Ikiru (1952) by Akira Kurosawa

A terminal diagnosis sharpens the attention of an elderly council worker, leading him to question what his life has been for. Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is section head at the public liasons office of the city council. His life is one of endless drudgery, filling out forms, stamping documents, and overly bureaucratic systems that never seem to accomplish anything important. A widower, Watanabe lives with his son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his wife, whose only consideration is how his pension money may help them buy their own house. After receiving a diagnosis of stomach cancer and realising he has perhaps only 6 months left, Watanabe is understandably distraught, considering suicide, when he has a chance encounter with an author (Yunosuke Ito). This younger man shows him the delights of the city, playing his ‘Mephistopheles’ for the night as he introduces him to the joys of gambling, drinking and women. Watanabe also begins a relationship with his younger female co-worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri), whose joie de vivre contrasts starkly with his own dreary existence. Inspired by her, and still grasping for purpose, Watanabe returns to work and sets about pushing through citizens proposals for a children’s play park.

“Ikiru”, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, who worked on the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, is a perfectly balanced human drama, creating a timeless character in Watanabe. He is a man who finds himself in a familiar position, having given 25 years of his life to a job that he has little personal interest in, for a son who seems not to care for him, while doing little for himself. The stomach cancer, while a tragic occurence, spurs him to action. The central performance by Takashi Shimura is wonderfully nuanced, as he copes with feelings of fear, regret, and loneliness, balanced by occasional levity and a hard-headed determination that grows with the acceptance of his morality. The supporting cast play off him excellently, never detracting from his struggle, but offering a reflective mirror through which to see Watanabe. Shimura’s Watanabe looks to them for some sort of answer to his question of what he should be doing with the short time he has left. Each has their own perspective, showing that there are no easy answers for Watanabe, but at the same time they encourage him to see the value of pursuing something meaningful to him. The story is told with ample use of montages, giving a sense of a bustling world and creating a fully rounded character in Watanabe. In his relationship with Toyo and Mitsuo, we see the various aspects that make up a person, and in the later flashbacks as his colleagues remember him we get a similar sense of his character. In Watanabe’s final moments, we also see the importance of personal happiness, in fulfilling something you know is worthwhile, in spite of what others say about you, or whether you receive credit for it.

Kurosawa’s direction with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai produces some incredibly evocative moments, with the sillhouetted figures on the bridge, the office that is creaking under the weight of piled papers reflecting the enormity of concepts such as time and mortality. The script avoids unnecessary exposition, instead focussing on the human reactions to tragedy. Watanabe never explicitly states why he changed his opinion on life, or suddenly found a second wind, but it is made clear through Shimuras performance and his encounters with the other characters. Toyo showing him the children’s toy her factory makes is another great example of the film guiding us through visually and emotionally, as well as his nickname is ‘The Mummy’, which needs no further explanation. A stunning rumination on mortality and humanity that has an inspiring message for viewers depsite the seemingly depressing themes. The title of the film says it clearest, this is not a film about dying, but about living.

Leaving on the 15th Spring (2013) by Yasuhiro Yoshida

The Daito islands are a small archipelago hundreds of miles south-east of Okinawa. As the islands have no high-school, almost all 15 year olds leave the island to attend school on the main island. After her senior leaves, Yuna (Ayaka Miyoshi) becomes the eldest middle-schooler, due to depart the following spring. Her father, Toshiharu (Kaoru Kobayashi), lives on the island with her, along with her elder sister Mina (Saori Koide) and her sister’s child Mei. Her mother Akemi (Shinobu Atake) meanwhile lives on the main island, with speculation that she is estranged from her husband. Yuna is part of a folk-group, playing the traditional Shinsan instrument and singing, which gives her a unique insight into the cultural heritage of her island.

Writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshida was shown a 20-minutes documentary on the inhabitants of the Daito islands by his producer and tasked with making a film depicting their story. The film certainly succeeds in showing the beauty of the islands and the tranquility of the rustic lifestyle. We learn about the sugar-cane that grow, hear traditional songs, see the stunning vistas, glimpse the fishing and agricultural industries that predominate, and enjoy the seasonal festivals in a film that depicts a full year of island life. Throughout the film also keeps a firm focus on the emotional journey of Yuna and her family. While described as a romance, Yuna’s relationship with Kento, a boy from the north island, is only a small part of her journey, with the best part of the film concerning her relationship with her family. The central performance from Ayaka Miyoshi, who also learnt to play the Shinsan and sing in the traditional style, is a wonderful portrayal of a young woman learning to appreciate what is important in life. The supporting cast, in particular Kaoru Kobayashi as her father, also bring a great emotional depth to the story, showing both the enjoyable and difficult aspects of island life. The film’s mix of the traditional and modern sensibilities is highlighted in the score, which features a romantic backdrop of piano and strings, alongside poppy love songs and the folk-music that bookends the drama.

