Struggling with neglect

Film review, from Tokyo – Last things first: After watching Kore-eda’s critically acclaimed 『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku, lit. Shoplifters), I remember deep anger, sympathy and then finally hope from its abrupt ending. Shoplifters came through as a story of the many forms of neglect, which allows underlying problems to fester, to take on a life of their own. In this film, it colours the decisions made in the struggle for survival, largely out of convenience with huge dose of humanity and a tinge of exploitation. (Core plot follows.)

Right from the outset, the audience is presented with shoplifting as the appetizer leading up to the main course. It is winter in Tokyo, and a middle-aged man (Osamu Shibata, played by Lily Franky) and a slightly wobbly lady (Nobuyo, Sakura Ando) are making their way home together after a few drinks. A boy (Shota, Jyo Kairi) is slumped over the man’s shoulders half-asleep after a long day. Taking a familiar path home, they spot a little girl (Yuri, Miyu Sasaki) left alone out in the corridor of an apartment, cold and hungry, quivering perhaps also from the screams and shouts within.  They decide to take the trembling child home.

Home is a single storey structure shrouded in foliage, a cramped, messy abode, where two women, one grandiosely old (Hatsue, Kirin Kiki), the other whose future lay just ahead (Aki, Mayu Matsuoka), did not seem especially perturbed by the new arrival.

The story revolves around the familial relationships among these six people: Osamu, an odd-job construction worker; Nobuyo, a laundry shop part-timer; Hatsue, the old lady living on handouts and pension payouts; Aki, who chose her grand mother over a college education overseas; Shota, Osamu’s pilfering sidekick and curious reader; and Yuri, the newcomer, who threw a spanner into the old equilibrium.

The Shibatas live in poverty, pilfering to make ends meet, but they bring Yuri home, take her on a shopp(lift)ing run to get new clothes, swimming costumes, and then to the beach for that picture perfect family outing.

Things go downhill quickly though. Their wafer thin finances are hit first by Osamu’s injury, so when Hatsue leaves Aki in mourning, the next turn proves a carbon copy of gruesome reality – they decide to hide her body to continue receiving her pension payouts. Nobuyo then gets laid off, a deal struck with some compensation.

But when Shota gets caught on a routine run, the Shibata’s house of cards finally unravels, illuminated under the spotlight, crumpling under the long arm of law.

All through the movie, I saw the Shibata’s struggles with money, their humanity inciting sympathy and solidarity. I smiled at their familial joys, but winced occasionally at their choices for survival. And so I comprehended my blase at the superficial media coverage of the unplanned abduction and the initial anger against the officials who effused pity along with disdain. Bringing Osamu and Nobuyo under the law proved their errors, but it felt cruel to label those struggles as simply a result of being grossly misled.

A story rooted in an elder getting by alone, her misguided granddaughter, two wayward part-timing adults struggling for a livelihood, and two neglected children who found temporary shelter. Perhaps it all hinged on the boy who read, for him to find the courage to trust the world and its myriad systems. If others had reached out to them, if they knew what was out there for them, perhaps the story would have been very different.

It all began with the Shibatas bringing little Yuri into their home, and it all ended with her finding something offscreen. Although that felt rather abrupt, it is a fitting ending, because that’s probably the start of another story altogether.


Shoplifters (2018)
Original title in Japanese:『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku)
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
More on the film at IMDb

Summer past – Ninja special exhibit

Event, Tokyo – The Japanese summer didn’t stop my team from trekking almost 20 minutes under the scorching sun to Miraikan, National Museum of Science and Innovation, from Fune-no-kagaku-kan station on one fine, cloudless summer afternoon.

Besides the IDFes (short for idol festival) packed with adults, mostly men, lining up to jump and gyrate in unison at the performances of possibly the next big thing after AKB, families were resting outside the Miraikan, having some shaved ice doused in colourful syrup, soft-served ice cream, and whatever that was available cold just outside the cool indoor Ninja exhibition.

Some Pokemon event was also going on nearby, so the station was full of people going to or returning from some event. Giveaways of foldable cardboard Pokemon caps to kids provided scarce cover, while those handy fans offered some welcome breeze during our 20-minute trial of running from shade to shade. Telecom Center station would have been half the walk, but this journey warmed us right up for some Ninja training in the mild air-conditioning.

Once inside the exhibition hall, visitors became apprentices and were introduced to the various types of training that would ensure one left the hall trained as a “certified” ninja. From controlled breathing to stealth walking, jumping over a knee-high sunflower, throwing a rubber shuriken, differentiating smells, hearing for objects and information, and learning tidbits about nature, one would learn how to train mind and body, and be sensitive to changes in the environment.

The ninja, the eyes and ears of their masters, prevented unnecessary conflict and often gained priceless inside information. They were not merely masters of disguise, infiltration, and survival. Trained to hone their senses to identify the time of day, direction, tell the weather, see through a disguise, they made themselves very useful. Found across Japan during the feudal era, the Iga and Koga Ninja, in present day Mie prefecture, were the most well-known.

Not delving too deeply into any single aspect, trainees would pass the final in-house test and gain that coveted novice ninja “certificate”. But once outside the training hall, a firm jolt back to reality awaited and the real test would begin. Freshies would have to resist the temptation to acquire further training in the souvenir shop. Alas, I yielded, to the yen for further knowledge into these famous ancient warriors.

Special Exhibition: The NINJA – Who were they?
From Jul 7, 2016 – Oct 10, 2016

Scoring Fs at AFCC 2016

Event, Singapore – Down for my first AFCC ever, I noticed a few Fs along the way. Here’s a quick run through!

IMG_20160703_000104Festival – Truly a festival of children’s content with books, music, songs and games for children, and those wannabe grown-up ones like me.

Focused – Japan was the Country of Focus in SJ50 year, which brings me to…

Fortunate – How else could I have had a look in? (Well, it was very much thanks to SCBWI Japan.)

Fun-filled – Totally enjoyed every bit, from tending the Japan Booth, helping the rehearsals for Japan Night in a dimly lit SEA Aquarium, keeping time for a marathon storytelling hour, to attending some very insightful sessions.

Fascinating – Very often so, as I was captivated by the performances and range of stories that were on display.

Flashy – How else to describe an underwater launch of bilingual picture books? Maybe splashy?

Favourite – An oft heard question, but I just couldn’t find a Japanese picture book or illustrator that I could pin down as a favourite. I found that I like many of them for their different stories, styles and colours!

Fruitful – Learned much about presenting, displaying, sharing, reading and creating content for children.

Frank – A brief, serious mention that kamishibai, picture card storytelling theatre, was once used for war propaganda. Frankly and plainly put, well-received with appreciative nods.

and finally,

Forward-looking – Covering recent trends in YA literature in Japan, the closing session of the event also looked to a future that promises to welcome greater colour, depth and diversity in Japanese content.

So a quick tally makes it 10 Fs in all, and there’s room for probably a few more.

Strong shift in force @Roppongi to Hokkaido and 18 December

Tokyo, 28 June – Darth Vader and the storm troopers at the Star Wars Visions will be packing up their set up at Roppongi Hills later today to quell cooler climes in Hokkaido. I managed to catch up with them a fortnight ago.

Making the quick trek up the spiral staircase past a queue for a rival exhibit (Naruto), I noticed that the lines were marked clearly with yellow masking tape. The Empire awaited along the middle path, before which a darkened indoor ticketing hall took in credits for entry. The steady stream of expectant fans were greeted by welcome signage overhead and a peek of the Death Star model and storm troopers taking aim at would-be trespassers.

Walking around the wall, I was greeted by who else but Vader himself in his meditation chamber. Standing silently, masked and plotting his next move as the soon-to-be-completed Death Star witnessed X-Wing duelling a smattering of the Empire’s fleet in a delay raid. New entrants were forced to bear with his theme song echoing across the hall, but the illusion of the enormity of facing an entire trooper platoon vanished at the mere sight of their posters adorning the glass panels above.

Eager ones lined up to pose with the protagonist, who stayed behind his iconic mask, while others shuffled along through the next portal to meet beings from other worlds. The visions were split into 6 sections – the original vision, the force, battles, sagas, the galaxy and droids. Inspirations for the saga led to the realization of the existence of the force, and then its two sides.

Fan art was coupled by a cast of retired weapons and bodies from the entire galaxy far, far away. Bubba Fett’s blaster, Jedi and Sith light sabres, mini models of the Jedi Council building and memorable battle scenes treated new and learned fans alike. Techie wannabes would have enjoyed the specs on the X-Wing, A-Wing and other vessels on display, while hitchikers could let their mind wonder across the worlds in a map of the entire galaxy.

Master Yoda stood quietly beside Amidala’s flowing white cloak, while the wirings of Vader’s mask lay open for all to see. Jabba the Hutt was there, the blue female alien dancer too, plus Ewoks and the bust of Chewbacca. The most impressive centerpiece was Hans Solo in cryogenic freeze. The stellar cast included the all-important droids, eventually the turning points in the saga, and a brilliantly gold C-3PO standing by to wave goodbye to a queue treated to tidbits from edited saga footage as they shuffled toward the store.

Of course, the chance to battle the man himself at the top of Roppongi Hills for just 500 yen and an image to last many lifetimes is surely the curtain-call poser. That is, before we say hello again to the galaxy come December 18 when the force awakens worldwide.

Star Wars Visions at Roppongi Tokyo City View

AnimeJapan 2015

The crowd awaits

Where’s the crowd?

Tokyo, 22 March – Sun shining, temperatures poised to hit the twenties, and the occasional cloud in the sky set the stage for a perfect day out. Japan’s largest anime exhibition, AnimeJapan 2015, beckoned at Tokyo Big Sight at Ariake in the Tokyo bay area. The crowd streamed steadily from Kokusaitenjijo seimon mae station toward the iconic exhibition hall. Greeted by a poster signboard that directed the stream off to the walkway that seemed to wrap round the building, regular visitors were taken to a parking lot behind, while some privileged few, probably press or event sponsors, passed through open covered transparent walkways. The crowd seemed happy to create a line, with only a few voices to guide them at random intervals. All the way, there was excited chatter about characters, stories and upcoming titles that were supposedly unveiled a few days earlier.

That's some costume

That’s some costume

This was the anime crowd – a mixed bag of mid-20s to 40s, maybe even 50s, presumably either studying or employed. Some brought along family and were allowed in through a separate side route that took the kids away from the main crowd. They sauntered unhindered past the larger part of the anime following that quickly filled 2 separate parking lots, which together easily spanned a football pitch. The waiting areas were fenced in and dissected by a road, yet the crowd did not feel the least penned in or dampened. The cool weather and light breeze made the 20-minute walk and subsequent 40-minute wait a time to quickly catch up on topics and highlights for the day. Who would have thought that the cosplayer’s area would be within literally touching distance as we moved closer to the entrance to the exhibition hall? Press and excited fans busily worked their shutters, training their devices on others dressed in full costume. While others seemed adamant to revel in their skin, one did not leave any exposed. Such was the dedication to detail, an expression of extreme affinity comprehensible only as fandom. Not a cloud in the sky, there was no reason to stay outside when everyone else was raring to catch whatever awaited within.

The well-trained approach shot

The shutterbug’s approach shot

Two large halls split exhibitors, which were production studios, publishers, gaming companies and anime schools. Broadly familiar characters like Detective Conan and Pikachu floated above the booths below, echoing their elevated status in the industry. The floor was littered with dressed up girls, often the target of eager shutterbugs, dealing out freebies and pamphlets while similarly costumed fans strolled purposefully past to their mecca.

All too familiar faces galore

All too familiar faces galore

Besides the icons overhead, the uninitiated would find little difficulty in recognizing some familiar faces. Doraemon is celebrating its 35th year, while Dragon Ball had Frieza and Goku posing with fans for a new movie and Sailor Moon sat quietly in the same section of the hall. Cowboy Beebop placards peered over passerbys and Gundam teased fans with a three screen 270 degree enclosure of the upcoming movie trailer.

A stunning rendition of the entrance building

A stunning rendition of the entrance building

The Yoyogi Animation Gakuin booth left a largely different impression. Two artisans were at work that day, one sculpting clay figurines and the other painting. Both performers were screened in their mini live studios in monitors above as onlookers stayed peeled on the creative work in action. The brushwork piece from the day before was a stunning rendition of the iconic entrance building overcome by nature. Next door was the charity auction area where visitors could choose to donate and bid for the right to be drawn next to their favourite character or purchase limited edition memorabilia.

Soft clay mashables

Soft clay mashables

The subdued side of things

Enter the subdued family side of things

In contrast to the frenzy and excitement was an unusually subdued section across the hall. The view from this side into the family exhibit area left me confounded. Kids were usually the most easily heard by miles, yet the atmosphere in that section was non-existent to say the least. Booths were sparsely spaced, the few participant families littering the booths made the area even seem distinctly more vast. Primary school children and below were non-paying fans, but the contrast that day was embarrassingly obvious. The tables were turned, the targeted segment was clear.

Moving on to the next hall, the Japan Animators Exhibition showcased projects that attempted to push the limits of anime as a storytelling genre. Eyes were glued to a frantic man and bug story unfolding in an apartment interweaved with the bug taking on the form of screaming girl. Bizarre but wildly entertaining. It summed up the event for the uninitiated, with a few question marks hanging over using the event to cultivate the next generation of anime fans and would-be creators and storytellers. For that, the industry is well-equipped with other channels.

Adventure at Japan’s theatre of sport

Tokyo – It was the morning of May 22nd, the last day the Japanese National Stadium would be open for tours to the public before renovations ahead of the 2020 Olympics. I took the day off to become part of the 6,000-strong weekday crowd, taking the municipal subway line to take me straight to its North gate.

Taking my first and last steps through the gates, I looked to the queue ahead. Snaking across the entrance platform was an excited but orderly crowd, a mix of parents with carriers and strollers in tow, couples, chatty girls and wide-eyed boys. I spotted a few sporting soccer jerseys and some others clad in business suits. They had obviously gone out of their way to take time off for the tour and were all set to get back to work.

As we shuffled toward the tour entrance below, some were conspicuously out of line, peering anxiously past the gates while feverishly urging their friends to arrive over the phone as others frantically fingered their smartphone screens. Staff were unraveling more rope to round up the growing queue but a few were already hollering for last-minute entrants ahead of shutting the gates. Time was of the essence.

Enjoying the intermittent windows of sun, I gazed upward for signs of rain clouds as a chilly breeze picked up because rain was forecast later in the day. A large menacing mass drifted nearer, threatening to open up and dump whatever it held. As we moved down to the tour entrance beneath, I caught my first glimpse of the track and field through a ground-level entrance. The brilliant green glowed brilliantly beyond the pitch dark entrance. The pitch did not welcome, it drew you in. Restrained by my orderly habit, I prised my eyes away and turned to the queue ahead.

A crooked clock hung above the tour entrance

A crooked clock hung above the tour entrance

I noticed a slightly crooked clock right above the tour entrance, which was laid out haphazardly using a few tables and benches. No one really noticed the alignment of the clock above it, except for the time. We were in for some history, but first we had to pass by an open cash box, some stacks of papers, and clammy hands snapping away at the 1,000 yen entry fee, before receiving a visitor access pass.

Liberated from the ordeal of the snail-paced queue, I charged out into the open to the curved road around the stadium.

1964 Olympic winners plaque and flagposts

The 1964 Olympic winners list

Many were pointing their cameras upward, toward the trident flag posts and the 1964 Olympic winners list. Carved in stone and perched high above us, we stretched to search for familiar names only to be met with droplets of rain. I remembered the momentous triumph of the Japanese women’s volleyball team and snapped a few quick photos before dashing off past another crowd (and winners board) to the main attraction: the sporting arena within.

Ground-side view of the pitch and terraces

Ground-side view of the pitch and terrace

By then, some brollies had gone up but sports enthusiasts are not the weakly kind. I found myself angling for a shot of the pitch among the many lined up along its perimeter. Some crouched down to caress the grass while others stood still to enjoy the expanse of the pitch and the ground-side view of the main stand terraces. As the droplets fell harder, the field embraced it and glistened vividly. Any joy was soon dampened as the winds picked up and forced us to take shelter.

Mother Nature's performance - a hallowed field

Mother Nature’s performance – a hallowed field

One brave figure remained on the tracks under an umbrella as the heavens opened. Another lone figure, a visitor, soon accompanied him, trudging up and down the length of the pitch, seemingly oblivious to the increasingly heavy downpour. The rest of us were left cowering from the fury of the wind and rain, seeking shelter under entrances, covered terraces and walkways. As the storm reached its peak, rain splash formed a fleeting calf-high mist as mother nature demonstrated her craft in creating a hallowed field.

Main stand view

Main stand view

I stole on an intermission in her performance to make my way up the main stand, only to be greeted by a stream, a result of gushing drainage outlets at the sides of the aisles. Sloshing up the slippery concrete steps and moderately strong current while being pelted by large droplets of rain, I took the fastest possible route to an open seat in the covered stands, brushing past two ladies who stalled midway in the rain with their brollies. Seating myself down in the main stand, I noticed someone starting off on the home stretch. He tore through the light rain and fell theatrically at the end, drawing warm applause for the performance. “That was pretty fast!” some said, amused and happy to have seen good sport today. My spectator experience thoroughly satisfied, I ventured forth to the cauldron atop the opposite stand.

I joined the crowd on an flanking move. Making my way through the ground entrance and up a flight of stairs to the upper stands, I reached gate 37, the entrance leading to the famed cauldron. Once again out in the open, this time without any cover in sight, I glanced up the towering floodlights. The rain cloud was moving east, leaving clear blue skies behind its gray trail.

A familiar backdrop adorns the main stand

A familiar backdrop adorns the main stand

Turning round to the west, my eyes immediately recognized the familiar Shinjuku skyline. Just a stone’s throw away, it seemed even nearer as a pretty backdrop adorning the main stand. A spectator tormented by the sight of his team could simply look away to enjoy the concrete landscape that stood over the horizon. The sight was enough to keep anyone distracted till something exciting happened on the grounds below.

Impeccable orderliness demonstrated once again

Impeccable orderliness demonstrated once again

The back stand’s main attraction awaited. I refocused my thoughts and rejoined the queue. A single file formed along an aisle toward the cauldron. I waited in line, amazed by the live demonstration of impeccable orderliness so characteristic of Japanese society. We all played our part, shuffling toward the cauldron to take a prized photo or two. That was all the time we afforded ourselves with the crowd breathing down on us. Some took selfies in their business suits, others perched atop the fences or searched for the best possible composition. All this happened in line, with the rest of the stands empty. We all knew where the best vantage was, just follow everyone else!

Rain clouds left behind clear blue skies

Rain clouds left behind clear blue skies

Past the cauldron, the line disappeared, the tension dissipated, and the euphoria subsided. A sense of nostalgia tinged with longing sadness quickly took hold. I would have loved to see a game here. Any sporting event, just to feel the wind in my hair and cheers reverberating across the ground. The open skies, flowing terraces, and flights of stairs in this arena was deprived of sporting endeavor, save the lone runner and some soccer jerseys. What will the future hold for its new incarnation? Its design will hold the key to the answer, and without doubt, it will not just be sport.

The crowd-guided tour had dispersed and I made my solo exit through an adjacent gate. It was the only other one open to us that day, waiting to be shut like the rest of them until the final farewell on the following weekend.

Gates closed

Gate closed

As I made my exit, a local TV station caught a fellow visitor in Kashima Antlers colors, who was chatting away happily into the camera. On the way back down the last flight of stairs, I received a towel to remind me of my adventure in one of Japan’s sporting monuments.