The Lone Ume Tree (2021) by Kotaro Wajima

An elderly single-mother and her autistic adult son battle against local prejudices in this family drama. Tamako Yamada (Mariko Kaga) works as a fortune-teller while caring for her son Tadao (Muga Tsukaji), familiarly known as Chu-san, who has autism. When new neighours the Satomura’s move in next door, they come into conflict with the Yamada’s over a plum tree that is overhanging the path beside their house. Head of the house Shigeru (Ikkei Watanabe) has little sympathy for Tadao’s condition, while his wife Eiko (Yoko Moriguchi) and son Sota (Taiyo Saito), get to know and understand their neighours circumstances. Deciding that Tadao would benefit from more independence, Tamako decides to move him to a local group home for others with similar conditions; but this also raises concerns from the local population who feel threatened by the behaviour of the residents.

“The Lone Ume Tree”, written and directed by Kotaro Wajima, depicts the issues involved with raising autistic children and some of the negative reactions they provoke. Chu-san’s unusual interactions, never making eye-contact, responding in terse statements, doesn’t endear him to his neighbours and many of them seem unwilling to accommodate his behaviour, instead more concerned with their own lives or businesses. Comedian Muga Tsukaji does a good job as Chu-san, depicting his autism in a realistic way, but also showing the love he has for his mother which is often hard for him to display outwardly. Veteran actress Mariko Kaga is also perfectly cast as Tamako, an independent spirit whose energy and devotion to her son is inspiring. The supporting cast, including the neighbours, residents of the care home and locals give a great sense of a real community, with positive and negative responses to Chu-san showing the range of reactions to living with such conditions. The score’s off-beat melody is a great counterpart to the drama, representing Chu-san’s peculiar view of the world.

The plum tree of the title acts as a symbol of Chu-san’s own condition. We learn that it was planted by Chu-san’s father before he left Tamako and it has an almost symbiotic relationship with the character. Chu-san is distraught when someone comes to cut off the overhanging branches leading to it remaining as it is. While both the plum tree and Chu-san are seen as troublesome to their neighbours, they both represent life in all its awkward and uncompromising variety. The neighbours, at first distressed by the tree and Chu-san, learn to accept them as part of the environment. It is a novel way to express this notion that we should avoid antagonism and seek acceptance of things that may seem frustrating but are in fact the essence of humanity.

Anime Supremacy! (2022) by Kohei Yoshino

A first-time anime director becomes involved in a ratings war with her hero while attempting to see her creative vision brought to fruition. Hitomi Saito (Riho Yoshioka) quits a solid career as a public servant to enter the highly competitive world of anime. Seven years later, in charge of her first project as director, she is keen to see her story realised, not least as her series will be going up against another from famed director Chiharu Oji (Tomoya Nakamura), whose work first inspired her to enter the industry. Hitomi must navigate issues with her staff as well as concerns from the network and her production manager Yukishiro (Tasuku Emoto), who wants the reserved Hitomi to do more promotion for the show. Meanwhile, Oji is also going through creative issues much to the frustration of his assistant Kayako (Machiko Ono).

“Anime Supremacy!” is a fun, drama based on a novel of the same name by Mizuki Tsujimura, that shows us behind-the-scenes at an anime production company; showing the high-paced, combative reality of creating what is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan, and increasingly the world. We see the rush to deadlines, the vast amount of talent it takes to put an episode together, and the conversations between the creatives and the business-minded management. Riho Yoshioka gives a superb comedic performance as Hitomi, with her charmingly expressive characterisation also leaving room for moments of thoughtfulness and passion. Tomoya Nakamura and Machiko Ono also have great on-screen chemistry, with the troubled artist constantly at odds with his overworked assistant. There is a huge supporting cast here and some of them miss out on character development. This is particularly true with Kazuna (Karin Ono), whose side-story goes nowhere despite her being an engaging addition as a brilliant artist completely wrapped up in her own world. The direction is energetic, with occasional flashes of creativity, especially the animated additions showing the battle between the two shows as an ongoing race between the protagonists.

Fans of anime will no doubt enjoy the film as a look at the creative processes and some of the characters who bring to life these fantastical shows. While at times the film is confused in its messaging, attempting to juggle the stories of Hitomi, Chiharu, and to a lesser extent Kazuna, the characters are interesting and the central rivalry ensures we are invested in the ending. Hitomi is someone who has a singular vision and this single-mindedness leads her to neglecting or under-appreciating her colleagues. As she matures through the film we see her gradually begin to understand the value of teamwork and the efforts of others. There is also a strong theme running through about the struggle of artists to protect their work from the predations of corporate interests who want to sanitise everything for marketability. Interestingly both animators in the film choose a different path in the end and it is left to the audience to decide what is most important, success as defined by financial gain or popularity, or as defined by cleaving to your own ideals.

Face (2000) by Junji Sakamoto

After murdering her sister, an introverted woman sets out on a journey of self-discovery while fleeing the police. Masako (Naomi Fujiyama) works with her parents in a dry-cleaning and repair business in Kobe, largely confined to sewing in her room, with little apparent interest in the outside world. When her younger sister, Yukari (Riho Makise), working as a hostess in Tokyo, pays a visit it is immediately clear that the two sisters could not be more different. The outgoing Yukari berates Masako for not getting out more, while Masako seems to harbour a grudge against her younger sister. When their mother dies, the two are left alone and an argument sees Masako kill Yukari in a fit of pent up rage. After contemplating suicide, Masako heads out to try and find her absentee father. Along the way she faces sexual violence and other trials as she learns to be resilient and independent. Her odyssee takes her to a bar in Beppu where she works for Ritsuko (Michiyo Yasuda) and Hiroyuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) and begins to experience happiness for the first time.

“Face” written by Isamu Uno and Junji Sakamoto and directed by Sakamoto is a tragi-comic tale that works as a coming-of-age story for a woman whose self-imposed isolation has left her almost childlike in her naivety and lack of assertiveness. Naomi Fujiyama’s performance as Masako is full of charm and underlying insecurities. We never learn the exact reason behind her father’s departure, or her hatred of her younger sister, but her awkward, misanthropic attitude is captured perfectly by Fujiyama. “Face” is an unsual mix of difficult subject matter, familial murder and rape, but overall has a darkly comic tone and even some out-and-out humour, such as when Masako is learning to ride a bike or to swim, activities she always wanted to try. Even in its final moments the film leans towards the comedic and the jaunty score emphasises this lighthearted tone. The plot swings from one experience to the next, some good, some bad, presenting us with a chequered impression of life’s ups and downs. There are some outstanding moments in the direction but for the most part the focus is on the performances, which are all outstanding. Riho Makise, as the forthright and independent Yukari, and Michiyo Yasuda and Etsushi Toyokawa as bar hosts Ritsuko and Hiroyuki, act as the worldly-wise foils to Masako’s naive heroine.

The sympathetic Masako is a unique character battling her own demons. The fact that she is a fugitive is brought up throughout as a plot device to keep her moving to the next place, forcing her into the path of the next character who will help her piece together a sense of self in this complex society. But it is this journey of self-discovery that lies at the heart of the drama. We see her at her highest and lowest points and how she responds to both kindness and cruelty. In the end, Masako’s fate rests entirely in her own hands, both happiness and misery available to her, showing the extent to which our experiences are shaped by our reactions to circumstance. A worthwhile film with a fantastically nuanced central performance.

Mitsuko Delivers (2011) by Yuya Ishii

A 9-months pregnant woman returns to the street she used to live on, doing her best for the people around her. Mitsuko Hara (Riisa Naka) finds herself pregnant, single, unemployed and homeless. Following her whimsical philosophy that people are blown on the wind, she heads back to the street she once lived on with her parents. Her parents believe she is living a dream life in California. Mitsuko begins caring for the elderly landlady on the street and meets up with a childhood admirer Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura), who is still running a small restaurants with his uncle Jiro (Ryo Ishibashi).

The film has a relaxed pace that, with things only really getting any kind of impetus very late in proceedings. Risa Naka’s performance as the determined, permanently optimistic, Mitsuko is fantastic and carries the film. The supporting cast do an admirable job but the script often lacks enough humour or emotion for them to get their teeth into.

“Mitsuko Delivers” is a film about traditional values of community that have been largely forgotten in the modern day. The street of Mitsuko’s youth that she returns to represents this lost past of social cohesion and people knowing what they should do. It is chaotic and destitute but people all have a role to play and few worries despite their circumstances. As Mitsuko works for the community they in turn help her out. A film with an earnest and wholesome message about the value of community that is let down by a lacklustre script and meandering plot.

