Convenience Story (コンビニエンス・ストーリー, Satoshi Miki, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

“This is unreal, but it’s real” a blocked screenwriter exclaims in finding himself in an uncanny world only slightly divorced from his previous reality but perhaps excellent fodder for his art. Quite clearly influenced by David Lynch in its Twin Peaks-esque setting, jaunty jazz score, and overt references to Mulholland Drive, Fire Walk with Me, and Blue Velvet, Convenience Story draws inspiration from a short story by veteran Japan Times critic Mark Schilling to spin an elliptical tale of otherworldly adventure and inexorable fate. 

Down on his luck screenwriter Kato (Ryo Narita) can’t seem to get an idea off the ground and is in an increasingly volatile relationship with aspiring actress Zigag (Yuki Katayama) whose dog Cerberus he barely tolerates. When he has to venture out in search of Cerberus’ favourite brand of dog food, Weredog, the adorable pooch accidentally deletes the screenplay Kato has been working on leading him to decide to abandon him in the remote countryside. However, after damaging a Buddhist statue, he stops at a random petrol station convenience store which looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 1980s. Sucked through some kind of portal, he finds himself in an alternate combini reality in the company of pretty damsel in distress Keiko (Atsuko Maeda) and her decidedly weird husband Nagumo (Seiji Rokkaku). 

As the film begins to head into The Postman Always Rings Twice territory, Kato begins to rejuvenate his creative mojo while Zigzag, who is about to get her big break working with an incredibly insecure director (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and sleazy producer, wonders what’s happened to her dog and takes drastic steps to find out. “Life’s big chances come in an instant” the director insists, though for Kato time seems to have stopped while he contemplates the combini existence. After all, it’s called a convenience store for a reason. They have everything you’ll ever need so there’s no real reason to leave. Smarting from his creative block, Kato asks if convenience stores sell interesting stories and in a way they do, or at least this one and the one in his neighbourhood which may or may not be connected by some kind of cosmic combini network, conspire to feed his imagination so he can deliver a promising script to his eccentric editor (Eri Fuse). 

Then again, Keiko asks him if he writes about an ideal world or his personal reality and it’s a question that he can’t quite answer hinting that this strange alternate universe may be some kind of fever dream conjured up by his latent imagination. “A screenwriter’s job is to fantasise”, Keiko seductively tells him, though his editor and a producer with whom he had also exchanged a flirtatious email had previously giggled over his non-starter of a screenplay which they described as an embarrassingly chauvinistic male fantasy. That’s certainly one way you could describe his otherworldly combini adventure in the foxy damsel in distress characterisation of Keiko who quite obviously just wants him to take her away from all this, sick of the oppressive convenience of the combini life and of her incredibly strange, seemingly controlling husband. 

Then again on their attempt to escape, the couple end up in an endless three-day ceremony of eternity during which the souls of the dead are supposed to journey to the afterlife. Everyone is keen on travelling to another world, except perhaps for Kato who is already in one, yet struggles to escape the uncanny uniformity of the combini society. “Another world exists in here” Kato is creepily told on a visit to his local, much more contemporary though not all that different, convenience store beginning to realise that perhaps there is no real escape from this maddening world of convenience at least not for him. Shades of Orpheus and Eurydice guide him out of his purgatorial existence yet ironically only into more of the same until the inevitable, karmic conclusion. Fantastic production design adds to the sense of retro absurdity strongly recalling Twin Peaks in its use of ‘50s-style diners and the frozen in time petrol station road stop existing for some reason the middle of nowhere with no road in sight, while casting a note of fatalistic dread over the life of a blocked screenwriter who eventually comes to realise that convenience isn’t always quite what it’s cracked up to be.


Convenience Story screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Takuma Sato, 2020)

“Get your act together” an exasperated new mother exclaims, but it seems even new fatherhood isn’t quite enough to jolt the aimless hero of Takuma Sato’s paternity drama Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Nakuko wa Inega) into accepting his responsibility. Fatherhood is indeed a daunting prospect, however Sato isn’t interested solely in Tasuku’s (Taiga Nakano) attempts to “grow up” and embody the ideals of masculinity in a patriarchal society but also in the nature of fatherhood itself along with its legacies and the effects of male failure on those caught in its wake. 

