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.

School in the Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

A schoolgirl with supernatural powers takes on an alien intent on world domination in this fantasy adventure. Yuko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) discovers that she has unusual abilities when she is able to reverse the direction of a truck that is about to hit a young child. She later meets a mysterious figure who offers to help harness her powers to take over the world. A transfer student begins recruiting Yuko’s classmates to a new cram-school where they seem to be brainwashed into becoming obedient and docile. It is up to Yuko to save her classmates from this alien threat.

Written by Taku Mayumura and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, “School in the Crosshairs” is a light-weight fantasy adventure. Despite some interesting elements: telekenesis and extra-terrestrials, the film fails to really develop its characters and themes. The actions of the aliens are analogous with an totalitarian states, with their quasi-fascistic uniforms and authoritarian dictats, but this subtext is left largely unexplored. The film’s quirkier moments help maintain the viewer’s interest, with musical numbers performed by the students at their club recruitment day, or a neighbour who has a chimpanzee as a pet, but it somehow feels lacking, both in story and character. We never feel fully involved with Yuka and the alien threat never feels particularly real. This is largely due to a lack of explanation or consequences in what unfolds. It is a series of bizarre events culminating in a somewhat lacklustre denoument between Yuko and the aliens that takes place in a liminal space, further distancing it from any real threat.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was fiercely anti-war, expressed most beautifully in his masterpiece “Hanagatami”. This film is perhaps an early attempt to work in some of the themes of totalitarian government. We see early on that the class is slightly unruly, although nothing serious, and how the intention to make them conform to the rules turns into something more sinister. With the children enslaved to an ideology of conformism and persecuting those who break the rules, they lose their freedom and individuality. While we see a little of this in the film, it would have been interesting to expand on it, perhaps showing the impact on the characters and the world outside of the school. However, with so many disparate elements, many of which fail to connect, the film is unfortunately more of a curiousity than a must-see.

Death at an Old Mansion (1975) by Yoichi Takabayashi

Famed detective Kousuke Kindaichi faces an intellectually challenging mystery in this locked-room crime thriller based on the book “The Honjin Murders” by Seishi Yokomizo. On the wedding night of Kenzo Ichiyanagi (Takahiro Tamura) with his beautiful bride Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara) they are found dead in a locked outside room, a bloodied katana stuck in the ground outside and a bloody trail of finger marks down one wall. Inspector Isogawa (Eishin Tono) arrives and soon concludes that the killer may be a three-fingered vagrant who appears to bear a grudge against Kenzo. When a friend of the family, Kosuke Kindaichi (Akira Nakao), arrives he turns his attention to the case and soon finds a series of peculiar clues that lead him to a shocking conclusion.

Director Yoichi Takabayashi creates a respectful cinematic version of Seishi Yokomizo’s classic mystery tale. The film follows the traditional whodunnit pattern, and the plot of the novel, with a large cast of characters, including Kenzo’s sister Suzuko (Junko Takazawa) and brother Saburo (Akira Nitta); and Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo (Kunio Kaga). The early scenes of the wedding feast are packed with intrigue, with suspicious glances and tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Takabayashi does a great job with misdirecting the viewer with red herrings before revealing the ingenious, if somewhat improbable, solution to the case. The film leans into the gruesomeness of the crime, with a gory murder scene and brutal slaying. It also relies on flashbacks to the slaying and recreations of what the characters imagined happens. These sepia-toned segments, shorn of dialogue, are a fun way to show the various theories surrounding the deaths of Kenzo and Katsuko.

“Death at an Old Mansion” will appeal to fans of old-school detective tales, with a fun combination of Isogawa’s well-meaning inspector and Kindaichi’s unconventional approach to solving the mystery. The performance by Akira Nakao as the improbable genious detective shows us an ever-active mind, focus trained on minor details that always turn out to be the key to some new revelation. There is also a dark, morbid undertone to the story, which largely keeps the spotlight on the particulars of solving the case. This is achieved through the creative elements such as the occasional shots of the two koto strings ringing in the rain; and also Junko Takazawa’s characterisation of Suzuko, whose fey and childlike character seems to be somehow tenuously balanced between the worlds of the living and the dead. The film does a great job of sticking to the original story, while also embossing it with creative direction, use of colour and artistic elements that evoke a deeper emotional connection to the victims.