Review: Luzzu

The theme of Alex Camilleri’s debut feature is the loss of a traditional trade in the face of the inevitable domination of neoliberalism, not to mention time itself. As it takes place on the island of Malta, the movie offers at least a side order of cultural education, since Malta doesn’t produce many films, and there’s a lot to learn about the fishing trade on the island, even if things tend to be tough all over in the same way. Camilleri follows neo-realist practices, perhaps by necessity, by using non-professional actors and a documentary style of shooting, but the melodrama is scripted and sometimes overwhelms his basic theme rather than reinforce it.

The fisherman protagonist Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) has inherited a traditional wooden fishing boat, a luzzu, from his father who, in turn, inherited it from his father. The boat requires extensive repairs, not to mention an elaborately colorful paint job just because that is the tradition. Jesmark is strictly working class, though his wife, Denise (Michela Farrugia), is from a more middle class family, which doesn’t entirely approve of the marriage, especially when EU rules and other economic realities make it difficult for Jesmark to sell his wares. When Denise starts soliciting financial help from her mother, Jesmark’s pride is damaged. The easiest route to solvency, and one that Denise seems to support, is for Jesmark to decommission the boat that has supported his family for generations and give up his fishing license in exchange for a hefty sum of money from the EU, which is trying to cut back on Mediterranean fishing operations due to pressure from both international environmental groups and corporate fishing interests. Instead, Jesmark decides to carry on with fishing, but instead of going the legal route he catches forbidden fish and sells them on the black market without telling Denise.

The drama that blossoms in the second half in contrast to the fairly exposition-heavy first half is informed by added economic difficulties as Jesmark realizes that utilizing the black market is even more difficult than fishing legally under straitened circumstances. To his credit, Camilleri doesn’t demonize the black market operatives, most of whom are just as desperate as Jesmark but have different people to answer to. Moreover, these operatives are wiser about the future of fishing in Malta, which they know is on its last legs, and not only due to overfishing. Climate change is also altering catch sizes and quality. The point is that Jesmark has naively gotten himself into a situation that is worse than what he was going through before, and all for the sake of a tradition he’s too blind to recognize as being regressive.

Though Camilleri could have made his point more effectively with a straight-up documentary, he likely thinks a dramatic retelling is more appreciated, and in many ways it is, but reality is reality and there’s nothing much he can describe here that isn’t shot through with over-determined doom. 

In Maltese and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Luzzu home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Luzzu Ltd.

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Review: The Lost City

Whether one loves or hates Brad Pitt, it’s impossible to deny that the simple fact that he has been cast in a movie means something for that movie, even if, as in this spotty comedy-adventure film, he’s a supporting actor who leaves the proceedings relatively early. Frankly, I missed him once he was gone, since his Navy SEAL-cum-meditation advisor adds just the right touch of Pythonesque absurdity to a script that wears its ridiculousness like a badge of honor but can’t quite generate the yucks that would justify that belief in itself. Pitt obviously took the role as a lark and has a great time with it, but half the fun is in the knowledge that he has no skin in the game.

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum are the stars who have to do the heavy lifting, and while both are experienced and skilled comedians, they require sturdier material than this to succeed. Bullock plays romance novelist Loretta Sage, who has receded from the public eye after the death of her husband and is suffering from writer’s block. Tatum is the hunky but dim model Alan, who often graces the jacket covers of her books and accompanies her on her tours to provide the kind of excitement that Loretta can’t in person. Consequently, Alan is more of a star than the author is, especially among Loretta’s overwhelmingly middle aged female fans, a facet of their working relationship that has always rubbed her the wrong way. Pitt’s character, Jack, is attached to Alan and after Loretta is kidnapped and brought to a tropical island, it’s Jack who provides the tongue-in-cheek earnest action moves. 

