River’s Edge (2018)

A high-school drama that deals with several serious issues. Haruna (Fumi Nikaido) is in a relationship with Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi), who is cheating on her with her friend. Fellow classmate Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is being bullied by Kannonzaki, becomes friends with Haruna who feels sorry for him. Yamada is gay and therefore something of a social outcast amongst his peers. He takes Haruna to see his ‘treasure’, the skeleton of a corpse he discovered in an overgrown field beside a river. Another classmate (Sumire), who works as model and suffers from bulimia, is also aware of this body. The story follows each of these characters as their lives intersect and impact on each other through a series of increasingly dark and dangerous situations.

The film makes much in its opening scenes of the looming industrial site that belches forth smoke and discharges filth into the river. The setting highlights the complex, dirty nature of teenage life, being a metaphor for the corruption of society on the pure children who are born into the world. Director Isao Yukisada makes good use of cuts, for example between sex and scenes of vomiting or violence, to show the confused blend of emotions that characterise this period of life. There are for example highly comic transitions between a sex scene and the consumption of bananas or sausages, which function to underscore a message about the interconnectedness of these characters who at first seem to socialise only in a shallow sense. The bulimic subplot likewise offers a human counterpoint to the idea of the factory that both consumes and then vomits back pollutants. The acting is occasionally hit and miss, but Fumi Nikaido and Ryo Yoshizawa give fantastic performances. The ensemble cast are all given fairly hefty roles, with their own nuances and dilemmas to face. There is a little overacting, but with such a collection of actors and scenes it is easy to move past them. It is a little overlong, the second half becoming directionless, seeming more like a series of vignettes rather than a single narrative. This is easy to understand as the film is based on a manga by Kyoko Okazaki and is perhaps attempting to fit too many stories into a single cohesive narrative. The film often seems like it is struggling to fit in all of the stories it wants to tell, something that is far easier in the long form, episodic nature of a manga. The film is rarely dull however, being a kaleidoscope of teen angst and genuinely shocking scenes. All the various subplots are resolved to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The film discusses death, most prominently in the characters’ reactions to the corpse and in a latter shocking scene with Haruna. This corpse is symbolic of the characters confronting death itself, with the associated nihilism and overwhelming realisation that there is really no goal at the end of life, simply a series of tragedies. Bulimia, infidelity, anger, jealousy, homosexuality, and bullying are all shown to be part of life and the audience is left to find some morality amongst a morass of sin and suffering. There is an unspoken distance between many characters, who are unable to relate to one another, despite being in desperate need of someone to help them. They are isolate, impulsive, nothing is neatly resolved. It is a fizzing, unstable collage of teenage emotions showing the darker side of human nature. River’s Edge is a solid drama that deals with a number of important themes and leaves you speculating on the characters actions long after it is over.

Millennium Actress (2001)

Chiyoko Fujiwara is an actress with a long and illustrious career spanning several decades. When two reporters travel to her secluded home in the mountains to interview her they are taken on a mesmerising journey through her past. She recounts her earliest experiences on screen and the chance encounter with a runaway political activist that was to prove a formative experience. While running away from the police this rebel artist is first protected, and later taken in by Chiyoko. He gives her a key, telling her to return it to him the next time they meet. This leads her into her acting career and provides a fixed point throughout her life as she strives to be reunited with him.

Written and directed by Satoshi Kon, Millenium Actress features the same fourth-wall breaking and subjective approach that characterise his films Perfect Blue and Paprika. Similarly to Mima’s journey in Perfect Blue, Chiyoko’s story is told not only through her interview, but through a series of flashbacks which are increasingly interrupted by the journalists themselves, who appear to be recording the scenes in the past, or even appear as characters in the films. This is a novel way to tell the story and provides a great amount of humour as well as pulling the audience along forcefully with the narrative. It is one of the triumphs of the film that despite being essentially a sequence of flashbacks, it maintains a real sense of tension during the action sequences, in part by wrong-footing the viewer and blurring the line between drama and reality. The story itself is fairly straightforward and focused on Chiyoko with a fascination that is fitting for her role as a movie starlet. We are forced to concentrate due to the shifting nature of the narrative, never sure what is real or part of a film. The central love story and the mystery surrounding the key provide a rigid framework around which ideas of identity, the power of art and cinema, fame and celebrity are woven. The score is emotional and heightens the drama. As with other works by Satoshi Kon there is a great attention to detail and it is interesting to see the various periods depicted as Chiyoko works on films through the decades.

Millennium Actress is a fascinating journey through this character’s subjective reality. We are never quite sure what is happening, that heightens the importance of her emotional response to the world. It is made clear throughout that the line between film and reality, in the impact they have on one another, is blurred. This means the only thing that characters can rely on are their own feelings. The film also touches on the importance of finding this goal in leading a successful life. Chiyoko is told by her mother not to become an actress, and to settle down and start a family. This represents the traditional view of many. But it is clear that Chiyoko’s life and importance to others as a movie star vindicates her independence of thought and desire to pursue her own career and interests.

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (2017)

After moving to Kamakura, a region known for its many shines and religious historical significance, a young couple start to witness many strange phenomena: a kappa (mythological creature) running through the garden, gods and ghosts are commonplace occurrences. There is a festival attended by anthropomorphic animals. Masakazu Ishiki is a mystery writer and part-time detective, using his skills to solve various cases. When his wife Akiko’s spirt ends up on the ‘otherside’, Masakazu must follow a Shinigami (spirit guide) to rescue her from the large monster there.

A children’s fantasy adventure that has plenty of excitement in the second half after building a sense of wonder and entertaining world in the opening scenes. The story introduces many mythological and fantastical creatures with a sense of magic throughout as well as the relationship between Isshiki and Akiko. The visuals and effects are good throughout and the final part in the otherworld features some amazing world building that is sure to thrill younger audiences. Based on a manga by Ryohei Saigan, director Takashi Yamazaki does a good job of bringing the story to the big screen. The main actors, Masato Sakai as Masakazu and Mitsuki Takahata as Akiko have an enjoyable chemistry together.

An interesting watch for those interested in mythology with a selection famous creatures and characters from Japanese folklore. Especially the central plot of the latter portion of the film that is concerned with the shinigami and the train to the other world. They are portrayed as hardworking business people whose job is to ferry people across to the fantastical ghost world. This is a fun take on these staple characters. The film is clearly aimed squarely at a younger audience and is largely concerned with creating a visually appealing magical world for the characters to play in. In this regard it is certainly an entertaining distraction.

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2017)

As a high-school teacher (Shun Oguri) is sorting the books in the library by Dewey numbers with a group of students, he is reminded of his former classmate, Sakura Yamauchi (Minami Hamabe), with whom he had a close relationship at school. The film then turns to this story with the younger boy, a retiring, lonely figure, meeting the popular, chirpy Sakura. While at hospital he finds her diary and learns that she has pancreatic cancer, with perhaps only a year to live. With her secret exposed, Sakura becomes friends with him as he is the only person with whom she can share her inner turmoil. The two of them spend time together on what might be described as a series of dates, although their relationship does not move beyond a fond friendship. Unlike other films of its kind, in which a terminal illness provides a tragic basis for a romantic relationship, this is not a saccharine story of young sweethearts. Sakura’s reasons for confiding in him are as much selfish as driven by romantic interest, with the main reason being an unwillingness to distress her best friend Kyoko.

The film utilises flashbacks to tell its story and without a doubt the scenes with the younger actors are the strongest parts. The framing device of the older characters does resolve itself into an emotional climax at the end of the film, but for the most part is a distraction from the genuinely enjoyable interaction between the young boy and Sakura. Minami Hamabe is incredible as Sakura: bright, charismatic, but harbouring deep fears and sorrow which occasionally surface. Takumi Kitamura provides a good foil, being the polar opposite in many ways, he is initially awkward, his stoic acceptance of life and Sakura’s fate complimenting her outgoing, fun-loving persona. Later in the film he also has scenes of deep sadness that are more impactful following his quiet, subtle performance earlier. Another enjoyable performance is that of Yuma Yamoto, the gum chewing classmate, who appears regularly as comic relief, with one major recurring joke. Sho Tsukikawa’s direction is beautiful with some interesting transitions between the past and present. For the most part the direction and music are what might be expected from a high-school romance. The story is adapted from a novel by Yoru Sumino, with a screenplay by Yoshida Tomoko. The dialogue is well-written and the moving back and forth through time gives the film a good sense of rhythm as you wait to see where both stories are leading.

A heartbreaking story with a poignant message about treating each day as if it were your last. This is a common theme and there are a few films of this type, but by keeping things unsentimental for the most part makes the final dramatic scenes here more impactful. Sakura is not under any illusions about her fate and both the young character’s acceptance of this tragic fact is a great example of enjoying life despite adversity.

Sweating the Small Stuff (2017)

Ryutaro is a mechanic working at a quiet, run-down garage. While his co-workers joke about girls and invite him to bars, Ryutaro seems to cast a melancholy shadow over proceedings, with a solemn look in his eyes. He goes to visit a friend’s mother who is sick and who he previously had a close relationship with. We see Ryutaro at work, at home in his solitary apartment with beer and books for company, and out with friends, but everything seems to pass him by in a haze. Even his interactions with his girlfriend are stilted and lacking in passion. After speaking to his friend’s mother again we see that Ryutaro, far from being uncaring, is deeply distressed but seemingly unable to express this sorrow. His anger at his girlfriend, his colleague and later his father are all symptoms of this bottled up anxiety about the illness and inevitable death of this woman.

“Sweating the Small Stuff” is Ryutaro Ninomiya’s second feature film and it is an intensely personal work. Not only does he share his name with the main character, the dedication at the end of the movie to “Ryuko” makes clear that this is in part an autobiographical story. It is essentially a character study of himself as he deals with the grief of seeing someone he cares for slowly disappearing from his life. The dialogue is well written giving each of the characters a unique personality and realistic conversations. Utilising hand-held camera work helps give the film an intimate feel. There is some talented direction too, with the camera lingering as Ryutaro excuses himself from scenes evoking a sense of loss, seeing his reflection in a mirror, and the final scene caps off the film perfectly in its confrontational framing. The actors all give solid performances and feel realistic.

The film is a personal exploration of the theme of death and how this exposes the fragility of life. Ryutaro is clearly a man with a lot on his mind as his pensive expression and seeming lack of emotion make clear as the film progresses. It is hard to unpick exactly what is going on other than to say that he is a complex individual. In a couple of memorable scenes, between Ryutaro and Ryuko, Ryutaro and his friend, and Ryutaro and his father, we come close to understanding what it is that is troubling him.

Tatara Samurai (2017)

Gosuke lives is a small mountain village known for its steel. His father inherits the position of Murage, or foreman of steel production: a title that will pass to Gosuke in time. However, Gosuke would rather leave the village to join Oda Nobunaga’s armies and prove his strength as a warrior. Following a catastrophic defeat Gosuke returns to the village where he is welcomed back. But there is danger lurking as the village is under threat and with the modern guns revolutionising warfare Gosuke must learn how best to defend his village and his heritage.

Yoshinari Nishikori who wrote and directed this historical drama does a good job with the story. Creating a few strong central characters, Gosuke, his noble friend Shinnosuke, and the salesman Yohei, the film’s story is small in scale but more impactful for it. The direction is good and the cinematography exceptionally beautiful. Costumes and set design evoke the period incredibly well and the village feels real and lived-in. Though the battle sequences are far from the main focus, they are well choreographed and performed. The best parts of the film are the steel making sections. Though essentially only showing the process of making steel, they are imbued with emotional and thematic depth that makes them fascinating to watch both on a technical and dramatic level.

The message of “Tatara Samurai” is one of appreciating life and respecting your heritage. The protagonist of the film begins by saying that he was never sure what “strength” truly entailed and the film deals with this theme. Strength is all too often conflated with violence and war, but there is another strength in courageous acts of defence and in the calm, daily grind of survival. A charmingly well-made samurai tale with beautiful cinematography and a novel take on the everyman hero.

Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.

Party ‘Round the Globe (2017)

Two co-workers at a small electronics company travel together to a Paul McCartney concert at Tokyo Dome. One of the men is a humorous, talkative individual, the other sits in stoic silence, eyes fixed on the road. As the film progresses we cut back to the life of this quiet individual as he goes about his daily routine, watering plants, working at his monotonous job, listening to news stories of terror attacks and disasters, and thinking about a former life.

Written and directed by Hirofumi Watanabe the film has many hallmarks of an indie feature. Shot in black-and-white, long static camera takes. The film drags the audience into the tedium of the protagonists life. This is far from an easy watch as you almost begin to feel the oppressive weight of this on him. These lengthy sequences are broken up by the scenes of his car journey as his companion continues to ramble on about The Beatles, Bob Dylan, music fans, and other interconnected topics.

This is not a film that immediately endears itself to the audience. In fact it almost goes out of its way to do everything to turn you off watching. But there is something strangely intriguing about it. Perhaps because of the almost offensively boring nature of certain scenes it makes you think about what is happening. What is the significance of the radio stories to this man? What is it he wants from life? What does he feel about the concert he is driving to? What happened in his past? The film offers few answers but it does draw the character realistically enough that you can assume that there are answers. Certainly not for everyone, but if your patience allows and you are a fan of slow-burn human dramas with a humorous tinge, it is worth a watch.

Antiporno (2016)

When our heroine Kyoko wakes up in a mysterious room, painted bright yellow with an adjoining red bathroom, it is not immediately apparent whether this is reality or a dream. This sense of unease continues throughout a plot that moves rapidly from sequence to sequence following its own ‘dream-logic’ that intertwines flashbacks, hallucinations, fourth-wall breaking, and heartfelt soliloquising from Kyoko. The film revolves around Kyoko (Ami Tomite), an author who paints out her characters on large canvasses before writing her novels. Kyoko spends the majority of the film in this unreal space, met by her assistant, journalist, camera woman, and the film is as much about what is going on in her head as in the real world. The plot is hard to explain without giving away the more enjoyable twists and turns of this psychological drama.

Writer and director Sion Sono creates an unsettling yet compelling world that is constantly surprising the audience. The stylish sets help create an intriguing theatre-like space along with the classical score giving the whole film the feeling of a performance. Antiporno is a reflection on soft-core pornography, and it takes its subject seriously, unpacking various issues associated with pornography in society. The characters are intended more as archetypes than with any real backstory. Ami Tomite gives a stunning performance as Kyoko, whose shifting character evokes sympathy and revulsion in equal measure. She is the only character who is given a backstory, that further adds to the impression that this whole film is taking place at least in part inside her head. Everything is beautifully shot and frames with Sono showing a mastery of his craft.

Circling the central subject of sex and pornography, the film presents a plethora of ideas. You can almost imagine that this is the result of a brainstorming exercise, and the film itself jumps from one idea to another. Some of the issues raised are the pressures put on women to fulfil two competing roles for men, that of the whore and the virgin, and how this relates to a woman’s idea of herself and her worth to society. We see the intersection of sex and violence, the emptiness at the heart of consuming pornography. Despite some difficult themes the film never feels like a morality tale. The film emphasizes the naturalness of sex and rails against the shame so often associated with it. It understands that intelligent debate on the subject, rather than moral panic, is the best way to tackle issues. I would highly recommend this film as an intelligent psycho-drama about sex, with a stunning central performance, excellent direction, and a story that forces you to consider any preconceptions you might have about sex, pornography and society.

Black Kiss (2004)

Asuka is an aspiring model who has just moved to the big city. She finds lodgings with a rather abrasive woman named Kasumi. One night in the flat Asuka witnesses a brutal murder at the Hotel Bats across the street together with Kasumi. They call the police who begin to investigate but the case proves to be very strange indeed. Playing on bizarre coincidences, occultism, supernatural elements, and family drama, the investigation take a number of surprising turns on the path to finding the killer.

Black Kiss is an odd blend of crime drama and horror. In the naming of Hotel Bats and the constant thunderstorm raging outside it seems to be paying homage to macabre horror tales. Early in the film we have a sex scene and the gory disembowelling of the victim, however these elements are not really continued throughout. Unfortunately, much of the film is shot, written and acted more like a daytime drama, which is at odds with some of the better film-making on display. The film’s story begins with Asuka witnessing the crime, but soon we are introduced to the detectives and other side characters who also carry a part of the story. The film may have benefitted from a clearer focus on a single character to sustain the mystery. This would mean there are things that this character would need to find out. Instead the film attempts to confuse the audience with red herrings and inexplicable twists, such as references to the number 9 that are all but indecipherable. The film is certainly not without merit. There are some very well shot sequences. In particular the scene between the two flatmates on a rooftop, with one acrobatically cartwheeling along a ledge against the city lights in the background. The music here is also at its best. The score features some great moments, such as during the sex scene with a strange but oddly fitting choice to use an amelodic screeching, and the aforementioned scene on the rooftop evoking a calm. Other parts of the film are fairly standard action tunes that seems to be in keeping with the films wildly divergent quality.

The film outstays its welcome and seems a little directionless at times. However, there are moments that are worth watching for and it is clear that the creators intentions were to create a thrilling mystery with twists and turns, referencing both hard-boiled crime dramas and traditional horror stories. It is a film that seems not to know it’s own strengths and so lingers too long on the more tedious characters or elements.