Memories (1995)

“Magnetic Rose” by Koji Morimoto

The 4-man crew of salvage space ship Corona receive an SOS call from an uninhabited region and set out to investigate. On finding a large, seemingly desolate vessel broken into pieces, two of the crew, Heinz and Miguel board it to investigate, leaving their crewmates Ivanov and Aoshima behind. While searching through the wreckage of the abandoned ship they come across holographic representations of opulent halls and find evidence of a singer named Eva Friedl. The ghost of Eva seems to haunt the ship, pining for her lost love Carlos, and she attempts to trap Miguel with her for eternity. Heinz is also confronted by a past tragedy of his own concerning his daughter Emily.

Directed by Koji Morimoto, with a script by Satoshi Kon (based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s original story), “Magnetic Rose” is a fantasic blend of science-fiction, horror and psychological thriller. With a relatively simple story, with a crew investigating an SOS call and finding more than they bargained for, the film really excels in world-building. The design of the spaceships, suits, and various technologies such as the holograms all ground the film with a sense of believability. The scale of the vast corrupted internals of the abandoned ship, the terrifying and wondrous infinity of space, and the dense tangles of wires in the Corona, are meticulously depicted. The operatic classical score underlines this sense of scale, connecting the vast reaches of outer space with the unknown depths of the human psyche. The script does a good job of defining these four characters and setting up what happens to them in relation to their particular traits or anxieties.

“Magnetic Rose” is an existential drama about memory and regret. The four crew members coccooned in their vessel, adrift in space, set the scene perfectly for contemplations about humanity’s purpose. The story of Eva is made more tragic knowing that she is long deceased; an idea that is mirrored with Heinz’s own reminiscences. Memories can draw us in and fixate us on the past which can be both comforting and dangerous.

“Stink Bomb” by Tensui Okamura

Nobuo Tanaka works at the Nishibashi Pharma laboratories Yamanashi. When he takes a new experimental drug hoping to cure his flu symptoms, he accidentally sets in train something that may threaten the future of the country. After taking the drug, Tanaka falls asleep and awakens to find his entire company unconscious. The drug he has taken turns out to be a new bio-weapon that, when processed through him, turns Tanaka into a potent threat. Those who come within sight of him succumb to a pungent chemical, released through his sweat, that causes them to collapse. The oblivious Tanaka, commanded by a higher-up from Tokyo, sets out for the capital, devastation in his wake.

Directed by Tensui Okamura, with a script by Katsuhiro Otomo, “Stink Bomb” has a more comedic tone than “Magnetic Rose”, with the unwitting protagonist soon the centre of media attention and military intervention as he heads for Tokyo. A far-fetched tale that nevertheless touches on interesting ideas about the danger of chemical weapons. The film also includes some political intrigue with American military involvement in the development of the weapon and attempts to secure rather than destroy this threat. This light-hearted affair ends with a fittingly amusing punchline to the increasingly unbelievable tale.

“Cannon Fodder” by Katsuhiro Otomo

The shortest of the three stories, “Cannon Fodder” takes place in a steam-punk, hyper militarised city reminiscent of European conflicts of the past (jackboots, pith-helmets and gas-masks being commonplace). Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the film shows a young child who is enamoured of the idea of war, saluting a poster of a general each morning, while his father works at the nearby large cannon, which is loaded and fired regularly. The entire industry of the city appears to be centred on the war, with munitions factories and cannons being the only evident employers. Despite it’s brevity this short film manages to slip in several themes about the dangers of militarism: hints that the factories are using poisonous chemicals (all the characters appear sickly with black rings around their eyes and missing teeth) and a pertinent question from the son regarding who they are fighting. This question the father does not answers, stating that he will know when he is old enough, suggesting that nobody is quite sure. The war is being continued for economic and social reasons rather than any meaningful resolution being sought.

“Cannon Fodder” is visually distinct from the previous two films, with a pop-up story book look, traditional hand-drawn animation with plates stacked to give an impression of depth, and the use of CGI allowing for interesting scene transitions. The film has no real plot to speak of and ends abruptly, being more of a window onto this odd, yet frighteningly relatable, world in which the citizenry are no more than cogs in the machinery of war.