Why this might not seem so easy

Critic Shigehiko Hasumi once suggested that Japanese filmmaker Shinji Somai – who died young aged 53 in 2001, after directing 13 features – “is the missing link between the end of the studio system of Japan and the rise of independent filmmaking”. In their compassionate depictions of loneliness and alienation, you can certainly see the influence of Somai’s films in the works of several younger directors who followed, including Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse).

So why is Somai relatively unknown in the west? It’s all down to the mysteries of international distribution. For whatever reason, none of Somai’s films got released in the UK, with opportunities to see them relegated to festival appearances or one-off repertory screenings. Even a particularly high interest in contemporary Japanese cinema in Britain in the early 2000s – the time of the J-horror boom – didn’t result in distribution for Somai’s final features, Wait and See (1998) and Kaza-hana (2000).

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981)

In recent years, the Edinburgh International Film Festival showcased a full retrospective of his work in 2012, while Moving (1993) was part of the touring programme in support of Mark Cousins’ A Story of Children and Film (2013). At the time of writing, we’ve just seen the first ever home-video outing for any of Somai’s features in the west: Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981). It’s hopefully a sign of good things to come, as Somai’s CV includes some of the finest Japanese films of the 1980s and 90s.

Although he worked in different genres and also made some films centred on older leads, the majority of his 13 features are based around young people going through rites of passage. These might play out in either very recognisable or completely outlandish scenarios – Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, for example, concerns a teenage schoolgirl inheriting a yakuza clan’s loyalty. But he always captures a palpable feeling of adolescence, meeting youths at their level and trying to get inside their heads, without engaging the prejudice of an adult’s mindset.

His youth-focused films contain the most striking use of his trademark long takes, which always heighten the feeling that anything can happen, with some of the more ambitious examples involving stunt work. In his earlier efforts, in particular, the camera is nearly always on the move, and often placed at a considerable distance from the actors. At times it seems as though its focus is being directed beyond the narrative concerns of the scene, moving to capture something ephemeral within the given environment, especially in outdoor scenes in busy urban areas.

The best place to start – Moving

Although Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is now the easiest of Somai’s films to see, if you can find a copy of his 1993 film Moving, it’s the ideal starting point and more representative of his output as a whole. It centres around a young girl called Renko (an incredible performance from Tomoko Tabata), who begins acting out in light of her parents’ messy divorce.

The domestic drama morphs into something altogether more elemental and abstract in its incredible final half hour, set around a countryside fire festival. Although most of Somai’s film narratives are told in a linear fashion, there’s a degree to which they all play with the concept of time in some way. Temporality combined with the surrealistic bending of reality and memory is key to much of Somai’s work. In Moving, Renko’s literal embrace of a physical manifestation of her younger self is one of the most touching examples.

Moving (1993)

What to watch next

Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (1985)

Speaking of temporality, Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (1985) has a 14-minute-long, apparently unbroken shot encompassing events days apart. With no clear cutting, Somai uses elaborate camera movements and a large shifting studio set to show how the protagonist, as a child, is rescued from an adoption setup where she’s mistreated and brought into the care of a new father figure. The extended sequence weaves in and out of homes and snow-covered exteriors, and involves a dangerous encounter with nearby water; it wouldn’t be a Somai film without a torrential downpour or key sequence at a body of water (fireworks also recur frequently). When a visible cut is finally made, it’s an abrupt smash to a close-up of the character now as a teenager on a moped, in a real location.

Somai directed two excellent spins on the type of coming-of-age tale in which intense physical trials become a test of character. Typhoon Club (1985), commonly cited as the director’s masterpiece, is centred on teenagers trapped at their school without adult supervision during a typhoon. The Catch (1983), meanwhile, is centred on a twentysomething trying to become a tuna fisherman like his love’s disapproving father.

Typhoon Club (1985)

Made a decade apart, The Friends (1994) and P.P. Rider (1983) offer interesting contrasts as stories of a fiercely determined young trio’s interactions with adult forces across a summer. The former sees three boys interested in death begin spying on the run-down home of an elderly man, only to eventually befriend him. The anarchic latter, co-written by Leonard Schrader, is a wild road movie where two boys and a girl journey across Japan to rescue the class bully after he’s kidnapped by criminals.

Where not to start

All of Somai’s 13 features are worth seeing, though some of the more idiosyncratic ones are less representative entry points. Psychosexual drama Love Hotel (1985) is a subversive foray into the softcore erotic ‘roman porno’ genre in which Somai got his start at the Nikkatsu studio, so is definitely an outlier. Luminous Woman (1987), the tale of a burly country man becoming a wrestler in Tokyo’s underground in order to find his lost love, is a little too weirdly plotted to start with. Debut feature The Terrible Couple (1980) is a charming teen romance, but the signature motifs aren’t all there yet. And while Tokyo Heaven (1990), in which a departed young model is given another shot at life, is a delight (and recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic 1946 afterlife fantasy A Matter of Life and Death), it’s decidedly more fantastical than is usual for this director.

Originally published: 13 December 2021