Essentially, the rest of the movie is Tatum trying to live up to this example after Loretta escapes the clutches of the billionaire Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe, also having a really good time with a character whose eccentricities become quickly tiresome), who needs Loretta to help him find a lost city on the island that contains a treasure. As they try to find a way to escape the island, Loretta and Alan bond in ways that are both predictable and pedestrian, something that the directors, Aaron and Adam Nee, seem to realize since they populate the margins of the film with goofy characters who have no real direct bearing on the central characters, such as the pilot (Oscar Nunez) with a goat sidekick. There is fun to be had here if you are in the right mood, but once Pitt exited I kept wishing he would return somehow.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Lost City home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Paramount Pictures

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Review: Broker

It’s understandable why, following his biggest international hit, Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda decided to make two movies outside of Japan. Shoplifters was, relatively speaking, a critical and commercial hit in his native country, but it also drew a cold reaction from certain corners for implying that there were poor people in Japan who resorted to petty crime in order to survive and that so-called traditional Japanese family structures don’t guarantee social cohesion. After going to France and making the surprisingly effective The Truth, Kore-eda made Broker in South Korea, a country that, despite its storied and somewhat justifiable enmity toward Japan, has always appreciated his work. Several years ago the Busan International Film Festival honored him with its Asia Filmmaker of the Year award. Broker centers on baby boxes—compartments installed at hospitals or churches where desperate mothers anonymously deposit newborns they don’t think they can raise—and was originally conceived for Japan, where there is at least one baby box in operation, but after talking to Korean actor Song Kang-ho Kore-eda decided to transplant the story to Korea. It’s obvious that Kore-eda, who has made his mark by exploring all the ramifications of “family,” wants to say something about society’s role in defining the bond between parent and child, and Korean cinema has a more mature and varied attitude toward socially relevant themes and is not afraid to challenge accepted readings of these themes. Except for Kore-eda and a handful of others, Japanese directors still have an awkward time tackling social issues. Their movies are either too squeamish or too earnest.

However, the kind of nuanced complexity Kore-eda brought to the matter of margin dwellers in Shoplifters has been diluted in Broker, which operates in a world that feels more like a movie. This may well be Kore-eda’s most plot-driven film. Song plays Sang-hyun, a man who steals infants left in a Seoul church’s baby box and then finds parents who have become frustrated with all the red tape and veiled guilt that comes with legal adoption. Money is his aim, since his dry cleaning business is heavily in debt to loan sharks. His partner in this criminal endeavor is Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who works at the church and himself grew up in an orphanage. He knows firsthand how the system treats unwanted children, but after he and Sang-hyun snatch a baby from the box and erase the relevant security camera footage, the baby’s mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), has second thoughts and returns to the church for a tour of their daycare facilities. She immediately notices her baby isn’t there and, realizing what happened, confronts Dong-soo and Sang-hyun, who try to convince her that what they are doing will provide a better family for the baby, and though she doesn’t entirely buy their story she accedes, with the condition that she accompany them as they interview prospective parents. A road trip ensues as the quartet, along with a stowaway kid from the facility where Dong-soo grew up, make their way south to Busan, Sang-hyun’s hometown, where his estranged daughter lives. You can envision the Power Point presentation outlining how all these refugees from conventional families recombine into an alternate version.

But there’s even more. Two police officers, Su-jin (Bae Doona) and Eun-joo (Lee Joo-young), have been staking out the baby box and know that Sang-hyun and Dong-soo have taken the child. They decide to follow them on their road trip in order to witness any money changing hands so they can arrest the pair for trafficking. Predictably, as the journey progresses and the party gets bigger and the stakes more complex, the two cops start wondering about what they are observing, and just as everyone in Sang-hyun’s beat-up delivery van has a tragedy in their background, the two police officers are carrying their own familial baggage that makes their mission that much more emotionally fraught. There’s even a murder investigation meticulously woven into the fabric of the story. 

Broker is a typically well-executed mainstream, middle-brow Korean film that successfully elucidates a social issue in an entertaining way, but unlike The Truth, where Kore-eda faithfully adapted his pet themes to a French milieu while maintaining his unique sensibility, Broker could have been made by any world-class director with a flair for contrivance.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Broker home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Zip Cinema & CJ ENM Co., Ltd.

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Review: Introduction/In Front of Your Face

Introduction

Hong Sang-soo continues his relentless pace without seeming to break a sweat, and here we have two new features opening the same day in Japan, both manageably short enough to qualify as a succinct and stimulating double feature. Hong’s films are so much alike, thematically, stylistically, and formally, that some may find the distinctions between these two academic. One is in B&W, the other in color; one has a strict tripartite structure, the other a linear development; one is minimalist to the point of almost non-existence, while the other explores a weighty existential situation–or maybe it doesn’t.

