Wood Job! (2014) by Shinobu Yaguchi

When Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani) fails his university entrance exams he finds himself at a loss. Not able to follow his classmates to further education, he is dealt a further blow when his girlfriend tells him they should split up. While out drinking with friends he sees a leaflet advertising a one year project to work in forestry. Enamoured by the beautiful young woman on the leaflet he sets out for the countryside where he learns all about this new trade under the stern guidance of Yoki (Hideaki Ito). He is then assigned to the remote village of Kamusari, where he is pleased to find the woman from the leaflet Naoki (Masami Nagasawa) is also living. Yuki attempts to ingratiate himself with the villagers, learning about rural life and the woods, in hopes of connecting with Naoki. Naoki however, having been disappointed by another trainee, is reluctant to fall for Yuki.

“Wood Job!” is based on the novel by Shion Miura. Written and directed by Shinobu Yaguchi (Swing Girls, Robo-G) it is very much part of his oeuvre of lighthearted comedies. With a romantic plot and plenty of gentle humour it is an easy watch. Most of the laughs come from Yuki’s attempts to learn about forestry, including tying knots, using a chainsaw, and not shouting “Timber!” when the trees fall. When he finally makes it to Kamusari we are treated to scenes of him balking at their local food and drink (road-kill deer and alcohol with a dead snake in) and customs. There is a comfortable familiarity to the plot and it delivers exactly what you expect from early on at every turn. That is not to say it is not enjoyable. The film builds on a sense of relaxation that is in keeping with the themes, which are all about the quiet, nature-focussed rural life, as opposed to the rat-race of the city. The charismatic cast exude bonhomie and their affable and affectionate relationships are entirely believable. Shota Sometani is likeable as the inept and naïve city kid, completely out of his depth, but with a bottomless passion and determination to battle on. Masami Nagasawa provides the perfect foil as the cool and confident school-teacher Naoki, whose worries about her future are always bubbling below the surface of her genial disposition. Hideaki Ito also delivers a great comic turn as Yuki’s superior Yoki, at first displeased by what he sees as Yuki’s incompetence, but slowly won over by his resolve. The film was shot on location in Mie prefecture and features stunning shots of the forested mountains. The direction distinguishes between the city and the countryside in an interesting way, using a frenetic fixed camera on Yuki in the overwhelming and chaotic city and large panoramic takes in the countryside, firmly differentiating the hectic streets from the quiet charm of the mountains.

The traditions of rural communities are a fascinating insight into human civilisation and can offer a window into what has been lost by the move to increasingly large metropolitan areas. The nature of forestry work demands a close connection with and understanding of the natural world, and “Wood Job!” reflects on this in various conversations between the characters. Whether that is the idea that nature deserves respect, or the deep understanding of ones place in history through the cycles of harvesting and planting. Yuki is a character who is completely lost, having fallen off the expected path from high-school to university to work. His move to the countryside provides him with a chance to examine what is important in life. The pace of life, the simplicity born of a lack of distractions, the focus on community and tradition, all of these things change his perspective. In the end, Yuki’s journey speaks to everyone who is trapped in the largely meaningless and monotonous faux-reality of modernity. It is a call for a return to nature, to ideals of family, community, and enjoying the good things in life.

Little Miss Period (2019) Shunsuke Shinada

Aoko (Fumi Nikaido) works as a journalist at a lifestyle magazine. As well as her demanding job and attempting to form a relationship with her romantic partner’s teenage daughter, she also has to deal with an unwanted visitor every month. This comes in the form of a large pink fluffy mascot in red pants, representing her period. Miss Period, as she is known, repeatedly punches her hard in the stomach, and Aoko has to lug her around on her back. Miss Period also occasionally puffs out soporific vapour making Aoko drowsy. In this world, every woman is followed around by a similar mascot, some larger and some smaller, but all irritating in their own way. Yamamoto (Sairi Ito) is a cleaner at this same company, still living with her parents, with her period being just one more frustration on top of the stress of work and her lack of a boyfriend. A third plot thread revolves around Aoko’s sister Hikaru (Risaki Matsukaze), and her boyfriend, as they begin a fledgling romance. These women must attempt to remain strong and reach their goals, while this invisible burden seems determined to disrupt their lives.

