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.

First Love (2021) by Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Forensic psychologist Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) is interviewing a young murderer for a new book. The girl, Kanna (Kyoko Yoshine), has apparently murdered her father and told police that they will have to find out why she did it. As Yuki begins loooking into Kanna’s past, her relationship with her mother and father, and her mistreatment at the hands of several men, it awakens dark memories of her own. Yuki is also forced to confront lawyer Kasho (Tomoya Nakamura), the brother of her husband Gamon (Yosuke Kubozuka), with whom she shares a secret.

Based on a novel by Rio Shimamoto, Tsutsumi’s film is a detective thriller in which the details of the case are less important than the reasons behind this crime. Kanna’s depiction early on, with a bloody knife and her seemingly apathetic response to killing her father suggests a psychopathic personality, but we soon discover the various traumas that led her to this moment. Yuki appears to be heading in the other direction, with a composed front disguising past heartache and emotional stress. The confrontations between Yuki and Kanna, either side of Perspex in a prison interview room are a highlight of the film, with outstanding performances by both Keiko Kitagawa and Kyoko Yoshine. The supporting cast are also great in nuanced roles, in particular Hoshi Ishida as Yuji, a young man who had a relationship with Yuki when she was younger. The script can be quite on-the-nose, driving home its themes of how childhood trauma can affect people and the horrors of child abuse. This often comes across in large expository scenes where they make sure that you understand what is happening; it may have benefitted from a more subtle approach. The film doesn’t shy away from difficult issues, with paedophilia, child abuse and exploitation, self harm, and sexual abuse being a large part of the plot. These things are mentioned in a very matter-of-fact way, which is appropriate for the psychologist and detectives objective viewpoint and also makes them more terrifying by the apparent ubiquity and mundane nature of these actions. The best moments of the film come with these revelations, which are genuinely heart-breaking. However, the film sometimes struggle to keep up a sense of tension and balance. In particular it ties together the stories of Yuki and Kanna in a way that is not wholly satisfactory, drawing a parallel between their stories that never quite rang true. In terms of the tone also the piano and strings score often seems overly sentimental, lacking the darker tones suggested by the story and being at odds with what is happening on screen. The film does feature some exceptional cinematography, utilising the interview room at the prison to great effect with the reflections of Yuki and Kanna showing their connection.

“First Love” is a film about childhood trauma and how it affects development. Both Yuki and Kanna suffered difficult incidents involving their fathers and other men, with the constant threat of sexual violence causing severe emotional detachment and unease in society. The film portrays these things in a subtle yet powerful way, with Yuki’s father gazing at schoolgirls, or the disturbing drawing of a young Kanna beside two naked male figures. One of the most troubling elements of the film is Kanna’s relationship with Yuji, which the film perhaps had too little time to delve into. Helped by Hoshi Ishida’s performance, the courtroom scene towards the end of the film is a devastating depiction of a man who has failed in his duty of protection to this young girl, his shame and regret evident. “First Love” can be a difficult watch due to the subject matter, but the excellent cast and beautiful cinematography make it worthwhile. It has very little in the way of answers, but in terms of raising awareness of these issues it does a spectacular job.

Parallel (2021) by Daiki Tanaka

A gory, shocking, stylised crime drama with themes of revenge and abuse. The film begins with a young girl, Mai, being abused by her parents, putting out cigarrettes on her, locking her in a cupboard, and hints of sexual molestation. The girl is saved from this despicable situation by a cross-dressing murderer who breaks into their apartment and slays her parents. Years later Mai (Momona Naraha) is working as an escort with her friend Kana (Koyuki Sugasawa), when she meets Mikio (Sojiro Yoshimura), who unbeknownst to her is the notorious ‘cosplay killer’ responsible for several murders. Mikio is a reclusive figure, whose shy demeanour gives no indication of his criminal activities. He is also the anonymous author of a popular anime show, which is a colourful metaphor for his crimes and an attempt to reconcile the evil in the world and his own past traumas.

Written and directed by Daiki Tanaka, “Parallel” combines a superhero narrative of a young girl rescued from depraved parents and a man fighting to redress the balance of good and bad in society, with a gory exploitation flick, with lashings of blood and brutal slayings. The film’s stylish cinematography and use of colourful lighting creates an oddly joyous atmosphere, distancing the audience from the horror of many of the killings. Along with the techno soundtrack, an excellent score provided by Kenji Kato, they become more entertaining than disturbing. This strange contrast is also seen in Mikio’s wearing a cutesy character mask and wig during the crimes, offsetting the violence with an unsuitably cheery aesthetic. Momona Naraha and Sojiro Yoshimura do a great job with their characters, both struggling with bitter memories from their past, deeply broken individuals who nevertheless have hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. The scenes between the two of them are a thrilling mix of danger, vulnerability, romance, and youthful uncertainty.

