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.

Greatful Dead (2013)

Nami is a young girl who lives at home with her elder sister and her parents. Her mother is obsessed with giving money to overseas charities and one day decides to leave the family and travel to help these suffering children in person. This leads to Nami’s father taking up with a mistress, who eventually leaves and her father commits suicide. Nami’s sister also leaves home to go and live with a boyfriend. Nami’s only companion seems to be the television, and in particular a sales channel from which she purchases various items. Years later, living off her inheritance from her father, Nami has taken up watching other lonely individuals. From her vantage point on the roof she spies with binoculars or telescope these people who seem set on a path of solitude. She also follows them around the city, noting down their activities in a diary and is excited to discover a new “solitarian”. Her behaviour is charmingly eccentric, but takes a dark turn when she enters a man’s home and is delighted to find him dead, taking a photo with the corpse. She then discovers another lonely man, whom she begins stalking, camping out nearby his house. When this man begins to reconnect with the world, first with Christian community volunteers, and then with his own family, Nami takes matters into her own hands to ensure that he remains alone.

Directed by Eiji Uchida, “Greatful Dead” with a screenplay by Uchida and Estuo Hiratani is a film of two quite distinct halves, that seem stitched together down the middle. The early part of the film where we see the young Nami ignored and eventually abandoned by her parents, is a tragic portrayal of a neglected child. This segment also gives us a hint at later developments when she unexpectedly cracks a mop around a classmates head. The film then moves into a lighthearted comedy, complete with bouncy music, and a joyful Nami cataloguing all the lonely people she sees around the city. The second half of the film moves into dark horror and doesn’t hold back on the violence and gory sequences. However, both parts bleed into one another. There are elements of dark humour in the first half, and slapstick in the second. Kumi Takeuchi manages both parts exceptionally, being likeable and fun and shifting gear into creepy and terrifying later. Even when it is clear she is beyond helping, she still manages to evoke a degree of sympathy and is a joy to watch. Takashi Sasano, who plays her elderly stalking victim, likewise goes through a transformation, from irritable old man to a kindly grandpa and later to a victimised person who has had enough.

The film explores loneliness and isolation in a tongue-in-cheek way. Nami’s story is a sorrowful tale of neglect leading to later inability to function in society. Even as her sister constantly tells her “normal is best”, Nami is set on a path of abnormality, seeking out similarly lonely individuals who have given up on society. She is lacking attention and emotional support from those around her. Loneliness is a huge social issue and this film does a great job of showing the reasons for it, but also offering hope that this is not a path that people are tied to. The finale of the film seems to be a rejection of the mindset that isolating yourself is the best option. It entertains as comedy and horror-comedy and leaves much of the thinking to the audience. For example themes of religion, in particular Christianity, consumer and media culture, and the rigid social norms of marriage and family are all there for viewers to unpick. However, you choose to enjoy it, as an off-beat black comedy, or social satire, it is definitely unique in both style and outlook.

Modern Love (2018)

Modern Love tells the story of a young woman Mika, who is struggling with the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend, Teru. When a new planet appears in the solar system its presence presages several inexplicable phenomenon. Mika comes into contact with her own doppelganger, and then a third lookalike Mika. These are revealed to be parallel universe versions of Mika, though the circumstances of each are slightly difference. For one, she has just met and begun dating Teru, for the other Teru has committed suicide and she has largely come to terms with his death. The three then become trapped in a time-loop and must work together to understand how to break out of this eternally recurring day. This leads Mika to uncover the mysterious Agartha, a name she had previously been introduced to by an odd customer at the travel agency where she works.

Writer and director Takuya Fukushima has crafted a compelling drama with science-fiction elements never detracting from the central themes of love and loss. The idea of parallel worlds is an interesting way to explore Mika’s psychological struggles by externalising her confusion and anxieties. The mysteries established are enough to hold your attention throughout and the sense that the world is falling apart and anything could happen makes for an exciting story. The side characters are less strong and add little to the film other than basic exposition. The direction is good and in particular the use of locations such as the empty bar and the later scenes in the rustic European setting for Agartha. Azusa Inamura gives a great performance as Mika (and the two alternate Mikas). We sense her loss and confusion as well as her various relationships with Teru. Takuro Takahashi’s Teru is also given time to shine, though less so than Mika and the two have a good chemistry.

Modern Love is about a journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with loss. Mikas psyche is fractured between her memories of Teru and her present situation of dealing with his loss. This is demonstrated in the three versions of herself that converge in the same world. Likewise the idea of being stuck in a time-loop will be familiar to those suffering with depression as it seems that she cannot move on but is forced to relive the same memories while not progressing with her own life. Particularly interesting is the concept of Agartha, which is an esoteric idea of a land that exists at the centre of a hollow earth. In this film Agartha is used both as a sort of heaven or afterlife, as well as symbolising an exploration of the human soul or psyche. In her journey to find this place and uncover its secret, Mika is in fact delving into her own mind to attempt to unravel the confused feelings of loss and try to discover a path back to her own life.

