Life: Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Kana Yamada, 2019)

“Killing is easy. Revive me instead!” The heroine of Kana Yamada’s Life Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Title: Kyozetsu) exclaims during a climactic argument, trying to find meaning in a life of ceaseless transaction. Adapting her own play, Yamada sets her tale of existential disappointment in an apartment used as an HQ for a group of call girls, each with their own problems but trying to live as best they can within the compromising environment of a patriarchal society which offers them little in the way of hope for a less depressing future. 

According to the agency’s top girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) “everyone here is a failure of society”. Asking herself whether her painfully “ordinary” life was worth much of anything, Kano (Sairi Ito) resolved to become the hare rather than the tortoise, put on her recruit suit and submitted her CV to “Crazy Bunny”, a “delivery” company offering services only hinted at on the menu. Discovering that sex work was something she couldn’t handle, she managed to switch sides, becoming part of the management team taking “orders” and dispatching other women to various love hotels in the surrounding area, which means of course that she is privy to most of the interoffice drama even if she has little knowledge of these women’s external lives beyond that which they offer up freely as part of their work. 

The women who work at the agency, if you can call it that, are a varied bunch almost as if Yamashita, the thuggish boss running the operation on behalf of an older man (Denden), has made an effort to cater to all tastes. Three of the ladies gossip about ridiculous clients and their excuses for not wanting to use protection (including a fake medical certificate), while openly taking potshots at an older woman, Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who has been selected as a substitute for the in demand Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu). Older women are cheaper they giggle, though the oldest of them, Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), is not so young herself and perhaps aware that she’s reaching a crisis point as she ages of out of the “most desirable” demographic. Kano thinks of Mahiru as the office’s hare in comparison to her patient tortoise, an embodiment of faceless desire wanted by all known by none. 

Mahiru too is well aware of her appeal and an expert in manipulating it. She loves money, she says, because she wants to use it to “buy someone’s life to burn the garbage inside me”, later vowing to “buy a person who can serve me for life”.  Carrying the burden of childhood trauma and sexualised from an early age, Mahiru is distrustful of relationships not based on transaction but perhaps craving something deeper while darkly yearning to burn the city of Tokyo to the ground. As it happens she is not the only one yearning to raze this society for the various ways in which it condemns women like her to a kind of underclass while men continue to live by a double standard that allows them to “buy” female bodies but resents the women who “sell” them. 

Another young woman, Kyoko (Kokoro Morita), finds this out to her cost in her difficult romance with the agency’s driver Ryota (Syunsuke Tanaka) with whom she slept for free while they were both drunk. She claims to understand him, that they are really both alike, soft people trying to look hard in order to survive in a cruel society. But he rejects her, asking who’d want to date a “hooker” like her, echoing Riyu’s words that she is “utterly worthless” by virtue of her life in sex work. Kyoko may be right and he likes her too, but he can’t let go of the idea that there is something “humiliating” about being romantically involved with a woman who has sex with men for money. 

Yamashita, meanwhile, is breaking all the rules of the trade by having sex with the girls he runs sometimes paying but perhaps sometimes not, wielding his position of power for sexual gratification before finally unmasking himself in describing the women as “garbage waiting to be thrown away”, disposable merchandise to be used and discarded once no longer useful to men like him. Kano might have been under no illusions as to Yamashita’s character, but the depths of his callousness surprise her. She’d developed a fondness for his underling, Hagio. (Hagio), who seemed sensitive and kind but turns out to have more than she’d expected in common with the girls while continuing to engage in the double standard, insisting that those who pay for sex are stupid, deluded for falling in love with those who only want money. 

Kano thought her “ordinary” life was “pathetic” and wanted to know if a “tortoise” like her could become the protagonist of her own story only to remain on the sidelines, a patient observer of these women’s lives while not quite as conflicted as you might expect her to be in her complicity with their exploitation. “A woman who ran away wouldn’t understand” Riyu fires back on being pushed for her refusal to entertain an unpleasant client, and perhaps it’s true, she wouldn’t because she works for the other side. She decides that perhaps it’s alright for her life not to have a “title”, meandering aimlessly without clear purpose but continuing all the same while the women take their particular kinds of revenge against a misogynistic and oppressive society ruled by male violence. Fully taking the play off the stage, Yamada depicts the lives of sex workers with a melancholy empathy quietly enraged at the society which forced them into lives they may not have asked for or wanted but discriminates against them simply for doing a job which is in essence like any other. “It’s not my fault” a high school girl instantly answers when questioned by a policeman, and you know, it really isn’t. 


