Melancholic (2019) by Seiji Tanaka

Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) is a university graduate still living at home with his parents, having never found a full-time job. His listless existence seems drab and colourless with little excitement enlivening the daily monotony. Stopping by the bathhouse one day he bumps into a former high-school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who asks him if he is planning to go to their upcoming school reunion. It is clear that she has an interest in him, but Kazuhiko’s social awkwardness almost leads to him missing his chance with her. He begins a halting relationship with Yuri and takes her advice to get a job at the bathhouse. However, both these developments come under strain when he discovers the bathhouse is being used as a front for yakuza hits and the disposal of corpses killed in gangland disputes. Along with his co-worker Akira (Yoshitomo Isozaki), Kazuhiko begins working this second job, unable to get out of his obligations to the bathhouse owner Higashi (Makoto Hada).

“Melancholic” is a black comedy with a twisted premise that creates a driving tension through its various relationships. It is tightly scripted, with Kazuhiko’s world and choices boiling down to only a few individuals: Akira, his co-worker, employee, Yakuza boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yata) and his girlfriend, Angela (Stefanie Arianne). The film is a blend of character study, with our protagonist stress-tested almost to breaking point by the uncomfortably dangerous situations he finds himself in, and comedy with often hilarious scenes arising from the peculiar premise of a socially awkward man at the centre of a gangland murder operation. Yoji Minagawa gives an amazing performance, permanently uncomfortable, squinting and shuffling, and baffled by everything from Yuri’s advances to discoveries about those around him. Mebuki Yoshida is incredibly likeable as the cute, kind and sympathetic love interest and the uneasy tentative nature of her relationship with Minagawa’s character is perfectly written and acted. Yoshitomo Isozaki provides great comic relief as Akira, whose poorly educated yet easy going character is at complete odds with the anxious Kazuhiko.

Written and directed by Seiji Tanaka, the film revolves around Kazuhiko and his relationships with the world, both romantic and as an employee. He is a man who has avoided finding a permanent job for unexplained reasons, either personal choice or due to his character. We see a former classmate who has become a major success as a pianist and his achievement seems in stark contrast to the apparent failure of Kazuhiko to find gainful employment. He is a man whose character defects, shyness and lack of motivation, seem to doom him to miss important chances in life. This is most painfully exemplified by his near-miss conversations with Yuri that rely heavily on her persistence to make their relationship work. The theme of work and obligations plays heavily throughout, taken to an extreme through the introduction of the yakuza and the disposal of bodies. There is a question hanging over the value of work and what causes people to do things for other people, especially despicable or otherwise intolerable things. Whether for money, for love, for fame, or out of a sense of solidarity with others, the actions of every individual are examined closely. The film offers no concrete answers, but it does give us a cast of expertly drawn characters that shed light on how people interact with one another and the vicissitudes of fortune that set people on certain paths.

Bento Harassment (2019) by Renpei Tsukamoto

Single mother Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) comes up with a unique scheme to get back at her unresponsive teenage daughter, Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine). When Futaba refuses to speak to her, Kaori decides to create kyaraben (character bento), depicting everything from household products to famous comedians in an attempt to embarrass her daughter into communicating with her. As the days go on, the characters and messages in the lunchboxes get more outlandish and ridiculous as the two go head to head in a battle of wills.

“Bento Harassment” is a charming and often hilarious portrayal of a difficult mother daughter dynamic. The loss of her husband and troubled relationship with her daughter make Kaori a deeply sympathetic character. We are rooting for her from the beginning as we see her struggles to get her daughter through high-school (a seemingly thankless task) and hold down two separate jobs. Ryoko Shinohara gives a supremely enjoyable performance, showing the steely determination to not let her daughter get the better of her, and also tender moments as her actions are beneath it all driven by love for her child. Futaba is not an entirely unsympathetic character, and more so as the film progresses, we are shown a different side to her. Kyoko Yoshine is excellent in the role of a difficult teen whose cool exterior hides a deep respect for her mother. Rena Matsui is also good as Futaba’s older sister.

“Bento Harassment” comes up with an original and light-hearted way to show the hardships of motherhood. It also shows mouth-watering examples of the traditional lunchboxes with all manner of food on display as well as the picturesque island of Hachijojima. One running joke in the film is characters mentioning, in an offhand way, that Hachijojima is actually part of Tokyo (the rural island being at complete odds with the image of the sprawling metropolis). The cinematography and soundtrack are colourful and joyous and the whole film has a comfortable air that allows the audience to simply relax and enjoy the jokes and straightforward drama as it unfolds. There is a subplot in the film of a single father and his son that runs in concert with that of Kaori and her daughter, however, it is unusually only resolved post credits. There are also a couple of moments of fake credit sequences that break the fourth wall in a somewhat jarring way given that this type of humour is not present elsewhere. The film also takes a turn in its final act which seems like a manipulative and unnecessary attempt to add a degree of peril to the plot. However, the film is so packed with charm and humour that these issues are really only minor quibbles.

Screenwriter and director Renpei Tsukamoto’s film is an uplifting look maternal love and the trials of bringing up teenagers in a single-parent household. The two leads play perfectly off one another and capture the complex relationship of the mother and daughter, both the good and bad. The film’s ending may be predictable, the film is absolutely a drama that enjoys a comfortably safe plot structure, but it is nevertheless effective and impactful. Thanks to the performances and humour we are exasperated and frustrated along with the characters, fully invested in them with every annoying bento-box that is created and pried nervously open.

We are Little Zombies (2019) by Makoto Nagahisa

After Hikari’s (Keita Ninomiya) parents die in a bus accident, he meets three other children at the crematorium who have likewise lost their parents, through suicide, murder and in a house fire. The four form an unlikely friendship, united by tragedy, and head out without any real plan of what they will do next. They return to each of their homes in turn, recovering items they have left behind, and reliving the circumstances of their parents’ deaths. While sitting around in a slum building populated by homeless individuals, they decide to form a band and are picked up by a talent scout who happens by while they are performing. As the “Little Zombies” they soon enjoy huge popularity with the disaffected youth of Japan, but it seems as though not even stardom will puncture their sense of detachment from the world around them.

“We are Little Zombies” is a film with a dark sense of humour, beginning from the opening scenes at the crematorium. While most films dealing with bereavement would show an emotionally tumultuous coming-to-terms with loss, this film takes the polar opposite approach. Instead it shows the characters, especially Hikari, as completely unphased by what has happened, unable to cry over his parents who were cold and distant in life. Instead he is permanently lost in the otherworld of his handheld video games. Likewise, the other characters deal with their situation stoically, death having seemingly little consequence for those who are left. Writer/director Makoto Nagahisa shows huge creativity in this idiosyncratic film, with the use of a digital 8-bit soundtrack and camera angles giving the feel of a  videogame (at times even cutting to game graphics that represent the four main characters). There is a sense that anything could happen as characters talk direct to camera, dream sequences and inner monologues interrupt the action, and fantasy increasingly intrudes into their realities. As the film progresses, the bizarre situations only increase. This sense of anarchic surrealism is in keeping with the youthful protagonists. They look on calmly as the world about them grows increasingly strange. The songs are catchy and the jokes are good. The four leads (Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Okumura Mondo, and Sena Nakajima) do a fantastic job, oddly compelling in their unemotional response to their parents deaths and charismatic in their interplay as a group of friends. The music, composed by the director, is great, playing on everything from videogame themes to loops of shop music and classical pieces.

The film takes an unconventional approach to the themes of loss and grief. The characters all seem emotionally detached from the world, whether because they genuinely lack compassion or are struggling to come to terms with their experiences. The loss of their parents has untethered them from the usual coping mechanisms of children. They are all at sea and rather than dealing with the death of their parents they have isolated themselves emotionally. However, this comes at the cost of a loss of direction. They live for minor accomplishments, similar to those achievements of video games. The structure of the film, as “stages” and “missions”, highlights this lack of an overarching purpose in their lives. It is in the end a film that is about life and what people live for. The deaths early on are a stark reminder that there is in the end little purpose to life in itself outside of what people can create for themselves. “We are Little Zombies” is a quirky film, revelling in its black surrealist humour, but with a great deal of heart beneath the surface.