“Leaving on the 15th Spring” is a film that focusses on a particular community with a somewhat peculiar problem, that of young people needing to leave the island in their 15th year. However, it provides the perfect backdrop for a coming-of-age drama with relatable themes. Chief amongst these is the desire for independence clashing with a sense of familial responsibility. Yuna is excited to leave the small island, but fears cutting the ties with her father and sister. The distance between Minami Daito and the main island is emphasised in the relationship between Toshiharu and Akemi, whose relationship is of equal importance in the story. It brings to life the fragility of human connection, something we also see in Mina’s relationship with Mei’s father, which is also troubled. The distance between people, both geographically and emotionally, is at the heart of the film. It also questions the nature and importance of responsibility to our ancestors or our culture. The islanders are protective of their traditions, shown in a brief political scene in which the community council debate their opposition to the TPP agreement. Yuna also feels the weight of obligation to her father and family, wondering how to balance this with her own wishes to leave. The farewell festival that Yuna performs at is a poignant mix of melancholy at what we leave behind when we become adults, and the hope that we carry forward with us.

Somebody’s Flowers (2021) by Yusuke Okuda

A sombre drama about loss and dementia. Takaaki’s (Shinsuke Kato) is left to look after his elderly parents after his brother Kento dies in a car accident. His father Tadayoshi (Choei Takahashi) has dementia, often wandering off, calling Takaaki by his brother’s name, and forgetting what he is doing; while his wife Machi (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) does her best to care for him. When a new family, the Kusumotos, move into their apartment block, tragedy strikes when the father is fatally injured by a falling flower pot, leaving his wife, Akari (Misa Wada), and young son, Sota (Ruse Ota), to cope with his loss. Takaaki begins to suspect that it may have been Tadayoshi who dropped the flower pot, although his father shows no signs of remembering the incident. Takaaki attempts to protect his father by lying and terminating the contract of his home helper, Satomi (Honoka Murakami), who is also suspicious.

Written and directed by Yusuke Okuda, based on personal experience of a family member with dementia, “Somebody’s Flowers” is an often touching and tragic drama that looks at a serious social issue. The depiction of Tadayoshi’s condition is sensitive while tackling the strain it puts on his wife and son. Choei Takahashi’s performance as the elderly Tadayoshi, with unsure steps, repetitive statements, and absent expression, capture the peculiar vulnerability of those suffering memory loss. The rest of the cast, Kazuko Yoshiyuki as his loving wife, and Takaaki as his morally conflicted son, whose feelings towards his father move from exasperation to concern, do a fantastic job creating a sense of a family unit doing their best to carry on after the death of Kento and the deteriorating condition of Tadayoshi. The film’s inciting incident, the death of Akari and Sota’s father and husband, gives the film a semblance of plot, but for the most part it is a more documentary-like exploration of these characters and their experiences. The scenes at the grief councelling group consolidate this documentary style as the participants give their thoughts on bereavement. “Somebody’s Flowers” leaves the audience to decide where they stand on the issues presented, particularly concerning the guilt of Tadayoshi, while creating scenes that brim with emotionality. The direction and framing heighten the impact of each scene, with an emphasis on character viewpoints guiding the audience through and offering varied perspectives on what has happened. The minimalist score breaks in rarely to set the scene, but never undermines the realism of the story. A scene late in the film, in which Tadayoshi believes he is talking to his lost son Kento, and encourages Takaaki to speak with his brother, is effecting in its simplicity and again succeeds on the strength of the main cast, capturing the complex emotions of the characters.

“Somebody’s Flowers” is a film in the vein of Koji Fukada’s “Harmonium”, dealing with a difficult social issue, with a story that doesn’t attempt to sensationalise or rationalise on behalf of the characters. We are presented with a situation that engenders sympathy for the protagonists, struggling with dementia and taking care of someone with the condition. It asks difficult questions about guilt, blame and responsibility, loyalty, loss and forgiveness. In the case of Tadayoshi he is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions, almost childlike in his innocence and unconscious of his own actions. In the survivor’s group we see people still struggling to forgive the perpetrators of the accidents that took their loved ones; while Takaaki must contemplate the possibility that his father is a murderer (albeit unwittingly). “Somebody’s Flowers” creates a powerful emotional drama about death and dementia that asks the audience to consider their own feelings on the issues it raises.

