The Boy and the Beast (2015)

The film begins with a brief introduction telling the tale of a fantastical land of animals, whose great warriors fight for the prize of becoming the new lord. When these animal lords pass away they become new gods. We are then introduced to a young human boy Ren, whose parents are recently divorced. Feeling frustrated he runs away and ends up living on the streets of Shibuya. Ren is discovered by an anthropomorphic bear and monkey. Following them he finds his way into the animal world. The bear turns out to be the legendary fighter Kumatetsu who must do battle with the boar Iozen. Kumatetsu decides to take Ren in as his disciple, renaming him Kyuta (a play on him being 9 years old). Kumatetsu is slovenly, arrogant and a terrible teacher, being self-centred and stubborn. However, Kyuta soon begins to learn from him, and he from Kyuta. When Kyuta returns to the world of humans he must make a difficult choice to leave Kumatetsu, his surrogate father, behind and return to his real father and his real life, or to support him in his most difficult hour.

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children) the film is a poignant exploration of masculinity and fatherhood. Though their relationship is dysfunctional there is affection between Kyuta and Kumatetsu. Each lacks the emotional intelligence to express themselves verbally, but nevertheless they provide support for each other, complimenting the others’ weaknesses. In the case of Kumatetsu it is his inability to listen or learn from others, in Kyuta’s case it is his lack of strength or self belief. The animation in the early portions of the film takes us on a journey through the dark back alleys of Tokyo, with abandoned bikes, the eerie glow of vending machines, as well as the bright lights of Shibuya’s famous crossing. When it moves to the world of animals there is a definite shift in tone to a more lighthearted art and animation style. This works fantastically well in creating a definite intersection between reality and fable. What Ren learns in the fantastical world of Kumatetsu is a good way to explore what might be difficult themes in a human drama. There is plenty of humour and clowning here that captures a childlike sense of joy and wonder while at the same time not shying away from the seriousness of what Ren is experiencing.

The central theme of the film is that of a father son relationship. Through Kumatetsu and Ren’s fraught experiences with one another they both grow to appreciate having a surrogate parent or child. Kumatetsu’s violent outbursts are softened by his characterisation as a bear creating a safe way to explore themes of parental aggression. We learn to sympathise with both Ren and Kumatetsu and understand why both act the way they do, while also willing them to resolve their differences. At the end there are touching moments later in the film when you realise that their anger is a sign of affection. The film also deals with themes of strength and masculinity, particularly in relation to Ren’s journey to becoming a man. It asks the question of what true strength is, whether physical or emotional, and how important that is for surviving life’s hardships. This is an important film for understanding not only the stresses that divorce and separation from a parent can have on a child, but also offers a male perspective on how to deal with these issues.

Lost Serenade (2016)

Kaori is a piano teacher, previously fired from her job at a university after having an affair with a fellow teacher. This same co-worker and his wife bring their son to Kaori for piano lessons, bringing her back into contact with this rather distasteful character who seems to shoulder no responsibility for his actions, instead pushing all the blame on Kaori. Her other student is Yuu, a young girl who seems very introverted. Yuu’s father Toshio works as a photographer and takes his daughter to the lessons. After a piano recital, Toshio offers Kaori a lift home with himself and his daughter. When Kaori wakes up in the woods she realises she is unable to remember exactly what happened, but begins to recall that she was drugged and raped by Toshio. She later learns that Yuu is also the victim of abuse at the hands of her father.

Needless to say, this is not for the fainthearted, with its delicate subject matter it is often a difficult watch. Writer and director Masato Ozawa offers a restrained look at these issues, never opting for gratuitous violence, but instead focussing on the effect of abuse on the victims. In fact, the film takes the clever decision of skipping over scenes of abuse until later on, instead it is always implied at, either in a character’s averted gaze, or something being just a little off in their mannerisms. Nori Sato gives a heartrending performance as Kaori, who faces a mental breakdown following her assault, and also the misogynistic attitudes that seem prevalent in society. Not only does she have to come to terms with what has happened, but her mother shows little sympathy, and her former lover also uses her in his own way. We see that she is completely confused by what has happened and it is not processed easily. Uwa Ishibashi who plays Yuu is also a tragic figure, pulling out her hair in angst, silently accepting of her fate, it is uncomfortable and pitiable. Kentaro Kuruyama’s Toshio is suitable slimy as the abuser, with his behaviour being inexcusable, but giving a great example of how somebody like this can hide in plain sight, giving the appearance of being a loving parent.

Rape and child abuse are serious issues that are presented here in a way that is startlingly real. While many films cover these topics, they often go for an extreme portrayal, whereas here they are shown as a sort of everyday evil, with a blurry line between regular immorality (such as in the married man having an affair). It also puts emphasis on the impact on the victims, rather than the perpetrator. This results in an incredibly powerful drama, as most times these are the very people who are forgotten in these stories (more often following either the police, or the abuser, or some other more “exciting” plot line). We are shown a horrifying picture of the psychological torture that they must endure trying to come to terms with what has happened to them. Far from enjoyable, this is an important piece of film-making shedding light on a difficult topic.

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (2017)

This film follows the lives of two lonely singletons in the capital city trying to find something to live for. Mika is working as a nurse in the day and a barmaid at a seedy club at night. Having left her father and sister in the countryside she finds herself in the position of many young people, surrounded by crowds of people but with a debilitating sense of hollowness at the heart of things. Shinji is similarly a distressed young man, working as a temporary labourer in construction. He is a nervous character, battling financial worries and with a collection of fellow workers that typify the sorts of troubles present in many modern societies, health and economic problems, and relationship issues.

The screenplay by director Yuya Ishii is based on collection of poetry by Taihi Saihate. The poetic influence is apparent from the very beginning with characters talking in a melancholy tone about various observations on city life. The title gives away the film’s contemplative, philosophical nature, and it is far from being a typical boy-meets-girl romance. The two characters bump into one another at intervals and there are questions here about how much stock you can put in the chance encounters that guide our lives. There are sub-plots involving Shinji’s co-workers, one of whom is suffering health issues and another who is a foreign worker. Some of the most effective scenes see the characters in a sort of daze as life passes them by. Our two protagonists struggle to relate to others and the whole film has a depressive quality only lightened by the moments of beauty that appear amidst the chaos of Tokyo. The cinematography is impressive employing a number of techniques to emphasise the characters loneliness as well as great use of colour throughout. The central performances of Shizuka Ishibashi and Sosuke Ikematsu are perfectly understated and get across the personalities of the characters.

The film’s central themes will be familiar to anyone who has seen this sort of drama involving young people in a big city. The depression and isolation felt living in a crowd of strangers, compounded by economic uncertainty, relationship worries and an all pervasive nihilism. The film tackles many themes and shows Tokyo in a real and personal way as well as its impact on the people living there. The blend of poetry, philosophy, interesting characters and incredible cinematography makes for a fantastic cinematic experience.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.

Vital (2004)

Tadanobu Asano stars in this tense thriller about love, loss and dissection. After waking up from a car crash suffering severe amnesia Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) restarts his medical training, something which he had given up on. He takes to the subject with a great degree of dedication and skill. When the class begin on dissecting corpses, he is surprised to see that the body they are working on is that of his former girlfriend, killed in the same car crash that resulted in his memory loss. As Hiroshi dissects the body, he has recurring dreams in which he sees the woman, Ryoko, spending time with her in that otherworld beyond life.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), this film is more accessible than his earlier work. Despite its seemingly macabre and gruesome plot, it is a surprisingly charming film, largely concerned with themes of grief and human relationships, albeit told in an unconventional fashion. The direction uses a number of tricks to disorient the viewer, jumping from real-world and dream-sequences to create a sense of unreality to everything you are seeing, and including seemingly unrelated scenes of factory chimneys that cause you to ponder their significance. One of the most effective shots in the film, for me, was the image of elevator doors sliding up and down beside each other, a simple but chilling effect that puts you in mind of left-right brain dichotomy, and is subtly troubling. Tadanobu Asano does a good job at portraying the lead, who is not only suffering memory loss, a sense of isolation and alienation from the world following his girlfriend’s death, but is also a studious person who is keen to analyse his own psyche as he examines the corpse on the table before him. If there was problem for me with the film it was in some of the more experimental shots, such as a car crash filmed in negative or the aforementioned inserts of smoking chimneys, but these can be forgiven when experiencing a singular vision such as this. The film is far from generic, so some eccentricity is to be expected in the direction.

