Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020) by Kyohei Ishiguro

Yui Sakura (Someguro Ichikawa), known familiarly as ‘Cherry’, is a quiet, thoughtful young high-schooler, working part time at a day care centre for the elderly, and spending his free time compiling haiku. Yuki (Hana Sugisaki), known online as ‘Smile’, is an outgoing social media influencer who has taken to wearing a face mask to avoid revealing the braces straightening her buck teeth. The two bump into each other at the mall and soon form a strong friendship despite their differences. Yuki agrees to help Yui find a record for one of the old people at the care centre, Mr. Fujiyama (Koichi Yamadera).

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” treads familiar ground as a feel good teen drama, with strong visuals, and simple, brightly-coloured art, giving it a dazzling quality that instantly captures the imagination, creating an upbeat, enjoyable, summer atmosphere in keeping with the characters and setting. The character and world design all utilise a simplicity of style with recognizable characteristics, this stereotyping further emphasised by the use of nicknames for many of the main characters, including ‘Cherry’, ‘Smile’, ‘Japan’ and ‘Tough Boy’. The story too is pared back to its most basic elements, essentially a youthful summer love story twinned with Mr. Fujiyama’s search for the missing record and his own forgotten romance. With an upbeat pop soundtrack and colourful animation the film is a perfect watch to lift your spirits.

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” creates a tension between the traditional poetry form of haikus and the ultra-modern elements embodied by Yuki, such as an obsession with mobile phones, social media and celebrity. The film brings haiku to a contemporary world, showing the power of words and poetry. The “beauty through simplicity” of haikus is an ethos that aptly describes the film itself. The story, the visuals, the animation, are powerful precisely because of their simplicity. Examples of this include the moments where we see Yui and Yuki in split screen, drawing our attention to their similarities and differences. Yui wears headphones to avoid having to engage with the world, while Yuki wears a face mask avoid the attention of the world. It is these moments that make the film such an enjoyable watch; what appears on the surface a straightforward story, on second glance has so many elements just below the surface. It is possible, just as with a haiku, to find genuine beauty in this simple romantic tale.

Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1 (2020) by Yuji Shimomura

Tak Sakaguchi (Versus, Re:Born) is known for his action films, both a competent stunt performer and choreographer. This ambitious project is centered around an incredible one-take fight sequence that stretches to 72 minutes. Bookended by a short set-up and conclusion, the film is a showcase of the stunt teams swordplay. The film begins by introducing us to a clan who have recently lost two of their leaders. Their new head is to be a young boy, but first they intend to kill the man who took out their previous lords. That man is Musashi Miyamoto (Tak Sakaguchi). With a force of one hundred soldiers and further three hundred mercenaries, it seems they are more than prepared for this legendary swordsman. What follows is a stunning display of martial prowess and stamina as Miyamoto proceeds to cut his way through swathes of opponents.

Written by Atsuki Tomori and directed by Yuji Shimomura, at times this film becomes as much of an endurance test for the audience as it is for the performers. Your enjoyment of it may depend on your interest in swordplay. There comes a point, perhaps around the hundreth or two hundreth person Miyamoto has cut down, where you are either fully engaged or counting down the remaining adversaries. That said the film does have a lot to recommend it. The 72-minute one-take action sequence is certainly an audacious proposition, demanding a skilled team to pull-off effectively. Tak’s martial arts choreography and the performers do an admirable job. The film keeps things interesting by moving the action continuously, from woods, to city streets, indoors to outdoors, and mixing up the fighting and staging to lend variety. It is incredible to watch things unfold in real time, with the occasional breaks in the action showing the strain on Saguchi as he rehydrates, his fighting style becoming less sure and more exhausted as things progress. We see occasional change-ups in the fighting too with one opponent carrying a flail, though the majority is sword to sword fighting. It is hard to critique too harshly given the scale of what they are attempting here, but there could have been more use of close-quarters fighting, knife work, or more varied weaponry. The historical Miyamoto is best known for his two-sword style, which we also see brief glimpses of here.

The camera-work is exceptional, managing to capture some genuinely emotional and poignant shots amongst the carnage. There are a number of unavoidable weaknesses to this style of shooting: opponents waiting their turn to attack; certain people who should be dead circling round for the next sequence, the oddly placed water bottles; but for the most part these are minor details that pale next to the sheer thrill of seeing this single take sequence. It is worth noting that the action is broken up and there are story elements littered through the film. Though dialogue and characters are sparse, they do help to break up the waves of attack and prevent the film becoming overly monotonous. Perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of a sense of danger or reaction to events. In a conventional film, cutaways would show the aftermath of the action, the fear of those waiting for the inevitable doom, the protagonists anger or fear, along with set-ups and character work to give the action some weight. While attempts are made to do that here, there are stretches where the action lacks substantial emotional content. The music by Hidehiro Kawai is stirring, helping to bring a much-needed sense of drama and passion to the action. “Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1” is perhaps more of a curiosity, constructed around an ambitious gimmick, than a conventional film, a startlingly audacious display of action choreography, that rewards your patience with some incredible moments.

Hysteric Betty (2020) by Iori Kedakai

A story of female liberation starring writer-director Iori Kedakai. 30 year old Iori (Kedakai) is picked up by a fashion scout, Tomiyoshi (Tatsuya Nakayama), on a visit to Tokyo, who convinces the shy Iori to take some revealing photographs. He convinces her that it would be a waste not to use the photographs, so she uploads them on a social network and soon has a number of followers. When she returns to her hometown, her childhood friend Shui shares the photos with a much wider audience, causing Iori to flee back to Tokyo in shame. She soon makes friends with the members of an idol group “Betty’s”, Rei (Rei Horie) and Mami (Mami Misami), and a woman who works at an assorted goods store, Hitsuji. With this small group of friends, Iori learns what it means to be a woman, dealing with objectification, and the simultaneous lure and dangers of the modelling and idol industries.

Writer-director Iori Kedakai also stars in this film that gives us a look at idol culture and the effect it can have on people. The story is a journey of discovery for Iori, an outsider from the sticks coming to the big city, with all the promise it holds. The actors all do a great job with their characters, and Iori is a great protagonist, her meek manner at odds with the often vicious dog-eat-dog world of idols. It is interesting to see an idol group that is working at small clubs, dreams of major success still some way away, and all the actors have great rapport and chemistry in their performances. At times the directing is a little rough around the edges, being the first project from Kedakai, but it has something of the vitality and inventiveness of “Love and Pop”, capturing that brightly coloured, youthful energy associated with the subculture of idols. The film features sex and nudity, but for the most part this is hinted at rather than shown. Instead we see the film largely from Iori’s perspective, wide-eyed and innocent, constantly surprised by each revelation about her new friends from the city. The soundtrack is similarly exuberant, featuring hip-hop as well as the bright pop of “Betty’s” show.

“Hysteric Betty” has a lot to say about the female experience, the objectification and infantilization of women, and female empowerment. We see Iori coming to terms with the often conflicting narratives that are given to young women. On the one hand there may be a desire to be seen as sexually attractive, but it comes with the threat of exploitation and not being taken seriously. At one point we see an idol asking if they will consider her book idea, only to be talked down to and told she only needs to be cute, and not to worry about anything else. Iori’s relationship with Tomiyoshi too shows the dangers present for people lacking self-belief. In a twist on the usual stories, the idol group actually seem to find solidarity together. The character of Rei, who we learn does sex work beside her job as an idol, and Hitsuji, whose love of cute things is a disappointment to her mother, offer a heartening message that women should not be ashamed of whatever they want to do or be. A film about breaking free of the restrictions of society and following your dreams.

Any Crybabies Around? (2020) by Takuma Sato

A young husband and father, Tasuku (Taiga Nakano) tries to make amends for his previous misbehaviour in this emotional drama. The Namahage festival is a point of local pride in the northern town of Akita. Each year men dress up in straw costumes and terrifying demon masks, moving from house to house warning children to be good and not to cry. Tasuku heads out to the festival, leaving his wife Kotone (Riho Yoshioka) and young daughter Nagi at home. However, after drinking too much he ends up running down the street naked, embarrassing both himself and the town. What’s worse is that the festival was being televised to give the whole country a look at this important tradition. Two years later we find Tasuku living in Tokyo, having separated from Kotone. His best friend Shiba (Kanichiro Sato) turns up and encourages Tasuku to come back to their hometown. Tasuko sees the opportunity to redeem himself and perhaps rekindle his relationship with Kotone and his daughter.

“Any Crybabies Around?”, written and directed by Takuma Sato, gives us a look at a rural community in northern Japan and the festival of Namahage. It is always great to see these cultural traditions represented in film, in much the same way that the recent “Ainu Mosir” focussed on the Ainu festivals. It is a film in which relatively little happens, instead focusing on character, the plot is essentially Tasuku asking for forgiveness for what he has done and trying to come to terms with his past mistakes. The sedate pacing gives the audience time to reflect on what has happened and sympathise with the characters, allowing you to make your own mind up on whether his fate is justified. The acting from Taiga Nakano and Riho Yoshioka as Tasuku and Kotone gives us a look at a separated couple with an uncomfortable relationship. What remains of the love between them is hidden beneath layers of hurt and shame, their recriminations often painful to witness. Scenes of sparse or no dialogue give the actors great opportunity to show their talent, drawing us in to the story of this doomed romance, and again giving the audience final judgement on their actions. The cinematography utilises the landscape to heighten the emotional tension. The crashing waves against the cliffs are a perfect visual metaphor for both the surging passions of Tasuku and the impassive, monolithic traditions of the town that shape everyone who lives there.

The film is about a man atoning for past mistakes and trying to make things right. As a young father, Tasuku’s drunken escapade may hardly seem like the kind of thing to worry about. However, in this rural town we feel the oppressive weight of tradition and the importance of compliance to cultural norms. As in many tight-knit communities, each person is bound to each other through ties of heritage, and the significance placed on continuing traditional festivals such as Namahage is a matter of more than simple pride for some. Tasuku’s behaviour is considered a disrespect to the town elders, perhaps even past generations, more than an unfortunate error of judgement. Tasuku is a tragic hero, his odyssey seeing him in self-imposed exile in Tokyo before finally making the journey back to his hometown. This semi-mythic narrative works well with the focus on Namahage, almost creating its own legend alongside that more ancient one. It is also a film about the loneliness of ostracization for those who have fallen short of what society expects. In showing us the aftermath of a man who has erred and is on a journey of redemption, the film gives us an insight into the often stifling nature of society, where respect for the past is of paramount importance. The final moments of the film are a devastating denouement, with a heart-wrenching scene that works perfectly both narratively and symbolically. A worthwhile watch about a man struggling to regain his place in society after a spectacular fall from grace.

Blue, Painful, Fragile (2020) by Shunsuke Kariyama

Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki star in this young adult drama about two students with big dreams. Kaede Tabata (Yoshizawa) maintains a philosophy of absolute non-engagement, his belief being that if you do not connect with people you can’t hurt them or be hurt by them. This all changes when he meets Hisano Akiyoshi (Sugisaki), a bright and socially conscious classmate. Hisano is someone who believes in changing the world for the better, ending poverty, war and discrimination. The two decide to begin a club called Moai, with the intention of running social events and improving things in a small way. However, as the club becomes larger it evolves into a group for connecting students with potential employers, and Kaede is forced to reassess whether he really wants to be a part of this more corporate club or whether it should continue at all.

While the film contains elements of romantic comedy drama, it also has a strong message about social issues and the difficulties in trying to make positive change in the world. The two protagonists are diametrically opposed in their worldviews, one a pessimist who believes change is impossible and that the best approach is simply not to try and alter things; and the other convinced that everyone can make a difference to the world. It is fun to watch the dynamic between these two, helped by great performances by Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki. Their clashing personalities make both their friendships and the disagreements between Kaede and Hisano feel genuine. The supporting cast, including Amane Okayama as Kaede’s friend Tosuke, Honoka Matsumoto and Nana Mori do a great job as idealistic young characters who . Yoshizawa and Okayama work great as the friends, with many of the funniest scenes together. The plot has a couple of twists that make it more interesting than an average drama. It flicks back and forth over the space of two years to show what the club was and what it became, which helps create a sense of mild intrigue as to what happened in the intervening time. The film is rarely entirely serious in tone, even when it touches on more serious themes of corruption, sexual harassment and abuse of power, instead remaining firmly in the comfortable territory of soft focus, brightly lit scenes featuring a cast always looking their best.

“Blue, Painful, Fragile” is a film that really captures the personalities of its characters and their relatable dilemmas in attempting to work co-operatively. It covers a number of issues that will be particularly pertinent to its younger target audience, including the social issues such as climate change, poverty, discrimination and war; the issues of corporatism corrupting any potentially benevolent social enterprise; data privacy; sexual harassment and mistreatment of women. But at its heart it is the central conflict between the two leads that drives the story. People are problematic, with their own jealousies and insecurities jeopardizing any attempts to do good. The film shows us that Kaede is kind hearted in his desire to do no harm, but his reticence to engage means he is also not making any positive contribution to society. On the contrary, Hisano wants to do good, but unwittingly ends up creating something that evolves into an organisation that has little to do with her high-minded ideals.