The stand-out film of the 2023 Nippon Connection – although the ‘Visions’ jury in Frankfurt didn’t agree with me – was Amiko, (Kochira Amiko, 2022), written and directed by Morii Yūsuke in his feature debut. No one puts a developmental label on young Amiko – she’s bright and curious but she doesn’t get what drives other people, and she doesn’t get the implied things that they leave unspoken. In turn, those around her, and in particular her school where they seem to have given up on her, treat her as an oddball, although nominally integrated in her small-town community.

Amiko, both the film and the character, managed to reach back to my earliest childhood memories of not getting grown-ups and attracted my sympathy without having to lose compassion for those around her. But what was both haunting and radical was that, as she grows older, with different school uniforms and other contexts implying a doubling and tripling of age, she is still portrayed by the same young actor. The same bewildered self is preserved in an implicitly growing body.

We first see her at home, trying to peep into a calligraphy class for her peers, run by her mother. She is not allowed to enter due to numerous infractions. Her mother comes across as traumatised, and unable to demonstrate simple warmth. At school and in the village Amiko tries to bond with the few who will give her the time of day, but they are wary of her eccentricity and her inability to see when to hold back.

Enough happens to flesh out a story line until too much happens. Her final isolation is brutal and it is left to Amiko, and filmmaker Morii to find consoling beauty. Hopefully, now that Morii has made a name for himself with this impressive debut, he will be able to junk the ‘tinkly piano’ audio fill-in that mars so many Japanese films.

The phenomenon, of actresses barely out of their teens used to push out older women to whom mature roles belong, has been going on since before film was invented. It certainly made a change, therefore, to see Baishō Chieko in Plan 75 (2022, Hayakawa Chie) reversing the trend by playing the role of a mere 76-year-old. But child actors? Don’t they more usually play children younger than them? Kana Ōsawa, in the title role, might have been a few years older than her Amiko when we first see her, but she is still playing her perhaps ten years later, compellingly.

Plan 75 was one of a number of commercially established Japanese films added to the mix at the Festival. Baishō had been honoured earlier at FEFF with a small retrospective.

Not many films recently have worn a Russian overcoat, but Tocka, (2022, Kamada Yoshitaka) has a cyrillic title – ‘’Toska’ which nods at the bilingual street names you can find in the far-northern small port of Nemuro. Program selector, Sebastian Krehl told us, as introduction, that the Russian word meant something between depression and angst. It’s not the first film that scriptwriter Kase Hitomi has themed around Hokkaido and suicide (Kusa no hibikiThe Sound of Grass, Saitō Hisashi, 2021). The film, with a wandering, red-coated female lead, also seems to nod visually to another film embracing these themes, Kaza-hana, Umbrella Flower, 2000, Sōmai Shinji’s last film). The redemption looked fragile, as were some of the plotting points, but the treatment was robust.

Mountain Woman (Yama onna, Fukunaga Takeshi, 2022) was the strongest film in the ‘senior’, Nippon Cinema strand. Indeed, Kohei Usuda, writing for Senses from TIFF ’22, thought it should have won there, and I could see why.1 Little needs to be added to Usuda’s ample description, only to acknowledge that its setting, Mount Hayachine, is the focus of a crucial documentary by Haneda Sumiko (Ode to Mount Hayachine, 1982) on a mountain deemed sacred. I should also mention another woman important to this film, Fukunaga’s co-scriptwriter, Osada Ikue. When I asked Fukunaga in the Q&A, he acknowledged Osada’s crucial role in character development and historical knowledge.

The title of Vata, (Kamei Takashi, 2021), translates as either ‘box or ‘body’ depending on which Malagasy dialect is implied. Kamei, a long-time follower of world music, has made a film with non-professional actors. A prelude of unnarrated, varied landscape shots drops in to a boy of 12 or less, being told that it’s now time to collect the bones of his mother, who had died a few years before in a village some days journey away. He sets off with a couple of companions and has encounters on the way, before getting to the village. Here, his back-story is fleshed up. After the death and disablement of his parents, he was sent to live with grandparents while his sister remained with his mother.

Before setting off on his return, we watch an entertainer/ tobacco seller perform his catchy song to children. On the return, the encounters are more obviously spiritual and mythical. To dispel some ghosts, a rousing ‘jam session’ is performed by the travellers and others. That felt like one long sound take, but Kamei after, answered me that it took four days to shoot. There were four Japanese and 20+ Madagascan staff, but from the capital. Here in the south, they spoke a different language. Kamei said some inspiration came from Noh.

Hoarder on the Border

The film that won the ‘junior’ Visions audience award was Danshari paradaisu (Hoarder on the Boarder, 2022) which translates literally as Decluttering Paradise, written and directed by Kayano Takayuki. It would connect to Japanese audiences in terms of an over-used staple of reality and magazine TV, a gomi-yashiki – trash-house – in a neighbourhood and its scandalised neighbours. The film turns this inside-out, depicting the staff of a small company who offer the service of decluttering. They find no shortage of business from instinctive hoarders, unable to part with their stuff, but increasingly conscious that it’s getting difficult to hide their non-conformist behaviour. Several storylines and cross-overs arise from these ‘problems’. But the firm also get the really big jobs of the serious, recidivist hoarders, who have departed their hoard, dead or alive, or pressured by family.

It successfully combined comedy with a critical edge, opening with a false start that looked as if to be another wholesome youth film on developing talent. It also went some way to fill an empty space I wrote of last year – depicting the world of work of nearly ordinary people.

Anshul Chauhan is an Indian-born animator now directing live-action films and his Bad Poetry, Tokyo (2018) got best narrative feature film honours at Venice Film Week. I had previously ducked Chauhan’s Yurushi, (December, 2022), which literally translates to ‘Forgiveness’ at FEFF due to its being ruined by multiple exposures to an exploitative trailer. Here, I managed to hit it innocently. It had none of the crude features of the trailer, with excellent subtle photography, acting and music.

The drama works on the ambiguity of the characters’ feelings and looks. The convicted murderer is played by ‘Megumi’ – (Furuya Megumi), and her embittered, worn-down backward glance is the publicity still. Her appearance is relatively late in film, in the retrial. Only some of the courtroom devices were a stretch. The film got just one laugh from the audience – in the post-credits – when the whiskey firm took a credit for a product-placement. (The divorced father was a self-destroying alcoholic.)

Another crossover from FEFF was the memorable Egoist (Matsunaga Daishi, 2022) where it came with an informative Q&A.

I think I should also mention My Small Land (Kawawada Emma, 2022) that I, in fact saw last year at FEFF, which was not covered by Senses of Cinema. It was Kawawada’s feature debut, having been an A.D. for Koreeda Hirokazu. It centres on a high school girl, overburdened with acting as translator for her Kurdish refugee family, facing multiple hurdles, including seeing her family’s IDs destroyed in front of her. For one case of asylum to be granted in Japan is about as frequent as having a new prime minister. While waiting for eternity, the beleaguered refugees may not work. Arguably, the film has been filled with just too many elements, but it was brave, memorable and affecting. Since I now hear that, as I finally write this, a proposal is afoot in Japan to allow refugees to work, the film, and possibly others, such as by Timothy Garton Ash, have managed to get across a vital message.

 Tsuchi o kurau jū ni-kagetsu, literally, ‘Twelve months of eating dirt’ (The Zen Diary, Nakae Yūji, 2022) had a few subtitle ingestion problems, bombed with random numbers, although I am told the film file was the same DCP (digital cinema package) that was used at Cannes. It didn’t really spoil it. It’s a film likely to appeal to foodies. Although ostensibly labelled into twelve episodes with traditional names for the months, complete with haiku, it had a three-act structure: slow, fast, slow. In the first act, the publisher’s editor, down from Tokyo, is rather confined to saying ‘oishi’ after yet another exquisite preparation of traditional cooking. A quick demand for a funeral celebration speeds things up in the excellent second act. It has beautiful photography but the allure was really two well-drawn characters.

There is always a retrospective strand at Nippon Connection, put on by the downtown Deutsches Filminstitut Filmmuseum (DFF), with film prints from the Japan Foundation library. This year, it was on the director Kinoshita Keisuke. I wish I had had time to see more, as they had informed introductions, in my case by Henrik Daniels, who could even name the source on which Haru no yume (Spring Dreams, 1960) arose. Kinoshita was a big fan of French film and drama and had visited France in 1951. Spring Dreams was inspired by Jean Renoir’s Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932), itself based on the 1919 play by René Fauchois. The long takes from a swirling camera conveyed its theatrical roots but I was not comfortable with the mentally retarded son being played for laughs.

My Anniversaries

Besides the feature strands in which the films so far lay, Nippon Connection also has a rich history in its documentary strand. Ore no kinenbi (My Anniversaries, 2021) was introduced briefly by its director, Kim Sungwoong with the helpful encouragement that his subject was a much more cheerful soul than his own story would suggest. Sakurai Shōji had spent 29 years in prison for murder before being found not guilty at a retrial. (He had had extra time added for not admitting his guilt.) Sakurai was sufficiently articulate, and musical, that the film only needed a brief narration from Kim at the start, before his camera could tell the story. Sakurai is still campaigning against prosecutors who withhold evidence for a ‘result’. Although only given a year to live, four years ago, Kim told me that Sakurai was still going strong.

Effects of Covid were still washing through the recent output of the film industry. Most commercial filmmakers reasonably took the view, even in the pandemic, that their post-pandemic audience would want to think of other things. Even in the documentary strand, no one was showing wholesale death and bereavement but some, inevitably, had other things to say about it.

Tōkyō jitensha bushi (Tokyo Uber Blues, 2022), which literally means Tokyo bicycle episodes, is credited to Aoyagi Taku, a young man on a bike, who comes from a provincial city to earn a living as an Uber deliverer. But nearly all the footage is of him, rather than by him, so I think we should also mention two other photographers, Tsujii Kiyoshi, who did the editing, and Ōzawa Kazuo, who was the producer.

Lim Kah Wai made Anata no hohoemi (Your Lovely Smile, 2022), a hybrid film starring the documentarist Watanabe Hirobimi as a filmmaker all too willing to compromise any principles for some cash. After failing in Okinawa, he goes on the road trying to sell his documentaries to independent cinemas, scattered around the country. A final section has true documentary interviews with these cinema managers, a vanishing species, particularly hit by the pandemic, and this I found the most valuable. I can only hope that they are now getting enough product and support to stay in business.

Nippon Connection
6-11 June 2023
Festival Website: https://nipponconnection.com/en/start/


  1. Kohei Usuda, ‘Politics, Isolation, Pandemic: The 35th Tokyo International Film Festival’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 104, January 2023.

About The Author

Roger Macy contributes reviews to the Midnight Eye website as well as occasional Tokyo hearse-chasing for The Independent newspaper in London.

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