Bounce Ko Gal (1997) by Masato Harada

A group of teenage girls spend a wild, dangerous night on the streets of Tokyo, earning money through the seedy world of ‘compensated dating’. Maru (Shin Yazawa), who has recently had an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, goes to meet a male client. The man (Koji Yakusho) turns out to be a Yakuza and takes her ID and phone, telling her he’ll give them back when she pays him. Her friend, Jonko (Hitomi Sato), heads to the Yakuza to negotiate getting Maru’s phone and ID back. Meanwhile, Risa (Yukiko Okamoto), is hoping to make enough money to set herself up in New York, with her flight leaving in less than 48 hours. After selling her underwear and being directed to a softcore porn shoot, she meets up with Raku (Yasue Sato) and the two form a friendship. Risa has also captured the attentions of Sap (Jun Murakami) who works as a scout for young girls.

“Bounce Ko Gals”, written and directed by Masato Harada, does an incredible job of capturing the fashions and trends of the period, while shining a light on the dark underbelly of society. The early scenes with the schoolgirls, with their famous roll-down white socks, fake-tan, and relatable obsessions, set the scene for a film that, despite an apparently exploitative story, firmly establishes things from their perspective. The cast all do a great job with a script that exudes believability, with coarse, unguarded conversations alongside moments of emotional candour between the friends. They are smart, funny, worldly wise and cynical, while also being victims of a society that sees female value only in terms of appearance and sex. The camera wends its way through crowds, plunging us right into the throngs of people, creating a palpable sense of energy and movement. Told across a single day, scenes often cross-over, with the camera following one group then catching sight of another protagonist and switching to them. This all goes to help the sense of a living, breathing city and real characters.

The film is an incredible social document, offering a window to this specific period in time, the world of ‘compensated dating’ and the sexualisation of young girls. We see various aspects of this, including girls selling their underwear and school uniforms; ‘talent’ scouts picking up girls on the street to sell to hostess clubs or pornography companies; and older men paying for dates with teen girls, usually with a sexual motive. The film steers clear of moralising, but rather questions the type of society where these behaviours are prevalent and, to an extent, normalised. It is a society where women and girls are considered second-class and existing only for the amusement of men. Also one where youth is fetishized. As the teens state at one point, high-schoolers (Japan has middle and high school), are already considered old ladies. However, this film empowers its protagonists, showing them as savvy and self-sufficient in the warped economy where money rules all and girls can be easily exploited. It shows the dangers of what they are doing too, with brief indications of brutal violence, but also there is a sense of fun and camaraderie between the girls that shines through. One important moment near the end of the film sees the trio of Risa, Raku and Jonko conversing while a group of priestesses perform their rituals nearby. It gives agency to them, and suggests that the choices women make are entirely their own and that it is possible to find strength through companionship in a world that seems determined to keep them down.

Kontora (2019) by Anshul Chauhan

Sora (Wan Marui) comes home one day to find her grandfather has passed away. In front of him is a box of mementos, flight cap and goggles, and a war diary from his younger years. After reading an entry in the diary about a “metal arm” that he buried, Sora sets out to find it, keeping the secret from her father (Takuzo Shimizu). At the same time, a silent man who walks backwards (Hidemasa Mase) appears in their rural town. When Sora’s father hits him with the car, the two become involved with this figure, inviting him to their home, by turns caring and frustrated by his peculiar behaviour.

“Kontora” is a beautiful film, the stunning black and white cinematography perfectly capturing the philosophic nature of the story and mirroring its thematic depth. Writer-director Anshul Chauhan displays an influences from great cinematic works of the past, using the camera and staging to tell the story visually, while also creating a unique voice through the unusual, partly surreal, story. The camerawork in particular is exceptional, drawing us in to the characters by mimicing their motion, or literally following them as a subtle yet omnipresent observer. The rural setting of the film is shown off to its best advantage, the broad farmland, forest paths, and the tangled electrical cables and bustle of the town itself, representing something static and tangible, as opposed to the transient lives of the human protagonists. The existential themes, dealing with death and the forgotten stories of those who have passed, are reflected in the passing mists on the mountains, and in the interplay of light and shadow. The film leans into this expressionistic tone, with much of the story happening quietly and unspoken. The sometimes fantastical, abstract nature of the narrative, typified by the backwards-walking man, is occasionally punctuated by heartwrenchingly human and emotional scenes, such as when Sora allows her emotions to flow freely, or in her father’s disgust at his cousin’s coldhearted focus on money, giving them no time to grieve. The performances of Wan Marui as Sora and Takuzo Shimizu as her father are excellent, capturing the a complexity of their character’s conflicting emotions following their bereavement. The soundtrack by Yuma Koda adds elements of mystery, wonder, and suspense, complementing the often surprising narrative twists of the story. The film does require a lot of its audience, with long takes and contemplative story that leaves much unsaid, but the metaphors are far from impermeable and for those willing to spare a little time there is much to appreciate.

The most intriguing element of the story soon comes to be the backward-walking man, who appears shortly after Sora’s grandfather’s death. This mystery is further heightened by his inability to communicate, leading to frustration from Sora’s father, and increased curiosity from Sora. The man symbolises the lost memories of Sora’s grandfather, his backward walking representing a walk backwards through time, retreading of the past, and his inability to speak reflective of our relationship with the dead. They cannot speak to us, or tell us their stories, which can lead to curiosity or frustration, a desire to know more or an irritation at things left unsaid. As Sora and her father struggle to understand this person, they are similarly struggling to come to terms with the now vanished and voiceless past of their father and grandfather. It is a clever way to represent our relationship with time and mortality that leaves room for interpretation. A unique and interesting drama, poignant and engaging, with nuanced performances and excellent cinematography.

We Couldn’t Become Adults (2021) by Yoshihiro Mori

A man in his mid-40’s begins to think back on his previous relationships and heartbreak. Makoto Sato (Mirai Moriyama) is working as a graphic designer, creating animations and visuals for television. Suddenly confronted by middle-age, and realising he has become, in his words, “boring”, he begins to reminisce about his life and how he ended up here. He begins writing a memoir, working backwards through the years as we see his most recent relationship that ended badly due to his lack of commitment; a liaison with Sue (Sumire), and perhaps his most meaningful and poignant relationship with Kaori Kato (Sairi Ito).

Directed by Yoshihiro Mori, with a screenplay by Ryo Takada based on Moegara’s book of the same name, “We Couldn’t Become Adults” has a reverse chronological narrative, beginning in the present and taking us through the 2000’s to the 1990’s. While this is an interesting way to tell the story, but often hinders attempts to understand and relate to Sato’s character. In Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”, this backwards narrative served to bring us to an appreciation of the way the character’s memories worked, while here it distances us from the character (who presumably has a chronological memory of these events). A better approach may have been to mix the memories up, perhaps to better draw together repeating symbols or moments, such as the breakups, or the beginnings of relationships, places where Sato made the same mistakes or was influenced by earlier experiences. It requires a lot of the audience in asking them to remember scenes through the reverse-chronology and piece the narrative together at the end. The story running backwards also unfortunately undermines some of the emotionality of the film, as we are not shown the character’s relationships before the breakup, but vice versa. Despite this the film does feature some fantastic performances, from Mirai Moriyama and Sairi Ito in particular. Their understated romance is believable, with its own quirks, and the couple have good chemistry. As in life things move along, and Sato recalls his past as a series of memorable moments that have meaning for him. The film does a great job of depicting the quiet night streets of Tokyo, a sense of emptiness amongst this mass of humanity.

“We Couldn’t Become Adults” is a downbeat, often depressing film, especially for those who have been through failed relationships or are nearing middle-age. The character of Sato is sympathetic in his belief that he has not achieved anything, that his life has led him nowhere, his melancholy further exacerbated by an inability to commit to relationships following past heartbreak with Kaori. The film’s reverse narrative symbolises this human characteristic of constantly looking backwards, searching for meaning in the past, that can often hinder progress. Sato is stuck in the past, but also (as the adage goes) doomed to repeat it. His relationships fail because he is always judging them against an idealised vision of the past. So while the film takes us back from his less-than-perfect present situation, to what he believes was the best part of his life, we also realise that his current depression and loneliness is due perhaps to a misremembering of this same past, and inability to recognize the positives that he has missed along the way. The film is a nuanced character study of a man repeatedly failing to deal with heartbreak, and trapped in his own memories of happier times. Excellent performances and cinematography certainly make it worth a watch, but at times it can be a difficult experience to witness this man’s yearning for a joy that will remain permanently out of reach.

Gamera (1965) by Noriaki Yuasa

When a nuclear incident in the Arctic awakens an ancient monster, humanity must come together to prevent it destroying them. Doctor Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi), and a reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita) are in the Arctic on a research mission, while the Cold War rages around them. A nuclear-armed plane is brought down, the shock awakening the ancient monster Gamera from its long slumber beneath the ice. The mysterious being, that looks like an enormous turtle, heads to Hokkaido, where it continues to rampage, drawing energy from attempts to kill it, and causing mass devastation. A young boy, Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida), becomes obsessed with the creature, while scientists and politicians race to find a solution to the problem.

Following the success of “Godzilla” (Ishiro Honda, 1954), studios were looking to capitalise on the demand for more monster movies. Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, with a screenplay by Niisan Takahashi, “Gamera” draws much inspiration from that film, both in style, plot and substance, but adds a few new elements. It also takes more inspiration from science-fiction, with a heavy focus on reason and attempts to understand the monster, as opposed to the horror influence on Godzilla. The background of the contemporary Cold War provides a thematic depth, with humanity’s militarism and inability to resolve its own differences brought into stark relief when they are faced with an interstellar enemy that cannot be reasoned with. “Gamera” has a very internationalist feel, beginning in the Arctic, and featuring foreign military and diplomats, like many films of the era recognizing a shift in Japan’s own understanding of its place in the world and a need to engage positively with the global community. The plot is straightforward and action packed, with enjoyable miniature special effects, explosions, and Gamera playing a prominent role. Special effects director Yonesaburo Tsukiji (who previously worked on Warning from Space) does a good job of making Gamera a believable threat. There is only a short preamble before the first appearance of the monster and perhaps a sense of one-upmanship with the earlier “Godzilla” in the amount of destruction caused and the spotlighting of the creature as the main attraction. The seeming invincibility of Gamera helps build a sense of fear as humanity’s go-to solutions fail repeatedly.