A fantastic analysis of the relationship between the conscious and subconscious worlds, and how people are able to deal with grief and loss. I would definitely recommend this film to fans of more bizarre stories. There are a few scenes of autopsy that might not be for the faint-hearted, but overall the film does not rely on shock horror allowing you to get involved in what is essentially a tragic love story.

Dead or Alive (1999)

deadoralive

The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.

In this Corner of the World (2017)

In this Corner of the World follows the story of Suzu, an absent-minded young girl, constantly daydreaming, and drifting through life quite contentedly for the most part. Born and brought up in Hiroshima in the 1930’s, she is fond of drawing and spends her days making up entertaining stories for her younger sister. When she comes of age, Suzu is married by arrangement to a man from Kure, a nearby town and moves in with his parents. As the Second World War begins to have an increasing impact on their lives, Suzu must navigate the various relationships and trials that she encounters.

Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the world of “In this Corner of the World” is a contemplative film about how ordinary lives are disrupted by war. Suzu is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist whom you can happily spend time with. Her daydreaming and escapes from reality are relatable and come to have a powerful significance later in the story. There is a gentle humour to proceedings, some subtle (such as her pondering the notion that caramel might soon cost 100 yen) which keeps the first half of the film quite light and enjoyable. While a story set during the war will never be entirely without tragedy, the film takes an interesting approach to the war. It looks at the everyday activities of a family that are interrupted by the war intermittently, a dark blemish on their rural idyll. There is the traditional Japanese focus on the passage of seasons, cooking, family life, and the entire film is infused with a melancholy for a lost world and that recognizable philosophy of trying to find happiness in an apparently mundane life. The animation style is gentle with pastel shades, though incredible detail in the natural world. There is an almost picture-book quality to some of the artwork, especially in scenes when the story drifts between the “realism” of what is happening and the “brush strokes” of Suzu’s imagination. There are also a couple of impressionistic techniques employed, with a shockingly effective black on white sketch-style employed during one dramatic scene. The voice cast do a great job of bringing these characters to life. The relationships between Suzu and her in-law family form several great subplots along with that of the relationship with an old school friend and even a chance encounter with another young woman in the nearby town. While introducing many characters and plots, the film is well-paced, with many short scenes strung together to give the impression of a full and vibrant world. This is especially effective when we see Suzu doing household chores and time passing. There are references to time throughout the film that take on a terrifying significance as the plot draws closer to the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, something of which the characters are blissfully unaware, with the periods of time growing closer together as the inevitable tragedy approaches.

The film takes an interesting approach to its story. Ostensibly about the atomic bomb and the experience of ordinary Japanese citizens during the war, it is largely about memory and loss and is effective often for what it does not show, more than what it does. The war and the impending atomic catastrophe are things that are always on the periphery and being largely ignored by the characters. Suzu is a established early on as a daydreamer, whose understanding of the world is coloured not only by experience but her interpretation of it. This theme is later emphasised when she imagines the bursting artillery fire over the town as splashes of paint. This is a more relatable way of looking at the world than an overly melodramatic approach, and becomes more effective when thinking back over the film as you realise you have almost experienced the war as many at the time would have, without the foreknowledge of what is about to happen. The horrific consequences of the atomic bomb are something that are hard to imagine and the film instead focuses upon what led up to it, so that people can understand what had been lost when the world moved into a post-atomic bomb era. A truly great war-time epic focussing on the lives of an ordinary family living through extraordinary circumstances.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

woman in the dunes

Woman in the Dunes, based on the novel of the same title by Kobo Abe, is a peculiar tale, part mystery, part social commentary. The film begins with an entomologist searching for insects in a vast sandy terrain beside the sea. After wandering for some time collecting specimens he is approached by a group of men who ask him if he has somewhere to stay that night. They inform him that their village is poor but that there is a shack nearby where he might find shelter. They lead him to a rickety house in a large hole in the dunes that he descends to via rope ladder. In the hut at the bottom of the pit there is a woman with whom he shares a pleasant enough evening meal. By night the woman has to haul sand away from the house, which is then winched up by the men above, to prevent it being buried beneath the ever tumbling sandfall from above. She makes a comment to the man that she doesn’t expect him to work “on the first night”. The man soon discovers that their offer of shelter was a ruse and he has been trapped down in this pit with no hope of return to the world above. The men take away the rope ladder at night, leaving both him and the woman captive. As the days go by, the man’s relationship with the woman deepens and develops as he plots his escape.

