Blue, Painful, Fragile (2020) by Shunsuke Kariyama

Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki star in this young adult drama about two students with big dreams. Kaede Tabata (Yoshizawa) maintains a philosophy of absolute non-engagement, his belief being that if you do not connect with people you can’t hurt them or be hurt by them. This all changes when he meets Hisano Akiyoshi (Sugisaki), a bright and socially conscious classmate. Hisano is someone who believes in changing the world for the better, ending poverty, war and discrimination. The two decide to begin a club called Moai, with the intention of running social events and improving things in a small way. However, as the club becomes larger it evolves into a group for connecting students with potential employers, and Kaede is forced to reassess whether he really wants to be a part of this more corporate club or whether it should continue at all.

While the film contains elements of romantic comedy drama, it also has a strong message about social issues and the difficulties in trying to make positive change in the world. The two protagonists are diametrically opposed in their worldviews, one a pessimist who believes change is impossible and that the best approach is simply not to try and alter things; and the other convinced that everyone can make a difference to the world. It is fun to watch the dynamic between these two, helped by great performances by Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki. Their clashing personalities make both their friendships and the disagreements between Kaede and Hisano feel genuine. The supporting cast, including Amane Okayama as Kaede’s friend Tosuke, Honoka Matsumoto and Nana Mori do a great job as idealistic young characters who . Yoshizawa and Okayama work great as the friends, with many of the funniest scenes together. The plot has a couple of twists that make it more interesting than an average drama. It flicks back and forth over the space of two years to show what the club was and what it became, which helps create a sense of mild intrigue as to what happened in the intervening time. The film is rarely entirely serious in tone, even when it touches on more serious themes of corruption, sexual harassment and abuse of power, instead remaining firmly in the comfortable territory of soft focus, brightly lit scenes featuring a cast always looking their best.

“Blue, Painful, Fragile” is a film that really captures the personalities of its characters and their relatable dilemmas in attempting to work co-operatively. It covers a number of issues that will be particularly pertinent to its younger target audience, including the social issues such as climate change, poverty, discrimination and war; the issues of corporatism corrupting any potentially benevolent social enterprise; data privacy; sexual harassment and mistreatment of women. But at its heart it is the central conflict between the two leads that drives the story. People are problematic, with their own jealousies and insecurities jeopardizing any attempts to do good. The film shows us that Kaede is kind hearted in his desire to do no harm, but his reticence to engage means he is also not making any positive contribution to society. On the contrary, Hisano wants to do good, but unwittingly ends up creating something that evolves into an organisation that has little to do with her high-minded ideals.

Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a  screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial.  Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.

A Girl Missing (2019) by Koji Fukada

A woman is tortured by regrets in this mysterious thriller from Harmonium director Koji Fukada. Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui) works as a home care nurse. As well as looking after the elderly Toko Oishi (Hisako Okata) she also tutors her two grandchildren, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ozawa). When Saki is kidnapped and later returns, Ichiko is shocked to learn that the kidnapper was somebody close to her. Deciding not to tell Saki’s mother, she later comes to regret the secrets she has kept as she is harassed by the media, forcing her out of her job. Ichiko later begins a relationship with a man named Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu) who may also have a connection to the Oishi family.

Writer and director Koji Fukada (Harmonium) again creates a unique crime drama in which the focus is not on the crime itself, but on the lives it impacts. We learn little about the kidnapping, the motivation behind it, or exactly what happened to Saki. Ichiko is drawn into the emotional vortex caused by the incident, a scapegoat for everyone’s anger and confusion; and it is her struggle that we bear witness too. The film begins with Ichiko having changed her appearance and beginning a friendship with a Yoneda, who works as a hairdresser. As the story moves back and forth between the present and the past, the mystery is built up layer on layer, with more unanswered questions arising with each twist. It seems that we are always just on the cusp of some major revelation that remains out of reach. The film is understated, creating a slow burn tension as we see the characters spark off each other. Fukada is a writer who is comfortable to let things go unsaid or wrap them in metaphor and mystery. “A Girl Missing” pulls the rug out from under us by providing a crime set-up and then turning the camera away from the facts surrounding the case to instead focus on a character who has little direct involvement with the crime. This may prove frustrating to some, but works beautifully as a complex character study. The excellent performances, especially from Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa help to bring the film to life, both giving engaging performances as women dealing with difficult situations. Tsutsui shows us the slow deterioration of a woman who feels resentful at being unfairly targeted by those looking for someone to blame. Mikako Ichikawa is a sphinx-like in her portrayal of Motoko, harbouring her own secrets and shame. Fukada’s direction manages to create drama from a film that is largely comprised of dialogues. There are several stylish touches, such as the smoke rising early in the film, or the empty house towards the end, that show a knack for visual storytelling, capturing tone and theme simply yet effectively. While the film is largely realist, the occasional moments of avante garde expressionism fit perfectly in this world that seems slightly out of the ordinary, like looking at our society through a distorted mirror.