Wonder Wall (2018) by Yuki Maeda

The historic Konoe student dormitory building in Kyoto, built in 1905, is nearing the end of its life. The university authorities want to demolish it, believing it to be unsafe. For 10 years the students who live there have been arguing to protect the dorm, with ongoing discussions with the university and student services providing a common cause for them. Cupie (Ren Sudo) and Masara (Kazunori Mimura) are idealistic freshmen, believing that the integrity of the dormitory must be preserved. Their group of student activitists are led by Mifune (Haya Nakazaki), an older student who has taken on the role of spokesperson for the group, and his deputy Shimura (Amane Okayama). Their struggle against University bureaucracy, represented by a no-nonsense middle-aged receptionist nicknamed ‘Tetrapod’, is complicated when Mifune’s sister, Kaori (Riko Narumi) begins work at the student servives desk.

“Wonder Wall” is a simple film, revolving around the debate of whether or not to knock down the dormitory, with broader allegorical significance. Early in the film there is reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the southern border wall proposed in the United States. These call to mind other political moments where young people have been instrumental in combatting forces of oppression and division. The students’ fight against the authorities is not particularly about the dormitory, with the students themselves realising something needs to be done about it, but instead represents for them the importance of standing up to authority and having your say. The students understand that they are fighting a losing battle, but continue regardless, believing that it is the fight itself that is important more than the eventual outcome. The struggle is what binds them together and gives them a purpose. The film also represents the freedom of youth against the rigid authoritarian structures of society, represented by impenetrable levels of bureaucracy. The bohemian lifestyle of the students is perfectly depicted, with them sleeping where they like; empty bottles strewn around; raucous meetings to discuss protocol for rubbish in their commune-like residence; and the chaotic backdrop of clothes and books strewn around their accommodation.

Yuki Maeda’s direction, with hand-held camerawork, wandering through the dormitory, or in amongst the group as they confront student services, makes you feel a part of the students’ environment and their struggle, fully immersed in the disordered yet liberating atmosphere of rebellious youth. The naturalistic performances and large supporting cast also help give a sense of believability with costumes and set-design telling much of the story too. The screenplay by Aya Watanabe does a good job of focussing on the particular struggle of these students, while leaving room for interpretation. It raises questions about the human urge to confront authority; the importance of freedom of expression and protest; how students have changed, or not, through the years; and also what the dormitory symbolises for the students. The performance of a song by supporters of the dormitory give a glimpse of what it is they are truly working to protect. They know that the building is probably unsuitable, even potentially dangerous, but it is the human element that they are fighting for, the sense of community that they have found, and the idealism of youth, that they want to preserve and carry forward with them.

The Violence Action (2022) by Toichiro Ruto

An undercover assassin is tasked with taking on a dangerous Yakuza syndicate in this comic-book crime caper. Kei (Kanna Hashimoto) works as an killer-for-hire, with dual cover as a University student and call-girl working out of a ramen shop. This compilation of Japanese pop-culture action cinema tropes extends is completed with a wacky side-kick with a bullet-proof wig (Takashi Okamura), a love-lorn fellow student who traipses after her; over-the-top gangsters led by a dad-joke loving boss; a villain possessed of supernatural martial prowess; Kei’s fellow assassin, the sniper Daria (Yuri Ota); love hotels; warehouse fights; gangland shootings; and a handsome, morally dubious love-interest.

“The Violence Action” is based on the comic book by Shin Sawada and Renji Asai. The film adaptation, written and directed by Toichiro Ruto, co-writte by Itaru Era, suffers from two major issues. One is the tonal inconsistency, shifting gears from slapstick comic action (bullet-proof wigs; aerobatic gunfights) to ultra-violent scenes (albeit with CG blood) including people being shot with a nail-gun. The puerile humour twinned with the mature tone is reflective of a trend in pop-culture of infantilisation; merging entertainment for kids and adults. Children’s films become more violent, while adult films are stripped of emotional depth. This results in what we have with “The Violent Action”, a film that never seems sure of what it is doing, other than throwing as many elements from other enjoyable films into the pot and giving it a stir. The issue with this is that you are consistently reminded of better films. The second failing of the film is in its headache-inducing editing, with hyperactive cuts that are unnecessary, giving it a music-video style that adds nothing to the drama. Unfortunately, these cuts are often use to disguise a lack of technical ability in the cinematography, the rapid cuts perhaps seen as the lesser of two evils by the director. The film suffers by comparison to “Baby Assassins” (2021), which managed to establish some degree of character for its protagonists and pulled off the comic-action vibe much better.

It is hard to know if the film is aiming for a B-movie feel, many elements would suggest this, but even if it were it still fails to create significantly outrageous set-pieces that would allow it to pass in the genre of more wacky action films. There is such a confusion of plot lines (an assassin questioning her choices; a leadership struggle within the Yakuza; a man double-crossing the mob; a love-sick teenage boy lusting after a dangerous girl; the sniper with a dark past; the hospitalized friend and dreams of revenge), all of which have been done before, and none of which are given enough time here to become the main focus. “The Violence Action” is akin to flipping through a series of action movie trailers, getting a brief impression of each one, but no consistent plot or memorable characters.