Two on the Edge (2021) by Yusuke Kitaguchi

“Two on the Edge” opens with a harrowing scene in which a young girl sits alone in a dark bathroom, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to an absent mother. From the bruises on her face and the treatment of her by her mother’s partner it is clear that she is suffering neglect and abuse at the hands of these adults. Many years later, after fleeing home, this girl Otose (Meiri Asahina) is leaving her foster home and begins a job at a hotel, taken under the wing of senior housekeeper Abigail. Shortly after, Otose’s mother Yoko (Akie Namiki) reappears, asking for financial support from her daughter. Otose, happy to be reunited with her, tries to help, but wonders whether her mother has really changed. A subplot sees another mother-daughter relationship, as teen idol Yume (Maki Teraura) discovers she is pregnant and argues with her mother over her future.

Director Yusuke Kitaguchi creates a powerful emotional drama with “Two on the Edge”, dealing with difficult themes of child abuse and neglect, as well as self-harm. The screenplay, by Kitaguchi and Mahiro Yuki, never shows the physical abuse, but the tearful face of child actor playing the young Otose, and the cold-hearted way she is spoken to are hard to watch, suggesting the unseen horrors she is being subjected to. The performances of Meiri Asahina as the older Otose and Akie Namiki as her neglegent mother are exceptional, complex portrayals of women who are both burdened by their past experiences. The film further establishes Otose as a conflicted character by having a representation of her inner critic appear to chide and encourage her. This is well-handled in a film that is mostly down-to-earth realism, showing that she still yearns for her mother’s affection while understanding that she is being manipulated. Kitaguchi’s direction sees hand-held close-ups and incredible use of lighting, creating a dark, intimate portrait of these troubled individuals, and the melancholic score perfectly compliments the drama. The story of Yume and her mother (Kyoko Masago) is almost a counterbalance to the tragedy of the main plot, with their relationship being comparatively less problematic.

“Two on the Edge” deals with the aftermath of child neglect and abuse, as we see the impact it has had on Otose. She is deeply anxious to receive her mother’s love, or at least acknowledgement, but also enough of a realist to apprecaite what has happened to her. The film shows that this kind of abuse leaves a lifelong mark on those it affects. Her mother’s actions are despicable and inexcusable, but the film also hints at a troubled past for her, suggesting she may have suffered hard times in her youth, as she mentions her father losing the family business and drinking heavily as a teen. This notion that abuse can be multi-generational is portrayed well, neither absolving her guilt, nor making her entirely unsympathetic. A powerful drama about the often fraught relationships between mothers and daughters that questions whether forgiveness and redemption are possible in such circumstances.

Follow the Light (2021) by Yoichi Narita

Having moved back to his father’s hometown in rural Akita, Akira (Tsubasa Nakajima) is struggling to make friends at school. One day on his walk home he sees a girl standing on the roof of a farmhouse. The girl, Maki (Itsuki Nagasawa), has been absent from the local middle-school after attacking a fellow student and has no apparent desire to return. Akira also makes friends with a bullied student called Tamura (Kyohei Shimokawa). After a UFO sighting above the town, Akira, Maki and Tamura find a crop circle in the field nearby Maki’s home. The middle-school is due to close soon due to lack of students and funds.

“Follow the Light”, directed by Yoichi Narita with a screenplay by Narita and Yu Sakudo, is a plaintive love letter to the rural magnificence of Akita. Alongside the beauty of wide wheat fields there is a sadness that the community seems to be slowly drifting away. Akira’s father (Taro Suruga) and Maki’s absent parents both represent this desire of many to leave behind the quiet country life for the opportunities of Tokyo or other large cities. A side-story involving the homeroom teacher (Rina Ikoma), who also dreams of leaving the town, further adds to this sense of a community that is slowly disappearing as people move away. A beautiful, groaning, melancholy score perfectly captures the sense of scale and unease, the natural beauty alongside the characters ennui and longing for something more.

The film works simply as an ode to this region of Japan, highlighting the stunning vistas of Akita, with magnificent sunsets blazing over golden fields of crops. It also raises questions of community, with the students and teachers being microcosms of wider society, some desperate to escape what they percieve as a mundane everyday life while others cling to their hometown, desperately searching for some way to continue there. The film’s science-fiction elements, the UFO sighting and crop circle, are in fact more thematic tools to emphasise this sense of something intangible and ineffable that characterises the community. It is almost a meta-reflection on the film’s own themes that remain subtle, using the individual character journeys to tell a broader story about the problems faced by such communities. A meaningful tale of small-town unease and the tensions that exist in such places.

The Master Plan (2021) by Yuichi Sato

Makoto (Mackenyu Arata) and Kida (Takanori Iwata) are childhood friends, both orphans they have grown up with only each other for support. While still at school the two are joined by a third orphan, transfer student Yocchi (Anna Yamada). These three inseperable companions grow up together, with their feelings of friendship blossoming into romance. Years later, Makoto and Kida are working at a car repair shop when model Lisa (Anne Nakamura), the daughter of a prominent politician, arrives after having been involved in an accident. Makoto sets his sights on Lisa and spends years trying to get close to her. Meanwhile, Kida joins a shady organisation as a euphamistically labeled ‘negotiator’. As Makoto’s feelings develop for Lisa, Kida and Makoto’s relationship grow more complex as secrets from their past still linger between the two.

Based on the novel by kaoru Yukinari, “The Master Plan” is a thriller that relies heavily on a non-chronological structure to keep its secrets. Unfortunately, the plot is wound so tightly that when the revelation finally arrives it is the only possible answer to what has preceded. This mystery also leaves little time for serious character development or anything outside setting up the dominoes ready to knock them down in the final half hour. This finale also moves so far away from the realms of realism that it undermines some of the more interesting character work that has come before. There are certainly some positives in the film. The scenes with the three friends are charming, with the Arata, Iwata and Yamada having a believable chemistry and some great moments together. Their relationship is the heart of the film and they are sympathetic and enjoyable in their constant pranks and clear affection towards each other. The cinematography features some powerful moments, capturing the sense of youthful energy and anxieties about the future and director Yuichi Sato makes a stylish thriller, perfectly drawing out the tension between the players and the mystery lurking beneath the story. Naoki Sato’s score mirrors this sense of unease and hidden secrets.

While the film’s convoluted plot, featuring some inexplicable decisions, undeniably detracts from the emotional impact of the finale, the film does feature some fantastic, if disjointed, moments. Yocchi’s fear of being forgotten is one of the most affecting sentiments expressed throughout, and the film’s use of a back-and-forth approach to storytelling, moving between their childhood memories and the present, reflects this idea of a permanent connection with the past. The use of the crossroads, which play an important part in the story, as a metaphor for this juncture between past and present, where memory drifts like morning mist, is subtle yet effective. All three children are orphans, which makes their links to one another more important, being surrogate siblings and family for one another. “The Master Plan” is a film in which these interesting characters are unfortunately trapped in a tawdry thriller, with more interesting themes of family and memory ignored in favour of a second-rate mystery.

Intolerance (2021) by Keisuke Yoshida

A father comes to terms with his daughter’s accidental death in this powerful examination of grief. When Kanon (Aoi Ito) is caught shoplifting at a local supermarket, she is chased down the street by the owner-manager Naoto (Tori Matsuzaka). After dashing out into the road Kanon is hit by a car and then a truck, killing her instantly. Kanon’s father Mitsuru (Arata Furuta) blames Naoto for his daughter’s death, believing rumours that he has a predilection for young girls and may have interfered with Kanon. Separated from his wife, Shoko (Tomoko Tabata), Kanon’s mother, Mitsuru has little support aside from his young co-worker. Naoto is supported through the difficult aftermath and public scruitiny by one of his colleagues Asako (Shinobu Terajima), who refuses to believe he is responsible.

“Intolerance”, written and directed by Keisuke Yoshida, is a rumination on the grieving process. The scene of Kanon’s death is depicted brutally and shockingly, although not overly graphic the audience experiences the sudden violence of the acccident. We are shown little before the accident, other than her uncomfortable relationship with her overbearing father. Mitsuru is a stern disciplinarian who has little interest in his daughter’s life before her sudden death. What unfolds after the action is a heart-wrenching portrayal of parental loss. Arata Furuta gives an astounding performance as Mitsuru, driven by anger against those he believes are responsible mixed with his own sense of regret that he showed little affection for his daughter when she was alive. A complex character, far from a perfect father-figure, he seems to want to make amends for past failures by lashing out at the world and placing the blame on others. Tori Matsuzaka’s Naoto is also overcome by a deep sense of shame, realising that he is in part responsible for the death and perhaps regretting his actions. “Intolerance” is shot in a down-to-earth, everyday style, with the supermarket and streets of the fishing town where it is set depicted without embellishment. It is a perfectly ordinary place, with ordinary people experiencing a tragic and extraordinary event in the death of this schoolgirl, showing the impact of this loss on those connected with Kanon.

As well as the utter despair and impotence that Mitsuru feels the film also touches on how such incidents are often manipulated by the media and how people who are not involved can effect public perception. Shortly after the accident the media descend on Naoto’s supermarket and Mitsuru’s home asking for interviews. And we see in short newsroom sequences, and social media, the public rapidly develop their own assessments of those involved and what happened free of facts or first-hand knowledge of these people or the emotional turmoil they are going through. The death of Kanon finally provokes Mitsuru to take an interest in his daughter’s life, interrogating her teachers about bullying concerns, accusing Naoto of lying about her shoplifting, and even reacting harshly to his ex-wife’s attempts to calm him. Mitsuru’s growing acceptance of what has happened and final feeling of connection with her is bitter-sweet as it comes with the realisation that he will never have a chance to express his affection for her. A touching film about loss and how its impact can change people.

The Sound of Grass (2021) by Hisashi Saito

Kazuo (Masahiro Higashide) is taken to a psychologist after suffering a stress-related breakdown who recommends a break from work, medication and regular excercise. Kazuo soon takes to his new hobby of running, setting out on solitary jogs morning and evening every day. His partner Junko (Nao) is supportive but finds his low mood frustrating, a problem exacerbated by her pregnancy. Meanwhile, Kazuo’s friend Kenji (Shunsuke Daito) tries to help him as best he can. At the same time transfer student Akira (Kaya) is struggling to fit in with his classmates, finding friendship with another lost soul in the shape of Hiroto (Yuta Hayashi) and his sister Minami (Yuki Mine). The three youths often see Kazuo on his daily circuit, neither aware of the others problems.

“The Sound of Grass” is based on a story by novelist Yasushi Sato, who took his own life in 1990. It is often a difficult watch, its themes of depression and suicide amplified by a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere. The film opens with a long sequence of Akira skateboarding through the largely deserted streets of Hakodate, the port city where the film takes place, an impressive sequence that typifies the film’s superlative cinematography and direction by Hisashi Saito. With wide shots of the city, parks and port, we get a sense of place and reality that also work in harmony with the story, with the conflicting sense of life surrounding Kazuo being both immediate and remote. The audience is taken along with Kazuo as he runs around the city, crossing the large bridge, climbing the park steps, or circling the carpark. These sequences, soundtracked by an uplifting piano score, stand in stark contrast to the moments when he is at home or in conversation with others, that seem to lack energy. That may seem like a criticism, but it perfectly replicates the hopelessness and sense of stasis that typifies mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as the fluctuation between highs and lows. His illness doesn’t express itself in wild outbursts but in a complete lack of energy or interest in things around him. Higashide gives an incredible performance as Kazuo, and his scenes with Nao’s Junko are heartbreaking to watch as these two characters, who clearly love one another are unable to traverse the vast unseen divide between them. The story of Akira, Hiroto and Minami, is almost a separate, yet parallel story, linked only by themes of isolation and suicide. Mental health can be difficult to depcit on film, without straying into cliche or exploitative exageration, but “The Sound of Grass” presents a realistic view of this issue that can go unseen and have devastating consequences.

In a more conventional film, you might imagine that Kazuo’s running would be the miracle cure to his illness; or that Akira finding friends would lead to an uplifting ending to comfort the audience. “The Sound of Grass” avoids such easy solutions, showing that mental health issues are not something that can easily be resolved by taking up excercise or talking to people, although both of these can be helpful in combatting the worse effects of depression. In its lack of simple answers, or comforting conclusions, the film offers a powerful, emotional, and discomforting depiction of depression. The naturalistic performances from the whole cast help to build this sense of real people with real concerns. What makes the film powerful is not that it is extreme, or shocking, but that it is painfully believable. Not an easy watch, but a worthwhile exploration of this important subject.