Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in  visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.

Three-foot Ball & Souls (2017) by Yoshio Kato

Four individuals learn about one another’s lives when they gather to commit joint suicide. Happa (Kanji Tsuda) has created a 3-foot sphere packed with fireworks with which to carry out their plans. He is joined in a small shed by a young man named Baby Doll (Minehiro Kinomoto), each of them having chosen an alias on the online forum where they met. The two men are subsequently joined by Tsubasa (Shinobu Tsuji), and finally by high-schooler Tsukiko (Honoka Murakami). However, Tsukiko’s arrival makes the others uneasy, feeling she is too young to commit suicide. They attempt to talk her out of it. Through their conversations with each other we learn what led them to this point.

There is a major twist in this film that completely changes both the tone, and perhaps even the genre. If you want to avoid spoilers, then I suggest you check out the film before reading further. The majority of the story is focussed on these four individuals in a single location, relying on an excellent script with everything from black comedy to heart-wrenchingly emotional moments. By treating the subject of suicide somewhat lightly, the more emotional scenes pack more of a punch, the darkness of their individual struggles made more poignant by the lighthearted banter they engage in. The characterisation of the four protagonists is well-done, fleshing out particular archetypes through solid writing an excellent performances. Happa is a typical goofy father, making inappropriate jokes and trying to keep people’s spirits up. Baby Doll/Takamura is a downtrodden, nervous, young man, suffering work-related stress. Tsubasa’s story is perhaps one of the most tragic, and Honoko Murakami brings real passion to the role of Tsukiko’s shy schoolgirl dealing with bullying. As mentioned previously, the film begins as a low-key drama, simple setting, small cast, but following the first explosion, when the characters are transported back to relive the same events over, it strays into science-fiction. It is an interesting way of having the characters truly battle with the morality or necessity of suicide, in a way that would not be possible if they simply succeeded in their first attempt.

The subject of suicide is never an easy one. The film allows us to see some of the reasons why people are driven to suicide and to sympathise with the protagonists. Through seeing things from the perspective of others they are able to better understand their situation and discover a different path. The final message, that people can solve issues such as anxiety and depression through talking out their problems, may seem quaint, but is nevertheless important. A unique film with a determined focus on its theme and characters, that delivers a number of surprises and some excellent performances.

Theatre: A Love Story (2020) by Isao Yukisada

Following a chance meeting on the street and a brief romance, impoverished playwright Nagata (Kento Yamazaki) and Saki (Mayu Matsuoka) move in together. Their relationship is far from easy though. Nagata is writing for a theatre troupe called “Oroka” which he established with his school friend Nohara (Kanichiro Sato), but his lack of success leads the group to slowly fall apart. Saki does her best to encourage him, but his difficult personality, driven by his anxiety and ego, lead to arguments between the two.

Written by Ryuta Horai and directed by Isao Yukisada, “Theatre: A Love Story” is a poignant look at a troubled relationship. Over the course of the film we witness Nagata and Saki as they attempt to work out their differences and support one another in their own ways. The script gives us numerous moments that reflect those parts of romantic relationships that often go unrepresented on film. Awkward silences, arguments about nothing much at all, the inexpressible joy of simply being together, or moments of silliness that help to build that indefinable bond. It is touching to hear Nagata talk of the warmth he feels simply hearing Saki laugh; and Saki’s clear devotion to her boyfriend. The well-observed script is brought to life by an excellent cast. Kento Yamazaki and Mayu Matsuoka create a believable couple, perfect in their imperfections. Yamazaki’s Nagata is a brooding, frustrated young man who takes out his anxieties and feelings of inadequacy on Saki, while Matsuoka’s Saki is both endlessly charming, funny and charismatic, yet harbouring deep dissatisfaction with her own life and Nagata, supporting him despite her misgivings. The supporting cast, including Kanichiro Sato as Nagata’s urbane friend, and Sairi Ito as Aoyama, a former member of Nagata’s acting troupe who goes on to find success as a theatre critic, further underscoring his own lack of achievement, all do an incredible job with the naturalistic style of dialogue. Throughout there are hints to the theatrical, in Nagata’s narration of his life and relationship, his inner thoughts constantly chewing over his insecurities. There are also poetic monologues, such as when he is taking Saki home on his bike, vocalising his feelings for her. The wistful score and direction sweep us along on the journey with these two lovers, whose relationship can often seem incomprehensible given their difference in personality: Saki is outgoing and fun, while Nagata seems often miserable and misanthropic.

“Theatre: A Love Story” is a film about a man who is struggling with various insecurities. He lashes out at those around him, variously criticising other playwrights, refusing to go to Disneyland as he believes he can’t enjoy other people’s creations, and refusing to let Saki enjoy other people’s work. His controlling, often petulant behaviour, masks a deep-seated fear of rejection and his neuroses about his own ability. Jealousy over more successful writers lead to him being angry or upset at Saki without really knowing why. All of these facets of human psychology and relationships are insightfully written and portrayed in the film. Nagata is far from a likeable character, but as things progress we come to an understanding of his behaviour. Saki on the other hand indulges Nagata’s worst impulses, giving him exactly what he wants, attention and praise, but not what he needs, a cool appreciation of his abilities and his flaws. A beautifully wrought relationship drama that deftly depicts the various complexities of human emotions and a poignant portrait of a man dealing with his own sense of inadequacy.

