Mystic Shrine Maiden (2019) by Takeshi Sone

A local shrine maiden discovers a past tragedy in this whimsical drama. Toko (Miyu Yoshimoto) works as a maiden at the shrine in her small hometown, performing chores for the priest and making frequent visits to the residents who are always happy to see her. When she is told that the town festival will not take place due to some peculiar ancient prohibition, Toko takes it upon herself to prepare for the celebration herself. She later meets a young girl at the lake nearby, causing a panic in her father who tells her the lake is off-limits to those from the village. With a little help from a geeky visitor, Toko uncovers the mystery behind this unusual prohibition.

Director Takeshi Sone is better known for his gruesome horror tales, but with writer Motoki Nakamura creates something cheerful and uplifting in “Mystic Shrine Maiden”. The film touches on folklore and tradition, with darker elements, but for the most part things are kept upbeat. The opening musical number performed Miyu Yoshimoto, who plays the gleeful, eternally optimistic Toko, creates an atmopshere of joyful whimsy, with some fantastic camerawork. The direction is well-done, with a charming freshness that becomes both a strength and a weakness. What begins as a comedy becomes darker later on when we discover details of Toko and Mayumi’s past, and what happened to Toko’s mother; however many of these moments are brushed over without much time to delve into the tragedy. At a sprightly 70 minutes the film could have benefitted from a little more focus on the characters, who are largely left as charicaturish figures: a wannabee magician, a hopeless mime, a woman who likes playing hide-and-seek. All of these could have been fleshed out and tied into the central narrative. As it is the film remains an insubstatial and innocuous drama.

Toko is brought back to life through her mother’s sacrifice with survivors guilt leading her to uncover the mystery and rejoin her old friend. There is also a dark twist on the coming-of-age story which would see Toko passing on to adulthood following her discoveries, but her sees her passing over to the other side. These darker elements are woven into a story that on the surface appears as an enchanting exploration of youthful joie de vivre, with an unconventional subtext.

Hell Girl (2019) by Koji Shiraishi

In 1965 a girl gets revenge on the school bully by calling on Hell Girl (Tina Tamashiro), an infernal avenger, and her fellow demons to take her to hell. These demons demand a terrible price however, as anyone who calls on them will also be taken to hell when they die. In 2019, the now elderly woman’s son, photo-journalist Jin Kudo (Kazuki Namioka), is asking to use this story for an article. The woman dies shortly after and the demons come to take her. When an idol, Sanae Mikuriya, (Mina Oba) is attacked by a crazed fan, leaving her with facial scarring, she also calls on Hell Girl (who is now contactable through a website; although only at midnight, and only by those holding a serious grudge). And later when Miho’s (Nana Mori) friend, Haruka (Sawa Nimura) falls victim to a dangerous black metal singer Maki (Tom Fujita), Hell Girl finds herself with another young woman willing to take this demonic bargain.

“Hell Girl” is based on the anime by Takahiro Omori, with the live action film being written and directed by Koji Shiraishi (Carved: The Slit Mouthed Woman). The film’s central premise, of an infernal ‘deal with the devil’ in the form of the revenge service offered by ‘Hell Girl’ is pretty solid horror fare, but unfortunately the film fails to capitalize on it. We rarely see the hellish tortures the victims are subjected too, with only a minimal look at one character being eaten by worms. This means that for the most part the threats of eternal damnation are not particularly terrifying. The tone is often more dark fantasy, with supernatural anti-heroes in the shape of Hell Girl and her band of demons. The film perhaps relies on some fore-knowledge of the manga, with none of these hellish characters fleshed out much, and even Hell Girl herself rarely making an appearance. Later in the film they seem to appear even when not summoned, and they seem to take little joy in their work, simply taking any soul they are asked to. This lack of characterisation is also apparent in the human protagonists, who either have no meaningful motivation or are unlikeable enough that their characters’ fates are no great cause for sadness. The seemingly tit-for-tat, and thoughtless nature of them calling up Hell Girl for revenge, becomes almost risible, requiring no effort and with too few obvious consequence shown to the audience. The film gives us brief glimpses of a psychedelic hell, a teen-friendly Teruo Ishii fairground that is always careful not to be too extreme, limiting itself mostly to decapitation, and where the demons conform to comfortable horror tropes (scars, dark clothes).

“Hell Girl” is a by-product of a successful anime and manga franchise, which doesn’t move much beyond its premise. The demons go through the motions of taking people to hell in a way that give the audience little cause for concern about its protagonists. With more character work and creative depictions of hell it could have worked, but unfortunately it fails to entertain.

Life: Untitled (2019) by Kana Yamada

A group of young women working at an escort agency attempt to come to terms with the lives that have brought them to this point. Kano (Sairi Ito) runs out on her first client, deciding to work at the company “Crazy Bunny” as a general staff rather than an escort. She gets on with most of the other women, feeling the same sense of failure and societal pressure that has led her to this job. The large group of employees include number one girl, Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu), manager Kawashima (Hanya), driver Ryota (Tanaka Shunsuke), quiet Chika and old-timer Shiho (Reiko Kataoka). A new girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) clashes with the strong-willed Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), and Hagio (Dai Ikeda), another male employee deals with his own relationship issues.

“Life: Untitled”, written and directed by Kana Yamada (who adapted the story from her own stage play), gives us a glimpse into the lives of women employed as escorts, or “Delivery Health” workers alongside the mostly male staff. The film largely consists of conversations between the main cast, complaining about customers or their work, or arguing with each other. The actual work they do is only mentioned, which allows us to explore the psychological and emotional toll their work takes on them. There is no plot to speak of, but certain thematic ideas connect the characters. Again their backstories largely go unmentioned, and there are many things in the film that are there to be guessed or inferred from contextual or behavioural clues. The incredible ensemble cast do a great job at building believability in their characters and interactions, feeding of each other’s energy. Given the number of characters, their screen time is sometimes limited, and some characters have only small roles, but their performances and script make their interactions the highlight of the film, especially the meaningful conversations between Kano and Shiho, or Mahiru and her sister, played by Serena Motola. Sairi Ito gives a nuanced performance, both emotional and comedic in her role as a young woman trapped working at an escort agency without the benefit of making the knd of money the others are earning. Yuri Tsunematsu also provides a strong focal point in the film, her apparent sublimation of her own will to the job occasionally cracking to show a woman whose anger against society drives her on in spite of how she is perceived by others.

While the tone is mostly downbeat, with characters having little hope of their situations improving, and coming to realise that they are considered as the lowest of the low in society, there are lighter moments, with character based humour occasionally pricking through the depressing atmosphere. These include the arrival of a new older woman to the agency, who seems completely ill-suited to the job and showing the more ridiculous side of this work. Yamada’s direction brings us into the story, creating a lived-in feel to the “Crazy Bunny” office space, and moving along with the characters without distracting from the action. The roots of the theatre play are still on display here, with the characters in largely single environments and the focus on script and performance rather than action.

The film’s lack of a plot and downbeat outlook on life might be offputting for some, but there are things to enjoy here. The performances from the whole cast are fantastic, drawing on each other in certain scenes to create some powerful moments of drama and tension. The depiction of sex work, although largely referenced rather than shown, is not one of empowerment but reduction of these women to a single function, and reducing human relationships to a transactional process devoid of emotion. Two major themes run through the film. The first is one of the inability to form human connections in a world based on transactional, largely monetary, relationships. The women at the agency are there to be hired out by men for various sexual favours. Shiho discusses how she broke up a family; the women’s sense of value and their own worth is distorted by their job; and Hagio and Ryota also both struggle to find love, burdened with the gap between expectation and reality. As with much of the film the themes are suggested rather than explicit. We can see how the commodification of sex has led to a warped sense of values amongst the characters, who cannot distinguish genuine emotion from transactional value. There is also an existential thread running through the film, with characters wondering what they are doing with their lives and whether human society is more than the lust and avarice that drives individuals.

Kontora (2019) by Anshul Chauhan

Sora (Wan Marui) comes home one day to find her grandfather has passed away. In front of him is a box of mementos, flight cap and goggles, and a war diary from his younger years. After reading an entry in the diary about a “metal arm” that he buried, Sora sets out to find it, keeping the secret from her father (Takuzo Shimizu). At the same time, a silent man who walks backwards (Hidemasa Mase) appears in their rural town. When Sora’s father hits him with the car, the two become involved with this figure, inviting him to their home, by turns caring and frustrated by his peculiar behaviour.

