Certain facts of life we know to be true. The tide will turn. The sun will rise. Hayao Miyazaki is the god of Japanese anime. Still, the throne may be ready for a shakedown – or even a partial step down on the part of Miyazaki. Anime filmmaker extraordinaire Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) has blown a huge hole in the fortress of Miyazaki’s storied production company Studio Ghibli, with his latest: Tenki no Ko (International Title: ‘Weathering With You’).” It’s a semi-utopian spin on the dismally dystopian subject of climate change, and the ending has instigated a controversial firestorm on social media. The question at the eye of the storm is this: “Should we forgive the protagonists for putting their personal happiness before the greater good?”
Though the verdict is still out, my guess is that Hayao Miyazaki would probably say a loud “no way”. As the ultra-stoic-but-always-benevolent tyrant of Japanese anime, he has consistently sacrificed his characters’ romantic inclinations to “much bigger things,” as he once said in an interview – i.e., the benefit or survival, of human society. In a Miyazaki story, boy and girl will get to meet but they will never get together, as there are much bigger things at stake.
In Weathering With You the Tokyo metropolitan area is locked into a rainy season that won’t go away. No one has felt the feeblest of sunshine or glimpsed a patch of blue sky for months. The only exit out of this perpetual wetness seems to lie in the hands of a pretty teenage girl named Hina (voiced by Nana Mori) Her sort-of-boyfriend Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) is sort of her boyfriend, because they don’t exchange so much as a kiss–gleans Hina’s secret power. Initially, he advises Hina to cash in by starting a fair weather business and Hina agrees to go on social media and advertise her abilities as the “good weather girl”. Soon, orders for good weather start pouring in and Hina is summoned to a barbecue party here, a sports event there, or even an ancestral ritual at an old lady’s home. The money’s not bad either, and as Hina’s little brother Nagi (voiced by Sakura Kiryu) joins in, the trio start to feel like a cozy little family.
Sixteen-year old Hodaka is too shy to admit his love for Hina–especially since she has informed him that her 18th birthday is coming up and therefore, she’s way too old for a kid like him. That doesn’t stop Hodaka from going online and researching the perfect birthday gift, which he buys with the money he made with Hina. All this will most certainly elicit stern disapproval from their parents but thankfully, there are no such people in Weathering With You. Hodaka has run away, from home and parents left behind on one of the Izu islands scattered along the Pacific. Hina’s mother died a short while ago and she is supporting Nagi in a tiny apartment near Shinjuku. First, she was on the night shift at a McDonald’s and when that didn’t work out, she made a half-hearted attempt to become a porn actress before Hodaka pulled her back.
All the while, the rain never stops.
Fans of Shinkai know dark skies and heavy rains are a big part of his m.o. Plus, the precise, almost photographic depictions of Tokyo’s train stations (mostly the Yamanote line) and streets, especially in the Shinjuku area. Weathering With You has ample portions of both – the story opens on rain-soaked streets, inky puddles and the lesser known alleyways in the Yoyogi neighborhood. When Hina clenches her fingers and prays to the heavens, the clouds part, exposing a glorious patch of azure sky and splendid slants of sunshine. People put their umbrellas away to look up with a smile, and Hodaka rightly observes that “it’s amazing how good you feel when it’s cleared up.”
The contrast of bad weather and good, is one of the factors that propel the story forward – you get a feeling of how badly people need the sun, and what lengths they will go to get it.
The implication is that Tokyoites are ready to sacrifice Hina on the altar of blue skies, even if they’re only very vaguely aware of her powers or even her presence. In the movie, Hina is a ghostly figure whispered about on the Net, and her abilities are never totally understood. The terrible truth is that the more Hina makes good weather happen, the less there is of her own self; her trade-off with fine weather is her own, physical existence.
One morning when Hodaka wakes up, she’s gone without a trace, save for the bathrobe she was wearing the night before.
(SPOILER ALERT: That is nowhere near the ending for Hina or Hodaka、so don’t let this review make you feel like we’ve ruined the movie. ↖)
In reality, Japan braces itself for a rainy season (usually occuring at the beginning of June and lasting four to five weeks) that wreaks havoc on many areas across the archipelago. This year, southwestern Japan was flooded by torrential rains and in Fukuoka city, trucks and cars were submerged in rainwater while soil erosion led to landslides that caused thousands of people to lose their homes. Tokyo wasn’t as bad but enough water came down to partially shut down public transportation and delay construction on Olympic facilities.
In Weathering With You rainfall spells dire consequences for the metropolis as entire neighborhoods disappear underwater and mighty architectural monuments like the Rainbow Bridge, become steeped in water. Still, as a sage old woman in the movie remarks, “It’s all right, Tokyo has gone back to its natural state. That’s all this is.” Indeed, the Japanese capital is a 400-year old artificial island made on a landfill and the greater part of Shinjuku as we know it today, used to be swampland. If we can live with that, surely we can live with Hina getting to have a life of her own, and maybe, eventually–perhaps–falling in love with Hodaka. And the greater good be damned.