Introduction, the shorter and less effective of the two, is one of Hong’s exercises in narrative indirection. The first part takes place in an acupuncturist’s office, as the doctor (Kim Young-ho) treats a famous actor (Ki Joo-bong) for a chronic problem while a young man (Shin Seok-ho) sits in the waiting room for what feels like a very long time. The relationships of these three, as well as the young man’s with the receptionist, are teased out until the end of the segment, when the most important one is finally revealed. The second segment focuses on a young woman (Park Mi-so) who is moving to Berlin to study with help from her mother’s friend (Kim Min-hee), a resident of the city, but her discussions with the friend are interrupted when her boyfriend, who turns out to be the young man waiting in the first segment, shows up unexpectedly because he says he misses her. This kind of awkward situation is something Hong is particularly good at, though the viewer’s patience may be strained by the odd dynamic that develops as the lovers try to make sense of their relationship. As in the first section, the young man acts as if he’s being ignored and is hurt by his girlfriend’s move, which he takes personally. The young man shows up again in the third section, which seems to be taking place some years later at a hotel where his mother (Cho Yun-hee) and the actor from the first section are lecturing him, sometimes violently, about his lack of direction in life. Hong may seem to be challenging the viewer to fill in the plot lacunae between the three sections, but each one is filled with false starts and often hilarious non sequiturs so taking the “story” at face value would probably be a mistake. The young man’s rudderless life is more indicated than shown, but that doesn’t make it less compelling. It does, however, make it less believable. It’s as if Hong were challenging himself to say something interesting about a patently boring, annoying character, but he’s done that before, and better.

In Front of Your Face

As slyly suggested in the title, the indirection in In Front of Your Face is more cinematically conventional. First of all it takes almost fiften minutes before the viewer realizes that the protagonist, San-gok (Lee Hye-young), is a famous actress who has spent the last several years of her life in the U.S., to which she followed a man she has now left. Presently, temporarily, she is sleeping on the couch in the Seoul high-rise apartment of her sister, Jeon-gok (Cho Yun-hee), with whom she spends a leisurely day drinking coffee in a shop with a breathtaking view, strolling through a park where she is recognized by some young fans, revisiting the house where she grew up, and meeting her nephew (Shin Seok-ho, yes the actors play out the same familial relationship as in Introduction), who runs a successful restaurant. The conversation is quotidian and less voluble than it is in most Hong films. San-gok seems to rue anything that smacks of small talk. Late in the afternoon, however, she meets a movie director (Kwon Hae-hyo) who wants her to be in his new film, which he will write just for her, thus making it clear that she has been out of the game for a while. For once in a Hong film, the dialogue is clearly expository, as the director says he knows her work “intimately” and, in fact, has always had a crush on her. San-gok blithely asks him if he had been planning on sleeping with her, and he frankly replies that, yes, it had crossed his mind. Then San-gok tells him something that changes not only the whole mood, but the whole movie. 

In a sense, the viewer never quite recovers from this revelation, though the movie continues on as if nothing has happened, and I, for one, really wondered if what I was understanding was actually what was going on. In many ways, In Front of Your Face may be Hong’s most emotionally affecting film since it shows how phony cinematic melodrama is when played out in situations that are closer to how we live day to day. Then again, he could be taking the piss. I saw it several weeks ago, and I’m still wondering what hit me.

In Korean. Both films open June 24 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).  

Introduction and In Front of Your Face home page in Japanese

photos (c) 2020 & (c) 2021 Jeonwonsa Film Co.  

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Review: 100 Years and Hope

The release of this documentary about the Japanese Communist Party, which, as the title indicates, has been around for a century, is meant to coincide with the Upper House election taking place July 15, and while it does a fair job of presenting the JCP platform its main thrust is conveying a political sensibility that voters may not be familiar with. JCP needs this kind of publicity, since its very name alone is probably its greatest liability. Both the ruling coalition and fellow opposition parties can easily demonize the JCP because they are communists, though they abandoned the aim of world revolution many years ago, and no longer work toward the demise of the emperor system. However, they do see themselves as the party of the people in that they espouse social and economic policies designed to lift those at the bottom, and are strictly anti-militaristic. As one woman explains, she joined the party because her mother has always had a hard time getting by and the JCP was the only party in Japan that understood her mother’s situation. Nevertheless, once she joined and became involved in party activities her mother lamented, “I didn’t think I raised you to be a red.”

