And Your Bird Can Sing (2018) by Sho Miyake

Tasuku Emoto plays a part-time bookshop employee who falls for one of his co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi). He seems unfazed by Sachiko’s ongoing relationship with their boss at the bookshop, beginning an affair with her. When Sachiko is introduced to his room-mate Shizuo (Shota Sometani), the three of them begin hanging out together, the lines between friendship and romance becoming increasingly blurred.

Based on the novel by Yasushi Sato, the film was shot on location in Hakodate and the northern city plays a starring role in the film as we follow the characters through late nights and early mornings, the quiet streets, tramlines and telegraph poles a permanent fixture in their lives. While it might be described as a love-triangle, the central tension of the protagonists relationship rarely bubbles to the surface, instead the film delights in subtlety, with stolen glances, or moments of contact left for the audience to decide what the characters are thinking. There is a conflict between the characters’ apparently nonchalant attitutude to romance and each other and the audiences desire to see them express some deeper emotion. The central cast do a great job with these complex characters, believably lackadaisical and directionless young adults, far from the typical romantic heroes of film.

“And Your Bird Can Sing” is a slice-of-life romantic drama that brings us into the world of three lost souls who manage to find a degree of stability through their unconventional relationships with one another. These highly relatable characters with their insecurities and halting attempts at romance are enjoyable to watch, the audience almost being an unseen participant in their lives as Sho Miyake’s intimate direction brings us into the heart of the drama. For the most part the film’s style and tone reflect the ambivalent, carefree attitude of the protagonists, rarely forcing the plot, and instead allowing the characters to simply live and experience the world around them. The film waits until its final moments to give the audience a degree of closure, with the characters finally giving voice to their unspoken feelings. The slow pace and lack of a conventional plot may alienate some, but the film succeeds in creating intriguing protagonists and a believable world lacking the familiar surities of more run-of-the-mill love stories.

Okko’s Inn (2018) by Kitaro Kosaka

After her parents die in a car accident, the newly orphaned Oriko (Seiran Kobayashi), nicknamed Okko, goes to live with her grandmother Mineko (Harumi Ichiryusai) who runs a traditional inn with onsen. The inn is a place that welcomes all visitors and is said to help restore its guests. Okko soon finds herself working as a junior innkeeper, tending to guests needs and performing all the chores. But this inn is far from ordinary, as Okko discovers a ghost Uri-bo (Satsumi Matsuda) on her arrival, a former friend of her grandmother. Along with Uri-bo, a demon named Suzuki (Etsuko Tajima) and the inn’s guests, Okko comes to terms with her loss and learns several valuable life lessons.

Based on a novel by Hiroko Reijo with a script by Reiko Yoshida, “Okko’s Inn” is an enjoyable film that manages to create a light tone that does not undermine the tragic themes. Okko is a supremely likeable character, polite and hardworking with a sense of duty to her grandmother and the inn. It is a simply story but packed with lively characters, from the ghosts to Okko’s haughty classmate, Matsuki (Nana Mizuki), nicknamed Pink Frilly, whose family run a rival inn. Director Kitaro Kosaka’s bright colourful animation gives the impression of a world that is bursting with life. There are fantastic depictions of Japanese culture and tradition, from the paper fish used at the boy’s festival, to the splashing waters of the onsen, and mouthwatering traditional food.

A coming-of-age story that draws you in from the opening moments. There is a tension throughout as Okko seems to adapt easily to life at the inn and without her parents, but there is always the knowledge that this is a trauma she will need to deal with in time. She is thrown into work at the inn which helps her avoid confronting the sadness over her parents’ untimely deaths. The fantasy elements help to soften the message, allowing children, through the characters of the ghosts and demons, an understandable way to deal with the concept of death. The film does a great job with its themes of growth, acceptance and forgiveness. There is also a secondary theme of tradition and how this can give strength through an understanding of our place as part of a much larger world. Okko learns to engage with Matsuki as they work towards performing at the local festival, highlighting the benefits of co-operation over competition. Through finding a surrogate family, Okko is able to deal with her loss and accept her parents absence. A stunning animation that manages to balance serious themes with a relaxing and enjoyable atmosphere, bringing to life a world that is brimming with excitement and a sense of wonder.

Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (2018) by Daigo Matsui

A theatre troupe rehearse in a small drama workshop for a play. As they work through their lines and several of the scenes, the film switches back and forth between the actors preparing themselves, performing and hanging out with one another. Further blurring the lines between reality and fiction, the characters they are playing are given their own names. Kokoro Morita is the lead in the play (and the film) and we learn more about her character through her interactions with her brother Yuzu, boyfriend Taketo (Taketo Tanaka), and best friend Reiko (Reiko Tanaka). Although Kokoro is the lead she seems alienated at times from the rest of the group and struggles with confidence, often being told her performance is not good enough, or that she needs to emote more. As the film progresses, the two stories, both of the play being rehearsed, and the rehearsal period itself, intertwine and build to a dramatic conclusion.

Writer and director Daigo Matsui runs a small theatre company and his love of the art of drama is captured here beautifully. The film takes place over one long take, with simple staging, and relies on dialogue between small numbers of the actors to tell it’s story. Along with the hand-held camerawork this presentation gives the sense of a theatre production and takes us right inside the action. It blurs the lines between art and life, not only having the characters take the names of the actors, but also in the way that there is little distinction between what is ‘performance’ and what is ‘real’. The film changes to a widescreen aspect when they switch to theatrical mode, to emphasise the notion that this is acting, however it becomes apparent that there is very little dividing the trial run performances of the characters and their own emotions. The film goes out of its way to create this sense of theatrical alienation, by having a guitarist and rapper duo appear at various points almost as a Greek chorus to echo the themes of the drama. Their seeming omnipresence is one example of the film toying with the notions of art and life as reflective of one another. The performances of all of the actors in the film is emotional and poignant and you find yourself completely immersed both in their own stories, and in the play despite being fully aware that it is theatre. In particular, Kokoro Morita, who is in almost every scene and whose character builds with each moment, is incredible in the nuanced role of the young actress. The switching back and forth between the two styles, one melodramatic and one realistic, showcases an exceptional talent. The direction and staging are crafted so elegantly to build the sense of a real world around the action without drawing attention to the skill on display. It is thoroughly captivating and only in hindsight do you realise the effort required to achieve the effect of many of the transitions from scene to scene. In the latter half of the film the action moves out of the theatre into the damp, rainy streets, and later to a theatre, so smoothly that you are completely swept along with the characters in a way that feels entirely natural.

“Icecream and the Sound of Raindrops” is a film that ruminates on the idea of art as a reflection of life. In the performances of the cast we see people who are dealing with genuine emotion, albeit in a constructed reality. The scripted dialogue is representative of something real, and likewise the real world is also to an extent portrayed as performative. The relationships we form with others are no more than a stage play for our own benefit. As the film progresses we come to understand that these actors are constantly involved in performance, whether knowingly or not, but without the prospect of an audience seeing it. This metaphor for life, that of a performance going on without an audience, is one that the film captures perfectly. Matsui seems to be questioning the purpose of art, theatre, film, in a way that is entertaining yet nevertheless has a melancholic undertone. The ending suggests that art has a powerful significance in human life and culture, both helping us to understand trauma and reflect on our experiences; and also that life itself is a performance perhaps in turn inspired by our internalisation of the same art we create.