“A Girl Missing” is an unsettling watch, detailing the descent into paranoia and anxiety of an innocent woman beset by feelings of unnecessary guilt. It speaks to a society where shame and opprobrium are often levelled at those least deserving. The discussion between Ichiko and Motoko, sharing their tales of covert sexual behaviour provides perhaps the clearest key to understanding what the film is about. Society tells people to hide their shame regarding sex, causing later subconscious traumas for those who repress their feelings and instincts. There is discussion of the possible rape of Saki which highlights the dangers associated with a society where these behaviours are rarely discussed. Saki is unwilling to share what happened to her and this fear of speaking out, often through shame, is just one danger of a society which rarely wants to confront its own nature. The film shows us a media who are desperate for an easy answer, to wrap the case up, perhaps unaware that there is genuine suffering and emotional pain that cannot be so easily dealt with. The film’s major strength is that we never learn what happened to Saki; and we never learn the truth about Ichiko’s story. It leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that humans will continue to mistreat one another; and that we will never fully understand each other or human psychology unless we are truly open to examining it without prejudice. The focus on the details of these cases blind us to the truth that we are all capable of causing pain. The immaterial specifics often distract us from dealing with our own sense of shame, guilt, and fear that drives these harmful behaviours.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) by Hayao Miyazaki

The earth has suffered a devastating ecological catastrophe that has destroyed most of humanity. Humans live in small communities, suffering the ravages of war and starvation. Much of the planet is taken over by a poisonous forest populated with various insects including the mammoth molluscs known as Ohms. Nausicaa is a princess from the Valley of the Wind, a peaceful community living in one of the last safe havens. When a military airship from Tolmekia crashes in their valley, Nausicaa finds a young girl who has been held prisoner, who tells her to destroy the ship’s cargo. The Tolmekian’s intend to use the deadly weapon-like monster aboard to destroy the poisoned forests and the Ohms so that they can live in peace. However, things are not as simple as they seem, as Nausicaa discovers that it is not the forest that is poisoned, but the earth, and destroying the trees and insects would lead to almost certain annihilation for all people.

Nausicaa is an action-packed film with a  strong ecological message. It is interesting to see a post-apocalyptic setting based on an environmental disaster, showing both the dangers of war and climate change. The environments are incredibly well realised, with the ecology of the forests, poisonous spores, the various creatures that now inhabit the earth, the deserts and the human societies creating a rich background for the story. The film brings in several elements to its design, including medieval style armour, tanks and rifles from various periods throughout history. This highlights the timeless quality of styles in the narrative too as the story is a traditional romantic epic, complete with a prophesied hero, a princess, knights and pitched battles; while the themes are modern, hinting at the destruction of the environment through mechanisation. The artwork and design of everything from the costumes to the creatures shows clear thought to the practicalities of their situation and their evolution through time. The animation creates a great sense of scale, particularly in the shots of the valley and the vast marauding hordes of Ohm. There are also several fantastic action sequences, showcasing Miyazaki’s love of flying machines and air combat.

Environmental concerns are at the heart of what Nausicaa is about. The realisation that it is humans who have brought themselves to the bring of extinction is poignant and thought-provoking. The message that we must learn to live with the other animals on the planet, to embrace the natural world rather than attempting to destroy it is a powerful message. The film does not shy away from confronting us with the difficult truth that such a cataclysmic future is possible. The dwarfing of humans by the giant Ohm suggests that humans are of little importance in the grand scheme of things. If we were to make the world inhospitable, it is possible that other creatures would survive and become dominant. The film is also pessimistic about a human response to such a disaster, showing the human societies still warring and coveting resources despite their imminent extinction. A timeless story and an important message for every generation, “Nausicaa” is also a thrilling fantasy adventure with a superbly depicted post-apocalyptic world.

