These reviews are films that are either set in Japan and have strong Japanese cultural, social content and perhaps will serve for some insight into Japanese culture and social fabric.
Earthquake Bird is a 2019 psychological thriller written and directed by Wash Westmoreland based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. The executive producer was Sir Ridley Scott. Wash Westmoreland’s previous films have starred such tenured actors as Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin in the excellent Still Alice and won awards, including Best Actress Academy Award for Julianne Moore and Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
Lucy Fly, a young female ex-pat, is suspected of murder when her friend Lily goes missing in the wake of a tumultuous love triangle with Teiji, a reclusive amateur photographer. The story tracks the interrogation of Lucy, played by Alicia Vikander, as she is held and questioned at police HQ by two Tokyo detectives trying to uncover the enigma of the disappearance of her recently made friend Lily played quite well by Riley Keough. Lucy is under suspicion as the main suspect in connection with evidence of body parts washed up in the bay that is thought to be Lily’s. ? Did gloomy Lucy have anything to do with it? And not to mention, what is an earthquake bird?
The narrative drama unfolds as Lucy relates her tale in the interrogation room. It is a combination of mystery with a bit of romance mixed in. The story is an interesting one, but I tend to feel the director could have invested more in the intrigue of their relationship and Lily’s disappearance. Former J-Pop performer turned actor Naoki Kobayashi plays Teiji. I have it on good authority that he was cast with the expectation of bringing a thrill to the screen but is actually a bit dull; I have to say.
There are several sub narratives at play that include Lucy and her tea ceremony teacher, the relationship between the two detectives, and how that is affected by Lucy. Perhaps this is a problem with the original story, but Westmoreland doesn’t invest in enriching the main characters; instead, we get a somewhat dull protagonist and a flat leading man. Westmoreland seems hesitant to grasp and eke out the real depth of the story, and the relationships are barely revealed. I suspect this is a combination of both the writing and directorial commitment to the story and the actor’s performances.
Disclaimer: This is only my opinion (and well may you ask, “who the heck are you?”, and not to mention that there are dramatically conflicting opinions about this film) – reviews are always challenging as one must be objective and find both positive and less so aspects of the film and of course transparent. Mine is a difficult task with this review as the producer is a close friend (maybe my prior knowledge had created an unrealistic expectation) so please take a look at it but, I have to say that overall, despite his film Still Alice having been a deep portrayal of its story and characters, Earthquake Bird has the potential to be an exciting, dark thriller but to my mind, but it was a bit disappointing.
Tokyo Sonata portrays a Japan trying to contend with the new globalized world order, one that appears to sap the nation and leave unemployed salarymen congregating in city parks and malls teeming with listless shoppers. In Japan, corporate restructuring in the 90s left many casualties mostly among middle management who became known as risutora, which is a Japanised shortened form of the word restructure. The overall atmosphere of this average Tokyo area family is a simmering pot of dark lies and unhappiness. It took the award for Best Film at the 3rd Asian Film Awards and received 2008 Asia Pacific Screen Awards nominations for Achievement in Directing and Best Screenplay. At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, it won the Jury Prize of the Un Certain Regard section.
The film opens in a suburban Tokyo household and a sudden storm. Housewife Megumi after hurriedly shutting the door and mopping up the spattered water slide the door again to stare out at the rainstorm – almost as if staring at a warning of a storm to come in the household.
Ryûhei Sasaki becomes a casualty of the downsizing and restructuring in Japan in the 90s. He is a tyrant with his children and very much appears to be teishu kanpaku (lord and master of his home). Humiliated, Ryûhei keeps his loss of job secret from his wife, Megumi and his two teenage sons. Kenji, his youngest son, begins secretly taking piano lessons when his father forbids it, paying for it with his school lunch money and when discovered, he is battered by his father and taken to hospital. The eldest son struggling to find his place in the world joins the US military and is sent to the middle east, entirely out of his depth.
Meanwhile, Ryûhei leaves the house every day as if setting off to going to work, instead, spending dull days of hopelessness lining up at an employment agency, or for his lunch at a food kitchen set up in a park. He is determined to find another position and finds solace in support for an old friend he bumped into at the food kitchen and is in the same boat as Ryûhei. But when Megumi accidentally finds out Ryûhei’s secret but keeps it herself, her trust in him, and their marriage, suffers and fairly soon, everything begins to unravel further. How far will these lies go and will truth out? Can there be any redemption?
The final 30 minutes, quickens to a literal dash by Ryuhei and Kenji and leaps to the next level with the introduction of a hapless thief. Somehow this seems somewhat contrived but perhaps Director Kurosawa is showing how quickly vents can spin out of control. The story pushes forward to the point of seemingly irredeemable destruction and then in a moment, to redemption and rebirth, culminating in a beautiful piano recital of Debussy by Kenji, who is finally allowed to present his talent and share it with his parents and the world around him leave everyone transfixed with wonder. Aside from the eldest son finds his own resolution in the reflection of finishing his tour of duty living in a foreign culture, there does not seem to have a defined resolution for Ryûhei and Megumi – they still can’t communicate with one another.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is J-Horror auteur but this is a different kind of suspense – substituting horror, violence with despair and loneliness, hopelessness. The scenario treads a fine line between fact and fiction. In essence, I will say I found aspects of the film somewhat contrived if not untrue to the general cultural phenomenon and unrealistically exaggerated, used to facilitate the storytelling but an interesting peek into the Japanese psyche nonetheless.
Image: Official poster for Earthquake Bird. Fair Use