J-pop stars AiNA THE END and Matsumura Hokuto star in this music-infused Japanese drama from Shunji Iwai


Source: Busan International Film Festival


Dir/scr Shunji Iwai: Japan. 2023. 178mins

Homeless street musician Kyrie (AiNA THE END) catches the eye of blue-wigged party girl Ikko (Hirose Suzu) one October night in Tokyo, 2023. It’s not just Kyrie’s raw talent that Ikko recognises, but a shared past – a teenage friendship from a time when both girls had different names. Shunji Iwai’s music-driven melodrama weaves together multiple timelines, from 2011 until the present day, and a sprawling story that takes in earthquakes, bereavement, teen pregnancy and multiple instances of photogenic yearning. For the first couple of hours, it’s an engrossing piece of storytelling – the movie equivalent of a pulpy page-turner or an airport novel. The final third, however, starts to get a little bogged down with lengthy exposition  and numerous tear-sodden emotional climaxes. Still, the music – the film’s key selling point – is distinctive and frequently rather lovely.

Captures night-time Tokyo’s thrill of neon-drenched possibilities

Firmly targeted at the J-Pop market, the film features two musicians in key roles. AiNA THE END (birth name Aina Iitani) is a solo artist with a distinctive husky voice, who was also a member of the band Bish. Her co-star, in a smaller role, is singer and actor Matsumura Hokuto, a member of the J-pop band SixTONES, and a TV and film actor who most recently provided the voice for one of the main characters in Makoto Shinkai’s anime hit Suzume. The film’s marathon running time is unlikely to hinder its success within their fanbase. Elsewhere, while writer-director Iwai Shunji’s profile might prove to be attractive to festival programmers (he’s best known for his 1995 breakthrough Love Letter, and 2001’s All About Lily Chou Chou), the film’s length may be a challenge. 

When we first meet the central character, she’s a solemn, entirely silent child nicknamed ’Peep’ by local children who meet her in a park in Osaka, 2011. In present-day Tokyo, and now going by the name of Kyrie, she is still mute – she communicates through written notes – but has found a voice when she sings. And what a voice. There’s a child-woman fragility to it that builds and soars into something raw and untamed –  it’s haunting and odd, with something of the feral poetry of early Joanna Newsom. 

Ikko, who instantly recognises the strange, silent girl she befriended at school, decides that she will act as Kyrie’s manager. But Ikko (who was previously known as Maori, and has accumulated almost as many enemies as she has nylon fun-wigs) can barely keep her own life on track, let alone someone else’s career. The friendship between the two girls was initially brokered by Shiomi (Matsumura Hokuto), recruited to be Ikko/Maori’s tutor and who, for reasons that become clear towards the end of the film, feels a fraternal responsibility towards Kyrie, or Luca, as she was then known.

It is a handsome production that captures nightine Tokyo’s thrill of neon-drenched possibilities. Where the film stumbles, apart from in its overstuffed third act, is in the casting. AiNA THE END can certainly sing, but struggles with the acting side of her performance – not least because she is cast in a dual role, both as Kyrie and as her older sister. Blinking and gangly, like a newly hatched baby bird, her performance has an affected, faux-naive quality – she plays her adult character like a toddler dressing up in her big sister’s clothes. Hirose is more convincing but even so, the enduring bond between the two feels as thin and overstretched as one of Kyrie’s guitar strings.

Production company: Rockwell Eyes Inc

Contact: Toei Company, Ltd www.toei.co.jp

Producer: Muneyuki Kii

Cinematography: Kobe Chigi

Production design: TBC

Editing: TBC

Music: Kobayashi Takeshi

Main cast: AiNA THE END, Matsumura Hokuto, Kuroki Haru, Hirose Suzu, Nijirô Murakami