The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lowlife Love (下衆の愛, Eiji Uchida, 2016)

Lowlife Love“What would John do?” is a question Cassavetes loving indie filmmaker Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) often asks himself, lovingly taking the framed late career photo of the godfather of independent filmmaking in America down from the wall. Unfortunately, if Cassavetes has any advice to offer Tetsuo, Tetsuo is not really paying attention. An example of the lowlife scum who appear to have taken over the Japanese indie movie scene, Tetsuo hasn’t made anything approaching art since an early short success some years ago and mainly earns his living through teaching “acting classes” for young, desperate, and this is the key – gullible,  people hoping to break into the industry.

Despite ripping off the next generation, Tetsuo’s financial situation is not exactly rock solid as he still lives at home with his parents and younger sister and even resorts to stealing his elderly mother’s pension money all in the name of art. A low level sociopath, he bangs on about movies and artistic integrity whilst using his directorial authority to pull young and naive would be actresses onto the casting couch with promises to make them a star through the massively successful movie he’s supposedly about to make (but probably never will).

His world is about to change when he encounters two still hopeful entrants into the movie industry in the form of aspiring actress Minami (Maya Okano) and shy screenwriter Ken (Shugo Oshinari ). Ken’s script is good, and Minami shows promise as an actress but also a backbone as she’s unwilling to give in to Tetsuo’s clumsy pass at her through what actually amounts to an attempted rape in the (unisex) toilet of a seedy bar. And they say romance is dead!

Soon enough a rival appears on the scene in the form of a more successful director who abandoned the indie world long ago in favour of the golden cage of the studio system. Tetsuo calls him a sell out, but as his own world crumbles Tetsuo finally gets a much needed reality check that leaves him wondering how much “integrity” there is in his current life which is based entirely on exploitation yet produces nothing but cheap, instant gratification.

This is a film about a sociopathic, pretentious, and above all lazy “film director” who is being cast as a representation of a certain type of guy found the lowest edges of the indie film scene. Lowlife Love seeks to illuminate the inherent misogyny in the cinema industry and more particularly at the bottom of the ladder where the desperate masses congregate, each waiting for someone to extend a hand down to those below that will help them onto the higher rungs, but this is less about the subjugation of women and the way their lack of status is consistently used against them than it is about Tetsuo’s own fecklessness. Tetsuo probably could make a movie, but he doesn’t. He just talks about making movies. The system isn’t the problem here, Tetsuo is just a useless person with almost no redeeming features.

The successful director, Kano, and the ones that follow him are barely any better. Minami says at one point that directors are all crafty, filthy, bitter, and annoying – on the basis of these examples she is not wrong. Kano replies that filmmaking is like a drug, once you’re in there’s no out and you’ll do anything just to be allowed to stay. These guys are all hollow, desperate creatures, craving validation through “artistic success” but finding it through easy, loveless sex with “obliging” actresses equally eager to play this unpleasant game solely to avoid being thrown out of it or worse onto a lower stratum altogether.

Minami’s path is either one of growth or corruption depending on your point of view but the extremely shy, naive and innocent girl dreaming of becoming, not a star, but a successful actress, is gradually replaced by a manipulative dominatrix well versed in the rules of the game and unafraid to play it to the max. Whether her success is a fall or a victory is likewise a matter for debate but it contrasts strongly with the similar struggles of the veteran actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) who even has a friend doing research on her targets so she can assess their usefulness before going all the way.

Unfortunately for her, even when she hits on a useful contact promises are easily broken, especially when you’ve already played your only bargaining chip and another, prettier player steps onto the field. A deleted scene features an embittered actress attempting to take her own life and uttering the final words that she never cared about stardom, she just wanted to keep on acting. This is an all too real response to an age old problem but one that Tetsuo and his like are much more willing to perpetuate than ease, even whilst mourning the loss of a friend to the unreasonable demands of their own industry.

Famously funded by a Kickstarter campaign and personal sacrifices of its producer, Lowlife Love features unusually high production values for an indie film and a fairly high profile cast including its leading actor, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, who has become something close to modern Japanese indie cinema’s most recognisable star. Performances are excellent across the board though the picture the film paints of the no budget indie world is extremely bleak and mean spirited. Porn, gangsters, exploitation, prostitution, and a lot of rubbish about creating art makes one wonder why anyone bothers in the first place but then we’re back to Kano’s conundrum and taking down our pictures of Cassavetes to ask what John would do. Sleazy, unpleasant and cynical, Lowlife Love’s cast of dreadful people in difficult situations yet, apparently, dreaming of the stars, is all too plausible if a little hard to watch.


Lowlife Love (下衆の愛, Gesu no Ai) was financed through a Kickstarter campaign run by Third Window Films and is currently shipping to backers with a regular retail release scheduled for a later date.

Lowlife Love will also be shown as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22nd and 23rd June 2016.

Obon Brothers (UK Anime Network Review)

Obon BrothersReview of quirky comedy Obon Brothers (お盆の弟 Obon no Ototo) from this year’s Raindance up at UK Anime Network. I was also lucky enough to interview the director, Akira Osaki, while he was at Raindance to introduce the film which you can also read over at UK Anime Network.


Sometimes you think everything is going to be alright, but then several calamities arrive all at once. Down on his luck film director and stay at home dad Takashi has only been able to get one film made so far and it doesn’t look good for another any time soon. Right now he’s spending sometime apart from his wife and daughter as his elder brother Wataru is ill with colon cancer and as his brother never married, both their parents are dead and they have no other family Takashi has gone to look after him. However, Wataru is anything but grateful and proceeds to mope about the house repeatedly asking when Takashi plans to go home.

When he finally does go home, Takashi’s wife realises she liked it better when he wasn’t there and asks for a divorce. With nowhere else to go except back to Wataru’s, a confused and heartbroken Takashi goes home to Gunma where he reconnects with his screenwriting partner who’s finally met a girl through internet dating. Persuaded to come on a double date, Takashi strikes up a friendship with Ryoko despite still harbouring hopes for a reconciliation with his wife. No job, no home, no wife – what does the future hold for a mild mannered man like Takashi?

Like last year’s Raindance highlight And the Mudship sails away, Obon Brothers stars Kiyohiko Shibukawa though this “Takashi” is a little more sympathetic than the completely apathetic character from Watanabe’s film. With a sort of gentleness of spirit, Takashi is the sort of person who enjoys taking care of others like his ailing brother and cute little daughter and is just as happy keeping house as anything else. For his wife, his passivity becomes a major issue as she finds herself taking on a more independent role and comes to feel she needs someone with more drive at her side rather than the meek Takashi who’s content just muddling through.

Indeed, just muddling through ends up becoming an accidental theme of the film. Every morning, Takashi stops at the local shrine, throws a coin in the donation box and prays for everything to work out…and then goes home and waits for things to happen. However, things don’t just happen no matter how much you want and pray for them – at the end of the day you have to put the effort in which goes for all things in life from marriages to friendships and careers. If anybody gets anything at all out of Takashi’s religious practices, it’s ironically the older brother Wataru who thinks all this religious stuff is hokum – even going so far as to urinate into a sacred pond!

Also like Watanabe’s And the Mudship Sails Away, Obon Brothers is shot in black and white with a preference for long takes and static camera. Consequently it has an innately sophisticated indie comedy feeling which, coupled with its naturalistic tone, bring a kind of warmth and familiarity that it’s hard to resist. Though the film touches on some heavy themes – cancer, the breakdown of a marriage, it treats them all with a degree of matter of factness that never lets them overshadow the main narrative. After all, these things happen and life carries on while they do.

A loving tribute to the prefecture of Gunma from which many of the cast and crew originate including the director Akira Osaki, scriptwriter Shin Adachi and leading actor Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Obon Brothers has more than a little autobiographical content though it doesn’t reflect the actual circumstances of any of the creative team’s lives. It’s a gentle comedy, though one with shades of darkness creeping in around the edges, and moves at an equally gentle pace which gives you ample time to see into these characters and their lives. Osaki’s camera is unjudgemental, it gives equal sympathy and understanding to everyone and even the eventual end of Takashi’s marriage is accomplished with the utmost amicability. Whether or not Takashi has actually changed very much by the end of the film or has just gained a little more knowledge about who he is as a person, Obon Brothers gives you the feeling that it’s alright to start all over again – even if you’re just muddling though!


Obon Brothers is getting a UK release from Third Window Films next year(?) – highly recommended, especially if you like gentle, indie comedies!