The movie’s loose structure focuses on a few individuals and the workings of the party organ, Akahata, which is a legitimate newspaper in that it has an investigative staff that often digs up stories the mainstream press doesn’t. The purpose, of course, is to provide fodder for party members who hold legislative office, whether at the local or the national level. Oddly, the movie doesn’t dwell on the fact that Akahata is almost the sole revenue-producing source for the JCP, which doesn’t take political donations from organizations or even the usual political susbsidies from the government. Perhaps they assume everyone already knows this, but it seems more like a case of refusing to boast about a policy they think every political party should follow.

Director Takashi Nishihara follows two election campaigns. The first is that of Yuichi Ikegawa, a young member of the Tokyo assembly running for reelection, mainly on a platform advocating that “students are citizens.” Though the casual viewer may find his focus on high school students being unfairly punished for their hairstyles rather trivial, Nishihara gets a lot of thematic mileage out of the issue, as it points up the JCP’s insistence that common sense should rule politics. When school officials are asked why a certain haircut is deemed “dangerous,” they can’t really answer. It’s just their feeling. Ikegawa wins, but the other candidate profiled, Saori Ikeuchi, who is running for a Lower House seat in Tokyo, isn’t as fortunate. Ikeuchi’s brief is recognition of rights for women and sexual minorities. She runs a web radio program with the provocative title, “Feminists are Communists,” and attracts a passionate following of mostly young women whose reaction to her defeat is quite devastating. Ikeuchi and Ikegawa were obviously chosen as subjects to highlight JCP’s self-determined image as a party of young people and women, two demographics that traditional Japanese politics has ignored. (The fact that Ikegawa has four kids is probably his strongest claim as someone who deserves to be listened to.) The JCP’s agenda is solidly liberal-progressive, even if some of the planks, like their anti-Olympics stance, seem reflexively so. But the point is that the demonization that has always kept the party down is at the service of a status quo which shuts out a good portion of the Japanese public. The movie tries to show what the JCP stands for, though it’s so low-key in spots you may wonder how much their heart is really into it. Some will call 100 Years and Hope propaganda. If only it strove for that kind of stark effect.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya Eurospace (03-3461-0211).

100 Years and Hope home page in Japanese

photo (c) ML9

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Media watch: You’re not in Kuroda’s league. You’re not even on the same planet

Japan’s weekly magazines and tabloids may not be bastions of journalistic integrity, but you can definitely count on them to stick it to the elites, especially those who toil in the public sector. On June 6, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, who controls the country’s money supply, commented during a lecture on the inflation that has taken over the world this summer. Unlike central banks in other countries, the BOJ has decided not to increase interest rates in order to counter price rises, and he dismissed people’s concerns by saying that Japanese households were capable of “absorbing these price increases.” Though there is apparently some academic-derived statistic used in the BOJ to chart “family-to-price-index tolerance,” the comment caused quite a stir in the media, especially in light of another remark Kuroda made several days earlier during an Upper House budget committee meeting. In response to a question of how he personally viewed these price increases, he admitted that he has had the experience of actually going to a supermarket and purchasing something, “but basically that’s my wife’s job.”

Later he apologized for both comments without denying that they reflected his thinking, thus proving, according to the weekly Josei Jishin, that he doesn’t really care about the Japanese public’s pain. The magazine wanted to know how he turned into such a cold fish, a somewhat academic question given the notion that, while the BOJ is, structurally, an independent entity, the government has indicated that it is very much a member of the team, so to speak, and thus Kuroda could be seen as one of the old boys in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who thinks they’ve been charged by God to run Japan forever. 

But, in fact, he’s not a member of the team. He’s so much more. According to Josei Jishin, Kuroda was born in 1944, the oldest of three children, to an officer in the coast guard, who moved around a lot to different port towns because of his job. When Kuroda was in 5th grade the family moved permanently to Setagaya Ward in Tokyo. In interviews, his sister has described him as a “calm” child who was not much into sports but good in school. A voracious reader, he allegedly read all 10,000 volumes in his local library. Consequently, he was able to get into a prestigious Tokyo high school whose students could often count on getting accepted to the University of Tokyo, and, in fact, he passed the entrance exam on his first try in 1963.