Based on the manga by Ken Koyama, “Little Miss Period” addresses head on an issue that is of major importance to women, yet often goes ignored by companies and even partners. Making the period a visible, comically designed and portrayed, mascot, which appears early on like a horror movie slasher creeping up on her victims, is a brilliant touch. Externalising this issue, showing the physical exertion and determination required to cope with it, makes for an entertaining way to deal with the various problems caused by it. Both Fumi Nikaido (Fly Me to the Saitama) and Sairi Ito (Love and Other Cults) get the chance to show off their comedic talents. Both are supremely likeable in their roles. Nikaido’s Aoko is a determined career woman, who will not let anything stand in her way. Working in a difficult environment she finds she has to pretend not to be affected by her period, instead putting on a brave face in front of her co-workers. Her relationship with Karin (Toyoshima Hana), the daughter of her widowed lover, is one of the most moving parts of the film, showing her trying to do her best for this girl who is unwilling to accept a new mother. Ito’s Yamamoto on the other hand is a virtual shut-in, resentful of everyone around her and painfully shy when confronted with the chance for love. Director Shunsuke Shinada does a great job of bringing what is a weird concept to life on the screen. The design of Miss Period (Seiri-chan in Japanese) is bizarre, and could so easily have derailed the narrative, but all the actors do such a tremendous job of acting alongside it that it becomes just another character in the drama. The film goes heavy on the comedy of what is happening, deflating the taboo around menstruation, cramps, nausea, drowsiness and other symptoms, with gentle humour. Also, the oblivious male characters who continue on as normal despite the women being weighed down or distracted by this, offers relatable humour for the male audience. The men in the film are also troubled by their own unwanted anxieties, in the form of Mr. Sex Drive (who appears spouting lewd pornographic phrases) and Little Boy Virgin (a cherubic figure representative of their lack of sexual maturity). The film’s surrealist, farcical comedy sits evenly alongside moments that are full of heart and genuinely moving.

While “Little Miss Period” is on one level a knockabout comedy, it also shines a light on an often taboo subject. Women still suffer discrimination in the workplace due to a lack of understanding and compassion on this issue. If the film gets people talking about this and understanding what could be done to alleviate some of the problems associated with it, then it will have performed a great service. Despite the message, the film is never po-faced, relying on humour to get its points across. As a film it is hugely entertaining, relying on physical gags and some excellent performances from the leads to develop believable characters and relatable comedy.

NEET Election (2015) by Hikaru Okita and Kiminari Suzuki

Chihiro Inagaki (Kento Kasahara) is a 30-year old NEET, not in education, employment or training. Despite being a top student, and graduating from a prestigious university, he quit his first job after three months after realising that the world of work was not what he had expected. Following his short-lived career he heads to Tokyo to become an actor, but alas this is also doomed to failure. Finding himself back in his hometown of Niigata, he is struggling to get a job, being rejected from every interview he applies for. Chihiro moves into a share-house with other 30-somethings lacking gainful employment, these include Yumi, a woman who still harbours dreams of working in a maid café, Shiho, a former idol, Shinnosuke and Mr. K, a wannabe wrestler never seen without his mask on. The group want to take over one of the shuttered units in the local shopping precinct, but they are unable to convince anyone to lend them money or support their efforts. Finding himself at a loss, Chihiro meets a man who tells him the best way to get the government to listen is to stand to be an assemblyman in the upcoming city elections. Chihiro sets out to do just this, listening to residents problems and working on his pitch to represent the young people of Niigata city.

“NEET Election” is a solid idea but sadly lacking in its execution. It meanders around far too often and needlessly stretches a thin plot to breaking point. The film is intended as a comedy, but a lot of the jokes fall flat. It is clear that the filmmakers wanted to go for a wacky, loveable comedy about a man struggling against the system, but the set-ups and payoffs of the jokes just aren’t really there. One example of where the film does live up to the promise of an over-the-top comedy is in an impromptu flash-mob performance in the centre of town to generate interest in Chihiro’s campaign. But this feels a little out of place in comparison with the rest of the film that revolves around him talking to citizens, delivering speeches and listening to their problems. A bigger problem than the dearth of comedic moments is the lack of any serious connection with the characters. We find out about the shopkeepers who are struggling through the recession, but the woman whose sweetshop is on the verge of closure seems unconcerned, and we don’t see people particularly concerned about it. Likewise, Chihiro’s fellow NEETs seem to almost shrug off their situation, not pleased by it, but far form angry or upset by the lack of jobs. A moment later in the film, where Chihiro is accosted by two women asking about Japan’s nuclear energy industry, again gives an example of where the film could have delved a little deeper into the difficulties of running for office, but it is almost passed over.

