV drama edit of The Real Thing streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Feature edit trailer (no subtitles)

All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Yuya Ishii, 2020)

The broken dreams of youth and middle-aged malaise push a trio of former high school friends towards existential crisis in Yuya Ishii’s melancholy exploration of emotional distance,  All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Ikichatta). Commissioned as part of the B2B A Love Supreme project created by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures which tasked six Asian filmmakers with the task of proving that high quality films can still be made on a micro-budget, Ishii’s latest finds him in the same register as his poetic take on urban angst The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue as his frustrated protagonists each pay a heavy price for the seeming inability to communicate their true feelings honestly. 

Opening with an idyllic scene of three high school friends enjoying a breezy summer day, Ishii cuts abruptly to the present, interrupting the wistful love song playing in the background mid-flow. Now in his 30s, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) is a married father whose only dream is to be able to afford a nice house with a garden for his wife and daughter, maybe even get a dog. To this end, he’s been taking lessons in English and Mandarin with high school friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) with the intention of one day starting their own business though they once dreamed of becoming musicians. All of that comes to nothing, however, when he begins to feel dizzy at work one day and returns home early to find his wife, Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), with another man. Unable to offer any real sound of protest, he accidentally smashes a panel on the glass door to their bedroom, apologises for interrupting, and leaves in a daze to pick up his young daughter Suzu (Yuno Ota) from school. 

Natsumi’s infidelity evidently comes as a complete surprise, though it seems obvious that their marriage is far from perfect. “My life is just stress and getting fatter” Natsumi openly complains to Takeda, her sense of inertia and impossibility seemingly more than simple dissatisfaction with her life as an ordinary housewife. For his part, Atsuhisa is as emotionally distant as they come, a near silent zombie dead eyed and permanently absent from himself. He is continually preoccupied by the absence of his late grandfather, now nothing more than an increasingly anonymous photograph on an altar as if he never existed at all. Atsuhisa asks himself if his grandfather really lived as a way of avoiding the same question in himself as he sleepwalks through a conventional life that proves infinitely unsatisfying while he chases elusive dreams of comfort and security. 

Natsumi’s revelation that she’s been completely miserable for the entirety of their married life because she’s never felt loved likewise shocks him, but if her intent was to provoke emotional honesty in her husband it fails. She pushes him to fight, to offer some kind of resistance but he simply accepts her decision to end the marriage. The sense of impotence is palpable, Natsumi turning off the TV set because she can hardly do anything about the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi so what’s the point in knowing about them. “How else can we live?” someone else later adds, other than to simply decide not to think about the things you cannot change. Atsuhisa tells himself that it’s meaningless anyway, it will all “fade away” in the end so there’s no sense in trying to resist. 

Yet he continues to struggle, wondering in a sense if he could perhaps claim agency over his life if only he could learn to communicate his true feelings honestly. He asks himself if it’s because he’s Japanese that he can’t, if his culture actively prevents him from speaking freely when it comes to desire. Of course, everyone else is Japanese too which perhaps makes his question moot, but those around him do indeed seem to suffer from the same sense of wilful repression, even Natsumi tragically withholding her real feelings and ultimately working against herself out of a mistaken sense of guilt. “You don’t love me, that’s why you can be honest” an ex of Atsuhisa’s points out during an emotional farewell, cutting to the quick in suggesting that his problem is that he fears the risks of emotional intimacy. 

Two boys and one girl is always going to be a story tinged with a degree of sadness no matter how it turns out, but on that idyllic summer day no one could ever have thought it would end like this. Takeda, manfully keeping his true desires under wraps perhaps in love with Natsumi himself but too diffident to have said anything or overly mindful of his friends’ feelings, does his best to be the emotional buffer supporting both halves of a couple rapidly spiralling away from themselves but is ultimately unable to prevent them from making decisions they may regret even as they are are made. “My love wasn’t good enough” Atsuhisa laments in his inability to make it felt, finding proof of life only in absence through the memory of those shining summer days. A little rough and ready around the edges but filled with a raw poetry Ishii’s melancholy drama puts its hero through the emotional wringer but in the end perhaps sets him free to speak his heart even if others are too ashamed to look.


