Wood Job! (2014) by Shinobu Yaguchi

When Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani) fails his university entrance exams he finds himself at a loss. Not able to follow his classmates to further education, he is dealt a further blow when his girlfriend tells him they should split up. While out drinking with friends he sees a leaflet advertising a one year project to work in forestry. Enamoured by the beautiful young woman on the leaflet he sets out for the countryside where he learns all about this new trade under the stern guidance of Yoki (Hideaki Ito). He is then assigned to the remote village of Kamusari, where he is pleased to find the woman from the leaflet Naoki (Masami Nagasawa) is also living. Yuki attempts to ingratiate himself with the villagers, learning about rural life and the woods, in hopes of connecting with Naoki. Naoki however, having been disappointed by another trainee, is reluctant to fall for Yuki.

“Wood Job!” is based on the novel by Shion Miura. Written and directed by Shinobu Yaguchi (Swing Girls, Robo-G) it is very much part of his oeuvre of lighthearted comedies. With a romantic plot and plenty of gentle humour it is an easy watch. Most of the laughs come from Yuki’s attempts to learn about forestry, including tying knots, using a chainsaw, and not shouting “Timber!” when the trees fall. When he finally makes it to Kamusari we are treated to scenes of him balking at their local food and drink (road-kill deer and alcohol with a dead snake in) and customs. There is a comfortable familiarity to the plot and it delivers exactly what you expect from early on at every turn. That is not to say it is not enjoyable. The film builds on a sense of relaxation that is in keeping with the themes, which are all about the quiet, nature-focussed rural life, as opposed to the rat-race of the city. The charismatic cast exude bonhomie and their affable and affectionate relationships are entirely believable. Shota Sometani is likeable as the inept and naïve city kid, completely out of his depth, but with a bottomless passion and determination to battle on. Masami Nagasawa provides the perfect foil as the cool and confident school-teacher Naoki, whose worries about her future are always bubbling below the surface of her genial disposition. Hideaki Ito also delivers a great comic turn as Yuki’s superior Yoki, at first displeased by what he sees as Yuki’s incompetence, but slowly won over by his resolve. The film was shot on location in Mie prefecture and features stunning shots of the forested mountains. The direction distinguishes between the city and the countryside in an interesting way, using a frenetic fixed camera on Yuki in the overwhelming and chaotic city and large panoramic takes in the countryside, firmly differentiating the hectic streets from the quiet charm of the mountains.

The traditions of rural communities are a fascinating insight into human civilisation and can offer a window into what has been lost by the move to increasingly large metropolitan areas. The nature of forestry work demands a close connection with and understanding of the natural world, and “Wood Job!” reflects on this in various conversations between the characters. Whether that is the idea that nature deserves respect, or the deep understanding of ones place in history through the cycles of harvesting and planting. Yuki is a character who is completely lost, having fallen off the expected path from high-school to university to work. His move to the countryside provides him with a chance to examine what is important in life. The pace of life, the simplicity born of a lack of distractions, the focus on community and tradition, all of these things change his perspective. In the end, Yuki’s journey speaks to everyone who is trapped in the largely meaningless and monotonous faux-reality of modernity. It is a call for a return to nature, to ideals of family, community, and enjoying the good things in life.

Mirrored Mind (2004) Sogo Ishii

The film begins with abstract images of golden triangles intercut with scenes of a bustling city as we hear a soundtrack of resonant and meditative bells. Narration then tells us that this story is based on the experiences of the director’s ex-girlfriend. We see a young woman crossing the Shibuya scramble junction outside the station. She is then sitting beside a window as she recounts recent troubles she is having distinguishing reality from fiction. The man she is talking to seems unsympathetic, telling her to find a job so she is distracted from her psychological issues. We then find that this is actually a scene from a film that is being shot, which the young woman wrote. She tells the director that she doesn’t feel it is really conveying what she wants to. He is also less than helpful, reminding her that they already spent a lot of money and that due to her past actions it is difficult for her to get films funded. On her way home she stops by a travel agent and while looking into the window a mysterious young woman appears at her shoulder. She returns to her untidy apartment and pours herself a large drink. We then see her wandering through a series of beautiful vistas in this location, eventually meeting the young woman from the city on the beach.

Written and directed by Sogo Ishii, “Mirrored Mind” is based on a short. The film does feel stretched, even at an hour in length, with relatively little going on. Instead the film luxuriates in its hypnotic imagery and dream-like visuals. The soundtrack of discordant bells has something of a religious aura, reverberating with strangely eerie tones. The sound design also fades down background noise at times to highlight a sense of disconnect from the city and other people. The story does have a twist at the end which is well set-up and paid off although there is a lot to sit through before getting to this moment. The acting by Miwako Ichikawa in the lead role is exceptional, really capturing the character of a woman who is lost and suffering from stress, loneliness and an inability to realise her own will.

