My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They  are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.

Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Mitsuo (Show Aikawa) and Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) are employed at a fire extinguisher factory nearby “Black Fuji”, a giant rubbish tip that has grown to gargantuan size. The two friends spend their breaks, and most of their work time, practising jujitsu together. When their boss dies the two travel to “Black Fuji” to dispose of the corpse. The mountain, full of everything people wish to dispose of, appears to be resurrecting the dead and soon there are zombies roaming the streets. After several narrow scrapes, during which Mitsuo is bitten, the story jumps forwards in time five years. Tokyo is now a post-apocalyptic society, with the rich living in palatial towers while those less fortunate are left with the zombies on the lower levels. In honour of his mentor, Fujio earns money as a fighter in an arena where the poor and zombies are forced to fight for the entertainment of wealthy Tokyoites.

Based on a manga by Yusaku Hankuma with a screenplay by director Sakichi Sato (who also produced the screenplays for Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer” and “Gozu”), “Tokyo Zombie” is a black zombie comedy that is sadly lacking in enough humour or gore to make it truly exceptional. Tadanobu Asano and Show Aikawa give decent performances in the lead roles, but there is little for them to do except clowning around. They are cast as dim slackers that find themselves unexpectedly in the worst of all possible situations. There are a couple of character moments, but for the most part their interactions consist of low brow slapstick and crass humour. This would not be a problem if the material was stronger. The film has a couple of fun moments, both blackly comic (with gruesome deaths) and more farcical (when the pair realise they have been driving south instead of north away from the disaster), but many of the gags fall flat and there is a recurring joke that is overused (despite being unfunny the first time around). It is a film that comes up short in every department, neither wacky enough to satisfy comedy fans, or gory enough to satisfy horror fans. There are flashes of what could have been throughout, such as in the animated segment, but these are overwhelmed by the long stretches of drama that offer little in the way of entertainment.

“Tokyo Zombie” is a disappointing film for a number of reasons. Firstly, the two leads are both fine actors and they are not without talent in comedic roles, they are simply underused with cheap material and a lack of character. Secondly, the film feels almost restrained at times. For something with this premise, and no real requirement for realism or sincerity, it could have really pushed the boundaries in terms of surrealism or taste. It often seems like it is playing things safe, with fairly standard comedy fare, and needlessly so since the premise is so ridiculous it has nothing to lose from going for a more extreme tone. The film touches on several issues, that while not exactly unique in the genre, could have been utilised better to create a more satisfying experience. Unfortunately, ideas of societal inequality, environmental issues, and the central theme of loyalty and friendship, never really see their potential realised with any kind of payoff later in the film.

Isn’t Anyone Alive? (2012)

A group of students at a medical hospital start to succumb to a mysterious sickness that kills within a few moments. As they die coughing and spluttering, their friends grow worried that they will be next. The disease strikes without warning and without any apparent cause. We are introduced to several characters early in the film. A group of friends who are planning for a wedding; a pregnant student who is discussing with her former lover and his new partner arrangement of child maintenance payments; and the waiter taking their orders. There is a man looking for his sister who works in the hospital; and a man whose infatuation with her has yet to find voice. There is also an odd couple, Yama and Dr. Fish, fleeing the scene of a train accident.

This blackly comic tale has a bleak and unforgiving premise that makes for a tough watch. It displays a cold detachment from the characters that leaves the audience with a feeling of being an uncaring observer. The conversations between the characters throw up a few funny lines and much of the humour in the latter half comes from their inability to deal effectively with death. Their minor obsessions pale in comparison to the ultimate fate that awaits all of them. Unfortunately, much of the work of unravelling the film’s meaning is left to the viewer. It offers few insights into the human condition, and sadly and ironically seems to care little for the characters. It is a series of ultimately insignificant events culminating in death. It never feels as though it fully develops its premise into anything more meaningful for the characters or the audience. To put a more positive spin on things, the film does have a punk sensibility in its nihilistic outlook. By failing to explain anything it is almost challenging the audience with the inevitability and inexplicability of death. However, it must be said that this would be more enjoyable if there were at least some interesting things done with the deaths. The film is based on a stage play and this shows in the framing of many scenes, with a few characters engaged in what appear to be small comedic vignettes. The film fails to take advantage of its form until the final moments. When we see the incredible sunsets, birds and planes falling from the sky and the wreckage of the train crash, it comes close to being worthwhile, but it is a big ask to sit through the rest of the film for these moments of striking visual poetry at the end of it all. The cast (including Shota Sometani and Mai Takahashi) all do a decent job with their roles, but the script falls a little flat. The occasional use of music offers a sense of momentum that promises more than the film eventually delivers. Another missed opportunity is in the film’s use of occasionally blacking out certain portions of the screen. This is an example of visual flair that, had it been used less sparingly, could have enlivened the rest of the film.

“Isn’t Anyone Alive?” looks at the problem of death. The characters are all young people, largely unaffected by this and the film seems to be challenging its audience to take the idea of mortality seriously. Many of the characters remark that they should think carefully about what their last words should be. There is an aside about a character who should have professed his love for a woman before his untimely demise. The film offers little comfort in terms of a philosophy to deal with death or any sense of purpose in the characters. It could be argued that this film is intended as a slap in the face for shallow youths who do not understand the importance of life, but I feel its message could have been delivered in a more entertaining way.

