"When Nunoe enters into an arranged marriage with aspiring cartoonist Shigeru, she grows to understand his artistic passion, and offers him support throughout their continued poverty."
Yup, that's what I thought too. I read that one-sentence summary and guessed the film would be dreary. What's more, in some ways that assumption's not actually that far off. Kazue Fukiishi is given to a one-armed man (Kankuro Kudo) coming back from World War Two, only to discover that all he does every day is create grotesque horror manga that almost no one wants to read. He'd claimed to have a steady income. This is a bad joke. In fairness Kudo does actually have a publisher, but he's working in the lowest-rent kind of manga, rental as opposed to purchase, and it's such a tough industry that cartoonists are capable of starving to death.
This is basically the movie. Fukiishi stands by her man, for two hours. They pawn almost everything they own, they cook with grass and buy rotten bananas. There's nothing glamorous about their life at all.
However there's something I didn't know about this movie while I was watching it. Shigeru was a real person. He's still alive, in fact, despite being a one-armed war veteran who was born in 1922. He's better known as Shigeru Mizuki, best known for GeGeGe no Kitaro and other stories of yokai (demons and goblins). He's also written a lot about the war, attacking Japan for its wartime atrocities and taking a stand against right-wing revisionists like Yoshinori Kobayashi. (His brother was convicted as a war criminal.) Thus despite what I was thinking for most of its running time, this film is actually a celebration of a much-revered manga-ka.
1. He sticks by his principles, no matter how self-destructive. When someone comes from Kodansha Publishing to offer him a regular gig in Weekly Shonen Magazine, the answer is no. They wanted science-fiction, you see.
2. Nunoe thinks his work's brilliant. Seriously. She hunts it down in a local bookstore and is blown away, no matter that the proprietor points out that kids these days don't go for Shigeru's gruesome stories and their unhappy endings. That's why she sticks by this semi-autistic figure with his wild hair, bad teeth and tendency to laugh at inappropriate times. She sees in him what the rest of Japan will see in later decades and in time she even starts helping with the inking.
3. This is the weirdest one. Shigeru's defiantly unfashionable. He's writing about yokai even at the time of the moon landings, when people want stories of space rockets. He's standing up for the oogie-boogies... and hence so does the film. Very occasionally, usually in the second half, you'll see a ghost or a goblin. It'll just be sitting in the background of a scene, watching the other characters and perhaps blowing out a candle. This is bizarre, but also kind of cool and definitely gives the film something unique. The scene of overripe bananas was funny anyway, but it becomes downright surreal with the addition of a dancing banana goblin. (Tomoko has assured me that it's not technically a dancing banana goblin, but that's what it looked like to me.) It's kind of sweet, actually. I think the spooks are fond of their manga-ka cheerleader, while for his part you could say that he's been keeping them alive.
4. There are also snippets of animation. Shigeru Mizuki's work has previously been turned into proper anime, not to mention Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War, but this is different. These are little black-and-white sequences in which Shigeru's manga moves and comes alive, which never fails to be fun.
Thus you could almost call this film upbeat, despite the grinding poverty and the fact that I think we're about an hour into the film before Nunoe even smiles for the first time. They stick by each other. In time they find a kind of happiness, learning to relax and enjoy the little things. They believe in what Shigeru's doing. A lot of this film is close to being miserable, but even so it has a sweetness.
Mind you, its historical authenticity is bad enough that it might be deliberate. Admittedly this is a common failing of modestly budgeted Japanese films, but even so it particularly stands out here due to historical references to World War Two and the moon landings. Sometimes it feels right, but at other times the film crew clearly just went outside and shot what was in front of them. I'm thinking particularly here of the Tokyo exteriors. Now normally I'd be critical of this, but on this occasion it could be argued that this is serving the theme, blurring the line between past and our present just as it suggests that the superstitions of a still more bygone age might still be knocking around now.
This film is based on the real Nunoe's autobiography, which was published in 2008 and two years later had been turned into both this movie and a 156-episode NHK TV series. Whoah. Must have struck a chord. The TV leads were prettier (including the men), but the movie allows Kankuro Kudo to create really quite a distinctive Shigeru. He's the most obviously impressive, but all the performances here are good. However there is one clanging lapse in the casting, in that the actress playing Kudo's mother looked younger to me than Kudo (born 1970).
Overall, an oddity. It's interesting, although I'm sure you'll enjoy it more if you know in advance that GeGeGe and all the other manga characters here are famous in Japan and that the film's a celebration of its subject, not a miserablist dirge. If no one's told you that, you might find the film's first half a bit of an endurance test. Anyway, at first this was only released domestically with no international ambitions, as is usual for Japanese-language movies, but it made enough of a critical splash that it now seems to be getting more attention that anyone at first expected. It's magical realism. A man turns to sand, for instance. Underneath the poverty and Japanese stoicism, it's quirky.