Distance (2001) by Hirokazu Koreeda

“Distance” begins as the anniversary of a terrorist attack poisoning Tokyo’s water supply is approaching. The attack, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, ended with the cult members responsible committing suicide. Four individuals, partners and relations of the cult members, make a pilgrimage on this anniversary to the lake where they died. Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), a teacher whose husband joined, meets up with Minoru (Susumu Terajima), whose wife also left him to become a member. Along with Atsushi (Arata Iura) and Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), whose brother and sister respectively took part in the incident, the four of them head to the lake, driving deep into the forest. While there they meet Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a former member of the cult who fled before the others went through with their plan. When they return to their car they find it has been stolen, along with Sakata’s bike, and the five are forced to take refuge in a nearby house that was used by the cult.

Writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda excels at bringing the best out of his actors. Within a few short scenes or snatches of dialogue we are completely invested in their characters. Whether it is Atsushi with his girlfriend, or the scenes in which the four meet up, they are able to capture the essence of who they are with a shorthand and chemistry that make their relationships believable and engaging. All of the central performances are pitched perfectly as they deal with the layers of guilt, loss and regret, all while attempting to continue with their lives. Koreeda’s realist approach to can be seen in the dialogue which feels natural, getting across information without feeling weighed down by exposition. There are several long takes, such as Kiyoka with her husband and Minoru with his wife, in flashback, where we see the advantage of giving characters room to breathe. In Minoru’s scene in particular there is a sense of helplessness to his situation that is emphasised by the extended scene. Where others may cut away when the central message has been communicated, that his wife is leaving to join the cult, we are put right in his shoes as he rages confusedly about this, unable to walk away from the situation as the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable for both him and the audience. Koreeda also uses hand-held camerawork to take us inside their world, stripping away the artificial nature of film to create something more documentary-like in style. The film also features interview segments with most of the protagonists, with them being questioned by the police after the events, that stand in stark contrast to the scenes in the forest, from  a static angle with the characters dead centre. This helps get across the message of life as messy and at odds with the world of law and order as typified by the police.

The film is loosely inspired by real-world events in which cults have committed terrorist acts. Rather than going for an obvious critique of such groups, Koreeda instead focusses on those surrounding the members. The film asks difficult questions about why people join such cults, but also whether their friends, partners and family should or are able to stop them. The responsibility for these acts must ultimately reside with the individual, but we see through the story of Atsushi that there may be warning signs that are missed and that catastrophe might be averted. It investigates the notion of societal as opposed to personal responsibility. The film is infused with this melancholy and sense of regret that nothing was done to stop them. It is also interesting to note that the central characters are not victims of the attacks, but relatives of the perpetrators, and in the case of Sakata someone actively involved in the cult. It is a film that provokes thought on these subjects without offering any easy answers. We see in the character of Minoru that his ignorance, perhaps lack of care, about his wife may have contributed to her joining the cult. Similarly, Atsushi is shown to be distant from his brother. At heart “Distance” is a film about dealing with tragedy and seeking understanding and redemption. The title also suggests a sense that people remain isolated from one another, even those who they believe they are closest to, and ponders whether it is ever possible to really know somebody. The interview scenes are reminiscent of “Rashomon” and the film can be read as an investigation of the nature of truth, with the police representing the supposed objective reality and the characters experiences and reminiscences a more subjective understanding of who these individuals were. A beautifully crafted film with incredible acting that takes the audience on a journey into the dark and unexplored regions of human psychology.

Red Snow (2019) by Sayaka Kai

Shogo Kodachi (Arata Iura) is a reporter who travels to a remote town to investigate the circumstances of a disappearance of a young boy over thirty years ago. Although the police believe they know what happened to the boy, the woman who was arrested never admitted to his kidnapping and murder. The reporter meets with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), the brother of the murdered child, whose memories of his brother’s disappearance seem to be partial and distorted. Shogo also meets with Sayuri (Nahana), the daughter of the woman accused of the kidnap and murder thirty years before.

“Red Snow” is a unique crime drama, less concerned with the details of the case than the subsequent impact such an event has on the relations of the victims and the murderer. The crime is in fact solved early on, it is clear that the boy was kidnapped and killed, but many people either refuse to admit what happened or have misremembered details about the case and their experiences. The setting, with falling snow and an iron grey sea, create a cold atmosphere that is reflected in the stony silence of those the reporter interviews. The cinematography by Futa Takagi gives the world a gritty, noir feel, with the chill of the wind and the darkening skies creating an oppressive atmosphere in which the drama unfolds. The soundtrack of natural sounds and breathy woodwind is likewise harsh and disturbing. This is the first film from writer/ director Sayaka Kai but it is an impressive debut and shows a prodigious talent for storytelling. The small cast make for a taut thriller that keeps you guessing at the exact details of the case. Many of the characters operated in a grey area of morality, their history and motives obscured, but their carefully constructed characters remain fascinating whether relatable or repulsive.

The film takes an unusual form for a crime drama, with the crime already solved before the film begins. The incredible central performances mean we are brought into the world and psychology of those who survived the horrific events of thirty years before. It is a story about the difficulty of memory and how people can supress traumatic moments from their past. Both Kazuki and Nahana are victims in their own ways and the film shows how people and society are often all to quick to forget things they would rather not remember.

Ping Pong (2002)

Ping Pong tells the story of two friends and their struggles to succeed at ping pong in inter-school championships. The child-like “Peco” Hoshino and his ever serious friend Tsukimoto (nicknamed “Smile” as he rarely smiles) have been friends for a long time. They are the top two player in the Katase High ping pong club and unassailable until a new chinese player arrives and solidly beats Hoshino in a friendly match, and Hoshino is then beaten by Sakuma, a student from rival Kaio school. Hoshino, at first so distressed he gives up training, then decides to stage a comeback at the next tournament. Meanwhile, his friend “Smile” who only plays to kill time and often lets people win despite his superiority also decides to try hard at the competition.

The film is well paced with plenty of character driven jokes. At first Hoshino is a little annoying as his character, incredibly over-the-top immaturity, but this mellows somewhat later in the film. Although the story is pretty basic, the cast of the two leads, their rivals and their trainers, all with very distinct personalities and styles make the film enjoyable. It’s also very well shot, utilising camera angles and shots to liven up the story, and only occasionally straying into manga-esque CG trickery.

The movie revolves around the philosophies of ping pong, the determination needed to win and the fierce rivalries. Although it’s a comedy, the parts which are meant to be serious are done well enough to evoke the desired emotions. In the end it’s a story of friendship and striving for something that you believe in, made interesting by superb directing and acting. One of the better Japanese sports films.

Based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto.