Avatar (2011) by Atsushi Wada

Ai Hashimoto stars in this dark teen drama as a high-school girl whose obsession with a mobile fashion game has deadly consequences for those around her. Michiko (Hashimoto) is unpopular at school, her introverted demeanour making her a target for the most popular girl in class Taeko (Rikako Sakata) and her clique of fashion-obsessed teens. In the opening scene we see that Michiko’s father died in part due to Taeko and her father’s actions, giving her animosity to her a more sinister edge. Taeko’s most violent bullying is directed at Saionji (Nako Mizusawa), another unpopular classmate due to her drab appearance. Michiko sees a potential route to toppling Taeko, in the popularity stakes at least, through a mobile game where players dress up avatars in increasingly rare outfits. After winning an unexpected lottery in the game Michiko finds herself the object of the same adoration as Taeko once enjoyed, supplanting her rival. However, power soon goes to her head and Michiko, along with her lieutenant Saionji, begins to lead the entire class in dealing out brutal revenge against a number of former bullies.

Based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada, “Avatar” centres on the concerns of and surrounding teen girls: bullying, the fixation on appearance and status, and the danger of addiction to technology. The film also includes darker elements such as underage prostitution and the sexual predation of teachers towards their students. Unfortunately, the film rarely scratches below the surface of these elements. In perhaps the most egregious example we witness the death of Michiko’s father at the beginning of the film, setting up what would ordinarily be the central conflict. Howver, this plot point is largely ignored until the second half, while the mobile game and popularity contest of the girls becomes the focus. Likewise, when Michiko begins prostituting herself to earn money; or when her and her classmates actions turn violent, a lack of consequences or consideration by the characters means events don’t carry the weight that they should. The bullying of Saionji, with her being strangled and drowned in a bucket of water also feels extreme in contrast to the realism of the world surrounding it. There is a disconnect between the blackly comic tone and moments that should be dealt with more seriously. The film cannot decide whether to be an outrageous black-comedy (as in the re-appearance of a chainsaw weilding Taeko), or more satirical (as in the finale which sees the girls simply shrug off the deaths of numerous individuals as they move onto the next mobile game craze). Hashimoto struggles in the role of a menacing anti-hero, and the shallowness of the plot and satire is reflected in an absence of character development.

A low-budget schoolgirl thriller revolving around the dangers of technology with some interesting ideas that go undeveloped. As with “Keitai Kanojo”, the idea of mobile game addiction and the pressure girls’ are under to fit in with classmates and aspire to ideals of beauty and popularity, have potential but are brushed over in favour of something that fails to engage emotionally or intellectually. The matter-of-fact direction and acting, the sudden shift of tone and style, leaves it feeling like a shallow exploration of the themes. It is a shame because the film has a strong cast and the potential to be something more, but in the end it fails to satisfy.

Confessions (2010) by Tetsuya Nakashima

A stylish psychological thriller that exposes the ever-present darkness as the heart of humanity, “Confessions” tells the story of a school teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), whose 4 year old daughter Manami (Mana Ashida) is found dead in a swimming pool. While the police verdict is accidental drowning, Moriguchi knows that two of her own students bear responsibility for Minami’s death. Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) is a talented student who has a nihilistic outlook on life. Abandoned by his mother at a young age, he is narcissistic and lives only to prove his superior intelligence in the hopes of winning his absent mother’s attention and affection. He recruits his classmate, the underachieving and unsuspecting Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara), in hopes that the two of them will commit a crime that will finally gain him the respect he feels he deserves. Moriguchi tells the class that she will leave her job and, as her students are unable to be punished for crimes as minors, she has taken it upon herself to get revenge for the murder of her daughter. The film begins with Moriguchi’s story and moves onto the lives of the two boys responsible for her daughter’s death, as well as a third classmate, the enigmatic introvert Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto), both before and after the incident. Each new perspective draws us deeper into this twisted story of murder and revenge.