The film doesn’t really succeed as a comedy or political drama, with too few laughs and too little detail or emotional investment garnered for the characters. This is a shame because voter apathy is something that is a real problem and the film had the potential to create engagement with the subject of politics. Kasahara is good in the lead role, and the supporting cast do their best with the material, but it could have gone much further in detailing the genuine problems faced by people and how difficult it is to break through in the political system. Instead it comes across as a bland exploration of its subject, never fully developing the premise into something entertaining.

My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (2018) by Kyohei Fujimura

9-year old Shota (Kokoro Terada) is unaware of what his father Takashi (Hiroshi Tanahashi) does for a living, but he admires him for being strong and kind-hearted. One day he sneaks out of his house, climbing into the back of the family car to follow his dad to work. At first believing he is involved in some shady business, seeing him with two other burly men in an alley way exchanging greetings and cash, he soon discovers that his father is in fact a wrestler. As “Cockroach Mask” he plays the role of heel to the heroic wrestlers, such as “Dragon George” (Kazuchika Okada). Shota is shocked and disappointed that his father is a figure of hate, believed to be weak and untrustworthy by the crowd, constantly using underhand tactics in his fights, booed and reviled by the audience. Little does he know that his father was once the legendary wrestling champion Takashi Omura, whose career was cut short after suffering a knee injury. Shota must come to terms with his father’s new role, learning to love him even as the bad guy. Meanwhile, journalist and wrestling obsessive Michiko (Riisa Naka) is busy writing an article on Omura/ Cockroach Mask, for her magazine, after hearing that he is aiming to become the champion at an upcoming tournament.

“My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” is clearly aimed at a young audience. The plot is straightforward and for the most part we follow events from Shota’s perspective, occasionally seeing Takashi as he struggles with his rehabilitation and his role as the heel to more popular wrestlers. The story is premised on the idea that Shota does not understand the role of heel wrestlers, and would not be impressed that his dad is a wrestler of any kind. He may also be too young to fully understand that wrestling is a show as opposed to a genuine competition. Later in the film, Shota’s friend Mana (Maharu Nemoto) tells him that it is amazing enough that he is a wrestler at all, which had he been told that earlier would have saved him a lot of angst. That being said, if you leave your cynicism at the door, the film does have a lot to recommend it.

The young actors do a great job as Shota’s friends. Kokoro Terada is likeable as Shota and his upset at discovering his dad has a job where he appears to be disrespected is portrayed well. Maharu Nemoto is energetic and engaging as Shota’s wrestling fan classmate, Mana. Most of the young cast have little to do, but they all give solid performances that are enjoyable. One of the most entertaining characters in Riisa Naka’s Michiko, whose enthusiasm and infectious passion for the sport spills over each time she is on screen. One of the highlights of the film are the wrestling sequences themselves. Having a cast of real pro-wrestlers, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Hirooki Goto among them, means that essentially these are full-on professional wrestling matches on screen. The athleticism and skill they bring to these scenes make them a joy to watch. In addition, Hiroshi Tanahashi does a fantastic job of portraying the family man and former champion Omura. His relationship with Shota is believable and genuinely moving.

At heart this is a film about the relationship between a father and son and learning to accept people for who they are and respect their dreams. Shota begins the film full of love for his father, his idealised image of the kind and tough figure he knows later shattered when he realises that everyone appears to hate him and he is acting like a bad guy. Tanahashi wants to do everything he can to earn the love of his son, who he clearly cares for a lot. He also wishes that he could return to his glory days, the heel wrestler gig being something of a comedown from his career highs. He accepts the position because his injury prevents him from returning as a face and his love of wrestling means he’s not willing to quit. There is also an interesting subtext to the film; one which is best articulated by Michiko who explains that wrestling needs both heels and faces. In society there are different roles to fill, not everyone can be the top, but they can play their part. This acceptance of a less than perfect situation and realising the importance of what you have (in this instance the love of a father or son) rather than striving for an impossible ideal is an important message. Overall, “My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” has enough there to keep you entertained, although it will perhaps appeal most to a younger audience or pro-wrestling fans.

Kakegurui (2019) Tsutomu Hanabusa

Hyakkao Academy is a prestigious establishment for the elite with a peculiar code of conduct. School life is governed by gambling, something that all students are expected to participate in. Those unable to pay their fees to the academy become the ‘pets’ of the wealthier students. The student council rules over this draconian hierarchy, enforcing the rules and ensuring that those of the lower classes don’t step out of line. There are no teachers or lessons, instead everything is a matter of money and chance, with the lucky destined for greatness and the unlucky pushed to the bottom of the pile. One student, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), seems to possess a preternatural gift for gambling, able to turn almost any situation to her advantage and blessed with good luck. She soon becomes a beacon of hope for other downtrodden students, who see in her an example of how they might all succeed given one fortuitous turn of events.

The school is not entirely beholden to the council and a group of breakaway students known as “The Village” have established a refuge, shunning gambling and living in an equitable way with others. This group of almost religiously ascetic students are led by Itsuki Sumeragi (Ruka Matsuda) and Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa). The student council is unimpressed by this alternative society and the head of the student council Kirari Momobari (Elaiza Ikeda) decides on a course of action that will force them to gamble, by offering a blank wish-fulfilment paper to the winner of the upcoming election tournament. Students enter in pairs, the fate of the school to be decided by games of chance.

“Kakegurui” is based on a manga by Homura Kawamoto and a subsequent television drama series. The film throws us right into the action, with a heavy exposition dump early on explaining how the school works and a who’s who of the main players. The premise is wacky, requiring a significant suspension of disbelief, but acts as a perfect metaphor for capitalist societies where money decides everything. The students at the school are so privileged that the only thing that can truly separate them is their ruthlessness and willingness to risk everything on chance. The village, by contrast, offers a utopian vision of a world where everyone is equal, and where money holds no power over people. This high-concept approach offers an exciting opportunity for a discussion of these themes while keeping the tone light and frivolous.

The cast do a great job with the comic feel, often over the top, melodramatic posturing and cartoonish expressions highlighting the absurdity of what is happening. Marika Ito in particular is highly enjoyable as Tomu Inuhachi, whose outsider status and comic tomboy performance is hugely endearing. There is a large cast and each member manages to create something special with their character, making them instantly recognizable and their personalities shine through. In keeping with the live-action manga style, they are almost all played as eccentric caricatures. The design is also clearly inspired by the manga, with sets and costumes all hyper-realistic or caricatured. With the red-black uniforms reminiscent of casino croupiers, and the white robes of the villagers lending them a religious aspect.

The film does lose its way somewhat in the second half. It gets bogged down in the technicalities of two of the games that are to decide the council elections. These games take up a large portion of the run-time, and although unavoidable they can become a slog. This is not the biggest problem with the latter portion of the film though. The idea of the village versus the school is a perfect antagonistic clash of world views and it is immediately apparent which system is preferable. The set up early on leads you to believe that this is a film with a message about rapacious upper classes and downtrodden unfortunates. It seems clear that the villagers will show a better path, one that circumvents the need for participation in this system. However, the leaders of this group are also forced to participate. While the ending is upbeat you are left with the strange feeling that nothing was really gained by the characters as they are back in the same situation as before, perhaps worse since they have succumbed to the same avarice and lust for money that typifies their rivals in the school. The filmmakers intention was clearly to make a knockabout comedy rather than a socio-economic satire, but it means that the film does not really hold together at a thematic level, unless you consider it to be a double-bluff (possible in a film about gambling) and that actually the message is intended to be “the house always wins”.

Kakegurui Compulsive Gambler is a fun, live-action manga adaptation. The performances are enjoyable and the plot is engaging, taking some unusual turns. Worth watching if you are looking for a distracting comedy with plenty of fun moments and over-the-top acting, but disappointing in that it could have gone for a more powerful message in the latter half.