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.

Alice in Borderland (2020)

A series of violent games tests the wits and courage of young Tokyoites as they work to find out who is behind them. Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) is a jobless gamer, berated by his elder brother for not helping out. Leaving home he meets up with his best friends: barman Karube (Keita Machida) and office worker Chota (Yuki Morinaga). After hiding out from the police in Shibuya, they emerge into an empty city. It appears that the entire population besides them has instantly vanished, leaving everything behind. Game arenas begin to appear with across the city, all managed by some unseen force. Completing these dangerous challenges rewards them with more time to live; failing means death. Arisu and his friends find themselves fighting for their survival, meeting other characters such as the athletic Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), who is trapped in this otherworld with them, trying to return home.

“Alice in Borderland” is based on the manga by Haro Aso and does a good job of converting the frenetic energy and pace of that format to a live-action drama. The opening episodes set up the characters with minimal effort, introducing us to the three friends and immediately establishing their rapport. Kento Yamazaki is likeable as Arisu, a failure in life who suddenly finds his talents an indispensable asset in the world of the games. Keita Machida and Yuki Morinaga give off a warmth as his friends and the three have a great chemistry and dynamic. As the series progresses, this pattern is repeated, with instantly relatable characters introduced with a short backstory in flashback that lends motivation or personality to their role. Later in the series, the characters join a larger group who are working together under the leadership of Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko) to escape back to the normal world. These characters live in a hotel complex renamed “The Beach”, where they spend their days lounging in swimwear, and their nights competing in the games to earn playing cards for the leader (believed to be the only way to return to the normal world). There is a definite slowing of pace at this point. While the first three episodes are almost non-stop action, we move into more character study and contemplation of the situation. That is not a bad thing as many of the new characters are equally, if not more, intriguing than the old characters, such as Hikari Kuina (Aya Asahina) and Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami), whose story becomes one of the most exciting. Direction and cinematography give the whole series a sleek look, particularly during the action moments. The CGI is far better than most live-action manga adaptations and used sparingly enough that it does not detract from the story.

Japan is no stranger to the ‘death game’ genre, from “Battle Royale” to “Gantz” there are several examples of this type of story. “Alice in Borderland” follows these with a few fresh twists on the format. We have a mysterious presence who is running the games, forcing the humans into conflict and struggle; a hero who believes that there is a better way than killing to escape the game; and a series of deadly scenarios. As the title suggests, the series makes several references to “Alice in Wonderland”, with playing cards used to determine the type and difficulty of the games, characters named “Usagi” (Rabbit) and “Hatter”. Rather than fighting each other, or an alien force (as in the other examples of this genre given), here they are challenged with puzzles, tests of strength, and tests of honour or loyalty. Much like those other series, the sense that this is a chaotic new world is replaced by the realisation that in fact this is the real world stripped back to its most essential and atavistic elements. Later in the series the references to authoritarian government and the role of the military in supporting oppressive regimes are unavoidable. The Beach is a darkly satirical reflection of a society that is happy to accept horrific things so long as they can enjoy themselves. The people there show no desire to find out who is behind the games (that kill large numbers of them); nor do they make any attempt to change a hierarchy that sees them as expendable tools in the acquisition of power for the leaders. When they are forced into playing a “Witch Hunt” game, the sight of them throwing dead bodies onto a fire will recall for many the horrors of fascist dictatorships. “Alice in Borderland” draws clear parallels between the behaviour of individuals in this new world, and society in general. The games act as a test not only of their intelligence and strength, but their moral character. For fans of this genre, there is a lot to enjoy, great action sequences, likeable characters, and an curious mystery at its heart. What it says about humanity may be disturbing but is also a poignant reminder of our many weaknesses as well as our capacity for courage and triumph against the odds.

Ainu Mosir (2020) by Takeshi Fukunaga

Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is a young boy living in the small town of Akan in Hokkaido. He wants to escape from his rural hometown and Ainu heritage, telling his mother that he feels he is constantly reminded of his culture in their songs, festivals and traditions that are an integral part of life in their community. Having lost his father, Kanto’s confusion about whether to embrace or shun his heritage, takes on a greater personal significance for him; the absence of a paternal role model leaves him feeling cast adrift and having to his own path in life. Kanto is not without help on this journey of self-discovert. His mother (Emi Shimokura), who runs an Ainu craft store, is caring, though hurt at her son’s seeming disinterest in his culture. He also has a substitute father-figure in the shape of Debo (Debo Akibe), an Ainu elder, who attempts to teach him their traditions. Debo fully embraces their heritage, wearing his culture as a badge of honour and believing in the absolute necessity of preserving their traditions and values. Along with others, he is preparing for a cultural festival that has not been performed for many decades, in which they must raise a bear cub before killing it. The spirit of the god inside the bear will then return to the heavens carrying word of their good deeds and other gods will come to inhabit the animals of their lands.

Born in Hokkaido, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga shows great respect for the native Ainu. He worked with the local community in creating the script, and cast Ainu locals. The film documents various aspects of Ainu culture, music, dress, festivals, traditions and beliefs. We also see the friction, and subtle discrimination, between the Japanese and the Ainu; with Kanto’s mother being praised by oblivious tourists on her excellent Japanese. As well as insights into the Ainu culture, the film also shows the difficulty faced in attempting to hold on to these traditions. The Ainu are taking classes to learn the Ainu language, and must read from scripts when performing their rituals. It is a constant struggle to keep these cultures alive as languages and traditions are forgotten or eradicated. At heart “Ainu Mosir” is a coming-of-age story with Kanto facing the added pressure from those around him to take on the role of an ‘Ainu’ individual. Kanto himself is a typical teen, playing in a rock band and watching Hollywood films. He feels pigeonholed as an ‘Ainu’, railroaded into becoming what is expected of him, where he wants a future of wider possibilities. He sees his culture as restrictive; while Debo sees it as a source of pride, his deep roots giving him confidence and a sense of identity. Casting Ainu actors in the main roles helps lend an authenticity to the film and genuine emotion to the performances. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams, with stunning vistas of rural Hokkaido and the passing of the seasons, provides the perfect background for this story of people shaped by their environment.

‘Ainu Mosir’ is a significant film for what it says about the value of culture and the difficulties experienced by native peoples who feel their past is being erased. However, it wears this lightly and never lectures the audience on matters such as colonialism, xenophobia, racism, and the struggle for the rights of indigenous groups. Rather these issues are refracted through the personal story of Kanto and his own difficulties coming to terms with his heritage and the loss of his father. While the film focusses on a specific culture, its message is universal. A worthwhile film for its moving portrayal of a young teen at a crossroads in life, who must learn what is important to him, while navigating the turbulent waters of family, culture and heritage.