Lovely Little Ai (2021) Ono Candice Mana

Following her mother’s death, 16 year old Ai Shimizu (Akane Sakanoue) lives with her overbearing and overprotective father. He won’t allow her to wear skirts or short sleeves, go to parties, and has implemented a strict 6pm curfew. Ai is told to spend her time studying or reading, forgoing the usual fun extra-curricular life of a middle-schooler. When she bumps into the transgender Seiko (Hisao Kurozumi), she discovers a new world of fashion and make-up. Seiko becomes like a surrogate mother to Ai, teaching her to have fun and to be herself. Ai is also fending off the affections of a new classmate, Ryo Nagai (Ryo Matsumura), whose backwoods brusquness she finds offputting.

“Lovely Little Ai” is a fun comedy that is helped immensely by the charm and energy of its lead. Sakanoue’s expressive performance is engaging and entertaining and she acts not only as protagonist, but narrator and guide through the story, with several to-camera moments and her commentary on what is happening. Hisao Kurozumi’s Seiko is also a likeable character in her motherly affection for Ai and the two play well off each other, both comedically and dramatically. The character of Ryo seems somewhat out of place in the film, offering little to the story and being so bizarre in his mannerisms as to be almost distracting. It would have been better to focus more on Ai and Seiko’s relationship, which is the majority of the film, rather than have this extraneous subplot. While the film is for the most part a knockabout comedy, with Ai’s clumsy, forgetful nature providing plenty of humour, there are darker elements. The death of Ai’s mother, her difficult relationship with her father, and most prominently the homophobia faced by Seiko at the hands of their own father. This is an element that sometimes sits uncomfortably with the surrounding gags as we see flashes of Seiko’s past, being bullied and berated by their father for an interest in lipstick and fashion magazines. Again it would have been interesting to see some of these issues being made a bigger part of the story, as the scenes between Ai and Seiko, acting as daughter and surrogate mother are the most powerful. The film is brightly coloured, with kinetic direction, and a comedy score that underlines the silliness of much of the narrative. This makes the darker moments all the more poignant, but occasionally gives you whiplash with the rapidity it wishes you to suddenly engage emotionally with the characters.

“Lovely Little Ai” is a film about being yourself and standing up for your right to be who you want to be. Both Ai and Seiko suffer at the hands of conservative fathers, restricted in what they can do and who they can be. There is a subtext here of suffocating societal norms, not only gender roles but a reflection on modern families and moving away from the traditional family to a more positive, inclusive view of human relationships. Together Ai and Seiko form a bond that celebrates their freedom and individuality. Overall, the film is an enjoyable affair, helped by the charisma and chemistry of its leads, but it struggles a little in creating moments of genuine emotional reaction amidst the silliness. Standout performances from Akane Sakanoue and Hisao Kurozumi nevertheless make it a fun watch.

Airport 2013 (2013) by Koki Mitani

When there is a transfer flight delay, a put-upon ground staff worker at a small town airport has to deal with a family that has plenty of problems of their own. We meet Okouchi (Yuko Takeuchi) as her manager, Muraki (Masahiro Komoto), is explaining that bad weather means a connecting flight from Saga to Tokyo will be delayed at their small airport in Matsumoto. This manager also makes her a marriage proposal, an offer Okouchi is reluctant to accept due to a previous failed office romance. The arrivals from the Saga flight include a family led by Tanokura (Teruyuki Kagawa), who is having an affair with a young dental hygenist, Yuri (Erika Toda), from Osaka. His wife, Miyoko (Misuzu Kanno), is courted by a man claiming to be an old schoolfriend, who later turns out to be a con-man named Kunikida (Joe Odagiri). Their daughter, Mayumi (Anna Ishibashi) has a secret relationship she is hoping to spring on them, while their son (Sosuke Ikematsu) seems desparate to return to Tokyo for an unknown reason. Tanokura’s brother-in-law Kuranosuke Tsuruhashi (Katsuhisa Namase) is also seeking for funding for his dreams of building a planetarium. And their grandfather (Toshiki Ayata) has a secret of his own. Okouchi does her best to help them out, offering advice and assistance, supported by her own friend who works at the information desk.

This made-for-television film, written and directed by Koki Mitani, is a fantastically plotted and acted farce. The whole film takes place within the small airport set and is shot in a single take. This gives things a theatrical feel and the lack of cuts makes you appreciate the skill of the actors staying in character throughout. The camera largely follows Okouchi from one area of the airport to another, occasionally drifting away to focus on other characters, which helps break up the film into scenes even as a single long take. The humour is fairly broad, mostly revolving around relationship troubles or odd characters, such as the con-man or Kuranosuke’s obsession with raising money to build a planetarium. The film also has several running gags, adding layers of absurdity as things progress, building to a chaotic climax as secrets begin tumbling out. The actors all give fantastic performances. Yuko Takeuchi’s Okouchi is a likeable and relatable employee, having to maintain a veneer of respect and politeness while facing unbelievable situations and characters. Her comedic performance is helped by the supporting cast, including some incredible actors giving excellent comic performances, each given a moment to shine. For the most part the characters really only have one joke each, but the interplay between them and the way they all come together at this singular inconvenient moment provides plenty of humour. The airport set, including small background details give a real sense of place, the bustle of extras helping bring that strange airport atmosphere of people drifting around to life. The music by Kiyoko Ogino, a bouncy piano score, reflects the light-hearted tone of the comedy-drama, allowing you to relax and realise that nothing here should be taken too seriously.

“Airport 2013” focusses on familial and romantic relationships and the secrets that often hold them together. Each of the characters has a dream or a secret. Okouchi acts almost as a conscience for the characters, encouraging, warning, helping, or hindering where necessary. The thrill of watching a ‘live’ performance in the single-take style adds an element of fun to things and it is great to see such a talented cast brought together. The humour is universal and suitable for all ages. An entertaining watch about the stresses of trying to keep things together under difficult circumstances, and the secrets that families keep from one another.

The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

Dead Sushi (2012) by Noboru Iguchi

The sushi bites back in this horror comedy from writer-director Noboru Iguchi. Keiko (Rina Takeda) is dismissed from her father’s sushi restaurant after failing to meet his high standards. She finds employment at an inn where she finds it hard to adapt, making few friends beside the janitor Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki). A large group from a pharmaceutical company arrive to stay at the inn, with the hostess Yumi (Asami Sugiura) and her husband (Takashi Nishina) keen to please. Things don’t go to plan however when a homeless man who previously worked at the same pharmaceutical company, Yamada (Kentaro Shimazu), is infected with a dangerous virus from some sushi he found in the rubbish. This virus turns the sushi into living, flesh-eating, parasites. The whole inn must fight to save themselves from the monstrous undead sushi that now threatens to destroy them.

“Dead Sushi” is a film that revels in the ridiculous from premise to execution, throwing in anything and everything that might be entertaining: karate (courtesy of the supremely talented Rina Takeda), zombie-esque horror, gory CG-enhanced effects, nudity, fart jokes and slapstick. It is definitely one that requires you leave your brain at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is. Those familiar with Iguchi’s oevre (films such as “The Machine Girl” and “Mutant Girls Squad”) will recognize the blend of splatter horror and black comedy, although here it is played mostly for laughs, toning down some of the more stomach-churning elements of the grotesque horror. There is something almost quaint about the movie, with the central conceit being so laughable that it could easily have worked as a film for a younger audience, with some of the puerile humour and moments such as the singing sushi playing well with all ages. The decapitations, blood-letting and nudity later on almost appear added in to make the film more violent and ‘adult’ (in contrast to most films that desire a broader audience). The cast all give excellent comedic performances, especially Sugiura as Yumi, whose contorted expressions are in keeping with the cartoonish violence. Rina Takeda ais also fantastic, showing off her martial arts and acting skills in the role. The special effects, including work from long-time collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, are fun, though the practical work far outdoes the computer generated moments providing the charming, handmade feel of their early work. The sound design of the film also heightens the enjoyment factor, furthering the sense of a live-action anime with martial arts effects.

An outrageous takedown of several Japanese holy cows, with both sushi, corporate culture and deference for customers in the firing line. The moments when members of the pharmaceutical company are pretending a high level of sophistication and knowledge of sushi, while the hostesses of the inn look on admiringly is one example of the satirical undertones to the wacky plot. To have the sushi turn on the customers, and even one person turn into a killer tuna fish, punctures notions of respect for culture and tradition, laughing at something that is often seen as serious. Keiko’s relationship with her strict, overbearing father, again plays on this idea of youth being liberated from  their staid and conservative forebears. The film parodies horror films as it draws out a global cultural obsession with zombies to an absurd point, by having something that is so dead it can’t possibly return to life come back. “Dead Sushi” is a silly diversion, a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that does all it can with the idea of sushi as its primary antagonist.

Almost Coming, Almost Dying (2017) by Toshimasa Kobayashi

Sex and death, two of humanities most enduring fascinations are brought together in this darkly comic tale. After many years out of work, and trying with little success to become a manga artist, Manabu Nakagawa (Nou Miso) finally finds a job as a tutor for an autistic boy. However, while out celebrating his new income by visiting a prostitute on New Year’s Eve, Manabu is brought down by RCVS, a disease that affects the brain causing painful headaches. Manabu is taken into hospital, under the care of doctor Ishige (Shunya Itabashi). When his parents and sister come to visit, his mother is keen to know where he was when he had his accident, a stress that Manabu could do without.

“Almost Coming, Almost Dying” is based on Manabu Nakagawa’s manga, and directed by Toshimasa Kobayashi with a screenplay by Hiroyuki Abe. The film follows Manabu (Miso), a who typifies the unlucky comedy archetype, brought low at his most vulnerable moment. It finds black comedy in the dark situation of having a serious illness, balanced against the embarrassing situation where it occurred. The shift from raunchy comedy early on, to suddenly a rather morbid hospital-based dark comedy fits the story, hitting the viewer as unexpectedly as Manabu himself is struck with this condition. The disease itself is portrayed as a red and black bear mascot with an exposed brain, who whacks Manabu with a bat around the head, causing his headaches. These surreal moments, along with the toilet humour, help keep things light-hearted, despite the depressing connotations of the story. After all, there is little to do but laugh at the arbitrariness of these things and people’s inability both to control their own urges or escape their own mortality. The jazz soundtrack by also keeps the film from becoming overly downbeat. The central ongoing gag, of Manabu being unable to tell his family where he was when he had his attack, becomes a little drawn out, but there are plenty of other great moments of cringe humour, such as having the toilet door left open while people wander past a helpless Manabu, or him asking the doctor if he can still masturbate with this condition. Nou Miso does a great job with the character, his hapless, put-upon expression familiar to anyone who has had to be taken into hospital, or suffer the indignity of personal questions.

Sex and death are subjects that are often both taboo and of endless interest to people, two things that we cannot escape as humans. Things that we would rather not discuss openly are ripe for comedy and that is no more apparent than in “Almost Coming, Almost Dying”. Nakagawa’s manga was based on his own experiences, which helps provide believable scenarios, the comedy is rarely forced, but born out of the personalities of its characters and the situations they find themselves in. It is a great example of art created from tragedy, with the writer turning his ordeal into something that can be enjoyed. An amusing dark comedy about an unfortunate incident and how people deal with shame.