Father of the Milky Way Railroad (2023) by Izuru Narushima

The life story of Kenji Miyazawa, whose work “Night on the Milky Way Railroad” has become a classic of children’s literature, is one full of tragedy, as recounted in this heartbreaking biopic. Born in 1890 to Masajiro (Koji Yakusho) and Ichi (Maki Sakai), young Kenji is afflicted with a disease at an early age. Out of love for his son, his father stays with him in the hospital until he recovers. After recieving an education, Kenji (Masaki Suda) has his head full of foreign literature, refusing to take on his father’s pawn shop business. After becoming involved in the Nichiren Buddhist sect, Kenji begins writing, honouring a promise to his sister Toshi (Nana Mori), who contracts tuberculosis. Toshi loved Kenji’s tales as a child, and took his words that he would be the Japanese Hans Christian Anderson to heart. Kenji begins writing for Toshi, who sadly passes away, and later for his father who promises to be his biggest fan.

Unusually for a biopic, “Father of the Milky Way Railroad” resigns Kenji Miyazawa largely to a supporting role. Although we follow him through the important moments in his life: his early illness, his dalliance with Nichiren Buddhism, his educating of local farmers in agricultural science, his numerous disagreements with his father; it is in fact Masajiro who is at the heart of the drama. Despite his pride in his son, Kenji’s often naive, petulant, behaviour leads to them squabbling and reconciling a number of times. It is a charming depiction of this father-son relationship, with spellbinding performances from Koji Yakusho and Masaki Suda. The love they have for one another; their frustration at each other’s outlook due to the generational divide; Masajiro’s pride in his son’s achievements; and Kenji’s constant desire for his father’s praise, are sure to resonate with parents and children alike. Based on a novel by Yoshinobu Kado, with a screenplay by Riko Sakaguchi, director Izuru Narushima crafts a film that has a picturebook quality at times, with stunning landscapes depicted and the stylish reconstruction of early 20th Century Japan appearing as something straight out of a historical novel. Moments of high drama are captured with hand-held camerawork that highlights the incredible performances, not only from Yakusho and Suda, but from Nana Mori as Toshi, and Min Tanaka as Kenji’s grandfather. The scene of Kenji’s grandfather’s senility is particularly moving. The film is packed with tragic moments yet manages to remain optimistic in its outlook, perhaps due to the postive worldview of Kenji himself, whose humble selflessness shines through.

A lovingly crafted biopic of this renowned author, “Father of the Milky Way Railroad” will appeal to fans of the writer, who will enjoy this depiction of Kenji Miyazawa’s life and the relationships he had with his family, particularly his father and sister. For those unfamiliar with Miyazawa’s work there is still plenty to enjoy here, from the incredible period sets and costumes to the beautiful score. The final scene is a fitting tribute to Miyazawa’s life and work that encapsulates the eternal optimism of the author.

The Lines that Define Me (2022) by Norihiro Koizumi

A university student dealing with personal tragedy finds solace in the ancient art of Sumi-e (ink painting). While working as a volunteer at an exhibition of Sumi-e paintings, Sosuke (Ryusei Yokohama) has a fateful meeting with master artist Kozan Shinoda (Tomokazu Miura). Shinoda invites Sosuke to be his apprentice and the young man travels with him to his home to learn the art of painting with ink. While there he meets Shinoda’s grand-daughter, Chiaki (Kaya Kiyohara), a talented artist in her own right who is going through a creative slump.

Focused on the traditional Japanese art of Sumi-e, “The Lines that Define Me” is a beautiful coming-of-age drama dealing with loss and finding your way in life. Based on the novel by Hiromasa Togami, the film follows Sosuke’s journey, revealing in the latter half the terrible tragedy that has led to him being reserved and lacking motivation to his Law degree. Ryusei Yokohama’s performance as Sosuke shows us a young man burdened with regret, who slowly learns to move forward with his life rather than living in the past. Likewise, Kaya Kiyohara’s Chiaki is consumed by self-doubt and anxiety after having her art criticised and is struggling to find her own artistic expression rather than living in the shadow of her famous grandfather. While dealing with tragic themes, the film also has more light-hearted moments, both with Kozan, who occasionally falls asleep while teaching Sosuke; and Sosuke’s university classmates, who provide a degree of comic relief. Takahiro Ikeda’s emotive score of gentle piano complements the drama, underscoring the pitch-perfect performances.

“The Lines that Define Me” is a simple story, expertly told. While there is little to the narrative and a small cast of characters, it captures its themes with the elegance of a sumi-e painting without turning to melodrama. Every element of the story is perfectly weighted to show the growth of Sosuke, Chiaki and Kozan through their personal journeys. For those unfamiliar with Sumi-e paintings, there are also many incredible examples of the art-form and explanation of the craft, such as the common subjects and techniques, that make it an informative as well as an entertaining watch. Well worth a look for fans of emotional dramas with an artistic bent.

Anime Supremacy! (2022) by Kohei Yoshino

A first-time anime director becomes involved in a ratings war with her hero while attempting to see her creative vision brought to fruition. Hitomi Saito (Riho Yoshioka) quits a solid career as a public servant to enter the highly competitive world of anime. Seven years later, in charge of her first project as director, she is keen to see her story realised, not least as her series will be going up against another from famed director Chiharu Oji (Tomoya Nakamura), whose work first inspired her to enter the industry. Hitomi must navigate issues with her staff as well as concerns from the network and her production manager Yukishiro (Tasuku Emoto), who wants the reserved Hitomi to do more promotion for the show. Meanwhile, Oji is also going through creative issues much to the frustration of his assistant Kayako (Machiko Ono).

“Anime Supremacy!” is a fun, drama based on a novel of the same name by Mizuki Tsujimura, that shows us behind-the-scenes at an anime production company; showing the high-paced, combative reality of creating what is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan, and increasingly the world. We see the rush to deadlines, the vast amount of talent it takes to put an episode together, and the conversations between the creatives and the business-minded management. Riho Yoshioka gives a superb comedic performance as Hitomi, with her charmingly expressive characterisation also leaving room for moments of thoughtfulness and passion. Tomoya Nakamura and Machiko Ono also have great on-screen chemistry, with the troubled artist constantly at odds with his overworked assistant. There is a huge supporting cast here and some of them miss out on character development. This is particularly true with Kazuna (Karin Ono), whose side-story goes nowhere despite her being an engaging addition as a brilliant artist completely wrapped up in her own world. The direction is energetic, with occasional flashes of creativity, especially the animated additions showing the battle between the two shows as an ongoing race between the protagonists.

Fans of anime will no doubt enjoy the film as a look at the creative processes and some of the characters who bring to life these fantastical shows. While at times the film is confused in its messaging, attempting to juggle the stories of Hitomi, Chiharu, and to a lesser extent Kazuna, the characters are interesting and the central rivalry ensures we are invested in the ending. Hitomi is someone who has a singular vision and this single-mindedness leads her to neglecting or under-appreciating her colleagues. As she matures through the film we see her gradually begin to understand the value of teamwork and the efforts of others. There is also a strong theme running through about the struggle of artists to protect their work from the predations of corporate interests who want to sanitise everything for marketability. Interestingly both animators in the film choose a different path in the end and it is left to the audience to decide what is most important, success as defined by financial gain or popularity, or as defined by cleaving to your own ideals.

Red Angel (1966) by Yasuzo Masumura

Ayako Wakao stars as a young wartime nurse on the frontlines in this harrowing historical drama based on the book by Yoriyoshi Arima. Sakura Nishi (Wakao) begins her work at a field hospital in China, tending to the wounded soldiers of the Sino-Japanese war. As well as witnessing gruesome amputations, she is also a victim of sexual assault by patients. Nishi becomes involved with a double amputee names Orihara (Yusuke Kawazu), blurring the lines between her duty and natural compassion for the suffering she sees. She later moves to a front-line station where she meets Doctor Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), falling for the older doctor, who himself is battling morphine addiction and seems to have a rather pessimistic view of life. When their field hospital comes under attack, Okabe and Nishi, along with the rest of the staff and soldiers stationed there are forced to fight for their survival.