The film is based on the book by Kanae Minato with a script by director Tetsuya Nakashima. The story is divided into distinct sections, each narrated in part by a different character, occasionally achronological with overlapping moments from different perspectives. The opening monologue delivered by Takako Matsu’s experience acting in theatrical productions shows as she builds tension with her delivery of a long opening monologue. This scene, which takes up a large portion of the first half of the film is a fantastic introduction, setting up the dynamics of the characters and their personalities, the central themes, and a lot of exposition in an entertaining way. The young actors who play the three leads do an incredible job with difficult material. Yukito Nishii embodies the fears of parents and teachers everywhere as the irredeemably sadistic Shuya. Kaoru Fujiwara is sympathetic as the helpless accessory to murder who later reveals a darker side to his character. Ai Hashimoto does a good job with a relatively small role as Mizuki, a confused adolescent; and Yoshiteru Terada offers some light relief as the oblivious replacement teacher Yoshiteru “Werther” Terada, attempting to raise the spirits of the class following Moriguchi’s departure. The film is shot in a highly stylized way with liberal use of slow motion and the plot unfolds at a crawl that further accentuates the feeling of dread, allowing characters to languish in their suffering or feelings of regret. A subdued colour palette and melancholy score echo this bleak tone. Almost each scene plays out in a half light that reflects the nihilistic worldview of the characters; with neither light nor dark, but a hopeless Sisyphean grind of life unfolding day by interminable day. With a strong original story, the cinematography and direction are used to create an artistic impression of what is unfolding, with striking visuals that enhance the force of the narrative; such as Shuya’s construction of a clock that runs backwards, or the cat and kitten outside his apartment.

“Confessions” is a film that deals with several difficult themes. The death of a small child will draw instant sympathy from the audience. It is a wrong that demands to be righted in any just world. A verdict of accidental death removes any hope of retribution for the crime, forcing Moriguchi to revenge herself upon her two students. By showing the story of Shuya and Naoki, the film asks us to consider their own right to life and what led them to this crime; also how blame is to be apportioned and what punishment may be justified. Mizuki’s character highlights the turmoil of conflicting adolescent emotions, her character sympathising with a schoolgirl who killed her family. Throughout the characters ask themselves what life is truly worth, each of them so lost in their own subjective realities and borne along by feelings of hurt and hate that they are unable to see that they are causing more suffering through their actions. Although the film muddies the morality of its characters, throughout it retains a strong message on the importance of human life. While it is almost unbearably bleak in its outlook, there are faint rays of hope that shine through; hints that things could be different, that ideals such as forgiveness and redemption are not unattainable.

Parks (2017) by Natsuki Seta

Jun (Ai Hashimoto) is struggling to come up with a thesis for the communications professor on her socio-cultural studies course. By a quirk of fate she bumps into Haru (Mei Nagano), who is searching for her grandfather’s former sweetheart from letters she discovered after her passing. The two girls set out to find this woman and soon meet her grandson, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who tells them that she has also recently passed. The three discover an old incomplete recording of a song that the old couple had written and recorded together and decide that they should write the rest of the song, which they later decide to perform at the upcoming music festival in the park.

The thin plot, languid pacing, and gentle, non-confrontational atmosphere of the film is much like spending a pleasant afternoon sitting in a park, watching the world go by. Much of the film is set in and around the park, the green space offering a soothing backdrop to the drama, along with the melodic score. While there are romantic undertones with the historic story, this tension is not there in the leads, which is refreshing to see. Instead they are just three young people enjoying youth and finding their way in the world. The film features a couple of sub-plots, one involving an elderly friend of Haru’s grandmother and one relating to Jun’s past as a child star, that are underused. Instead the plot is centred on the three young adults and their quest to rediscover the past and understand the relationship of Haru’s grandfather and his former girlfriend through the fragments that are left. All three leads are supremely likeable and play well off one another. Shota Sometani delivers a comic performance as the energetic, nerdy Tokio; Ai Hashimoto and Mei Nagano have good chemistry as the new friends, balancing a wistful melancholy about the passage of time and the joyful experiences of youth.

“Parks” was commissioned as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Inokashira Park and the film’s themes of conservation and time emphasise a feeling of respect towards the place. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of parks as multi-generational spaces, brimming over with memories and individual stories. The trees and waters of the park offer comfort in giving people a sense of perspective. The film portrays this sense of living both with and apart from the past by having Haru step into her grandfather’s story in several moments of magical realism. “Parks” is an experiential film that hits all the right notes and captures the emotive, transcendent atmosphere of these spaces. The themes of reconnecting with the past, the power of music, the passage of time and finding peace and purpose, are all beautifully articulated. A relaxing watch with great performances from the leads and a calming, contemplative atmosphere.