Life: Untitled is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, Kenji Katagiri, 2019)

A dejected young woman finds herself conflicted in her memories of the father who failed her in Kenji Katagiri’s A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai). Drawing inspiration from the webcomic by Mariko Kikuchi, Katagiri’s whimsical drama does its best to put a comical spin on the extended trauma of living with an alcoholic dad while laying the blame squarely at the the feet of a society with an entrenched drinking culture in which refusing to imbibe is all but unthinkable. 

The heroine, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto), begins her tale in the late ‘90s when she is only eight years old and unaware that her family circumstances are not exactly normal. Tadokoro (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her salaryman dad, usually rolls in late and collapses in the hall after staying out all night drinking. This is such a common occurrence that Saki and her younger sister Fumi are completely unfazed by it, marking off dad’s drunken days with a big red X on the calendar and cheerfully helping their mum drag him back into the house. Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), their mother, tries to put a brave face on it, and to the girls it probably still seems a little bit funny, but as she gets older Saki begins to see the toll her father’s drinking has taken on her mother not only in practical terms but emotional in realising that he drinks largely as a means of escaping his responsibility which includes that towards his family. 

Saki asks her mum why dad’s three friends keep coming round to drink while playing mahjong but the only explanation she can offer is that adults need to socialise. Socialisation does it seems revolve around alcohol, and to that extent perpetuates deeply entrenched patriarchal social codes in largely remaining a homosocial activity with the only women present those that run the bar (the wives of Tadokoro’s friends make a point of thanking Saeko for allowing their husbands to drink at her house, they it seems are not invited). Tadokoro’s excuse for his drinking is that it’s a necessary business activity, that you can’t get by as a salaryman without figuring out how to have fun at a nomikai and bond with your clients over sake. His office best friend later discovers this to be true as a teetotaller given the banishment room treatment he attributes to the fact he doesn’t drink which is why his bosses don’t trust him as member of the team. 

Tadokoro might think he’s serving his family through his career, but it’s clear that he neglects them physically and emotionally by refusing to moderate his drinking. He breaks promises to his kids to take them to the pool because he’s still hung over from the night before while his wife finds herself at the end of her tether with his continued indifference later telling the little Saki that she wanted to divorce him even before the kids were born but it’s too late for that now. Saeko escapes from the burden of her life through religion, adhering to a shady Christian-leaning cult which preaches that endurance builds character and character leads to hope, all of which presumably convinces her that she is supposed to just put up with Tadokoro’s problematic behaviour rather than reassuring her that there is no sin in leaving him. 

Saki fears making her mother’s mistake, traumatised by her childhood experiences and drawn into an abusive relationship of her own out of loneliness and low self esteem. She resents her father but also feels bad about it, simultaneously thankful when he takes a temporary break from drinking and mahjong but also aware of how sad it is that she is grateful for things that other families would consider normal. Tadokoro proves unable to quit drinking, and Saki wonders if she’s right to even ask him if, as others say, drinking is his mechanism for escaping loneliness, but also reflects on the sadness she now understands in her mother as stemming from her father’s abnegation of his responsibilities and the loneliness it must have provoked in her. Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), trying to explain why Saki should break up with her abusive boyfriend (Shogo Hama), tells her of an experiment she read about in which a rat was trapped in a box and randomly given electric shocks. At first, it tried to escape, but eventually became resigned to its fate and settled for learning to endure the pain. Saki is perhaps much the same, trapped by filiality in finding herself unable to either forgive or reject the memory of the father who so resolutely failed to live up to the name.


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“One bad thing leads to another” according to overprotective mother Ayumi (Naomi Nishida) in Kazuya Shirashi’s Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Nagi Machi). She’s not wrong, but breaking the chain proves harder than expected, especially as trouble has a way of following people around and the one thing you can never outrun is yourself. Yet, what might save you in the end is not so much self acceptance as that of others and finding your place along with a sense of belonging as member of a family in the knowledge they have chosen you as one of their own. 