I am at the reception counter of Muji Hotel – the much touted and long awaited hotel produced by Muji, Japan’s popular minimalist clothing and household products brand. Muji, as you may know, stands for Mujirushi (無印) which literally means “no seal or stamp”; it’s a brand who’s trademark is no (visible) brand. Which is very Zen-like unless you look at the label inside.
When the hotel first opened in early April, rumor had it that every room was booked solid for the next 2 years. In late May, procuring a room (on a weekday) proved easy. Muji (rhymes with Fuji) has grown into a global label touting Japan-style simplicity and aesthetics but to the average non-minimalist Japanese, it remains inscrutable, even unfathomable. Many see the pared down surfaces and uniform designs of Muji products as a tad too aggressively simple to fit into their own lives.
Aggressive maybe, but never offensive. There’s not the tiniest fragment of offensiveness anywhere in the Muji Hotel, including the young woman who checks me in. She’s an epitome of serenity and calm, her hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck and wearing what is clearly a Muji outfit (white shirt and loose black cardigan plus black pants) the uniform of the hotel staff. She speaks almost flawless Japanese along with English and Urdu which she says is her native language. Before handing me the card key to my room, the young woman gives me an ‘omamori’ or talisman, compliments of Muji – and explains that inside the tiny cloth satchel there’s an emergency whistle (“in case of a natural disaster and other unforeseen events”) and a tiny leaflet containing instructions on getting through emergencies great and small. I open this leaflet and on the last page there is this advice: “If you should feel lonely, look up at the stars in the night sky.”
My room which is a single, feels spacious thanks to the high ceiling measuring over 3.5 meters. In Tokyo, high ceilings are a luxury and when it comes to hotel rooms, they’re the exclusive domain of high-end imported brands like the Peninsula, the Park Hyatt and the Ritz Carlton. Muji is distinctive in that it’s a genuine Japanese hotel, located in one of the choicest pieces of real estate in Tokyo, but only charges a fixed rate of 140 USD per single room, per night. Most importantly, it doesn’t suck or resemble a prison cell.
On the other hand, you can’t imagine anyone having a tryst here– it’s far too pristine and devoid of emotion. And a hotel without a tryst is like a cupcake without icing. Or am I being offensive? (Editor’s note: Not offensive. ‘A donut without a hole’ might have been an offensive metaphor but then again they eat donut holes in Australia, so who’s to say?)
Back in my room, a faint scent of linen combined with lavender lingers in the air, piped out from a portable aroma diffuser, one of Muji’s most popular items. Actually, everything in the room is made by Muji, from the bed to the packets of shampoo and conditioner precisely laid out in an oak chest (also Muji), to the little bag of complimentary snacks and the bottled water in the mini-fridge (also Muji). The idea is to let the guests get a taste of what it’s like to live a life defined by Muji, by spending some time in a space designed and totally controlled by Muji. And afterwards, we can take the escalator down to any of the five floors of Muji’s flagship store that’s located right below the hotel. The hotel and the shop are in the same building, and some of the tourists check in with empty suitcases, to stock up on Muji products during their stay. It’s a pretty nifty arrangement for Muji and The Minimalists–which could be a great ambient music band name.
The brand has always opted for discretion, restraint, understatement with a whiff of snobbishness. To admit to a love of Muji is to tell the world that as a consumer, you’re very woke. Muji covers all the bases that would gladden the heart of a discerning shopper: recyclable materials, ethical off-shore manufacturing, diversity among the staff, organic cotton in the clothing line and energy efficient appliances. Add to that the flat, unobtrusive, utterly desexualized designs and it all totals up to something that is for many minimalists, a guilty pleasure. Indeed, many Japanese minimalists admit on their blogs that if they have to shop at all, they shop at Muji. Others have taken it several levels higher by buying Muji houses (yes, they will make an entire house from the ground up) and outfitting it with Muji kitchens and bathrooms, after which they proceed to fill it up with Muji furniture and Muji food.
Muji was launched in 1980 by retail giant Seibu Conglomerates, as an alternative brand to what (then) Seibu CEO Seiji Tsutsumi saw as the nation’s misguided and excessive consumerism. Japanese consumers were hurling themselves into the go-go economy, believing that shopping nirvana was the closest thing to paradise. All of a sudden, the cramped living spaces of the average Japanese were overflowing with stuff. Few of it matched or made sense, and perhaps for the first time in Japanese history, people found themselves in possession of with more STUFF than they ever thought possible.
Muji offered an escape hatch from the clueless clutter of it all, with uniform, collapsible shelves and drawers designed to hold the simplest, most non-intrusive products. Now, forty years later, any discussion of Japanese minimalism almost always precludes a discussion of Muji. Konmari may be riding on her big wave at the moment, but Muji had been on the beach long before she was decluttering the ocean.
