A.I. Love You (2016) by Shogo Miyaki

Haruko Hoshino (Aoi Morikawa) is works as a kitchen porter while dreaming of opening her own patisserie someday. Disillusioned by a series of job interview rejections she finds comfort in an unusual source: a mysterious mail advertising a free A.I. phone application that you can speak with. She downloads it and names it “Love” (‘Ai’ in Japanese). Love (Takumi Saito) offers her support and words of wisdom, suggesting that she try to make some recipes and have her boss (Akira Ishida) taste them. Love also suggests that she should pursue a romantic interest in the shape of co-worker and talented chef Naoto (Shuhei Uesugi). As Love offers her advice and Haruko grows in confidence, their relationship begins to develop into something more than one of convenience.

Based on the manga by Ken Akamatsu, “A.I. Love You”a simplistic romantic tale with a technological twist. The A.I. element is a modern take on the traditional narrative of a human friend with burgeoning feelings for Haruko. Aoi Morikawa is charismatic and likeable in the lead role, often performing a one-woman show to the camera as she speaks with the voice of Love (Takumi Saito). Her problems are far from insurmountable: she is already a competent pastry chef and the improvement she needs to gain her bosses approval and follow her dreams are almost imperceptible to the viewer. Similarly, her romantic troubles are overcome fairly easily. The film is short and moves along quickly, leaving little time for character development, with the supporting cast mostly filling stereotypical roles. Shuhei Uesugi as the handsome love interest; Anne Nakamura as Haruko’s friendly co-worker Kyoko, and Akira Ishida as her irrationaly irritable boss.

Despite a lack of originality or depth the film will appeal to fans of romantic dramas. Much like a pastry it is light, fluffy fun, saccharine sweet and visually appealing. Later in the film there is a hint at darker themes, with the deletion of Love suggesting a similarity with human death, and despite a lack of build up it does manage to be emotionally engaging. However, the film largely sticks to the well-trodden path of romantic comedy dramas, with an uplifting message about trying hard to achieve your dreams. An enjoyable performance from Aoi Morikawa makes it worth a watch.

Bubble (2022) by Tetsuro Araki

Mysterious bubbles descend on Tokyo, destroying the city and leaving it mostly submerged under water. Years later, the survivors have formed into teams who compete in parkour competitions for scarce resources. Hibiki (Jun Shison) is a member of the Blue Blaze team, fighting against the Red Lobsters, Denki Ninjas, and the dangerous technologically-advanced Undertaker group. The Blue Blaze squad live on a ship with Makoto (Alice Hirose), a scientist who is researching the strange bubbles that are still present and that have led to odd permutations in gravity. Hibiki, a solitary figure, finds companionship in the shape of Uta (Riria), one of the bubbles who comes to life in a modern take on The Little Mermaid folk tale.

There is a lot to like in “Bubble”, drawing as it does on various popular tropes and ideas from anime, fantasy and folk tales. The central story, a post-apocalyptic group of survivors provides an interesting backdrop to the romantic Little Mermaid-esque tale of Uta and Hibiki’s relationship. The film’s philosophical underpinnings reference both environmentalism, in the shape of the flooded city and vast cosmological ideas such as the inevitable desctruction and potential rebirth of the universe. The animation and artwork are exceptional, with detailed depictions of the sunken city and colourful, opalescent light shows with stars and bubbles creating a psychedelic experience. The action is top-class with a focus on parkour being a great way to show the CG-enhanced environments. The story is underexplained, perhaps relying on audience famliarity with both the romanctic and post-apocalyptic genre, with the characters also falling into easily recognizable stereotypes. No real explanation is given for the bubbles, or Uta’s apperance, and there is little character development outside of Hibiki, whose struggle with over-sensitivity to noise (his name meaning “sound” or “echo”, alongside Uta’s “Song”), is an emotional angle to the loner protagonist archetype. However, what the film does do well is in creating a moving, energetic, thought-provoking experience; not always logical, but alwasy engaging. The score by Hiroyuki Sawano complements the heart-pounding action and quiet contemplation of the film.

“Bubble” features the sunken cities of 2009’s “Shangri-la” and the frenetic, death-defying action of “Attack on Titan”, the vibrancy and detail of Makoto Shinkai, and the magical fairytale dreamscapes of Mamoru Hosoda, but brings it all together in a unique package. It may be slightly lacking in a strong central motivation for the characters, but the visual spectacle means that it is easy to ignore this lack of depth and simply marvel at the colourful animation and emotionally chaged romance. In a final summing up, the film reaches for some sort of message for humanity, settling on a traditional moral characterised in the saying “Fall seven times, get up eight,” in suggesting that loss can be overcome and people will always rebuild from destruction. This life-death cycle could have been worked in to the story earlier, and more sense made of the bubbles, which are window-dressing for the most part, but overall the film succeeds in being a magical experience.