Ikuo (Shingo Katori), the hero, certainly has plenty of demons he’s looking to leave behind. A devotee of the bicycle races, he’s just been laid off from his factory job and is preparing to move to his girlfriend Ayumi’s hometown where she plans to open a hairdressers and care for her ageing father Katsumi (Ken Yoshizawa) who has just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Ayumi left rural Miyagi with her daughter, Minami (Yuri Tsunematsu) whose name is written with the characters for beautiful waves, after the tsunami which devastated the area and took her mother’s life. She hopes that it can be a new start for their family and that Ikuo will finally be able to shape up, knock his gambling habit on the head and ease back on the drinking. 

Things get off to a bad start, however, when Ikuo fails to bond with Katsumi who largely ignores him, while he discovers that Ishinomaki is much more conservative than Kawasaki and not everyone seems to approve of his liminal status in the Konno household. The fact remains that Ayumi and Ikuo, though they’ve been living together for five years, are not legally married and therefore in the eyes of some not a proper family, and more to the point Ikuo is an outsider with relatively little to recommend him. He does however try to make good on his promise, impressing the boss at a printshop where an overly helpful family friend, Onodera (Lily Franky), has found him a job, but quickly succumbs to old habits when a pair of ne’er-do-well colleagues introduce him to an illegal bicycle racing betting club run by local yakuza. 

Matters come to a head when Minami gets fed up with her mother’s overprotective conservatism and decides to pay her back by staying out late with new friends Ayumi doesn’t approve of. Flagging up their differing parenting styles, Ikuo tells Ayumi that she’s overreacting and should be happy for her daughter who is finally living something like a normal teenage life rather than shutting herself up in her room playing games like she did in Kawasaki where the other kids made her life a misery, calling her a “radioactive” transfer student from Fukushima. Ayumi fires back that Ikuo obviously isn’t very invested in Minami because, after all, he’s not her real dad and has no idea what family is. An extraordinarily hurtful thing to say in any circumstances, Ayumi’s words strike a nerve as Ikuo struggles to claim his place as a non-husband who has nevertheless become a father figure but is not recognised as a legitimate member of the family. 

Claim his place he does however when tragedy strikes, rushing into a police cordon shouting “I’m family” but being held back by the forces of social order while Minami cleverly evades them to see something no one should ever have to see. Old Katsumi meanwhile, apparently much like Ikuo in his youth, a fiery scrapper with a self-destructive streak, struggles to accept his failure either to save his wife or die by her side. Recognising something of himself in the younger man, he finally warms up to Ikuo, literally “redeeming” him from vengeful yakuza, offering only the explanation that he does so because “he’s my son”. 

Others such as the weirdly ever present Onodera may think it proper that Ikuo leave the Konno household because he has no more reason to be there, that his presence is now even more inappropriate than it was before. Minami is advised to move in with her birth father (Takuma Otoo) despite the fact Ayumi described him as abusive and that he has remarried and is currently expecting another child. Ikuo’s five years as her father count for nothing, because he was not married to her mother. During the car journey to their new home, Minami had playfully suggested to Ikuo that he should propose but he claimed he had no right to do so as an irresponsible man unable to contribute meaningfully to the household. Ayumi dreamed of the sea and of beautiful Caribbean islands to which Ikuo had promised but failed to take her. She ironically hoped to rebuild their lives in the ruined landscape of Ishinomaki where they’ve put up walls so tall you can no longer see the sea, still beautiful despite all its terrible ferocity. 

“A good wife makes a decent man” Ayumi’s ex bitterly fires back at her though others have found it to be true, Katsumi not least among them, but Ikuo’s problem is an internalised sense of masculine failure which keeps him on the edges of a family which is otherwise his by right. In a strange way, a piece of paper can make all the difference and no difference at all, both legitimate and not, in making it plain who is and is not accepted as “family”. Accepted by others, Ikuo learns to accept himself, still burdened by guilt and regret but also bound by it as he joins his chosen family on new a journey powered by those same beautiful yet destructive forces which have engendered so much grief and hope.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

What is love? Is it an accident, cosmic destiny, or something that finally you have to choose? The romantically inclined hero of Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) is convinced that romance is something that happens to you at an unexpected moment, but his friends worry that he’s letting life pass him by because of his bashful passivity. While the city is gripped by the upcoming world heavyweight boxing championship which might finally result in a Japanese underdog raising the belt, its citizens gain the courage to fight for love, but discover that love is less victory than mutual concession. 

