Bullet Ballet (1998)

Goda arrives home from after-work drinks to find his girlfriend of 10 years has shot herself. The initial shock soon gives way to curiosity as he tries to uncover where she got the gun from. His search for understanding, both the mystery of the origin of the weapon, and the more ineffable reasons for her committing suicide. Goda is soon scouring gun enthusiast forums and makes his own firearm. He wanders through the dark underbelly of the city, far removed from his daily life at an advertising agency. His journey brings him into contact with Chisato, a member of a street gang who is engaged in her own struggle with self destruction.

Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) writes, directs and stars in “Bullet Ballet”. The film is a clear development of his style from his earlier Tetsuo films, blending arthouse visuals with the brutality of an exploitation film. Shot on 16mm Black and White, with frenetic cuts, this film has more narrative structure and the editing is reigned in a little which helps make the film more comprehensible. Use of cuts to black, strobe lighting, and more can make for uncomfortable viewing, but these techniques are used sparingly and are rarely gratuitous. There are some stand-out examples of the power of film, in the rapid cuts between gunshots and scenes of war and destruction, that help the viewer sense the terrible power of this weapon. When a gun is aimed at a character in the film you are in no doubt about what the potential consequences would be. The film uses some fantastic locations, dark alleyways and abandoned buildings, and they are shot and directed to their best effect. Dripping water, the play of light and shadows, and the sense of a broken vision of what the city should be all create the perfect backdrop to the drama. The grime and decay is almost palpable through the screen. Tsukamoto, who also plays the lead character, is good as Goda, capturing the various emotions that Goda is going through: anger, sadness, fear. Kirina Mano gives a great performance as Chisato, tough with an underlying fragility. Many of the characters are ambiguous in nature and the film is far from a simple good versus evil tale; instead it feels like it is trying to unravel the morality of an incomprehensibly complex system that is largely dictated by uncontrollable feelings. The supporting cast all do a good job, the gang members are suitably menacing, almost the human embodiment of the dark city streets they inhabit.

Tsukamoto weaves a number of themes and ideas through the simple narrative creating a work that really wants to say something about the problems it addresses. For example, Goda’s obsession with the gun become a more general rumination on the problem of violence in society. Likewise, in attempting to work through his anger and upset at his girlfriend’s death, and fathom some reason for it, he is in fact representing a deeply felt angst in Japanese society about this issue. Suicide is a serious problem in Japan and the film has two characters that seem to have this self-destructive urge. While “Bullet Ballet” rightly shies away from giving any definitive solution to the problem, it does shine a light on it, questioning to what extent this self-destructive urge is perhaps part of a larger undercurrent of violence in society. Goda’s obsession with the gun as a solution to his anger and sense of powerlessness at the loss of his girlfriend shows that Goda is not above this descent into violence.

Cutie Honey: Tears (2016)

In a world that is split into the rich, living in ultra-modern skyscrapers, and a poverty-stricken underclass consigned to the lower levels of a multi-storey city, an unlikely hero arises in the form of a beautiful android. In a dramatic opening scene we see a tense confrontation on a precarious walkway high above the city. Hitomi (Mariya Nishiuchi) is being taken to safety by her “father”, the professor who created her. Lady Jiru (Nicole Ishida), who has seized control of the city, is hunting down the pair for reasons that will later become apparent. Following a fall to the city streets below, Hitomi begins working to fight the “Sodoms” or military police that terrorize the citizens of the lower levels. She soon meets the journalist Hayami (Takahiro Miura), who is involved with a resistance movement. He explains to her that the AI that controls the city is causing the pollution on the lower levels and they intend to bring it down and end the tyranny of the Lady Jiru.

The character Cutie Honey first appeared in the manga by Go Nagai. This film is a huge departure from earlier incarnations of the characters, and almost unrecognizable from the Cutie Honey portrayed in Anno’s earlier live-action adaptation. Hitomi’s ability to change into any form means the film fits more into the superhero genre, though science-fiction and cyberpunk are also major elements. Cutie Honey: Tears does a good job of creating its world, and contrasting the dismal lower quarters with the pristine upper class lifestyle of the villains. It owes a debt to Metropolis (with the opening scene in particular a possible homage to the end of that film) and includes many ideas seen in other films, drone cameras and mass surveillance, Artificial Intelligence, inequality and the darker side of technological advancement. Director Takeshi Asai is clearly a fan of the genre. Cutie Honey: Tears makes use of some great sets, with gritty urban cityscapes and near-future high-rises creating visually interesting environments for the action. Occasionally, the world building feels a little haphazard, sometimes perfectly evoking a sense of place, and other times forgetting rules it has previously established. Mariya Nishiuchi is charismatic as Hitomi/ Cutie Honey, and I wish there had been more martial arts sequences as she sells the fight scenes well. Nicole Ishida plays the cold-hearted counter-point to Hitomi’s sympathetic protagonist with suitable hard-edged style. The climactic battle between the two women, an archetypal struggle between a rational, calculating villain and our warm-hearted, determined hero, gives both actresses a chance to shine in their acting and action roles. The special effects are good for the most part, though the CG effects lack polish at points. It is good to see a lot of practical effects and the design of the Sodoms, the costumes of Hitomi and Lady Jiru, and other details are great.

The film’s central plot is familiar to many science-fiction stories. Essentially a divided society in which the wealthy elites live in a rarefied world while those below struggle. The film ties in an ecological message to strengthen this point as it is the high-rise dwelling rich who are poisoning the lower classes with noxious fumes from their new AI technology. While nothing new the film does contain a fair amount of action and excitement and Hitomi is an interesting protagonist. There are few twists or surprises, save one shocking turn in the final act, and for the most part it is a by-the-numbers science fiction film. However, fans of this kind of anti-capitalist cyberpunk will find things to enjoy here.

Cutie Honey (2004)

An office worker by day, Honey Kisaragi (Erika Sato) has the extraordinary power of being able to change her appearance at will with a press of her heart necklace. She keeps her power up by eating copious amounts of her favourite food: onigiri. Her alter-ego Cutie Honey is a powerful crime-fighting superhero who as well as being able to transform into various costumes and disguises is virtually indestructible and fairly handy in a fight. When the Panther Claw group, led by Sister Jill along with her four supervillain underlings, Gold Claw, Cobalt Claw, Scarlet Claw and Black Claw, appear causing trouble, Cutie Honey steps in to save the day. She is assisted by Natsuko Aki (Mikako Ichikawa) and Seiji Hayami (Jun Murakami).

Directed by Hideaki Anno (Love and Pop), the film revels in a hyperactive comic-book style. Rather than attempting to turn the fantastical premise into a real-world drama, it instead embraces its origins in manga and anime. The manga was written by Go Nagai and later adapted into several television series. The opening scenes, with outlandish costumes, wacky special effects-driven fight sequences, frenetic editing, and ridiculous levels of destruction setthe stage for much that is to follow. The film is an out-and-out comedy and there is rarely any serious threat or emotion on display. Cutie Honey is a likeable lead. Kisaragi is absent-minded, obsessed with onigiri, while Cutie Honey is strong, resourceful and more than capable of taking on the bad guys. A great performance and Erika Sato excels in both roles. There are also nods to the somewhat exploitative anime version with former model Sato either in the bath, or in her underwear. The supporting cast gleefully ham things up in this comedic melodrama. Cutie Honey is full of surprises, unrestrained by a desire to be realistic, such as when one villain introduces themselves with a song and dance number. The extravagant costumes of the villains show an attention to detail and a desire to faithfully recreate the feel of a live-action anime.

Cutie Honey has some great visual gags and is clearly aimed at a younger audience. An entertaining protagonist and the film’s sense of anarchic freedom gives it an exciting edge. A lot of live-action adaptations shy away from the silliness of their source material, whereas Anno embraces it, attempting at every turn to outdo the original and utilising every tool in his arsenal to do so. The character has a good, if predictable, message about friendship and doing the right thing. But it is surprisingly fitting for the character, whose admirable qualities outshine her apparent naiveite.