But as the hotel room shows, Muji has perhaps, gone a bit overboard. They had always walked the fine line between selling their ideals and selling their products but with the opening of the hotel, it seems that boundary has been obliterated. Muji has merged the product with the ideal, and the whole package comes with a price tag.
Consequently, the last thing you’d want to do in this space is to indulge in carnal pleasures, though to be fair, the hotel does encourage it. (Muji Prophylactics are sold on the third floor.) But since I was alone, what else was there to do but open my laptop to work at the Muji desk, lit by a Muji lamp, wearing Muji slippers after taking a shower in the Muji bathroom? Maybe I’ll even follow Muji’s suggestion and look up at the night sky for a few twinkling stars–and then fall into a dreamless Muji sleep.
Note: In a homage to Muji style, none of the photos in this article have been captioned.
Want to talk about movies? From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time. On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.
Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.
1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.
2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992 Directed by Juzo Itami
In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.
As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery.
One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’ The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.
5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami
Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.”
Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.
Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience.
7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008 Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.
Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.
8) 北野武監督 HANA-BI 1997年
Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face.
In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.
Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.
9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012 Directed by Mika Ninagawa
Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.
10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014 Directed by Naomi Kawase
Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach.
In the children’s picture book Teach me Enma-sama, written and illustrated by Hiromi Tanaka, Enma who is the King of Hell in Buddhist mythology teaches children how to behave in a “proper” way by scaring the living shit out of them. The picture book is intended for 5 to 8-year-olds and is partly formatted as a guide for parents to discipline their children as well. The book teaches children what they shouldn’t do and how society works through at times humorous but more often horrifying descriptions about Enma and hell.
Some of the book can be a surprisingly thoughtful
approach for children to think about bullying, cheating, lying – things many children
tend to do without noticing or understanding the moral implications and
The book itself is
inspired by Hokku-kyo, which is the
oldest Buddhist scripture, and Buddhism itself drops many tips about raising
children. It furthermore, introduces things to teach one’s children, such as why
they shouldn’t be doing “bad” things, social codes, and etiquette.
The book covers 31
topics within three chapters, with roughly one subject per page, with a speech
from Enma-sama, following explanation for kids, a message for parents when
reading with children as well as the original untranslated sentences from
Buddhist scriptures such as the Hokku-kyo.
Bad things children tend to do without noticing is addressed in chapter 1. From not having likes and dislikes about food or leaving unfinished food, to being quiet in public places. It teaches them to become aware of others and that they are not the center of the universe.
Chapter 2 covers topics
about the evil that lives in people’s minds, such as jealousy and hatred. It
puts a great emphasis on not comparing oneself to others and recognizing that
others are not objects but human beings with feelings, just like ourselves. It
also mentions that people should stay positive.
Finally, in chapter 3, the
evil that dwells in words. Such as that one should be careful when speaking, as
once a person says something, it is impossible to unsay it. Thus is tell the
reader not to lie, verbally abuse others, as well as to stay true to oneself.
All of this is generally well good, except for the glaring fact that some of the pictures and descriptions provided in the book wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw or similar horror movie, yet are in a book that is intended for young children…………
In conclusion, the book gives a somewhat universal idea of what is good and what is bad, abet in a very black and white fashion, while accompanied by nightmare inducing depictions.
We’re nearing the end of the world but there’s a sliver of a chance that we may be able to go out in style.
That pretty much sums up the message behind “Ten Years Japan (十年)” part of a film project in 4 Asian locales (Honk Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan) to imagine the future of their nations, 10 years from now. “Ten Years Japan” is a 5-story omnibus, showcasing the talents of five directors – three of whom are women. You can see it in the way they grapple with themes like aging, nuclear fallout and a mother-daughter relationship. Gender comparisons are always dangerous but in the case of “Ten Years Japan,” these women directors clearly offer more wiggle room for hope and emotions like heartfelt gratitude, wrenching nostalgia and love. In the bleakest moments of their stories you sense that love will show up, eventually; a much-awaited guest late for the planet’s last dinner party.
The launch force behind “Ten Years” was Hong Kong in 2016. Hong Kong’s “Ten Years” played to wildly enthused audiences at home and went on to the international film festival circuit, but the contents were viewed as “problematic” by Beijing and banned in mainland China. Inspired by the Hong Kong team and their stories, the Thailand version came out in May this year. And now we have our own, here in Japan, which has been playing in a few Tokyo art house theaters for a limited 3 week release from November 3rd. Which is way too short to do this film justice but given the current political climate, maybe we should be thankful it’s being released at all.
“Ten Years Japan” was creatively supervised by Hirokazu Koreeda whose name and international repute has become on par with if not replaced, that of Takeshi Kitano. Koreeda is now the film critics’ darling in Cannes and London and when he speaks, his words become news print.