All the Things We Never Said streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Miwa Nishikawa, 2020)

“Am I too unhealthy to live in society?” asks the hero of Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Subarashiki Sekai) of his doctor, but the only answer he gets is a wry chuckle and an exhortation not to be so “pessimistic”. Inspired by Ryuzo Saki’s 1993 novel Mibuncho, the first of Nishikawa’s six features to be adapted from secondary material is in many ways a typical Showa-era story, testifying to the fact that the world has not changed as much as we might have hoped in the intervening 30 years since Saki’s novel was published, but it’s also a lowkey condemnation of the quiet hypocrisies which continue to define our notions of civility in the story of a man who was perhaps too good to survive in our “society”.

Opening with bars and heavy snow, Nishikawa introduces us to Mikami (Koji Yakusho) as he nears release after serving 13 years in prison for killing a man in what is described by the authorities as a yakuza gang war, though Mikami is keen to point out that he’d already attempted to leave the yakuza by then and the killing was mere self defence. In any case when questioned by the officers about to release him, he admits no remorse over the man’s death only that he lost 13 years of his life over “that hoodlum”. In any case he’s thrown out into the cold, boarding a bus back into the city where he vows to go straight. Once there, however he discovers the outside world to be fairly inhospitable. Not only are the skills he learned in prison next to useless when it comes to finding employment in the contemporary economy, but he must also contend with societal prejudice and his own wounded pride.

Stepping for moment into the realms of the issue movie, Nishikawa explores the relative impossibility of re-entering mainstream society as someone who has been convicted of a crime. Having spent most of his adult life in and out of prison as a petty yakuza footsoldier, Mikami has little education and no marketable skills aside from his capacity for violence and the ability to drive, something of which he is now deprived because his licence expired while he was inside and to get it back he has to start from scratch by passing the new-style two-part test. Mikami’s life is indeed a typical post-war story, abandoned to an orphanage by his geisha mother from which he later escaped and ended up joining a gang in place of the family he never had. “Prison is the only place that won’t kick you out no matter how badly you behave” he later quips, accidentally laying bare his yearning for unconditional love found only shakily in yakuza brotherhood.

Yet that old-fashioned, post-war yakuza is an outdated institution, like Mikami himself a relic of the Showa era floundering in the late Heisei society in which gangsters wear sharp suits and have fancy offices, finding more sophisticated ways to make war with each other than open thuggery. Everybody wants out, Mikami later muses to himself, but it’s hard to fit in to society and those like him find themselves drawn back towards the vagaries of the yakuza life for all the dubious certainties it continues to offer them. His lawyer and guarantor Souji (Isao Hashizume) tells him that he needs to regain his love and trust of people, but that’s a tall order when it feels like no one loves you and they make a point of letting you know you’re not forgiven. Even a simple trip to the supermarket proves traumatic when the head of the local neighbourhood association who just happens to run it decides to pick him up for shoplifting just because he knows he’s an ex-con. Thankfully he later realises his mistake and is filled with remorse, moved by Mikami’s quiet dignity in asserting his innocence and right to shop as he pleases. 

For all that, however, Mikami is a man of violence who has known no other way of life, taught that his only acceptable emotional release lies in pain and destruction. His violence is, however, for the sake of others not himself. He does not become violent with the store manager Mastumoto (Seiji Rokkaku) who later becomes his friend, but gleefully confronts two punks hassling a terrified salaryman and teaches them a minor lesson in the way only an old hand can. This other side to his otherwise childishly naive character shocks frightens Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano), a TV director Mikami had approached with the intention of being featured on his show in the hope of tracking down the mother who abandoned him, who engages in some armchair psychology to imply that the source of Mikami’s rage lies in his alienation as a rejected child. The irony is that Souji, his wife (Meiko Kaji), Matsumoto, and Tsunoda become Mikami’s new “family”, replacing that he’d looked for in the yakuza and providing a grounding in mainstream society that allows him to shed his anger, but the compromise they ask of him is in itself soul crushing in its implications to the extent that his complicity with it is no redemption but a moral failure. 

