Blue Lake Woman (1986) by Akio Jissoji

Artist Nagare (Ryo Tamura) lives with the guilt of his fomer lover Mizue’s (Yoko Yamamoto) death after he backed out of a suicide pact. Five years after the ill-fated attempt at joint self-destruction, Nagare is invited back to the house by the swamp in which Mizue drowned by Mizue’s former husband, Takigawa. Nagare is surprised to see Takigawa’s new wife, Ameko, looks identically to the dead woman (Ameko is also played by Yamamoto), while Mizue’s ghost begins appearing to him, calling him back to the site of their attempted suicide.

Based on a novel by Izumi Kyoka, “Blue Lake Woman” is a melodramatic ghost story complete with over-the-top performances and a script packed with unbelievable twists. The final third of the film takes several wild turns, becoming almost laughable as one bizarre coincidence and shocking revelation after another are thrown into the mix. Shigeaki Saegusa’s score fully embraces this high-camp atmosphere with theatrical orchestration knocking the viewer over the head with the eerie mystery chimes. It should be mentioned that this is a made-for-television drama and the low-budget is in evidence in everything from stage sets to the small cast and schlocky effects such as the handheld camera swirling around a medium attempting to contact Mizue’s ghost. Director Jissoji, most famous for his more art-house Buddhist Trilogy, does his best to overcome these budget constraints with creativity in lighting and use of close-ups, and a few moments of beautiful cinematography from Masao Nakabori throughout. They never quite elevate the film above the pot-boiler source material, but there are a few interesting elements included such as the background ticking of clocks and the array of time-pieces that make regular appearances, lending weight to the themes of time and mortality.

“Blue Lake Woman” is a traditional ghost story playing on ideas of guilt and revenge. The constant ticking of clocks, shown also in the film, is an excellent representation of how Nagare is haunted by his continued existence. He feels deeply the guilt that he survived while he left his lover to drown in the swamp. The film is not without it’s charm if you can get beyond some of the sillier elements; and occasionally surpasses the limitations of a television movie in attempting to tell a more intelligent story than the surface narrative suggests. Perhaps the film’s worst sin is in neglecting some of these more unique thematic elements, abandoning them completely in its finale in favour of wrapping everything up in a rather trite ending that undermines some of the tension that preceded it.

Hana and Alice (2004) by Shunji Iwai

Best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) begin to drift apart after starting high-school. Hana begins following an older boy they saw at the train station, later discovering he is a senior in her school Rakugo club. When the boy, Masashi (Tomohiro Kaku), bangs his head against a shutter door, Hana seizes the opportunity, telling him he’s lost his memory and that he recently confessed his love for her. Meanwhile, Alice is scouted by a talent agency and begins auditioning for parts in commercials. Hana’s dishonesty grows as she later tells Masashi that he used to date Alice too leading to a complicated love triangle between the three.

“Hana and Alice” is a beautiful depiction of teenage friendship, with incredible performances from the two leads. The chemistry of Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi is enjoyable from beginning to end, with their believable quirks and clear affection for each other making them instantly likeable. What is a fairly straightforward love triangle is enlivened with the plot of Masashi being told he has lost his memory. The film follows a traditional high-school narrative, building to a school festival at the end, with romantic dates, friends falling out and making up, and a touching look at Alice’s somewhat chaotic home life with her mother. The script captures so many relatable moments, with the girls shivering in the cold waiting for a train, or gently ribbing one another over their appearance, and luxuriates in simply spending time with these two characters. Writer and director Shunji Iwai also created the charming score captures the youthful atmosphere and compliments the stunning cinematography by Noboru Shinoda which brings a magic to the everyday environments of the girl’s lives: school, parks, cafes and the seaside.

In Hana and Alice, Iwai creates two likeable protagonists with believable backstories. The characterization and performances are engaging and make you keen to spend time with them and find out what will happen along the way. Although a disservice to Tomohiro Kaku, who is great as Masahiro, his character serves simply to offer a mirror through which the two girls are able to reflect on their own feelings and relationship. The film’s central theme remains friendship and how this can be maintained when people’s lives and interests begin to diverge. Hana and Alice are shown as literally and figuratively in tune with one another at the beginning, even mirroring one another’s movements. The audience is fully invested in hoping that this friendship will not be destroyed. We learn a little of Alice’s backstory, and briefly about Hana, but the film manages to suggest so much more, propelling the story through character rather than plot. A fantastic high-school film that breaths fresh life into the traditional teenage girl drama.

The Legend and Butterfly (2023) by Keishi Otomo

A historical epic detailing the relationship between Nobunaga Oda (Takuya Kimura) and his wife Nohime (Haruka Ayase). Oda is a figure who looms large over Japan’s warring states period, one of the most recognizable names of the time with a reputation as a ferocious military commander. “The Legend and Butterfly” begins with the lord as a young man; immature, inexperienced, and spoiled by his position. He is married to the daughter of a neighbouring lord in an attempt to broker a truce between their two regions. The woman, Nohime, is more than a match for the precocious young man; fiercely intelligent and beautiful there is a suggestion she has been sent there as an assassin by her father. Despite a mutual distrust and even hatred between the two, as the years go by they learn to work together and come to love one another, with Oda’s victories in part due to the tactical brilliance of Nohime. The film spans several decades and documents Oda’s rise to great power, becoming the recognizable warlord of historical record.

Little is known of Nohime and Nobunaga Oda’s relationship and writer Ryota Kosawa therefore takes certain liberties with their story. It is exciting to see the characterisations of these historical figures and both Takuya Kimura and Haruka Ayase give moving performances with great chemistry together. It is far from a traditional love story, even with the film-maker’s attempts to make things more romantic and fitting to modern sensibilities. Instead the film retains a sense of reality in showing that these matches were often more political alliances than passionate affairs. The fantastic production value is evidenced in everything from the large casts and sets, the colourful costumes that bring the period to vivid life, and the occasional action sequences (director Keishi Otomo previously worked on the Rurouni Kenshin series and his skill as an action director shows here). Naoki Sato’s score further adds to this sense of a lavish epic. The main failing of the film is in a lack of a unifying narrative; told over such a long period it often feels more like a beautifully rendered docu-drama than a love-story or historical epic. There are many spectacular sequences, but they feel a little disjointed. The story of Oda and Nohime is interesting, but the subtlety of their relationship and adherence to historical accuracy (they are often apart and moments of romance between them are sparse) may leave some viewers cold, especially if you are expecting something more melodramatic. The second strand to the story, that of Oda’s transformation from an inept young lord to the fearsome and merciless commander, is likewise interesting, but often omits the why and how of him becoming this dispassionate leader. In attempting to balance these two strands the film falls somewhere between an out-and-out romance and historical action film. Early on we see a hint that perhaps the relationship between the two will have some relevance to how his military career developed, but this connection becomes more tenuous as the film progresses.

“The Legend and Butterfly” is an impressive historical epic, with incredible set-piece moments and two standout performances from its leads. The tragedy of both characters seems to be the time in which they were born. Both express an interest in foreign musicians they see at a fair, and in a dream sequence towards the end of the film, Oda imagines a possible alternate future for the two where they set sail from Japan to travel together as a peaceful, loving couple. In other ages this might have been possible, but their fates were set by being born in a militaristic society that prided prowess in battle above all else and often denigrated women to the role of child-bearers. The unconventional story, awkwardly balancing facts with a more romanticised fiction, can seem strange at times, but there is so much to enjoy here, from the fantastic sets and costumes, excellently choreographed fight-sequences, and two stand-out performances from the charismatic leads.

Bashing (2005) by Masahiro Kobayashi

Yuko (Fusako Urabe), a young woman in insecure employment as a hotel cleaner, is unceremoniously fired by her boss who tells her that the other workers don’t get along with her and the company has been receiving complaints. As she makes her way home Yuko is attacked outside the convenience store by a gang of young men. Everyone in the town seems to have it in for her. We come to learn the reason for her unpopularity: following a period of volunteering abroad in a war-torn country, Yuko was kidnapped and later released. Many people in her home country of Japan are unable to comprehend her actions, victim-blaming Yuko for going abroad and claiming that she has shamed them by being captured. Yuko’s father (Ryuzo Kato) also loses his long-held job when his superior tells him he has to let him go due to the negative press and ceaseless nuisance calls they are receiving about his daughter. As Yuko doggedly continues to live, even 6 months after her return, it seems that the society will never forgive her actions leading to tragedy in her own family.

The film begins with a card stating that the film is a work of fiction, not based on any real-world events. “Bashing” does however prove a stunning rebuke to narrow-mindedness and insularity that represent the worst elements of society. Given Yuko’s treatment at the hands of co-workers, employers, and even strangers, you would be forgiven for thinking she had committed some heinous crime rather than having been the victim of one. Her parents seem to be the only people who support her decision and are understandably relieved to have her home; however even they harbour feelings of unease that their daughter has chosen to step outside the acceptable norms of their society. The grim, overcast, small coastal town proves the perfect habitat for such people, who have little interest in the outside world. The bleak, washed-out, cinematography highlights the lack of colour or vibrancy Yuko is experiencing, comparing her situation to a past where she was volunteering in a foreign land. We see Yuko standing on the shore, the crashing waves of the sea representing the geographical and emotional distance of some people from the world outside their own narrow horizons.

“Bashing” is a simple film that packs an emotional punch. The tight handheld camera work keeps us with Yuko as she suffers the ignominy of living in a country that has rejected her. Despite offering a rather dire depiction of human society as insular, ignorant, mean-spirited, and close-minded, Yuko is a hopeful voice in this grim town. Turning her back on the conventional lives of her fellow citizens, she passionately reaffirms her commitment to following her own will. In a moving monologue to her mother (played by Nene Otsuka), Yuko sets out her manifesto, asserting her desire to travel abroad again as it was the one place she could find true happiness. Her simple declaration is a parting shot to the audience, asking us to question the values that shame victims and teach us to be fearful of the outside world.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999) by Hiroyuki Okiura

In the years following the Second World War Japan suffers a series of economic and social crises. With violence on the streets the government establishes an elite Capitol Police, heavily armed and armoured to counter the threats from various terrorist groups. Among these groups the most dangerous are the Sect, a band of revolutionaries. Kazuki Fuse (Yoshikatsu Fujiki), a member of the Capitol Police, runs down a young girl with a bomb yet refuses to shoot her. The girl detonates the bomb, killing herself and injuring Fuse. As he recovers after this narrow escape, Fuse’s superiors question him about the incident and force him to re-train. Fuse later meets Kei (Sumi Muto) at the grave of the young woman, who tells him that she is the girl’s sister. Kei and Fuse’s relationship develops, with both harbouring secrets that if revealed could jeopardize their safety.

“Jin-Roh” is part of a larger franchise including films, radio plays, and manga, devised by writer Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). An exposition heavy preamble means that those unfamiliar with the rest of the series will easily follow the story, and “Jin-Roh” can be enjoyed as a stand-alone film. It takes place in an alternate history, one in which the Third Reich won the Second World War and occupied Japan. This is evident in the authoritarian designs and naming of the Panzer Corps. The film does a great job of depicting this alternative 1950’s, with a bleak cityscape infused with post-war noir aesthetics. The grimy streets and subdued colour palette create a sense of deprivation drawing on real-world environments but with anachronistic twists, such as the black, science-fiction inspired design of the Kerberous division. While Oshii clearly delights in world-building, and includes background about the political and judicial organization of this society, the central plot is a strikingly human affair. The relationship between Fuse and Kei is motivated by genuine emotion and believable threats based on their beliefs. There are occasional bursts of bloody violence, with bullets tearing through people, and the militarised police raiding terrorist hideouts, but for the most part it is a quiet, contemplative drama focussed on the turmoil that our protagonist is going through.

“Jin-Roh” questions the morality of its characters, putting their actions under the microscope and asking the audience to consider carefully their own notions of right and wrong. There is no black and white in the Capitol Police and the terrorists, and the film deliberately blurs the lines between their actions, with plotting on both sides. The second strand of the film concerns human nature, in particular the character of Fuse. Fuse’s vision of wolves viciously tearing a person apart seems to be an echo of his underlying nature, a violent individual further dehumanised in this dog-eat-dog society. The film’s bleak assessment is that he is not able to shake this predatory inclination. Whether it is society that has made him a monster, or simply that the society finds value in these latent atavistic tendencies, it makes for a uniquely interesting lead. A fantastic alternate history noir thriller with genuine depth of character and theme.