Street of Joy (1974)

Just before a change in the law is due to prohibit legal prostitution in Japan we follow a group of women working at a brothel. Kimiko (Meika Seri) is recently married and moving on from her life as a prostitute, though she later begins to have second thoughts about her decision. Shimako (Junko Miyashita) is besotted by one of her customers, a gangster to whom she gives all her earnings and who is abusive towards her. Naoko (Naomi Oka) is trying hard to beat the record of seeing 24 customers in a single day. As the film moves between the women and their co-workers, clients and others, we get an insight into their characters and a look at the sex industry in Japan.

The film is directed by Tatsumi Kumashiro, based on a novel by Ikko Shimizu, and shows a reverence for the characters, who are all portrayed sympathetically even if their motivations may be incomprehensible. The film is told in a somewhat erratic fashion, cutting between the various characters, with comic picture-book illustrations and title cards, snatches of exposition and enka songs inserted sporadically. Early in the film this can prove to be a barrier in getting any sense of a cohesive narrative, though later things do become clearer as the characters come into focus. This is partly down to the fantastic performances of the actresses, who embody their characters fully and give a sense of rounded individuals. Though the film does deal with sex it is rarely sordid, and in fact shows it to be as dull and commonplace as it must be for those in these professions. The women sell themselves in the same way that they would sell goods in any other shop and see little correlation between their self-worth and their product. This is a refreshing look at prostitution as it shows the world from their perspective. There is plenty of humour in the movie, with inebriated clients unable to perform and the peculiar trick of squatting over a stove to warm up for a customer. Though it does show certain dangers of the profession in Shimako’s abusive relationship, the film shies away from becoming overly serious. It might be more accurate to say it avoids sensationalism or exploitation, giving an even-handed appreciation of the issues involved.

Street of Joy is a peculiar film in a lot of ways. The storytelling and editing are more akin to a soap-opera than a cohesive film narrative. The various characters seem thrown together and it is hard to grasp any overarching theme or message for the film. However, it does offer a great insight into the operation of such establishments before prohibition. It casts an equivocal eye over prostitution and focusses on the women rather than the customers or those opposed to what they are doing. Too often sex workers are side-lined or used as titillation in films, particularly crime dramas, but here it is their stories that are being told. Kimiko’s dissatisfaction with her husband shows the importance of sex for women, while other characters express the equally important emotional needs. Sex is something that is of vital importance, while at the same time being as innocuous as any other function of life such as eating or sleeping. This nuanced approach makes the film an interesting watch and perhaps a good counterbalance to more extreme portrayals of sex work on screen.

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.

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.