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.

The Lies She Loved (2018)

After a chance encounter at a railway station, Yukari Kawahara (Masami Nagasawa) falls in love with a young doctor Kippei Koide (Issei Takahashi). However, following his sudden collapse and being taken to hospital in a coma, she is informed by the police that both his name and past is false. His place of work also has no record of him. She hires a detective (Daigo) to investigate who this man was whom she has spent several years in a relationship with. When they discover that instead of working he was visiting a cafe and working on writing a book they use this text to uncover the true identity and past of the man.

The film is directed by Kazuhito Nakae, from a script by Nakae and Nozomi Kondo. The acting is good with humorous moments that do not undercut the genuine emotional scenes. There is a subplot about the detective and his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter that plays well in supporting the themes without distracting too much from the main plot. The enjoyment of the film is conditional in part on how intrigued you are by the central mystery or how satisfied you are by the eventual revelation. This investigation takes up the majority of the film, which leaves less time for the more interesting aspect of Yukari’s reaction to the discovery that he is not who he said he was.

The central idea of the film, a man who has lied about his entire past to his partner, is fascinating and offers an interesting examination of what someone would do in that situation. Themes of deciet and forgiveness are well presented in both plot and subplot. Throughout Yukari remains convinced that her boyfriend is a good person and seems relatively unaffected by the revelation that he has lied about his past. In contrast the detective’s story, in which he mistrusts his wife after an affair, offers a little more in the way of emotional substance. An entertaining film that could have delved a little deeper into the motivations of the characters.

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.