Ponyo (2008) by Hayao Miyazaki

5-year old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi) lives in a seaside town with his mother Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi), his father captaining a ship that is not yet due to return to harbour. While playing by the shore one day he discovers a goldfish whom he names Ponyo (Yuria Nara). This is no ordinary goldfish however; Ponyo is the daughter of the goddess of the sea herself and has escaped from her father, the wizard Fujimoto (George Tokoro). She uses her own magic to turn into a human. Her transformation sees a great storm blow up around the town submerging many houses underwater and Ponyo and Sosuke set off to help.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is somewhat unique in featuring a young boy as its protagonist. It perfectly captures the joy and adventurous spirit of childhood, with Sosuke’s mannerisms both charming and fun while also giving the character agency and intelligence. The opening sequence of the film is an incredible display of the talented animators, with shoals of fish and marine species brought to life. What the film does well is in having a simple yet expressive style. The first introduction of Ponyo is a perfect example, her design consisting of little more than a pair of eyes and a mouth, yet still able to capture a whole range of emotions. Another of the film’s strengths is the sense of movement and momentum. Being set by, on and in the sea, we have waves rolling and crashing, rain pouring, and a constant sense of flow that helps drive the plot forward and adds visual excitement. This follows through to other elements, whether Lisa’s car that swerves around the road, or Sosuke and Ponyo’s childish gambolling, everything keeps your eyes fixed to the screen.

As with many Ghibli films, Joe Hisaishi again provides a memorable, light-hearted score, riffing on the theme song that plays over the credits. It’s hard not to find yourself humming the heart-warming tune after a few listens.

While the film is clearly pitched at a younger audience, with 5-year old protagonists, a story of magic, and plenty of humour, it treats them with respect. The story’s most clear influence is perhaps “The Little Mermaid”, with the story of a fish wanting to become a human and the love between Sosuke and Ponyo, but the film also has themes of environmentalism, self-sufficiency, the dangers of natural disasters, and the power of the ocean. At heart it is a story about humanity’s relationship with the sea. Ponyo’s restless energy seems to reflect the sea itself, as she rushes around, while Sosuke is almost a stand in for mankind. His affection for Ponyo shows us that we should respect and care for the sea. Sosuke’s bravery and kindness comes from him being a child and seeing clearly, as opposed to the adults around him, who have lost sight of what is important, succumbing to greed and laziness. Sosuke is not afraid of the sea, but sees it as a companion and something to be lived with as opposed to conquered. An incredible fairytale story with action, laughs and lots of heart.

Samurai Fiction (1998) by Hiroyuki Nakano

When Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) steals their ancestral sword, samurai Heishiro (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), along with friends, Tadasuke (Ken Osawa) and Shintaro (Naoyuki Fujii), sets out to recover it. Meanwhile his father sends out a squad of ninjas to help getback the sword. Heishiro is later joined by a legendary swordsman Mizoguchi (Morio Kazama) and his foster-daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa), who tries to convince him not to fight Kazamatsuri.

Directed by Hiroyuki Nakano, from a script by Nakano and Hiroshi Saito, “Samurai Fiction” is a highly stylised homage to classic samurai cinema. The film frames its central story rather confusingly with the main character explaining that this is something that happened to him 300 years ago, including a cycling back through the years to the post-Shogunate period of relative peace. It is never explained what he means by this, and it really makes no difference to the story which then mostly takes place in the past. The film, shot predominantly in black-and-white, often references traditional period films, but blended with modern action cinema style. With overhead shots and other inventive camerawork such as characters running towards the camera, the use of narration, striking flashes of colour, occasional tongue-in-cheek references to the tropes of other historical dramas, it is clear that this is intended as a post-modernist reinterpretation of the genre. This is most evident in the soundtrack by star Tomoyasu Hotei, which features rock guitar, country rock, surfabilly, funk, and drum machines, providing a hyper-modern score to the traditional visuals. The story is simple, yet solid, allowing the audience to enjoy a reconstructionist samurai drama with a modern twist, a loving pastiche with enough tension and solid fight scenes to make it enjoyable in its own right.

Hiroyuki Nakano’s stylish samurai drama is an entertaining experience. The director previously worked in commercials and that sense of visual flair is apparent here, albeit sometimes at the expense of thematic or emotional depth. If you are a fan of old black-and-white samurai films, there is much to enjoy here as it draws in story and stylistic elements that will be familiar. A fun action film and a love-letter to classic cinema.