Everyone in the small town of Oga seems to be aware that Tasuku has undergone a shotgun marriage though it’s more the subject of gentle ribbing than scorn or disdain. Many remark on his relative youth, though he’s perhaps not so much younger than his parents might have been when he was born it’s just that times have changed. In any case, his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka), is beginning to get fed up with him worried that he isn’t ready to be a father and isn’t taking the responsibility seriously enough. As young men do he still drinks like a single man and is vulnerable to peer pressure. Kotone begs him not to participate in the local Namahage festival but he insists they have to keep the tradition alive while apparently feeling an obligation to Mr. Natsui (Toshiro Yanagiba) who ensures it continues. She makes him promise not to drink, and he does his best in the beginning but, paradoxically, the Namahage is a drinking festival. Soon enough, Tasuku has had a little too much and beginning to feel hot takes off all his clothes, running around in the nude save for the large oni mask on his face while local reporters there to cover the traditional festival decide to make him a viral sensation. Unable to bear the shame, Tasuku abandons his wife and child and runs away to anonymity in Tokyo. 

The irony is that introducing the festival to the reporters, Mr. Natsui had flagged it up as a bastion of family values, that it’s not about “scaring” children but teaching them “good ethics” while reassuring them that their fathers will always protect them. According to Mr. Natsui, those children then grow up to become fathers who protect their offspring, Tasuku’s unfortunate streaking somewhat undermining his argument. It’s interesting in a sense that Tasuku is himself fatherless, his father having passed away some years earlier leaving not much of himself behind other than the oni masks he carved for the Namahage. Tasuku’s brother (Takashi Yamanaka), who was supposed to be getting married but apparently did not perhaps because of Tasuku’s scandal, later becomes upset on deciding to sell the family business lamenting that he was able to save “nothing” of his father, rejecting the Namahage mask that Tasuku offers him as “trash” while acknowledging perhaps that the Namahage is all is he left them along with the transitory lessons it imparts. 

Tasuku was clearly not quite ready to be a dad, but having spent some time growing up and hearing that his father-in-law has passed away leaving his ex with little choice than to work as a bar hostess on the fringes of the sex trade, he decides to go home and try to make amends. He swears repeatedly that he won’t run away again and will do whatever it takes until he’s forgiven, but still he flounders failing to find secure employment while periodically visiting his grandmother in a nursing home and helping his mother (Kimiko Yo) out selling traditional ice creams at local tourist attractions. “You’re not the only one who can be Nagi’s father” she reminds him as he perhaps begins to realise that there are some bonds you can’t repair even if you’re eventually forgiven for having broken them. 

Performing the Namahage forces Tasuku uncomfortably into the role of the authoritarian father safe scaring the child in order to instil in them a sense of confidence that encourages them not to be afraid of life, in the way that he may ironically be, because there will always be someone there waiting to catch them. The ability to protect a family is a defining feature of the masculine ideal, and the Namahage in its way perpetuates outdated ideas of gendered social roles while Tasuku’s mother and even grandmother are always there for him with unconditional acceptance, supporting him even in the depths of his “disgrace” and encouraging him to move forward even if that means accepting defeat. Keeping the Namahage alive is also in a sense to preserve the paternal legacy, just as Tasuku’s father may have passed nothing else down to his sons so Tasuku may find he has nothing more to offer, perhaps no longer a “crybaby” but still struggling to shift into the role of the father even while belatedly coming of age in the knowledge that he may have left it too late. 


Any Crybabies Around? streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. For viewers outside of Germany it is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle, Arthur Harari, 2021)

For most people, the Pacific War ended in 1945. For Hiroo Onoda it may in a sense never have ended though he laid down his arms in 1974, 30 years after his initial dispatch, having spent the intervening three decades pursuing guerrilla warfare in the Philippine jungle the last two of them entirely alone. Arthur Harari’s three-hour existential epic, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle), explores the psychological dimensions of his quasi-religious conviction in the righteousness of a mission which is in one sense no more than to survive along with his refusal to accept that the war is over and his personal struggle has been pointless. 

Immediately in opening the film in 1974 with a young man identified only as a “tourist” (Taiga Nakano) arriving on the island in search of Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), Harari draws a direct contrast between these two arrivals and subsequent departures. As he says, the Tourist is just that in town for a specific purpose after which he will leave and though you might be able to say the same of Onoda who came to the island of Lubang in late 1944 his reality was very different. On luring him out of the jungle by playing the patriotic war song he had sung with the other soldiers who unlike him accepted the surrender, the Tourist poignantly tells Onoda that he has travelled to over 50 countries whereas Onoda in a certain sense has never left Japan. “This island belongs to us” he’s fond of insisting seeing it as a piece of the Japanese empire which others are trying to take from him but he alone must defend. 

As we discover, the young Onoda (Yuya Endo) had wanted to become a pilot but washed out of the training program because of a fear of heights and was subsequently put forward for a kamikaze squadron. The irony of his life is that he is a man who refused to die for the emperor, his will to survive bringing him to the attention of Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata) of the notorious Nakano spy school who sells his students a line that they are the good guys helping to liberate East Asia from Western imperialism. Trained in guerrilla warfare part of Onoda’s mission is to foster an uprising in the local population whom he assumes will also oppose American influence never realising that he is in fact a part of a destructive colonising force they will also seek to repel not least because of the way they have been treated by Japanese forces. 

Onoda’s first meeting with his captain on arriving on Lubang is interrupted by the arrival of the mayor of a nearby town who has come to complain that Japanese soldiers have been stealing food supplies from local farmers. This comes as a surprise to Onoda who is obviously not fully aware of the reality on the ground. His initial orders are largely ignored by the remaining NCOs who get up and leave during his briefing knowing that what he’s proposing is impossible. These men are already battle weary, many of them are sick, and they are running low on supplies. Onoda is 22 and fresh faced, arriving full of energy and patriotic zeal assuming these men are simply lazy or lack ideological commitment. He has no grounds to wield authority and no combat experience that would permit him to understand the circumstances in which he finds himself. In an especial irony, his first kill occurs after the war has (for everyone else) ended and he will himself go on to commit acts of atrocity against the local population which he justifies as acts of war. 

The military song which he is fond of singing celebrates there being no more bandits, yet banditry is essentially what he has been reduced to calling into question any idea of heroism which might be attributed to his refusal to accept the wartime defeat. In his Nakano spy school training, Onoda had been encouraged to ignore the accepted rules of war, that all is permissible in the pursuit of victory. He is also told that the prize for the “secret war” he is conducting will be a “secret glory” that goes unrecognised by others while he alone will possess true integrity in knowing that he never wavered in his mission. Yet there is something in him which weakens when he encounters the Tourist and is told that most of Japan believes him to be dead, rendering his struggle an irrelevance. 

He begins to admit the concept of surrender but only if given new orders from Taniguchi whose contradictory teachings have informed the course of his life, yet Taniguchi like many of his generation in the Japan of 1974 does not want to face his wartime past. The bookshop he now runs sells no military books and he claims not to remember Onoda or Lubang refusing his responsibility for his role in the conflict now filled with shame and regret. Yet it’s also possible that Onoda misunderstood the nature of the mission he’d been assigned, that in saving him from the kamikaze squadron because he did not want to die, Taniguchi gave him only one order – to survive. “You do not have the right to die” he reminds the recruits while giving them the ultra-individualist mantra that they must be their own officers which is in essence the paradoxical instruction to obey no orders but their own meaning that Onoda was always free to accept defeat. 

The psychological consequences of doing so, however, may have been too great. Coming of age in a militarised society, he already feels himself emasculated and embarrassed by his failure to become a pilot essentially because he is afraid to die. An awkward meeting with his father (played by film director Nobuhiro Suwa) resembles that of a Spartan woman sending her son to war with the instruction to return with his shield or on it. To return in defeat is psychologically impossible and suicide forbidden and so the only choice is inertia. In this Onoda may be hiding in the jungle unable to face a post-war future, descending into delusional conspiracy when presented with evidence that the war is over choosing to see the attempts of others to discourage him from his mission as proof of its importance, as if he and the remaining soldier sticking with him are key players in geopolitical manoeuvring worthy of such an elaborate plot. To believe the world is wrong is easier than to accept that he’s wasted his life in service of a mistaken ideal while failing to prove himself a man by the standards of a heavily militarised society. 

He’s tempted out of his delusion only by the Tourist who confronts him with the face of a new Japan entirely unknown to him, a Japan of economic prosperity, of the Shinkansen, of democracy. Being taken off the island means he must finally leave his dreams and delusions behind to enter a new post-war reality. Harari frames the island of Lubang as a psychological realm, the topography of Onoda’s delusion, but is also mindful of the islanders living outside it whom Onoda terrorises under the justification of war no better than a bandit in his quest for survival. In Harari’s oneiric landscapes, Onoda’s vistas are forever haunted by the spectres of his latent regret in the reflections of the boy he once was who came to Lubang to prove himself a man only to leave it a ghost. 


Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle opens in UK cinemas April 15 courtesy of Third Window Films. It will also be released on blu-ray May 16 in a set which also features an interview with actor Kanji Tsuda plus an interview with director Arthur Harari, DOP Tom Harari and assistant director Benjamin Papin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Shinji Araki, 2020)

“You’re free now, so the world is more beautiful” the hero of Shinji Araki’s dystopian thriller The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Ninzu no Machi) is unironically told by a mysterious saviour even as a watchtower lingers on the horizon behind him. Modern Japan, it seems to say, is no paradise but is it worth trading your identity and existence for the guaranteed satisfaction of your basic needs? Freedom, happiness, and love may be nebulous concepts which mean different things to different people, but in the end leading a satisfactory life might just come down to what it is you decide you can live without. 

The nameless protagonist later credited as Aoyama (Tomoya Nakamura) describes himself as an “average joe” who has “a weak will” and doesn’t “belong anywhere in society”. While being beaten up by a loanshark, he’s unexpectedly rescued by the miraculous appearance of the mysterious “Paul” (So Yamanaka), a middle-aged man dressed in an orange jump suit who tells him there’s a place he can go where’d he fit right in. After a lengthy bus ride, he finds himself a new resident of “The Town” where those like him who for one reason or another felt themselves rejected by mainstream society can live in ease and comfort, only as he later discovers he is unable to leave. Should he walk too far beyond the fence, the microchip in his head activates a sonic wave of painful and disabling distortion. 

Somewhere between a utopian cult commune and a penal colony occupying a disused conference centre, The Town is a free love society which insists that equality is possible and that freedom and peace are more than mere dreams. Family creates inequality, so The Town’s Bible says, so residents must live alone. Pregnancy is prohibited, while children brought into the compound are separated from their parents and raised in a communal nursery. All basic needs, food, warmth, shelter and even sex, are otherwise guaranteed though the residents are expected to “work” to earn them, performing often pointless tasks parasitically underpinning modern capitalism such as writing meaningless product reviews in return for treats, or performing as stooges to create hype around new store openings. Aoyama’s sense of morality is however shaken when he’s asked to commit electoral fraud by repeatedly voting for a chosen candidate with stolen ballots, later recruited as a crisis actor in a fake terrorist incident intended to further influence an election in the wake of a corruption scandal. 

In The Town, he’s told his existence is meaningful and given a place to belong. Yet he has to surrender his name, known as “Dudes” residents must greet each other ritualistically only by the word “fellow” followed by some kind of compliment. All his needs may be met, but he’s forbidden to fall in love, can never marry or have a family, and it does seem troubling that there are no elderly people around even if some suggest there are other “Towns” just for them. Some might say, The Town is way is a way for mainstream society to get rid of all the people it doesn’t want or feels have no value. Araki throws up frequent title cards featuring various statistics such as the numbers of homeless people, bankruptcies, unemployment etc along with brief flashbacks to whatever it was that brought residents to The Town from being thrown thrown out of a manga cafe after attempting to live there to being almost choked to death by debt-collecting yakuza suggesting there’s little “freedom” in the rigid contemporary society and most particularly for those unable or unwilling to live by its rules.  

In The Town rules are few, and you’re well looked after, but you can’t leave and though it seems like an individualist paradise where you’re free to satisfy each of your physical desires you have no further control over your existence. As one resident puts it, “life here is kind of weightless”, perhaps a relief for some but a crushing existential crisis for others. Aoyama realises that in The Town he rarely feels angry, but perhaps he feels nothing much of anything else, either. Just as he’s starting to adjust, his feelings of unease are strengthened by the arrival of a young woman who apparently had no previous societal issues but has come to The Town in search of her younger sister whom she failed to help despite knowing she was trapped in an abusive relationship. Unlike Aoyama, Beniko (Shizuka Ishibashi) claims not to have felt much of anything in the regular world, unsure even what love is and unimpressed by the beautiful vistas of freedom that are supposed to define The Town, but doesn’t want to stay and be rendered a mindless drone exploited by mysterious forces for whatever purpose they may choose.

What Aoyama realises he craves is the love and companionship of a conventional family life. “We want to support each other and work hard. Love each other and live together” he explains to a non-plussed Paul who seems to pity him, his simple desire at once at odds with the values of The Town and perhaps equally unobtainable in contemporary Japan. In the end, the only “freedom” he may find lies in complicity with one system or another, becoming an oppressor as one of the oppressed. The question is what sort of life is most satisfying, freedom from the anxiety of hunger and cold, or the freedom to love and live fully in manner of your choosing. The modern society may not grant you either, and both perhaps have their costs. A bleak dystopian thriller, Araki’s steely drama features innovative production design and slick direction mimicking the hero’s sense of disaffection with detachment and a total lack of resistance to the otherwise bewildering world of The Town but saves its real sense of confusion for the state of the modern society and the fate of those who survive on its margins. 


The Town of Headcounts streams in the US March 15 – 19 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Akihiko Shiota, 2019)

Repressed desire and toxic resentment conspire against a trio of melancholy musicians in Akihiko Shiota’s delicate indie drama, Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Sayonara Kuchibiru). As the title implies, this is a tale of learning to let go, but then again perhaps not. As an over earnest interviewer suggests there are many ways to interpret the title song, but it also carries with it an unmistakable hint of defeatism as the singer songwriter heroine finds herself perpetually preparing to say goodbye, no longer believing in a positive future and unwittingly sabotaging its existence in an intense desire for protective distance. 

As the film opens in the summer of 2018, folk duo Haruleo is about to set off on a “farewell tour” though it’s not been advertised as such. The atmosphere is extremely awkward and emotionally volatile. Something has obviously gone very wrong in the previously close relationship between bandmates Haru (Mugi Kadowaki) and Leo (Nana Komatsu), while roadie Shima (Ryo Narita) seems to be doing his best to stay out of it and keep the peace if only until after they’ve played their final show in Hakodate way up in Hokkaido. 

That might be difficult however because Leo’s self-destructive streak is out in full force, wandering off with a rough-looking man from the petrol station where they stopped to use the facilities. “Aren’t you going to stop her?” Haru asks of Shima, entirely mistaken in the nature of their relationship, “What would be the point?” he replies, open mouthed in exasperation. Sure enough Leo turns up late to the gig and sporting a nasty bruise on her face after another encounter with a dark and violent man. “I don’t want to watch you fall apart”, Haru had told her on a previous occasion in an awkward attempt at comfort that finally backfired, Leo firing back that hearing that from her only made her feel even worse. Haru echoes those words herself when Shima tries something similar with her, only charged with a somewhat inappropriate fervour driven by misplaced desire. 

Desire is indeed circulating, but in an emotionally difficult and seemingly irresolvable love triangle between three people with extremely low self esteem. Struggling to accept love, they act on self-destructive impulse and only wound where they mean to console. Haru strikes up a conversation with Leo because she says that her “eyes wanted to sing”, seemingly captivated and taking the young woman in but still somehow maintaining a distance. Leo, who seems to have no family and is incapable of looking after herself, quickly bonds with Haru but is frustrated by her resistance to connection. When Haru interviews Shima for a position as their roadie, she’s quick to tell him that romance is prohibited, but later claims that she always expected he and Leo to run off together while silently pining for her in a mistaken belief that her love is hopeless. 