“Red Angel” gives us a look at what life was like for those working on the frontlines of conflict in the early 20th Century. We bear witness to the the grim field hospitals, with countless bodies lying in agony, groaning for relief, while doctors declare whether they are to be helped or shortly to die; the operating rooms where limbs are severed to save lives; and other depressing details, such as Okabe’s addiction to morphine; Nishi’s assault at the hands of patients; the enforced prostitution of women; and the devastating effects of a cholera outbreak. The film is a bleak depiction of the circumstances, seen through the eyes of the sympathetic Nishi, who provides the heart of the film. Wakao gives a brilliantly nuanced performance, as Nishi deals with not only the horrifict sights and sounds of the hospital, but her feelings towards the other doctors and patients. In one striking moment she attempts to save the life of a man who sexually assaulted her, not wishing him to think that her inaction was a form of revenge. The film’s sound design, the sawing of bones, the retching of cholera sufferers, along with the use of extras in the scenes of injured soldiers strewn around over-crowded hospitals, create a visceral, claustrophobic atmosphere that forces us to be a part of this bloody enterprise. At a little over 90 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace, and it sometimes feels that we do not get to spend enough time with Nishi or explore her relationships with others, aside from Okabe. But this also speaks to the film’s strengths, and Wakao’s performance, that despite the trauma and horror we want to see more of her life.

The complicated morality of war is explored through Nishi’s decisions, her compassion and sense of duty guiding her throughout. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of conflict alongside Japanese war-crimes such as the rape through enforced prostitution of captured women. While it largely steers clear of political messaging, aside from comments by Okabe on the nature of humanity, the film’s simple act of depicting the gruesome, dehumanising, consequences of fighting are enough to establish it as a supreme example of anti-war filmmaking. Paraplegia, suicide, impotence, drug-addiction, the film delves into the often unspeakable truths behind the propaganda of war, showing us the human suffering that results. But throughout there is the shining light of Nishi, whose calm, compassionate, actions stand in stark contrast to the darkness surrounding her.

Once Upon at Crime (2023) by Yuichi Fukuda

Red Riding Hood and Cinderalla get caught up in a murder investigation in this comic twist on the classic Grimm’s fairy tale. While out walking in the woods, Red Riding Hood (Kanna Hashimoto) comes across Cinderella (Yuko Araki). With the help of two witches they are transformed into beautiful dresses in time for the upcoming ball at which the prince (Takanori Iwata) is to choose a bride. Things begin to go wrong when their carriage, driven by a recently transformed mouse named Paul (Tsuyoshi Muro), hits someone on the road. The investigation into this death, of renowned stylist Hans (Masaki Kaji), sees doubt cast on several individuals before Red Riding Hood’s unique powers of perception and deduction begin to unravel the mystery.

“Once Upon a Crime” is a comic-fantasy that subverts the traditional fairy tales of Red Riding Hood and Cinderella by turning it into a detective drama. Based on a novel by Aito Aoyagi, it has a pantomime feel with over-the-top acting and anachronistic references that add a humorous accompaniment to the central story. The plot is farcical, continually wrongfooting the audience with each new twist, as the ridiculous evidence piles up. The cast do a great job with the comedy, largely aimed at children but with a surreal, nonsensical style that provides some fun moments, such as the mouse carriage driver being asked if he has a license, or the bickering between Barbara the witch (Midoriko Kimura) and Red Riding Hood over her lack of magical ability. The opulent costumes are sure to delight fans of fairytale princesses, along with the extravagant castle, ballroom scenes, and whimsical fantasy moments.

The film is a fun twist on the traditional princesses and damsels in distress, with a superb cast of non-conformist heroines, the whipsmart Red Riding Hood, with her Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, the outrageous Barbara the Witch, whose incompetence is matched only by her self-belief; and Cinderalla, whose character is given more depth that we might expect. The film closes with hints of a sequel and it would be interesting to see what other wild adventures our heroine might end up in. Overall, a fun, lighthearted take on Cinderella with a wry sense of humour that nevertheless succeeds in creating sympathetic characters.