Bitter Honey (2016) by Gakuryu Ishii

An aging writer (Ren Osugi) finds solace in his pet goldfish, anthropomorphised as a beautiful and flighty young woman in red (played by Fumi Nikaido). The two of them enjoy a curious relationship, with a frisson of sexual tension, and the goldfish, named Akako, also begins to explore the world on her own. Akako comes across a woman in white, named Lady Tamura (Yoko Maki), who she believes to be the ghost of a former lover of her master. The writer is also visited by the late author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Kora Kengo), his literary rival. The writer’s flights of fancy slowly begin to consume him, perhaps as an escape from his recent terminal diagnosis as he nears his last days.

Based on a 1959 novel by Muro Saisei, with a screenplay by Takehiko Minato, “Bitter Honey” is a bizarre magical realist fable that draws no line between the real world and that of the imagination. The opening scene shows the writer and the woman in red together, he writing, her lounging, and aside from a few subtle hints in the score and dialogue it does not become clear that she is in fact a goldfish until the end of the scene. The film continues in this illogical, dream-like manner, treating Akako as a human, even to the point of her having conversations with others, while we know that she is a fish. The anthropomorphic nature of her character is incredibly powerful as the audience comes to care about Akako, her desires, her frustrations with the writer, and her relationship with other non-existent (in a real sense) people, such as Lady Tamura. Of course rationally both her and Lady Tamura can only exist in the imagination of the writer, something he alludes to later in the film, but it is still enjoyable to watch Nikaido’s performance as the bouncy, youthful goldfish, and it raises the question of free will and control in an interesting twist on a common trope in relationship dramas. The dance that Akako performs throughout is perfect in capturing the character of a goldfish, billowing tail and flowing movements. Ishii’s direction is excellent, staging the drama beautifully and, along with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s luxuriant cinematography, stunning set design and use of colour, emphasizing the sense of being lost in a fantastical dreamworld. Toshiyuki Mori’s score and the sound design perfectly compliment this stylish direction, humourous, melancholic, and with effects sounding like water droplets when Akako is on screen.

“Bitter Honey” has a surreal, folkloric atmopshere that is enjoyable to watch, helped by excellent performances by Ren Osugi and Fumi Nikaido. The plot is relatively thin and, much like in a dream, there are elements that don’t always connect perfectly with one another. The most obvious reading of what is happening is that the author, realising he does not have long left, is working on a story about his pet goldfish, imagining her as a young woman; while at the same time he reminisces about his relationship with fellow author Akutagawa and the mysterious Lady Tamura. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred by having Akako act independently, becoming a player in the drama in her own right. The relationship between the writer and Akako is genuinely moving, and the strongest element of the film, suggesting a lack of distinction between the real and the fantastical, or at least diminishing the importance of such a distinction. The film also comments on the struggles of the author, who always felt second best against the acclaimed Akutagawa, but for the most part it remains almost light-hearted as he enjoys an imaginary relationship with Akako. An entertaining magical-realist tale about an old man and his cherished pet goldfish.

Avatar (2011) by Atsushi Wada

Ai Hashimoto stars in this dark teen drama as a high-school girl whose obsession with a mobile fashion game has deadly consequences for those around her. Michiko (Hashimoto) is unpopular at school, her introverted demeanour making her a target for the most popular girl in class Taeko (Rikako Sakata) and her clique of fashion-obsessed teens. In the opening scene we see that Michiko’s father died in part due to Taeko and her father’s actions, giving her animosity to her a more sinister edge. Taeko’s most violent bullying is directed at Saionji (Nako Mizusawa), another unpopular classmate due to her drab appearance. Michiko sees a potential route to toppling Taeko, in the popularity stakes at least, through a mobile game where players dress up avatars in increasingly rare outfits. After winning an unexpected lottery in the game Michiko finds herself the object of the same adoration as Taeko once enjoyed, supplanting her rival. However, power soon goes to her head and Michiko, along with her lieutenant Saionji, begins to lead the entire class in dealing out brutal revenge against a number of former bullies.

Based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada, “Avatar” centres on the concerns of and surrounding teen girls: bullying, the fixation on appearance and status, and the danger of addiction to technology. The film also includes darker elements such as underage prostitution and the sexual predation of teachers towards their students. Unfortunately, the film rarely scratches below the surface of these elements. In perhaps the most egregious example we witness the death of Michiko’s father at the beginning of the film, setting up what would ordinarily be the central conflict. Howver, this plot point is largely ignored until the second half, while the mobile game and popularity contest of the girls becomes the focus. Likewise, when Michiko begins prostituting herself to earn money; or when her and her classmates actions turn violent, a lack of consequences or consideration by the characters means events don’t carry the weight that they should. The bullying of Saionji, with her being strangled and drowned in a bucket of water also feels extreme in contrast to the realism of the world surrounding it. There is a disconnect between the blackly comic tone and moments that should be dealt with more seriously. The film cannot decide whether to be an outrageous black-comedy (as in the re-appearance of a chainsaw weilding Taeko), or more satirical (as in the finale which sees the girls simply shrug off the deaths of numerous individuals as they move onto the next mobile game craze). Hashimoto struggles in the role of a menacing anti-hero, and the shallowness of the plot and satire is reflected in an absence of character development.

A low-budget schoolgirl thriller revolving around the dangers of technology with some interesting ideas that go undeveloped. As with “Keitai Kanojo”, the idea of mobile game addiction and the pressure girls’ are under to fit in with classmates and aspire to ideals of beauty and popularity, have potential but are brushed over in favour of something that fails to engage emotionally or intellectually. The matter-of-fact direction and acting, the sudden shift of tone and style, leaves it feeling like a shallow exploration of the themes. It is a shame because the film has a strong cast and the potential to be something more, but in the end it fails to satisfy.

Another Lonely Hitman (1995) by Rokuro Mochizuki

Following a brutal hit on a rival mob boss, Yakuza hitman Takashi Tachibana (Ryo Ishibashi) is released from a ten year prison sentence. He is welcomed back to his former group to work with a fresh-faced new associate named Yuji (Kazuhiko Kanayama), who looks up to the older man for his role in taking out the top of the Hokushin Family. Tachibana is rewarded with a prositute named Yuki (Asami Sawaki), whom he forms an attachment too. As the group begin to get involved in drugs and a gang war with another faction, Tachibana begins to question his life and whether or not he would be happier leaving to be with Yuki.

“Another Lonely Hitman”, based on the novel by Yukio Yamanouchi and directed by Rokuro Mochizuki, is a gangster film that focusses on the aftermath of such a bloody lifestyle. From the brutal opening assassination, complete with blood and brains leaking out of the victims head, we cut to Tachibana’s post-jail attempts at redemption and rediscovery of who he is. From here the film follows two threads: the first of Tachibana’s blossoming relationship with Yuki, whose joie de vivre stands in stark contrast to the grim, remorseful Tachibana; and the second of Tachibana’s gang becoming embroiled in another turf war with a rival faction. The romantic drama and crime thriller plots run in parallel and provide plenty of action and emotion. Ryo Ishibashi gives a great central performance as the former hitman who is beginning to question his choices; while Asami Sawaki’s Yuki is entertaining as a lively, carefree call girl. Their relationship is the heart of the film and you really root for them to make it out of the world of drugs and violence that typify the yakuza lifestyle. The soundtrack by Kazutoki Umezu features a mix of sultry brass and ominous piano, again highlighting the dualistic nature of the story, striving for beauty in an ugly world.

The film’s character-driven drama, as Tachibana tries to make a choice between returning to his previous life of drugs and murder; or striking out on a new path, provides some great moments as his two world (of love and hate) collide. The yakuza are shown as shallow, incompetent, avaricious and short-tempered, with a sub-plot involving Tachibana’s superior Mizohashi (Toshiyuki Kitami) attempting to create a golf resort with a local politician. While Tachibana seems calm and collected, the other yakuza are childlike in their sadistic aggression. It is shown that Tachibana took heroin before performing his hit for the gang, the suggestion perhaps being that he required that lack of self-restraint to carry it out. The drug becomes emblematic of the filthy world of crime, while he dreams of a pure existence and escape with Yuki. Another symbolic element to the film is Tachibana’s impotence with Yuki, that seemingly ends when he makes his decision to break with the yakuza. Again, it suggests he is unable to enjoy genuine pleasure while trapped in the make-believe hardman world of the criminal gang. We also have a running visual metaphor of fish and ocean life that Tachibana watches in his hotel room. Later Yuki is forced to make a jigsaw of an ocean scene. As the two make their escape attempt at the end of the film, it is no coincidence then that it is by a harbour; with the open sea promising freedom from the tawdry iniquities of human society. An emotionally charged Yakuza film about crime and redemption, with strong central performances from Ishibashi and Sawaki.