Filled with internalised shame, Haru takes Shima home as a beard to show off to her mother at her father’s memorial service, unable to disclose her sexuality and trying not to look hurt when her mother whips out a postcard from her first love who has since married abroad and had a child. Shima, strangely perhaps the most emotionally astute, is drawn to Haru even after learning that she is gay and realising that all of her songs are really about her unrealisable longing for Leo, who claims to be in love with him though it’s not exactly clear if that, like her tendency to disappear with dangerous men, isn’t a misdirected way of connecting with Haru.

Shima may have failed once and resolved to do better in avoiding making the same old mistakes, but is still an awkward third wheel in this increasingly difficult relationship despite his attempts to mitigate the effects of his presence while perhaps biased towards preserving Haru’s happiness in trying to “save” Leo. Learning that a close friend and former bandmate has passed away forces him, and perhaps the girls too, to reflect on what’s lost if you let important relationships fall by the wayside out of pettiness or pride. Shima’s friend apparently told his young son never to become a musician because it will rob you of the things that are most important. Still, Shima, echoing the words of Haruleo’s signature song, affirms that he regrets nothing. If it all ends in tears, Haru’s lyrics imply that she’s happy to live with the thorn in her side as a reminder of past love. The jury’s out on whether the Farewell Song leads to a new beginning or merely more of the same, perpetually trapped in an inescapable cycle of emotional frustration, but Haruleo seems resigned to weathering the storm whatever it is that might emerge on the other side. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell Song music video

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2014)

crows explodeToshiaki Toyoda made an auteurst name for himself at the tail end of the ‘90s with a series of artfully composed youth dramas centring on male alienation and cultural displacement. Attempting to move beyond the world of adolescent rage by embracing Japan’s most representative genre, the family drama, in the literary adaptation Hanging Garden, Toyoda’s career hit a snag. Despite the film’s favourable reception with critics, a public drugs scandal cost Toyoda his career in Japan’s extremely strict entertainment industry. Since his return to filmmaking in 2009 Toyoda has continued to branch out but 2014’s Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE) throws him back into that early world of repressed male energy as internalised rage and frustration produce externalised violence. Picking up the Crows franchise where Takashi Miike left off, Toyoda brings his unique visual sensiblilty to the material, swapping Miike’s irony for something with more grit but losing the deadpan depth of its adolescent posturing in the process.

The old gods have fallen and new ones must rise. Tough guys graduate, but the battlefields of Suzuran High endure eternally. Suzuran is the ultimate in delinquent schools. None of the boys here are under any misapprehension that the adult world holds any promise for them. Many will drop out without completing high school, condemning themselves to a precarious life of continually uncertain, low paid employment, but even those who do manage to leave with a certificate will be heading into another competition to find a steady job in economically straightened times.

That is, those of them who don’t end up in a gang. The thing at Suzuran is that your fate is determined by your fists. Boys roam the halls looking for a fight, each vowing to become the top dog and de facto leader by proving themselves the best and the strongest of the strapping young men all vying for the title. A new challenger arrives in the form of transfer student, Kaburagi (Masahiro Higashide), whose intense energy upsets the dynamic between presumed number one Goura (Yuya Yagira) and his challenger Takagi (Kenzo) but Kagami (Taichi Saotome), the loner son of a fallen yakuza, seems further set to pose a threat in this knife edge environment.

Toyoda has some interesting points to make about the legacy of violence and the importance of father son relationships as each of these young men is reacting in some sense against a father or just his father’s world. Kaburagi, the film’s protagonist, is nursing a deep wound of double abandonment after witnessing his father’s death and then being deposited in a foster home by his sorrowful mother who promises to return for him soon but makes do with occasional visits and monetary gifts. Kaburagi is an angry young man and like many angry young men, he is eager not to become his father – a situation complicated by the fact that his father was a prize fighter who died in the ring.

His “mirror” Kagami, has a similar problem only his father died in a yakuza turf war. A surrogate presents himself in the form of former Suzuran scrapper “Jarhead Ken” (Kyosuke Yabe), now an ex-yakuza helping out at a friend’s second hand car dealership but unable to escape gangland troubles when it emerges Kagami’s clan are intent on acquiring it in order to turn the place into some kind of “entertainment complex”. Ken, a tough guy but soft hearted, has a talent for paternalism which he turns on the fatherless little boy of the car dealership’s owner to whom he teaches the importance of a hefty punch but also of friendship and loyalty.