More of an art-house experiment than a movie, focussing heavily on the psychology of the protagonist. The film uses sound and imagery to tell its story. Vast ocean vistas are shown as a symbol of the ineffable, the eternal and incomprehensible other that humanity seems doomed to search for without ever finding it. The film also subtly intimates ideas of a separation between the machine and the natural world. The scenes of the city are contrasted starkly with those of the peaceful natural otherworld that our protagonist escapes to. The end of the film suggests that a connection with nature is important to humans and something that many are missing. The film’s central philosophy, reflected in the title, is that the world is a mirror of internal psychology. An interesting concept and one that again the film allows the audience to make up their own minds about. “Mirrored Mind” is a ponderous affair but nevertheless with some stunning cinematography and sound design. If you are looking for something soothingly contemplative to watch then it is worth checking out.

Little Miss Period (2019) Shunsuke Shinada

Aoko (Fumi Nikaido) works as a journalist at a lifestyle magazine. As well as her demanding job and attempting to form a relationship with her romantic partner’s teenage daughter, she also has to deal with an unwanted visitor every month. This comes in the form of a large pink fluffy mascot in red pants, representing her period. Miss Period, as she is known, repeatedly punches her hard in the stomach, and Aoko has to lug her around on her back. Miss Period also occasionally puffs out soporific vapour making Aoko drowsy. In this world, every woman is followed around by a similar mascot, some larger and some smaller, but all irritating in their own way. Yamamoto (Sairi Ito) is a cleaner at this same company, still living with her parents, with her period being just one more frustration on top of the stress of work and her lack of a boyfriend. A third plot thread revolves around Aoko’s sister Hikaru (Risaki Matsukaze), and her boyfriend, as they begin a fledgling romance. These women must attempt to remain strong and reach their goals, while this invisible burden seems determined to disrupt their lives.

Based on the manga by Ken Koyama, “Little Miss Period” addresses head on an issue that is of major importance to women, yet often goes ignored by companies and even partners. Making the period a visible, comically designed and portrayed, mascot, which appears early on like a horror movie slasher creeping up on her victims, is a brilliant touch. Externalising this issue, showing the physical exertion and determination required to cope with it, makes for an entertaining way to deal with the various problems caused by it. Both Fumi Nikaido (Fly Me to the Saitama) and Sairi Ito (Love and Other Cults) get the chance to show off their comedic talents. Both are supremely likeable in their roles. Nikaido’s Aoko is a determined career woman, who will not let anything stand in her way. Working in a difficult environment she finds she has to pretend not to be affected by her period, instead putting on a brave face in front of her co-workers. Her relationship with Karin (Toyoshima Hana), the daughter of her widowed lover, is one of the most moving parts of the film, showing her trying to do her best for this girl who is unwilling to accept a new mother. Ito’s Yamamoto on the other hand is a virtual shut-in, resentful of everyone around her and painfully shy when confronted with the chance for love. Director Shunsuke Shinada does a great job of bringing what is a weird concept to life on the screen. The design of Miss Period (Seiri-chan in Japanese) is bizarre, and could so easily have derailed the narrative, but all the actors do such a tremendous job of acting alongside it that it becomes just another character in the drama. The film goes heavy on the comedy of what is happening, deflating the taboo around menstruation, cramps, nausea, drowsiness and other symptoms, with gentle humour. Also, the oblivious male characters who continue on as normal despite the women being weighed down or distracted by this, offers relatable humour for the male audience. The men in the film are also troubled by their own unwanted anxieties, in the form of Mr. Sex Drive (who appears spouting lewd pornographic phrases) and Little Boy Virgin (a cherubic figure representative of their lack of sexual maturity). The film’s surrealist, farcical comedy sits evenly alongside moments that are full of heart and genuinely moving.

While “Little Miss Period” is on one level a knockabout comedy, it also shines a light on an often taboo subject. Women still suffer discrimination in the workplace due to a lack of understanding and compassion on this issue. If the film gets people talking about this and understanding what could be done to alleviate some of the problems associated with it, then it will have performed a great service. Despite the message, the film is never po-faced, relying on humour to get its points across. As a film it is hugely entertaining, relying on physical gags and some excellent performances from the leads to develop believable characters and relatable comedy.

Tamaran Hill (2019) by Tadasuke Kotani

Hinako (Hinako Watanabe) is struggling to write a personal introduction for her job seeking applications. She lost her mother at a young age and lives with her father and younger brother. Her teacher tells her simply to create a character and write about that version of herself instead, suggesting some ideas based on current popular literary trends. While at a bookstore, Hinako finds a book called “Tamaran Hill”. Amused by the title (“Tamaran” (unbearable) being her father’s favourite curse word), she purchases it. The book tells the story of a man who lives on Tamaran Hill and further delves into the potential origins and meanings of the name. As Hinako reads she is carried along on a journey that leads through time, history and fiction, to comprehend the significance of this name and this word.

Based on a script by Shinobu Tsuchiya, and directed by Tadasuke Kotani, “Tamaran Hill” is an unconventional film. Many of the shots are of Hinako reading this book as she slips into her visualisation of the story, or historical reveries as she discovers references to this place in various texts. Shot in black and white and with changing aspect ratios, the framing and cinematography from Kosuke Kuramoto is wonderful in its abstraction of the everyday. Whether scenes of the tangled mass of train tracks, buildings and powerlines that comprise the modern city; the delicate historical recreations; or the stylish dramatisations of the “Tamaran Hill” novel, everything is framed with precision and seems infused with significance. At moments the film will use illustrations, or photo stills, that sit comfortably alongside the artistic style of the filmed segments. Hinako Watanabe is excellent in the lead role, as a girl attempting to find herself, to discover her inner will and a sense of identity.

A curious work about the search for meaning and identity in a world that is full of ambiguity. Early in the film we see a robot helping to carry the teacher’s bag and the use of data analysis to predict literary trends. This hypermodern, computer-led world is in stark contrast to the literary world that Hinako delves into, one that is full of meaning yet without clear quantitative answers. Her visit to the bookshop captures the joy of personal discovery that bibliophiles will be familiar with: that of being surrounded by a cacophony of voices, and having that power to choose your own path. The film perfectly depicts that sense of exploration in delving into a new book, not only reading the book but also unlocking something within yourself at the same time. Hinako is able to lose herself completely in this world that is at once ambiguous, yet bursting with life and meaning, and find in it the courage to see herself and develop her own identity. She comes to understand that every life is different, just as everyone’s experience of “Tamaran Hill” is unique, and that the important thing is finding her own truth.

Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (2018) by Daigo Matsui

A theatre troupe rehearse in a small drama workshop for a play. As they work through their lines and several of the scenes, the film switches back and forth between the actors preparing themselves, performing and hanging out with one another. Further blurring the lines between reality and fiction, the characters they are playing are given their own names. Kokoro Morita is the lead in the play (and the film) and we learn more about her character through her interactions with her brother Yuzu, boyfriend Taketo (Taketo Tanaka), and best friend Reiko (Reiko Tanaka). Although Kokoro is the lead she seems alienated at times from the rest of the group and struggles with confidence, often being told her performance is not good enough, or that she needs to emote more. As the film progresses, the two stories, both of the play being rehearsed, and the rehearsal period itself, intertwine and build to a dramatic conclusion.

Writer and director Daigo Matsui runs a small theatre company and his love of the art of drama is captured here beautifully. The film takes place over one long take, with simple staging, and relies on dialogue between small numbers of the actors to tell it’s story. Along with the hand-held camerawork this presentation gives the sense of a theatre production and takes us right inside the action. It blurs the lines between art and life, not only having the characters take the names of the actors, but also in the way that there is little distinction between what is ‘performance’ and what is ‘real’. The film changes to a widescreen aspect when they switch to theatrical mode, to emphasise the notion that this is acting, however it becomes apparent that there is very little dividing the trial run performances of the characters and their own emotions. The film goes out of its way to create this sense of theatrical alienation, by having a guitarist and rapper duo appear at various points almost as a Greek chorus to echo the themes of the drama. Their seeming omnipresence is one example of the film toying with the notions of art and life as reflective of one another. The performances of all of the actors in the film is emotional and poignant and you find yourself completely immersed both in their own stories, and in the play despite being fully aware that it is theatre. In particular, Kokoro Morita, who is in almost every scene and whose character builds with each moment, is incredible in the nuanced role of the young actress. The switching back and forth between the two styles, one melodramatic and one realistic, showcases an exceptional talent. The direction and staging are crafted so elegantly to build the sense of a real world around the action without drawing attention to the skill on display. It is thoroughly captivating and only in hindsight do you realise the effort required to achieve the effect of many of the transitions from scene to scene. In the latter half of the film the action moves out of the theatre into the damp, rainy streets, and later to a theatre, so smoothly that you are completely swept along with the characters in a way that feels entirely natural.

“Icecream and the Sound of Raindrops” is a film that ruminates on the idea of art as a reflection of life. In the performances of the cast we see people who are dealing with genuine emotion, albeit in a constructed reality. The scripted dialogue is representative of something real, and likewise the real world is also to an extent portrayed as performative. The relationships we form with others are no more than a stage play for our own benefit. As the film progresses we come to understand that these actors are constantly involved in performance, whether knowingly or not, but without the prospect of an audience seeing it. This metaphor for life, that of a performance going on without an audience, is one that the film captures perfectly. Matsui seems to be questioning the purpose of art, theatre, film, in a way that is entertaining yet nevertheless has a melancholic undertone. The ending suggests that art has a powerful significance in human life and culture, both helping us to understand trauma and reflect on our experiences; and also that life itself is a performance perhaps in turn inspired by our internalisation of the same art we create.