Tokyo Tribe (2014) by Sion Sono

A hip-hop musical action comedy with lashings of ultra-violence, drawing on martial arts, gangster and exploitation cinema. “Tokyo Tribe” begins by introducing us to a fantastical fictionalized Tokyo run by gangs who have carved the megalopolis up into various districts. These include the Bukuro Wu-Ronz, Nerimathafuckers, the Gira Gira Girls in Kabukicho, and the laid-back Musashino gang. The leader of the Bukuro gang is Mera (Ryohei Suzuki), a sadistic gangster who answers only to Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), a crazy crime-boss with a reputation for violence. Mera has a grudge against Kai (Young Dais) from the Musashino group and plans to lure him into a conflict. Kai manages to call on the other gang leaders to back him up in his fight against Mera and Buppa. A young woman known as Sunmi (Nana Seino) who is kidnapped by Buppa’s gang later turns out to be the daughter of an important ally from Wong Kong, who sends his kung-fu enforcers to bring her back.  

With a relatively straightforward plot the film is able to spend most of its time on the cartoonish violence and creating a vibrant, chaotic alternate Tokyo; everything from the sets and costumes to the acting is dialled right up to deliver a sensory assault in keeping with the aggressive and anarchic tone.

Sion Sono is a director who is not afraid of creating works that are both shocking and humorous, seeming to relish the juxtaposition of various genres and elements. This film is no exception. You are never quite sure what to expect as things only get more extreme as they proceed, with the ending being a spectacular rap musical fight sequence that caps the increasing tension building to it. It is certainly unusual to see a hip-hop musical, but by leaning in to the wildness and comedy Sono makes it work. The music is enjoyable and there are a few great hooks and bars throughout.  Many of the cast are rappers so are able to sell the lyrics and bring their own swagger to the roles. Together with the non-rapper actors, including Shota Sometani who acts as a participant narrator, they do a great job of bringing this colourful world to life, playing outrageous stereotypes of ‘gangster rappers’ with a sense of fun. Sono has an incredible eye for visuals and the set design and costumes gives him a chance to really push the boat out, drawing inspiration from various places. With the white-painted human statues reminiscent of the Korova Milk Bar in “A Clockwork Orange”; references to Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit as seen on Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”; the set dressing, pink and red balloons and wallpapers, in various rooms of the red-light district of Saga town are all highly suggestive, using the environment to full effect in creating tone. Slightly less overt are Erika’s virginal white underwear underwear and the seemingly bizarre phallic ornament that Buppa both displays and uses as a substitute for his own member at times; both of which have subtextual significance. All of the gangs have a unique style that make them instantly recognizable and say a lot about them without needing to explain it.

“Tokyo Tribe” is an unusual film, both in its blend of genres and in its themes. It is a film that seems to indulge absolutely male fantasies of sex and violence; with sadistic and chauvinistic criminals, pimps and prostitutes, powerful kung-fu masters, all wrapped in gangster rap bravado. However, the film largely seems to be poking fun at many of these things. There is a distancing effect to having the film be a musical, including Shota Sometani’s role as MC Show. This fourth-wall breaking helps to recast the misogynistic overtones as a criticism of misogyny and male-violence. While the stakes are high, the over-the-top performances from Riki Takeuchi in particular, mean it is hard to take any of it too seriously. In this sense the film can be seen as an attempt to puncture the grandiosity and violent posturing of hip-hop, with an unsubtle dig at the male fixation on sex and violence. We later discover that Mera has an unhealthy obsession with penis size as a measure of a man’s worth and this is the source of his envy and hatred for Kai. The film is essentially ridiculing popular ideas of what masculinity is. The character of Erika, who has come to Tokyo to escape being a virgin sacrifice for her father, further shows the horrors of a male-dominated world. In the Musashino crew we have a group who from the beginning espouse a philosophy of love and peace, and it is this that finally wins the day, against the meaningless violence that seems to characterise the other gangs in Tokyo.

Drawing on various influences, from hip-hop to gangster films, Hong Kong action cinema, the outrageous villains of Japanese teen manga, the filmmakers and actors create a fun alternate reality, with amusing caricatures and a great soundtrack, that can be enjoyed as a tongue-in-cheek dig at much of the culture.