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Review: Plan 75

Chie Hayakawa’s debut feature is a longer version of a short she directed for the 2018 omnibus movie Ten Years Japan, where her basic idea was explicated with the utmost economy. This idea imagines a Japanese system wherein people who reach the age of 75 can opt for euthanasia, thus saving themselves from a senescence of impoverished irrelevance and the state from the obligation of having to support them. The short was cold and to the point, a terrifying projection based on indications of where Japan’s aging society was headed. The feature necessarily has to not only expand on the basic government plan but show more convincingly how such a plan could be implemented and accepted, and, at first I felt the premise took too much for granted with regard to Japanese seniors’ easy acceptance of death and the Japanese bureaucracy’s cynical neoliberal tendencies. Such a dystopian “solution” to a real problem could never happen and so it seemed impossible to convince a viewer that it might. The short was more effective because it simply posited “What if?”

But once the movie enters into a more conventionally dramatic mode its premise feels more integrated. The three main characters occupy circles within the system that intersect in ways that allow them to represent more believably what’s possible. Michi (Chieko Baisho) is the senior who decides to take advantage of the plan, a lonely, single woman whose housekeeping job has been made redundant by an ironic twist of fate and can’t bring herself to apply for welfare (the insufficiency of the national pension system is assumed without being explained) after she’s evicted and runs up against the truth that landlords won’t rent to older people. Himura (Hayato Isomura) is the government functionary who recruits willing seniors to submit to the plan and receive the “gift” of ¥100,000 to enjoy as they seem fit. And Maria (Stefanie Arianne) is a Filipino temporary guest worker who cleans up after applicants go through with the process because the gig pays well and her daughter needs special medical care back home. Exposition-wise, Hayakawa has to explain the plan itself without seeming to do so, and gets more mileage than I would normally think possible with simple sub-plots, such as Himura’s discovery that an uncle he was once close to has opted to enroll in the plan, and Michi meeting with her Plan rep, Yoko (Yuumi Kawai), to talk about herself and go bowling, even though such interactions are not allowed. These moments counteract the queasy repulsion of watching seniors eagerly buying the plan’s claim of a neat and painless end to the burden of existence. 

The inescapable point of the film is that the Japanese authorities have failed its citizens, and I felt some resentment with the implication that, the sentimentally charged ending notwithstanding, it is society itself that is at fault. Much can be said about the basic hypocrisy of Japanese social engineering, which honors old people in the abstract while discarding them once they become economically inconvenient, but it’s the government that has institutionalized this hypocrisy and, in its starkest sense, Plan 75 illustrates how they have gotten away with it. The premise still feels beyond the pale, but the official impulse behind it is manifest in the headlines every day.

In Japanese and Filipino. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Eurospace (03-3461-0211).

Plan 75 home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Plan 75 Film Partners/Urban Factory/Fusee

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Review: Three Sisters

Perhaps because Lee Seung-won’s family melodrama stars two of Korea’s most respected actors, there’s a feeling that the tail is wagging the dog here, and often in the film these actors, Kim Sun-young and Moon So-ri, are saddled with scenes that seem to have been conceived as acting showcases, which, when it comes to Korean melodramas, can come off as showboating. However, the excessive emoting peaks with the third side of the titular triangle, played by Jang Yoon-ju, a model and singer who has only recently turned to acting, and as is frequently the case in such situations her attempt to keep up with her more experienced colleagues results in histrionics.

Though Lee’s script and direction show a real flair for exposition, the structure is schematic to a fault, as if it had been carefully cobbled together from half-ideas that couldn’t be developed satisfactorily on their own—a little Bergman here, a little Cassavetes there. Each sister has her own peculiar spiritual problem. For the eldest, Hee-sook (Kim), it’s the tentative life of a single mother struggling with a business she has neither the enthusiasm nor the skills for, as well as a post-adolescent daughter who hates her for her wishy-washy attitude toward everything. For middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon), it’s a bold front of social confidence and a strong religious faith that hides the dysfunction in her marriage. As for the youngest, Mi-ok (Jang), it’s an overextended belief in her future as a writer that manifests in drunken episodes of calling Mi-yeon at the most inopportune moments to pester and plead. For the first half of the film, Lee follows each thread separately without making much effort to intertwine them, but once the connections are made and lead back to the sisters’ troubled childhoods with a violent, sexually irresponsible father, the movie makes almost too much sense in hindsight, as if it had been charted on a white board during a conference call. This isn’t to say the movie as a whole isn’t dramatically intriguing or emotionally affecting; only that the artful presentation is stretched thin on the skeleton of the plotting. 