Miike’s world was a surreal one, inflected with a wry middle aged eye which sees all of this teenage rambunctiousness for the ridiculous posturing it really is. Toyoda’s attempts to be more in the moment, experiencing the adolescent angst with all of its immediate force but unlike his early protagonists the boys of Suzuran are forced to “explode” rendering that central tenet of repressed anger redundant. Externalising the internal war somehow makes it much less interesting as boys trade blows, mindlessly trying to work out a mental struggle which their ill drawn backgrounds will not support.

The environment which the boys inhabit is a grey and hopeless one. Toyoda paints it with his characteristic visual flair, returning to his trademark sequences of slow motion coupled with indie music, but his energy is very different from Miike’s and its more contemplative rhythm never quite gels with the pugilistic fury of the source material even as it gives way to his more expressionistic imagery. The franchise is feeling a little punch drunk by this point, and Toyoda finds it in a particular puddle of teenage malaise. Still, the fists fly and the boys of Suzuran rise and fall as always providing enough self consciously cool action to sustain interest despite the otherwise insubstantial quality.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Rolling (ローリング, Masanori Tominaga, 2015)

384f90_4054bb8ba5554cc186f2bce4c6beb853“Weird teacher” is almost becoming a genre now. Even so, the teacher at the center of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling may give them all a run for their money (well, for about five yards before having somekind of bizarre accident, anyway). Gondo is a feckless middle aged man who was fired from his teaching position ten years previously after having been caught secretly filming the girls’ changing rooms. Now he’s back in his old stalking ground after having pulled off an improbable white knight routine by rescuing the young and pretty Mihara from a bad boyfriend in Tokyo. However, his former students have not forgotten him or his pervy ways! It’s not long before the entire town of twenty somethings are on Gondo’s case hoping for a little vengeance for their teenage betrayal.

However, Gondo’s fortunes improve slightly when it’s discovered that some of his secret recordings feature some rather salacious goings on starring a former classmate whose TV career is just about to kick off. Smelling money in the air, Gondo is suddenly everyone’s best friend again. Gondo is…still Gondo though so as you may expect this state of affairs will not last. He’s even lost Mihara to a former student of his, one he even quite likes too…

Despite his failings and protestations to the contrary, what Gondo ultimately remains is a teacher. Yes he’s made some mistakes (understatement of the century), and he’s actually quite unpleasant in a lot of ways but somehow he still wants to protect this ragtag bag of not quite young people that he previously harmed. Coming to the realisation that his actions not only resulted in revulsion and violation of trust but also had a disruptive effect on the educational progress of his students simply resulting from his abrupt dismissal, Gondo does at least want to make amends (in his own way).

However, Gondo’s just the kind of guy things never work out for. “All my students are idiots” he proclaims at one point and he’s not altogether wrong. Attempting to hatch a blackmail plot with a very strange group of a idol managers-cum-gangsters and an ex-policeman, the gang get themselves into a whole world of trouble which is only exacerbated when the almost famous subject of the video comes forward and makes a very surprising request of her old flame and Gondo’s kindly love rival Kanichi.

Darkly comic, Rolling has the air of a film noir B movie with its ever present voice over and thriller trappings including secret video taping, a blackmail plot and trio of business-like gangsters. It is though, also firmly grounded in the now despite its often surreal humour. Also branded an “erotic comedy” Rolling is fairly high on sexual content adding to its generally sleazy feeling. It may well go down as a cult hit simply for the phrase “I’m going to make a milkshake out of your filthy boob juice” which gives you some indication as to the tone.

Far from perfect but oddly touching if sometimes baffling too, Rolling is another strange and surreal adventure from Tominaga. Its slightly vulgar tone may put off some but by and large it gets away with it through sheer cheekiness and absurd humour. Gondo is a dreadful person almost all of the time, selfish and needy yet he also seems to have this yearning for redemption which makes him seem not so bad really, as does the fact that most of his former students have not turned out all that well – even the “hero” Kanichi has his problems. For those that can accept its oddly surreal tone and decidedly old fashioned gender politics, Rolling is a rewarding and delightfully absurd film that does also manage to pack in a decent (if subtle) amount of social commentary.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.

Review of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling (ローリング) – first published by UK Anime Network.