The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Yuya Ishii, 2021)

A collection of lonely souls is brought together by angelic intervention in Yuya Ishii’s grief-stricken appeal for “mutual understanding”, The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Asia no Tenshi). Brokering the sometimes difficult subject of Japan-Korea relations, Ishii makes a plaintive case for a pan-Asian family while his wounded protagonists each search for meaning and possibility in the wake of heartbreak and disappointment. Yet what they discover is less the urge to move forward than the gentle power of solidarity, bonding in shared sense of displacement and forging a new home from an apparently fated connection. 

Displacement is a feeling which immediately hits struggling author Tsuyoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) as he struggles to make himself understood to a grumpy Seoul taxi driver after taking his brother up on an offer to relocate to Korea with his young son following the death of his wife some time previously. Toru (Joe Odagiri), however, has not quite been honest about his life in the Korean capital, housed above a church where they always seem to be rehearsing the hymn Angels We Have Heard on High. Wandering into the apartment, Tsuyoshi is physically thrown out by Toru’s grumpy business partner (Park Jung-bum) obviously unaware they were coming as even Toru himself seems to have forgotten inviting them. In any case, the trio eventually find themselves on the street after Toru’s Korean friend with whom he’d started an illicit business smuggling cosmetics betrays them. 

Meanwhile, across town melancholy songstress Sol (Choi Moon) has been supporting her brother and sister with her music career which seems to be on the slide with a faintly humiliating gig in a shopping mall which briefly brings her into contact with Tsuyoshi, apparently captivated by her sadness. Abruptly informed her contract has been terminated, she tries to take the matter up with her manager/lover but gradually realises she’s merely one of several ladies on his books. Feeling lost, she agrees to follow up on a suggestion from her brother Jun-woo (Kim Min-jae) to pay a visit to the grave of their parents who passed away while she was only a child. 

Running into each other on the train after Toru talks Tsuyoshi into a possible seaweed venture in Gangwon, the two trios end up travelling together if originally struggling to find the “mutual understanding” that Tsuyoshi had been looking for. The first message Tsuyoshi sees on his phone on after arriving informs him that Korean-Japanese relations are at an all time low, though perhaps one would think national tension might not descend to the interpersonal level even if he appears to feel slightly awkward as a Japanese man in Korea aside from his inability to speak the language, but after a few too many drinks at a Chinese restaurant Jun-woo starts in on how 69.4% percent of Koreans apparently disapprove of Japan while 61% of Japanese apparently disapprove of Korea which is one reason he wouldn’t be keen on his sisters dating a Japanese guy. Describing himself as a “progressive”, he claims it’s the relatives who wouldn’t accept it but ends the conversation by cheerfully looking forward to when they can finally “part from these Japanese forever”. 

Yet, they do not part despite several opportunities and in fact end up travelling together for a significant distance during which they begin to bond, discovering that they have much in common including the loss of loved ones to cancer and the improbable sighting of angels who appear not like those on the Christmas cards but a weird old Asian man with a tendency to bite. Several times they are told they shouldn’t be together, Toru lamenting that love between Japanese and Koreans is as impossible as that between angels and humans while a police officer later bemusedly remarks that they don’t look like a family but family is in a sense what they become as they each sort out their respective traumas and resentments to reach a healthy equilibrium. Perhaps you couldn’t quite call it love, but almost and it might be someday if only you let it. “Seeing the world through your eyes I might come to like it a little more” Tsuyoshi admits, while Sol too begins to awaken to a new sense of freedom and possibility brokered by an angelic intervention. Marrying the melancholy poetry of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue with the gently surreal sense of humour of his earlier work, Ishii’s deeply moving drama makes a quiet plea for a little more “mutual understanding” between peoples but also for the simple power of human connection as evidence of the divine. 


The Asian Angel screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (c) 2021 The Asian Angel Film Partners

All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Yuya Ishii, 2020)

The broken dreams of youth and middle-aged malaise push a trio of former high school friends towards existential crisis in Yuya Ishii’s melancholy exploration of emotional distance,  All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Ikichatta). Commissioned as part of the B2B A Love Supreme project created by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures which tasked six Asian filmmakers with the task of proving that high quality films can still be made on a micro-budget, Ishii’s latest finds him in the same register as his poetic take on urban angst The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue as his frustrated protagonists each pay a heavy price for the seeming inability to communicate their true feelings honestly. 

