Inspired by true events, Erica 38 tells the story of a con-woman named Satoko Watabe who defrauds 50 billion yen from unsuspecting dupes in a pyramid scheme before finally being caught. The lead character, played by former pop idol Miyoko Asada, may have a silver tongue that can deceive others but in the end the biggest dupe turns out to be her.
Hirokazu Kore-eda is often compared to Yasujiro Ozu due to his depictions of families in Japan but he is quite political. Through various detailed tapestries of the rich and poor, nuclear and unconventional family units and different individuals, he has charted a myriad of lives all over the archipelago of his home nation and captured the changing dynamics of a country where tradition, social mores and people’s bonds are seemingly degrading as society adapts to new ways of thinking about work and family and people live atomised lives. Shoplifters tells the story of a most unconventional family by normal Japanese standards and, in so doing, it offers some quite stringent critiques of the exploitation of labour, the indifference of authorities and the resulting breakdown of relationships. It is a refreshingly open politicisation of content for a Japanese mainstream film and it feels akin to the social realist films of Ken Loach. This political bite could partly be the reason why the film went on to wow critics and net the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but, as in all Kore-eda films, it is the performances that sway hearts and make audiences cry.
Travelling through Japan is an amazing culinary experience because of the sheer amount of restaurants, stores and street food available in shotengai, yokocho and main streets. Everything from big chains to small stores selling a variety of things from tasteless but healthy jelly-like konyaku to the pastry-like manju (the greatest delicacy!!!) all cooked up and served by a variety of people. The most memorable encounters I had were usually old ladies with crooked backs bent from a lifetime of hard work. While they were cooking they would impart some of their experiences and what the food means and these experiences and informed how they cooked and made the food seem more meaningful and tasty than store-bought goods. It is this sort of thing that Naomi Kawase channels in her drama Sweet Bean which is based on a novel by Durian Sukegawa. It tells the tale of a melancholy cake shop owner who rediscovers his joie de vivre after meeting an exceptional person. It marries Kawase’s visual lyricism and penchant for making connections between humans and nature to a simple tale and works well.
Sweet beans, known as anin Japanese, is a wonderfully sweet-tasting thick substance made from adzuki beans and is a filling usually found in confections from doughnuts to the dorayaki as seen in this film. Dorayaki are like pancakes where the batter is poured onto a metal griddle and flipped with a spatula before the sweet bean filling is added.
After the Storm is a story of everyday human failings and the constant hope for a better tomorrow that motivates us. Kore-eda cast a cadre of familiar actors who he had worked with in previous films including Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe, both of whom were in Still Walking (2008) as mother and son Toshiko and Ryota. This family drama could be a sort of sequel to Still Walking due to similarities – Kiki’s character Toshiko (とし子) turns into Yoshiko (淑子) here while Abe’s character is named Ryota (良多) in both films – and callbacks likethe butterfly motif and it features a deceptive simpleness in its approach, a story of a family gathering made complex by tangled emotions tinged with bitter history.
It has been over a month since veteran actor Kirin Kiki passed away. Fans of Asian cinema are still mourning her passing and I’d just like to add a couple of thoughts.
Kirin Kiki was born in Tokyo in 1943 and started her acting career fresh from graduating from high school in the early 1960s. Her first steps were to become a member of the Bungakuza theatre troupe using the stage name Chiho Yuki and taking ontwo early screen roles, the first beinga TBS drama Seven Grandchildren (Shichinin no mago 七人の孫) in 1964 and then two film roles, the dramaGentlemen Beware(Tonogata Goyoujin 殿方御用心),released in June 1966 andthe comedyDrunken Doctor Continues (Zoku Yoidore hakase続・酔いどれ博士), written by Kaneto Shindo and released in September of the same year. She continued working throughout the years and showed her versatility when she collaborated with the likes of Seijun Suzuki on Zigeunerweisen (1980) and Pistol Opera (2001) and Nobuhiko Obayashi on Sabishinbo (1985), continuing on to titles like Villain and Arrietty(both from 2010) where she played grandmother types. She had a diverse range butI, and many Japanese film fans, would come into contact with her due to her work with Hirokazu Kore’eda.
An interesting life and deep experience in the world of acting gave her a quality of wisdom and endurance and also brusqueness, something she called upon when working with Kore-eda. Usually playing a grandmother or an old friend of a family with a flinty personality, she became a reassuring and welcome presence who was like a steady hand at the tiller when all around her were adrift *even if you disagreed with her) whenever she was on the screen in titles such as Kiseki (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013), and Our Little Sister (2015), and After the Storm(2016) but her most iconic role will be Still Walking (2008).
In it, lead actor Hiroshi Abe plays Ryota Yokoyama, the unpopular second son and an art restorer who returns to his parent’s home to commemorate the death of the beloved eldest son. Everyoneis struggling with barely suppressed emotions as we find that the Yokoyama family are riven by the death and the healing process is glacial. Audiences will wonder if it will ever occur as comments and actions are full of personal slights and resentment that show a lifetime of hurt. Kirin’s character probably has the sharpest moments where her harshness is well-hidden by the jollity she brings to her performance.
That mother and son double-act she formed with Abe was brought back withAfter the Stormas the two worked together perfectly to showcase another quietly dysfunctional family but with less of a sharper and darker edge as Abe’s character tries to deal with his separation from his wife. Hope springs eternal for these characters but they eventually have to let go of the past. Kirin steals the show in a tear-inducing scene where she tries to revive her son’s happy family. A nice thematic link between the two is the butterfly...
Perhaps her best performance in recent years is to be found in the Naomi Kawase film Sweet Bean(2015) where she starred alongside granddaughter Kyara Uchida and she finds another perfect acting partner in the superb Masatoshi Nagase. While he is all stoicism and bitterness, she is the hopeful and delightful ray of light that balances him and helps the film make a point about people needing to understand the world around us.
Kirin’s death was not unexpected. She had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2004 and had undergone operations for it. In an interview with reporter Mai Yoshikawa for The Japan Times earlier this year she commented,
“My cancer has spread throughout my entire body and there’s nothing the doctors can do,” Kiki added. “There’s no point in comparing myself now to my old healthy self and feeling miserable. . . . Rather than fighting reality, I choose to accept what’s in front of me and go with the flow.”
To think that she went through cancer treatment and still put in these great performances! 2018 was the year of Kirin as she starred in Kore-eda’s latest film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and she was feted at his year’s Japan Cuts where she won the CUT ABOVE award for her services to the Japanese film industry.
This isn’t the last we have heard of her as audiences in Japan can see her in a Tatushi Omori film in October called Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu (2018).
Synopsis:Noriko (Haru Kuroki) is a 20-year-old university student who has lost her way in life. Noriko’s mother suggests that she attends a Japanese tea ceremony near her house with her cousin Michiko (Mikako Tabe). Michiko is enthusiastic about it but Noriko doesn’t seem so certain. However, once there, Noriko learns from the teacher, Takeda (Kirin Kiki) and experiences a whole new world. It stays with Noriko throughout her life, during frustrations while job hunting, moments when she suffers a broken heart, and during the death of someone important. The tea ceremony always offers her something to return to…
Kiki Kirin’sfinal screen appearance in a drama. Here is a clip from her performance, Erika 38, which is released next year:
My words don’t really do her justice but through her films, family, friends, and fans, she will live on.
This is an unruly and long review for a great film! You have been warned.
Seijun Suzuki’s (1923 – 2017) career as a director is split into two parts – as one of Nikkatsu studio’s stable of salaried directors, he was tasked with making rather generic low-budget yakuza films but Suzuki’s output was different because he had a keen sense of style and humour that subverted the genre products he was hired to write and direct. Brave use of dissonance in terms of arty visuals, sounds and music, and penning irreverent stories with outrageous twists made his films more memorable for audiences but less palatable for the guys running Nikkatsu who were not so enamoured with creating art and more interested in making a quick buck. This period came to an end with Branded to Kill which proved to be a critical and commercial flop and so the head honchos at Nikkatsu fired him for making, and I quote Suzuki-kantoku himself, “movies that make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued them for wrongful dismissal but successfully challenging industry figures tends to get a person blacklisted (just ask Kiyoshi Kurosawa after his run-in with Juzo Itami) and so he spent ten years in the movie making wilderness formulating ideas with other creatives.Continue reading “Zigeunerweisen ツィゴイネルワイゼン (1980) Director: Seijun Suzuki”→
Hirokazu Koreeda has become the director of choice for film fans worldwide who are eager to get an intimate slice of normal Japanese life and Our Little Sister is his latest in a career mostly (but not always) spent making films focussing on families. The story is adapted from a manga called Umimachi Diary (Seaside Town Diary) created by Akimi Yoshida and Koreeda uses cinema to showcase her tales of a female-led family facing different emotional hurdles and ultimately knitting together. Prepare to become part of a family, a community, and a way of life.
The American film distributor Kino Lorber has set up a series of theatrical screenings for Sweet Bean, the 2015 film from acclaimed director Naomi Kawase. It has had a long journey on the festival circuit starting at Cannes last year and heading to Rotterdam last month. The American release covers some major cities: