Beautiful, Goodbye (2019) by Eiichi Imamura

Daisuke (Yusuke Takebayashi) is on the run after attempting to murder a man who he believed to be beating his child. While driving away in a stolen car he hits a woman who is standing in the road in the middle of the night. This woman is Natsuko (Bi Yo), who is dealing with her own issues. Natsuko is undead, recently returned to life after suffering fatal head injury, and also on the run from an unpleasant and abusive boyfriend (Kosuke Haruki) who has performed a ritual to resurrect her. Daisuke and Natsuko set off together on a curious road trip attempting to outrun their fates.

Writer and director Eiichi Imamura delivers a unique take on the romantic road movie genre, and a reimagining of zombie movie tropes. The film keeps a close eye on the two protagonists. Yusuke Takebayashi’s portrayal of the nervous, stuttering Daisuke, immediately evokes sympathy for him. It is clear early on that he is not a hardened killer. As the film goes on he gains in confidence and we see him develop a better understanding of himself. Bi Yo’s Natsuko is the catalyst to his transformation, her easy-going attitude and humour helping him come out of his shell. She exudes charm and it is interesting to see the zombie here as a thinking, feeling being, which adds a layer of tragedy to the character. The two of them play well off one another and their relationship develops naturally without melodrama. The film has a gentle pace as the two travel together and gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on the themes of fate, death and human relationships. Everything else seems to fade into insignificance as they drive along, with many scenes having only the two of them lost in their own conversations. The film will occasionally cut to Natsuko’s boyfriend (Koki Nakajima) as he attempts to find her, but for the most part it is Daisuke and Natsuko’s relationship that provides the impetus for the drama. The film ably manages to drift between blackly comic whimsy, in Natsuko’s reappearance as a zombie, and tragically doomed romance. The cinematography, by Kosuke Haruki, sets off this tone perfectly with golden sunsets and soft natural lighting that creates a relaxing vibe throughout. The smooth meditative score likewise heightens this sensation of a slow drift towards the inevitable as Daisuke and Natsuko continue their journey.

“Beautiful, Goodbye” is a film about the relationship between Daisuke and Natsuko and their reliance on one another. The metaphor of a lightbulb and a plug socket is used, fittingly unusual for the characters, to demonstrate their interdependence. The fact that Natsuko is a zombie from the moment they meet helps draw attention to the inevitable, that both of these characters are heading down a dead-end street. The only thing they don’t know is how long the road will be. As such both are forced into making the most of the time they do have. It is this also that adds the aforementioned element of doomed romance to their story. The audience realises that whatever happens, the relationship between a man on the run for attempted murder and a zombie, is unlikely to have a happy ending. Despite the darkness at its heart, it is a film that on final reflection comes with a great deal of hope. The chance meeting of these two characters proves to be a fortunate encounter with both coming to understand and reflect on who they are and what they have done. Though their time together may be short, it helps both to understand what it is they are living for. “Beautiful, Goodbye” gives us a fresh twist on the conventional road-trip romance, with captivating central performances and a transformative message about life and death.

Extro (2019) by Naoki Murahashi

Kozo Haginoya is a 64 year old who is signed up to a film extras agency called Lark. He is the subject of a documentary that is being filmed. Haginoya is something of a dreamer, hoping one day to be given the role of a fireman in a movie, like his acting hero Steve McQueen in the “Towering Inferno”. Despite having no discernible talent for acting, and generally being a disaster when it comes to doing what the director wants of him, he nevertheless seems content to keep trying. When it is discovered that there may be a man wanted in connection with drug dealing working at the same agency, two undercover detectives also decide to enter the world of extra work in order to catch the criminal.

“Extro” is a mockumentary that has several well-worked gags, often relying on subtle cringe humour rather than slapstick. Kozo Haginoya gives a fantastic comic performance playing it completely deadpan as with everyone else. While he is almost completely unable to follow direction, he has charm and a constantly upbeat attitude to everything, apologising to those around him for messing up the takes. The film features several professional actors and directors, including Nobuhiko Obayashi (House) and Yasufumi Terawaki. These help lend the mockumentary some credibility and the film definitely goes all out to make it look as genuine as possible. Most of the film revolves around the Ibaraki Edo Warp Station, a large reconstruction of an Edo-era town used in various films and television shows. Haginoya finds work as an extra in a couple of films, including one historical romantic drama. The film takes an odd turn in the latter half with the introduction of the police storyline, sidelining that of Haginoya. It feels as though the film-makers wanted something to give a sense of narrative. While this plot provides some great moments with the incompetent detectives becoming enamoured of their new ‘profession’, it is a shame that Haginoya’s story is shelved for a portion while this plays out. Many of the best gags are those that are character-driven or related to the problems with filming.

The film is a fun mockumentary on an ageing actor who is pursuing his dream with little concern about his ability or the possibility of achieving it. The entire cast give great performances and are entirely believable as extras at the Lark volunteer talent agency. While it loses its way a little in attempting to force the film into a narrative structure, there are many fantastic moments. It provides a peek behind the curtain at how films are made, gently yet warmheartedly poking fun at the acting profession.

G@me (2003) by Satoshi Isaka

Sakuma (Naohito Fujiki) is a well-to-do young businessman at a marketing company, living the highlife with a penthouse apartment and a fancy car. He is suave and confident, delivering pitches for his company with consummate ease. His latest project is for Mikado Beer, for whom he is developing a festival-cum-amusement park concept in Odaiba. When the president of Mikado, Katsuragi (Ryo Ishibashi), decides to shut down the project, feeling it’s not in touch with their image, Sakuma takes it as a personal slight from the wealthy mogul. While wandering past Katsuragi’s house one night he sees a young woman jumping the fence. Following her, she tells him that she is Katsuragi’s daughter Juri (Yukie Nakama) from an affair he had years ago. She has moved in with them following her mother’s death but wants to get away, feeling she doesn’t fit in. Juri suggests to Sakuma that they fake her kidnapping and extort money from her father, splitting the money. Hesitant at first, Sakuma agrees to go along with this, seeing it as a way of getting back at Katsuragi. Things don’t go to plan when Sakuma and Juri begin to develop feelings for one another, and secrets are revealed.

Based on a novel by Higashino Keigo and directed by Satoshi Isaki, “G@me” is a stylish crime caper with a heavy helping of romance. The film opens with stunning shots of the Tokyo skyline and into Sakuma’s apartment, where we see him lying prone on the floor, with his narration furthering the noir aesthetic. The film has a glossy sheen, with the characters playing for high-stakes, large sums of money and (perhaps more importantly for them) their own reputations and egos. The plot is slightly silly and requires some suspension of disbelief that every element of the various schemes goes exactly to plan. But this is not a film to let something like logic get in the way of a good story. Naohito Fujiki and Yukie Nakama give great performances as the wannabee scammers with an uneasy relationship. Ryo Ishibashi is the perfect hardnosed businessman with a sinister air who becomes Sakuma’s nemesis. The film has more than a couple of surprises, with the twists and turns of the plot becoming increasingly unlikely as they become more enjoyable. There is rarely a sense of danger in the film, despite things taking a darker turn in the second half. This is partly down to the mixed narrative, one of the fake kidnapping plot and one the burgeoning relationship between the couple. The more serious aspects are brushed over and what is left is a fun mystery thriller whose momentum keeps people from asking too many questions.

The film develops the popular crime theme of deception, with double-cross upon double-cross and nobody’s motives or actions being entirely what they seem. Much like its characters the film is pretty shallow, with both the crime story and the relationship drama not moving much beyond plot drivers. The fake kidnapping is a solid premise and the two actors do a great job, but as things progress it is a case of diminishing returns as it goes from stylish thriller to farcical crime caper when they try to recover the money. Sakuma’s reasons for getting involved, either the money or the girl, seem poorly thought out for a man who is clearly intelligent and already living in relative luxury. The sleek look of the film and pulp crime novel pacing ensure that it is never a dull ride though. “Game” is an entertaining film with two charismatic leads and a plot that keeps you guessing right until the end.

Tremble all you Want (2017) by Akiko Oku

Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) works in the accounts department of a large office. She daydreams about a boy she went to high-school with, nicknamed “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura). Despite having shared few words with him, she believes that he is her perfect man. When one of her colleagues, Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she nicknames “Two”, makes advances on her she is completely uninterested, instead formulating a plan to engineer a meeting with “Ichi” at a class reunion. However, Kirishima is undeterred, and with the help of Yoshika’s co-worker Tsukishima (Anna Ishibashi) hopes to win her round. Yoshika’s unusual behaviour and lack of confidence may make both of these men unlikely prospects.

“Tremble All You Want” is a light-hearted comedy romance with an excellent central performance from Mayu Matsuoka. Yoshika’s idiosyncrasies, including a love of fossils and extinct animals, make her fun to watch and Matsuoka is supremely likeable in the role. Later in the film she also excels in more emotional scenes as her insecurities come to the fore. The film’s comedic moments largely revolve around Yoshika’s bizarre behaviour, around both Kirishima and Ichi in particular. Also, her ocarina-playing neighbour and the various individuals in her neighbourhood add an off-beat humour to the central romantic plot. At times the tone is a little uneven, moving rapidly from slapstick comedy to more emotional moments without much time for transition. Yoshika’s behaviour is also inexplicable at times, making it difficult to suspend disbelief at her actions. However, where the film does succeed is in its portrayal of loneliness and a woman who is caught between her wants and her needs. The love triangle theme may not be new to the genre, but the film paints a heart-breaking picture of unrequited affection. Writer and director Akiko Oku has crafted the film to hit all the right emotional notes and the film has a cosy familiarity. The charming score and use of music, both for comedic and dramatic purposes, also creates a comfortable atmosphere.

If you are a fan of romantic comedies then this film absolutely delivers. A charismatic lead actress and great supporting cast make the film an enjoyable watch. The film deals with the familiar theme of being torn between the one you think you should be with, and the one who is more suitable for you. There are also interesting sub-themes about Yoshika’s social anxieties, and lack of confidence and experience leading to problems in her forming relationships. This is an aspect that was handled well, again helped by Mayu Matsuoka’s pitch perfect performance. Worth a watch if you are looking for a light-hearted romantic comedy.

Wood Job! (2014) by Shinobu Yaguchi

When Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani) fails his university entrance exams he finds himself at a loss. Not able to follow his classmates to further education, he is dealt a further blow when his girlfriend tells him they should split up. While out drinking with friends he sees a leaflet advertising a one year project to work in forestry. Enamoured by the beautiful young woman on the leaflet he sets out for the countryside where he learns all about this new trade under the stern guidance of Yoki (Hideaki Ito). He is then assigned to the remote village of Kamusari, where he is pleased to find the woman from the leaflet Naoki (Masami Nagasawa) is also living. Yuki attempts to ingratiate himself with the villagers, learning about rural life and the woods, in hopes of connecting with Naoki. Naoki however, having been disappointed by another trainee, is reluctant to fall for Yuki.

“Wood Job!” is based on the novel by Shion Miura. Written and directed by Shinobu Yaguchi (Swing Girls, Robo-G) it is very much part of his oeuvre of lighthearted comedies. With a romantic plot and plenty of gentle humour it is an easy watch. Most of the laughs come from Yuki’s attempts to learn about forestry, including tying knots, using a chainsaw, and not shouting “Timber!” when the trees fall. When he finally makes it to Kamusari we are treated to scenes of him balking at their local food and drink (road-kill deer and alcohol with a dead snake in) and customs. There is a comfortable familiarity to the plot and it delivers exactly what you expect from early on at every turn. That is not to say it is not enjoyable. The film builds on a sense of relaxation that is in keeping with the themes, which are all about the quiet, nature-focussed rural life, as opposed to the rat-race of the city. The charismatic cast exude bonhomie and their affable and affectionate relationships are entirely believable. Shota Sometani is likeable as the inept and naïve city kid, completely out of his depth, but with a bottomless passion and determination to battle on. Masami Nagasawa provides the perfect foil as the cool and confident school-teacher Naoki, whose worries about her future are always bubbling below the surface of her genial disposition. Hideaki Ito also delivers a great comic turn as Yuki’s superior Yoki, at first displeased by what he sees as Yuki’s incompetence, but slowly won over by his resolve. The film was shot on location in Mie prefecture and features stunning shots of the forested mountains. The direction distinguishes between the city and the countryside in an interesting way, using a frenetic fixed camera on Yuki in the overwhelming and chaotic city and large panoramic takes in the countryside, firmly differentiating the hectic streets from the quiet charm of the mountains.

The traditions of rural communities are a fascinating insight into human civilisation and can offer a window into what has been lost by the move to increasingly large metropolitan areas. The nature of forestry work demands a close connection with and understanding of the natural world, and “Wood Job!” reflects on this in various conversations between the characters. Whether that is the idea that nature deserves respect, or the deep understanding of ones place in history through the cycles of harvesting and planting. Yuki is a character who is completely lost, having fallen off the expected path from high-school to university to work. His move to the countryside provides him with a chance to examine what is important in life. The pace of life, the simplicity born of a lack of distractions, the focus on community and tradition, all of these things change his perspective. In the end, Yuki’s journey speaks to everyone who is trapped in the largely meaningless and monotonous faux-reality of modernity. It is a call for a return to nature, to ideals of family, community, and enjoying the good things in life.