The World of Kanako (2014)

The World of Kanako (2014)

Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) is an ex-police detective carrying a lot of psychological baggage. His estranged wife calls to tell him that their daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has gone missing. He interrogates several of her former classmates and discovers that his daughter, who he has not seen for many years, is not at all the angelic figure of his imagination. Through flashbacks we are given the story of a high-school classmate of Kanako who is being bullied, played by Hiroya Shimizu. Kanako befriends him, using her influence with a powerful gang to protect him, but he is soon also to learn that she is not entirely as she seems. As Fujishima’s investigation continues he is drawn into a world of drugs, teenage prostitution, and gang violence as things threaten to spiral out of control. Far from a paragon of virtue himself, his quest comes to be an expression of his own guilt and death drive as much as a desire to find his daughter.

“The World of Kanako” is a film with two distinct flavours. One the one hand it is a look at the darker corners of the human psyche, with its damaged characters suffering from psychological issues, either natural or drug-induced, hints of alcohol abuse, drug and sexual abuse, much of which is tough to stomach (especially particular scenes of rape and torture). However, there are strong hints that this is no more than a tongue-in-cheek exploitation flick. The flashy title sequence, occasional music stings, the often casual approach to violence, are cause for confusion when set aside the seriousness of more harrowing scenes. The most positive reading of this is that it is representative of both Fujishima and Kanako’s mental state, being completely cold to what is happening, and looking on occasionally in horror, but more often in a darkly voyeuristic way. Director Tetsuya Nakashima won praise for his previous film “Confessions”, another adaptation from the novel by Kanae Minato. This film, based on the novel by Akio Fukamachi, is far more brutal than that, both in its story, and in the way it is told. Uncomfortable close-ups and high-octane editing, along with the films restless time-hopping structure, give the audience the feeling of being dragged along on this exciting yet disturbing ride. The central performance by Koji Yakusho is supremely bold and it is a testament to the strength of his portrayal of Fujishima Snr. that we are able to stay with him despite his often despicable actions. To say Fujishima fits the archetype of the tough, no nonsense cop operating outside the law really doesn’t do it justice. The film does not shy away from depicting the worst possible antihero. We increasingly come to realise that he is not imbued with any real positive traits. Nana Komatsu is great as Kanako, though we are never able to fully understand her, she again does a superb job of an antihero who seems to posses the same nihilistic spirit as her father. There are great supporting performances from a stellar cast that includes Joe Odagiri, Fumi Nikaido and Ai Hashimoto. The music is a blend of classical and electronic dance music that typifies the competing aspects of the film, on the one hand brash and offensive and on the other stylish and contemplative.

The film is a dark examination of the father-daughter relationship and deals with several issues that people may find disturbing. In some ways the cocktail of drugs, gangs, violence, paedophilia, bullying and everything else the film throws in come to represent a sort of obscene representation of the absolute worst of humanity. It is against this background that our characters are operating. They have no choice when it comes to living in this world, they can either embrace it or try to ignore it, but these things will continue happening. Kanako herself seems to harness amorality as a survival instinct, using her lack of empathy to navigate a horrific world of violence and abuse. Fujishima is very similar. He has no qualms about abusing, even raping women, and is irredeemably self-centred. The main difference is that he feels he has found a purpose. Both characters understand the world to be a meaningless place, with power the only real dynamic worth worrying about. Kanako’s notion of freedom, including the freedom to destroy others, is one that is a terrifying prospect. The film sets out to shock and it does so time and again, not only with its visuals but on the level of the ideas it presents. Highly recommended for fans of transgressive cinema that pulls no punches. A bold and brutal take on the detective genre.

Another (2012)

Koichi Sakakibara transfers to a new high school and meets a mysterious girl, Mei Misaki, who nobody else appears to see. Misaki shares the name of a girl who died twenty-six years ago and she can see ‘death’ through a false eye she keeps hidden behind an eye-patch. When students at the high-school begin dying in seemingly chance accidents the two begin investigating an old curse affecting year 3 class 3.

Rather than being a straight up gory horror the film creates a creeping fear as the two struggle to discover a way to prevent the deaths of their classmates. The fantastic score in particular develops a foreboding atmosphere and the cinematography is good. The story is entertaining despite odd plot elements and a rather unsubstantial resolution. Certain explanations are skipped over to keep the running time down and the focus is kept tightly on the two leads.

The film is set in 1998 and themes of continuation and a connection to the past are present throughout with the recurring curse being the driving force of the interactions. The film is largely a meditation on youth, death and trying to understand the incomprehensible natural forces which shape peoples lives. Balanced somewhere between a B-movie melodrama and a more serious psychological thriller, the film offers many interesting moments interspersed along a rather thin storyline. While not always successful it is a fun distraction.

Based on the novel by Yukito Ayatsuji.