Pure Japanese (2022) by Daishi Matsunaga

Daisuke Tateishi (Dean Fujioka) works on the ninja show at an Edo-themed amusement park. Although he is a skilled martial artist, he is relegated to doing the sound effects as it is believed he is traumatised following an incident at a previous job. When one of the cast members leaves, he is elevated to a performing position but his genuine swordfighting ability ruffles feathers with his co-workers. Meanwhile, elderly farmer Ryuzo Takada (Tetsu Watanabe) is being pressured to sell his land to greedy developers at the behest of politician Kurosaki (Tetsuya Bessho). Daisuke meets Ryuzo’s daughter Ayumi (Aju Makita) and agrees to help protect her from this unscrupulous gang, drawing himself into conflict with them.

“Pure Japanese” is directed by Daishi Matsunaga (Pieta in the Toilet) with a screenplay by Tatsuo Kobayashi. The plot of the film is straightforward, with greedy developers pressuring an unwilling elderly local into giving up their land. Daisuke’s story also is a familiar one of a young man overcoming past trauma. However, these story elements largely serve as hooks on which to hang the film’s main themes. Many plot elements remain unresolved and there is certainly no happy ending. Instead the film uses its characters and situations to challenge traditional notions of Japanese identity. The cinematography is exceptional, with stunning shots of mountains and rivers offering a timeless counterpoint to the human drama. The staging and lighting is also a joy, with carefully constructed shots that reflect both the real world and the fictional drama of the ninja performances, with the line between the two becoming blurred as the story progresses. The action sequence that takes place later in the film, playing on the hyper-stylised portrayals of samurai films is well shot and choreographed. This latter half of the film seems to diverge from the first half, but the two work well together in the context of the film by exemplifying some of the themes visually in the contrast of a more violent, fantastical ending following the human drama. The music echoes this theatrical style, with loud discordant chords playing over scenes of heightened emotion, and the drumbeats and percussion underscoring the fight sequence reminiscent of traditional stage performances.

The film uses its simple plot to explore the notion of national identity. Early in the film Daisuke is given a “Pure Japanese” kit that promises through a nose swab to tell and individual what percentage of their genetic makeup is Japanese. While most of his colleagues recieve around 60 to 80 percent, Daisuke performs the test by himself and claims to recieve 100 percent. Later in the film it is revealed that this kit is pseudo-scientific nonsense, and a discussion ensues as to what it means to be Japanese, whether in fact there is any genetic basis at all. We see Daisuke being bullied for singing English songs as a child; references to Yukio Mishima (a well known nationalist); the idea of globalisation versus traditional communities; and constant reference to the idea of a “Japanese” identity. Daisuke’s work at an Edo-themed park gives us an insight into the connection between the past and present and there is a sense in which Japan is unable to move on from its violent past; and perhaps even doomed to repeat it. In the character of Daisuke, a stand-in for the ‘true’ Japanese identity, we are given a conflicted character, capable of care and protecting the less fortunate, but also of violence and destruction.

Belle (2021) by Mamoru Hosoda

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy high-school student living with her father. When her best friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta) invites her to “U”, an online virtual reality world, Suzu is transformed into “Bell”, a beautiful avatar with a voice that soon attracts millions of followers. While her online alter-ego gains popularity, Suzu remains largely unnoticed at school, aside from her childhood friend Shinobu (Ryo Narita), Hiro, and “Kamishin” (Shota Sometani), the lone member of the canoe club. Suzu’s enviable online life is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious figure in the guise of a beast, known as Dragon (Takeru Sato) whose shocking appearance and pugilistic lifestyle pique her curiosity. She sets out with Hiro to discover who is behind this avatar.

Mamoru Hosoda returns to some of the themes of his earlier film “Summer Wars” with this modern take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story set partly online. The world of “U” differs from most depictions of online environments with the futuristic addition of biometric transfer, meaning that individuals own biometrics are used to generate their avatars, and a fully immersive environment, allowing them to see and feel as if they were in that other world. There is plenty of familiarity in the plot of “Belle”, with Suzu having lost her mother; struggling to “find her voice”; several teen romances; a geeky friend; and the idea of an outsider figure being helped by the protagonist; but the film combines these elements into a unique story. Despite the nods to the older fairytale, and the inclusion of a few references to Beauty and the Beast (roses, a romantic ballroom dance), the film actually diverges significantly from this to the extent that it has few of the same themes. “Belle” tells its own tale creativitely, often breaking into collage like scenes of multiple people talking on webcams, or the touching montage of Suzu’s memories of her mother. This inventiveness transforms a straightforward story into something more heartfelt and engaging, utilising the techniques of online discourse (multiple references, and a more fragmentary style) to create something that feels modern despite its traditional storytelling. The animation is excellent with the online scenes reminiscent of the aforementioned “Summer Wars” and Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” in the numerous avatars. There are moments that are almost transcendental as we see the vastness of this online space, a modern tower of babel of a million voices calling in unison. Music plays a major part in the story and the songs by a team of artists are inspiring and performed with spirit. While the film is a little overlong, perhaps over ambitious in the number of subplots it attempts to weave in, it manages to hit its emotional beats every time.

“Belle” deals with several themes. Through the online world Suzu is able to rediscover her true self again following a withdrawal into herself following her mother’s death. This transformative power of technology is shown in more stark contrast with the story of Kei, who is escaping a tragic homelife of physical abuse and attempting to create a hero for his younger brother to aspire to. It is interesting to see a largely positive take on the idea of social networks and online spaces with the central message being that they should be used to supplement and aid us rather than becoming an all-consuming other life. The film also finds time for a satirical dig at internet commercialisation, with the self-important guardians of “U” appearing in front of a bank of sponsor logos. Hosoda does an incredible job of dealing with difficult themes, of loss and child abuse, in a family friendly film that manages to be uplifting and positive.

The Lady Shogun and her Men (2010) by Fuminori Kaneko

In an alternate history of Japan’s feudal period, a disease known as the red-faced pox has killed three quarters of the male population. This matriarchal society is ruled over by a seven-year old female Shogun. Yunoshin Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya) leaves his poor family, and childhood friend Onobu (Maki Horikita), to become a member of the Shogun’s Inner Chamber, a harem of men who see to the ruler’s every need. As Mizuno becomes accustomed to this strange new world, guided by the higher ranked Matsushima (Hiroshi Tamaki) and Fujinami (Kuranosuke Sasaki), he also faces a rival in the shape of Tsuruoka (Tadayoshi Okura). When the child Shogun dies and is replaced by the older Yoshimune Ko Shibasaki), Mizuno also sees a chance to become her bedfellow, unaware of the danger that this entails.

With a screenplay by Natsuko Takahashi, based on Fumi Yoshinaga’s manga, and directed by Fuminori Kaneko,”The Lady Shogun and her Men” is a fun, ahistorical, drama that turns on its head the patriarchal structures of the period. Unfortunately, the film seems little interested in the satirical potential of this set-up, or examining the socio-political repercussions of the red-faced pox that has killed off a large percentage of men. Ironically for a film whose set-up suggests a role-reversal, with women being Shoguns, advisors, and filling all the major professions, the story remains remarkably andro-centric. Perhaps this is the point, with the casting of Ninomiya perhaps targetting a young female audience who might be interested in the mild homoerotic overtones of these male concubines. However, it seems that the premise really doesn’t change anything about the world. Where we might have expeceted a female led Shogunate to be very different, it appears identical with only the sexes switched. One of the major failings is the lack of a story, or at least one with any sense of development or achievement for the characters. The rivalry between Mizuno and Tsuruoka appears around the half way point and is resolved almost immediately. There are several story ideas here, none of which are fully developed: the death of the child Shogun and her replacement; the sudden reveal of the fate of the Shogun’s first sexual partner; all of these things are introduced with little foreshadowing. The pop-orchestral score makes an admirable attempt to prop up the lacklustre drama, but often seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting for scenes in which the script has not really established any sense of threat. On the plus side, there are some good action sequences, and the sets, costumes, and large cast, do a good job with the period setting.

The premise has a lot of potential, with the idea of what a matriarchal society might have looked like, and the change in roles of men and women in this period. However, some of the story choices, and the mix of comedy, drama, and romance, make this female-dominated society merely window-dressing with little effect on what happens to the protagonists. The decision to focus the story on the male characters, seems strange, confining us to the Inner Chambers and thereby almost completley removing the women from the narrative. Perhaps this is the point, that Mizuno’s story is exactly the same as if he had been female and the Shogun male, but again it makes little sense to not contrast it with the real history. An interesting concept that is sadly wasted in this film.

Ikigami (2008) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

An authoritarian state maintains order by systematically killing one in every thousand individuals in this satirical, dystopian drama. At the age of six, children are injected with a vaccine with a 0.1% chance of killing them at a specified time between the ages of 18 and 24. The people who are due to die receive 24 hours warning in the form of an Ikigami (or death notice); they are given access to free food, accommodation and transportation, as well as a pension for their surviving relatives, but if they commit a crime this money will go to pay their victims. Kengo Fujimoto (Shota Matsuda) works for the government office responsible for delivering these notices, little by little beginning to question his work as he sees the human impact of this policy. The first person he contacts is Tsubasa Tanabe (Yuta Kanai), who receives notification of his impending death on the eve of a major breakthrough as a singer. The second is shut-in Naoki Takazawa (Kazuma Sano), the son of a politician (Jun Fubuki), whose Ikigami stirs him out of his apathy and depression to violent action. And finally Satoshi (Takayuki Yamada) who is caring for his blinded sister Sakura (Riko Narumi) after the two of them were orphaned.

Ikigami” presents an fascinatingly subtle dystopian future, that could even be set in the modern day if not for this minor addition of the law mandating the death of a percentage of the population. The film’s opening sequence, where we see a man attempting to take revenge on his school bully, is something of a misdirection, leading us to think we are about to witness an action-packed anti-establishment thriller. The film soon settles into a more sombre, downbeat tone, with almost monochromatic offices where the government officials deal with the death notices, and sentimental moments as the characters contend with their premature ends. This is intentional, with director Tomoyuki Takimoto and the crew drawing a distinction between the cold corporatism of this inhuman policy, with the deep emotionality of the humans it affects. The score by Hibiki Inamoto, of heart-wrenching strings, is used sparingly, often allowing the performances to speak for themselves. The sizeable cast do a great job, with what is effectively three separate storylines, of Tsubasa, Satoshi and Sakura, and Naoki. Importantly, we sense the connection or lack of with these characters and those around them, buying into their sense of regret at things left unfinished, or deep sorrow at what they will miss out on. In the direction, with scenes shot through surveillance cameras, or the repeated shots of monorails, the film provides visual shorthand for many of the themes and ideas, such as mortality and the seemingly impossible struggle against faceless authoritarianism.

“Ikigami” is based on the novel by Motoro Mase, who also worked on the screenplay, and establishes a simple yet compelling premise. The given reason for this seemingly cruel act is that it provokes a respect for life in the citizenship, and that their fear of death keeps them subservient. We learn that crime rates have fallen and people’s gratitude for life makes them work hard and not step out of line. The film’s subtle authoritarianism, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 with its references to thought-crime and the coldly bureaucratic nature of state violence, is a dystopia that only slightly exaggerates a lot of common societal problems and a government’s attitude towards controlling their population. Japan is a society very much built around ideas of conformity and the film satirises this perfectly, with parents willingly allowing their children to be injected with a potentially fatal capsule; politicians actively cheering on the death of individuals for the greater good; and the matter-of-fact way this horrific law has become a part of everyday life. There are suggestions throughout that people are fighting back against the system, but they are shut down quickly, with people being hauled off for re-education or punishment. And despite the senselessness of what is happening, most of those affected accept their fate without considering taking action against the state. In this way the film is perhaps more powerful, or gives a better idea of how insidious totalitarian ideology can be, as there is no impending revolution, only a fragile hope for a better tomorrow, and a population with no way to organise or fight back against a fatal, technocratic evil.

While the film might most easily described as a satire, there are also elements that seem jarringly sentimental and life-affirming. Tsubasa’s reconciliation with his old friend, and Satoshi and Sakura’s relationship almost seem to be proving the government’s argument that the system works to create a respect for life. These moments, packed with emotionality, stand in stark contrast to the world of Fujimoto, of workers carrying out orders without ever truly contemplating the effects of their actions. In a sense the film is providing propaganda for the totalitarian regime, while trusting that the audience are wily enough not to fall for it. A striking dystopian drama that shows the true horror of totalitarianism and the dangers of an overly passive society.

Luxurious Bone (2001) by Isao Yukisada

Miyako (Kumiko Aso) works as a call-girl, living with her friend Sakiko (Tsugumi Otake) with whom she shares a bond that hovers over the border of sisterhood and life partners. After encountering a client, Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase), with whom Miyako experiences sexual pleasure for the first time in her life, the two women begin to drift apart. Miyako suggests that Shintani should sleep with Sakiko, an event that draws the three into a love triangle in which their various flaws and anxieties are reflected.

“Luxurious Bone” begins with poetic sentiments being recited over the credits, followed by bones being removed from a crematorium furnace. This proves to be an apt set up for a film that is both artistic, meaning glimpsed through fragments of character and story, and with an underlying melancholy. Written by director Isao Yukisada and screenwriter Shoichi Masahiko, the story is relatively straightforward, revolving around the three main characters and their complicated relationship, and the film expects the audience to be familiar with these archetypes, rarely delving too deeply into their backgrounds. Many things are left unsaid, or rather left to viewer interpretation, with direction, lighting and cinematography often standing in for dialogue. Sakiko’s broken leg, the phantom bone that seems permanently lodged in Mayuko’s throat, or the three goldfish confined to a blender, are all clues to what is happening internally with the characters. The performances of Aso, Otake and Nagase are exceptional, with very few supporting characters they manage to keep the audience’s attention with their portrayals of these complex characters. Miyako has resigned herself to a life of prostitution to support Sakiko, while longing for something more. Shintani is perhaps the most mysterious, perhaps intended simply as a catalyst between Miyako and Sakiko, but with shocking moments that indicate a more conflicted character. Sakiko is the most sympathetic and we learn most about her, but many things are never satisfactorily resolved, a common theme across the film.

The film asks a lot of its audience, rarely stating its intentions clearly. It is for the viewer to piece together what is happening with the characters through a fore-knowledge of typical romantic stories, and the various visual clues presented. There are themes of the relationship between sex and love, with a clear distinction between Miyako’s work as a call-girl, which gives her no pleasure either physically or emotionally, and her relationship with Sakiko, which operates on a deeper level. There is also the peculiar idea that Miyako wants to reach Sakiko, to create a bond with her, through Shintani, using a surrogate lover to connect the two women. The film’s occassional graphic eroticism and brief flash of fish-based gore, may seem out of place in a film that appears quite tame on the surface, but that would be to misunderstand the depth of feeling that is raging behind the characters. A curious romantic drama that plays on themes of human connection and the difficulty in expressing our feelings clearly.