Monster (2023) by Hirokazu Koreeda

Worried about her son’s strange behaviour, single mother Saori (Sakura Ando) confronts his school, believing that he is a victim of bullying by his class teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama). Unimpressed by Hori’s rote apology, she continues pressuring the school. The reason for Hori’s reluctance to offer a full mea culpa is that he doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong, instead insisting that the problem lies with Minato himself (Soya Kurokawa), who he argues is in fact the perpetrator of bullying against another classmate Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiragi). It may be that both Minato’s mother and Hori are incorrect as we see that Minato and Hoshikawa’s relationship is more complicated than they imagine.

Written by Yuji Sakamoto and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, “Monster” follows in the ‘Rashomon’ tradition of having the same story told from three perspectives, with each retelling uncovering more of the truth. Each time we see the story we are able to sympathise with the protagonist, whether Sakura Ando’s frustrated mother, desperate for answers and an apology; Eita Nagayama’s well-meaning but unlucky Hori, a victim of malicious rumours and misunderstandings; Soya Kurokawa’s Minato and Hinata Hiragi’s Hoshikawa, schoolboys attempting to navigate their feelings for one another. The emotional connection engendered by these characters is aided by fantastic performances, particularly from the young stars who create a believable relationship between Minato and Hoshikawa. The film weaves these stories together skillfully, teasing out each revelation, with scenes shot from a different angles showing the new perspective being brought to the situation. There is a sense of a delicately balanced composition in the screenplay, with each story beginning with a fire at a hostess club and ending with a typhoon. It builds like a classical piece, with the same moments, characters and motifs running through, each time with a slight difference. The Ryuichi Sakamoto score (who sadly passed two months before the film’s release and to whom the film is dedicated) ffers simple yet effecting accompaniment to the narrative.

“Monster” is a film that tells three stories and changes tone with each narrative twist. The first section deals with bullying, and the difficulty of parents to understand and protect their children. All evidence seems to point to the conclusion that Minato is the victim, and Saori’s reaction is perfectly understandable in this situation. Her love for her son and need to protect him blinds her to any other possibility, and even the true cause of his unhappiness. Hori’s story further drives home this idea of objective versus subjective truth, with his comi-tragic downfall caused by people unwilling to listen to his side of the story. We see in the rumour spread about his visiting a hostess club how easy it is for lies to spread and the truth to be manipulated. In the final, and most powerful part, we see that it is Minato and Hoshikawa’s forbidden love for one another that has caused the anxiety of Minato’s mother and the woes of Hori. This part draws on the previous sections, in which people are either unaware of the truth or prohibited from telling it. Minato himself has trouble confronting the truth of his own feelings of Hoshikawa. In the end the film is a plea for people to be able to live openly, to love freely and without the need to hide. The web of lies and deception that spins from a society’s inability to be honest can have devastating consequences. In its final, joyful moment, we see the storm caused by this emotional dishonesty break and the light of truth and acceptance shine through. In his first Japanese film since 2018’s “Shoplifters”, director Koreeda delivers a beautiful rumination on love and truth.

Girl’s Blood (2014) by Koichi Sakamoto

An all-female martial arts troupe is thrown into disarray with the arrival of a new member. “Girl’s Blood” are a group of women who battle it out in front of exuberant spectators in a cross between the fighting style of MMA (bouts taking place in an octagon with few apparent rules) and the extravagant costumes and characters of pro-wrestling (including a dominatrix, a nurse, and a police woman). One of their top fighters, Satsuki (Yuria Haga), is troubled when new member Chinatsu (Asami Tada) joins their group. Not only does Chinatsu not pull her punches in the arena, she also threatens to expose Satsuki’s hidden sexuality. The two soon begin a romantic affair; one that is jeapordized with the reappearance of Chinatsu’s husband who runs a rival martial arts group.

Based on the novel “Aka x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba, “Girl’s Blood” is an erotic action film, with a heady blend of fight scenes and gratuitous sex and nudity. Despite its low-brow exploitation trappings the film tells a surprisingly romantic story, with Satsuki and Chinatsu’s relationship providing a strong central plot around which the more extreme elements revolve. A majority of the film’s lengthy run time (a little over 2 hours) is taken up either with fighting or the women undressing, showering, or making love. The fight choreography is strong and entertaining, with the over the top theatrics of the in-ring tussles, or the street-fights that propel the plot forward. While the sex in the equation may be gratutious it doesn’t feel particularly egregious, with the lesbian romance at least lending a degree of respectability. One sour note is the sexual assault and rape that takes place later in the film, that feels unecessarily violent and out of place. The cast all do a good job with the action and bring their distinct, if rather unbelievable, characters to life. Yuna Haga’s Satuski hides her vulnerability behind a facade of gruff aggression; while Asami Tada’s Chinatsu goes through a series of transformations that see her both despised and pitied. The supporting cast, particularly Ayami Misaki as Miko and Rina Koike as Mayu, are also engaging with small side-plots that tie into the larger themes. Oddly, all the players in “Girl’s Blood” are introduced with anime-style openings, but aside from these four the others remain as stereotypical background. It would have been great to see a series with each of these getting a chance to shine.

At the heart of “Girl’s Blood” is a story about female empowerment, acceptance of sexuality, and overcoming trauma. We learn at the beginning of the film that Satsuki is estranged from her parents, a situation that seems to be commonplace amongst several of the characters. Miko was also thrown out of home while Mayu ran away. These women’s relationships with their mothers are strained at best, utterly shattered at worst. It is an interesting element to their characters with their profession as fighters, and their unique characters, a physical representation of their different yet comparable struggles. It is this lack of maternal affection that seems to shape and drive them and provides the film with it’s most interesting thematic through-line. The latter half plot involving a fight between “Girl’s Blood” and the rival “Ando Ichimon” club is almost nonsensical; as are numerous minor details such as the oddly varied crowd at the women’s events and whether they are intended to be martial artists or pro-wrestlers (two distinct professions). However, many of the more ridiculous elements can be forgiven with the entertaining performances and heartfelt message about overcoming your past and following your heart.

Andromedia (1998) by Takashi Miike

A recently deceased teen is brought back as an Artificial Intelligence in this cheesy science-fiction action film. “Andromedia” begins like a typical high-school romantic drama, with young couple Mai (Hiroko Shimabukuro) and Yuu (Kenji Harada) dating and hanging out with their friends. On her way back from one of their dates, Mai is hit by a truck and killed. Her father, a computer programmer, has developed a system allowing him to use Mai’s memories to reconstruct and artifical computer model of her, which is named Ai (or A.I.). This incredible breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence is sought after by Mai’s half-brother Satoshi (Ryo Karato) and a shadowy American businessman (Christopher Doyle), who sends hitmen out to retreive the programme. Mai reaches out to Yuu and her friends to help her evade their attempts to seize her.

“Andromedia” stars members of girl-group ‘Speed’ and boy band ‘DaPump’, essentially a vehicle for these teenage pop-stars to flex their acting skills. The story is filled with plot-holes and illogical moments, slapstick comedy and melodramatic teen romance. The strongest element of the plot is the love story between Yuu and Mai as they try to navigate what their relationship is now one is no longer physically present. Both Hiroko Shimabukuro and Kenji Harada do a good job with these characters. Being band-members the cast have a good chemistry together as the group of friends, their relationships being the most believable part of the eccentric story around them. The story of a dangerous organization attempting to steal a powerful computer programme is somewhat generic, again based on the most tenuous premise, and often seems to be from a completley different film to the teen hijinks that comprise the rest of the action. The most striking example of this film being more of a platform for the cast rather than an attempt at serious drama comes part-way through when, after having survived an outrageous car chase, we are treated to a song and dance number that appears unrelated to anything before or after. If you can handle the cheap special effects, illogical science-fiction plot, and overly sentimental romance, “Andromedia” keeps up a strong pace, rarely pausing for you to consider exactly why anything is happening. The juxtaposition of teen drama with assassinations, car chases, and some fun cyberpunk elements later on, make for an entertaining if unserious film.

Buried under the trite romance and science-fiction tropes, the film touches on a number of interesting ideas. Mai’s rebirth as an Artificial Intelligence lends itself to exploration of the distinctions and limitations between machine intelligences and humans. In some of the most powerful moments we see Ai’s desire to smell the sea or touch Yuu, something that a computer will never be able to experience. In one brief but impactful scene we see Satoshi becoming one with a machine he has built, suspended Christ-like amongst the wires. Themes of transhumanism, the religious significance of our increasing reliance on machines, and potential progress towards further integration with them, suggest unexplored depths beneath the film’s surface narrative. Overall, the film feels like a strong science-fiction concept hindered by having to accommodate the stars of these two pop-groups, meaning a watering down of the harder elements and an inability to truly develop some of its more interesting ideas.

See Hear Love (2023) by John H. Lee

A popular manga artist, Shinji Izumoto (Tomohisa Yamashita), begins to experience headaches, possibly due to long hours working on his series “Only for You”. With the series due to be turned into a major film and Shinji’s fortunes on the rise, tragedy strikes when he his blinded by an illness. With the series on hiatus, one of his fans, a deaf woman, Hibiki Aida (Yuko Araki), sets out to find him. After a difficult initial encounter these two fall in love and begin a relationship. But more trouble lies ahead as an admirer of Hibiki’s (Mahiro Takasugi) has his sights set on her; and Shinji’s condition turns out to be more serious that first thought.

Based on a Korean web manga, “See Hear Love” is a stylish romantic drama that tugs at the heartstrings, with the tried and tested formula of love and tragedy. Both Shinji and Hibiki are sympathetic characters and we see a little of their struggles, but their relationship also develops into something beyond their shared experience with disabilities. Tomohisa Yamashita captures the frustration of the artist becoming blind, his despair matched only by his determination when he meets Hibiki; while Yuko Araki’s expressive performance makes her likeable and relatable despite uttering very few words. The two create a couple who are likeable and sympathetic with Shinji’s desire to complete his manga, and Hibiki’s strong-willed support for him and help in overcoming his loss of sight. This relationship is the backbone of the film and an emotional rollercoaster. The film also features a subplot involving the attempts of another man to steal Hibiki away from Shinji and this is where things come a little off the rails. The supporting cast involved in these seem to be acting in a completely different movie, and every time it intrudes in the main narrative it is mostly superfluous comic relief. It ties in to the story as things progress, but for the most part it feels like a separate slapstic romantic comedy has been spliced into this heartwarming central plot. That aside, there is enough to recommend the film that this tonal inconsistancy can be largely shrugged off. In a film focusing on both a loss of sight and hearing, the film’s visuals and score are beautiful, emphasising the value both main characters put on these senses. John H. Lee’s crisp direction and glossy cinematography bring a Christmas-card sentimentality to the film; while the score, by Joon-tai Kim and Jae-Hyuk Seo, featuring classical guitar, piano and strings, and a swelling emotional theme, is in the best traditions of the blockbuster tragi-romance.

“See Hear Love” is self-aware enough to recognize that the circumstances of the plot are entirely intended to provoke sympathy. Shinji’s own manga is in this same genre and there is discussion of the overuse of tragic clichés employed to such effect. We feel instant sympathy for Shinji and Hibiki due to their situation, but neither demand pity, both being wilful, intelligent and strong individuals. They do not feel their disabilities, remaining alert to the world around them. The beauty in their relationship is the focus on togetherness and both physical and emotional proximity. Unable to see or hear, instead the most important quality they offer one another is simply being there. A second subplot concerns Shinji’s attempts to see his artistic vision honoured, while his publisher attempts to force a crass, melodramatic ending to his series. Shinji’s belief in the power of love to transform lives and to overcome all obstacles provides the strength he needs to continue. A sentimental love story that creates a unique couple in Shinji and Hibiki. Despite some lurches into cliché itself, the film presents an intelligent look at both disability and romance in the modern era.

Talking Head (1992) by Mamoru Oshii

A new director is charged with completing an in-production animated feature titled “Talking Head” in this meta-fictional thriller. When the director of their film goes missing, producer Handawara, turns to a another director (Shigeru Chiba) to finish the project. The new director meets the staff on the project one by one, learning about their views on film-making, the history of cinema, and the importance of the medium. He brings on board his assistant Tamiko (Tomoko Ishimura) in an attempt to get a grip on the project that is spiralling out of control. He soon realises something unusual is happening as those involved with the project begin to die in mysterious circumstances.

“Talking Head” is a post-modernist deconstruction of cinema as a medium. The straightforward plot is complicated by the entire film being a meta-fiction analysing and critiquing elements of the film industry. Throughout there is fourth-wall breaking and alienation of the audience via obviously staged sets, and surrealist elements such as the Yasuda twins (Kei Mayama and Kujira), colourists who are small enough to be drowned in mini-paint pots. This constant juxtaposition of real and fake adds to the self-reflexive narrative asking the viewer not only to consider who is killing the staff on the project, but what the revelation of the culprit signifies for the meta-narrative. The film’s idiosyncratic elements: animated sequences; characters being physical representations of their jobs; the action taking place on theatre-like sets, and a bleeding of reality and artifice with overt special effects, all help to make it an enjoyable collage-like experience that constantly suprises with each new scene. It is a film that revels in creativity, showing what film is capable of through the alchemy of colour, effects, narrative, acting and editing working together to create something that is endlessly entertaining and intriguing. The film also has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, referencing “Kerberos” (another Oshii project), Rei Maruwa (a pseudonym Oshii has used), Ken Kawai (Shinichi Ishihara) the composer (a reference to Oshii’s longtime collaborator Kenji Kawaii who also provides the score for this film) and others. It is clever and silly in equal measure, managing to create tension despite indicating repeatedly that nothing that is happening is ‘real’ in a conventional sense. The most mysterious element of the film is the woman in black (Mako Hyodo) who appears throughout and seems to represent one element of the project that is never made explicit.

Being a meta-fictional take on a traditional serial killer narrative, “Talking Head” lends itself to numerous interpretations, as an examination of the psychology of both the characters and the film industry as a whole; a satire on various practices and trends; and a look at what film is and could be. The film’s central message concerns the power of narrative and film as a medium to transmit meaning. The film itself suggests that no two viewers ever see exactly the same film and that is especially true here, with many things left to interpretation. Some of the most powerful moments are those that defy description or analysis, with the strength of singular images lending themselves to myriad possible readings. If you are a fan of this kind of art-house, meta-fiction that forgoes a more traditional narrative in favour of something that is uniquely bizarre and exciting, then this film has that in spades.