Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro

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)

The Murders of Oiso (ある殺人、落葉のころに, Takuya Misawa, 2019)

(C) Wong Fei Pang & Takuya Misawa

The dark heart of wholesome small-town Japan is fully illuminated in Takuya Misawa’s second feature, The Murders of Oiso (ある殺人、落葉のころに, Aru Satsujin, Rakuyo no Koro ni). Then again, depending on your point of view, there might not be any “murders” in this murder story only a series of admittedly strange deaths, but even if you choose to exclude the idea that these unfortunate victims were done in by their society, there would be several possible explanations and a variety of suspects on offer. Employing a bold non-linear structure across several levels of thematic complexity, Misawa plays with the unreliability not only of memory but of narrative in leaving us to contemplate the subjective truths of our own perception as we search for connection to make sense of the fragmentary evidence presented to us. 

As far as certainties go, Misawa sets his tale in the small coastal town of Oiso, its faded grandeur perfectly matching the defeated hopes of our four protagonists: former high school buddies Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki), Eita (Shugo Nagashima), and Shun (Koji Moriya). Now in their early 20s, the boys are all working construction jobs at the company owned by Kazuya’s family thanks in part to his uncle, Hiroki, who was their basketball coach at school. When Hiroki is found dead in a freak gardening accident, their lives are turned upside down not only in the sudden loss of their primary figure of authority but in a series of unexpected reversals which directly threaten their way of life. 

Even before that, however, we get the impression that these “friends” don’t actually like each other very much and are only together out of a combination of fear, habit, and lack of other options. Kazuya, the thuggish leader, never misses an opportunity to remind the guys they have (and keep) their jobs only because of his largesse while quietly resentful of Eita’s relationship with his girlfriend Saki (Ena Koshino) who is, in actuality, the narrator of this complicated tale of small-town pettiness. Like Kazuya, Tomoki (a classic underling) fears the fracturing of the group, alarmed by news from Shun that he’s thinking of quitting his job and moving away, and goes to great lengths to protect it. 

Hiroki’s death, however, presents a series of problems besides its suspicious quality in that he had apparently remarried in secret, keeping the existence of his much younger wife Chisato (Natsuko Hori) even from his closest family which of course includes Kazuya something which causes him a degree of embarrassment on top of his anxiety. As the only son, Kazuya is perhaps overburdened by filial responsibilities in needing to take over the family firm whether he wants to or not. His thuggishness is in essence a rebellion against his lack of agency, but he’s also unaware that his father seems to be in debt and mixed up with loanshark gangsters who frequently need stuff dumped on the sly. If they were hoping that Hiroki’s death would result in a windfall, the existence of a wife is a major inconvenience as is her quite reasonable eying up of the funerary donations and hope that the inheritance will come through as quickly as possible. 

According to the narrator, the town is much more scandalised by Chisato’s existence than they are by Hiroki’s death. Small-town life is still fiercely patriarchal and socially conservative. Immature, Kazuya has outlawed women in the “workplace” (a den where the boys hang out playing cards, smoking, and drinking) and resents Eita’s girlfriend for weakening his ties to the group. With Hiroki, the authority figure, gone, an emboldened Kazuya makes a pass at his friend’s girlfriend which she manages to dodge while Eita does nothing more than watch from outside. He confronts Kazuya on realising that Saki is upset enough to mention the police, but Kazuya brushes it off, claiming that she was drunk and is mistaken before instructing Eita to fix his girlfriend’s “funny” dress sense. Tomoki chimes in too, laughing that he doesn’t see why Saki is outraged because it’s not as if Kazuya succeeded in raping her and in his view it’s disproportionate to be so upset about “touching”. He also points out that Saki’s attitude is a threat to their group and to Eita’s employment prospects (eventually going so far as threatening Saki at her place of work), leaving him with a clear choice and, it seems, he chooses Kazuya making no attempt whatsoever to defend his future wife or dare to criticise his friend’s bad behaviour. 

Kazuya may be resentful at his lack of agency, but the other guys seems to have internalised a sense of futility and hitched their carts to his wagon no matter how much they hate him or themselves. Only Shun seems to be conflicted, turning away while Kazuya mugs an old high school friend in a local subway tunnel, later joking about his weakness for handing over the money right away. Misawa adds to the sense of Lynchian dread through noirish composition, all empty streets and canted angles, along with a moody jazz score to find the menace lurking round every corner in this strangely violent town apparently ruled by corruption and nepotism while breaking off into Ozu-esque pillow shots of vacant hallways and urban decay alternating with nature at the turn of autumn. Frequent shots of the director himself apparently writing the female narration we are hearing further add to the sense of unreality as we meditate on the single phase “I remember” while hearing the narrator mislead and contradict herself. Were there murders in Oiso, or is this all a dream from the mind of a frustrated young man realising he’s hit a dead end and teenage friendship can’t last forever? That’s one mystery (among many others) you’ll have to solve for yourself. 


The Murders of Oiso is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)