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.

Battle Vixens (2003)

When a new female transfer student Sonsaku Hakufu arrives at Nanyo Academy and begins challenging everyone in the yard to fight, her cousin rushes in to help her before she causes serious damage. This is no ordinary school, and no ordinary world, as various individuals have an earring that contains the spirit of a legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. The ditzy, upbeat protagonist is the spirit of a legendary warrior who loved fighting for its own sake and was a champion of the period. As the story progresses the characters find themselves involved in numerous fights with other students, replaying historic battles and attempting to avoid their fates.

Based on the manga by Yuji Shiozaki, and directed by Takashi Watanabe, the series contains many tropes from similar sexploitation series, going to almost any length to include upskirt shots of the girls, jiggling breasts, or sexually charged sequences. Each of the characters is given a unique personality though they remain largely surface level clichés. The conceit of the reincarnated spirits makes for an interesting story as the characters attempt to escape from their predestined paths, or relish following them. Those with knowledge or interest in this period of history may get more out of the series than the casual viewer, as each episode ends with a brief historical note on who the characters are meant to represent and what happened to them. The fight scenes are good and the humour, though broad, is entertaining. The major weakness is in the story that never really grabs your attention in the way it should. With the characters established it too often feels like a sequence of battles without a meaningful purpose. We see the rise and fall of several of the characters, but despite engaging fights you never feel a sense of danger. This is partly down to the outlandish premise that significantly impacts the ability to relate with anyone.

The central theme of the film is the idea of fate and escaping from it. Being reincarnated the characters are essentially living out another life in the modern era. This also conjures up the notion of a cyclical history where humanity is doomed to repeat its former errors and violence is an ineradicable human trait. By the end the characters do manage to change their course, but this raises the question of why they couldn’t have done this earlier. Despite a weak story the series moves quickly and does feature some exciting sequences and humour. Its main flaw is that, much like the characters, it feels as though it is going through the motions with few surprises.

Love & Pop (1998)

Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami (In the Miso Soup, Coin Locker Babies), “Love and Pop” tells the story of four high-school girls as they get involved in the world of “compensated dating”. The film’s protagonist is Hiromi (Asumi Miwa) who lives with her parents and younger sister. As the girls wander round the streets of Shinjuku they engage in the practice of compensated dating, where older men will pay them for their time. While out shopping, Hiromi spots an expensive ring that she would like to buy. Her friends agree to help her by going as a group to karaoke with a man. At the end of their date the man asks them each to chew a grape and spit it back into their hands. These he puts in sealed containers, asking them for a false name or high-school to attribute to each. Following the date Hiromi decides they should split the money, still leaving her short of the cash she needs to buy the ring. Heading off alone she finds other men to accompany and becomes involved in increasingly dangerous and sexualised situations.

Director Hideaki Anno, who also wrote the screenplay, is best known for his work on the anime series Evangelion. In “Love & Pop” it seems that his creative energy was focussed on the style, with Murakami’s story providing the structure. Utilising various unusual camera angles, switching aspect ratios, fish-eye lenses, cameras attached to cups, train-sets and more, help to create an endlessly inventive world that is in keeping with the minds of these young protagonists. You get the sense that you are seeing everything from their perspective, one that is vibrant, inventive, full of fun, curious, a little disorientating, but above all alive. The actresses all do a great job with their characters and you quickly learn to distinguish them by their particular traits. Tadanobu Asano also appears as a peculiar figure who communicates primarily with a stuffed animal.

The film is essentially a coming-of-age story. We see Hiromi grow up rapidly from a fun-loving teen to someone who realises the dangers that life presents. “Love & Pop” deals with the issue of “compensated dating” in an even-headed way, with most of their encounters being fairly mundane (albeit perhaps incomprehensible to people outside Japan), while not ignoring the inherent dangers of what they are doing. The men that approach them are portrayed as oddballs, but not psychopathic. Similarly the girls are rarely portrayed as victims, but bold, confident young women, despite a certain naivety or carelessness. Another of the themes, and one that I feel Anno particularly drew out, was that of communication and isolation. One sequence features two characters using sign-language to converse over train tracks, and much of the plot revolves around the use of a phone on which characters leave message which are later replied to by unknown men. Throughout there is the feeling that characters are speaking at one another rather than genuinely communicating. The friendship of the main characters is described not as them telling each other everything, but knowing when not to ask questions. The endless stream of voice messages on the phone are a tragic example of a multitude of people who are calling out for somebody to genuinely connect with. I would highly recommend this movie. The story is unique and it is layered with various themes that make it worth thinking about.

Crows Zero 2 (2009)

With the same cast and director as Crows Zero the style is consistent with the first film. This film introduces the Houzan gang, whom the Crows, following the murder of Houzan’s boss by an ex-student 2 years prior, are unwittingly drawn into war with. This time Selizawa and Genji must fight together against this new rival. There are also a few interesting new characters introduced.

The style is identical to the first, with the comedy and action set pieces expanded on. There is little to say about this film that couldn’t be said of the first. The new dynamic of a rival gang is exciting and the first half is fast paced with the usual blend of violence and humour. The second half is largely a single assault on the rival gang’s building. While the direction is fantastic and it’s broken up with memorable moments, it feels overdone at times.

Definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the first film as it rounds off the story with the boy’s graduating. A highly enjoyable comedy action film.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Oppai Volleyball (2009)

5 Junior High School boys share the same dream. Of touching, or even seeing a pair of breasts. When a new young female teacher, Mikako Terashima, is put in charge of their volleyball team they make her a deal: If they win a game in the upcoming tournament she will show them her breasts. The only problem is that they’re hopeless at volleyball,  having never played or even trained before. But with this fantastic reward ahead of them the boys suddenly find a renewed will to train hard and persevere. The film also looks at the life of their teacher and her reasons for moving to a new school and her passion for education.

The film works well as a light high-school comedy. Plenty of jokes and a good summer soundtrack. Mikako’s story is intended to add a sense of drama to the story with her contemplations on her career. This does add an element of gravitas to the largely frivolous story, but at times seems an unusual contrast. The film captures the youthful spirit and the jokes are funny, albeit mostly on the same theme. The acting is also solid from Ayase Haruka, as the overwhelmed teacher, and the boys, who deliver their lines with real zeal.

Oppai Volleyball (or Boob Volleyball) great feel-good summer sports film with an unusual MacGuffin (or pair of MacGuffins) providing a look at the humorous side of adolescence and education. Teaching us, in a roundabout way, that working hard for a goal you believe in is a noble thing.

Based on a novel by Mizuno Munenori.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Following an unknown conflict, Hokkaido (now renamed Ezo) has been separated from the rest of Japan. Ezo is now under control of “the Union”, while Japan itself is controlled by the United States. High school friends Hiroki and Takuya are intrigued by a large tower on Hokkaido, that can be seen even as far south as Tokyo. They begin work on a plane that will fly them to the tower, to see what it is. They decide to tell their high school classmate Sayuri about their project, taking her to see the plane. While there, Sayuri looks out towards the tower, seeing a vision of it exploding. The film then shifts to three years later. Sayuri has not been seen for three years, Takuya is working for a government program intending to establish the proposition that there are multiple-universes, one of which is being brought into view by the tower on Ezo. Meanwhile Hiroki has fallen into a depression due to Sayuri’s disappearance.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has crafted a beautiful film. Although the film does involve a war and talk about multiple-dimensions, the focus is kept largely on the relationships of the three main characters, with everything else serving to move their story forward, or work as a metaphor for their hopes and desires. The animation is truly stunning, with the artists having a great eye for detail, and a real love of the quiet countryside of northern Honshu. The pacing of each scene is judged perfectly, cutting between characters and small details in the environment. There are many short scenes fading to black, which help to cover a lot of time and ground in a relatively short run-time. With minimal dialogue you have a fully realised world. The music matches the animation, transcendently beautiful compositions for piano and violin heightening each emotion.

The film is a simple love story, though using various brilliant conceits to further emphasise what the characters are feeling. The tower acts as a symbol of the characters dreams, promises (with the boys promising Sayuri that they will take her there someday), and of the unknown future. It is ever-present, though always out of reach, representing whatever it is that the young characters are hoping for. I would recommend this as a beautiful love story, with fantastic animation and score. Although it is overly-sentimental in places, it does have a huge emotional impact.

Mondai no nai Watashitachi (2004)


The film revolves around Miyo, the leader of a group of bullies, who are picking on another girl Maria. When a new girl Mika joins the class and becomes the new class leader and targets Miyo, Miyo realises the error of her ways and attempts to stop the cycle of bullying. Having solved bullying once and for al at their schooll, Miyo is presented with another dilemma. After catching her teacher stealing from a convenience store she becomes targeted by her own class teacher.

This film is one of the worst I have ever seen. Ridiculous story and amateurish direction mean there is almost no tension throughout. The conflict established in the opening scenes is solved by the halfway point meaning the film feels like two short stories welded together. The solution to their problems can be worked out by the audience a long time before the characters realise the best course of action. Add to this the increasingly unbelievable scenarios, glaring plot holes and illogical actions and reactions and you have this disaster of a film. The acting is as patchy as the story and adds to the feeling of watching a poorly scripted television drama.

This could have been good as the problem of bullying is a serious one, but the film underplays the severity of it to such a degree you feel no sympathy for characters and little understanding of the problem beyond clichéd back stories. The only reason you might watch this film is to see how not to write a compelling drama. The moral is that bullying is bad, something which doesn’t require a film to propound and heavy-handed, inept storytelling such as this does nothing to warrant it’s tackling such a subject.

Based on the novel by Maki Ushida.

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.