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.

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.

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.

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.

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.