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (2017)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is a tense relationship drama about trust and infidelity with social commentary. Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) starts work at a hostess club to support her boyfriend Seiichi (Taiga) in his aspiration as a songwriter. After a client offers her a significant amount of money to accompany him to a hotel, she goes with him. The man asks her to undress and change into highschool swimsuit and increasing demands with the promise of money if she accepts. When Seiichi discovers the money he realises her job is something of this nature and the two argue, eventually leading to their relationship becoming unsustainable. Tsuchida meets and old admirer Hagio (Joe Odagiri) at a club and with Seiichi ignoring her she falls into a relationship with him. The film follows Tsuchida as she tries to navigate a seemingly impossible course of doing what is right and her emotions.

Asami Usuda is captivating as Tsuchida, garnering sympathy with a determined, fragile, confused character. While her actions may be unforgivable, they are always understandable in context. Likewise Taiga and Joe Odagiri give good performances. The story is based on a manga by Kiriko Nananan, with a screenplay by writer-director Masanori Tominaga. It is well-written with believable dialogue and dilemmas for everyone involved. Tomanaga employs some interesting techniques with regards the direction, with care paid to locations, and character positions within the scene. An example of this is the close-up of Tsuchida and Hagio together that creates a sense of claustrophobia, inescapable, comfortable, and brings you into Tsuchida’s world. Another is the scene of Tsuchida collapsing through fatigue in her apartment while we see an hourglass and a stack of money on the worksurface. This sort of visual film-making helps keep the film entertaining. The sound design also utilises silences well to bring home the weight of the drama. The film is only around ninety minutes which leaves you wanting more as it ends, in contrast to many other films that outstay their welcome. Almost every scene adds something and moves the story forward.

A film about breaking up that captures the heart-rending choices that people make both for themselves or loved ones. The characters seem to be following a pre-determined course, with their actions largely controlled by the pressures of duty or lack of money. Tsuchida’s journey is almost an archetypal tragedy, in that each step along the path is to a large extent predetermined by the initial choice. The finale of the film offers a measure of catharsis and the characters are left in a better position than they began, but as with life itself it is a tough journey to this realisation.

Full Metal Alchemist (2018)

Based on the popular manga and anime franchise “Full Metal Alchemist” follows the story of Edward and Alphonse Elrick on their quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. Beginning in a charming, rustic setting we see the two young boys as they witness the sudden tragic death of their mother. The two decide to attempt to resurrect her using the practice of alchemy. In this world, alchemy is a sort of magic allowing practitioners to create almost anything provided the users skill and observance of several laws. These include the Law of Equivalent Exchange, which means that for anything to be created something of equivalent value must be destroyed. The two fail in their attempt to bring back their mother resulting in Alphonse losing his body and his spirit being subsequently bound in a giant suit of armour, and Edward losing his arm and leg. Years later the two are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone and soon cross paths with the military police, other alchemists, and a mysterious trio of Lust, Envy and Greed, a terrifying triumvirate with their own nefarious plans.

With the success of the manga and anime it seems almost inevitable that a live-action film would at some point be made. To begin with the positives, the film’s opening scenes are well-put together. the backstory is told succinctly and emotionally, setting up the two brothers relationship and their fundamental motivation. The following action sequence stretches the budget of the production almost to breaking point, but is nevertheless a noble effort, creating an exciting showdown to get things moving. It is clear that all the actors involved are enjoying their time and the creators utilise the series humour to avoid it becoming a sombre affair. Unfortunately, some of the jokes don’t land and the over-the-top acting in an attempt to ape the art of the anime and manga is often distracting. By far the best scene in the film comes later when the brothers fight in a warehouse after feelings of sibling animosity boil over. In a moment we are drawn in and given an emotional beat that is largely absent from much of the rest of the film. For the most part attention is given to the fantastical and science-fiction elements rather than dwelling on the characters or themes for any length of time. In attempting to compress a long story down to a two-hour runtime we are given many scenes of exposition or plot advancement without much emotional investment. This becomes more apparent in the final showdown when everything does come together in a visually entertaining action sequence but with a stark lack of emotional investment in the characters. The film-makers did a great job with Al’s armour and the character was believable, but ironically it seems they struggled to bring Ed to life as effectively. Ryosuke Yamada seems too old for the character and jokes about his height fall flat due to his not being noticeably shorter than a lot of other characters. Yasuko Matsuyuki was delightfully devilish as Lust, and the rest of the supporting cast did a decent job with their interpretations of various characters.

Full Metal Alchemist has a surprising amount of ideas present for what will be seen by some as a simple fantasy yarn. At its heart the idea of losing something in order to gain something is a powerful trope in literature. The two brother’s exemplify this as they are on a quest to recover Alphonse’s body, which makes the audience question what it is they are losing at the same time. A darker interpretation of this may be that the two had to lose their mother in order to become proficient at alchemy and fulfil their roles as powerful magic-users in the service of others. Alphonse comes to question his own identity, knowing that he is no more than a spirit ensconced in a hollow shell and having been told his memories may be false, he is confronted with the deeply troubling thought that his existence may be only as a simulacrum. This opens up all manner of religious and philosophical argument about the nature of being which is later emphasised in the final act of the film. Another debate that is touched upon in the film is that of science’s importance and how far people should go in experimentation to the end of discovery. The ghost of Japan’s own past with prisoners of war and cruel scientific experiments is raised a number of times along with a more pointed critique of militarism later on. Overall, the film is likely to be seen as a missed opportunity, but it is for the most part an engaging fantasy tale that raises interesting questions albeit hampered by a constrained budget and occasional lack of imagination.