Opening with an idyllic scene of three high school friends enjoying a breezy summer day, Ishii cuts abruptly to the present, interrupting the wistful love song playing in the background mid-flow. Now in his 30s, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) is a married father whose only dream is to be able to afford a nice house with a garden for his wife and daughter, maybe even get a dog. To this end, he’s been taking lessons in English and Mandarin with high school friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) with the intention of one day starting their own business though they once dreamed of becoming musicians. All of that comes to nothing, however, when he begins to feel dizzy at work one day and returns home early to find his wife, Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), with another man. Unable to offer any real sound of protest, he accidentally smashes a panel on the glass door to their bedroom, apologises for interrupting, and leaves in a daze to pick up his young daughter Suzu (Yuno Ota) from school. 

Natsumi’s infidelity evidently comes as a complete surprise, though it seems obvious that their marriage is far from perfect. “My life is just stress and getting fatter” Natsumi openly complains to Takeda, her sense of inertia and impossibility seemingly more than simple dissatisfaction with her life as an ordinary housewife. For his part, Atsuhisa is as emotionally distant as they come, a near silent zombie dead eyed and permanently absent from himself. He is continually preoccupied by the absence of his late grandfather, now nothing more than an increasingly anonymous photograph on an altar as if he never existed at all. Atsuhisa asks himself if his grandfather really lived as a way of avoiding the same question in himself as he sleepwalks through a conventional life that proves infinitely unsatisfying while he chases elusive dreams of comfort and security. 

Natsumi’s revelation that she’s been completely miserable for the entirety of their married life because she’s never felt loved likewise shocks him, but if her intent was to provoke emotional honesty in her husband it fails. She pushes him to fight, to offer some kind of resistance but he simply accepts her decision to end the marriage. The sense of impotence is palpable, Natsumi turning off the TV set because she can hardly do anything about the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi so what’s the point in knowing about them. “How else can we live?” someone else later adds, other than to simply decide not to think about the things you cannot change. Atsuhisa tells himself that it’s meaningless anyway, it will all “fade away” in the end so there’s no sense in trying to resist. 

Yet he continues to struggle, wondering in a sense if he could perhaps claim agency over his life if only he could learn to communicate his true feelings honestly. He asks himself if it’s because he’s Japanese that he can’t, if his culture actively prevents him from speaking freely when it comes to desire. Of course, everyone else is Japanese too which perhaps makes his question moot, but those around him do indeed seem to suffer from the same sense of wilful repression, even Natsumi tragically withholding her real feelings and ultimately working against herself out of a mistaken sense of guilt. “You don’t love me, that’s why you can be honest” an ex of Atsuhisa’s points out during an emotional farewell, cutting to the quick in suggesting that his problem is that he fears the risks of emotional intimacy. 

Two boys and one girl is always going to be a story tinged with a degree of sadness no matter how it turns out, but on that idyllic summer day no one could ever have thought it would end like this. Takeda, manfully keeping his true desires under wraps perhaps in love with Natsumi himself but too diffident to have said anything or overly mindful of his friends’ feelings, does his best to be the emotional buffer supporting both halves of a couple rapidly spiralling away from themselves but is ultimately unable to prevent them from making decisions they may regret even as they are are made. “My love wasn’t good enough” Atsuhisa laments in his inability to make it felt, finding proof of life only in absence through the memory of those shining summer days. A little rough and ready around the edges but filled with a raw poetry Ishii’s melancholy drama puts its hero through the emotional wringer but in the end perhaps sets him free to speak his heart even if others are too ashamed to look.


All the Things We Never Said streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Yuya Ishii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

MNS_MAIN_B1_0311_ol“Being nice to everyone means hurting someone” the wounded heroine tries to explain to the perpetually confused hero of Yuya Ishii’s Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Machida-kun no Sekai). After adapting a book of poetry and topping the Kinema Junpo list with the melancholy romance of urban ennui The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Ishii returns to the lighter fare which inspired his earliest work with a whimsical adaptation of the manga by Yuki Ando in which a goodly young man begins to realise that sometimes being nice to everyone can create additional complications.

The titular Machida (Kanata Hosoda) is one of those people who seem to be exclusively composed of goodness. He truly believes that each and every person in the world is precious and loves them equally, so when he sees someone, anyone, who seems unhappy or in need of help he comes running (literally). Everything begins to change for him, however, when he injures himself during an art lesson and is sent to the infirmary where he meets sullen delinquent Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu) who bandages his hand in the absence of the nurse. Entirely unused to people doing nice things for him, Machida is struck by this unexpected act of kindness and resolves to make a friend of Inohara who seems lonely and claims to hate people – something Machida is incapable of understanding.

Indeed, nicknamed “Christ” by some of his more cynical classmates, Machida sees only the world’s beauty and just wants people to be happy. He assumes that’s the way everyone else feels too and so it doesn’t really occur to him that some people are just mean. Even when he meets someone acting badly he has a knack for spotting the unhappiness that lies behind it and the desire to help them heal. Thus he alone sees the accidental self-loathing and pathological need for acceptance that have led pretty boy model and popular kid Himuro (Takanori Iwata) to become a self-centred jerk who thinks sincerity is for babies and that “taking things seriously only makes everything harder”. He may have a sort of point in that it’s much easier to keep pretending nothing, especially other people’s feelings, is very important but it’s Machida alone who is perspicacious enough to remark on how sad it is that all of his “friends” have forgotten something he told them just a few minutes ago and instructs him that he needs to be kinder to himself rather than hanging out with vacuous people who don’t care about him at all just for the kudos of superficial acceptance. 

In fact, much of Machida’s laidback superpower is geared towards getting people to be more comfortable in themselves so that they can in turn accept others. Ironically, that’s mostly because he hasn’t yet quite accepted himself and thinks he’s the worst human of them all which is part of the reason he’s so nice to everyone as a means of repaying the kindnesses he’s been shown in the past.

Where Machida sees only the world’s beauty, cynical failed writer Yoshitaka (Sosuke Ikematsu) sees only its ugliness. His lofty literary ambitions having fallen by the wayside, Yoshitaka has become a tabloid hack and occasional paparazzo whose wife is beginning to lose faith in him as he sinks deeper into the morass of scandal rag “journalism”. Yoshitaka justifies his actions with the rationale that the world is rotten, filled with “evil” and home to only self-interested people who revel in the suffering of others. Several random encounters with Machida, however, force him to revise his opinion – if someone that good and that pure really exists then what does it say about the rest of us?

Then again, Machida’s guileless goodness can often make him accidentally insensitive as he tries to balance one person’s expectation of happiness against another’s. Thus he gets himself mixed up in an odd kind of love triangle with Himuro’s old girlfriend Sakura (Mitsuki Takahata) and the lovelorn Inohara who is becoming increasingly exasperated by Machida’s mixed signals, unable to figure out if he’s just being “kind” or actually might like her. Unfortunately, Machida doesn’t quite know himself as, ironically seeing as he’s so keen on emotional honesty in others, he is remarkably out of touch with his own feelings. In any case, his desire for “sincerity” in all things sees him steer clear of saying something which isn’t true to make someone happy even if he finds himself unable to express the truth plainly when it really counts.

Machida’s superpower, however, blows through the world like a gentle breeze spreading goodness wherever it goes. Proving it really does come back around, all the people that he’s helped eventually come running to help him so he can achieve his romantic destiny on the most romantic of days. A whimsical celebration of the infectious power of unguarded goodness, Almost a Miracle is a beautifully pitched counter to nihilistic cynicism in which kindness becomes a kind of superpower, saving the world one lost balloon at a time.


Almost a Miracle was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yuya Ishii, 2017)

tokyo night sky posterLearning to love Tokyo is a kind of suicide, according to the heroine of Yuya Ishii’s love/hate letter to the Japanese capital, The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da). This city is a mess of contradictions, a huge sprawling metropolis filled with the anonymous masses and at the same time so tiny you can find yourself running into the same people over and over again. Inspired by the poems of Tahi Saihate, The Tokyo Night Sky is at once a meditative contemplation of city life and an awkward love story between two lost souls who somehow find each other in its crowded backstreets.

The heroine, Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), works as a nurse by day and supplements her income by night as a bar tender in a “girls bar” (basically a normal bar where all the bartenders are female and you have to pay an entrance fee on top of your overpriced drinks). Depressed and anxious, she wanders the city with a poetic interior monologue expressing her constant loathing for its indifferent soullessness. Meanwhile, Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a casual day labourer working on various projects in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. He describes himself as odd and is over sensitive about being blind in one eye. Unlike his friends and colleagues, Shinji prefers literature to parties and solitude to company.

The two first catch sight of each other in a crowded bar where Mika is trying to buy time before having to head back to a dull double date with her drunken friend and the lewd guys she’s invited to come along, and Shinji is trying to read away from the noise and chaos of his lodging house. They meet again when one of Shinji’s colleagues suggests going to the girls bar, and then seem to be constantly running into one another for no particular reason.

Though romance would seem to be the natural outcome of the “pointless miracle” of their repeated meetings, the process is a slow one. It’s obvious the pair share a deep, innate understanding of each other but they each have various problems which conspire to keep them apart. Shinji, describing himself as odd and assuming he’s annoying, is prone to nervous babbling which Mika correctly guesses is less down to a love of his own voice than a fear of awkward silence. For her part Mika is anxious all the time, brittle and insecure she instinctively rejects attempts at intimacy but somehow warms to Shinji responding to his confession of oddness with a comforting “well then, you’re just like me.”

The pair advance and retreat as they wander around the city they both claim to hate but as much as they keep each other at a distance their lives begin to overlap and run in parallel. Mika receives a text from an ex (Takahiro Miura) with a confused declaration of love while Shinji receives one from an old high school classmate (Ryo Sato) with much the same effect. Mika insists that love makes you boring, that you’ll never find someone who is prepared to love the most pitiable part of you, and that there is no such thing as love on this planet, but her protestations point more towards a kind of soul-searching and buried hope than they do of active rejection.

Ishii marries the romantic undercurrent with an ambivalent portrait of the stratified city. Mika, a nurse by profession, needs to take a second job to make ends meet while the more traditionally working class Shinji is a sensitive intellectual relegated to dangerous and insecure employment. As a day labourer he gets no employment benefits like sick pay or insurance – hence when he’s injured on the job he avoids letting anyone know for as long as possible because it means both loss of wages and a doctor’s bill. An older friend (Tetsushi Tanaka) has ruined his back through long years of overwork and is now left with nothing while a Filipino migrant worker (Paul Magsign) pines for home and the wife and child waiting for him there.

Shinji’s anxieties are partly economic – trapped in insecure employment which may well, as his older friend points out, dry up once the Olympics rolls around but the greater problem is inertia. During their journeys around the city, Shinji and Mika run into the same busker (Yoshimi Nozaki) who is always singing the same strange song about her underarms sweating which seems to echo their shared anxiety. Yet the song she offers them also provides a note of hope as she enthusiastically reaches the “Ganbare!” chorus, cheering the pair of frightened lovers on and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and desires rather than waiting around for something to happen.

Waiting has been Mika’s problem. Saddled with intense abandonment issues stemming from childhood trauma, Mika is always sure something bad is about to happen. Shinji partly shares her anxiety often claiming that he has “a bad feeling” about something or other but conversely, he begins to believe that the “something” could be good as well as bad. Rather than try and argue with her, Shinji concedes most of Mika’s points, nobody knows what will happen in the future, nobody can make any promises, and everything ends someday but that’s OK – it’s only life.

Ishii’s Tokyo is a soulless place filled with the melancholy and the empty but there’s beauty here too, if only people would look up from their smartphones every now and then to see it. Mika is afraid of being swallowed by the city and becoming one of its faceless masses but her listlessness and depression stand for the city itself as she refuses and rejects the process of living with all of its attendant risks. Ishii paints the city in all the colours of the night, but for all of its beautiful sadness it’s also a place of noise and chaos where existence is exhausting and the price of living high. It is, however, also a place of ordinary miracles offering hope to the hopeless if only they are willing to accept it.


The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our Family (ぼくたちの家族, Yuya Ishii, 2014)

Our FamilyYuya Ishii’s early work generally took the form of quirky social comedies, but underlying them all was that classic bastion of Japanese cinema, the family drama. If Ishii was in some senses subverting this iconic genre in his youthful exuberance, recent efforts have seen him come around to a more conventional take on the form which is often thought to symbolise his nation’s cinema. In Our Family Ishii is making specific reference to the familial relations of a father and two sons who orbit around the mother but also hints at wider concerns in a state of the nation address as regards the contemporary Japanese family.

Reiko (Mieko Harada) is an ordinary Japanese housewife in late middle age with a husband still working and two grown up children. She’s been worrying lately that she seems to forget things and she also has periodic trances almost like someone pressed the paused button. This all comes to a head when she and her husband Katsuaki attend a family dinner with their in-laws to celebrate the news that their eldest son, Kousuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and his wife are expecting their first child. Having behaved quite strangely all night long, Reiko finally ends by repeatedly addressing her daughter in law by the wrong name and muddling up details about the baby. Reiko’s still young but the natural assumption is perhaps that she’s slipping into senility, dementia or possibly even Alzheimer’s but a visit to the doctor turns up something that no one was expecting as they’re eventually made to understand that Reiko may only have a week left to live.

This devastating news of course sends shock waves through each member of the family and not least Kousuke who’s just learned he’s about to become a father. One of the things Reiko was most distressed about was that she’d wake up one day and her family would have fallen apart. It seems she grew up in an unhappy home and was determined not to replicate the experience for her children. Perhaps she did have cause to worry as there were definite cracks in the foundation of this household even before Reiko’s illness in that youngest son Shunpei (Sosuke Ikematsu) seems to have had a strained relationship with both his father and his older brother. In contrast to the other two men, Shunpei, still a student, is much more laid back and easy going though his father perhaps thinks him feckless and irresponsible. He meets his mother sometimes and she lends him money behind the father’s back but they talk more like friends than a mother and son.

Perhaps this division between the men in her life has been playing on Reiko’s mind but there are other problems too. Part of the bubble generation, Reiko and Katsuaki have been living well beyond their means for years and have amassed considerable personal debt. In fact, Katsuaki remortgaged the house a while back and made Kousuke a guarantor on their loan. Their best option would be to file for bankruptcy but doing that would leave Kosuke liable for the return of the mortgage so Katsuaki is reluctant to pursue that option. Now that Reiko’s in hospital money is at the forefront of everyone’s mind as they contemplate paying not only astronomical medical fees but potentially also paying for a funeral too.

This financial strain spills over into Kousuke’s new family as, when talking to his wife about needing to help out his parents, Kousuke discovers that Miyuki is just about as unsupportive as one could be. She brands Kousuke’s parents as irresponsible dreamers still living in the bubble era and suggests their predicament is both their own fault and their responsibility as, at their age, they should have been saving money for just these kinds of situations. Scornfully she insists that she doesn’t want to be “that kind of parent” and retires to bed in outrage. Having also refused to even accompany Kosuke to visit his mother in hospital (seeming to miss the point that he might be looking for her support rather than asking for appearance’s sake), poor Kousuke is left all alone trying to deal with the impending birth of his child and death of his mother all in a few short weeks.

The crisis does, at least, bring the three men a little closer together as it requires a kind of unilateral action that pushes previous resentments and ill feeling into the background. Reiko’s condition also means that she says some things that she would never have revealed directly to her family which both hint at some of her suffering over the last thirty years but also the deep love she has for her them. Katsuaki is revealed as a fairly ineffectual man who cares deeply but is blindsided by his wife’s condition and unable to face the facts leaving the bulk of responsibility to his oldest son. This kind of family abnegation is anathema in Japan – one would never want to be a burden to one’s children but Katsuaki is now both financially and morally dependent on Kousuke. Kousuke himself is not quite mature enough for this level of responsibility despite his impending fatherhood and his younger brother Shunpei may appear indifferent to everything but is merely putting a brave face on things though he may be the most dependable (and emotionally intelligent) of the three.

By the end, there is a glimmer of hope. The family can be repaired if you’re willing to work at it which means being willing to face the problems together and without any secrecy. Everyone, including the older generation, has in some senses “grown up”, facing the future together having accepted themselves and each other for who they are. Like applying a touch of kintsugi, their glittering wounds have only made them stronger and made each refocus on what’s really important. Neatly moving into a more dramatic arena, Ishii proves he’s still among Japan’s most promising young directors able to marry an idiosyncratic indie spirit with a more mainstream mentality.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release of Our Family includes English Subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer:

Sawako Decides – Review

 

Sawako (Hikari Mitsushima) has been living in Tokyo for five years. She has a part time job at a toy company as an assistant, mostly making tea but doing any other slightly unpleasant menial tasks her petulant boss decides to throw her. She has a quite useless boyfriend who once worked at the toy company as a designer but has resigned (or was asked to leave following a total flop of his newest toy with a toddler focus group) in order to lead an ‘eco life’. His main hobbies appear to be knitting and recycling. A divorcée he has a daughter who he looks after, but isn’t terribly interested in and keeps referring to Sawako as her ‘new mother’.  Into this fairly dismal life is thrown the bombshell that Sawako’s father is seriously ill in hospital and it’s thought she ought to return home. Despite her protestations that she hasn’t been home for five years for a good reason and has no intention of going now, the boyfriend somehow convinces her to go as part of a naive plan to live on the land in an ‘eco’ way. As it turns out there are a few good reasons Sawako didn’t want to go home, it seems she’s none too popular there. Eventually ending up running her father’s clam packing business in his stead, these are the problems she will have to overcome if she’s to lead a more satisfying life.

Sawako Decides (kawa no soko kara konichiwa) is a decidedly bittersweet comedy about learning to accept yourself for what you are and doing your best with it. The humour is quirky and off the wall as might be expected, but mostly very true to life and the film is very funny. Unlike a most light comedies this one manages to be quite emotionally engaging and the audience quickly empathises with Sawako and her situation and is eager to see her move away from her disappointment. It’s a very charming film with an usual message delivered in an usual way, well worth looking at.