Street of Joy (1974)

Just before a change in the law is due to prohibit legal prostitution in Japan we follow a group of women working at a brothel. Kimiko (Meika Seri) is recently married and moving on from her life as a prostitute, though she later begins to have second thoughts about her decision. Shimako (Junko Miyashita) is besotted by one of her customers, a gangster to whom she gives all her earnings and who is abusive towards her. Naoko (Naomi Oka) is trying hard to beat the record of seeing 24 customers in a single day. As the film moves between the women and their co-workers, clients and others, we get an insight into their characters and a look at the sex industry in Japan.

The film is directed by Tatsumi Kumashiro, based on a novel by Ikko Shimizu, and shows a reverence for the characters, who are all portrayed sympathetically even if their motivations may be incomprehensible. The film is told in a somewhat erratic fashion, cutting between the various characters, with comic picture-book illustrations and title cards, snatches of exposition and enka songs inserted sporadically. Early in the film this can prove to be a barrier in getting any sense of a cohesive narrative, though later things do become clearer as the characters come into focus. This is partly down to the fantastic performances of the actresses, who embody their characters fully and give a sense of rounded individuals. Though the film does deal with sex it is rarely sordid, and in fact shows it to be as dull and commonplace as it must be for those in these professions. The women sell themselves in the same way that they would sell goods in any other shop and see little correlation between their self-worth and their product. This is a refreshing look at prostitution as it shows the world from their perspective. There is plenty of humour in the movie, with inebriated clients unable to perform and the peculiar trick of squatting over a stove to warm up for a customer. Though it does show certain dangers of the profession in Shimako’s abusive relationship, the film shies away from becoming overly serious. It might be more accurate to say it avoids sensationalism or exploitation, giving an even-handed appreciation of the issues involved.

Street of Joy is a peculiar film in a lot of ways. The storytelling and editing are more akin to a soap-opera than a cohesive film narrative. The various characters seem thrown together and it is hard to grasp any overarching theme or message for the film. However, it does offer a great insight into the operation of such establishments before prohibition. It casts an equivocal eye over prostitution and focusses on the women rather than the customers or those opposed to what they are doing. Too often sex workers are side-lined or used as titillation in films, particularly crime dramas, but here it is their stories that are being told. Kimiko’s dissatisfaction with her husband shows the importance of sex for women, while other characters express the equally important emotional needs. Sex is something that is of vital importance, while at the same time being as innocuous as any other function of life such as eating or sleeping. This nuanced approach makes the film an interesting watch and perhaps a good counterbalance to more extreme portrayals of sex work on screen.

Our Little Sister (2015)

Sochi, Yoshino and Chika are three sisters who live together in a large house in a seaside town. Abandoned by their father 15 years ago after an affair, they have settled into a relaxed existence, when news of their father’s death and impending funeral reach them. On attending the funeral they meet their younger half sister, Suzu, for the first time and invite her to live with them. Suzu decides to move town and live in their house, beginning a new school and new life with her older sisters. The story shows us a little of each of their lives and how they work together to support each other.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (I Wish) the film moves at a relaxed pace with a sense of realism, shying away from melodrama, as we see the everyday trials of the sisters. Their interactions seem perfectly natural, helped by the fantastic acting of all the leads and supporting cast, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose and Kaho. The characters are all likeable with distinct personalities. Rather than watching a standard plot unfold, instead it feels as though we are simply spending time with them, as we see them cooking, eating, working or at school, and it is intriguing to see what happens. Each character is given their own arc and the film is paced to give everyone just enough time to develop. The direction is likewise calm and measured, with beautifully composed shots, and the fantastic settings, such as the old house and the seaside town, used to full effect in capturing a sense of place.

A subtle examination of family life and sisterly affection. Amazing direction and acting make this an enjoyable experience.

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Given the wrong children at birth, two sets of parents are left with the overwhelming decision: to exchange their six year-old sons, Keita and Ryusei, re-uniting them with their biological parents, or to choose the child they have raised for six years. Through this tragic occurrence we are given an insight into the lives of the two young boys and their parents.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, this film features many of his trademarks, from the focus on family and parenthood, down to minute details of small-talk about fireworks, a sense of the passing seasons, railway crossings, and an instantly recognizable “clean” directorial style. We are undoubtedly in Koreeda’s world once again, and that means nothing short of brilliance. This is by far one of the most heartbreaking of his films, as we witness the tortuous decision the two sets of parents have to make. Every character, mothers, fathers, and children is put through the emotional wringer. Towards the end you cannot help but be moved by the situation they find themselves unwittingly in. The film offers plenty of food for thought, with both sets of parents (particularly the fathers) being very different, one strict and work-orientated, the other carefree and family-focused. This allows for an exploration of the nature versus nurture debate, the extent to which our lives are pre-destined dependant on our circumstances at birth, as well as many more discussions of parenthood, and in particular fatherhood. The casting and acting is spot-on, and the two young boys do a great job. Needless to say, as with most Koreeda films, the direction and music lead you through the film’s delicately constructed world, leaving little to complain about.

The film does a fine job of giving every character enough time to breath, you feel especially for the mother of Keita, but the real focus is Keita’s father. This hardworking businessman presents a touching portrayal of fatherhood as he struggles to connect with either son. I cannot recommend this film enough. I found it captivating, with believably nuanced characters, poignant story, and fantastic acting.

I Wish (2011)

The story of two brothers separated, one in Kagoshima, one in Fukuoka, after the breakdown of their parents relationship. The elder brother, who lives with his mother and in the shadow of an active volcano that regularly showers the town with ash, wishes for their parents to be re-united, and for their family to live together again. The younger brother, living with his musician father, has no such aspirations, being content with his life.

Hirokazu Koreeda is a master of the family drama, perfectly capturing the subtle complexities of interpersonal relationships, and provoking sympathy without resorting to overt sentimentality. The story, written by Koreeda, hinges around the ‘miracle’ (which is the Japanese title of the film) that occurs when two Shinkansen trains pass one another. It is said that if you witness this and make a wish, it is sure to come true. While this is the only discernible plot, it is clear that it is only a means to an end, providing a motivation for the characters and a reason for following their lives for this short period. Along the way, Koreeda creates such a full, vibrant, and true-to-life world, that the story soon becomes secondary to the characters. This is emphasised by the direction, which takes us to the heart of the drama. One particularly memorable scene is when the children are telling their wishes to each other. It is filmed in the style of an intimate video diary, creating a sense of realism that the rest of the film also strives to capture. The young actors do a fine job, bringing a youthful energy to their roles and the believable hopefulness and naiveté necessary to tell this story. The two brothers are played by real-life brothers, Koki Maeda and Oshiro Maeda. It is said that Koreeda did not complete the script until the actors were cast and this is apparent from the way each of them seem to perfectly embody their characters. I would give equal credit to both the writing and acting in developing rounded characters, who never fall into cliché.

Koreeda films tend to shun typical action and big moments, being less plot-oriented than many others. Instead what he gives you is life itself, without pretence or artifice. Moments of realisation are peppered throughout, just as in life, and his gentle, generally positive outlook on the world is infectious, creating a feel-good film for all. As with other Koreeda films, this feels less like watching characters go through some convoluted plot, but rather it feels like spending time with real people, with their hopes, dreams and fears.

Blade of the Immortal (2017)

Takashi Miike’s previous forays into the samurai genre, in the shape of “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri” show a reverence for the genre which is also evidenced here in “Blade of the Immortal”. The film is based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura and follows the story of a man cursed with eternal life. In the opening scenes we are introduced to Manji, played by Takuya Kimura. He is on the run from the law after killing several constables and taking care of his sister, Machi. Manji’s immortality comes from a bloodworm given to him by a witch and it also gives him the power to recover from any injury. He also gains the less heralded ability to produce any number of weapons at will from beneath his robes. Later he comes across a young girl, Rin, played by Hana Sugisaka, who reminds him of his sister. Her own parents have been killed and Manji agrees to take on her mission of revenge.

Miike clearly has a love of samurai and swordplay and there are some beautifully choreographed fight-sequences. Both large scale battles and one-on-one duels between the protagonist and the swordsmen of the Itto clan. The cinematography is as good as any classic samurai film. The opening sequences use the chiaroscuro to great effect and the use of shadows throughout evokes an atmosphere of the clash between right and wrong. There is also great use of colour, in the vibrant red of Rin’s kimono and purple of Makie’s gown (another of the Itto clan) contrasting with the black and white of Manji’s robes. Everything about the film shows a quality and attention to detail, with excellent set-design and costumes. The tone of the film flits between serious drama but also includes flashes of Miike’s black humour. In large part these are off-hand remarks, or unbelievable moments such as when a character is impaled on a number of weapons at once. The film is long and perhaps suffers a little from an attempt to replicate a manga structure. The screenplay by Tetsuya Oishi does a good job of getting a lot of information across, but could have done with a less loyal adaptation of the source material. It becomes a little formulaic when Manji is taking on the third or fourth villain to appear. However, the final triumphant fight sequence, itself an incredible feat running to almost half an hour of uninterrupted action, brings the film to a thrilling close. The fights are bloodsoaked and brutal and there is enough variety in the opponents, locations or impetus of the sequences to keep you interested, but it is clear that they are attempting to rush through several important characters without giving too much time to develop any one in particular. The relationship between Rin and Manji is poignant and enjoyable to watch, with both giving exceptional performances.

The film discusses the rights and wrongs of revenge as well as the idea of the cycle of violence. In many ways Manji is the embodiment of this notion. He is trapped in life that is never ending, forced not only to relive his own mistakes, but in taking on Rin’s mission he is possibly beginning the same pattern again. He yearns for death, having grown tired of living, but is unable to achieve it. In his determination we also see his character go through a change of heart as he moves from being apathetic and wishing to end his life, to rediscovering a meaning to fight. This cyclical nature of violence is something that the film is somewhat ambivalent about. Later in the film the villain tells Rin that whether he lives or dies men like him will return, time and again. Humanity can never walk away from its fundamentally violent nature. But there is the hope that there will always be heroes who rise up to fight on the side of justice. An enjoyable swordplay epic with a heartwarming central relationship and exceptional action sequences.

The Sion Sono (2015)

Sion Sono is a prolific director, having made over 40 films in his career. He came to prominence through gory horror films such as “Suicide Club”, but he has created works in several genres, comedies like “Love & Peace”, a hip-hop musical “Tokyo Tribe”, and more dramatic works such as “Himizu” and “Cold Fish” (inspired partly by real world events). The film discusses the fact that he is hard to categorise, in some ways having created a category all of his own, the “Sion Sono” film. He is an auteur, both writing and directing many of his projects. However, Sono admits that he has enjoyed more fame and success abroad than in Japan, suggesting that the Japanese film industry tends to shy away from films that show the country in a bad light. His focus on sex, violence, pornography, crime, and other taboo subjects have helped to turn him into a cult star rather than a mainstream success. But it clear from this documentary that success is not something that Sono feels is the most important thing in life. We see early on his disordered studio, with large canvases strewn around and wild impressionistic scribblings across them and slap-dash calligraphy pinned to the wall. We witness an amusing scene as Sono attempts to explain something of his process, and his philosophy, to the cameraman, as he daubs paint on a canvas, in a haphazard way, creating some sort of story in his own mind as he goes, and discussing the purity of the canvas being despoiled by his paint. Rather than strive for perfection he belives true beauty lies in these imperfections, lives that are full of mistakes and rectifications. Later on he suggests that he values quantity over quality, inverting the familiar in his own controversial style he seems to be determinedly set against mainstream expectations. Sono’s primary drive is to create. As he say himself, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, humans are here to create, to express themselves, and to live. It is a chaotic philosophy but it appears to have paid off for the director. Despite many in the film suggesting he should have become famous sooner than he did, his recent celebrity due to several fantastic films in a short span of years has ensured his place in the pantheon of top directors.

The film follows Sono through a year of his life as he works on “The Whispering Star” (2015) and talks about many of his other works. There are interviews with Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido (co-stars in Himizu), his wife and actress in the Whispering Star, Megumi Kagurazaka, producers, friends, and even his sister. Together they paint a picture of a man who is slightly eccentric, incredibly driven, passionate about his work, kind, and with a love of film stretching back to his childhood. During the segment with his sister he digs through old notebooks, showing his early film criticism, including a “Sion Sono” awards with Best Picture, Actress and Actor awards. There is also fascinating insight into how he creates his work, looking round sets, frantically scribbling down storyboards, dictating a precis of a new film to his assistant. In some of the most powerful scenes of the film we see Sono and his team in Fukushima, the area devastated by a nuclear plant explosion and which featured as a backdrop in both Himizu and The Whispering Star. As he speaks to locals, some of whom he recruits to act in his movie, we hear of their loss following the tsunami that destroyed their homes and businesses. Although the film doesn’t go into this in great detail it is clear that Sono feels this is an important issue to highlight. In fact this segment stands as a great documentary in itself on the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

A great behind-the-scenes look at how this director works, his formative experiences, philosophy and creativity. Sono says that the only thing that concerns him is making interesting films, whether they succeed or fail financially. This documentary is certainly interesting, offering a great insight into a director with a unique vision.

The Whispering Star (2015)

Yoko works for the Space Postal Service, delivering packages to distant planets. Her only companion is the onboard computer, which seems to be malfunctioning. Yoko is a humanoid robot who spends her days engaged in everyday chores, making tea, cleaning the ship, and listening to old tapes that she recorded detailing her travels. This existence is punctuated by her arrival on a number of different planets where she must deliver packages to humans sent from relatives. We discover early on that due to some unknown catastrophe many of the humans in the universe are dead, meaning planets are sparsely inhabited and people separated by great distances. Yoko interacts with several of these people as she performs her duties, before setting off again in her ship. Throughout she wonders why it is that humans, and only humans, feel a need to send each other things.

Shot in black-and-white the film is based on a very early story idea from director Sion Sono. Better known for his violent and outrageous films, this film seems somewhat unusual in his filmography. The Whispering Star is a very contemplative film, with little dialogue for long stretches, but it does a great job of visual storytelling and finding humour and interest in seemingly everyday things. An early example of this is the dripping tap on the spaceship. Intercut with title cards showing passing days, Sono manages to convey the length of time spent on a ship, the out-of-place feeling occasioned by a lack of reference in space, it melds humour and melancholy perfectly without the need for dialogue or explanation. Many more scenes follow this pattern, using repetition of chores to highlight the monotony of Yoko’s journey. The set design of the ship is charmingly retro, with inside and out looking like a traditional home, complete with sink, plug sockets and things which again give the film a wry comedic edge when the audience contemplates the absurdity of such a set-up. It harkens back to old science-fiction films, and could easily have been made at any time in the last half century. The ship computer is likewise reminiscent of a traditional, early 20th century view of the future, with flashing lights and an old fashioned radio design. The terrestrial scenes were shot around Fukushima, with its abandoned towns and decimated landscapes providing a poignant backdrop for the drama. This also allows for some incredible shots without the use of special effects or set-dressing, such as boats grounded in the middle of a field, crumbling buildings and deserted streets. The cinematography is spectacular and each scene is shot with care. Megumi Kagurazaka is incredible as Yoko and carries the film for large parts single-handedly. Despite being trapped with her on the ship for long stretches, there is enough nuance and charisma in her performance that it is not hard to spend so much time with her.

The Whispering Star is a film about isolation and a post-apocalyptic society still clinging to some sense of normality. The small communities scattered throughout the universe are attempting to reach out to one another through sending gifts and this speaks powerfully to the human urge to social interaction. Life is fragile and transitory and it is during this brief span that humans must attempt to connect and make sense of their surroundings. It is also a film about memory and the past. As Yoko listens to her recordings we are forced to think about time passing, again referenced by the eternally dripping tap on the ship. The passage of time is important as it takes so long for Yoko to travel to each destination. The finale of the film is a spectacular sequence that wordlessly takes Yoko on a journey through various stages of life, though expressed almost as a shadow-play while Yoko herself is at the forefront. Each of the worlds Yoko travels to seems to be only an echo of what it used to be. In one scene she arrives late to deliver a package, again emphaising the importance of time, and the urgency of humans to live their lives.