Koreeda shows a side of Japan that rarely makes it to the international stage. No samurai, geisha or yakuza splash guts and sex in his vehicles. Instead, he wants to tell stories about quietly dysfunctional families. Or a mom who abandoned her four kids and never told anyone, until one of them dies. In his latest triumph “The Shoplifters” Koreeda addressed the problem of poverty and child abuse and was snubbed by none other than Prime Minister Abe when the latter said that Koreeda was perhaps, exaggerating a bit and that poverty in Japan is practically non-existent. Cue: sad laughter.
Koreeda has repeated said that he’s interested in the here-and-now of Japan, and working with performers that can transport and translate the urgency of our times onto the screen. This is probably why Koreeda demonstrates a flair for working with child actors. In his stories, they are sharp observers of adult sins and tellers of inconvenient truths as at the same time they are victims in a world over which they have no control.
A stark example of that is seen in “Itazura Doumei (Mischievous Alliance),” a tale directed by Yusuke Kimura. In this, elementary school education has become all about relentless surveillance, as the pupils are made to wear command devices on their heads, obeying instructions on where to go next, what to study and how to interact with classmates. They also receive “suggestions’ to consider this career or that, and how they can optimize their studying choices. Sort of like push notifications on a much more pushier level. The teachers fare no better. Only the school janitor (played by the always reliable Jun Kunimura) seems to enjoy a modicum of independence. The janitor takes care of an aging horse (part of a school experiment), soon to be exterminated on the whim of a digital authority. He can’t help but side wth the rebellious Ryo (Seiya Ohkawa) when the latter breaks the key to the stable and sets the horse free.
Another tale of childhood helplessness is “Sono Kuukiwa Mienai (You Can’t See This Air),” directed by Akiyo Fujimura. In this, the stage is an underground nuclear shelter inhabited by a small community of survivors. Mizuki (Ririya Mita) nurses a growing obsession with “the world above” as her anxious mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) warns there is nothing but danger “up there.” Mizuki longs for sunshine and rain until she can’t stand it anymore. The audience is left to surmise the consequences of her escape to freedom.
Utsukushii Kuni (美しい国) is a sharp poke in the ribs of Prime Minister Abe, who authored a book of the same title. The episode depicts in subdued tones, the ultimate outcome of Japan’s militaristic leanings as the Ministry of Defense puts a mandatory draft into place. The episode centers around an up and coming advertising executive who must inform a famous artist that her propaganda poster design, just isn’t quite what the ministry wants. It ends with a subtle twist, reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, that leaves the viewer with a tiny chill–in a moment of quiet understated dread.
Perhaps the most harrowing is the first story: “Plan 75” directed by Chie Hayakawa. It’s about our super-aged society: the most urgent and costliest problem facing Japan today. Hayakawa imagines a near future in which the government launches the titular program: people over 75 are offered a quick and painless euthanizing. The public service announcement advertising this expedited exit, sponsored by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, is such a dead-on parody of Japanese PSAs that it almost seems real. Those urged to cross over to the other side, of course, are the low-income elderly or the infirm. But there are perks; those who agree to die even get a cash reward of 100,000 yen, so they can go out in relative style. There is an unforgettable death scene where an old man lays prostrate on a clinical cot – there are sounds of another man groaning nearby. The old man is visited by an intense loneliness and just as he’s about to burst into tears, a pair of female hands reach out to clasp his own. His face relaxes and there’s a wave of joyful relief. Cliched as it sounds, “Plan 75” confirms the old adage: all we need out of life is someone to hold our hands when we die.
Trevor David Houchen was an expat in Nagoya for about 8 years before getting divorced from his Japanese wife. He tried to get joint custody of his two young children but was defeated in court and went the way of other divorced dads in Japan i.e., a six-hour long, unsupervised meeting once a month. After some mental health issues and a string of failed relationships, Houchen decided that he was through with Japan and vice versa. He boarded a plane back to the US and in LA, started writing what would become “The Eternal Outsider – Ten Years Black in Japan,” and remarried another Japanese woman. (Editor’s note: The book bears some similarity to Black Passenger, Yellow Cabs, previously reviewed here).
Houchen and his wife now live in Atlanta. His book – a hefty 508 page volume packed with explosive sex scenes and lengthy, soul seaching monologue, came out this month via a self-publishing company in New York. Houchen hopes the book will provide a passage back to Japan that will lead to a reunion with his kids. He hasn’t seen or heard from them since leaving Nagoya nearly five years ago.
Houchen’s story is by no means unique – an interracial marriage gone sour followed by an exit out of the archipelago is a tale oft-told by foreign men. Ditto the separation from the children which has become a huge problem in the past 5 or so years, despite the Hague Convention. Barring extreme and/or extenuating circumstances, Japanese courts favor Japanese mothers when it comes to child custody rights. And foreign-born parents are almost always banned from taking their kids out of the country.
Houchen’s plight is sad but “The Eternal Outsider” isn’t out to invite reader sympathy, not least from the presumed target audience of American males interested in Japan. Many will pick up the book, just from the photo of the Japanese-looking young woman wearing that classic Japanese expression which can be both a come-on and a signal of distress. Once they dip into the pages though, resentment may come bubbling up like coffee in an old-fashioned percolator. Houchen is black American, and through the book he inducts the reader into a whole other world of foreigner male entitlement that exists in East Asia. For many Japanese (and other East Asian) women, dating a white man equals romance and prestige. But dating an African American – now that brings some SERIOUS cache. Among other things, it broadcasts that the woman is earthy, sassy and adventurous enough to try dreadlocks. It also means she rocks – mainly in the sack which is the most important place to rock anyway. A friend of mine who once dated Kevin-from-Bushwick gleefully declared: “I feel like my butt is now 10 centimeters higher than it used to be!” To get that effect the rest of us would have to spend 100 hours in a Cross fit class.
Which is part of the reason why Houchen was able to experience what he describes in the book – never saying no to a bevy of Nagoya beauties who literally break his door down in order to share his bed. Sometimes, he has to do the work and actually ASK a woman out, but hey, why bother when the answer is ‘hai (yes)’ every single time? Most of them have the good grace to proffer their bodies and ask nothing in return. Many of them pay for his meals and clothes or in one case, gifts him an electric piano. One lover whom he refers to as ‘H,’ plonks down her own cash to support his magazine and music business and picks up the check for everything else.
Houchen’s success rate is phenomenal and you almost imagine him grinning with nostalgia for those golden days or shaking his head in pity at the sorry state of dating in his own USA. Guys not getting any? Guys sending hopeful dick pics to Tinder dates? Seriously, Dudes, just hop on a plane to Japan!
The other part is that Houchen – for all his self-absorbed, sexual predator asshole-ness, is actually a stand-up kinda guy with a real love for this country. He’s nice to his numerous girlfriends, nice to his ex-wife, obviously loves his kids and even tries to get along with his in-laws. This is Nagoya we’re talking about, a region famed for its ultra-conservative attitude towards dating and relationships. Nagoya parents are known for laying down the law when it comes to their children’s marriages and will meddle in everything from baby names to the color of the bath mat in a newlywed’s home. Most of them are NOT thrilled by the idea that their precious offspring could be involved with a foreigner. The fact that Houchen was able to swing a marriage at all is a miracle but as he writes in the book, “No, I’m not Japanese. But I tried. So hard….I tried my best to be invisible, to compact myself into a smaller, paler, less amped and less woke version of myself.”
That worked for awhile until it didn’t. “International Marriages,’ as they’re called in Japan, is still frowned upon by many in the older generation and according to “The Eternal Outsider,” Houchen’s in-laws looked upon him as a sort of disease to which their vulnerable daughter fell victim. There’s a hilarious account of how one day, his mom-in-law showed up at Berlitz, where Houchen was in the middle of teaching, and demanded to see him. Houchen had to excuse himself from class to go out and placate an older Japanese woman who suspected that he was unemployed and came to check if he was lying. The incident rattled Houchen and he couldn’t recover enough to keep teaching the student. Berlitz ended up firing him.
“The Eternal Outsider” is an engrossing read but speaking as a Japanese woman, many of the pages was torture to get through. Somehow, it reminded me of a news story that was floating around in the mid 1990s, about how easily Japanese women capitulated to foreign men. It goes like this: Six Japanese college students – all young women, went on a holiday trip to Rome. In a restaurant, they were picked up by a local man who invited them all back to his apartment. They went, and he proceeded to have his way with them – all at once, and all on his own. These women weren’t tied up. They simply lay there on their backs while the man whizzed his way from one to another, all through the night. How’s that for stamina? Houchen talks about how humiliating the divorce was for him, but hello – there’s a sizable amount of humiliation on this end too, except no one wants to talk about it. Houchen’s book certainly doesn’t.
Speaking of humiliation, Houchen fell apart when he discovered that his ex-wife had installed a Japanese man in the apartment they had shared and who was “a good five inches shorter” than Houchen. She had her parents, their kids and this new man who was already being referred to as “Papa.” He describes her united front as “a team” whose very existence drained all joy out of his life in Japan. In the meantime, he never stopped sleeping with any woman who happened to drop in, including a former student whom he used to teach at a local junior high school.
On the one hand, this stuff could be fodder for a hit series on Netflix. On the other hand, you could shrug and say “shouganai (it can’t be helped)” – he got what was coming to him.
Still, I’m uncomfortable about leaving it like that. The book reveals in a deeply observant way how ultimately, Japan and Japanese women refused to be messed around with, particularly by a foreigner. And in the end, Houchen’s wife and copious lovers all vanish like smoke from a pack of Seven Stars: Houchen’s preferred cigarette brand in the land of the rising sun. Sure, he had the time of his life but it was just that – a time. And now it’s gone.
In high school, the girls around me had one wish–to have a different nationality, preferably American, and to trash our drab school uniforms for the outfits in “Beverly Hills 90210.” Being Japanese was just no fun, though it did seem better than hailing from other Asian countries. After all, this was the 1980s and the Japanese economy was gearing up to enter the bubble era. The Equal Employment Law for women kicked in. Chiaki Mukai was training to be Japan’s first woman astronaut. Takako Doi was rumored to become the future Prime Minister. Things were happening here, albeit minus the fun, sophistication and glamour we so coveted.
Little did we know that one day, Singapore and China would trump (pun intended) the US in many things regarding money, or that Asian women would come to rank among the richest in the world. These women would book first class flights on the five-starred Singapore Airlines to chill in the gaze of the Mer-Lion, and immerse themselves in gossip, shopping and spas with unlimited supplies of yuzu-scented sheet masks.
For that’s what the ladies in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” do. On the occasions that they haul themselves off the mani-pedi bed or tear themselves away from the mahjong table, they reach for their phones to tap a few keys and murmur a few instructions, to put extra padding on their already bursting bank accounts. After that, they’re off to dinner parties where a billion orchid petals pave the paths and splendid fireworks explode in the background. Who do these people think they are, clones of Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby”?
Speaking of which, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the kind of insular, extravagant love story that would have made Scott Fitzgerald weep with envy. Director Jon M. Chu, who hails from Palo Alto and attended USC, has been working in films and TV since 2002 and this time, he literally hit the jackpot. Somehow the man knew that the world needed the sight of well-heeled Asians with perfect teeth, flinging their cash around at the same time they’re being swooningly romantic.
Chu dares to tread where no Hollywood movie about Asia ever has. There is no poverty or war. No samurai conflict. No appearance of Matt Damon (The Great Wall) or any white saviors to save the day. No immigration issues. Most importantly, there are no mothers crying about the sacrifices they made, to give their children a bright future in America. The mother in “Crazy Rich…” (played by a gorgeously frosty Michelle Yeoh) is the type who, when running up against a racist manager at a London hotel, calmly takes out her phone and makes arrangements to buy the hotel then and there. Minutes later she strides away, leaving the manager to get down on his knees and scrub the mud off the carpet from her son’s shoes.
When Hollywood does Asia, it goes for the jugular, like “Joy Luck Club” and “Sayuri” and “The Last Samurai.” Hollywood executives hear the word ‘Asians’ and immediately conjure an image of sweating maidens in rice paddies, or yakuza with swords in Shinjuku, or maidens and yakuza hooking up in Shinjuku, or all of the above. But in “Crazy Rich..,” Asians get to do what white people in movies have been doing for centuries. It’s about time.
In the US, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the movie sensation of the summer and it’s easy to see why. Apart from the endlessly entertaining antics of the Asian one percent “Crazy Rich…” knows how to entice an American audience. The characters have American names like Nick (Henry Golding), Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel (Constance Wu). They speak perfect English and hold engrossing conversations about love and family. They take their entitlement completely for granted. And they’re never weird. If they are, they’re weird in ways that Americans understand. Like in one scene, a bunch of catty woman put a dead fish in a girl’s bed as a bullying tactic, and it’s straight our of “Desperate Housewives.” Or if you want to be authentic about it, “The Godfather.”
Meanwhile, over here in the Land of the Rising Sun, people’s names are adamantly Japanese. Women are told to shut up and bear children, or shut up and work until 50 after which they must quit to care for elderly parents. Prime Minister Abe, now firmly ensconced in his third term, has promised the nation’s women that “things are going to change.” Seriously? They ain’t changing fast enough. All over Asia, Asian women are liberating themselves from tradition and antiquated family values to get a lot richer a lot faster than the Japanese ever did. Japan had its five minutes in the economic spotlight in the late 1980s but the 20-plus year recession combined with the notion of “seihin （清貧・clean poverty)” just about did us in. Evidence to that is seen in the way “Crazy Rich Asians” completely ignores Japan. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong – these places all get mentioned but Japan? Nada. True, Japan-born actress Sonoya Mizuno is in the cast but she plays a filthy rich Chinese woman. Go figure.
We’re a tad miffed, to be honest. But that really shouldn’t stop Japan from savoring every single frame of “Crazy Rich Asians.” From the sleek, precision make-up on the women to the bared torsos of the males (firm, slender and hairless – God’s gift to Asia) to the decor and wardrobe to the food and cocktails, “Crazy Rich…” is one huge, glittering monstrosity of a sweet, sweet treat. No wonder that for an increasing number of Japanese who will never be crazy rich, Singapore has come to represent the unattainable Japanese dream.
The news shook the world of Tokyo’s French cuisine, but the iconic Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Ebisu, was open for business. Diners clinked their glasses in honor of the late Joel Robuchon, the world famous chef who took “nihonno furenchi (French food in Japan)’ to a new level. In early August, Joel Robuchon succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was 73 years old – young by Japanese standards and way too young for people like Kazunari Mizuki, who had studied under the great master for 2 years before working as an entree chef at the Hotel Okura. “I never got a chance to say goodbye,” he said, his eyes getting moist. “Many of us in this business revered him so much. Without Joel-san, the French restaurant scene in Tokyo would never have gotten to this point.”
Indeed, Robuchon’s famed Chateau Restaurant (opened in 1994) was one of the first establishments in Tokyo to earn Michelin’s 3-star rating and the Chateau building itself has come to represent the wealth and glamour of Japan’s capital city. It’s also a pilgrimage site for Japanese couples. In a city notorious for workaholic singles and a rapidly aging population, the Chateau is the one place where men confer with the restaurant staff weeks in advance to orchestrate the perfect marriage proposal and the presenting of the ring. No woman can possibly say ‘no’ to a Robuchon proposal. The very fact that the occasion happened HERE of all places, makes her that much more precious, or at least worthy of a 80,000 yen dinner course and a sizable bling.
The food – though formidable, is almost beside the point. Joel Robuchon taught the Japanese that French cuisine wasn’t about food per se, but the experience as a whole. Everything from the decor to the lighting and wine selection to the impeccable service, should be a reflection of Robuchon’s personal philosophy: never settle for anything less than state of the art.
He also had a deep respect for Japan and Japanese cuisine. He lauded the soy sauce as “one of the greatest culinary miracles” according to an interview he gave on Fuji Television, and even developed a special shoyu to accompany western dishes. Four months before his death, he had collaborated with sake maker “Dassai” to open a Japanese/French restaurant in Paris. One of his best friends was Jiro Ono, sushi master extraordinaire and owner of “Sukiyabashi Jiro’ in Yurakucho.
Before Joel Robuchon arrived on the scene, the Japanese and French cuisine had an amicable if overly polite, relationship. In prewar days, it was customary for master chefs of the Imperial Household to train in Paris, working their way up from scullery boy to line chef at various establishments. The young Emperor Hirohito was said to have treasured his chef, and counted on him to produce French dinners that would melt the hearts of visiting western dignitaries, even in the midst of rising political tension that preceded WWII.
Back then, only the top tier of the elite could hope to sit down to a full course French dinner and many Japanese had no idea what a fork and knife even looked like. It wasn’t until after the Japanese surrender and the late 1950s, that well-to-do families began dining in Tokyo restaurants, cautiously tasting dishes that vaguely resembled French cuisine.
In 1978, 33 years after the Japanese surrender, Joel Robuchon was appointed master chef at the Hotel Nikko de Paris (now the Novotel Paris Centre Tour Eiffel) Coincidentally, Robuchon himself was 33 years old, a still-young chef on the brink of success. That he chose a Japanese hotel to work his magic before opening his own restaurant (the legendary Jamain) three years later, speaks of his enduring love for this country. Robuchon opened restaurants all over the world but has said in numerous interviews that he genuinely enjoyed working with the Japanese, because “we share an innate respect for food and nature.”
Merci, chef. We shall miss you.
If you are unlucky enough to be indicted for a crime in Japan, you’ll find that the system actually works on the presumption that you are guilty until proven guilty. The conviction rate is 99%. If Franz Kafka was alive today, he’d find that Japan’s courts provided ample material for his pessimistic work. The recently released film The Trial (審判）based on Kafka’s famous work, and directed by John Williams, thus seems tremendously disturbing.
John Williams is that rare western filmmaker who has chosen to live and work in Tokyo, though he originally came to Japan in 1988 with the intention of saving enough money to go to film school in the US. “I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 14,” he said, in the offices above the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya, where his latest work The Trial (Shinpan) is showing. It’s not everyone who keeps a promise made in their teens, but John Williams did just that, albeit in a place very far from his native England.
John Williams is from South Wales and back in the mid 1980s when he graduated from university, the British film industry wasn’t what you’d call thriving, in fact it was rather gomping. “Actually it was at a very low ebb,” laughed Williams. “Of course in the 90s, works like ‘Trainspotting’ changed the landscape but we couldn’t see that coming just yet. There were practically no film schools for young students and the average age at the National Film School – the only institution for aspiring filmmakers, was 27.” So John Williams decided, like many others before and after him, to study movie-making in the US, specifically at NYU film school. To that end, he needed to get some cash together and Japan seemed like the place to earn it.
Fast forward 30 years and with the completion of “The Trial,” Williams has 5 films under his belt. He also teaches film production/European films at Sophia University’s Foreign Languages Department. But he never did get to NYU since, just like in the Lennon song, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. By the time Williams got the funds together for New York, he was deep in the throes of life in Japan and travels in Asia. “I was in India when the acceptance letter came and didn’t even see it till I got back. And, well, going to the US seemed to me like a conventional, boring choice. Staying here seemed much more interesting.”
Listening to Williams say that in the Eurospace office, the moment felt like a movie scene all by itself. Eurospace is an iconic Shibuya theater, famed for showcasing indie gems from around the world. There was Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.” Francois Ozon’s “Criminal Lovers.” More recently, it put on “Frances Ha” when few Japanese were even aware of the now Academy award contender Greta Gerwig. And now Williams’ “The Trial” is being shown as a limited release, it will currently be running as the late show every night until the 20th. Given the story (based on the Kafka novel) and weird but intriguing vibe, “The Trial” and the Eurospace venue seem to be made for each other. (Please check with Eurospace website for movie times as they may change).
Eurospace – situated in Maruyamacho, and sandwiched between two love hotels. In fact, every square meter of land in the area is occupied by love hotels. Couples sheepishly stroll around, checking on room prices and curiously eyeing the movie theater. “The Trial” – a film about a young Japanese salariman suddenly condemned for an unnamed crime, and who has a weakness for women and sex.
Otherwise the movie is an invitation to match and compare. Williams does a superb job of superimposing Kafka’s most famous character Josef K., a 30-year old German banker in 1914, onto the life of Yosuke Kimura, a 30-year old banker in present day Tokyo. “It’s present day, but I deliberately made the time frame abstract, almost non-technological,” said Williams. Indeed, Kimura’s hand isn’t welded to his smartphone the way everyone’s is these days, and he almost never looks at a computer screen. Kimura’s main interest seems to be women, as he tries to hook up with every female who crosses his path. His success rate is dismal however, and there’s clearly no emotion or chemistry involved. “I thought about Japanese women a lot when making this movie,” said Williams. “They’re trapped in a society controlled by men. They get so much encouragement to please men and become good wives and mothers, and practically no support when it comes to voicing their opinions or carving out careers.”
Aptly, “The Trial” is wintry and bleak, steeped in various shades of black and gray. Kimura (played with studied excellence by Tsutomu Niwa) even lives in a monotone apartment, devoid of color, clutter or any human warmth. On the morning of his 30th birthday, Kimura wakes up to find two strange men in his bedroom, and they inform him that his “case” is coming up for trial. Kimura has no idea what they’re talking about but in a few days, he receives an envelope summoning him to court the following Sunday. It doesn’t say what time or where exactly and when Kimura finally arrives, the Judge (Ichiro Murata) informs him that he is one hour and 26 minutes late. Kimura is incensed by this, and tries to argue that he cannot be late for an event that doesn’t specify the time. While this is going on, a woman (Shizuko Kawakami) has loud sex with a man in a dark suit in a back room. When Kimura returns to court the next day, the woman crudely seduces him and Kimura is ready to fall for it, until they’re interrupted by the janitor (Ichi Omiya) who tells Kimura that the woman is his wife. Later, Kimura encounters a group of people who are all awaiting trial, and no one seems to have any answers, either to the nature of their crimes or the system that seems convinced of their guilt. Yes, I know – surreal, right?
On another level, “The Trial” shows up the very Kafka-esqueness of Japan’s judicial system – the long, grueling process of scrutiny between arrest and indictment, and how, once indictment kicks in, it’s impossible to overturn it＊. “For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”
And how. Watching Kimura’s expression shift from incredulity and contempt to finally – defeated resignation, a kind of dread washes over me like a wave in a polluted ocean. The whole thing is maybe a little too close to home.
＊Editor’s note: One of the dark secrets of Japan’s criminal justice system is that the prosecution in Japan will punt (fail to prosecute) any case that is not a slam-dunk for fear of losing. Sexual assault cases have a particularly low prosecution rate and politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats are often allowed to walk free–including the 39 bureaucrats involved in forging, deleting and altering documents in a dubious land deal involving a right-wing school and the Prime Minister of Japan. The prosecutor who dropped the cases was recently promoted.
Welcome to our semi-annual pledge drive. Japan Subculture Research Center (@japankenkyu) was founded in 2007 by Jake Adelstein and many contributors to expose the hidden side of Japan – its underground economy, its transient and strange trends, its robust sex trade, wacky politics, corruption, social issues, many subcultures, yakuza, host clubs and hosts, Japanese cinema and all the other intriguing and seedy aspects that keep the country running. Balancing commentary, reporting and dark humor–we’re the kakekomitera (駆け込み寺) aka “last resort” of some news stories that no one else will touch. We’ve covered rebel graffiti artists, crusading lawyers, and some real heroes.
We would like this summer to support two interns so that we can post more original material and also revamp the layout. We’d like to add a current events section, more book reviews, more informative and provocative essays about Japan, and fund some investigative journalism. Ambitious yes, but we have lofty goals here at JSRC. Please read our manifesto: If you love Japan, make it better. Our mission statement.
Meanwhile, as part of this year’s pledge drive, we are giving away to the lucky two readers who donates before Thursday (drawing by lottery) free tickets to to see Shoplifters with English subtitles and a Q & A, by the director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Your contributions are greatly appreciated, however small or large.
If your motto in life is “one good deed a day” (一日一善）, here’s your chance to get those good karma points.