Eriko, Pretended (2016) by Akiyo Fujimura

Losing someone is never easy and this film looks at how people deal with grief. Eriko Yoshioka (Haruka Kubo) is a struggling actor, her main claim to fame being a brief appearance as a background dancer in a beer commercial. She lives with her flatmate who has dreams of being a famous stand-up double act comedian. When her sister dies, she heads back to her hometown for the funeral. Her sister Yukiko has left behind a son, Kazuma (Atsuya Okada), whose father is unknown to the family. After the ceremony, Eriko agrees to stay for a while to look after Kazuma while they decide what will happen to him. Eriko is then contacted by a Hanae (Miki Nitori), Yukiko’s old boss, who recruits Eriko as a “mourner for hire”; their job being to attend funerals and grieve, a process which is intended to help the soul pass to the afterlife.

“Eriko, Pretended” is an interesting look at how people behave following a death. The simple story allows time to contemplate the themes as Eriko deals with her sister’s passing. Haruka Kubo gives an understated performance in the lead role, displaying a complex and believable response to her sister’s passing. Miki Nitori is good as Hanae, a strong businesswoman, but also someone who has absolute belief in the value of her profession. Although short the film does feel stretched at times, not helped by the depressing nature of the story. It does not establish much attachment to the secondary characters, even Kazuma and Eriko’s relationship feels a little shallow. Much of the film is workmanlike, in direction and music, lacking the visual metaphor, use of colour and lighting that might have enlivened and enhanced the narrative. Towards the end of the film there is a scene of the empty rooms of the house that is effortlessly impactful, but these moments are too infrequent, with the majority of the film lacking that sense of a deeper meaning.

The concept of performative grief is one that can be found throughout history, with wailing and pulling of hair, the wearing of black, and other outward displays of loss and sadness common across many cultures. Early in the film we see Eriko at an audition in which she is asked to show emotion for a character who has died. Unable to realistically express sadness she is passed over for the role. When she later takes up the job of a hired mourner, she is at first confused by the job and later annoyed at another hired group of mourners whose exaggerated wailing borders on parody of the grieving process. Eriko’s seeming inability to mourn appropriately, or vocally, enough is offset by her caring for her orphaned nephew. In showing the falseness of what they are doing as hired mourners, it helps to highlight the real sense of loss that she is feeling and the difficulty in coming to terms with the death of a family member. Crying is a physical response intended to release pent-up emotions and therefore it is part of the healing process for those left behind. Characters discuss the role mourning has in helping the spirits of the dead reach the other side. The notion of grieving breaking some metaphysical barrier to the afterlife can perhaps be better understood as the living finally ‘letting go’ of their loved ones and allowing their soul to travel on ahead as a happy memory, rather than dwelling on their death. “Eriko, Pretended” has an interesting story, dissecting the often peculiar customs surrounding death, but often fails to develop an emotional connection to its characters.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) by Isao Takahata

A harrowing story of suffering in the aftermath of war. The film begins in September, 1945. A young boy, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), is slumped, exhausted, in a station as people pass by him. Seita tells us in narration that this is the day he died. Later a cleaner finds a candy tin full of ashes beside his body and throws it out. Fireflies appear from the tin and the spirit of Seita’s young sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) who warmly greets her brother as he heads off with her. We are then taken back to the two siblings when they were alive, living with their mother. Seito’s father is a navy officer away on duty. When their town is firebombed, Seita and Setsuko are forced to flee their home. Their mother later dies at the hospital and the two travel to live with an aunt in an unfamiliar town. The aunt is at first happy to provide for them, but soon grows impatient, begrudging them food and a roof as she cares for her own children. Finally growing tired of constant put-downs, Seita takes his sister to live in an air-raid shelter. The two struggle as food shortages grow and the town comes under threat from further attack.

Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, “Grave of the Fireflies” is incredibly moving as we see the horrors of war as experienced by the two orphans, starving and alone. There are a few lighter moments as we see them playing together and the strength of their relationship. It is poignant to watch as Seita attempts to provide for his sister and protect her innocence by not telling her about their mother’s passing. Writer and director Isao Takahata crafts a story that is simple yet packed with the minutiae of everyday life, from daily chores to the children playing together each moment is carefully observed. The animation is very understated with a slow melancholic feel to it. The subtle details add great texture to the world, such as the itching of the characters that grows as the film progresses, and the small insects that come to symbolise the struggles of the two siblings. In lingering shots of a dying firefly, or brief moments of ants scurrying under cracked pavement stones, the fragility and beauty of everyday life is brought to the fore. Michiyo Mamiya’s classical score is used sparingly, welling up at times as an emotional release to the narrative.