If such is the price of civility, Mikami may have a point, perhaps it isn’t worth it. In the end, it is our world which fails to live up to his goodness, his violence a result of society’s continued indifference to human suffering. He is no more free outside the walls than in, constrained by an unforgiving emotional austerity that permits injustice in the name of harmony. If you can’t protect the ones who’ll save the flowers from the storm, then what is your freedom for? Subverting a well worn redemption narrative, Nishikawa finds a wealth of kindness in a broken world, but suggests it’s not enough save us until the world itself is redeemed. 


Under the Open Sky streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Ryota Nakano, 2019)

Contemporary Japanese cinema has gone lukewarm on the idea of family, presenting it more often as a toxic rather than supporting presence. Among the few remaining positive voices, Ryota Nakano’s previous films Capturing Dad and Her Love Boils Bathwater never made any attempt to pretend that families are always perfect or that the family as a concept is one which must always be defended, but ultimately found warmth and solace in the mutual act of pulling together as the sometimes wounded protagonists found strength rather than suffocation in unconditional love. 

A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Nagai Owakare) finds something much the same as three women are forced to deal in different ways with their relationships with austere father Shohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), once an authoritarian head master but now suffering from dementia and rapidly losing the ability to read. The first signs of decline are felt in 2007, prompting mum Yoko (Chieko Matsubara) to ring both of her increasingly distant, almost middle-aged daughters, and invite them to their father’s 70th birthday party, 

33-year-old Fumi (Yu Aoi) is in the middle of breaking up with a boyfriend who’s giving up on his dreams of being a novelist to take over the family potato farm. Fumi’s dream is owning her own restaurant, but somehow it seems a long way off. Older sister Mari (Yuko Takeuchi), meanwhile, is a housewife and mother living with her fish scientist husband Shin (Yukiya Kitamura) and son Takashi (Yuito Kamata) in California. Lonely in her marriage, Mari struggles with her English and finds it difficult to make friends with her husband’s colleagues who openly criticise her language skills from across the room while Shin makes no attempt to defend her. 

Meanwhile, Yoko carries the heaviest burden alone in trying to manage her husband’s decline even as he begins to wander off, forever asking to go “home” even when he is already there. The concept of “home” however may be difficult to define in a rapidly changing society. All the way across the sea, Mari frets about her parents and feels guilty that, as the older sister, she should be doing more and has unfairly left everything to Fumi just because she happens to be in closer proximity. She is then slightly perturbed to realise that Fumi hasn’t seen their parents since the previous New Year and is equally shocked at the noticeable change in her father who goes off on random tangents and suddenly loses his temper over trivial things. 

Mari flies back to Japan when crises occur but her husband is not as understanding as one might expect. His research concerns fish which adapt to their environment and it’s clear he’s begun to follow their example, falling wholesale for Western individualism. He criticises Mari’s anxiety for her parents’ health by reminding her that her “family” is her husband and son, bearing no responsibility for additional relatives. Shin now believes strongly in individual responsibility, that Shohei and Yoko need to look after themselves. As such he takes little interest in his family leaving all the childcare duties to Mari in somehow believing that children raise themselves. When the teenage Takashi (Rairu Sugita) goes off the rails and starts skipping school, Mari turns to the time old philosophy that he needs a good talking to from his father, but all Shin can come up with is that his son’s his own man and he’s sure he has his reasons. 

The young Takashi is acclimatising too, getting himself a red-haired Californian girlfriend who’s obsessed with J-pop and kanji, but later replaces him with another Asian guy when he goes back to Japan to spend time with Shohei while he’s still somewhat present. Meanwhile, Fumi works hard to realise her dream but encounters a series of disappointments both romantic and professional as she too reconsiders the idea of family and whether it’s truly possible to slide into one that has already fractured. Becoming responsible for her parents’ care shifts her into a maternal role she might not have expected, maturing in a slightly different direction while Mari remains trapped and lonely, neglected by her newly individualist husband who only cares about his research and shut out by her understandably angsty teenage son. 

