#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Vampire Hotel (東京ヴァンパイアホテル, Sion Sono, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Tokyo Vampire Hotel PosterAbridging a work of fiction can be a taxing task. The job of a judicious abridger is the use their own judgement to reduce a larger work to its most essential elements either for those who, for one reason or another, need a more immediate digest or for those looking for greater accessibility. When it comes to a work of art, abridgement can be a dubious task and, unfortunately, the temptation is simply to excise the “best bits” shorn of all the “heavy stuff” and supporting material. Sion Sono who had been in a particularly prolific phase was given something of an unusual opportunity in creating Tokyo Vampire Hotel (東京ヴァンパイアホテル) – a chance to do as he pleased with a sizeable budget to create a television series for Amazon Prime, which is to say marrying mainstream commercial concerns with idiosyncratic artistry. The 6.5hr, eight episode, series was released via the streaming platform in June 2017 (initially in Japan only with international streaming available a few months later) but Sono also took the step of creating a 2hr22min feature length cut for film festival distribution.

The titular Tokyo hotel is the lair of a sect of modern day vampires. As a long prophesied war between rival clans – the Corvins in Japan and the ancient Draculas of Romania, brews, the Corvins have engineered a plan to lure lonely unsuspecting Tokyoites to an exclusive singles mixer where they will not only be given a sizeable fee for attending but also tempted with the possibility of meeting the love of their life, never suspecting that all this is too good to be true and they are really being recruited for a kind of blood farm to feed the various appetites of their bonkers captors.

Meanwhile, “the chosen one”, Manami (Ami Tomite), is about to come of age. Born during an “auspicious” alignment of the stars, Manami is one of three children given special vampire blood and thought to be all powerful, species saving hybrids. As such she is wanted by every side and is eventually “rescued” from a massacre at a restaurant by ice cool vampire K. (Kaho) – a Japanese vamp currently working for Dracula.

It has to be said that Sono’s original TV cut is extremely convoluted and initially confusing. The hotel, a Japanese vampire hub, is connected to the vampire capital in Romania by a magical tunnel with the narrative flowing freely between both spaces. What we lose in condensing to feature length is the entirety of the extensive back story with the consequence of shifting the focus from the protagonist of the TV series, Manami, to the more exciting figure of second lead K. whose gradual disillusionment with becoming a puppet in someone else’s revolution coupled with romantic heartbreak eventually reawakens her sense of “humanity” as she becomes committed to “saving” Manami from becoming yet another slave to the Dracula cause.

Meanwhile, Sono satirises modern Japan’s ambivalence towards romance as a collection of youngsters are forced into an extreme situation in order to successfully couple off and form a “traditional” family solely to satisfy the demands of a bunch of vampire overlords standing in for a bloodsucking state. Yamada (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), the conflicted hero of the Corvins who longs for escape from his unwanted immortality and an egotistical, individualist world harbours intense resentment towards his own “hypocritical” father who “sold” him to the vampires as a baby in return for various favours by which he has now become the “Romantic Party” Prime Minster of Japan preaching traditional family values and a “wholesome” future for the little children who otherwise face a difficult existence in a country which has “lost its way”.

Sono doubles down on his usual sense of romanticism as his flamboyant vampires adopt an oddly foppish, Regency era aesthetic whilst speaking in a deliberately theatrical manner filled with bold philosophical statements and a florid sense of repressed melodrama. Harking back to Bad Film – another attempt to reorder extensive footage into a narratively cohesive whole, the conflicts are often about love more than death with suffering and sorrow marking the lives of our gloomy immortals, oppressed by their own inability to transcend their natures and find the escape they so desperately crave.

Sono seems to reemphasise their unhappy fates by engineering an altogether different, infinitely abrupt ending which, in contrast to the TV drama, hands the victory back to the people but does so in historically uncomfortable fashion as the victorious hotel guests revel in acts of atrocity against their captors which are framed as a kind of genocide and accompanied by stills from violent classical paintings featuring scenes of unbridled carnage. A contrarian to the last, Sono mutilates his own endeavour and then frankensteins it into something else, twisting his own words and tying himself in knots in the process. Viewers seeking clarification would be well advised to invest their time in the 6.5hr experience rather than opting for the convenient shortcut of an edited version, but there is certainly plenty to ponder in Sono’s truncated tale of love and death in post-Olympic Tokyo.


This review refers to the theatrical cut of Tokyo Vampire Hotel which was screened as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival 2018. You can also stream the original TV drama in most territories via Amazon Prime.

Trailer for the TV drama (no subtitles)