“Grave of the Fireflies” captures a period in history that many would like to forget. The suffering of war is often romanticised, or sanitised in sepia photographs of fallen soldiers, or quiet graveyards. Here we are shown the true horror of war, with burn victims, malnutrition, frayed tempers, and people trying their best to survive an unbearable situation. The film also shows the importance of laughter and living. Though Setsuko’s life is short, each moment we see her laugh or smile with her brother we are given a sense of the importance of life. The metaphor of the fireflies, who burn brightly for a brief time, is unmistakable here, yet in the delicate depictions of the quotidian it never feels forced. As the war comes to an end, we see people returning to their hometown full of joy and relief at the end of their struggles, while Seita carries with him the weight of his sister’s death. This powerful message, about not forgetting the victims of war, is further emphasised in the final moments. Seita and Setsuko sit on a hill looking down on the skyscrapers of a modern city, in the darkness, forgotten to the world, yet watching over them. Far from an easy watch, this reminder of suffering carries an important warning to future generations not to repeat the humanity’s past mistakes.

Ainu Mosir (2020) by Takeshi Fukunaga

Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is a young boy living in the small town of Akan in Hokkaido. He wants to escape from his rural hometown and Ainu heritage, telling his mother that he feels he is constantly reminded of his culture in their songs, festivals and traditions that are an integral part of life in their community. Having lost his father, Kanto’s confusion about whether to embrace or shun his heritage, takes on a greater personal significance for him; the absence of a paternal role model leaves him feeling cast adrift and having to his own path in life. Kanto is not without help on this journey of self-discovert. His mother (Emi Shimokura), who runs an Ainu craft store, is caring, though hurt at her son’s seeming disinterest in his culture. He also has a substitute father-figure in the shape of Debo (Debo Akibe), an Ainu elder, who attempts to teach him their traditions. Debo fully embraces their heritage, wearing his culture as a badge of honour and believing in the absolute necessity of preserving their traditions and values. Along with others, he is preparing for a cultural festival that has not been performed for many decades, in which they must raise a bear cub before killing it. The spirit of the god inside the bear will then return to the heavens carrying word of their good deeds and other gods will come to inhabit the animals of their lands.

Born in Hokkaido, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga shows great respect for the native Ainu. He worked with the local community in creating the script, and cast Ainu locals. The film documents various aspects of Ainu culture, music, dress, festivals, traditions and beliefs. We also see the friction, and subtle discrimination, between the Japanese and the Ainu; with Kanto’s mother being praised by oblivious tourists on her excellent Japanese. As well as insights into the Ainu culture, the film also shows the difficulty faced in attempting to hold on to these traditions. The Ainu are taking classes to learn the Ainu language, and must read from scripts when performing their rituals. It is a constant struggle to keep these cultures alive as languages and traditions are forgotten or eradicated. At heart “Ainu Mosir” is a coming-of-age story with Kanto facing the added pressure from those around him to take on the role of an ‘Ainu’ individual. Kanto himself is a typical teen, playing in a rock band and watching Hollywood films. He feels pigeonholed as an ‘Ainu’, railroaded into becoming what is expected of him, where he wants a future of wider possibilities. He sees his culture as restrictive; while Debo sees it as a source of pride, his deep roots giving him confidence and a sense of identity. Casting Ainu actors in the main roles helps lend an authenticity to the film and genuine emotion to the performances. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams, with stunning vistas of rural Hokkaido and the passing of the seasons, provides the perfect background for this story of people shaped by their environment.

‘Ainu Mosir’ is a significant film for what it says about the value of culture and the difficulties experienced by native peoples who feel their past is being erased. However, it wears this lightly and never lectures the audience on matters such as colonialism, xenophobia, racism, and the struggle for the rights of indigenous groups. Rather these issues are refracted through the personal story of Kanto and his own difficulties coming to terms with his heritage and the loss of his father. While the film focusses on a specific culture, its message is universal. A worthwhile film for its moving portrayal of a young teen at a crossroads in life, who must learn what is important to him, while navigating the turbulent waters of family, culture and heritage.

Lala Pipo (2009) by Masayuki Miyano

Based on a collection of short stories by Hideo Okuda, “Lala Pipo” is a collection of interwoven narratives connected by themes of sex and loneliness. The opening monologue divides the world into two types of people, winners and losers, or ‘those who have sex’ and ‘those who watch sex’, referring to the humanities interminable struggle for dominance and atavistic competitive streak. This sets us up to be judge of the characters that follow, whether they are to be admired or pitied; in short whether they are the winners or losers alluded to. Hiroshi (Sarutoki Minagawa) is a freelance writer, a university graduate living in squalor and making a pittance, who pleasures himself to the sounds of his upstairs neighbour having sex. He later finds love in the voluptuous form of Sayuri (Tomoko Murakami), but he seems incapable of seizing this chance for happiness. It later transpires that Sayuri is luring men to perform unwittingly in a series of pornographic films. Tomoko (Yuri Nakamura) is a shy girl, picked up by Kenji (Hiroki Narimiya), a scout for hostess clubs and adult video, who cajoles her into entering the seedy world of pornography. He later takes on another client, a desperate 40-something housewife Yoshie (Mari Hamada) who he must find work for. Koichi (Tei Tomari), a part-time worker at a karaoke bar is disgusted by sex, fantasizing about being an interstellar traveller (his alter-ego Captain Bonito) studying the unpalatable carnal desires of humans; but it may be that his ostensible aversion is due to a supressed need.

With a screenplay by Tetsuya Nakashima (World of Kanako, Kamikaze Girls) and directed by Masayuki Miyano, “Lala Pipo” does a good job of telling several stories, each with their own dramatic arc, showing either the rise or fall of the characters, often due to some personality trait. Each storyline neatly overlaps with the others as we see several of the characters interact or cross paths. This allows the filmmakers to examine the themes of the film thoroughly, seeing the same events from several perspectives. There is a good mix of comedy and more serious themes in the film, including several hilariously surreal moments such as a green furry cartoon penis discoursing with one character, and another being transported into a gargantuan superhero to fight his worst enemy: a sexualised woman. Far from the two types of people the film proposes in the beginning, we instead see the uniqueness of each character. The film shies away from delivering a strong message or verdict on the characters, leaving that up to the audience to determine whether they are the winners or losers of their own lives. The actors are all fantastic as the film blends genres. The relationship between Nakamura and Narimiya is captured beautifully, with them see-sawing in terms of who holds the power. The comic actors, Tomoko Murakami and Tei Tomari help prevent the film becoming an unbearably depressing affair. Worthy of mention is the film’s set design, from the garish pink bedroom of Sayuri, to the heaped rubbish of Yoshie’s home, it shows us the various aspects of how people live, often hidden from the real world.

“Lala Pipo” may seem at first glance like a knockabout sex comedy, with perverts, porn actresses, miserable loners, and slick talent scouts, but as things progress it slowly reveals a darker side to the sex industry and people’s obsession with sex. One of the film’s strongest themes is that of the profound isolation experienced by people in society. Even those seemingly adored by fans often lack the basic human connections that help people get by. We see that both the playboy and the loner are at heart one and the same, both struggling to find something of meaning in their lives. Sex is not always a constant, meaning different things to different people. In the case of this film it can be a way of exploiting people, a goal, a perversion, or an escape. The characters show the desperation, jealousy, selfishness, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and other anxieties that confront people. The comedic performances and light-hearted tone help to underscore many of the more uncomfortable messages at its heart. An enjoyable film that says a lot about sex and society.

Appleseed Saga: Ex Machina (2007) by Shinji Aramaki

Deunan Knute (Ai Kobayashi) and her partner Briareos (Koichi Yamadera) are assigned with ESWAT to an old cathedral to rescue EU officials taken hostage by cyborgs. On returning to Olympus Briareos is sent to recuperate while Deunan is assigned a new partner. Her new partner, Tereus (Yuki Kishi), seems strangely similar to Briareos old physical form, and Deunan learns that he has been cloned from her former partner’s DNA. Olympus is once again imperilled when they discover a mysterious signal being used to control both cyborgs and humans (who have taken to wearing a popular headset communication device). It is this signal that is prompting the increasing waves of terrorist activity. Meanwhile, Athena (Gara Takashima) is attempting to convince world leaders that they should join together a global satellite network that might prevent future terrorist attacks.

Shinji Aramaki directs this sequel to his 2004 “Appleseed” film. This time around we get more focus on the relationship between Deunan and Briareos and the introduction of what might be considered an atypical love triangle with the introduction of Tereus. The plot is focussed on an external threat to Olympus and therefore more familiar territory to action movies. Again the film provides us with a thinly veiled commentary on everything from terrorism, consumerism, surveillance, and communication technologies with a story that moves briskly between several incredible action sequences. The animation style is altered slightly from the first film, with less of a cell-shaded appearance to the characters. It is interesting to see the development and introduction of several new technologies, such as the bee-like flying transports early on and the Connexus devices that satirise people’s addiction to mobile communication tools. Tetsuya Takahashi again provides the music, this time alongside Haruomi Hosono. While the techo-beats and electro-rock are carried over there are also more of the softer moments and a heroic score to complement the narrative of our protagonists fighting against attempts to destroy Olympus.

“Appleseed: Ex Machina” raises interesting questions about the need for difference. Unity is something that many in society strive for, here exemplified by the idea of bringing together the world’s satellites into one system. However, when large numbers of cyborgs and people are following the commands of a single source we also see the dangers of unity (or perhaps more accurately “conformity”). We see the zombie-like citizen completely under the control of the mysterious force. It is good to see a film tackling such fundamental questions as what a Utopian society should or might look like while criticising what many consider to be an ideal.