Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) by Sogo Ishii

Tomiko (Rena Komine) starts work as a bus conducter after the death of her friend Tsuyako (Tomoka Kurotani) who dies while working the same job. Tomiko is soon assigned as conductor alongside driver Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano), Tsuyako’s former boyfriend. Tomiko’s friend and fellow conductor Chieko (Kotomo Kyono) tells her that there is a rumour that Niitaka was responsible for Tsuyako’s death and the deaths of several other women. These suspicions are partially confirmed by a letter from Tsuyako delivered after her death that suggests Niitaka may be dangerous. Despite these warnings Tomiko begins a relationship with Niitaka.

Directed by Sogo Ishii and based on the novel by Kyuusaku Yumeno, “Labyrinth of Dreams” is a contemplative film that luxuriates in beautiful cinematography couresy of Norimichi Kasamatsu and subtle performances from its small cast. The character remain slightly out of reach of the viewer, appearing often as tragic archetypes. Rena Komine’s Tomiko is a young woman yearning for excitement, firm yet feminine, with hints that some darker thoughts may lie beneath the placid surface. Likewise, Tadanobu Asano’s Niitaka is something of a puzzle, seemingly caring for Tomiko, while at the same time teasing her, and with the lingering doubts about his past behaviour casting a dark shadow. The film offers few answers but the central riddle of Niitaka’s past and Tomiko’s fate is enough to keep you engaged. The film also includes abundent symbolism and subtext, with the train and bus taking on metaphorical importance, frequent shots of flowers, the sea, moths, dark tunnels and the appearance of buddhist monks and statues, all giving an indication that something momentous is being depicted, above and beyond the everyday relationship of the protagonist. The soundtrack by Hiroyuki Onogawa of resonant chimes creates an eerie atmosphere, speaking to the impending doom that is foreshadowed at the beginning of the film. The filmmakers also use silence to chilling effect, the sounds suddenly vanishing to leave the audience stranded in a world that is full of ambiguity and threat.

The film’s central relationship between Tomiko and Niitaka is thrilling to watch, and we are never quite sure what each has in their minds. Tomiko’s apparent lack of caution can be seen as a morality tale, but there is perhaps a more existential reading of the film with the buses symbolising the journey of life and the inevitability of death, also suggested by the appearance of buddhist monks and the dark tunnel with the oncoming light representing their end. Tomiko’s decision to begin a relationship with Niitaka is as unavoidable as her fate. The dangers for women in a male-dominated world are writ large in the film, but shown as something universal and unavoidable, asking questions about how much control we really have over our fate.

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.