Summer Blooms (2017) by Ryutaro Nakagawa

Hatsumi (Aki Asakura) is working at a noodle restaurant which is soon to close. While on paid leave looking for a new job, she is spotted by one of her former students, Kaede (Yuriko Kawasaki) whom she helps out of an abusive relationship. Hatsumi is later courted by one of the restaurant’s regular customers, Totaru (Takahiro Miura), who has been a distant admirer for some time. Hatsumi finds herself unable to fully accept Totaru, still struggling with memories of her ex-boyfriend , Kentaro, who died suddenly three years before. On a visit to her former boyfriend’s parents home, she comes to terms with her loss.

With a script by director Ryutaro Nakagawa and Ryuhei Yoshino, “Summer Blooms” is an understated story about love and loss. The relaxed pace allows the viewer to simply be with the characters without forced melodrama. Stunning cinematography by Rei Hirano featuring long shots from a train windows of pastoral landscapes, or quiet moments with the actors sitting in thought, make up much of the film. One excellent scene features a long take with Hatsumi walking while listening to music after her date with Totaru. The film allows us to follow alongside her, picking up on the lightness of her step, and the odd mix of feelings bubbling up inside. This style of direction, with long lingering shots, or scenes that run on, is bold, relying on audience patience and investment in the characters, and only possible with the incredible performances of the cast. Aki Asakura gives a subtle yet moving portrayal of a woman dealing stoically with loss and loneliness. Yuriko Kawasaki’s Kaede offers the perfect foil as a lively, carefree young woman, whose own relationship troubles spur Hatsumi to reassess her situation. Takahiro Miura is also good as an atypical love interest, charmingly unsure of himself around this beautiful woman. Atypical as the film is less about their relationship than the unresolved relationship Hatsumi has with her late boyfriend, Kentaro. The music, by Hisaki Kato, is used sparingly and never forcefully, gently enhancing certain moments. It is more notable by its absence in particular moments, leaving the audience without that musical crutch, left alone with the characters to feel their uncertainty along with them. Throughout the film Hatsumi’s love of radio is shown, an almost permanent companion in her solitude, and the score is used in a similar way, a comfort that makes the silences the more poignant.

“Summer Blooms” is a simple story, a woman dealing with the loss of a partner some years prior, that allows its themes and ideas to evolve naturally. One of the most striking of these themes is the relationship of the main character with time, and by extension memory and mortality. Hatsumi goes to see “Casablanca”, where she is first reunited with Kaede, and later she hears Kaede singing “As Time Goes By” at a jazz club. Clocks also feature heavily in particular scenes, giving an insight into Hatsumi’s mindset. She has been essentially trapped in time since Kentaro’s death, unable to move on from that moment, while the world goes on around her. Her career and love-life both appear to have stalled three years prior. This is truly at the heart of the story: Hatsumi’s desire to unburden herself of past feelings of regret and move beyond Kentaro’s death. A poignant romance with a fantastic central performance from Asakura, “Summer Blooms” offers an intriguing look at what becomes of people after relationships, their shared memories now torn asunder.

Hitsudan Hostess (2010) by Hajime Takezono

This television drama tells the true story of Rie Saito, a deaf woman who became the number one hostess in Ginza. After contracting meningitis as a young child, Rie is left without her hearing. Her mother (Yoshiko Tanaka) is determined that she achieve her potential, encouraging her daughter to take calligraphy and other classes. After being bullied at school, Rie (Keiko Kitagawa) drops out and starts work at a clothing store. When the store closes she is left with few options and little idea of what to do with her life. A chance encounter with a hostess working at a nearby club offers her a chance to begin a new career, one that her mother is less than pleased with. Rie soon becomes popular at the club and later moves from her home town in Aomori Prefecture, leaving her parents and older brother, to Tokyo in order to work as a hostess in the exclusive Ginza District.

