Edinburgh International Film Festival – Goodbye Don Glees

EIFF2022 – Goodbye Don Glees,
Directed by Atsuko Ishizuka,
Starring Natsuki Hanae, Yuki Kaji, Ayumu Murase

Making its UK debut at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ishizuka’s Goodbye Don Glees comes out of the Madhouse stable, and we got to see it relatively quickly by the standards of some Japanese films – it was released only in February in Japan. Ostensibly it’s a coming-of-age tale – Roma (voiced by Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) are best friends, founders and only members of the Don Glees club. They’re the two uncoolest kids in their school and small town, a situation that only gets worse as they go through Junior High and are about to move on up, and Toto goes off to a special school programme in Tokyo, leaving Roma stuck at home, shovelling manure on the family farm – not exactly his dream life.

When Toto returns for a few days for a big local festival, he’s boasting a cool haircut and big-city manners and confidence, making Roma feel even more left behind, but as the film goes on we discover Toto’s life isn’t as perfect as he projects. He’s barely back before he’s introduced to a new, third member of the Don Glees, a slightly younger, very exuberant boy, Drop, who seems full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, becoming something of an engine for driving the older two forward into an adventure, which includes tracking a crashed drone they were using to take photos, a forest fire and a wilderness trek.

In the time-honoured tradition, the adventure as they head out into, then get lost in, the forest, leads to hidden thoughts, fears, hopes and submerged emotions coming out. And yes, we’ve all seen similar tales before, of course, but that really doesn’t distract from this story, because Ishizuka handles it so deftly – she revealed when writing it then coming to direct it, that she wanted to avoid “anime speak”, where certain styles, even pauses, are used quite a lot. She said she thought of it the way she would approach a live-action film, and told her voice actors that she wanted it to be more naturalistic, more the way teens actually talk to one another. It certainly works, you quickly come to love the characters and feel their emotions. There’s a good bit more to it than that, but I won’t risk spoilers, except to say that it involves some very deeply emotional moments (be prepared to be blinking away tears at a couple of points – in the best way). I was reminded of other coming-of-age films, especially Stand By Me, and Ishizuka actually mentioned in the post-film talk that it has indeed been a huge influence.

The animation is frequently gorgeous, especially the nature scenes – the forest looks beautiful, a night-sky in the woods as the kids stare into the Milky Way is breathtaking, while rivers and waterfalls are recurrent visual themes, with especial importance for young Drop’s story arc, flipping between scenes in the Japanese countryside to time Drop spent living in Iceland. Talking with the audience through an interpreter after the screening, Ishizuka described her feelings that animation should be beautiful, that some scenes should look like a painting.

Edinburgh Film Festival - Goodbye Donglees 02
(Director and writer Atsuko Ishizuka talking to the audience after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of her Goodbye Don Glees – taken from several rows back in a dark cinema, so please excuse the quality!)

Goodbye Don Glees warmly captures those teenage years of yearning and doubt and hope as you totter on the bores of childhood into adulthood, that huge importance of good friends, of the time you spend with them, how that will mark you for life, create some of the core emotions and memories that will be inside your for as long as you live; for younger viewers it will talk to them of their own lives as they grow, for the adults it will remind you of the importance of those years, emotions, friendships and what they meant to you, what they still mean to you years on. A beautiful-looking, wonderfully emotional work, Ishizuka told us that there will be a UK release in November – I highly recommend watching out for this one.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: First Love

First Love,
Directed by Takashi Miike,
Starring Masataka Kubota, Nao Ohmori, Shōta Sometani, Becky, Sakurako Konishi

The superb and prolific Takashi Miike returns to our screens on Valentine’s Day, and that is, of course, a good thing for those of us who love film. In First Love Miike returns to the Yakuza gangster genre that he has done so well before, but, naturally being who he is, he gleefully plays with the expected elements of the genre too, while still delivering a strong narrative with a sense of fun. And, as the title intimates, there is some romance going on between the drug deals gone wrong, the inter-gang warfare, the bullets, the sword-based beheadings, the corrupt police and conniving gang lieutenants. Oh, and the ghost of a middle-aged man in his underpants.

While there’s a good array of cast members, the main focus here is on two innocents, Leo (Kubota) and Monica (Konishi), who become accidentally embroiled in inter-gang warfare between the traditional Yakuza of Japan (now somewhat in decline) and the opportunistic Chinese Triads moving into their turf. Leo is a failing boxer, skilled but somehow not quite getting his act in the ring together as he should,, and now living with recently revealed news that he has a terminal brain tumour. Monica (Konishi – Miike specifically wanted a newcomer for this role) is a troubled young woman, effectively sold by her father into sex work and living next to one of the Yakuza members and his rather nasty girlfriend with anger management issues. And poor Monica is also troubled by the spectre of her father appearing to her, clad only in his white underpants; a symptom of trauma brought on by abuse or just hallucinations brought on by drug use? Or both?

As the Yakuza and Triads fight one another over a bungled drug deal, and plotting gang members attempt double or more crosses to further their own personal gains, Monica is pursued, suspected of having a missing drug shipment. When she runs from a corrupt police detective who is involved with the Yakuza after being spooked by another ghostly vision (which no-one else can see), Leo rather gallantly floors the pursuing officer. Unfortunately he had no idea it was a policeman he had just knocked out, he thought he was protecting a young woman from a predatory older man.

The pursuit of these two young people, caught between competing Yakuza and Triads, is the main engine of the story here, but a simple description of the plot like that doesn’t do First Love justice. It is, after all, a film by Miike, so you will be unsurprised to hear me tell you that is is replete with some delicious, delectable moments of sly, often gallows-black humour (a fast editing cut from a falling boxer to a gangster’s head rolling across an alley after being decapitated by a katana blade, a conspiratorial gangster who ends up with an accidental dose of the missing drugs sparking both a sexual faux-pas and a hilarious inability to feel pain during a fight scene), while Miike, as always, takes generic elements and puts his own very stylish stamp on them to great effect, and yes, there is a romance here, but again it takes its own peculiar form.

Action, romance, humour, bullets, swords, drug deals gone bad, gang warfare and ghosts in underpants, First Love is an absolute pleasure.

This review was first penned for Live For Films.

First Love is released by Signature in UK cinemas and Digital HD from Februry 14th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from February 24th.

Rent-a-Cat

Edinburgh Film Fest: Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko)

Dir: Naoko Ogigami

Well, as you may infer from the title, this is not a film for anyone who dislikes felines. That said you don’t have to be a cat lover to take enjoyment from this film (although it helps, those of us who are were sitting in the audience going aww at particularly cute kitty antics) as Naoko Ogigami’s film is a rather lovely, slow-paced, gentle look at life and urban loneliness in modern day Japan, how one can be living in a busy city with a huge population and yet remain isolated, alone despite being surrounded by people. And the wonderful power of our animals to enrich our lives; we know sometimes we may be projecting our own human emotions and motivations on them, but as anyone who has ever lived with animals knows they do seem to set up a familiar domestic habit with their humans, both ‘owner’ (not a title that really can apply to a cat, as anyone who lives with them knows) and pet settle into their rhythms around each other, making their own household, an ersatz extended family.

Sayoko lives alone in her small house, overlooked in her garden by her odd neighbour (who has a remarkable resemblance to a sort of Japanese Ronnie Corbett in drag). Since she was a child she’s never found it easy to make friends, let alone find romance, but while other humans don’t seem to warm to her for some reason cats do. Each day she pulls a small cart along near the river, crying out through a bull horn that if you are lonely she can rent you a cat. It’s not as bizarre a business idea as you might think (although some of the local schoolkids have already branded her as the crazy cat lady archetype) – I’ve read of professionally run cafés in Japan where cats live and the customers come not just for tea and cake but to stroke the cats, people who love animals but for whatever reason (not enough space, not allowed pets in their rented home, only staying a few months) they can’t have animals at home, so they come for the undeniable comfort that stroking a purring kitty can give.

One of Sayoko’s first customers we see is a very old lady, looking through the cats napping contentedly in her cart. She is taken straightaway not with the youngest or cutest but with a mature ‘grand old lady’ of a ginger cat, who reminds her very much of her own cat who has passed on. Her cat had helped her fill that awful hole after losing her husband, her son, we get the impression, is pretty distant from his elderly mum, and now with her beloved pet gone she is alone, the apartment empty, lifeless to her. When Sayoko checks her home to make sure it is suitable for cats she can see right away the old woman is perfect for this – she desperately wants another cat to bring some warmth and companionship into her life, but being so old she has decided pragmatically she can’t have one as who would look after it when she dies (a genuine worry for many elderly who value their animal companions even more than the rest of us)? But here she can have the cat from Sayoko and know she will come to take her home when the old lady is gone, that the kitty will still be looked after and loved – hearing this she knows the old woman has a good heart and that the cat will make her remaining weeks better. It’s incredibly touching and, animal lover or not, you’d have to be a brick not to feel empathy for the old woman’s situation and the pleasure she gets from the cat’s company.

The film moves through some more encounters with people in the city – a businessman who has to work away from his family and home and is lonely in his isolated city home, a young girl working dedicatedly away reciting her company mantra but realising she spends all day at work then at home mostly alone. Through her encounters Sayoko’s own faults and problems are as on show as much as those lonely souls she helps with her cats – on her own since her gran’s death (rather sweetly she talks to the departed old lady every day at her household shrine), she writes goals up for herself, such as find a husband, but has no idea how to attain them, tells her clients when she charges them only a pittance to rent the cats that she doesn’t need the money because she makes lots as a stockbroker playing the markets, or as a famous psychic. We can never really tell how much of this may be genuine and just how much is a Walter Mitty fantasy of Sayoko’s to make herself feel better.

Rent-a-Cat moves at a very slow pace and, like the pets who help to fill the holes in people’s lives, it doesn’t render a judgement on the poor, lonely humans who move through its scenes; they and their lives and flaws are simply presented as is and while you may not identify totally with any one character there are elements of each that pretty much all of us will recognise and empathise with. Sweet, gentle, moving and touching, a lovely little flower of a film that you should stop to inhale the scent from. Then go tickle a cat’s soft tummy afterwards.

“Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so…”

I noticed a spike in one of my photos from this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe this week and wondered why:

Fringe 2010 - like a puppet on a string 08

Turned out it was being linked to from several websites, including this Japanese one. I’ve seen my pics borrowed numerous times on other sites – including, rather pleasingly, the New Yorker book blog at one point – but I think this is the first time (that I know of anyway) that I’ve been used on a Japanese site. Truly I am a cosmopolitan chap.