As with all such melodramas, the viewer expects a satisfying resolution, and Lee’s is underwhelming while being very loud; but it’s not because the premise is rigged. If anything, the three actors manage to build a strong sense of sisterhood when they finally all end up in the same scenes together. The message seems to be that childhood trauma renders its victims unsuitable for family life as adults—all three sisters are either mothers or step-mothers, and can’t manage their domestic affairs without failing their children emotionally—but what else is new? Someday, I’d like to see a movie where a character transcends childhood trauma and becomes someone who enriches their family as an adult because their experience has taught them what is important, but such a movie probably wouldn’t qualify as a domestic melodrama. 

In Korean. Opens June 17 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Three Sisters home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Studio Up

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Media watch: Are school-based sports clubs on the way out?

photo: Asahi

As the debate heats up on the government’s desire to increase Japan’s defense budget, some people on social media have been posting a quote by ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Tomomi Inada from 2016 when she was the defense minister. Inada proposed transferring funds used for the children’s allowance (kodomo teate) to defense, which she reasoned would solve the problem of perceived shortfalls. The children’s allowance is a form of welfare that is available to any household with children that makes up to a certain amount of money, and obviously Inada thought it could be sacrificed on the altar of national security. The people who have posted the meme say that Inada thinks children are less important than Japan’s ability to purchase expensive military hardware from the U.S., and, as a matter of fact, of all the G7 governments, Japan’s spends the least on children and their education. Meanwhile, if the defense budget is increased to 2 percent of GDP, Japan will then be number 3 in the world of all countries in terms of defense spending.

Even when the government addresses issues that directly affect children their priorities can seem skewed. A June 6 article in the financial magazine Toyo Keizai talked about a symposium carried out by a group of scholars and former athletes at the behest of the Japan Sports Agency about the future of junior high school sports. As everyone knows, the birth rate continues to drop year after year, which means school enrollment in most places is also dropping. Dwindling enrollment has already started to affect extra-curricular activities, of which sports is the most prominent. Already, some junior high schools cannot muster enough students to field teams, and so the agency has been trying to come up with solutions. On May 27, the symposium proposed that school sports be moved from schools themselves to regional sports associations. The idea is that individual junior high schools with insufficient enrollment to form sports teams pool their sports-minded students together in regional sporting associations to form regional sports clubs rather than school-based sports clubs. One scholar said that by 2048, on average a boys junior high school baseball team will only have 3.5 members, thus making baseball as a school sport unviable.

According to Toyo Keizai, there are already some 3,600 regional sports associations throughout Japan that have been cultivated by the JSA, as well as other regional clubs operated by private companies. The agency has asked the symposium participants to further discuss the matter of transferring sports clubs from junior high schools over the next three years. The first phase of their work would be a summary of the transfer proposal. The second phase will presumably be coming up with concrete ideas to carry out the transfers. The group admits that such a move will fundamentally change the whole concept of how to develop athletes in Japan, an endeavor that has centered on the school system. Consequently, the third phase, which would be the actual transfer, can only be carried out after problems already facing school sports, mostly of a financial nature, are addressed.

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Review: Soup and Ideology

Filmmaker Yang Yonghi’s career has been in the service of explaining why her family is what it is, and as with many such endeavors the family itself hasn’t always seemed happy with the attention. Most of this work has been in the documentary field, but she did do one narrative feature, 2012’s Our Homeland, that used actors and a dramatic script to tell the story of her family, perhaps in a bid to make the explanation more accessible to average viewers, who may be less intrigued by the documentary form. Actually, Our Homeland was less intriguing than her documentaries, mainly because it dramatized a situation that had built-in drama, especially for Japanese viewers. Yang and her family are Japan-resident Koreans. Moreover, they identify with North Korea, thus making them pariahs, not only to Japanese people but to other Japan-resident Koreans who identify with South Korea. The story that Yang tells in all her films is played against this background. Her father, born in South Korea, came to Japan during the colonial era and, disillusioned with his lot and that of other Koreans after the war, offered his loyatlies to North Korea with its claims of being a paradise on earth. Moreover, he worked for Chongryon, the conduit association between Japan and North Korea, while his wife ran a restaurant in Osaka. In the early 1970s he even sent all three of his sons to North Korea to live. Yonghi is the much younger daughter who didn’t go to North Korea and in the meantime became a filmmaker. Two of her docs take place principally in North Korea where she filmed her relatives’ lives there. Though her father, who has since died, never abandoned his faith in North Korea, Yonghi herself has always taken a more pragmatic, if not skeptical, view of her family’s path. At the same time, as the member of an ethnic minority in Japan, the country of her birth, she maintains a true outsider’s view of her situation and that of her family.

Soup and Ideology is meant to be a kind of concluding chapter, though she has said there may be room for further exploration. It is about Yang’s mother, Kang Jung-hee, who survived her husband with her loyalty to Pyongyang intact. She continues to send most of the money she makes to her children in North Korea, as if it is not only a necessity but her mission. Yang’s film is rangier than her earlier works, built with footage shot over the course of a decade or so. But in another sense it is her most concise film since it involves a discovery placing her family’s dilemma in a context that is more immediate for the viewer, not to mention more dramatic. In the opening scene, Kang, hospitalized, starts talking about the time she spent on South Korea’s Jeju Island between 1945, when she fled Osaka as a teenager to escape the US firebombing, and 1948. While on Jeju she became engaged to a Korean doctor who was also a member of the local resistance, which objected to the eventual partition of the peninsula. The Americans and the provisional South Korean government brutally repressed the resistance, killing 30,000 people in the process, and Kang had to escape the island under cover of darkness to return to Osaka, where she eventually met the man who would become her husband.

Yang knew nothing of this story until her mother told her in 2015, and most of the movie involves how she comes to grips with it. Using her mother’s first-person recollections, narrative explications by South Korean historical activists, and animated sequences illustrating parts of the tragedy, Yang finds a means of putting into perspective the confusion she has always felt regarding her family’s politics, which she recognized as being impelled by anger and frustration rather than by ideology. Having always wondered why her family had to suffer for their beliefs—a situation that she blames as much on her father’s intransigence as she does on the anti-Korean sentiments held by Japanese society—the over-arching horror of the Jeju Uprising gives her not only a convenient back story to that suffering, but a narrative frame over which to stretch the canvas of her mother’s final days as she sinks slowly into a fog of dementia (she died in January, after filming of the movie was completed).

Which isn’t to say Soup and Ideology is a dark experience. During the time when she was lucid, Kang is a much more convivial film subject than Yang’s father was, a fountain of folk wisdom and cynical, off-color humor who is charming and approachable. Yang also gets valuable support from her new, much younger husband, a Japanese man whose close relationship to Kang is the jumping off point for many of the scenes that reveal more about Yang’s relationship with her mother than anything else she filmed. The results transcend the ostensible journey of self-discovery that culminates in Kang returning to Jeju to face her demons, painting a picture of life for Japan-resident Koreans that was not as raw and vivid in Yang’s previous movies, whether documentary or feature. During a post-screening press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Yang mentioned Pachinko, the bestselling novel by Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee that is currently creating millions of new fans worldwide as a TV series. Much of the novel covers the exact same milieu that Yang’s work does and she expressed frustration that such a multi-generational epic has never been tackled by a Japanese director, since it represents a foundational story of postwar Japan that most Japanese probably know nothing about. It was difficult not to sense behind the remark the feeling that Yang herself thinks she should have been given the opportunity to make such an epic, which says more about Japan’s squeamishness toward its own modern history (not to mention the parochial nature of Japan’s film industry) than Yang’s obvious talents as a director. 

In Japanese and Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Eurospace Shibuya (03-3461-0211), Polepole Higashi Nagano (03-3371-0088).

Soup and Ideology home page in Japanese

photo (c) PLACE TO BE, Yang Yonghi

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