On the surface the film has an exploitation feel, with many of the killings being extremely gory and over the top. However, this contrasts with Mai’s story, which is deeply upsetting and the film does not hold back with its depictions of violence and the psychological distress that follows. The opening sequence is hard to watch as they feature a young girl being tormented, but it sets up perfectly Mai’s later difficulties in coming to terms with what happened and who she is. Her path, becoming an escort, turning inwards, is vastly different to Mikio, who sets about killing those he considers a negative influence in society. Both of these individuals see their suffering as external, something to be shied away from or attacked, rather than accepting their own vulnerabilities and attempting to change themselves from within. The film discusses transformation as an important part of the process of recovering, moving beyond defining yourself solely as a victim, and it is this capacity for change that both are attempting to discover. “Parallel” also discusses the role of media in constructing stereotypes or escapist fantasies to deal with difficult situations. Mikio’s anime is a thinly veiled allegory for real world events, even using the transvestite killer as one of the characters. In one scene we see Mikio dancing with the television, capturing his desire to escape into that world, and his crimes are also reflective of a revenge fantasy. In this regard the film has its cake and eats it, being both a contemplative discussion of victims recovering from abuse, and media as an unhelpful distraction, while also being a gory revenge thriller that sees bad people get their comeuppance. Highly entertaining, “Parallel” will appeal to those who enjoy gory crime films, but be warned that the subject matter can be distressing.

Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A destructive mother-son relationship is put under the microscope in this shocking drama. Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) drags her son Shuhei (Sho Gunji/Daiken Okudaira) around with her, using him to garner sympathy with family to extort money from them. Shuhei bears his mother’s unpleasant attitude, carrying out her orders without complaint. When Akiko falls into a relationship with an equally unlikeable host, Ryo (Sadao Abe), Shuhei’s life gets even more difficult. Ignored and abandoned by his mother, he is forced to fend for himself. His mother and Ryo later return without a word of apology; but their relationship also goes off the rails when Akiko reveals she is pregnant. As the years go by, Akiko seems incapable of changing or showing any kind of affection towards her children. When they are found sleeping rough, they are approached by a charity working with homeless and impoverished individuals which may offer Shuhei an escape from his tragic life.

Written by director Tatsushi Omori with Takehiko Minato, “Mother” is confrontational and shocking in its unflinching portrayal of Akiko and Shuhei’s relationship. Akiko is a deeply unpleasant and unredeemable character, an abusive and negligent mother, and her treatment of Shuhei is often difficult to watch. Masami Nagasawa delivers a breathtaking performance as Akiko, both repulsive yet compelling at the same time. The character arrives fully formed and we are given no more than faint hints of the cause of her behaviour. It would be almost impossible to sympathise with this character, but Nagasawa makes the character understandable if you pay close attention to certain conversations, mannerisms, and actions throughout. There are definite indications of mental health issues, a selfishness and desire for attention driving her behaviours, along with a paradoxical protectiveness of her children despite her own exploitation of them. Shuhei is portrayed by Sho Gunji and Daiken Okudaira, who both do an incredible job as a child growing up without a positive role model, lacking in confidence, who is nevertheless devoted to his mother. The film’s unrelenting portrayal of a truly horrific experience for Shuhei is its strength as it offers no easy answers, but instead challenges the viewer with a situation that is sadly based firmly in fact. The script builds on each tragedy, piling horror upon horror for Shuhei as Akiko moves from one mistake to the next. Tatsushi Omori’s direction brings us in to the heart of the action with a gritty realism. It also allows the film’s themes space to percolate, with powerful lingering shots on specific moments that stand out as turning points in the relationship between Akiko and Shuhei.

“Mother” is a film that shuns sentimentality to deliver a dark story of parental abuse. While it takes its story to extremes, the most shocking realisation is that the relationship depicted is far from uncommon. It explores the significance of a mother-son relationship and the damaging effects of negligent and exploitative parents. It raises questions about Akiko’s past: Shuhei’s lack of a father, her relationship with her own parents and sister, and what factors might have contributed to her behaviour and amoral outlook on life. Akiko is both victim and abuser, caught in a cycle of neglect and passing on her traumas to her children. However, none of these things excuse or ameliorate her actions. In the selfless characters of the charity worker (Kaho) the film does offer some hope of a better future for children who are otherwise failed by their parents and a largely uncaring system. The importance of education and housing for children who are struggling, and help for people suffering mental health issues. A distressing yet worthwhile film that puts uncomfortable issues into the spotlight.