Hard-Core (2018) by Nobuhiro Yamashita

Two men working a meaningless job find a high-tech AI robot in this existential comedy-drama. Unlike his younger brother Sakon (Takeru Sato) who is a high-flying professional, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) is stuck in a rut. Along with his simple-minded friend Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), he finds work with an elderly man who is part of some right-wing political group. This man and his assistant Mizunami (Suon Kan) have the two digging in a tunnel for gold that may or may not exist. One night Ushiyama finds a robot under the abandoned factory where he is sleeping that may provide a solution to their current troubles, but at the same time brings difficulties of its own.

Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, with a screenplay by Kosuke Mukai, this manga adaptation is a film that includes many disparate elements that never quite come together in a satisfactory way. The lowbrow comedy, such as Ukon’s attempts to help the naïve Ushiyama lose his virginity; or their attempts to hide the robot from prying eyes are amusing; but the film also seems to be striving to be more than a simple knockabout comedy, undermining the potential for more serious discussions with the more outrageous moments. Ukon and Ushiyama’s relationship is touching, being almost surrogate siblings to one another. Takayuki Yamada and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa are perfectly cast as this odd couple, Yamada as a dissatisfied individual who is striving to find some purpose in life, and Arakawa as the childlike, semi-mute, vulnerable Ushiyama. The film begins to find its feet after the discovery of the robot, giving the characters a unique situation to deal with, but at the same time it is unclear what the science-fiction element adds to the narrative.

“Hard-Core” is at its best when focussed on the relationship between the two protagonists, and the comparisons between them and their robotic companion. There is a lingering sense of existential angst in the film, with the shot of a dead cicada bringing home this idea that life is fragile and transient. There is also a strong desire in the character of Ukon to find meaning in his life. At the beginning of the film we see he is a man who is disgusted by humanity, lashing out at people enjoying themselves while he drinks himself into a stupor. Both Ushiyama and the robot, in contrast, are blissfully ignorant of the world around them, rarely troubled by concerns beyond the here and now. As Ukon’s brother explains to him, the robot has no will or desires, it does what it does because it is told to. It is the tragedy of humans that they are searching for meaning in a meaningless world. In the same way that they are digging for gold and Mizunuma’s daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) is searching for physical pleasure, to the exclusion of all else. “Hard-Core” is an unusual film because it attempts to juggle so many genres, action, romance, existential drama, comedy, and science-fiction, and often seems to drift aimlessly from one to the other. Much like the journey of the protagonist, it is often hard to discern a deeper meaning amidst the madness.

Under the Stars (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A young girl begins to question her parents belief in an unusual cult in this examination of faith and family. As Chihiro Hayashi suffered with terrible exczma as an infant, her father was recommended a miracle water, apparently imbued with cosmic energy. When they rub this on Chihiro she is cured of her painful skin condition. Now at primary school, Chihiro (Mana Ashida) and her parents are still part of this cult, drinking the ‘blessed’ water provided by the organization daily, while her parents are further involved in odd rituals of dousing themselves in water, and buying various products from the sect. Chihiro’s older sister (Aju Makita) is sceptical, refusing to completely follow their rules, and eventually distancing herself from them. However, despite the teasing of her friend Nabe (Ninon), and the concerns of her uncle Yuzo (Kohei Otomo), Chihiro is reluctant to leave her parents.

Based on the book by Natsuko Imamura, with a screenplay by director Tatsushi Omori, “Under the Stars” is a touching coming-of-age drama about an often overlooked problem: that of children growing up in religious households, unable to reject their parents beliefs. While Chihiro’s parents are not violent or abusive, in fact they are shown as loving and kind towards their daughter, they believe in a nonsensical placebo: something that is ridiculed by many around Chihiro. While their behaviour is bizarre to the audience, it appears perfectly natural to Chihiro, who has grown up surrounded by these beliefs. Mana Ashida gives a great performance as the young Chihiro, dealing with regular schoolgirl issues such as a crush on her teacher Minami (Masaki Okada) as well as the conflict between her parents, friends and extended family. She is well-adjusted in spite of her parents asking her to do strange things, such as wearing a pair of glasses to alter the way she sees the world; or drinking the expensive bottles of water in order to prevent illness. Masatoshi Nagase and Tomoyo Harada are also excellent as her loving yet misguided parents, playing straight-faced their adherence to the cult’s practices. They are sympathetic figures, especially as their entry to the cult was prompted by their daughter’s illness and seems well-intentioned in attempting to prevent harm to her and others. Chihiro is caught between two worlds, exemplified by her school friend Nabe, and Sanae (Ai Mikami), another child brought up in the cult. The film avoids sentimentality, with most of the responses to Chihiro’s family being confusion or mild amusement. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo’s attempts to break them out of this mindset is one of the more emotionally raw moments, showing his distress at what has happened to his sister’s family.

“Under the Stars” ends on an ambiguous note, showing the ludicrous fiction that Chihiro’s parents are living, yet at the same time making clear their love for their daughter. This echoes the film’s central theme that good people can be easily manipulated by these groups. Minami teaches mathematics and science, suggesting that Chihiro is stuck between worlds of fact and fantasy, reality and religion. Having being misinformed her entire life, and slowly seeing the truth, she nevertheless clings to her parents and wants to please them. The film sheds light on the practice of cults making money off credulous and well-meaning individuals, while depicting the positive and negative aspects of piety, in Chihiro’s bond with her parents and their adherence to the organization. A powerful film about the tragedy of growing up in a cult, and the strength of human relationships and religious convictions.

Aristocrats (2020) by Yukiko Sode

Two women from different social classes become romantically involved with the same man in this feminist fable. Hanako Haibara (Mugi Kadowaki) is the daughter of a doctor whose recent separation from her fiance is met with disappointment by her family. Her friends and parents begin to set her up on a series of blind dates, one of which, arranged by her brother-in-law, is with the charming Koichiro Aoki (Kengo Kora). Hanako falls immediately for Koichiro and the two soon arrange to be married. However, she discovers that he is having an affair with a woman named Miki Tokioka (Kiko Mizuhara). Miki is from a working class family, but studied at the prestigious Keio University where she met Koichiro. Through a mutual aquaintance, Hanako and Miki meet one another to discuss what to do, a meeting that gives them both pause to think about their lives and how they have been impacted by Koichiro.

Based on Mariko Yamauchi’s novel, “Aristcrats” is almost two parallel films that play out with little overlap. The film is chaptered, with alternate chapters following Hanako and then Miki. The novel was serialised in a monthly magazine, and director Yukiko Sode allows the narrative to play out in an unhurried way that draws us into the lives of the two protagonists. The two women only meet twice in the whole film, for brief scenes, but this parallel structure allows us to contrast and compare their lives and choices. The cinematography gives a sense of wealth and luxury, with many high-class locations shown to best advantage, brightly lit with little movement reflecting the characters’ stiff social niceties. The classical score by Takuma Watanabe further emphasises this sense of an upper-class sensibility. The elegant surroundings of Hanako’s life, with expensive restaurants, jazz clubs, and summer retreats, are in stark contrast to the conditions of Miki’s life, her disorganized working-class home very different to the sterile environs of Hanako’s world. Mugi Kadowaki’s Hanako is a character who is trapped in a gilded cage, with few concerns about money; she is instead troubled by not living up to her family or husband’s expectations, her lack of a child, and perceived lateness in getting married. Both Kadowaki and Kiko Mizuhara give fantastic performances as women forced to follow social norms against their wills. The women are rarely confronted by serious problems, but the mundane, everyday sexism they face builds an incredible pressure that shapes the way they look at the world. Their friends, Itsuko and Rie, played by Shizuka Ishibashi and Rio Yamashita, are also interesting characters, representing women who are emancipated from the expectations of people around them. They offer a fun counter-point to the protagonists, being forthright in their determination to follow their own path in life rather than that set out for them by others.

“Aristocrats” offers an interesting look at the class divide in Japanese society, drawing a clear distinction between those fortunate enough to be born to wealthy families, living a life of afternoon teas and country homes; and those at the lower end of the income scale, who struggle for everything they have. Despite the difference in background, Hanako and Miki both face similar problems as women: the pressure to marry and have children, the expectation that they will submit themselves to their husband or partners will, and in short that they are there as little more than window dressing for the men around them (as Miki spells out to Itsuko during their conversation). Both women are trapped by circumstance, forced into societal obligations and unable to make their own decisions. Both have a friend who displays an alternative way of life. Hanako’s friend Itsuko is an independent woman, travelling the world playing violin, who shows little interest in settling down; while Miki’s friend Rie, dreams of starting her own business, and not being bound by the financial constraints that have bedevilled Miki. At heart the film is about finding freedom and making your own choices. It’s stark depiction of rigid morality seems out of place in the modern world, and the film’s commentary on these outdated beliefs provides a powerful indictment of the patriarchal system that persists in modern society. An enjoyable film with great central performances that depicts the reality for a lot of women while offering hope that things could be different and are perhaps changing, albeit slowly.

The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi (1979) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Ikko Furuya) finds himself entangled in a mysterious case involving the missing head of a statue. A group of roller-skating, clown-costumed, art thieves are causing havoc with a spate of robberies. When they accost Kindaichi Kosuke and ask him to return to his only unsolved case, involving famous artist Haida, he sees the opportunity to finally answer that outstanding mystery. Along with officer Todoroki (Kunie Tanaka) and the leader of the theives Maria (Miyuki Matsuda), Kindaichi encounters a series of comedic situations in search of the culprits.

Based (very loosely) on the works of popular crime author Seishi Yokomizo, “The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi” is part detective story, part slapstick comedy, and part self-referential, fourth-wall breaking satire. The film credits Yokomizo’s work as its basis, with a screenplay by Koichi Saito and Akira Nakano, but it is director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s style that colours every moment of this lively crime caper. The Kindaichi of the film is a caricaturish figure playing up to his reputation as a dishevelled detective, with exaggerated tics such as scratching his head and his unkempt style marking him out as a figure of fun. The film rarely takes itself seriously, with numerous wordplay gags, pratfalls, animated moments, inexplicable appearances of Superman, and surrealist comedy representative of the counter-cultural trend tearing down revered figures. There are references to various Kindaichi cases from the books, a fun in-joke for those familiar with Yokomizo’s work. If you are a fan of the books however, this film will probably not be for you, as it seems to almost mock the very notion of the character. Obayashi brings the character of Kindaichi to the contemporary era of discotheques and rollerskating youths; and creates a bizarre confusion of non-sequitur humour and punchlines without set-ups. Later in the film there is even a Seishi Yokomizo cameo as his royalties for the Kindaichi stories are delivered, further muddying the waters about what is going on.

“The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi” is either an incomprehensible mess, a kaleidoscopic comic masterpiece, or a multi-layered self-reflective work that considers Kosuke Kindaichi as a fictional character as well as the protagonist of this story; and that comments on the police force and its depiction in media. Obayashi does not constrain himself to conventional storytelling, which can be both a good and a bad thing, allowing for an artistic and unique style that is able to express more than a straightforward story would; but also means throwing in several ill-fitting elements, the murder and mayhem struggling to find a tonal balance. The film is likely to have a mixed response, the audience’s enjoyment based on the extent to which they are willing to leave pre-conceptions and expectation behind and give in to the bohemian daring of Obayashi’s filmmaking.

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) by Makoto Shinkai

Two teens face a difficult separation in this melancholic exploration of young love. Takaki Tono (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Akari Shinohara (Yoshimi Kondo) become friends after both transferring to the same high school in Tokyo. After Akari moves north to Tochigi they remain in correspondence. Takaki decides to take a train to meet her, knowing it will perhaps be the last time as he is soon due to move with his family as well. As the snowy weather worsens and the train is delayed, his agony at reuiniting with Akari is heightened. Following Takaki’s move another girl, Kanae Sumida (Satomi Hanamura), becomes romantically interested in Takaki, but realises that she is unable to close the distance between them due to his longing for Akari.

Makoto Shinkai’s “5 Centimeters Per Second” returns to a theme from his earlier short film “Voices of a Distant Star”, that of a separated couple struggling with loneliness and yearning for human connection. It is unconventional as films go in that there is very little plot or dialogue, with most of the story told through the internal monologues of Takaki and Kanae. Instead it explores its themes in a more expressionistic way, creating a tangible world through small details. Water droplets on a train window; the light from a vending machine at a remote station; cherry blossoms blowing by a railway crossing; all of these picturesque images evoke feelings that are relatable but impossible to describe. The film is around sixty minutes and comrpised of three segments. The first shows Takaki travelling to meet Akari, the second Kanae procrastinating in confessing her love to Takaki, and the third some time later as both Takaki and Akari regret their loss. This atypical structure and lack of any conclusion or closure for the characters may be offputting to some, with its melancholic ending. It is best to approach the film more as an experience, one that you can explore and enjoy without worrying about following a narrative or hoping for plot points to be tied together. What the film does offer is a unique take on the romantic drama, with animation that realises the beauty of the everyday, the commonplace given significance by the characters. The world of “5 Centimeters Per Second” is searingly real in its ordinariness, with delayed trains, and circumstances outwith the characters control, but manages to find magic in these familiar environments.

“5 Centimeters Per Second” refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall to the ground. The film, with its twin focus on both the industrial, trains and rockets, and natural worlds, fields and oceans, relates to the central theme that life moves on in spite of humans. Takaki and Akari’s sundered love is hearbtreaking precisely because nothing changes around them. They are left yearning for something that will never come to pass while the world moves on. At its heart the film questions what that love is when it cannot be expressed; it shows us a vision of a beautiful yet uncaring world, the joy and hope of being in love tempered by human anxieties and feelings of helplessness. A stunning experimental animation that eschews traditional narrative to create something more poetic and at times transcendent.