Based on Saito’s own memoirs, with a screenplay by Ayako Kato, the story is a poignant and heartwarming story of triumph over adversity. It is hard not to be moved by her ordeals growing up with hearing loss, struggling to communicate with friends, feeling isolated, being made fun of, bullied and abused by classmates. It is not until she becomes a hostess that her intelligence and charm are fully recognized and she begins to gain popularity, the customers seeing her virtues and not her disability. Keiko Kitagawa gives a great performance a Rie, vulnerable yet determined and able to convey deep emotion without dialogue. Yoshiko Tanaka is also excellent as her mother, and the two share a tearjerking scene towards the end, communicated entirely without words. Seiji Fukushi plays Rie’s brother Satoshi, and his narration structures the drama, explaining various events. It is an interesting choice, and often superfluous, stating the obvious at times. Music supervisor Naoki Yamauchi provides a sentimental score that underlines the turbulent emotions of the characters. Being a made-for-television drama, there are moments where a lack of budget is apparent, but being small-scale the story doesn’t suffer for it.

As is explained in a brief summary at the end of the film, Rie Saito has become an important figure in the fight for recognition and acceptance of disability in Japanese society. She became a member of a local council which implemented text-to-speech systems to help representatives engage at meetings. She wishes to make Japan more inclusive for those with all kinds of disability to fully participate in society. There is a strong theme throughout the film of communication, with Rie losing her ability to communicate, her speech impacted by her hearing loss, yet later finding herself empowered with her pen and notepad. It is mentioned in the film that the writing down of her words had a powerful impact on her clients, as both she and they found themselves able to express themselves truthfully in writing in a way that speaking did not allow. In the aforementioned scene, Rie and her mother find themselves finally able to communicate honestly and openly with each other after many years of bad feeling between them. This powerful message, about the importance of communication and understanding, not only perfectly encapsulates Rie’s own journey but also is a strong call for all people not to ignore those in need, to speak honestly and openly, and to try to understand one another.

Tokyo Dragon Chef (2020) by Yoshihiro Nishimura

Two former Yakuza start a new life opening a ramen restaurant in this lighthearted musical comedy about the joy of food. Recently released from jail, Tatsu (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) is met at the gate by his former associate Ryu (Yasukaze Motomiya), who tells him their crime family was wiped out by a mysterious figure with a ‘third eye’ named Gizuma. Ryu is now working in a mobile drinks stand and suggests the two of them start a Chinese restaurant. Old rivalries soon resurface when fellow Yakuza, the Ozawa brothers Kazu (Kazuyoshi Ozawa) and Jin (Hitoshi Ozawa) start their own ramen stand over the street. The two restaurants, one helped by ramen-loving schoolgirl Kokoro (Rinne Yoshida) and fortune teller Rio; the other by extraterrestrial-like insatiable YouTuber Mimi (Saiko Yatsuhashi), find common cause when the Yakuza-hating Gizuma appears on the scene intending to destroy both.

“Tokyo Dragon Chef” is a divergence from writer-director Yoshihiro Nishimura’s previous films, foregoing the gory obscenity that he is best known for (in films such as “Tokyo Gore Police” and “Meatball Machine”). Here we have a fun premise, with these charismatic gangsters-made-good, that provides for plenty of laughs in the ageing Yakuza getting riled up over ramen dishes, using their rough personas to succeed in this somewhat less violent industry. The cast are enjoyable and clearly having a lot of fun with their over-the-top credibility-stretching characters. The pop soundtrack, with music by Kotaro Nakagawa, keeps things upbeat and there are some enjoyable musical numbers that give the film a whimsical feel. The Tokyo of the film is one where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred, with rather far-fetched backstories, and characters who are straight from the pages of a cartoon or comic book. A lot of the comedy is character based, helped by the superb performances from the whole cast, with the Yakuza’s tough-guy images juxtaposed against their new roles as ramen chefs and waiters, or Mimi’s bizarre behaviour scoffing down bowl after bowl of ramen. The numerous shots of food, preparation and eating, will make you salivate with the delicious looking platters.

The film’s comedy is underscored by a heart-warming message about the power of food and the hope of redemption. The former Yakuza find a new passion in ramen, putting their energies into creating the best dishes, their conflicts now being resolved peacefully with noodles rather than knives. Both Tatsu and Kazu are given brief backstories about their childhood memories of their mothers, closely tied to gastronomic reminiscences, that give us an insight into the calming power of food. There is also a commentary on social media influencers and the way such communication can bring people together. In contrast to the sense of friendship and community engendered by the ramen restaurants, uniting people through love of food and company, Gizuma appears is a young man entirely fixated on the pursuit of wealth. The wearing of masks shaped as a single-eye perhaps speaks to this narrow-sighted approach to life, one that values money over fun and friendship. A slight yet enjoyable film and an interesting entry in Nishimura’s filmography.