The Japanese film festival in Frankfurt, Nippon Connection, kept going in ’20 and ’21 as a digital-only festival, so kept its easy number co-ordination – the 22nd Festival was at the end of May ’22. There was also a digital festival in the following week this year but, since most of the films at N.C. are always recent releases, Japanese distributors put country restrictions on many, so I was glad to be back for a wide selection, reinforced by some strong films of 2019 which distributors evidently hadn’t wanted to be released digitally.

Nippon Connection has not been much discussed here, so I’ll just go through the set-up, which will be familiar to previous attendees. Most events and screenings happen on one campus, the Mousonturm arts centre (Künstlerhaus Mousonturm), some four U-Bahn stops from Frankfurt city centre. From late morning to late evening for six days, there are numerous Japanese-related food-stalls, cultural events and activities, and two theatres showing films, nearly all billed with their English titles and with English-only subtitles. ‘Nippon Cinema’ shows more commercial releases, and at the ‘Naxoshalle’ are shown documentaries, and films by new filmmakers in a strand labelled ‘Visions’. Some anime are also shown, but your correspondent did not get to fit any in. Two other cinemas in the city also show Festival films, including a new one this year for the festival, the Eldorado. The DFF – Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum – in the city centre, also showed, as usual, a selection of classic Japanese films. This year there were eight very different films on Nippon Connection 22’s focus – ‘stories of youth’. I could have lingered there, revisiting classics, but could fill my time with new releases at the main centre.

I’d like to start with something usually under the radar of reviews – the trailers and adverts. A festival reviewer finds himself, or herself, seeing these, or avoiding them, maybe 30 times. The Festival’s own trailer, I imagine done (as much is at this festival) by dedicated amateurs, was an uplifting little delight, picking up the Festival’s permanent pink and purple visual identity, in a semi-abstract design, to a familiar sound-world to regulars here. Others, better financed and who should know better, did not. Too much antipathy to the grating NHK World advert had grown in your reviewer for him to venture and sample their programme offerings.

As I see it, ‘stories of youth’ appear every year at Nippon Connection. The Japanese cinema audience has been for many years, even before the advent of streaming, overwhelmingly youth-dominated, with a comparatively weak art-house and independent sectors. There never has been a shortage of high-school and youth dramas, and this has been reflected in festivals reviewed here which select from commercial releases, often cast with names from pop music. 

A high school drama that at least broke some of the usual bounds was Hiraite (Unlock Your Heart, 2021), written and directed by Shutō Rin, from a novel by Wataya Risa. In a refreshing change for a Japanese high-school drama, the protagonist’s ’attitude’ actually deteriorates. But more graphically, it also departed from the form in that there were sex scenes. Even if convention and censorship rules meant that pubic areas were off-screen, the scenes were lingered over and emphasised with music that wouldn’t be out of place in Ai no korīda (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976, Ōshima Nagisa). It’s the first time I’ve encountered music of Ishiwaro Tarō in a Japanese film, although I see he has been busy on TV work and also wrote for Sarinui chueok (Memories of Murder, 2003, Bong Joon-ho). 

Hiraite (Unlock Your Heart)

This sex was between two high-school girl students, one of whom has been in a long-term but chaste relationship with a graduating boy who, unknown to her, is the unrequited lust-object of the other. I tried writing that description in a gender-neutral way, but it didn’t seem to make much sense. It seems that gender is central to the plot of this film, even though I think gender is never mentioned in the film, nor played by the characters. So, does the protagonist’s seduction of her unknowing and innocent rival have any meaning for her? The film leaves that open. “I have lived and loved, and closed the door.”1 ‘Open’, simply and starkly, is the meaning of the Japanese title, and the visual and musical language of the film suggests something more than ‘the heart’ of teen-film sentimentality is being opened.

Shutō’s film was also very well acted – notably, I thought by Imou Hiroka, conveying emotional depth in a character who knows only love.

Unlock Your Heart won the jury award in the ‘Visions’ section. Public screenings (which I missed) were accompanied by the director and producer. Live director Q&As have been an enduring feature of Nippon Connection which, in the ‘Visions’ section often opened into lively discussion, but relatively few filmmakers made it this year. The new deterrents are not just the risk of quarantine. A further consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year is that East Asia has, for physical purposes, moved thousands of kilometres farther away from Europe, with flights diverted around the large Russian landmass, adding several hours (and, no doubt, cost) on a long flight. My impression of less debate might be warped, however, as I also did not schedule Tokyo Kurds. Hyūga Fumiari was present to collect her award from the Visions jury.

Another film seeking to burst out of the confines of high school was Sekai wa bokura ni kidzukanai (Angry Son, 2022, Iizuka Kashō, written and directed). Two senior high school boys are already in a relationship, waiting until they turn 18 to register themselves as a household, as their town in Gunma prefecture already allows. But one of them espouses this much more comfortably than the other, who has considerable coming-of-age difficulties to overcome still, starting with, ‘who was my father?’. Neither set of parents have any problem with the forthcoming union. However, our angry son’s mother, a commercially successful Filipina bar hostess, doesn’t want her past raked over. That, and adding some economic migrant problems, made for an interesting film which, I thought, gave in to a teenage fantasy ending. The Japanese title seems to translate as ‘The World Is Oblivious to Us’, which is not what I saw in the film, at all.

Several films in the ‘Visions’ section were introduced as part of an informal LBTQ strand. I would prefer if they were normalised by now, especially where portrayals of same-sex desire might have passed the Hay’s Code, such as in two tales of youth, set in a pre-millennium past, both looking at a pair of male youths past school age.

Gyakkō (Backlight, 2021, Sudō Ren) is entirely set in Onomichi. No connection is made to film history, but merely to the place being small, provincial and far from Tokyo. We are after the first sexual revolution, but gayness is spoken in code. During a summer vacation from college, sex does occur, but the same-sex variety is away from the eyes of all other characters, and indeed our eyes, too. What we do see is that it meant a lot more to one than the other. It was the straight sex that was onscreen but backlit, but I may be missing something in the title, which was not explained. Sudō also acted and this was his directorial debut. The script was by Watanabe Aya, familiar from several ‘straight’ films, including Tennen Kokekkō (Gentle Breeze in the Village, 2007, Yamashita Nobuhiro), also of rural and summery feel.

Hadashi de narashite misero (Let Me Hear it Barefoot)

Hadashi de narashite misero (Let Me Hear it Barefoot, 2021, Kudō Riho, written and directed) is also set in a coastal rural town, perhaps as fictional as the time when there were no mobile phones but cassettes were seriously retro. The two youths have an affair but I read it as asexual. No one comes out and we leave the protagonists separately burying in. But we get the intensity of what happened. The film got a special mention from the ‘Visions’ jury.

A film that got a different kind of editorialising introduction was Kūhaku (Intolerance, 2020, Yoshida Keisuke, written and directed). Florian Höhr noted that Yoshida had been the focus at Tokyo International Film Festival with obvious lack of enthusiasm and said that Yoshida was “anything but subtle”. I couldn’t disagree more. I grant that the pre-title sequence conveys the road accident of a child so that we have no doubt that the brutal impacts were fatal. But it feeds his story development in so many ways that I’d call the treatment sparing.

The film is poorly served by the English title, which only puts a viewer off the scent. When I first saw the Japanese title, I suspected that an editor had forgotten to fill in a ‘blank space’. But it also has other meanings, including something that needs filling in, an absence that needs accounting for. Kūhaku was also mis-served by its publicity still, which failed to convey the subtlety of portraying some blinkered characters, starting with the divorcee father, whom we see had treated his daughter heartlessly, mainly, it seemed, for his possession to be a void for her mother. Hence his brutal destruction of a mobile phone the two use. But the dead 12-year-old child has become a void for him too, and he is intent on blaming anyone and everything for that void except himself.

The police have just one blank space to fill before they move on. There was no sign of their taking measurements at the scene, which would have laid evidence of guilt on the truck driver. We hear them going, alas all too realistically, for a confession. They close in on the more vulnerable car driver, and she later commits suicide.

The weight of the film is the father in unconstrained pursuit of culprits, readily aided by TV media, at least until the blank space in their airtime gets taken elsewhere. He finally focuses on the store owner and they find themselves at the scene of the tragedy, where the father asks where the truck finally came to stop: “no, not there, way down here”. But he is still too hot-tempered to see the point and, as they argue, another truck is forced to stop abruptly. But, this time, we hear braking first and the truck stops in time. It’s a typically parsimonious reminder of that opening, awful scene, but it’s not laboured and easily missed, as it is by the characters on screen.

The store owner had witnessed the death because he had relentlessly pursued the girl after half-catching her pocketing a lipstick. The aggrieved father was adamant that his daughter was innocent, but we later see him find a more literal empty space that stops his pursuit, although without apologies.

This account fails to even touch the point that the film is substantially a story of struggling inshore fishermen and the rough work and rough choices they have. It has also failed to mention another flawed character, the subject of the trailer, whose community spirit manages to make nearly everything worse.

Even the distinctly Japanese ending was brief and left me feeling that most healing remained undone. In its way of half-showing things, I found Kūhaku both parsimonious and rich and it has lingered with me. It stands in marked contrast to another film of conflicted social issues, Yūko no tenbin (A Balance, 2020, Harumoto Yūjirō) in a more invented setting, where I felt I was told everything, and from which I left exhausted.

Aru sendō no hanashi (The Say Nothing Stays the Same)

The world of work, which ran through these, was also the theme of more films. For some of us, a career might be pictured as ferrying people across a river to where they want to go, with some being more grateful than others, only to find at the end that your methods of river crossing are obsolete. Aru sendō no hanashi (The Say Nothing Stays the Same, 2019, Odagiri Joe, written and directed) means ‘The Story of a Boatman’. He (Emoto Akira) has the smallest of boats to ferry people across a breathtakingly beautiful river (photography Christopher Doyle), where time seems barely to move in this Meiji (later 19th c,) setting. If we wait long enough, it seems every face in the Japanese acting profession will step onto the boat, bringing news from the locality. One of them says, “I don’t know how you can bear the noise”, and indeed, just then we can just about hear the sound of a winch and a hammer – a bridge is being built around the next bend. The film was one of the last commissions for the costume designer, Wada Emi, who clothed people in a suitable patchwork of traditional and modern dress of the period. The boatman finds a half-dead young woman floating down the river. Her costumes are always a deep magenta. Various conflicting stories are told to him about her origin. All we ever know is that she finds being his assistant better than any alternative.

Time has elapsed before the final scenes. He has gone to see the doctor in town and, coming back across the bridge, meets an old friend who apologises for losing contact after the bridge was built. Everyone else is now rushing at pace, “with no time to spare”.

There is a final, visually strong scene that doesn’t tie anything up. It wasn’t that kind of film. The well-placed, fine music was by Tigran Hamasyan, whose career has been as an Armenian jazz pianist.

A documentary that seeks to peer into the world of work is Salaryman (2021, Allegra Pacheco). It is a truth universally acknowledged2 that a deskbound, lower middle-class man with a secure job might be the envy of many subjects of gritty documentary films, but he himself lacks the visual appeal to make a lively film. Pacheco found a way to subvert this strong assumption. Starting as an exercise in her art photography, she wanted to know why Tokyoites were so uninterested in the collapsed body-count of drunken salarymen on the streets at night.

I started with considerable resistance to this film – an outsider comes and portrays Japan’s workforce, on the basis of the visible drunks in the small hours in Shibuya. Perhaps her original conception might not have been so far from this – interviewing ‘salarymen’ the worse for wear in bars who were all too happy to present themselves as representatives of their class, if not their countrymen. Pacheco had no success actually entering their places of work but used animated sequences to illustrate her interviewees’ accounts, and her interviews broadened out to managers who had spent a career taking out their juniors on these “guidance and bonding” jaunts, as well as wives of salarymen, working and non-working.

One theme that ran through several films was remembrance – and what we choose to forget. There was even one film actually titled Just Remembering, one of three films which the Festival shared with the Far East Film Festival. Although Chotto omoidashita dake (Matsui Daigo, 2021, written and directed) was an engaging commercial film, neither its title nor content points to remembrance. I saw it as more about persuading 20-somethings that they would still have the spirit of youthful immortality as they neared 30.

Paper City

Much more directly facing the act of remembering was the opening film – at least for those cutting the speeches in the main hall – the documentary, Paper City. Filmmaker Adrian Francis chose to remember the victims of the fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945, in the few years when the last of the survivors were living. A group of them had founded an organisation, and a poorly-funded museum in the working-class ‘shitamachi’ district, where the raid of 9th-10th March 1945 was targeted. It is considered the “single most destructive raid in human history”, and gets surprisingly forgotten in Tokyo, let alone elsewhere3.

After the briefest of historical film accounts, remembrance took form as we heard survivors recalling the night, visually cutting to the locales as they are now. They remain uncompensated, and their campaign to reverse this seems to have further marginalised them in the eyes of the dominant political party.

We were also treated, for this screening, with the presence of the film’s maker, who had come from Japan. Francis started his Q&A by telling us that the last survivor in the group had recently died. His film had clearly provoked a reaction here (in a city that had its own bombing experience) and the questions all asked why the Japanese government had resisted compensating or even memorialising. It was noteworthy that, despite collecting a petition of 300,000 signatures, the Bereaved Air-raid Victims’ Association had been unable to even get a reasoned refusal. So, we were invited to guess that the Japanese government’s resistance to compensating civilian victims outside Japan also constrained compensating their own people. I should add that the government has been supported in their stone-walling by the Japanese War-Bereaved Families Association, whose service-men families have been compensated and whose financial support continues to grow their own remembrance.

The ‘need to keep remembering’ – and the need to drown out anyone else’s remembrance – was, at last, articulated in the gem of the film, by an interrupting speech from a loudspeaker truck that silenced one of the Association’s dwindling demonstrations.

Francis closed the session, as he had closed the film with the quote of Milan Kundera, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.

Hyōteki (Target)

Hyōteki (Target, 2021, Nishijima Shinji) related the experience of Uemura Takeshi, former contributor to the Asahi Shinbun. He was the victim of a hate campaign, a full 23 years after writing some pieces on Korean wartime ‘comfort women’. On the abstruse basis – for the name of one Japanese military organisation that abused her: the victims’ (Korean) terminological use being different from the standard (Japanese) military history – he was accused of “fabrication”, and his family subject to a vicious hate campaign. I had read previously some lengthy accounts of this affair, but had missed what is probably obvious to most, that then prime minister Abe Shinzō had at least twice boasted in parliament of cancelling remembrance of comfort women and other colonial misdemeanours4. I also got more vividly the effect on Uemura’s then-young daughter, of the foul threats she received. 

Nevertheless, I had a problem with the film. A hundred-minute narrative that is structured on three attempts to sue the neo-imperialists for libel – and which all fail – is left short-changed by the tired cliché of unfurling banners outside the court of “unjust ruling”. We need to hear, in a ‘legal’ film – without cancellation – some of the legal arguments that prevailed, to make our own opinions on them and the judgements.

Hyōteki extended to twice the length of another documentary, Origami (2022, Kotani Tadasuke – the Japanese title is the Japanese word in roman capitals) was both a study in individual remembrance and a close study of work by a specialist. The ‘realism’ painter Suwa Atsushi is shown on a single commission, spanning several years: the creation of a posthumous portrait of a son of a family who had died when a medical student. This involved Suwa drawing and interviewing family and friends, before creating the final work. There was still, at the end, a considerable gap between what we had learned, and what we still did not know. Kotani in a zoomed Q&A after, filled in some of those gaps, including that there was a three-year gap between the death and the commission, and a similar gap between completion and the family’s acceptance. Consent has not always been treated as scrupulously in Japanese documentaries.

Remembrance was developed in a very imaginative way in another film in the documentary section, Nijū no machi – kōtai-chi no uta o amu (Double-layered Town, 2019). Perhaps better described as an essay film, documentarist Komori Haruka teamed with poet Seo Natsumi. Komori has been pursuing tsunami victims’ memories in collaboration with Seo in previous films but, in this film they take joint directorial credit. I would translate the full Japanese title as ‘Double-layered Town – Weaving a Song Transposed in Time’.

It starts in documentary form, once removed, with four young adult interviewers visiting a tsunami-stricken town. We catch excerpts of these interviews, with longer passages of the interviewers’ relating these back to us. But we also catch glimpses of ‘this town’ as they walk around, hearing and seeing giant machinery laying many metres of new earth to raise the town to a safer level. Bereaved survivors, whose family members were never found, spoke of their loved ones being “at the lower level”. A physical sense of memories being buried is invoked and prompted me immediately to think of archaeological sites of ancient cities, where different civilisations are found at different levels. Did the layers of those inhabitants ever have any awareness of what was beneath them? Seo, however, imaginatively took it the other way. She imagined the town of 2031 striving to recover faint memories of the past.

Usually in the two languages, Japanese avoids pronouns and repeats proper nouns. So, ‘Tokyo’ might often be translated into English as ‘This city’. But not here. Listening to the original rendering of ‘this town’, it always seemed to be ‘sono machi’, with a deliberate anonymity of place invoked. Only at the end did I catch ‘Takata’ which clued me to Rikuzentakata. And, infinitely better for a poetry film, there was no music throughout.

Yuku natsu no uta (Song of a Dying Summer)

I wasn’t sure, in the end, whether Yuku natsu no uta (Song of a Dying Summer, 2021, Sengen Kōhei, script and direction) was more about remembering the living or the dead. In some ambiguous time in the past, it had a play-within-the film where the main characters appear as soldiers, much more mortal than the undying youth of the title’s fading summer. Against the grain, the film was shot on almost-square 8mm stock, and Sengen was present to defend it and his loose collaborative group, the ‘7th Poets’ Society’.

The actor Nagase Masatoshi was the recipient of an honour award at Nippon Connection 22 and appeared in at least five films. The appearance I enjoyed the most was as co-star in Futari no sekai (Just the Two of Us, 2020, Fujimoto Keita). Nagase plays an irascible quadriplegic for whom an ailing father is seeking a full-time carer, willing to take considerable abuse from the patient. The only one able to stand up to him proves to be the blind Hanae (Doi Shiori), who wins the trust of father and finally son. For the most part, the difficulties they encounter are the demons and bad judgements of two well-drawn characters, acted with nice under-statement. When these two occupied the screen, I could suspend awareness of any direction of travel. The well-crafted script was by Matsushita Ryūichi. It had previously won an award and had further development by a group headed by Hayashi Kaizō. 

I shall end with the final film of the Festival, too early in the making and too late in the schedule to get any prize, Katsuben (Talking the Pictures, 2019, Suo Masayuki). Will this film become the poster-victim of Covid in film history? It was a really funny comedy, by a maker with a string of international hits. Back in late 2019 it had been both admired and complemented for its intelligent depiction of Japanese silent film history5. I could list at least a dozen themes of Japanese film history that Katashima Shōzō’s script points up, but I hope readers of this review eventually get the opportunity to see, hear and enjoy it for themselves.


  1. The quotation of Sapho is lifted from Howard Brenton’s play, Cancelling Socrates, with thanks.
  2. With apologies to Jane Austen.
  3. I previously reflected acts of air-raid remembrance in an obituary of NOSAKA Akiyuki.
  4. This piece was written and submitted for publication on June 25 prior to the assassination of Abe Shinzō.
  5. See Aaron Gerow’s posting to KineJapan 26th July 2019.