Taste of Emptiness (2017) by Marina Tsukada

A moving story about a young high-school girl suffering with an eating disorder. Satoko (Haruna Hori) appears to be a happy and healthy teenager, part of her school dance club with her circle of friends. She lives with her parents and older brother, Keita. But unbeknownst to both friends and family, Satoko is dealing with an eating disorder. Counting calories in a diary, fretting over what she is able to eat, alternately binging and purging, taking scalding hot baths, her life is an endless round of self-destructive behaviours. Following an argument with her family, Satoko moves in with her closest friend Kanae. She also finds the courage to visit a doctor, where she meets an older woman, Maki (Sakie Hayashida), who is dealing with her own mental health issues.

Written and directed by Marina Tsukada, the film is based in part on the director’s own experiences of this condition while at university. The central performance by Haruna Hori captures the internal turmoil of the character, constantly pacing, furtively noting calories in her diary, concealing her actions from those around her, and her often tentative, almost fearful, reactions to food. These sorts of compulsive behaviours and the nervous energy accompanying, no doubt guided by the director’s first-hand knowledge, are very believable. The film focusses entirely on Satoko’s condition, and the effects it has on her, refraining from unnecessary subplots or attempts to insert a morality or message to the story. It does not need it. What we have is a raw, powerful portrayal of the alienating, distracted, loneliness that typifies many mental illnesses. The film offers no easy answers or explanations, hinting only subtly at pressures faced by girls such as beauty standards, or the way that valuing self-worth can be harmfully linked to appearance. Instead we are largely left alone with Satoko, and Hori’s incredible performance, and little by little we come to completely sympathise as we follow her routines. The direction, often isolating her, or else shutting her out of sight, are an excellent way of allowing the audience in part to experience this condition along with her, or at least to sense some of what is happening internally. The same is true of the long takes, that force the viewer to sit alone with Satoko, creating a sense of discomfort and helplessness. The character of Maki, who is suffering a suicidal manic-depression, and their friendship, is the closest the film comes to having a narrative element, but as with Satoko, we are given no easy answers, only glimpses of what causes her erratic behaviours. Sakie Hayashida does a great job with this character, with a bubbly charm hiding deep seated fears.

“Taste of Emptiness” is an exploration of an experience which will be unfamiliar to many viewers, but it does an incredible job of allowing us into Satoko’s life. It doesn’t attempt to explain her condition, or the causes, but simply allows us to spend time with her and see what it is like to suffer with an eating disorder. One of the themes of the film is how these conditions often go hidden. We see Satoko at several points wearing a mask and performing dance steps. Her masked dancer persona is a representation of this soul, trapped in her own experience, desperately attempting to communicate something of how she is feeling, perhaps a mystery even to herself, through her behaviours. Both at the beginning and end of the film Satoko appears as a solitary figure amongst a throng of people, all busy about their own lives. As she disappears into the crowd at the end, the audience are left with the stark realisation that all too often these conditions go unseen, lost and alone amongst a society that is largely unaware that people are suffering in silence. A difficult watch but an emotional and skilfully crafted portrayal of an eating disorder.

Hysteric Betty (2020) by Iori Kedakai

A story of female liberation starring writer-director Iori Kedakai. 30 year old Iori (Kedakai) is picked up by a fashion scout, Tomiyoshi (Tatsuya Nakayama), on a visit to Tokyo, who convinces the shy Iori to take some revealing photographs. He convinces her that it would be a waste not to use the photographs, so she uploads them on a social network and soon has a number of followers. When she returns to her hometown, her childhood friend Shui shares the photos with a much wider audience, causing Iori to flee back to Tokyo in shame. She soon makes friends with the members of an idol group “Betty’s”, Rei (Rei Horie) and Mami (Mami Misami), and a woman who works at an assorted goods store, Hitsuji. With this small group of friends, Iori learns what it means to be a woman, dealing with objectification, and the simultaneous lure and dangers of the modelling and idol industries.

Writer-director Iori Kedakai also stars in this film that gives us a look at idol culture and the effect it can have on people. The story is a journey of discovery for Iori, an outsider from the sticks coming to the big city, with all the promise it holds. The actors all do a great job with their characters, and Iori is a great protagonist, her meek manner at odds with the often vicious dog-eat-dog world of idols. It is interesting to see an idol group that is working at small clubs, dreams of major success still some way away, and all the actors have great rapport and chemistry in their performances. At times the directing is a little rough around the edges, being the first project from Kedakai, but it has something of the vitality and inventiveness of “Love and Pop”, capturing that brightly coloured, youthful energy associated with the subculture of idols. The film features sex and nudity, but for the most part this is hinted at rather than shown. Instead we see the film largely from Iori’s perspective, wide-eyed and innocent, constantly surprised by each revelation about her new friends from the city. The soundtrack is similarly exuberant, featuring hip-hop as well as the bright pop of “Betty’s” show.

“Hysteric Betty” has a lot to say about the female experience, the objectification and infantilization of women, and female empowerment. We see Iori coming to terms with the often conflicting narratives that are given to young women. On the one hand there may be a desire to be seen as sexually attractive, but it comes with the threat of exploitation and not being taken seriously. At one point we see an idol asking if they will consider her book idea, only to be talked down to and told she only needs to be cute, and not to worry about anything else. Iori’s relationship with Tomiyoshi too shows the dangers present for people lacking self-belief. In a twist on the usual stories, the idol group actually seem to find solidarity together. The character of Rei, who we learn does sex work beside her job as an idol, and Hitsuji, whose love of cute things is a disappointment to her mother, offer a heartening message that women should not be ashamed of whatever they want to do or be. A film about breaking free of the restrictions of society and following your dreams.