Crises are, however, good for bringing people back together. Shohei it seems was a typical father of his times, distant and authoritarian, perhaps not always easy to be around. Fumi worries that she disappointed him, not becoming a teacher as he’d hoped while also failing to achieve her dreams of becoming a restaurateur, while Mari just wants what her parents had in a loving and supportive marriage surrounded by the warmth of  family. Shohei might not always have shown it, but there’s a lot unsaid in his constant desire to go “home” back to the time his kids were small. Home is where the heart is after all, even if you don’t quite remember the way. 


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Journalist (新聞記者, Michihito Fujii, 2019)

The Journalist poster 2In these days of “fake news” and misinformation, a robust press is more important than ever. In Japan, however, the news media institution has long been decried as toothless, if not actually in league with the ruling regime. A timely and appropriately exasperated conspiracy thriller, Michihito Fujii’s The Journalist (新聞記者, Shinbun kisha) is inspired by the non-fiction book by newspaper reporter Isoko Mochizuki who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film and has herself been singled out as “problematic” by politicians unused to being held to account and objecting to her intensive interview technique.

Mochizuki’s fictionalised stand in, Erika Yoshioka (Shim Eun-kyung), is a rookie reporter who grew up in America with her Japanese journalist father and Korean mother. Following her father’s “suicide” she returned to Japan and is currently working for Toto News where she receives a mysterious fax containing information about a suspicious government plan to found a new medical university.

Meanwhile, idealistic former international diplomat Sugihara is on temporary secondment to CIRO (Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office) – a secretive organisation set up under the occupation to mirror the US’ CIA but often criticised for acting like a secret police force and expending too much effort on spying on ordinary Japanese citizens on Japanese soil rather than gathering useful international intelligence. Sugihara (Tori Matsuzaka) finds himself conflicted in his new work, the first assignment of which is handling a smear campaign against a young woman (clearly inspired by the Shiori Ito case) who has accused a high ranking journalist close to the government of rape. A married man with a baby on the way, he fears rocking the boat but resents his complicity with such obvious government finagling and failure to counter the misogynistic narrative that passes for office banter.

When his former mentor, Kanzaki (Kazuya Takahashi), commits suicide, no longer able to live with his compromises, Sugihara begins to reconsider his decision not to go against his superiors but finds it difficult to countenance “betraying” his organisation even in the knowledge that they are no longer working in the best interests of the people. Yoshioka, with whom he eventually bonds after witnessing her sympathetic treatment of Kanzaki’s bereaved daughter, may in some senses be better placed to resist given her overseas upbringing. Where Sugihara and the news media at large struggle with the idea of standing up to authority, Yoshioka is keen to sell the ideals of journalistic integrity, insisting that a robust press is essential in holding power to account.

Meanwhile, she finds herself a lone voice adrift in the largely patriarchal world of Japanese news media. Leaving the press conference called by the woman accusing the government crony of rape, she stops to tell off a pair of journalists making sexist comments but receives only a brief eye roll before they walk away laughing. She also finds herself resented by her colleagues for pointing out that their hounding of Kanzaki’s bereaved wife and daughter at his funeral is insensitive and inappropriate, but refuses to back down in fierce determination to do what is right even if it is not popular.

Meanwhile, Sugihara’s odious boss Tada (Tetsushi Tanaka) is desperately trying to keep a grip on power from the shadows. He uses Sugihara’s conflicted loyalties against him, subtlety reminding him that he has a wife and newborn daughter to whom he has a greater responsibility, and insisting that there is no “shame” in complicity when it comes to maintaining “the illusion of democracy”. CIRO, it has to be said, does not come out of this well as it wilfully does the government’s dirty work – covering up the indiscretions of “valuable” politicians and their relatives in order to avoid the unpleasant chaos of unwelcome political scandals. Kanzaki’s compromises left him a broken and defeated man, Sugihara wonders what kind of man his daughter would think him to be if he too just went along with the government line and enabled their subversion of democracy solely for personal and economic security.

The press may be waking up, but The Journalist’s chief takeaway is that change comes when enough people find the courage to keep saying no. As the ending implies, the battle is far from over but it has perhaps begun thanks to the efforts of those like Mochizuki and her filmic counterpart Yoshioka as well as the courage of whistleblowers like Sugihara who risk personal ruin merely for speaking out. A timely, urgent defence of press freedom in the face of tightening authoritarianism, The Journalist is an all too plausible conspiracy thriller in which the last guardians of liberal democracy are the nails which refuse to be hammered down.


The Journalist screens in New York on July 27 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

over the fence posterNobuhiro Yamashita may be best known for his laid-back slacker comedies, but he’s no stranger to the darker sides of humanity as evidenced in the oddly hopeful Drudgery Train or the heartbreaking exploration of misplaced trust and disillusionment of My Back Page. One of three films inspired by Hakodate native novelist Yasushi Sato (the other two being Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City and Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There), Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス) may be among the less pessimistic adaptations of the author’s work though its cast of lonely lost souls is certainly worthy both of Yamashita’s more melancholy aspects and Sato’s deeply felt despair.

Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) wants nothing to with anything or anyone. His wife has divorced him and he doesn’t see his child but he still wears his wedding ring and feels like a married man, unable to move on from the suspended end of his marriage. Having no place else to go, Shiraiwa has come back to his home town of Hakodate – a run down harbour town on the southern point of Hokkaido. For no particular reason other than it allows him to continue claiming unemployment benefits, he’s enrolled in a back to work scheme at a vocational school which teaches carpentry skills. Keeping himself aloof and explaining to anyone that takes an interest that he’s “human scum” and they’d best keep away, Shiraiwa is eventually convinced to go drinking with fellow student Dajima (Shota Matsuda) at his favourite bar.

Dajima introduces him to a much needed motivating factor in his life, a free spirited hostess girl with the strangely manly name of Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Satoshi argues loudly with customers in the street and dances with wild abandon in the middle of a room of quiet drinkers but on getting to know her better her rapidly changeable moods and occasional fits of violent despair speak of a more serious set of problems which Satoshi herself feels as ill equipped to deal with as Shiraiwa has been with the failure of his marriage.

Failure is something which hangs heavily over the film as the grey dullness and stagnant quality of the harbour town seems to bear out its inescapability. Unsurprisingly, in one sense, everyone at the vocational school is there because they’ve already failed at something else though some of them have more success with carpentry than others. Shiraiwa takes the work seriously even if he doesn’t really see himself heading into a career as a carpenter but there’s an additional reason why the environment is so oppressive and the uniforms not unlike those of a prison. Everyone is here because they have to be and they can’t leave until they’ve completed their re-education. The teacher at the school is always quick to remind everyone how it was when he worked in the field, only he never did, he’s a failure and a prideful fantasist too.

The other men face various problems from age and dwindling possibilities, to intense pressure to succeed leading to eventual mental breakdown, and trying to build a new life after leaving the yakuza, but Shiraiwa is unique among them in the degree to which he has internalised his essential failures. Having convinced himself that he’s “human scum” Shiraiwa wants everyone else to know too as he intentionally refuses any sense of forward motion or progress in his life to reassure himself that there is no possible future for him. Satoshi has convinced herself of something similar though her dissatisfaction and fear of rejection are deeply ingrained elements of her personality which are permanent personal attributes. Pushing Shiraiwa to address the questions he could not bear to face, she helps him towards a more positive position whilst simultaneously refusing any kind of reciprocal self analysis.

There’s an additional cruelty in Satoshi’s manic declaration that Shiraiwa drove his wife insane that’s in part self directed and raises a mutual anxiety between them as Shiraiwa may be falling for a woman who already feels herself to be “mad”. Satoshi’s strange impressions of birds and animals point to her closeness to nature and separation from conventional society but also perhaps of her fear of hurting other people through her periodic descents into self destructive cruelty. As caged as the animals in the zoo where she works, Satoshi decides to try letting them out only to discover that the eagle has no desire to leave his perch.

Hakodate becomes a kind of purgatory for all as they each attempt to conquer their demons and win the right to move on to better and brighter things. Melancholy as it is, Yamashita adds in touches of his trademark surrealist humour but even in its sadness Over the Fence leaves room for hope. Climaxing in an inconsequential yet extremely important softball game the meaning of the film’s title becomes apparent – you’ll never know if you can hit that ball over the fence until you find the courage to take a swing but you may never be able to find it without the help and support of a kindred spirit.


Over the Fence was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Kei Kumai, 2002)

The Sea is WatchingAkira Kurosawa’s later career was marred by personal crises related to his inability to obtain the kind of recognition for his films he’d been used to in his heyday during the golden age of Japanese cinema. His greatest dream was to die on the set, but after suffering a nasty accident in 1995 he was no longer able to realise his ambition of directing again. However, shortly after he died, the idea was floated of filming some of the scripts Kurosawa had written but never proceed with to the production stage including The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Umi wa Miteita) which he wrote in 1993. Based on a couple of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, The Sea is Watching would have been quite an interesting entry in Kurosawa’s back catalogue as it’s a rare female led story focussing on the lives of two geisha in Edo era Japan.

Throughout this tale of love bought and love lost, we mainly follow the kindly geisha Oshin (Nagiko Tono) who ends up helping a nervous young man one night when he crashes into her geisha house in an attempt to avoid being picked up by the police. It seems he’s been out drinking with friends for the first time and, after having drunk far too much, may have stabbed another customer (though he can’t quite remember). Oshin comes up with a plan by cutting off his topknot and passing him off as one of her regular customers but Funosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is not a born dissembler and remains sitting bolt upright before heading home at the first light of day.

Something passes between the two in the night and Oshin unwisely begins to fall in love. Though she begs him not too, Funosuke repeatedly visits her claiming to enjoy her company. However, though the other girls at the geisha house are in favour of Oshin’s love across the class divides romance and go to great lengths to help her, Funosuke is just a feckless boy completely unaware of the way he’s been toying with people’s hearts. Later, Oshin meets another damaged man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins to fall in love again but can a put upon geisha ever believe the words of men who think they can trade money for love?

Kurosawa has sometimes had the charge of misogyny thrown at him, somewhat unfairly, as his films are often very masculine in nature. The Sea is Watching, conversely, is the story of two women, Oshin and her fellow geisha Okikuno (Misa Shimizu), who claims to have come from a wealthy samurai background. Oshin is still young, her kindness and softness have not yet been eroded by the often harsh and cruel world in which she lives. She contents herself with romantic dreams of finding a man who will rescue her from this unpleasant way of life. Okikuno, by contrast, is older, harder, more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore more inclined to towards pragmatism. She finds her salvation in self deception about the past whereas Oshin’s fantasies are all focussed on her future. In many ways the women are mirrors of each other but they also have a tight, sisterly bond in which each seems to understand the other perfectly without the need for explanation.

Structurally, the film feels unbalanced as it focusses more heavily on Oshin in the early stages only to gradually shift through to Okikuno by the end. The thematic split between Oshin’s twin tales of love doesn’t quite help, though it does add a degree of pathos to the situation as Okikuno can see that Oshin’s happy ever after is an unlikely prospect, but still somehow wants to make it happen. Oddly, Kumai chooses not to emphasis the relationship between the two women until the very end, preferring to deal with each of their disappointments and dead end romances separately, but the film does finally come together when they are trapped alone in the geisha house following a freak flood.

In many ways, filming the unfinished work of a great director is an entirely thankless task – every fault is because you aren’t him and every success is down to the departed genius, but Kumai does what he can to both honour Kurosawa’s memory and put his own stamp on the material. There are frequent Kurosawa-esque compositions and the final, deliberately unreal scene of the geisha house underwater framed against the starry sky also has a suitably Kurosawan feeling. That said, something about The Sea is Watching never quite catches fire, its symbolism feels underworked and the final, climactic scene lacks the power it seems to want to have despite Misa Shimizu’s impressive performance. Not drowning, but waving, The Sea is Watching is an uneven experience but makes up for its tonal problems through the strong performances of its cast and powerful, expressionist imagery which allow it to successfully ride the waves of the emotional storms at its centre.


The Sea is Watching is available on DVD with English subtitles in the US and UK from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

US release trailer: