Category Archives: Japanese movies

Koreeda’s award-winning “Shoplifters”

For me, Kore-eda Hirokazu (1962-), the second best-known current Japanese film director (after Miike Takashi) is overrated. I was surprised that his sluggishly paced “Shoplifters” won the 2019 Palme d’or, although that is not the first head-scratcher choice of its top award from the Cannes Film Festival. (He had won the Jury Prize there in 2013 for “Like Father, Like Son,” a movie I like more). It was also Oscar-nominated in the best foreign-language movie category.

I was immediately put off by the opening scene in which the father-and-son shoplifting team of Osamu (Franky Lily, Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister) and Shota (Kairi Jyo) take a lot of stuff. Osamu’s rationalizations that it’s OK unless they take so much a store goes bankrupt and that items do not belong to anyone until they are sold irritate me, especially since they are not countered by the fact that theft raises the price for real buyers. (Admittdly, Osamu works as a day laborer when he can, but on-the-job injury is not convered by disability insurance.)

Shoplifters-movie (1).jpg

On the way home, the exultant thieves buy five croquettes. Then they find a young girl locked out in the cold. They take five-year-old Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) home with them, feed three of the croquettes to her and begin treatment of the wounds from physical abuse.

When they go to take Yuri home, they hear Yuri’s parents arguing, with both exclaiming that they never wanted a child. So they take Yuri back with tme. By that time we have met the snappish grandmother, Katsue (Kiki Kirin, in her fifth Kore-eda film) is as close as there is to a mastermind for this group, and the one with isteady income (a widow’s pension) and the pretty Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who works displaying herself to men (is this “sex work” with no sex involved?)


It took me half the movie to realize that Shota is a boy, not a girl. He has carved out a space for himself in a closet, using a headlamp to illuminate the mangas he reads. The whole family goes to the beach (supplying the poster photo). But then things start to go wrong for the de facto family (family of choice), including the grandmother’s death.

That pushes the movie even more firmly into early Hou Hsiao-Hsien territory — especially “The Boys of Feng-guei” in which three boys staying with their grandmother do not know what to do when she dies, so do nothing, leaving her rotting on her sleeping mat. There is a nominal adult this time, but Osamu cannot do much to protect anyone. The police try to convince Shota that the others were going to abandon him after he was apprehended, though it is not clear to me that he believes them. Indeed, he calls Osamu “dad” for the first time.

The movie is softer than “Nobody Knows” (2004, his best film in my view, followed by “Like Father, Like Son”). and even slower. (Both Hou and Kore-eda proclaim influence from Ozu, which is eertainly there in prolonged takes, but I was never bored by an Ozu film, despite their invariable camera setup of a meter above the floor.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray


Discussion of other Koreeda films available on DVD with subtitles in English:

Maborosi (1995)

Nobody Knows (2004)

Hana (2006)

Air Doll (2009)

I Wish (2011)

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Our Little Sister (2015)


A Japanese town without pity

Writer-director Kobayashi Masahiro (1954-; Man Walking on Snow) seems to me a Japanese outlier of the Dogma school, relying on natural light to make depressing, undramatic movies. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of his 2005 “Bashing” is that the viewer never knows what happened to Yuko (Urabe Fusako, who was in “Man Walking on Snow”) in Iraq, where she was an international aid worker, other than being held hostage. Was she raped? The movie provides no indication.


Back home, not only is she shunned (murahachibu), but a dozen or so a day harassing phone calls are still coming in to her home phone and additional ones and e-mails to the company for which her father (Tanaka Ryuzo) has worked for 30 years and to the hotel that employs her as a chambermaid. Both she and her father are fired, the boyfriend she has been ducking summons her to formally break with her, boys attack her when she buys take-out soup, etc.

Yuko is affectless in response to all this harassment, beyond lying clothed in bed in fetal position facing the wall.

More bad things happen, all aimed at expelling Yuko from her hometown (Tomakomai on the northern island of Hokkaido on which Kobayashi also set “Man Walking on Snow”) and obliterating consciousness of her shame (whatever it might have consisted of). There is much to make the viewer wince at the malicious cruelty for someone who tried to help other people and did not do anything reprehensible. (Again emphasizing that I don’t know that she was raped in captivity, the cultural logic reminds me of Muslim execution of women who have been raped to preserve the honor of her family.)

The real-life volunteer on whose ostracism the movie was based was not harmed/violated by her captors but criticized for going where she did not belong and embarrassing the nation. Coworkers were disturbed by her presence, etc. The nail that sticks out for whatever reason gets hammered, to borrow a common Japanese metaphor for the perils of nonconformity.

Her father is the only one providing her any sympathy in the movie, and he can not take losing his job (even after getting down on his knees to beg to be retained).

The ordeal of being ostracized in a hyper-conformist society is clear to me. I wonder if Japanese audiences felt solidarity with Yuko or her tormentors. Probably the latter, in which case what I see as critique of their conduct may have reinforced adherence to such conduct.

Looking drab, lacking action or character development, with minimal dialogue, no music until a song with the closing credits, and with the tormentors as lacking in affect as the tormented, the movie is not just a downer/bummer but dull in ways that “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark” are not (with their much-suffering heroines).

Though running only 82 minutes, I felt I had been trapped with Yuko, enduring her indignities in silence for much longer.

There are no DVD bonus features, not even a trailer.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi Masahiro’s “Man Walking on Snow”

Francophile Japanese writer-director Kobayashi Masahiro (Bashing) filmed “Aruku, hito” (Man Walking on Snow, 2001) in Mashike, a small city on the west coast of the northernmost of the major Japanese island, Hokkaido. One of the characters says that there is snow on the ground six months out of the year.

To this native Minnesotan, it does not look all that cold (there’s only one scene in which I see the characters’ breath, although there are many scenes outdoors), though there is often snow in the air, and insulating buildings.

The movie’s patriarch Honma Nobuo (Obata Ken, who played Mishima in Paul Shrader’s highly stylized movie about the writer, the serial killer in Imamura Shohei’s “Vengeance Is Mine,” and Shinnojo’s fencing instructor in “Love and Honor”) is 66 years old in the Japanese intertitle (which would be 65 by American reckoning), but 70 in the English-language subtitle. Every morning he bounds out of town to the graveyard where his wife has been the last two years (the movie begins two days before the anniversary of her death), generally stopping for ice cream on the way, and then visiting recently hatched salmon, and being chided by Michiko about being “unauthorized personnel”… before giving him his daily canned café au lait.

Nobuo has retired from running the sake manufacturing plant that had been in his late wife’s family for four previous generations. It is now supervised by Nobuou’s younger son, Yasuo (Hayashi Yasufumi), who also prepares the old man’s supper every evening,

Yasuo’s girlfriend Keiko (Urabe Fusako) is weary of being subordinate to Nobuo in getting Yasuo’s attention and threatens to marry one of the suitors her parents is pushing. She and his father and, later, his elder brother all tell Yasuo he is stupid, though I don’t see any evidence of this. Self-sacrificing, yes, which may be what his brother means.

Nobuo has taken a vow of chastity from the day of his wife’s death until the two-year anniversary of it, but is flirting heavily with Michiko (whose husband has fled to the other end of the island country: Okinawa).

The elder brother, Ryoichi (Kagawa Teruyuki) was a rebellious youth who fled as soon as he graduated from high school and is the mediocre lead singer of an unsuccessful rock band. He has gotten his sweet companion Nobuko (Otsuka Nene) pregnant and is thinking of going home to live with his father, though the two never got along—and get in a violent argument at the ritual meal after the ceremony for the anniversary of his mother.


Ryoichi urges Yasuo to move to Tokyo and Yasuo also suggests the Ryoichi do so, but it becomes clear that none of the three stubborn Honma males is able to make a fresh start.

The pace of the first hour is slow, though I was still confused and conflated the two sons for a while. Eventually, I was able to sympathize with the three women trying to have relationships with these difficult men (none of whom seemed very mature to me) and with the self-sacrificing Yasuo, and to pity the selfish self-defeating Ryiochi and Nobuo. Ryuochi said that he and his father were too much alike to get along, which seems an accurate diagnosis and prognosis to me.

I don’t know that it was necessary to show Nobuo walking through/on the snow as often or as long as Kobayashi did, though the pacing of Japanese movies often seems slow to me.

Bottom line: not bad, not great, somewhat touching, and eventually interesting.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray


A slight Mishima novella appearing in English now

Writer Mishima Yukio appeared as a yakusa (gangster) in the 1960 movie “Karakkazeyaro”/“Afraid to Die.” He was not born with movie-star good looks and worked very hard to build up his body.


Rikio, the protagonist of hi very slight s novella “Star” that has just made its way into English is only 24 and very good-looking without having to work on building up his body. He is like Mishima in being preoccupied with suicide and not wanting his body to age—obsessions that dovetailed in Mishima’s public suicide in 1970. Mishima was not a movie star, though the character he imagined was.

Rikio is plenty narcissistic, though it is difficult to imagine anyone exceeded Mishima himself in narcissism.

Rikio disdaines the unattractive women who are his fan base (one of whom tries to crash into the movie he is shooting), though his constant companion is not a beautiful actress, but his blowsy assistant. There is no indication that he has sex with her. Indeed, he may be a virgin.

Part of his attitude to his fans is “I’d much rather have a girl masturbating to my picture than actually trying to sleep with me. Real love always plays out at a distance.” I have my doubts that the second sentence could have come from Rikio,

After one picture is wrapped, Rikio goes to the studio barber and sees a great matinee idol of the past whose looks are now maintained by trickery. Rikio is determined not to outlive his attractiveness.

I don’t know why this novella has been published in English now. Its themes are better developed in Mishima works translated during his lifetime. The other 2019 publication of a previously untranslated (into English) Mishima novella, Frolic of the Animals, is longer and more substantive.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray



Bleak portrayal of alienated Japanese high-school students, ca. 1994

The Japanese “River’s Edge” (Ribazu ejji, 2018; not the 1986 Keaunu Reeves) movie with the same English name) strikes me as brutalistic rather than naturalistic. It is set in the economic nadir of 1994. There are frequent scenes of rough sex and even one scene of full-frontal male nudity (usually even any pubic hair is forbidden to Japanese film-makers).


The main character, whose point of view is frequently presented, is Wakakusa Haruna (Nikaido Fumi {Himizo]), who is something of a faghag, rescuing a stripped, badly beaten, and tied-up gay victim of bullies, Yamada Ichiro (tv star Yoshizawa Ryô), twice. Yamada years for a younger athlete and their school, and has an eger, naïve girlfriend, Tajima Kanna (Morikawa Aoi), who provides him no social cover.

Yamada has another gal pal, bulimic model and tv regular Yoshikawa Kozue (Sumire), who seems to have romantic/sexual feelings for Wakakusa. Yohikawa knows of Yamada’s “treasure,” a corpse along the river, and Yamada shares this secret with Wakakusa.


Wakakusa has to be aware that the leader of the bullies is her supposed boyfriend, the not just oversexed but quite kinky (with another girl, Wakakus’s friend), Koyama Rumi (Doi Shiori). By the end of the movie, there is a second corpse (seeming killed twice or thrice in one night!), and no one is even close to being happy. That is, there is no catharsis for the alienated characters or the audience. The latter has to tie up unexplicated loose ends, while the camera prefers to linger on a polluting, brightly-lit-at-night factory across the river.

Until near the end of the movie parents are almost entirely invisible and offer no guidance (let alone supervision) to their anomic offspring.

Unilluminating interview segments with the characters interrupt the narrative(s), but the framing and editing of the narrative are far too “arty” for anyone to mistake the movie for a documentary. The movie directed by Yukisada Isao (Sunflower, Parade, Crying Out Love in the Center of the World) movie is based on Kyoko Okazaki’s 1993-94 manga series (i.e., was contemporary with the storyline’s time). It was shot in the old-fashioned television 4×3 ratio by Maki Kenji.


The Japanese trailer at The film is currently streaming in the US on Netflix.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Beautiful, sentimental portrait of a young woman of early-19th century Edo

I knew that the great late-Tokugawa artist Hokusai Katsushika (whose ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa” is probably the best-known Japanese graphic; it is one of his 36 Views of Mount Fuji) had a very dutiful daughter, Ôei, from having watched Shindô Kaneto’s 1981 biopic “Hokusai manga” (the title was sensationalized in English as “Edo Porn”). I think she managed the household of the obsessive artist. She also did work on his drawings and paintings (the art in effect came from an atelier Hokusai rather than from one man).


The anime based on a manga,” Sarusuberi”/“Miss Hokusai” (2015), is often quite beautiful, but it is rather puzzling in its purpose. Ôei narrates it and is the prime focus, but her character is little developed. She placates as well as assists her father, trying to make sure he delivers on commissions on time. He sometimes thinks she should do her own work, at other times derides it (in particular, representations of males).


Ôei spends time with her mother (long living separately) and her younger sister, Onao, who is sickly and  blind. (A high point is taking the younger sibling out in the snow.) Their father has an aversion to the sick, and mostly avoids seeing his younger daughter.

Though drawing erotic couplings, Ôei does not seem to have any sexual experience of her own.


There’s not much plot, the movie not attempting to image Ôei’s life after her father died (at the age of 90). I’m not sure I’d even say that the movie is “episodic,” in that nothing much happens in the “episodes.” But, as I said, the movie is often beautiful. The musical soundtrack by Fuki Harumi, is sometimes distracting, especially when the imagery gets fanciful (out of body). It is definitely not of the period portrayed (the movie begins in 1914, btw).


There is a long (1:56) making-of feature that is supposedly quite dramatic on the blu-ray, but there is only a bland quarter-hour excerpt included as a DVD bonus.. (The movie itself has a running time of 1:33).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries


Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.


They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.


Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray