Summer Blooms (2017) by Ryutaro Nakagawa

Hatsumi (Aki Asakura) is working at a noodle restaurant which is soon to close. While on paid leave looking for a new job, she is spotted by one of her former students, Kaede (Yuriko Kawasaki) whom she helps out of an abusive relationship. Hatsumi is later courted by one of the restaurant’s regular customers, Totaru (Takahiro Miura), who has been a distant admirer for some time. Hatsumi finds herself unable to fully accept Totaru, still struggling with memories of her ex-boyfriend , Kentaro, who died suddenly three years before. On a visit to her former boyfriend’s parents home, she comes to terms with her loss.

With a script by director Ryutaro Nakagawa and Ryuhei Yoshino, “Summer Blooms” is an understated story about love and loss. The relaxed pace allows the viewer to simply be with the characters without forced melodrama. Stunning cinematography by Rei Hirano featuring long shots from a train windows of pastoral landscapes, or quiet moments with the actors sitting in thought, make up much of the film. One excellent scene features a long take with Hatsumi walking while listening to music after her date with Totaru. The film allows us to follow alongside her, picking up on the lightness of her step, and the odd mix of feelings bubbling up inside. This style of direction, with long lingering shots, or scenes that run on, is bold, relying on audience patience and investment in the characters, and only possible with the incredible performances of the cast. Aki Asakura gives a subtle yet moving portrayal of a woman dealing stoically with loss and loneliness. Yuriko Kawasaki’s Kaede offers the perfect foil as a lively, carefree young woman, whose own relationship troubles spur Hatsumi to reassess her situation. Takahiro Miura is also good as an atypical love interest, charmingly unsure of himself around this beautiful woman. Atypical as the film is less about their relationship than the unresolved relationship Hatsumi has with her late boyfriend, Kentaro. The music, by Hisaki Kato, is used sparingly and never forcefully, gently enhancing certain moments. It is more notable by its absence in particular moments, leaving the audience without that musical crutch, left alone with the characters to feel their uncertainty along with them. Throughout the film Hatsumi’s love of radio is shown, an almost permanent companion in her solitude, and the score is used in a similar way, a comfort that makes the silences the more poignant.

“Summer Blooms” is a simple story, a woman dealing with the loss of a partner some years prior, that allows its themes and ideas to evolve naturally. One of the most striking of these themes is the relationship of the main character with time, and by extension memory and mortality. Hatsumi goes to see “Casablanca”, where she is first reunited with Kaede, and later she hears Kaede singing “As Time Goes By” at a jazz club. Clocks also feature heavily in particular scenes, giving an insight into Hatsumi’s mindset. She has been essentially trapped in time since Kentaro’s death, unable to move on from that moment, while the world goes on around her. Her career and love-life both appear to have stalled three years prior. This is truly at the heart of the story: Hatsumi’s desire to unburden herself of past feelings of regret and move beyond Kentaro’s death. A poignant romance with a fantastic central performance from Asakura, “Summer Blooms” offers an intriguing look at what becomes of people after relationships, their shared memories now torn asunder.

Taste of Emptiness (2017) by Marina Tsukada

A moving story about a young high-school girl suffering with an eating disorder. Satoko (Haruna Hori) appears to be a happy and healthy teenager, part of her school dance club with her circle of friends. She lives with her parents and older brother, Keita. But unbeknownst to both friends and family, Satoko is dealing with an eating disorder. Counting calories in a diary, fretting over what she is able to eat, alternately binging and purging, taking scalding hot baths, her life is an endless round of self-destructive behaviours. Following an argument with her family, Satoko moves in with her closest friend Kanae. She also finds the courage to visit a doctor, where she meets an older woman, Maki (Sakie Hayashida), who is dealing with her own mental health issues.

Written and directed by Marina Tsukada, the film is based in part on the director’s own experiences of this condition while at university. The central performance by Haruna Hori captures the internal turmoil of the character, constantly pacing, furtively noting calories in her diary, concealing her actions from those around her, and her often tentative, almost fearful, reactions to food. These sorts of compulsive behaviours and the nervous energy accompanying, no doubt guided by the director’s first-hand knowledge, are very believable. The film focusses entirely on Satoko’s condition, and the effects it has on her, refraining from unnecessary subplots or attempts to insert a morality or message to the story. It does not need it. What we have is a raw, powerful portrayal of the alienating, distracted, loneliness that typifies many mental illnesses. The film offers no easy answers or explanations, hinting only subtly at pressures faced by girls such as beauty standards, or the way that valuing self-worth can be harmfully linked to appearance. Instead we are largely left alone with Satoko, and Hori’s incredible performance, and little by little we come to completely sympathise as we follow her routines. The direction, often isolating her, or else shutting her out of sight, are an excellent way of allowing the audience in part to experience this condition along with her, or at least to sense some of what is happening internally. The same is true of the long takes, that force the viewer to sit alone with Satoko, creating a sense of discomfort and helplessness. The character of Maki, who is suffering a suicidal manic-depression, and their friendship, is the closest the film comes to having a narrative element, but as with Satoko, we are given no easy answers, only glimpses of what causes her erratic behaviours. Sakie Hayashida does a great job with this character, with a bubbly charm hiding deep seated fears.

“Taste of Emptiness” is an exploration of an experience which will be unfamiliar to many viewers, but it does an incredible job of allowing us into Satoko’s life. It doesn’t attempt to explain her condition, or the causes, but simply allows us to spend time with her and see what it is like to suffer with an eating disorder. One of the themes of the film is how these conditions often go hidden. We see Satoko at several points wearing a mask and performing dance steps. Her masked dancer persona is a representation of this soul, trapped in her own experience, desperately attempting to communicate something of how she is feeling, perhaps a mystery even to herself, through her behaviours. Both at the beginning and end of the film Satoko appears as a solitary figure amongst a throng of people, all busy about their own lives. As she disappears into the crowd at the end, the audience are left with the stark realisation that all too often these conditions go unseen, lost and alone amongst a society that is largely unaware that people are suffering in silence. A difficult watch but an emotional and skilfully crafted portrayal of an eating disorder.

Parks (2017) by Natsuki Seta

Jun (Ai Hashimoto) is struggling to come up with a thesis for the communications professor on her socio-cultural studies course. By a quirk of fate she bumps into Haru (Mei Nagano), who is searching for her grandfather’s former sweetheart from letters she discovered after her passing. The two girls set out to find this woman and soon meet her grandson, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who tells them that she has also recently passed. The three discover an old incomplete recording of a song that the old couple had written and recorded together and decide that they should write the rest of the song, which they later decide to perform at the upcoming music festival in the park.

The thin plot, languid pacing, and gentle, non-confrontational atmosphere of the film is much like spending a pleasant afternoon sitting in a park, watching the world go by. Much of the film is set in and around the park, the green space offering a soothing backdrop to the drama, along with the melodic score. While there are romantic undertones with the historic story, this tension is not there in the leads, which is refreshing to see. Instead they are just three young people enjoying youth and finding their way in the world. The film features a couple of sub-plots, one involving an elderly friend of Haru’s grandmother and one relating to Jun’s past as a child star, that are underused. Instead the plot is centred on the three young adults and their quest to rediscover the past and understand the relationship of Haru’s grandfather and his former girlfriend through the fragments that are left. All three leads are supremely likeable and play well off one another. Shota Sometani delivers a comic performance as the energetic, nerdy Tokio; Ai Hashimoto and Mei Nagano have good chemistry as the new friends, balancing a wistful melancholy about the passage of time and the joyful experiences of youth.

“Parks” was commissioned as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Inokashira Park and the film’s themes of conservation and time emphasise a feeling of respect towards the place. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of parks as multi-generational spaces, brimming over with memories and individual stories. The trees and waters of the park offer comfort in giving people a sense of perspective. The film portrays this sense of living both with and apart from the past by having Haru step into her grandfather’s story in several moments of magical realism. “Parks” is an experiential film that hits all the right notes and captures the emotive, transcendent atmosphere of these spaces. The themes of reconnecting with the past, the power of music, the passage of time and finding peace and purpose, are all beautifully articulated. A relaxing watch with great performances from the leads and a calming, contemplative atmosphere.

Hanagatami (2017) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

As the second world war looms, a group of teenagers are drawn together by friendships and romances that will come to define them. 17 year old Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka) becomes good friends with two of his classmates, the stoic and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) and the cool and inspiring Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima). He admires both for their apparent lack of fear and mature outlook on life, which contrast sharply with Takashi’s own wide-eyed naivety. Meanwhile, Mina (Honoka Miki) is confined to her room through tuberculosis, looked after by her widowed sister-in-law, Takashi’s aunt (Takako Tokiwa). Her friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) come to visit her in her room, attempting to keep up her spirits in the face of her terminal illness. As the war grows nearer they are forced to confront the various tragedies that await them.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s (House) final work is a colourful, experimental, impressionist look at youth in the lead up to war. Based on a 1937 novella by his friend Kazuo Dan, Obayashi sat on the completed script for the film for forty years before finally deciding the time was right to direct. The film is set in Katsura and the production recruited many locals as staff and extras. The use of Katsura’s cultural festival makes the film historically significant as it is the first time this has been filmed.

“Hanagatami” is full of Obayashi’s inimitable style and bizarre directorial choices. The film is bookended with narration explaining that it is based on a book and throughout it often engenders a sense of dramatic alienation from the action. The early sequences in particular play with notions of time and place as characters step between scenes. The use of superimposed images, digital effects and often inexplicable decisions such as reversing camera angles during dialogue scenes all characterise Obayashi’s style. It is something akin to looking at a collage composed of various scraps of ideas, beautiful and bizarre imagery, that helps to build up a whole picture of theme, place and character. The film uses bold colours and harsh theatrical lighting and there is a sense of surrealism and fantasy woven through the more straightforward teenage drama plot. The performances of the leads, in particular Shunsuke Kubozuka as Toshihiko are theatrically exaggerated caricatures that chime well with the often chaotic style. All of the cast give great performances, including supporting roles from Takehiro Murata as an anti-war teacher and Takako Tokiwa as Takahashi’s aunt. The melodrama of the acting and direction is underscored by a soundtrack that repeats several songs and melodies, each of which come to represent a particular emotion. It is film that is abundant with metaphors, the white snake, the red rose petal becoming a droplet of blood, cherry blossom, the sea, but never dwells on these things or allows them to become the story. The unconventional style and parade of evocative imagery, poetry and philosophical musings are overwhelming at times, but Obayashi always draws us back to the protagonists and their personal journeys through a tale that is rich in universal meaning.

Obayashi has crafted a uniquely engaging and deeply emotional drama that blends traditional and experimental techniques. His style is provocative and will not appeal to everyone. It feels distinct and unfamiliar, with its art-house aesthetic, often almost cartoonish visuals distracting from the story. But if you let go of any preconceptions about how film should be made there is much to enjoy here. The film has a strong anti-war message, in particular noting the futility and horror of war. By showing us the carefree existences of the characters in the build up of hostilities we come to understand everything that is lost in war, innocence, friendships, and hope for the future. The film also gives us a prism through which to see the war, with each character representing a unique view on events and their own impression of what is happening. “Hanagatami” feels like a labour of love for the director and those working on the production. It encapsulates everything that was unique about Obayashi’s work, a timeless yet truly original story.