“Gamera” is a film that speaks to many concerns of the era. Most notably the dangers of nuclear destruction, the force that both awakens Gamera and also makes him increasingly powerful. There is a realisation that humanity has discovered, or developed, forces that are no longer within its control. Gamera is a physical manifestation of the scale of the threat faced by the world, something that has the capacity to obliterate all life, and cannot be destroyed (without making things many times worse). There is also a hopeful element to the film, again something common to science-fiction of the period, which sees global co-operation and using science for the good of mankind as the way forward. The film begins with the Cold War, but ends with people coming together to face a common threat. The satire of beaurocrats and politicians, who cannot agree how to deal with the situation, is also timeless and made apolitical with the giant rampaging turtle. A classic science-fiction monster movie that stands alongside “Godzilla” in being both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Dreams (1990) by Akira Kurosawa

An anthology of short films based on Kurosawa’s dreams. The first story sees a young boy (Mitsunori Isaki) accidentally stumble across a fox wedding, despite the warning of his mother not to go out in the rain. Later he is told that he must kill himself with a knife, or return to the land of the foxes to hand back the knife. The second story revolves around the “Doll Festival” as the young boy finds a group of living human dolls that promise to restore a devastated peach orchard. The next story is a group of mountaineers trapped in a blizzard attempting to reach their camp. The fourth part sees a soldier returning from war, confronting the ghosts of his fallen companions. In part five, an artist (Akira Terao) enters the paintings of van Gough, conversing with the famous creative (played by Martin Scorsese). Part six concerns an extinction-level nuclear disaster and part seven sees a man speaking with a demon in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The final part has a man come to a rural “Windmill Village”, where he converses with an elderly resident about the importance of living a natural life.

“Dreams” is a peculiarity in Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, seeing him tackle styles and settings that are rarely seen in his other works. It is interesting to see his take on the survivalist drama, disaster movie, war film, science-fiction, fantasy, and surrealism, making you wonder what these could have been if they were each spun into full length stories. It is also novel to see Kurosawa work with greenscreen effects and monster makeup, still showing a creativity after a long career of samurai epics and historical dramas. Each section is around fifteen minutes, with just enough time to establish characters and theme. Kurosawa based these vignettes on dreams he had seen and they have an ephemeral quality, set in unreal environments where logic doesn’t necessarily flow as normal. These stories are adrift in space and time, the characters existing only in that moment, without a wider world around them. This limitation in time allows them to expand on creating a visual and audio spectacular, without worrying too much about character development or twists. There is a focus on the emotional rather than the logical, with elements left to the audiences interpretation. The direction is striking, particularly in the use of colour. Red appears prominently throughout a number of sections, representing both joy and suffering. The operatic score beautifully captures each scene, reflecting the grand visuals, varying from traditional instrumentation to popular classical music. The easiest reference point for the film would be “Kwaidan” (Kobayashi, 1964), with its individual stories imbued with history and tradition. There are also echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky, in the “Tunnel” episode and the final scene of trailing green fronds in the river.

Dream interpretation is a source of endless fascination to many people. While watching “Dreams” there are two questions that come to the fore. Firstly, where the dreams come from; and secondly what they signify. The answer to both of these may be the same. The dreams depicted seem to come from the fears and hopes of Kurosawa, some with a more direct connection to personal experience, and others seen through a metaphorical lens. Several themes appear to tie together certain sections. Tradition and history, and the loss of it, is a major concern. With the fox wedding and Doll Festival, we see Japanese folklore brought to life. The final section in which the elderly villager laments modernity and the death of the old ways, brings things full circle from these earlier sections, old age speaking to youth about the importance of holding on to these “magical” notions and the old ways. Kurosawa is understandably also concerned about his work and perhaps even his legacy. The section about the mountaineers, perhaps the least transparent in terms of interpretation, may be representative of the creative struggle, while also speaking to the fear of death. And the section with van Gough gives us Kurosawa’s idealised creative, a man absolutely committed to his art. Darker concerns also permeate the film, notably death and human extinction brought about by our own stupidity. The military man, one of the most affecting sections, speaks to the senseless waste of life in war; while the sections detailing nuclear holocaust speak clearly to the existential fear prominent in the post-atomic age. However, in the final scene we have again a hopeful note, that humanity might yet save itself from this fate, by embracing the environment, by returning to what we once held self-evidently important, namely living with nature rather than in a desperate struggle against it. “Dreams” is a film that reflects the hopes and fears of many people, a creative, surreal, vision that prophecies two potential futures for humanity.