Sato (Haruma Miura), a hopelessly romantic salaryman, is forced to stand outside the station in the centre of Sendai conducting public surveys to make up the data that was lost when he accidentally spilt coffee on his colleague’s computer. Naturally shy, he’s not an ideal fit for the job but serendipitously bonds with a young woman, Saki (Mikako Tabe), when they are both captivated by the soulful song of a street musician. She agrees to fill in his form, and he notices she has “shampoo” written on her hand. He thinks it might be a sign, but she’s gone before he can do much about it. 

Sato’s college buddies Yumi (Erika Mori) and Kazuma (Yuma Yamoto), married young in a shotgun wedding but seemingly blissfully happy and parents to two adorable children, are quick to tell him that his romantic desire for serendipitous love is just thinly veiled cowardice and his essential passivity, refusing to put himself out there, is the reason he’ll end up alone. Meanwhile, Yumi is also trying to support her longterm single sister, Minako (Shihori Kanjiya), who is in a strange “relationship” with the younger brother of a client at her hairdressing salon. Despite talking regularly on the phone, he seems reluctant to meet because his job keeps him very busy which leaves her feeling confused and suspicious. 

Yumi and Kazuma think they ended up together out of necessity, but that necessity was in its own way chance. Secretly, Kazuma might wonder what might have happened if he’d been careless with some other girl, but has come to the conclusion that he’s glad it was Yumi and not someone else. Sato’s colleague Fujima (Taizo Harada), meanwhile, thought he had a cheerily romantic origin story for his relationship – a classic dropped wallet meet cute of the kind Kazuma insisted only happens in the movies, but now nearing 40 his wife has left him and the failure of his marriage has provoked a nervous breakdown. Sato asks him if he’s still glad it was his wife who dropped her wallet and not someone else, and if she’s glad that it was him who picked it up. Not only can he not quite answer, he doesn’t quite want to know. 

Meanwhile, Minako discovers that her diffident lover has decided to stake his romantic future on the championship match, that if the Japanese challenger wins he’ll finally have the courage to speak his heart. Minako is angry and disappointed, infuriated that he has so little courage that he has to vicariously channel the power of someone else to confess his feelings, but is as glued to the match as everyone else. 10 years on, the same thing happens again. Yumi and Kazuma’s daughter, Mio (Yuri Tsunematsu), is now a rebellious teen fed up with her father’s perpetually easygoing attitude and infuriated by a school friend, Kurume (Riku Hagiwara), who also pins his romantic hopes on the boxing match while inwardly resenting his overly spineless father (Yurei Yanagi) for becoming a mere cog in the great machine of capitalism. His refreshingly honest mother (Mari Hamada), however, reminds him that everyone thinks that when they’re 17 but really there’s no life without compromise and cogs at least have their place in keeping the wheels turning. Kurume finds this out by chance when his dad is able to save him from a sticky situation using classically meek, salaryman-style strategy. 

Perhaps what Kurume resents is the sense of impending powerlessness that comes of being a teenager squaring off against the salaryman straightjacket even if he’s still too diffident to put up much resistance. Meanwhile, the reverse is also true. The youngsters bond while staking out a bicycle parking garage to look for a thief who stole Mio’s 60 yen parking sticker and put it on his own bike, leaving her with the fine. They discover it’s an old man who wastes no time in yelling at the young whippersnappers while kicking off against his sense of impotence by gaming the system over a measly 60 yen he could have easily paid. The same thing happens again at Mio’s part-time job where a horrible old man decides to take out his frustrations with his place in the world on an innocent teenage girl. 

10 years earlier, Sato had saved a boy with hearing problems from being beaten up by bullying classmates, giving him new strength by introducing him to Japan’s boxing champ. The inevitable, however, happens, and even champion boxers have feet of clay. Things don’t always go to plan, or perhaps they do but that only makes you wonder if you’re really on the right path or merely settling for that of least resistance. The street singer’s song asks if you’re happy where you’ve ended up or if you still want more than ordinary happiness. Sato, still diffident, has to admit that perhaps he isn’t sure, while Saki does something much the same in wondering if they’re only still together out of habit and a misplaced belief in the narrative destiny of their serendipitous meeting. Another championship match sees them all ready for the fight once again, encouraged by the embattled boxer’s refusal to give-up on his fighting dreams, but perhaps still waiting for a “sign”. What Sato learns, however, is that they don’t always arrive quite as serendipitously as one might might think. “It builds up” Fujima warns him, waking up to the fact that his wife likely left him after years of small microagressions that killed their love through taking it for granted. But love can build up too, if only you build up the courage to fight for it with a willingness to be honest with your feelings, and what’s life if not lots of little nights filled with lots of little love, no grand romance but maybe not so bad after all. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The song – Chiisana Yoru by Kazuyoshi Saito

Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

©2017 BEFORE WE VANISH FILM PARTNERS

before we vanish posterKiyoshi Kurosawa is getting sentimental in his old age. In Journey to the Shore and Real, brokenhearted, left behind spouses went on long and difficult journeys of grief and salvation. In Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha) we receive a visitation that presages our doom but wishes to know us before we go. An alien invasion movie which takes its cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live, Kurosawa’s quirky drama is less about the enemy within than the hidden existential threat of a failure to understand oneself. As the Japanese title suggests, these invaders are merely out for a stroll, making time to smell the flowers before the big lawnmower arrives to cut them all down.

Strange events are afoot in Tokyo. A high school girl wanders home with a pair of goldfish in a plastic bag before brutally murdering her entire family, gazing at the scene of carnage with a beatific smile. Meanwhile, the estranged wife of Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda), Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), has been sent for to claim her presumably amnesiac husband from a medical facility. Shinji was brought in after wandering the streets cluelessly and seems to have lost certain sections of his memory. The doctor’s diagnosis is uncertain but leans towards some kind of temporary psychotic break or early onset Alzheimer’s. In any case, he is now Narumi’s responsibility, much to her consternation. Across town a down on his luck journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) covering the brutal family murder finds himself the designated “guide” to another strange young man, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who seems to have done something very untoward to his parents.

These three “strangers” are really invaders from outer space – something which they freely confess to anyone who will listen, only everyone assumes they are joking. Exactly why they want to destroy the Earth is never revealed, nor is the the reason for the strange mission undertaken by the three researchers acting as the vanguard for the upcoming invasion. These three have been tasked with a thorough investigation of “humanity” in which they must learn and acquire certain “concepts”. They do this by requiring the subject to visualise their thinking behind a word or phrase and then tapping the head to pinch it causing that concept to be removed from the person’s interior cosmology.

The aliens learn as much from the effect of removing the concept as they do from its explanation. This being Japan, it’s not surprising that the first concept Shinji removes is that of “family” which he takes from Narumi’s younger sister, Asumi (Atsuko Maeda). Asumi had decamped to Narumi’s after an argument with her parents over their railroading her into a mainstream life she doesn’t really want. The removal of the concept of family means Asumi no longer needs to be bound by hollow obligation but her sudden coldness towards her sister immediately invites a series of other questions as to the true nature of their relationship. Similarly, Shinji removes a concept of “possession” from a young man. The young man does not immediately lose understanding of the word, but the concept ceases to be important to him. He is, in a sense, freed from the burden of materialism. Paying an unexpected visit to Narumi’s workplace and meeting her boss who, it seems, has just belittled her work on an important project after she rebuffed his attempt at sexual harassment, Shinji removes his concept of “work” leading him to play aeroplanes all around the office like an overexcited child.

There are positive effects of losing some of these centrally held ideas even if their loss seems tragic or painful on the surface. They are, however, what make us human whether that be attachment to family or an irrational desire to devote all to work and ceaseless acquisition. The final, most elusive concept is that of love – something alien and fascinating to the visitors which they find impossible to harvest due its essentially nebulous nature. Despite being part of a uniform hive mind, the invaders have each developed unique personality traits as a consequence of their “human” lives – the schoolgirl craves violence and destruction, Amano fatherly friendship, and Shinji something close to love with his own “guide” in the form of Narumi whose love for her husband apparently endured despite his betrayal.

Far from the gloomy nihilism of Pulse in which death is eternal loneliness, Before We Vanish suggests that what will survive of us is love. Salvation does, however, require a sacrifice which provokes the film’s romantic conclusion in which the absence of love becomes the “eternal loneliness” promised by Pulse but is tempered by patience and devotion. A gleefully absurdist exploration of the human soul, Before We Vanish finds Kurosawa at his most optimistic affirming the power of the human spirit at its most indestructible.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)