Wicked City (1987) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Renzaburo Taki (Yusaku Yara) works part-time as a Black Guard, protecting humanity from the demons who inabhit a parallel world. With a peace accord due to be signed between the humans and demons, he is assigned to protect a 200-year old demon named Giuseppe Mayart (Ichiro Nagai), a key player in the process. Alongside Renzaburo, a demon woman named Makie (Toshiko Fujita) is also tasked with ensuring Mayart’s safety. Demons unhappy with the peace accord soon appear to disrupt their plans and Renzaburo and Makie must fight for their own survival.

An exploitation film packed with violent action, nudity, and grotesque creatures, “Wicked City” is a lot of fun from start to finish, rarely letting up in its fast paced, often tongue-in-cheek, plot that takes a number of twists to a thrilling finale. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri from a screenplay by Norio Osada, “Wicked City” is a gothic fantasy with dark themes of sexual violence and gruesome action. The film’s plot is relatively straightforward, allowing for some incredible set-pieces. The blend of crime thriller and dark fantasy is hinted at in the opening sequences that talk of a shadowy underworld beneath the city of iron and concrete. The character designs feature elements familiar to students of demonology, with the spider-woman being a particular highlight. The film does an incredible job of creating an eerie atmopshere, with nightscapes and bleak underworld locales befitting the grim tone. Sex features heavily in the film and although partially relevant to the plot the film clearly plays on the exploitation genre, with copious nudity and a depraved sequence of rape also depicted. Sex is something both beautiful and dangerous, erotic and terrifying at the same time. This ties into one of the key themes of the film, that of balancing light and darkness in the human heart and society.

The darkness and demons of the otherworld are suggestive of humanities own struggle with the nature of evil. Although the world has modernised, and societies have built glistening skyscrapers, we are still beset by these ancient urges and horrors that lurk just out of sight. In the relationship between Renzaburo and Makie the film suggests that confronting and even forming a relationship with our darker natures may be not only inevitable but desirable. Mayart’s crude suggestion that sex with demons is better than anything that can be experienced with humans may also point to this idea that what humanity is striving for is a form of self-actualisation, to truly know ourselves, both light and dark. A film that is sure to please fans of exploitation horror and over-the-top 80’s action.

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) by Makoto Shinkai

Two teens face a difficult separation in this melancholic exploration of young love. Takaki Tono (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Akari Shinohara (Yoshimi Kondo) become friends after both transferring to the same high school in Tokyo. After Akari moves north to Tochigi they remain in correspondence. Takaki decides to take a train to meet her, knowing it will perhaps be the last time as he is soon due to move with his family as well. As the snowy weather worsens and the train is delayed, his agony at reuiniting with Akari is heightened. Following Takaki’s move another girl, Kanae Sumida (Satomi Hanamura), becomes romantically interested in Takaki, but realises that she is unable to close the distance between them due to his longing for Akari.

Makoto Shinkai’s “5 Centimeters Per Second” returns to a theme from his earlier short film “Voices of a Distant Star”, that of a separated couple struggling with loneliness and yearning for human connection. It is unconventional as films go in that there is very little plot or dialogue, with most of the story told through the internal monologues of Takaki and Kanae. Instead it explores its themes in a more expressionistic way, creating a tangible world through small details. Water droplets on a train window; the light from a vending machine at a remote station; cherry blossoms blowing by a railway crossing; all of these picturesque images evoke feelings that are relatable but impossible to describe. The film is around sixty minutes and comrpised of three segments. The first shows Takaki travelling to meet Akari, the second Kanae procrastinating in confessing her love to Takaki, and the third some time later as both Takaki and Akari regret their loss. This atypical structure and lack of any conclusion or closure for the characters may be offputting to some, with its melancholic ending. It is best to approach the film more as an experience, one that you can explore and enjoy without worrying about following a narrative or hoping for plot points to be tied together. What the film does offer is a unique take on the romantic drama, with animation that realises the beauty of the everyday, the commonplace given significance by the characters. The world of “5 Centimeters Per Second” is searingly real in its ordinariness, with delayed trains, and circumstances outwith the characters control, but manages to find magic in these familiar environments.

“5 Centimeters Per Second” refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall to the ground. The film, with its twin focus on both the industrial, trains and rockets, and natural worlds, fields and oceans, relates to the central theme that life moves on in spite of humans. Takaki and Akari’s sundered love is hearbtreaking precisely because nothing changes around them. They are left yearning for something that will never come to pass while the world moves on. At its heart the film questions what that love is when it cannot be expressed; it shows us a vision of a beautiful yet uncaring world, the joy and hope of being in love tempered by human anxieties and feelings of helplessness. A stunning experimental animation that eschews traditional narrative to create something more poetic and at times transcendent.

Belle (2021) by Mamoru Hosoda

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy high-school student living with her father. When her best friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta) invites her to “U”, an online virtual reality world, Suzu is transformed into “Bell”, a beautiful avatar with a voice that soon attracts millions of followers. While her online alter-ego gains popularity, Suzu remains largely unnoticed at school, aside from her childhood friend Shinobu (Ryo Narita), Hiro, and “Kamishin” (Shota Sometani), the lone member of the canoe club. Suzu’s enviable online life is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious figure in the guise of a beast, known as Dragon (Takeru Sato) whose shocking appearance and pugilistic lifestyle pique her curiosity. She sets out with Hiro to discover who is behind this avatar.

Mamoru Hosoda returns to some of the themes of his earlier film “Summer Wars” with this modern take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story set partly online. The world of “U” differs from most depictions of online environments with the futuristic addition of biometric transfer, meaning that individuals own biometrics are used to generate their avatars, and a fully immersive environment, allowing them to see and feel as if they were in that other world. There is plenty of familiarity in the plot of “Belle”, with Suzu having lost her mother; struggling to “find her voice”; several teen romances; a geeky friend; and the idea of an outsider figure being helped by the protagonist; but the film combines these elements into a unique story. Despite the nods to the older fairytale, and the inclusion of a few references to Beauty and the Beast (roses, a romantic ballroom dance), the film actually diverges significantly from this to the extent that it has few of the same themes. “Belle” tells its own tale creativitely, often breaking into collage like scenes of multiple people talking on webcams, or the touching montage of Suzu’s memories of her mother. This inventiveness transforms a straightforward story into something more heartfelt and engaging, utilising the techniques of online discourse (multiple references, and a more fragmentary style) to create something that feels modern despite its traditional storytelling. The animation is excellent with the online scenes reminiscent of the aforementioned “Summer Wars” and Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” in the numerous avatars. There are moments that are almost transcendental as we see the vastness of this online space, a modern tower of babel of a million voices calling in unison. Music plays a major part in the story and the songs by a team of artists are inspiring and performed with spirit. While the film is a little overlong, perhaps over ambitious in the number of subplots it attempts to weave in, it manages to hit its emotional beats every time.

“Belle” deals with several themes. Through the online world Suzu is able to rediscover her true self again following a withdrawal into herself following her mother’s death. This transformative power of technology is shown in more stark contrast with the story of Kei, who is escaping a tragic homelife of physical abuse and attempting to create a hero for his younger brother to aspire to. It is interesting to see a largely positive take on the idea of social networks and online spaces with the central message being that they should be used to supplement and aid us rather than becoming an all-consuming other life. The film also finds time for a satirical dig at internet commercialisation, with the self-important guardians of “U” appearing in front of a bank of sponsor logos. Hosoda does an incredible job of dealing with difficult themes, of loss and child abuse, in a family friendly film that manages to be uplifting and positive.

Summer Wars (2009) by Mamoru Hosoda

OZ is a virtual online world where friends can gather and companies do business; connecting the global population in a vast virtual playground. As well as this it is also used for businesses, governments and other officials, forming a vital part of every aspect of human life. Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a high-school maths whizz (almost national champion at the maths Olympics) working as a low level system engineer on the site, when he is offered an unusual summer job by an attractive older girl, Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba): to come home with her for the holidays. When he arrives at her home, he finds that he is to pretend to be her boyfriend for the duration of the trip, to please Natsuki’s ailing grandmother (Sumiko Fuji). Soon Natsuki’s whole family has arrived at the house, including the suspicious Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito) who left years before for America. While Kenji struggles to maintain his cover and befriend the numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, OZ is attacked. This act of cyber-terrorism has far-reaching consequences as industry computers go haywire and satellites are set on a collision course for earth. Kenji and the family around him must work together to prevent a global catastrophe.

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda from a screenplay by Satoko Okudera (the two also worked together on “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, “Summer Wars” is an exciting blend of family drama and technological thriller, moving from scenes of the family at dinner to the virtual world of OZ, where avatars such as the semi-legendary King Kazuma, do battle. There is a lot of heart and comedy in the film, derived from situation and character rather than cheap gags, that makes you feel a strong connection with Natsuki’s family. Kenji is also a fun protagonist, completely out of his depth in social situations, but extremely competent with maths and computers. It is impressive to see such a large family portrayed and while we are not given much information about the members, the group scenes give a sense of the chaos of such gatherings, with them speaking over each other and numerous things going on around the table. The story throws in a lot of elements, and with this cast of characters it’s hard to get bored. OZ is an interesting portrayal of an online space, a sparse clean look populated by a variety of different avatars, although the actual workings of it are somewhat fantastical. The animation overall is excellent, with expressive character design and a detailed world. Akihiko Matsumoto’s score is entertaining, with a traditional countryside feel to the rural family home shifting to distinct digitalised tune for the online world.

“Summer Wars” offers an interesting take on the idea of a metaverse, a secondary online world which mimics and has become an integral part of human society. It points out the danger of putting everything in one space like this, with even the police and fire service working through the OZ system. The film’s central message concerns communication both online and offline, drawing a comparison between the online characters who can communicate in every language on the planet, and the more traditional family gathering. The primary importance of communication to human relations is a theme that the film drives home. The grandmother is able to rally numerous people to their cause through family and acquaintances, using the phone; while Natsuki is later supported by a large online community. The technology is simply a conduit for human connection, and should not be seen as a replacement for it. The central village being an AI also speaks to this idea that humanity must always remember themselves and what is important, rather than allowing technology to change our attitudes towards one another. If there is one complaint about the film it is that Kenji and Natsuki’s relationship is not really touched on much throughout, but there is so much going on that it is hardly surprising. An entertaining film that brings up a lot of ideas about how humans will relate to each other in online spaces and a warning not to forget that it is communication that builds strong societies.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) by Mamoru Hosoda

Makoto (Riisa Naka) is a high-school student who is often late and a little disorganized. She spends her free time hanging out with her friends Kosuke (Mitsutaka Itakura) and Chiaki (Takuya Ishida), a recent transfer student. After slipping on something in the science laboratory, Makoto finds herself with the ability to travel back through time. Able to rectify mistakes, or simply avoid difficult situations, she enjoys trying out her newfound powers. After speaking with her aunt Kazuko (Sachie Hara), Makoto begins to wonder if she should be using this ability for something more important. As well as helping out fellow students, by setting them up on dates, she also wonders about her own relationship with her friend Chiaki.

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is based on a 1960’s serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has been adapted a number of times through the decades. This film version is directed by Mamoru Hosoda, with a screenplay by Satoko Okudera. Makoto is a fantastic heroine, a tomboyish figure who encapsulates a teenage energy, whether irritated by her sister eating her pudding, or confused by her own feelings for Chiaki. Her peculiarities help her feel like a real character, as opposed to a simple archetype. The animation is expressive and action-packed, including small moments of movement that capture a sense of realism. Also impressive are the background details, particularly in the crowd scenes of the town or Makoto’s school that give the feel of a lived-in world. This also makes the scenes when time is frozen later in the film more powerful, with a sudden realization that everything has stopped. Seeing birds hanging in the air, or ball games locked in time is surprisingly effective in comparison with the lively scenes that precede it. The story is relatively straightforward as a high-school romantic comedy, but does include a few twists with the inclusion of time-travel. There are moments that are best not to consider too deeply, as with many paradoxes thrown up by the notion of time-travel, but they work within the fantasy nature of the film.

In the latter half of the film the story takes on a more contemplative aspect, with time itself becoming a central figure, one which warps and changes the world. We learn that Chiaki is from a future where a particular painting no longer exists, and he also makes reference to there being far more people in the present world than the future. A slightly worrying statement that is not expanded on. We also see two moments when characters who would have died are given a second chance through time-travel. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” shows off the fun ‘what if’, but also brings us back to a consideration of what it means to be unable to return to former situations or change time (a reality Makoto must finally return to). We must learn to live with our mistakes, to seize the moment when it comes to romantic relationships, or friendships, in short to live without do-overs. The film ends on a bittersweet note that underlines the fact that it is about more than the comedy and romance, that it has a real message for the audience of grasping the present and setting yourself hopefully towards the future.