From the opening scenes it is clear that director Hiroshi Teshigahara has a clear and unique vision. He uses the artform to its utmost to create a compelling work. The shots of dunes in the opening perfectly captures the sense of somebody who is emotionally lost without ever having to explain this to us. Extreme close-ups of insects show the entemologist’s obsession with seemingly insignificant minutia that perhaps lead him into the deception, as he is unable to see what is going on around him. Also worth mentioning are the passionate scenes between him and the woman, that manage a sensuality and eroticism through almost abstract close-ups. This is true throughout with an intensity to much of the film that is seemingly conjured out of very little, instead due to the incredible interplay between unique imagery and an affecting soundscape. The score by Toru Takemitsu, with strained violins and undercurrent of dread, compliments the direction and acting to create a powerful piece of cinema. Both of the main actors, Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida, do a great job with this script. It could easily have been a stage play as the majority of the action simply involves two people in or around a cabin. It is great to see two well drawn characters, expertly acted, develop in unison, each learning from or being inspired by the other.

The films premise is deceptively simple, essentially a man is trapped in a hole with a woman, but through this the film manages to explore a number of interesting themes. It is a rumination on freedom and enslavement and whether there is much of a difference between them. It can be seen as a gloomy satire on work and society, with the interminable and pointless venture of clearing sand away from the house being a perfect metaphor for life and humanities attempts to delay the inevitable. There is also an emotional relationship between the two leads, an exploration of lust and sexuality, and often difficult questions raised regarding this. Much like shifting sands the film can be interpreted as any number of things depending on what you want to see there. A unique premise that lends itself to several allegorical interpretations. A must watch classic for those who enjoy complex character studies with socio-political overtones.

Swing Girls (2004)

A remedial maths class tries to get out of studying over the summer vacation by offering to take lunch to the brass band (who are playing at a school baseball game). The girls manage to hospitalise the entire band (with the lunch) and are then forced to replace them. When the band recovers, some of the girls still want to play and decide to start a rival jazz group. The plot is very formulaic, with a few sub-plots and side-stories to fill out the running time. Basically, the hopeless girls must come together to beat the odds and take on the other bands in a competition at the end of the movie.

While the story is very simple and there are few surprises, there are some good jokes spread throughout and genuinely amusing situations. The main problem I had with the movie was with the writing, as some of the dialogue seemed forced and the girls’ speech sounds unnatural. The second problem is that the leads are not presented sympathetically from the beginning and you have to do a lot of work to figure out why you should be rooting for them. A few of the jokes do fall flat for these reasons, and others are so predictable that they provoke little laughter. That said there are a lot of positives; the direction is good and the girls jazz performances are fantastic.

The film works as a feel-good comedy, albeit overly similar to other films in the genre, such as “Waterboys” (by the same director) or “Oppai Volleyball”. A celebration of hard-work and enthusiasm, and the power of music to inspire a lazy, ill-disciplined generation. Probably one of the better examples of the genre, but it occasionally feels almost too cynically put together, lacking a real emotional core.

Rebirth (2011)

 

 

The film begins with a woman being tried for the abduction of a baby four years earlier whom she has until this point raised lovingly as her own. The real mother of the child is distraught but the woman, Kiwako, seems to show no remorse for her actions. Jumping forward to her early twenties, the young child, named Erina, is continuing normally with her life when she is befriended by Chigusa, a young woman of a similar age who seems to know a lot about her. The film moves back and forth to tell the story of Kiwako and the child she abducted, renamed Kaoru by her, and the adult Erina who is trying to find her own way in life.

This film is expertly plotted with a lot of well-thought out characters which resonate with each other, particularly the figures of Erina’s father and her much older lover. Similarly a contrast seems to be drawn between the real mother Ritsuko and Kiwako. The story is driven by a number of twists and reveals and relies on some powerful acting by the main cast which really helps show their thought processes. The music is light and fits well with the films quiet contemplative mood and the cinematography is first rate. The scenic shots in particular are fantastic.

This film is an interesting watch and throws up many ideas about relationships, in particular maternal affection. Covering everything from loss, infidelity and abortion this film is careful not to be overly bombastic but to portray things fairly realistically which in turn makes it more powerful. Deserves the praise it was lauded with on release this is an incredibly gripping drama.

Based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta.