A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical, and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also Yuko herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve ever known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  


A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sasaki in My Mind (佐々木、イン、マイマイン, Takuya Uchiyama, 2020)

A young man is forced to confront his quarter life malaise when presented with unexpected tragedy in Takuya Uchiyama’s heartfelt youth movie, Sasaki in My Mind (佐々木、イン、マイマイン). A study in inertia, Uchiyama’s moody drama finds its melancholy hero defeated by life, looking back to more hopeful high school days and the larger than life friend he has, by his own admission, failed convinced by his own rather solipsistic sense of personal inadequacy that he lacked the capacity to save him. 

An aspiring actor, Yuji (Kisetsu Fujiwara) lives in a small apartment with his ex-girlfriend (Minori Hagiwara) and makes ends meet with a factory job he seems to be embarrassed by. Approached by an actor friend (Nijiro Murakami) apparently doing a little a better with a series of bit parts in TV shows and commercials, Yuji is reluctant to take him up on his offer of a part in a play, while an accidental meeting with an old high school friend, Tada (Yuya Shintaro), pushes him into a defensive mindset after he’s rightly called on his passivity. “Watching life go by in terror” as his character in the play eventually puts it, Yuji is so defeated by life that it has rendered him entirely listless. Ironically taking up boxing, he gets into a random fight with a customer from the the next table at an izakaya, insisting that he doesn’t want to lose but otherwise refusing to fight for anything even the girlfriend he apparently still loves whose refusal to move on perhaps hints at the desire to be given a reason not to. 

His meeting with Tada, now a moderately successful, married salaryman, reminds him of his high school friend, Sasaki (Gaku Hosokawa), a larger than life character who used to strip impromptu and dance in the nude when greeted by chants of his name. It was Sasaki who first convinced him to become an actor as they watched Kirk Douglas in Champion on TV, though after graduation and a move to Tokyo Yuji made no real effort to keep in touch with his friend seeing him only once and discovering he had become a lonely pachinko player equally consumed by a sense of personal hopelessness. As Sasaki once put it, elephants communicate with each other through low frequency sound imperceptible to humans, his own quiet distress call apparently missed by his old friends who perhaps tired of his outlandishness as they outgrew their teenage selves and became bogged down in their own lives leaving him behind as they strove forward alone. 

Left behind is something which Yuji cannot help but feel, further deepening his sense of personal failure in having achieved not much of anything in his Tokyo life. Sasaki aside, his high school friends, Tada and Kimura (Yusaku Mori), have each shifted into a conventional adulthood with regular salaryman jobs, homes, wives, and even children. He didn’t go to his last high school reunion, probably as Tada seems to have realised out of a sense of shame, for the same reason avoiding contact with his old friends while living in an awkward limbo with the ex who apparently grew bored with his lack of drive and continuing air of defeated ennui. Despite his own insecurity, Sasaki had encouraged him to live his life, assuring him that he’s got this, but when it came to it Yuji failed to do the same abandoning him in their old home town as a relic of the past he can’t quite accept. 

Admitting as much to his theatre director, Yuji is once again told to shine in his own spotlight and that lonely people aren’t necessarily lonely because they’re alone. Everyone keeps telling him to grow up, act like an adult, but Yuji doesn’t seem to know how hung up on high school immaturity and reflecting only too late that perhaps they never really understood their friend and in the end they simply left him behind. Only a confrontation with finality pushes him towards a break with his sense of inertia, acknowledging that what he feared was letting go and the eventual forgetting that comes with loss but the “world is rushing forward. We have to keep up”. Sasaki remains for him at least in his mind as he always was, the first of many goodbyes in an “empty elegy” that eventually becomes one’s own. A touching tale of quarter life crisis, Uchiyama’s moving drama eventually pushes its static hero towards an acceptance of his moral cowardice but finally gives him the courage to move forward taking his memories with him into a freer future. 


Sasaki in My Mind streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

It’s a Summer Film! (サマーフィルムにのって, Soshi Matsumoto, 2020)

“Movies connect the present with the past through the big screen” according to the jidaigeki-obsessed heroine of Soshi Matsumoto’s charming sci-fi-inflected teen movie It’s a Summer Film! (サマーフィルムにのって, Summer Film ni Notte). True to its title, Matsumoto’s whimsical drama very much belongs to the grand tradition of high school summer movies as its youthful heroines contemplate eternity, romantic heartbreak, and artistic fulfilment while secretly plotting to best their vacuous rival by filming their very own teen samurai movie ready in time for the all-important school cultural festival. 

Aspiring director Barefoot (Marika Ito) is completely obsessed with classic samurai movies, arguing with her similarly devoted friends about who is hotter Shintaro Katsu or Raizo Ichikawa. She is a key member of the school movie making club, but intensely resentful of star player Karin (Mahiru Coda) who won the tender to make the film for this year’s cultural festival with a sappy teen romance which mostly seems to involve repeated scenes of the central couple loudly declaring their love for each other. Barefoot thinks a film should convey love without words and has written a script for a teen samurai movie in which adversaries become too emotionally invested in each other to engage in the expected final confrontation. All she’s lacking is a star and after spotting a handsome guy apparently as moved by a local rep screening as she is decides she’s found her man. What she doesn’t know is that Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko) is a secret time traveller from a future in which she has become a renowned master filmmaker but film itself sadly no longer exists. 

Being from the future and all explains Rintaro’s reluctance to star in the film, dropping accidental hints that he’s from another place as in his amusement that humans still staff removal companies and total mystification by the word “Netflix”. Yet he too is completely obsessed with classic jidaigeki from the heyday of the genre which had largely gone out of fashion by the early 1980s. As many point out, Barefoot’s hobby is slightly unusual, though she learned her love of chanbara from her grandma, receiving messages from the past she hoped to pass on to the future. Gathering most of the other rejected, outsider teens from a boy who looks about 40 to a pair of baseball nerds who can correctly guess the player from the sound of a ball hitting a glove and a bleach blond biker, she assembles a team to make her movie dreams come true as if to prove there’s something more out there than the, as she sees it, vacuous high school rom-coms favoured by the likes of Karin. 

Among the series of lessons she finally learns is that Karin need not be an adversary but could be a friend if only she look beyond her snootiness and resentment of the popular crowd even if Karin’s all pink, needlessly extravagant and egotistically branded crew shirts don’t do much to dispel Barefoot’s perception of her as entitled and self-obsessed. Another lesson she learns is that she’s not as disinterested in romance as she thought she was, though falling for Rintaro leaves her with a secondary dilemma realising that he’ll eventually have to return to his own times while also contemplating what the point of the future even is if they don’t have movies there. What she’s going to do with the rest of her life if the art of cinema is already obsolete? 

With some ironic help from Karin, what she realises is that even if something is destroyed it doesn’t disappear, films live on in the memories of those who saw them who can then take their memories with them into the future. Where her first draft had ended with an emotional anti-climax that saw her heroes too emotionally involved to engage in conflict, she now realises that samurai movies are love stories too and that “killing is a confession of love” in a slightly worrying though not altogether inaccurate take on the homoerotic subtext of the chanbara. A charmingly whimsical coming-of-age tale filled with meta touches from the constant references to classic jidaigeki to the heroine’s sci-fi-obsessed sidekick who seems to have an unrequited crush on her best friend idly reading The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, It’s a Summer Film! more than lives up to its name in its cheerful serenity as the teenage old souls defiantly learn to claim their own space while connecting with each other as they contemplate love and transience in the eternal art of cinema. 


It’s a Summer Film streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)