Creepy (2016)

A retired police officer, Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) working as a lecturer is brought back into his old job when he learns of a mysterious unsolved crime. The crime involves the disappearance of three members of a family, leaving only a young daughter. Takakura has recently moved into a new house with his wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi) and their dog. When the couple make a courtesy visit to their neighbour they meet the unusual figure of Masayuki Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa). The man seems unusual, but the two ignore it. However, his behaviour soon leads Takakura to suspect that Nishino may not be all that he seems.

The film is based on a book by Yutaka Maekawa with a screenplay by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Chihiro Ikeda. The plot begins as a simple crime mystery but morphs into a psychological horror. It is clear early on in the film that Nishino is a suspicious character, and this is made explicit before too long. From there the film becomes a nightmarish situation for Takakura as he faces his greatest fear: of being helpless or unable to stop terrible things happening. Kurosawa creates a tension throughout the film using uncomfortable scenarios, particularly between Nishino and Yasuko. The blend of traditional detective drama and horror is subtle yet engaging with an unexpected twist partway through. Hidetoshi Nishijima and Yuko Takeuchi are believable as a couple with relationship troubles bubbling under the surface. Teruyuki Kagawa is impressively sinister as Nishino, often needing no more than a look or a word to give off a sense of uncertainty about his motivations.

“Creepy” transforms a typical detective story into something that plays on primal fears in a way that is unique and highly unnerving. In the opening scenes of the film Takakura allows a man under interrogation to escape and he subsequently commits a murder. This failure haunts him throughout the film. It is a feeling of powerlessness that is terrifying. The film manipulates many events to this end which may lead to accusations of plot holes and unbelievable scenarios. Understanding that the film’s focus is not on the surface level investigation, but on exploring Takakura’s own psyche is key to fully comprehending what is happening. When Nishino begins hitting on Yasuko and invites her to his house, it is representative of the atavistic fear of Takakura that he may lose his wife. This dynamic is brought back again later in the film when she is asked to choose between the two men. The film essentially becomes a struggle for dominance and control. One man appears to be losing his power to control his life and events surrounding him, while the other seems able to commit almost any act without consequence. There is also a dark undercurrent of inexplicable evil, reminiscent of other Kurosawa films such as “Cure”. Takakura tells his students that there are several kinds of killer; and that sometimes there is no explanation for their crimes. This is the most horrifying thought of all: that there are things out there that we cannot understand and therefore cannot control. An interesting take on the detective thriller genre with more going on just under the surface.

Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

Futaba Sachino (Rie Miyazawa) lives with her daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki). The bathhouse they used to run is now closed after her husband (Joe Odagiri) ‘vanished like steam’ a year ago. When Futaba is given a devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer she goes to find her former partner, who is now living alone with his daughter Ayuko. The two come to live with Futaba and Azumi and they re-open the bathhouse. With little time left Futaba endeavors to set her affairs in order, uncovering a family secret and making sure that the two girls are taken care of.

Written and directed by Ryota Nakano, “Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a poignant yet uplifting story about the value of kindness. There are as many moments to make you smile as to weep and it treads a delicate balance between sentimentality and realism. All of the characters are given a backstory, however small, and the script does a good job of weaving together various subplots into a coherent narrative. The entire cast do an admirable job of creating believable family dynamics. Rie Miyazawa is a caring and compassionate mother dealing with the shock of her sudden illness. Remaining strong for her children, while displaying an inner turmoil and sense of loss, the character of Futaba provokes real empathy and love for her determination. Hana Sugisaki shines as Azumi, dealing with her own problems at school and later taking on responsibilities for many of the other characters. She is a mirror to Miyazawa’s kindness and strong-willed nature, while also retaining an independent spirit. Out of all the characters she undergoes the greatest journey, from shy and awkward schoolgirl to a confident surrogate mother to her family. The rest of the cast are all excellent, particularly Aoi Ito as Ayuko, who does an incredible job with very emotionally challenging material. The direction of the film is good, allowing the actor’s performances to shine. There is interesting use of cut-aways, to the chimney of the bathhouse, which may also resemble a crematorium chimney, or blue skies with clouds floating by. Discussion of the afterlife in the film is minimal, largely revolving around one young character whose mother is deceased. Religious notions are largely superceded, explicitly at the end, by a more humanist philosophy amongst the characters, that the reality of everyday love and joy is something that should be cherished over a belief in heaven.

“Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a moving portrait about life and family set against the backdrop of an imminent death. This prognosis early in the film sets everything in context for the audience, although certain characters remain unaware of it until later. However, it is not a film that dwells on death so much as an examination of the joy of life. Although there are powerfully emotional scenes, there is also a lot of subtle humour and tender moments between mother and daughter or the two sisters that emphasize the idea that life is precious and each moment has the potential for joy. The film features several characters who are without a mother, though cared for by other characters. The importance of parental affection from those other than the biological parents is an important theme. This is generalized more widely into the notion of the paramount importance of kindness in society. Futaba’s relations with everyone she meets are typified by this more than anything, her ability to forgive, and her resolve to keep going through adversity. In the final section of the film we see this kindness repaid by those she has touched. An emotional film that is a celebration of the best of human nature, a plea for kindness in a world of misfortune.