“Kontora” is a beautiful film, the stunning black and white cinematography perfectly capturing the philosophic nature of the story and mirroring its thematic depth. Writer-director Anshul Chauhan displays an influences from great cinematic works of the past, using the camera and staging to tell the story visually, while also creating a unique voice through the unusual, partly surreal, story. The camerawork in particular is exceptional, drawing us in to the characters by mimicing their motion, or literally following them as a subtle yet omnipresent observer. The rural setting of the film is shown off to its best advantage, the broad farmland, forest paths, and the tangled electrical cables and bustle of the town itself, representing something static and tangible, as opposed to the transient lives of the human protagonists. The existential themes, dealing with death and the forgotten stories of those who have passed, are reflected in the passing mists on the mountains, and in the interplay of light and shadow. The film leans into this expressionistic tone, with much of the story happening quietly and unspoken. The sometimes fantastical, abstract nature of the narrative, typified by the backwards-walking man, is occasionally punctuated by heartwrenchingly human and emotional scenes, such as when Sora allows her emotions to flow freely, or in her father’s disgust at his cousin’s coldhearted focus on money, giving them no time to grieve. The performances of Wan Marui as Sora and Takuzo Shimizu as her father are excellent, capturing the a complexity of their character’s conflicting emotions following their bereavement. The soundtrack by Yuma Koda adds elements of mystery, wonder, and suspense, complementing the often surprising narrative twists of the story. The film does require a lot of its audience, with long takes and contemplative story that leaves much unsaid, but the metaphors are far from impermeable and for those willing to spare a little time there is much to appreciate.

The most intriguing element of the story soon comes to be the backward-walking man, who appears shortly after Sora’s grandfather’s death. This mystery is further heightened by his inability to communicate, leading to frustration from Sora’s father, and increased curiosity from Sora. The man symbolises the lost memories of Sora’s grandfather, his backward walking representing a walk backwards through time, retreading of the past, and his inability to speak reflective of our relationship with the dead. They cannot speak to us, or tell us their stories, which can lead to curiosity or frustration, a desire to know more or an irritation at things left unsaid. As Sora and her father struggle to understand this person, they are similarly struggling to come to terms with the now vanished and voiceless past of their father and grandfather. It is a clever way to represent our relationship with time and mortality that leaves room for interpretation. A unique and interesting drama, poignant and engaging, with nuanced performances and excellent cinematography.

Tamaran Hill (2019) by Tadasuke Kotani

Hinako (Hinako Watanabe) is struggling to write a personal introduction for her job seeking applications. She lost her mother at a young age and lives with her father and younger brother. Her teacher tells her simply to create a character and write about that version of herself instead, suggesting some ideas based on current popular literary trends. While at a bookstore, Hinako finds a book called “Tamaran Hill”. Amused by the title (“Tamaran” (unbearable) being her father’s favourite curse word), she purchases it. The book tells the story of a man who lives on Tamaran Hill and further delves into the potential origins and meanings of the name. As Hinako reads she is carried along on a journey that leads through time, history and fiction, to comprehend the significance of this name and this word.

Based on a script by Shinobu Tsuchiya, and directed by Tadasuke Kotani, “Tamaran Hill” is an unconventional film. Many of the shots are of Hinako reading this book as she slips into her visualisation of the story, or historical reveries as she discovers references to this place in various texts. Shot in black and white and with changing aspect ratios, the framing and cinematography from Kosuke Kuramoto is wonderful in its abstraction of the everyday. Whether scenes of the tangled mass of train tracks, buildings and powerlines that comprise the modern city; the delicate historical recreations; or the stylish dramatisations of the “Tamaran Hill” novel, everything is framed with precision and seems infused with significance. At moments the film will use illustrations, or photo stills, that sit comfortably alongside the artistic style of the filmed segments. Hinako Watanabe is excellent in the lead role, as a girl attempting to find herself, to discover her inner will and a sense of identity.

A curious work about the search for meaning and identity in a world that is full of ambiguity. Early in the film we see a robot helping to carry the teacher’s bag and the use of data analysis to predict literary trends. This hypermodern, computer-led world is in stark contrast to the literary world that Hinako delves into, one that is full of meaning yet without clear quantitative answers. Her visit to the bookshop captures the joy of personal discovery that bibliophiles will be familiar with: that of being surrounded by a cacophony of voices, and having that power to choose your own path. The film perfectly depicts that sense of exploration in delving into a new book, not only reading the book but also unlocking something within yourself at the same time. Hinako is able to lose herself completely in this world that is at once ambiguous, yet bursting with life and meaning, and find in it the courage to see herself and develop her own identity. She comes to understand that every life is different, just as everyone’s experience of “Tamaran Hill” is unique, and that the important thing is finding her own truth.