Parks (2017) by Natsuki Seta

Jun (Ai Hashimoto) is struggling to come up with a thesis for the communications professor on her socio-cultural studies course. By a quirk of fate she bumps into Haru (Mei Nagano), who is searching for her grandfather’s former sweetheart from letters she discovered after her passing. The two girls set out to find this woman and soon meet her grandson, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who tells them that she has also recently passed. The three discover an old incomplete recording of a song that the old couple had written and recorded together and decide that they should write the rest of the song, which they later decide to perform at the upcoming music festival in the park.

The thin plot, languid pacing, and gentle, non-confrontational atmosphere of the film is much like spending a pleasant afternoon sitting in a park, watching the world go by. Much of the film is set in and around the park, the green space offering a soothing backdrop to the drama, along with the melodic score. While there are romantic undertones with the historic story, this tension is not there in the leads, which is refreshing to see. Instead they are just three young people enjoying youth and finding their way in the world. The film features a couple of sub-plots, one involving an elderly friend of Haru’s grandmother and one relating to Jun’s past as a child star, that are underused. Instead the plot is centred on the three young adults and their quest to rediscover the past and understand the relationship of Haru’s grandfather and his former girlfriend through the fragments that are left. All three leads are supremely likeable and play well off one another. Shota Sometani delivers a comic performance as the energetic, nerdy Tokio; Ai Hashimoto and Mei Nagano have good chemistry as the new friends, balancing a wistful melancholy about the passage of time and the joyful experiences of youth.

“Parks” was commissioned as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Inokashira Park and the film’s themes of conservation and time emphasise a feeling of respect towards the place. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of parks as multi-generational spaces, brimming over with memories and individual stories. The trees and waters of the park offer comfort in giving people a sense of perspective. The film portrays this sense of living both with and apart from the past by having Haru step into her grandfather’s story in several moments of magical realism. “Parks” is an experiential film that hits all the right notes and captures the emotive, transcendent atmosphere of these spaces. The themes of reconnecting with the past, the power of music, the passage of time and finding peace and purpose, are all beautifully articulated. A relaxing watch with great performances from the leads and a calming, contemplative atmosphere.

Hanagatami (2017) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

As the second world war looms, a group of teenagers are drawn together by friendships and romances that will come to define them. 17 year old Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka) becomes good friends with two of his classmates, the stoic and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) and the cool and inspiring Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima). He admires both for their apparent lack of fear and mature outlook on life, which contrast sharply with Takashi’s own wide-eyed naivety. Meanwhile, Mina (Honoka Miki) is confined to her room through tuberculosis, looked after by her widowed sister-in-law, Takashi’s aunt (Takako Tokiwa). Her friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) come to visit her in her room, attempting to keep up her spirits in the face of her terminal illness. As the war grows nearer they are forced to confront the various tragedies that await them.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s (House) final work is a colourful, experimental, impressionist look at youth in the lead up to war. Based on a 1937 novella by his friend Kazuo Dan, Obayashi sat on the completed script for the film for forty years before finally deciding the time was right to direct. The film is set in Katsura and the production recruited many locals as staff and extras. The use of Katsura’s cultural festival makes the film historically significant as it is the first time this has been filmed.

“Hanagatami” is full of Obayashi’s inimitable style and bizarre directorial choices. The film is bookended with narration explaining that it is based on a book and throughout it often engenders a sense of dramatic alienation from the action. The early sequences in particular play with notions of time and place as characters step between scenes. The use of superimposed images, digital effects and often inexplicable decisions such as reversing camera angles during dialogue scenes all characterise Obayashi’s style. It is something akin to looking at a collage composed of various scraps of ideas, beautiful and bizarre imagery, that helps to build up a whole picture of theme, place and character. The film uses bold colours and harsh theatrical lighting and there is a sense of surrealism and fantasy woven through the more straightforward teenage drama plot. The performances of the leads, in particular Shunsuke Kubozuka as Toshihiko are theatrically exaggerated caricatures that chime well with the often chaotic style. All of the cast give great performances, including supporting roles from Takehiro Murata as an anti-war teacher and Takako Tokiwa as Takahashi’s aunt. The melodrama of the acting and direction is underscored by a soundtrack that repeats several songs and melodies, each of which come to represent a particular emotion. It is film that is abundant with metaphors, the white snake, the red rose petal becoming a droplet of blood, cherry blossom, the sea, but never dwells on these things or allows them to become the story. The unconventional style and parade of evocative imagery, poetry and philosophical musings are overwhelming at times, but Obayashi always draws us back to the protagonists and their personal journeys through a tale that is rich in universal meaning.

Obayashi has crafted a uniquely engaging and deeply emotional drama that blends traditional and experimental techniques. His style is provocative and will not appeal to everyone. It feels distinct and unfamiliar, with its art-house aesthetic, often almost cartoonish visuals distracting from the story. But if you let go of any preconceptions about how film should be made there is much to enjoy here. The film has a strong anti-war message, in particular noting the futility and horror of war. By showing us the carefree existences of the characters in the build up of hostilities we come to understand everything that is lost in war, innocence, friendships, and hope for the future. The film also gives us a prism through which to see the war, with each character representing a unique view on events and their own impression of what is happening. “Hanagatami” feels like a labour of love for the director and those working on the production. It encapsulates everything that was unique about Obayashi’s work, a timeless yet truly original story.

Electric Dragon 80,000 V (2001) by Sogo Ishii

A blend of cyberpunk and superhero movie, “Electric Dragon 80,000 V” follows Dragon Eye Morrison (Tadanobu Asano), a guitar-playing, reptile loving man with an unusual talent: following electro-shock therapy for violent behaviour as a child, Morrison is now able to conduct electricity, and refocus its energy. City lights flicker as he saps the power from around him. He has a job as an animal detective, looking for reptiles, in particular an iguana that has gone missing. He also plays guitar, able to focus his chaotic abilities into music. Things turn nasty when another man with electric powers, Thunderbolt Buddha (Masatoshi Nagase), appears on the scene; with an unspecified vendetta against Morrison he will go to any lengths to ensure a highly-charged showdown with our hero.

“Electric Dragon 80,000 v” is a tongue-in-cheek cyberpunk superhero story. It strips away philosophical concerns regarding humanity’s future and their place in the universe, evolution  and the coming machine world or digital singularity. Instead it plays with many of the tropes of the genre in an entertaining way. The plot is wafer thin, essentially the build-up of two challengers culminating in a final glorious showdown, but at under an hour in length the premise does not have time to outstay it’s welcome. Everything in the film revolves either around Morrison or Thunderbolt, there are no subplots or side-characters to distract from the frenetic energy and punk style. Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase give great performances. Although there is little dialogue shared between them for the majority, they embrace the wild, raucous tone of the film.

 Shot in black and white, with high contrast between the flashing lights of the city and the dark shadows, the film has a sleek aesthetic while also capturing the chaos of a world overrun with pylons, cables, and urban sprawl. The story’s comic book feel, with a hero and villain narrative, is heightened by the use of narration, flashes of electric-style font, and close-ups or cutaway inserts. Cyberpunk has always been a genre in which directors can show off their skills, and here is no different. Sogo Ishii uses everything from speeded up sequences, overlays, digital and practical effects, and shots from almost every angle to establish a tone that grips the audience from the beginning with its frenzied energy. The rock-metal soundtrack by Ishii’s group MACH-1.67 does a superb job of conveying a sense of pent-up aggression and the surging electric currents that symbolise it.

At times the film feels like a simple homage to earlier cyberpunk works, using many of the same techniques and even borrowing more than a few ideas, such as the machine-man duality and the idea that technology, in this case electricity is both a great and terrible force. However, the film rarely labours these themes, presenting them visually without the need for further explanation, perhaps in understanding that they are well worn ideas. It simplifies its message to the point that it stands as both an prime example and celebration of many things the movement as a whole tries to convey. The idea that Morrison was a troubled youth and given electro-shock therapy harks back to notions of government control, rebellious youth and the limits of personal freedom; while the concept of electricity coursing through his veins represents themes of potential, either for good or bad. Morrison directs his energy towards playing guitar, while Thunderbolt uses his powers for evil. This dichotomy is starkly drawn here and the film builds up both characters and their final confrontation in an entertaining way. Morrison’s love for animals, alongside his love of music, also shows he has a connection to the physical world unlike his counterpart who appears to be allowing the machine to take over.

Rubber’s Lover (1996) Shozin Fukui

In a secret laboratory a team of scientists are experimenting on humans in an attempt to produce psychic abilities. Their experiments take the form of a Digital Direct Drive, a machine that plugs directly into the brain, and uses ‘ether’ to provoke a psychological response. Given the unreliability of their current operations their experiments are often more a form of torture leading to death than viable scientific enquiry. Motomiya (Sosuke Saito) injects his rival scientist Shimika (Yota Kawase) with ether in an attempt to steal his research. He is helped by another scientist Hitotsubashi (Norimizu Ameya) and lab assistant Akari (Mika Kunihiro). Kiku (Nao), who is auditing the company’s books, comes downstairs to see what is happening and is raped by Motomiya, who seems to have gone insane. Motomiya soon regrets his decision as it seems the high dose of ether given to Shimika and his connection with the machine have created a monster that he cannot control.

“Rubber’s Lover”, written and directed by Shozin Fukui, is a prime example of the cyberpunk and splatter-horror genres. Drawing heavily on traditional horror – the mad scientist working on a creature – and melding it with an industrial aesthetic, it creates a nightmarish world of flesh and metal that is emblematic of the wider movement. Shot on 16mm, the black and white square aspect ratio induces a sense of claustrophobia with the chiaroscuro lighting obscuring and enhancing the special effects by helping to inflame the imagination. The film uses shots of industrial buildings, inexplicable metallic constructs looming against a pale sky, to create an atmosphere of harsh modernity. The sets are dressed to create a confused technophobic tangle of wires and screens, with the addition of some interesting ideas, such as the monitors showing close-ups of eyeballs, or the giant equipment for injecting ether (akin to a pneumatic drill). Shozin Fukui’s direction shows a flair for the genre, with camera angles carefully chosen to create a sense of unease, or to keep things fresh and engaging. There is also a clear desire to create backgrounds with a sense of movement or mesmerizing imagery, either by including flickering monitors, animals, or the large post-modern artworks on the wall of Kiku’s office. The soundtrack to the film, provided by Tanizaki Tetora, is a mix of industrial scrapes and echoes, seeming to evolve naturally from the visuals of pipes and machinery. Later it also includes tribal drums that serve as a reminder of the atavistic nature of humanity, despite technological advancement.

The plot of “Rubber’s Lover” includes many interesting elements. Firstly, the concept of human experimentation, something that is a mainstay of horror cinema, and may have dark echoes of Japan’s own past in relation to war time atrocities. The film leans heavily on the notion of experimentation as torture, going so far as to have one victim’s head explode after being pumped with ether. The film also has themes of drug-use and abuse, with Shimika becoming addicted to the ether as it appears to expand his mental capacity. Such discussions around drugs are far from the mainstream, but absolutely in keeping with the anti-conservative agenda of the film. This is a film that emphasises the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk, outrageous in its depictions and brutal in its conclusions about corruption and where society is heading.

Romance Doll (2020) by Yuki Tanada

Art graduate Tetsuo (Issei Takahashi) turns up at a warehouse on the recommendation of a friend. He soon discovers the job he has been set-up with is designing and manufacturing sex dolls along with senior designer Kinji (Kitaro), nicknamed Kin-Kin. He sets about his task diligently, but his first creation is deemed inadequate by their boss as it is too unrealistic. Kinji comes up with a plan: they will advertise for a female breast model by pretending that they are making prostheses for medical use. When Sonoko (Yu Aoi) turns up to model, Tetsuo falls in love with her and the two are soon married. Tetsuo finds he is unable to tell her about his real profession and Sonoko has a difficult secret of her own to share with him.

Writer and director Yuki Tanada has worked on a number of romantic comedy films and her familiarity with the genre shines through in this well-balanced relationship drama. “Romance Doll” is paced perfectly and uses gentle humour to introduce the characters. It eschews crude gags but the early scenes as Tetsuo is introduced to his new job are entertaining in the casual way they treat the subject matter of love dolls and the respect Kin-Kin has for his work, seeing his role as something akin to a sculptor of great art. The relationship between Tetsuo and Sonoko is tender and relatable, both uneasy at first and likeable but not without their flaws. Issei Takahashi as Tetsuo begins as an archetypical awkward young singleton, but develops into a more rounded character through his relationship with Sonoko. Yu Aoi (who also featured in Tanada’s “One Million Yen Girl”) delivers an incredible performance, hugely charismatic and  capturing both the strength and fragility of the character. The supporting cast all do an excellent job, but the film keeps a firm focus on the two leads. The direction is great throughout, with excellent use of framing and blocking, particularly in the scenes between Tetsuo and Sonoko. The dinner table is almost transformed into an interrogation room as their relationship hits several bumps in the road. There are also carefully considered cutaways that say a lot very succinctly. One such example is the still shot of two coffee cups, still part full, resting on the table following an argument, that perfectly encapsulates a sense of things left unsaid and the comfortable fantasy of the perfect relationship being brought to a sudden halt.

In many ways a straightforward tragic-romance plot, the inclusion of Tetsuo’s peculiar line of work helps give the film a quite unique feel. Alongside themes of relationship troubles, honesty and questions of fidelity, there is also an important idea brought to the fore. That of the distinction and relationship between sex and love. The film rarely sexualises Tetsuo’s work and the dolls are only ever seen as objects, quite distinct from Sonoko who displays a warmth and tenderness. As the title suggests, the idea of a “love doll” (as they are called in the film), or more accurately a “sex doll” would be quite distinct from a “Romance Doll”, which suggests a deeper connection and one that is born of struggle and genuine understanding for another person. The film is well made and brings out incredible performances from the two leads. It’s gentle blend of humour, romantic drama, and philosophizing on the nature of love make it a hugely enjoyable watch.